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.

December 25, 2015

Heartache & Hope (For Christmas)

Studio executives almost prevented one of the Christmas season’s most popular songs from ever being recorded because they judged its lyrics to be too depressing. More than seventy years later, however, the song remains a standard on party playlists, on retailers' holiday soundtracks, and in the hearts and minds of millions of people. The song is “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

In 1943, lyricist Kim Gannon and composer Walter Kent collaborated to write a song from the point of view of an American soldier serving overseas in World War II. Taking their inspiration from another song by the same name, the duo tapped into the dreams being dreamed by millions of families and loved ones that the war had separated.

I'll be home for Christmas.

You can count on me.

Please have snow and mistletoe,

And presents under the tree.

Christmas Eve will find me,

Where the love light beams.

I'll be home for Christmas,

If only in my dreams.

Pleased with their new tune, Gannon and Kent began pitching it to the recording studios that summer, but no one wanted to touch it.

“It’s just too sad,” the execs said.

“We want songs that lift people’s spirits,” they said, “not songs that remind them why they’re down.”

And so it seemed that “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” would never get an audience.

The song’s fortunes changed, however, on a golf course, of all places.

One day, Kim Gannon met up with Bing Crosby while the performer was playing a round. At the time, Crosby was simply the biggest star in Hollywood. His movies made the most money, his radio show had the most listeners, and his records sold the most copies. When Gannon sang “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” for Crosby, he immediately decided that he wanted to record it.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Crosby’s performance put “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on its way to a place in the songbook of Christmas standards. Not only was it a hit during the war, but it proved to have staying power through the decades, too. Following the original, Frank Sinatra covered the song in the 1950s, Karen Carpenter sang it in the 70s, Johnny Cash recorded it in the 90s, and Kelly Clarkson released her version just two years ago.

In hindsight, it’s clear that the studio executives who passed on the song severely underestimated the public. It turns out that while there’s a time and place for music that helps us escape our worries and troubles for a few moments, sometimes the best gift a song can give us is a vocabulary and means to express our frustration and disappointment. Sometimes a sad song helps us to remember that we’re not alone in our sadness, and, it’s always true, isn’t it, that our hopes and dreams for the future are born of our desire to experience something more wonderful than our present circumstances offer.

I'll be home for Christmas

If only in my dreams

There’s heartache in this lyric and maybe the war made it easier for people to be honest about the ache in their heart, too.

There’s heartache in this lyric, but there’s also hope—the hope born of something within the singer that would not allow any want or deprivation to have the last word about him.

Regardless of the circumstances in which he found himself, in his dreams and in his heart, the singer was free, blessed, and had a place where he belonged, and that just might’ve been enough to change his sadness to joy on some distance shore.

According to Saint Luke, heartache and hope / sadness and joy met in the manger where Christ was born, for before the baby cooed and the angels sang, Mary and Joseph undertook a lonely journey marked by constant reminders of everything that they lacked.

The reason for their trek was the decree of a far off emperor—a reminder that Mary and Joseph were not free. Their land was occupied by Rome’s conquering army. Liberty was but a dream for the weary couple.

Mary and Joseph’s relationship also lacked their community’s full endorsement. Her pregnancy was a bit of a scandal, so they could but hope that the whispers and rumors about them would soon stop.

And even with Mary in labor, a stable for animals was the best accommodation they could secure—a reminder that their social standing and economic clout brought them no privileges. Then as now, money and power tend to make their own way, but the poor and powerless usually walk a path of another’s making.

With so many reminders of their poverty, it’s easy to imagine Mary and Joseph dreaming of better days, a better situation, of an easier path to travel.

Mary and Joseph knew heartache.

But they were also the first to learn that to know Jesus is to know hope.

You see, before their journey began, angels made a promise to Mary and Joseph. It was a promise that chased away the couple’s fears with the news that this child was the Lord’s Chosen and Royal One who would “lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things.” The child would be named Jesus, and he would be called the Son of God.

This promise sustained the two as they made their way to Bethlehem and, on the night of Jesus’ birth, angels brought nearby shepherds—a group not known for their high social standing—in on the secret, too.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,” the angels sang.

The angelic tale of Good News sent the shepherds on their way to the manger, as well, where they told of all that they had seen and heard.

[And] Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Mary and Joseph knew heartache, but they were also the first to learn that to know Jesus is to know hope.

Wanting for nothing, therefore, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, too, possessed a treasure that night, and so can we.

Tonight, a sad Christmas song opens our eyes to the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth and brings to mind our hopes and dreams of better days.

Like the signs of scarcity on the road to Bethlehem, perhaps we’ve encountered some things on the journey to this Holy Night that have pained our hearts with loss, worries, and fears.

To pilgrims such as us, then, angels still bring Good News for in Mary’s child there is still healing and hope and love for all people.

There’s Good News here for those who want more out of life in this city than money can buy.

There’s Good News here for those who have been told that their circumstances define them, that their experiences limit them, that their screw ups define them.

There’s Good News of a joy that the world did not give us and that the world has no power to take away.

Tonight and forever more, there is Jesus the Christ, the newborn king.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

December 13, 2015

In Spite of it all, Rejoice!

Do any of you remember Rachel Dratch’s recurring character on Saturday Night Live called “Debbie Downer”?

“Debbie Downer”—as her name implied—had a unique way of killing the mood wherever she went. Her office, with friends, a blind date, vacation—every time we met Debbie she was bringing everyone else down.

When her friends were talking about their boyfriends—Debbie would say something about Avian Flu, or starving children, or terrorism.

When her friends went out for dinner—Debbie would point out everything on the menu to which she was allergic.

When her friends just wanted to have fun—Debbie was always a killjoy.

Of course, like a lot of good comedy, Debbie made us laugh because we could relate to the kernel of truth at the heart of her character. Who among us hasn’t had a friend or co-worker rain on our parade or known somebody who could find the cloud in any silver lining? For that matter, who among us hasn’t been the “Debbie Downer” of our own circle on at least one occasion when a news story, or event troubled us so deeply that everything else just seemed trivial and shallow?

Peter Gomes—the late preacher and minister at The Memorial Chapel of Harvard University—once recounted a “Debbie Downer” experience of his own when he opened a Christmas card from an old colleague—a fellow minister and university chaplain. The card included one of those year-in-review-letters that some of us are prone to tuck inside our holiday greetings—the kind that usually highlight the year’s successes, the progress of children, tales from family vacation.

Gomes’s old friend, however, had apparently had a very bad year and a lot of things were on his mind—so, dispensing with the usual pleasantries—he used his Christmas card as an opportunity to get a few things off his chest.

“As the holiday season once again approaches,” the letter read, “I want to wish you all the joy and happiness possible in a world so filled with poverty, hunger, and violence, and in a country so rife with anger and hatred…. While the Congress and the press and many ordinary citizens are preoccupied with petty matters, major issues of foreign policy and domestic consequence go unattended, or at best are given short shrift. My hope is that somehow this tide can be turned….I must confess, however, that I have little, if any, confidence in this occurring.”

We can only imagine how the friend signed off—“Here’s to a miserable Christmas and a horrific New Year!

Well, perspectives like these—the perspectives of “Debbie Downer” and her kind—stand in dramatic contrast to the words we’ve heard today from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
“Celebrate God all day, every day.” That’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrases this passage in The Message.
Revel in God…[And before] you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say rejoice.”

While some teachings that we read the Bible cause us to do a double take—things like loving our enemies and always being ready to forgive, for example—Paul’s admonition to rejoice seems on the surface to be much more palatable to our modern sensibilities.

“Rejoice in the Lord always.” We put it on cards and bumper stickers and share it on Facebook.

The only problem with all of that, though, is that joy is often as difficult to find in life as the will to forgive and love.

In a broken world, amid broken lives, joy can be elusive—and it doesn’t take Debbie Downer to notice that.

If we have any hope of taking Paul’s message to heart today—if we’re going to hear and respond to the Good News about joy with some integrity instead of reducing it to some syrupy sweet slogan—then we need to take a closer look at the Letter to the Philippians, and taking that closer look, we find two essential characteristics about the joy Paul describes.

First, Paul’s joy is rooted in a deep love for God and an understanding of God’s deep love for all people. There’s nothing superficial or self-serving about it.

When Paul says “rejoice in the Lord always” he isn’t saying that we should “always look on the bright side of life,” nor is he particularly interested in seeing people become more optimistic or positive in their thinking. He’s not interested in those things because he knows—from experience—that that’s not how the Christian life worked.

It’s worth noting that Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one of a handful of letters that the Apostle wrote while he was in prison because of his work as a missionary.

“I’ve been thrown in jail more than any other minister,” he wrote in another of those letters. “I’ve been flogged too many times to count, whipped five times, beaten with rods three times, and stoned with rocks once…I’ve even been on three ships that sank…Yet even so, I am content with weaknesses, insults, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

To an outsider, it might seem as though Paul had joy in spite of his faith, not because of it. Those who knew him, however, knew that the Good News about God’s forgiving mercies made known through Jesus Christ was the only thing that mattered to Paul, and worth any cost he would personally have to pay.

That’s why he could write with so much joy, even from his prison cell.

I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel…and I will continue to rejoice!
Like the ancient prophets before him, Paul truly believed that God’s love for him was more determinative of his identity than any circumstance in which he might find himself.

When Paul encouraged the church to rejoice, then, he was drawing from his own experience with God—the experience of finding joy and peace in the midst of tremendous hardships—because he wanted the faithful to have that experience, too.

He wanted them and he wanted us to have that experience because Paul knew that when God’s love defines us, we will find joy and peace and the will, passion, and encouragement to accomplish great things in God’s kingdom.

This brings us to our second point about Paul’s joy. Paul believed that when Christ-centered joy takes root in our hearts, then we are one step closer to the fullness of life God’s grace makes possible.

We find the second step just a few lines below where we stopped reading today, in the 13th verse of chapter 4 where Paul writes, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Paul’s ministry teaches us that the when we know where we stand with God we will be able to stand up against any challenge we might face.

The chains of his prison, the hardships of his travels—Paul met these head on with the confidence of someone who knew that his body could be held, but his mind, his heart, his spirit were forever set free by Jesus.

The Philippians might face persecutions, they might suffer unjustly—but what they had within their hearts, the world didn’t give it to them and the world couldn’t take it away.

“If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul would write on this subject at another time.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Friends, I’m convinced that there is within each one of us gathered here today a darkened corner into which the light of this joyful Good News needs to shine.

We need, then, to hear a good word about being centered in God’s grace and set free by God’s love.

We need to hear the words that have inspired prophets, preachers, and people of faith throughout the centuries— “Rejoice in the Lord always…The Lord is near.”—closer than your fears, closer than your doubts.

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God,” who comes to heal, to forgive, to lift up, and set free.

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

It’s wonderful what happens when God’s love displaces worry at the center of your life.

And that’s a reason to rejoice.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

December 9, 2015

Jacked Up, Screwed Up Mess Ups

Several of ancient Israel’s inspired prophets employed the image of a refiner’s fire to make a point about characteristics of God’s relationship with the Covenant People. In every Old Testament instance of this analogy we find prophets drawing a parallel between their community’s experience of adversity and the process of purifying precious metals by applying fire. Isaiah, for example, referred to Israel’s exile in Babylon as a refining process. In much the same way, Zechariah used this image to distinguish between persons who possessed the faith and wisdom to avoid the empty promises of wicked leaders and those who fell prey to their schemes.

“[Most will be deceived],” declared God’s prophet, “[but a remnant will endure] and I will refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested.

Then, in a passage we just read, Malachi compared God’s appointed messenger to a practitioner of the metallurgical arts.

For [the messenger] is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.
Like modern day preachers, when the prophets found an image that helped them communicate to the people something about the truth of God’s love and power, they remembered it and used it often. The refiner’s fire was such an image.

I want to dwell on this image for a little while this morning, specifically Malachi’s use of it, and in doing so, I hope that we’ll be able to experience the truth of God’s love and power, too.

Malachi ministered during a unique era in the history of God’s people, but he encountered a spiritual malaise among them that is timeless. God raised up Malachi to preach to the people after their exile in Babylon and subsequent homecoming. He worked at a time when homes and livelihoods and even God’s Temple had been rebuilt in Jerusalem. But even then, hearts and minds lay in ruin.

Here’s the list of charges God brought against the people through the prophet.

I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.
It’s quite a scene, right?

Religion was corrupt.

The justice system was corrupt.

The marketplace was corrupt.

The people were corrupt, but they were still precious in God’s sight.

That’s the lesson of the refiner’s fire after all. Despite the dire circumstances in which they people found themselves, the people were still inherently valuable, sought after, and, ultimately, loved.

The prophet’s audience understood these things. They understood that the refining process was reserved for metals like copper, gold, silver, and iron—things were worth the extra work to obtain.

One doesn’t refine a pile of garbage, and one doesn’t throw away a gold necklace because it got dirty.

The prophetic aim, therefore, of a passage like Malachi’s was to center the people in the truth of God’s love for them, rather than a mindset that allowed their circumstances to define them.

Your situation is jacked up, the prophet seems to say. Your thinking is screwed up. Your heart is messed up. But do not despair, because you are more than all of your jacked up, screwed up mess ups. You are loved.

Malachi continued,

For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.
The often used image of the refiner’s fire is a judgement oracle, that’s clear. The prophets who spoke these words judged the status quo to be wanting and they employed a familiar concept to facilitate change in the lives of the people. The conviction among the prophets that God’s love for the people was more determinative of their identity than the hardships and challenges they faced fueled this desire.

It needs to be said, too, that the prophets weren’t the last inspired preachers to talk like this. I think John the Baptist had the refiner’s work in mind when he said that Jesus would baptize, not merely with water, but “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Saint Peter said that life’s trials, like fire, reveal faith to be “more precious than gold.” And, although the Apostle Paul doesn’t specifically mention the metal melting craft, I think he gives us in his letter to the Romans the most concise summary of what Malachi and all the rest were talking about.

This is from Romans, chapter 5.

Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

Is your situation jacked up, your thinking screwed up, your heart messed up?

Do not despair, because you are more than all of your .

You are loved by God and God’s love, like the refiner’s fire, tends to reveal the best that is within us, tends to reveal that qualities about us that endure, tends to reorient us to our surroundings so that we might have the greatest potential to do God’s good work.

This leads to one last thought about the refiner’s fire, but it may be the most important.

What does refining something like copper, or silver, or gold produce?

A pure piece of the metal, right? A block. An ingot.

Then a smith works over the metal with the tools of his trade to produce something new and needed—a tool, armor, a weapon, a piece of jewelry.

The act of refining something, then, isn’t an end in itself, but a means of putting the metal in a state in which its strengths and qualities can be used best.

So the real question is, “What does Love intend to make of us?”

And Jesus said,

You are the light of the world…No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Let it be so.

Let the refiner’s fire work us over and set us free to bear God’s light and love to a hurting world.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

December 1, 2015

Vulnerable, Broken, and Loved

Have you ever considered the origins of some of the Christmas Season’s most iconic traditions? They’re really a wonderful mix of religious belief, myth, and creativity.

People have been bringing decorated evergreen trees into their homes for five hundred years.

Saint Francis gets the credit for creating the first Nativity Scene or crèche in the Middle Ages.

A German choirmaster introduced candy canes in 1670 to keep children quiet during a worship service.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was the creation of the Montgomery Ward Department Store in 1939.

Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol” in 1843.

Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” in 1940.

And Ralphie’s quest for a Red Ryder BB Gun has been a part of the season since 1983.

These sights, sounds and scents of the season mark this as a special time of the year and I hope that over the next few weeks you’ll have opportunities to enjoy them with the people you love.

Along the way, though, I hope that you’ll consider another tradition of the season, as well—reading from the Old Testament prophets in worship.

Since Jesus’ ministry, the beginning of the church after his resurrection, and the conception of the New Testament, Christians have found a deep connection between Jesus’ life and the work of the inspired prophets who preached as many as seven hundred years before his birth. With the help of the prophets, our ancestors came to a deeper understanding of Jesus’ inclusive ministry with sinners and the poor and learned to call him messiah and Lord. It’s fair to say that, inspired by the Spirit, the Church built the faith we share on the Old Testament.

During the Sundays of Advent, then, when we return to some of these ancient writings, we are truly going back to our roots and if our hearts are open throughout this homeward journey, then we will encounter the essential truth which the prophet’s preached.

We are broken, but in our brokenness, God has sown the seeds of our redemption.

Today, our Advent journey begins with Jeremiah.

Jeremiah answered God’s call during a time of massive political and cultural upheaval in Judah—the southern remnant of the kingdom once united under Kings Saul, David and Solomon, and the prophet’s native land.

The mighty Babylonian Empire had conquered the kingdom, carried thousands into exile, and left the people in their wake stunned. The invasion’s ferocity, the fall of Jerusalem, and seeing their beloved Temple ruined caused the people of Judah to raise questions that no community ever likes to ask.

“What went wrong?”

“How could this happen to us?”

“Whose fault is this?"

"Who is to blame?”

Feeling as though the foundation of their lives had crumbled, the people of God were rootless, adrift, broken.

Enter Jeremiah with his powerful message of God’s steadfast love—a love that would not let the people go even though they had wandered far from home, a love that would go to great lengths to repair broken hearts and wounded spirits.

Through the prophet, God pointed to something new—a blessed future.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
Through the prophet, God spoke of inward transformation—of intimate communion with God.
I will put my law within them [says the Lord] and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Through the prophet, God offered to restore that which sin had tarnished—the reign of God’s chosen, beloved king.

This, in fact, is the essence of the passage from Jeremiah’s book that we’ve read this morning.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
We worship Jesus as Lord and proclaim his Good News because we believe that Mary’s son is the one about whom the prophet spoke.

Jesus us our “future with hope.”

Jesus is God’s imprint on our hearts.

Jesus is the "branch" sprung up from David.

He is “our righteousness.”

But just like Jeremiah’s neighbors who only grasped the reliability of his message through the pain of Exile—through the undeniable reality of their brokenness—our praise of Jesus is inextricable from the pain of the cross—from the undeniable reality of the brokenness all sin, our sin, leaves in its wake.

Advent, Christmas, and, of course, Easter—without the crucifixion none of these holy days mean anything, and the way we celebrate them is meaningless, too, unless those celebrations arise from an acknowledgement of the truth.

We are broken, but in our brokenness, God has sown the seeds of our redemption.

Admitting that we are broken, therefore, is essential to our development as Christians because confessing our brokenness allows us to freely acknowledge that we need help, and freely acknowledging that we need help liberates us from having to maintain a façade of personal perfection.

To be broken, then, is to be set free—free to love and to be loved, free to give of ourselves and to receive of God’s mercies.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable,” noted C.S. Lewis.

Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
We are broken, but in our brokenness, God has sown freedom, and vulnerability, and humility, and love—the very seeds of our redemption.

The sights, sounds and scents of the season mark this as a special time of the year and I hope that over the next few weeks you’ll have opportunities to enjoy them with the people you love.

Along the way, though, I hope that you’ll also consider another tradition of the season—drawing near to God’s inspired prophets who show us that:

Jesus us our “future with hope.”

Jesus is God’s imprint on our hearts.

Jesus is the "branch" sprung up from David.

Jesus is “our righteousness.”

Learning from the ancient wisdom, then, I hope we look beyond the season’s lights and colors so that we might truly see our Savior, so that we might truly see ourselves.

And if we are so blessed, if while the halls are decked, we learn something deeper about ourselves and the One who loves us without fail, then we just might experience the renewal of hope and the dawning of salvation God’s grace makes possible.

We might just celebrate Christmas like never before, secure in the knowledge that we are free from the burden of making this season perfect, set free to live and love honestly, set free to bear the light of this Good News.

We are broken, but in our brokenness, God has sown the seeds of our redemption.

And that is why broken people like us call the message of ancient prophets and Jesus on his Cross, Good News for all people.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen. Amen.