April 18, 2014

I Thought I Knew Him

I thought I knew him.

When I heard that angels sang the night he was born, I thought I knew him.

When I heard that the Spirit came down when he came up from the waters of his baptism, I thought I knew him.

When I heard how he resisted temptation in the wilderness, I thought I knew him.

When I heard him read from the prophet’s scroll and announce good news to the poor, release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, I thought I knew him.

When I heard how he healed the sick, ate with sinners, called out hypocrites, forgave, loved, fed, and served the lonely, the last, and the lost, I thought I knew him.

When I heard that his disciples called him messiah…

When I heard the palm branch waving crowds cheering wildly as he rode into town on a Sunday afternoon…

I thought I knew Jesus, but today I hardly recognize him, and, according to Isaiah, I’m not the only one feeling this way.

His once serene countenance is transformed by suffering.

—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,

and his form beyond that of mortals—

The crowds who once cheered and then jeered him are quiet now.

Those who once gathered round him with questions about eternity and hopes about a better tomorrow are nowhere to be found.

The nations are startled; the mouths of their kings shut because of him.

He was despised and rejected by others;

a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;

and as one from whom others hide their faces

he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Today, we confess that the Unknown Traveler has come again into our lives—leaving us confounded, frightened, and deeply disturbed.

The hymn with which this service began, “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown,” one of the masterpieces of Charles Wesley’s sacred song writing career, gives voice to our Good Friday experience.

Building on a story taken from the Book of Genesis in which Abraham’s grandson Jacob wrestles all night with a mysterious figure only to learn, near daybreak, that he’s been the presence of the Living God the whole time, Wesley’s song invites the Church to abide, to confront, and even to struggle with this moment’s confusion, darkness, and pain.

In this hymn, Wesley calls us to recognize, like Jacob did, that something powerful is happening in this moment, that something is going on here that is worthy of our attention.

Jacob would have preferred a good night’s rest to the fight of his life; after all, he was expecting a potentially volatile reunion with his twin brother in the morning.

Likewise, I’m sure we’re all eager to get the weekend started so that we can enjoy the great things that Easter Sunday in this city always brings; but this isn’t a day for quickly moving on to the next thing on our list.

The Unknown Traveler in our midst has a way of slowing us down.

Wesley’s hymn also leads us to confess that, like Jacob, in this moment’s swirling emotions we are pulled between the desire to escape and the realization that we must not let go.

Jacob’s had never failed him before. During his long night, though, he tried in vain to make heads or tails of his adversary.

Should he try to get away—was this fight too much to bear—or should he keep pushing back and struggling?

I don’t think Jacob knew what to do when the Unknown Traveler caught hold of him, and neither do we.

Why will so many more people be in church Sunday morning than this afternoon?

Because the cross is a bloody mess that brings to mind the absolute worst things of life.

A fickle crowd, a feckless politician, and a group of frenzied religious leaders conspiring to do violence to an unjustly accused poor man who, by all accounts, never did anything worse than tell the truth—Good Lord, chocolate eggs tastes a whole lot better than this bitter cup.

And if the dying man’s closest friends denied and deserted him, if he became convinced that even God had forsaken him, what does that say about us?

Heaven help us, we don’t even want to imagine what we would’ve done on Calvary, or if we would’ve even stuck around when we saw the Unknown Traveler coming our way.

No, the cross is too much for our feeble faith, but, at the same time, we sense that this curse might also hold our cure.

The Unknown Traveler in our midst will not let go, and in this moment, neither will we.

So if, like Jacob, your strength is waning,

And if, like Jacob, you’ve reached your wits end,

And if, like Jacob, you’ve realized that your only hope is that the Unknown Traveler is merciful and will bless you, then hear the Good News.

Jesus is the Unknown Traveler who, in love, offers himself to and for each and every one us.

There’s a line from Wesley’s hymn that, although seldom sung, raises the question we all must ask today.

Art thou the man who died for me?
Unknown Traveler, are you the one who died me?

Is this it? Is your struggle worth something? Is all this—the mocking and cruelty and suffering and death—in vain, or is God doing something here?

Our hymn also bears witness to the truth that sets us free.

‘Tis Love! ‘tis Love! Thou diedst for me, I hear thy whisper in my heart.

The morning breaks, the shadows flee, pure Universal Love thou art.

I thought I knew him, but that doesn’t really matter much on a day like this.

No, I thought I knew him—we thought we knew him—but all that really matters at the foot of the cross is that Jesus truly loves sinners like us.

Jesus is the Unknown Traveler who, in love, offers himself to and for each and every one us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

April 15, 2014

Schedule of Worship Services for Holy Week and Easter

Holy Week at John Street Church

Revival Services: Wednesday, April 16 and Thursday, April 17, 12:15-12:45pm

Holy Thursday, April 17, 7:00pm

Good Friday, April 18, 12:00pm

Easter Sunday, April 20, 11:00am

April 14, 2014

Good's Victory Begins

The Crucifixion is the greatest exercise in truth telling that the world has ever known. It tells us the truth about God and the truth about ourselves.

The Crucifixion is the ultimate invitation to live honestly before God. Like a curtain that has been pulled back, or even torn in two, it invites us to set aside the self-righteous ways with which we try to navigate our lives so that we can know the blessings of living authentically before God and with one another.

The Crucifixion is the moment of greatest sorrow, a sight that leads us to gasp, “O Love Divine, what hast thou done?” Yet we confess—by faith—that without this agony we would know nothing of Easter’s joy, nothing of Resurrection, nothing of the Risen Christ.

The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ is like nothing else.

In a sermon drawn from the Cross, a great pastor and theologian once preached a powerful word. “The victory of good,” he proclaimed, “begins with the exposure of evil as evil.” (Storey, With God in the Crucible)

I believe that these words set the stage for us not only to hear the Gospel, but to catch the faintest glimpse of Easter’s first light even as we prepare to experience the darkness of this holy week.

“The victory of good begins…with the exposure of evil as evil.”

The biblical witness confirms this. From the point at which Adam and Eve recognized their nakedness and realized their wrong, to John the Baptist’s call to repentance and kingdom preparation, to Jesus’ own teaching about specks of dust in our neighbors’ eyes, the scripture bears witness to this truth—if we are blind to sin we will never see the way of salvation.

The Bible teaches us that evil and sin thrive under the cover of darkness. That’s why we need a light from God to show us a better way.

King David’s encounter with the prophet Nathan is another scene in the Bible that speaks to this point.

You’ve probably heard the story before, the PG version of which goes something like this:

David had an affair with the wife of one of his soldiers, a woman named Bathsheba. When Bathsheba told the king that she was pregnant with his baby, David conspired to kill her husband, to cover up the crime, and, then, to take the woman as his wife. It was a plan that he carried out with the cool callousness of an evil genius.

Like I said—that’s the PG version of the story and it still has murder, scandalous sex, and a cover up.

It wasn’t long after these events, however, that God raised up a prophet, a man named Nathan, who confronted the king with the truth—the truth about his actions, about his sin.

“You are the man,” Nathan told David, exposing the evil in the king’s heart and the blood on his hands.

David’s response to Nathan is what separates him from history’s tyrants and tells us why, years later, God’s people were looking for someone of his lineage to take up the king’s crown. Instead of falling deeper into the abyss by ignoring the truth, instead of killing the prophet, David recognized that dealing with the truth and coming clean about his crime was the only way he could continue.

With the evil he had done exposed, David chose a better way. He confessed. He asked for forgiveness and he was reconciled to God.

“David,” Nathan, told him, “the LORD has put away your sin.”

“The victory of good,” David’s victory, began “with the exposure of evil as evil.”

Nathan had to shake David up with the truth if he had any hope of being the faithful leader—the faithful person—God wanted him to be.

Like Nathan, the cross speaks a truth that shakes the souls of all people with ears to hear. It has a way of shining a light into the corners of our lives in which only shadows dwell.

The cross also gives us a chance to acknowledge what God’s truth shows us about ourselves—just like David did when the prophet spoke to him. The cross has the power to expose what is wrong so that with God’s help, we can be made right.

If we want to be faithful to God, therefore, we cannot ignore the cross.

If we want to be disciples of Jesus Christ, we cannot slip past the cross.

If we want a life that is grounded in something, that is built on something everlasting, we cannot avoid the cross.

Even still, these remain the most difficult words to hear.

Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.

Jesus died. The perfect cornerstone was cast aside like an insignificant piece of rubble. The Prince of Peace met a violent end, leaving us all alone in the last place his disciples ever wanted to be—standing beneath the cross.

As uncomfortable as we are in this place of death, however, in this place of such sorrow and anguish—while we would much prefer to make a stand for Jesus in a more comfortable place—like those seaside towns where he used to preach—anywhere but a place called Skull—we are here today, beneath the cross, to remember and encourage each other to hold fast to what we know is true.

The Gospel message for us this day is that hearts broken by the cross will be made new again.

We see glimmers of this in the Gospels. Remember the centurion—the one whose job it was to carry out Jesus’ death sentence?

When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent?’
And what about the crowds—the crowds who had asked for the release of murderous Barabbas—the ones who condemned Jesus with their bloodlust?
When all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.
A horrible truth confronted these eyewitnesses to the crucifixion. They had rejected innocence. They had shunned all that was holy. They had looked into the eyes of God, and had turned their backs to him.

The cross exposed the evil they had committed, and in doing so, it broke them.

What they saw that day, however, also offered them hope for forgiveness and, ultimately, redemption.

“The victory of good begins…with the exposure of evil as evil.”

It’s my prayer that the cross would break our hearts this week, that it would break us like it did the first eyewitnesses on Calvary one Friday afternoon so long ago.

I pray that the cross will break up the old habits and attitudes that enslave us—that keep us from pursuing holiness and justice, that convince us of our own greatness, and of our neighbor’s unworthiness.

I pray that the cross will break up the clouds that blind us—that blind us to the Image of God of the eyes of our brothers and sisters who look different, or talk with a different accent, or earn a different income, or vote a different way.

I pray that the cross will break the chains that hold us at a distance from each other, that hold us at a distance from God.

It’s my prayer today that the cross will shine a light upon us that reveals where we have gone astray, where we have failed, and where we have sinned—and that like the faithful ones who have gone before us—that we would seize the opportunity the cross gives us to leave foolish ways behind and walk forward on the path that leads to eternal life.

People of God, hear the Good News. Hearts broken by the cross will be made new again.

So create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within all your children.

“The victory of good begins…with the exposure of evil as evil.”

Let it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.

April 8, 2014

Bible Study Notes: Matthew 23-24

Our discussion of this passage strayed a bit into the weeds of theories of biblical interpretation and criticism. As I noted in class, these theories try to help us understand the cultural and religious developments that occurred between the events of Jesus' life and the writing of the Gospels and the impact those developments had on the text itself. Some of these theories have served the church's mission very well. Others have, I think it's fair to say, led the church astray. You can read more about these matters in a very accessible article written by Donald Haynes of The United Methodist Reporter.

Digging into the passage, however, we find chapter 23 to be a stinging red-letter sermon aimed at hearts given to hypocrisy and materialism. While the religious establishment of Jesus' day-"the scribes and Pharisees"-serves as the foil in the passage, I think it's clear that we're all included in the intended audience. In other words, whenever we convince ourselves that hypocrisy is somebody else's problem, then we're reading this passage incorrectly. Rather, I think chapter 23 intends to convict us of our sin (including our own hypocrisy and trust in material things).

Matthew develops this point further in chapter 24 pointing to our condition's severe consequences. However, as I preached on Sunday, the message about sin is never bad news. It is in fact the Good News of our salvation.

Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor puts it like this,

Sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. There is no help for those who admit no need of help. There is no repair for those who insist nothing is broken... (Speaking of Sin, p. 59)

In despair, the arrogant maintain their innocence, but the humble, without fear, confess their fault and move on—they go home—with God.

Only those who would stoop so low can reach so high.

Our assurance of this promise's trustworthiness rests on the events recounted in the remaining chapters of Matthew's Gospel.

April 7, 2014

Good News about Exiles, Worms, and Dry Bones

Ezekiel’s 37th chapter—the prophet’s vision of a valley filled with dry bones—is one of the most compelling passages of scripture. It’s graphic, disturbing even, but it’s also hopeful. Indeed, as God restores life to those dead bones with nothing more than God’s own Word, we’re reminded that God breathed life into Adam and we anticipate Jesus’ resurrection from the stone cold tomb. In essence, Ezekiel 37 tells the whole story of salvation—Creation, Exile, Resurrection—and any passage that does that deserves our full attention.

Ezekiel’s dry bones are an image of Exile. Specifically, the image recalls the exile of God’s people from their homeland in and around Jerusalem. According to the biblical point of view, when the people arrogantly wandered away from God and from the path of God’s righteousness, God humbled them and invited them to come home via the Way of Repentance.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

The question God asks the prophet echoes through the ages.

“Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.
Once nourished by pastures of plenty in the Promised Land, proud people met their end in a dry and lifeless valley. If they would humbly hear and receive the truth about their circumstances, however, if they would acknowledge their sorry condition, they would live again.
They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
But they were not cut off completely, because God had not given up on them.

And the Lord said,

You shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live…
Dry bones would live again if they would only hear and receive God’s Word, which meant the people first needed to admit that wandering off on their own had left them scorched, sun-bleached, and parched.

In other words, Ezekiel’s fantastic vision is simply a dramatic version of the Bible’s most repeated sermon, “Repent and believe the Good News.”

The more time our Wednesday Night Round Table spends with Dante’s Divine Comedy, the more convinced I am that the master poet intends to preach the same sermon, too.

The Divine Comedy is a sacred poem written by an Italian man named Dante in the early 14th century. Like Ezekiel’s vision, it is a story about Exile—the reality of Dante’s political exile from his hometown and of the more common experience of spiritual exile, of losing one’s way in life—a sentiment expressed beautifully and memorably in the poem’s opening lines.

Midway along the journey of our life

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

for I had wandered off from the straight path. (I.1-3)

For Dante, the journey back to the “straight path, the long walk home, was a miraculous trek through the afterlife, which, given the poet’s Catholic faith, included a slog through Hell, an ascent through Purgatory, and, ultimately, a vision of God’s glory with an assist from the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Along the way, he meets and converses with souls numbered among the damned and souls counted among the redeemed—learning, accordingly, of their pain and torment or their joy and peace.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is epic in every sense of the word and, although a masterpiece of fiction, insofar as it points its readers to deep realities of life and faith, it is true.

It is true, for example, that self-serving, arrogant pride ranks among the greatest impediments to progress in this life and the next.

Dante underscores the truth about pride by populating Hell with souls whose arrogance blinds them to the truth about themselves and the consequences of their actions. Convinced of their own self-righteousness, their lack of culpability in any offense, and of their fate’s inherent injustice, this sorry lot seeks nothing more than to be told that they are right and that the Eternal Judge has mishandled their case.

Cheaters, persons filled with rage, traitors to family, country, and even those who would betray God—in Dante’s Inferno, all these maintain their innocence or at least their delusion that someone or something else made them do the evil that they did.

According to Dante, at least in my reading of him, Hell is the place where arrogance reigns supreme and self-righteousness is so pervasive that no one takes personal responsibility for themselves or their actions, which, if we can imagine such a place, sounds pretty hellish.

Once Dante leaves Hell behind, he starts moving with a different sort of crowd. It’s not as if he meets people who didn’t screw up and cause arm in life. It’s not that they didn’t sin or even that they sinned less than others.

It’s just that they’re more honest about the evil that they did and the good that they left undone.

These are those who, when confronted with the truth about their lives, humbly admitted that they needed that which only God could give them.

In fact, on the pilgrim’s journey, one of the things he notices about penitent souls is that they deal with pride before everything else so that everything else can be dealt with humbly and honestly.

The proud trust in their own righteousness, but the humble stand on God’s righteousness.

The proud obscure reality under a cloud of arrogance, lies, and misdirection, but the humble walk in God’s light without fearing that the truth about their imperfections will be exposed.

The proud are eternally stubborn and hopelessly stuck—in the Inferno there is no room for growth—but the humble stretch and grow and change. Indeed, in the light of God’s New Day there is transformation.

This truth is so vital to Dante’s point of view that he even takes down the fourth wall for a moment to address his proud readers directly.

Arrogant Christians, he says, “do you not understand that we are worms, each born to form an angelic butterfly?” (Purgatorio X.121-126)

“Do you not understand that we are worms?”

To openly admit one’s worminess—to acknowledge that in the most sublime matters of ethics and spiritual discernment and selfless love we are, in fact, dirt eating invertebrates—is so at odds with that little voice whispering in our ears,

“You’re the center of the universe.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Anyone can see that it was his fault / her fault / your boss’s fault / your parents’ fault.”

You know that voice, right? It usually says things like, “You don’t need to change a thing, it’s everybody that’s all screwed up.” Yes, that voice.

Dante, like any wise counselor, wants us to ignore that voice.

You see, the humble confession of our lowly state, the admission that we are sinners, dry bones, worms—that we have a capacity for epic failure even when the stars align for us and the odds are in are favor, this—Dante, Ezekiel, and all the saints agree—is the first step toward Glory.

Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor puts it like this,

Sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. There is no help for those who admit no need of help. There is no repair for those who insist nothing is broken... (Speaking of Sin, p. 59)
In despair, the arrogant maintain their innocence, but the humble, without fear, confess their fault and move on—they go home—with God.

Only those who would stoop so low can reach so high.

People of John Street Church, if our prophets and sages, poets and preachers are trustworthy, then this is the truth; we are worms, dry bones, exiles, and sinners, yet we are redeemed, given new life, transformed, and led home by Jesus Christ who “at the right time…died for the ungodly,” the Good News of how “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners [exiles, dry bones, and worms] Christ died for us.”

And that is why we call “sin our only hope” and say that stories of exile hold Good News for all people.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

April 1, 2014

Bible Study Notes: Matthew 21-22

For good and ill, things are not as they seem.

This section begins with Jesus entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. According to the prophecies to which Matthew appeals, this is the way a conquering, victorious king should enter the city. But what kind of king will Jesus be?

Next, Jesus throws money changers and those who sold doves from the Temple. During our weekly meeting we discussed the nature of their offense. They weren't hold a tag sale. They were putting up an economic barrier between God and whose who came to worship (especially the poor). Thus, "a house of prayer" and become "a den of robbers."

A fine looking fig tree failed to produce fruit,

spiritual leaders who refused to admit the truth about John's ministry,

and parables about tenants who turned on their landowner and an improperly dressed wedding guest;

the theme of hypocrisy/play acting/deceit, of things not being as they seem, unites these sections from chapter 22.

Round Table Notes: Purgatory, Cantos 14-18

Canto 16 offers Dante's thoughts on freedom. To be certain, Dante believed humans were not bound by Fate, but were created to exercise their free will, the freedom to follow "the light that shows you right from wrong" (XVI.75).

Freedom goes hand in hand with the responsibility to pursue nobler joys, not the trivial things we're given to chase. According to Dante, the purpose of law is to restrain us. The Church and State checking and balancing each other, in Dante's view, encourages the proper restraint. In his time, however, Dante believed that, to the detriment of all, the Church upset the proper balance.

As you can see, bad leadership has caused,

the present state of evil in the world,

not Nature that has grown corrupt in you.

On Rome, that brought the world to know the good,

once shone two suns that lighted up two ways:

the road of this world and the road of God.

The one sun has put out the other's light;

the sword is now one with the crook--and fused

together thus, must bring about misrule,

since joined, now neither fears the other. (XVI.103-112)

Written hundreds of years before the religious/political conflicts surrounding the Protestant Reformation and the rise of freedom of religion as a human right, this insight seems somewhat prophetic.

What do the Church and State offer one another?

What does a properly balanced relationship between the two look like?

How does our experience of life in a pluralistic liberal democracy shape our understanding of human freedom, the law, and Church/State relations?