September 28, 2015

In the Name of Bluegrass

This is our church’s fourth annual Bluegrass Sunday, which seems like a good time to tackle a pressing question, “How did bluegrass music get its name?”

Bluegrass music is, and this may come as a surprise, a relatively new musical genre. In fact, bluegrass didn’t take shape until the 1940s when the career and genius of a man named Bill Monroe came to prominence.

Bill Monroe was born in Kentucky in 1911. He died not even twenty years ago in 1996. Gifted with a tremendous ear for music, Monroe grew up playing old Scottish ballads, dances, and, what we would call American folk music with his brothers. Orphaned as a teenager, his musical education continued when his Uncle Pen, a talented fiddler, took Bill in and allowed him to sit in at gigs and jam sessions around their hometown.

When he was 18, Monroe moved to Indiana with his brothers to work in an oil refinery. The Monroe brothers soon formed a band, and within a few years, were playing at radio stations in the Midwest and Southeast. They even had a hit record, a gospel song called “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?”

The brothers’ band soon came to an end, but Bill quickly put together a new group—the Kentuckians. When this group flamed out after a couple of months, Monroe found another fiddler, guitar player, and bassist and started another band that he named in honor of his home state—the Bluegrass State of Kentucky. He called his band the Blue Grass Boys.

Eventually, the Blue Grass Boys added Earl Scruggs, perhaps the greatest banjo player of them all, to their line up and set off on a historic career.

The records that the Blue Grass Boys made in the 1940s became classics, and as their fame grew, other bands began to imitate and expand upon their sound—a sound characterized by fast tempos, intricate vocal harmonies, musical breaks and solos, and, I think it’s fair to say, Monroe’s personal sensibilities.

In fact, in doing research on the topic of bluegrass music’s origins, one quote from Monroe kept coming up over and over again.

Monroe said, “[Bluegrass music] is Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound."

Well, by the middle decades of the 20th century, the “high lonesome sound” pioneered by Monroe came into its own. In the early 40s, up in the southwestern Virginia mountains, two brothers who grew up on church music, the Carter Family, and playing Bill Monroe covers, started writing and playing their own songs as the Clinch Mountain Boys. Meanwhile, in 1948, Scruggs and Lester Flatt left Monroe’s band and started another iconic group called the Foggy Mountain Boys. Still more bands and radio hits followed and by the 1960s concert festivals dedicated to this music became popular, too.

And that brings us back to the question, “How did bluegrass music get its name?’

Ralph Stanley, one of those Clinch Mountain Boys, offers as good an answer to this question as any.

Oh, (Monroe) was the first. But it wasn't called bluegrass back then. It was just called old time mountain hillbilly music. When they started doing the bluegrass festivals in 1965, everybody got together and wanted to know what to call the show, y'know. It was decided that since Bill was the oldest man, and was from the Bluegrass state of Kentucky and he had the Blue Grass Boys, it would be called 'bluegrass.'
So, that’s how bluegrass music got its name.

This morning we’ve read a passage from Mark’s Gospel that calls to mind the importance of a name, specifically the name of Jesus.

The passage at hand comes from a difficult period of time for Jesus’ disciples. It all began when Peter admitted that he believed Jesus was the Messiah, Israel’s God-anointed and long-expected true king. At first, this seemed to be a breakthrough for the group, but when Jesus started talking dying on a cross and suffering for his sake, the disciples demonstrated that they still had a lot to learn about following him.

You might remember how Peter tried to chastise Jesus for talking openly about such things. You might remember that that didn’t go so well for Peter, earning him the famous rebuke from Jesus, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Peter followed up this misstep with another stellar move.

A witness to the Lord’s Transfiguration, Peter was terrified to the point of talking crazy.

“Why don’t we just build a place so that you, Moses, and Elijah can stay here forever?”

That’s what Peter said when he saw one of the most amazing things since Moses noticed the burning bush, a reaction that give away the fact that Peter had no idea what we was looking at.

Well, the disciples’ mistakes and screw ups continue this morning as we’ve learned that when they should’ve been thinking about the selfless and self-sacrificing teachings Jesus set before them, they chose to argue, instead, about which one them was the greatest.

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant all…Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” That’s how Jesus redirected their foolishness that time.
Then there was the issue of the disciples’ harsh reaction to someone who was doing ministry in Jesus’ name.
John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
One can’t help but wonder if jealousy and envy didn’t motivate the group’s reaction, as if they were saying, “As badly as we’ve been screwing up lately, there’s no way we’re going to let this stranger out do us.”
But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
I’d like to draw your attention to the three instances in our Gospel Lesson in which Jesus speaks about his name.

“Whoever welcome one such child in my name welcomes me…”

“No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able…to speak evil of me.”

“Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will [not] lose the reward.”

These three reveal that the name of Jesus offers us a purpose and a power that permeates our identity.

First, there is purpose in the name of Jesus Christ—and that purpose is that we proclaim Good News for all people in word and in deed by welcoming, receiving, and showing mercy to our forgotten, passed over, and neglected neighbors.

The child Jesus drew into the center of his circle as he spoke these words was an outcast—probably a slave—and not in a social position to which anyone else aspired, but Jesus said if you want to walk with me, if you want to walk with God, welcome people like this into your midst “in my name.”

There is purpose in the name of Jesus Christ—our purpose to love as we are loved and to do unto others as we hope would be done unto us.

There is purpose in the name of Jesus Christ, and there’s also power.

Stories of miraculous healings and exorcisms are prominent in Mark’s Gospel, and that makes us a little nervous because talk of faith healing and casting out demons brings to mind images of religious charlatans and hucksters preying on the sick and vulnerable just to make a buck for themselves.

But that’s neither the way Jesus displays his power nor is it the power he offers to us. Instead, we see Jesus leaving changed lives in his wake, better lives, lives made whole again, people who want to live holy lives after meeting him because they know that they’ve been in the presence of true holiness. And when we think about like this, we must admit that we do indeed have power in his name because someone’s love, someone’s patience, someone’s faith in his name brought us here and changed us.

Even now, people find power in his name to face, and endure, and overcome tremendous challenges, and often do so with such a generosity of spirit that that their stories leave us speechless—awed by the powerful name of Jesus.

There is purpose in the name of Jesus Christ—our purpose to love as we are loved and to do unto others as we hope would be done unto us.

There is power in the name of Jesus Christ—our power to love, and endure, and overcome so that lives might be changed for the better, so that we might be changed for the better.

And together—in the name of Jesus Christ—our purpose and our power permeate our identity. Jesus said, “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

A cup of water for a cross might not seem like a fair trade, but this word pushes us to consider how we want to be known and what impression we intend to make on those around us.

Do we want others to do what we say because we’re bullies?

Do we want to be served and to get stuff because people fear us?

God, I hope not.

Instead, words from Psalm 84 come to mind, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.”

I would rather let an honorable and faithful life be its own reward, than secure a king’s ransom by hurting any of God’s children, because when we aspire to live selflessly, when we aim to let Christ work in and through us, when we bear the name of Christ, the cup given to us holds a precious gift.

“To the thirsty,” says Jesus, “I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.”

People of God, hear the Good News. Jesus offers to you a purpose and a power that would permeate your identity—a purpose of love and service and the power to love and serve well so that we may be known as those who bear his name.

Would you take up that name today?

Would you take Jesus into your heart?

Let it be so and let us give thanks to God for this Good News.

Sources: Bluegrass Heritage Foundation, Tribeca Film Institute, Reno & Harrell, Bluegrass Music-Wikipedia

September 6, 2015

Being Favored or Playing Favorites

The Old Testament book called Proverbs begins with an invitation to discover within its verses a vision of a life lived honorably, faithfully, and wisely before God. “Read this book,” says Proverbs chapter one,
For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young—
Over thirty chapters of simple sayings follow the book’s preface, many of which we still quickly recognize as good advice.

Have you ever bristled at being corrected, even when you knew you were in the wrong? If you have, here’s a proverb for you.

Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but one who rejects a rebuke goes astray.

Tempted to try getting ahead by fudging the facts? Be careful, because, “lying lips conceal hatred...whoever utters slander is a fool.”

Want to indulge in a little office gossip? Watch out, for “a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling.”

Quips like these fill Proverbs’ pages—aphorisms for daily living meant to illuminate the faithful way forward across the wide expanse of the human experience—on good days and bad, in times of plenty and seasons of want.

This morning, our first lesson from the Scripture sets before us a passage from Proverbs 22—a collection of verses that addresses many issues, but ultimately focuses on attitudes about, and the relationship between, people who are wealthy and those who are poor—the proverbial “Haves” and “Have Nots”.

Listen again to these words.

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.

The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.

The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail.

Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.

Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.

A few things come to mind here. First, while these proverbs primarily speak to the responsibilities of the rich when interacting with the poor—“whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,” for example—other proverbs do try to steer people away from making decisions that can lead to economic ruin. We could easily gather up a collection of verses that speak about living beyond one’s means, recklessly taking on debt, and following an envious eye rather than prudent judgment. I bring this up because it’s important for us to grasp that The Book of Proverbs does not intend to foment animosity between elements of a fractured community. Rather, Proverbs’ primary agenda is to elevate and instruct all God’s people and to make holy the ties that bind them together.

That’s why I think this is the key verse in our lesson.

The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.
You see, if this is true, if the LORD is the maker off all people, indeed, if all are created in the image of God, then the rich woman and the poor man are brother and sister, joint heirs to the kingdom. And if they are brother and sister, if they share an inheritance, if they bear the same maker’s mark, then they are inextricably bound to one another.

In this family of God, therefore, taking responsibility for one’s actions, working for economic justice, and calling out and fighting against oppressive and abuses practices aren’t just talking points or opposing sides in a political tug of war. In the family of God we say that these things are simply evidence of our faith working through love.

“Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses,” so says the Lord.

A friend loves at all times,

and kinsfolk are born to share adversity.

If Proverbs endorses an economic theory it is that we love one another in word and in deed.

Our second lesson from scripture is closely related to the first.

We’ve heard this morning from James chapter 2 some of the most beloved, quoted, and, if we’re honest about it, challenging verses in the New Testament.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Zooming out from these verses just a bit, we discover an important link between James’ letter and Proverbs’ wisdom. In both instances the scripture condemns as sinful any willingness to allow distinctions based on wealth to fracture fellowship within the community of faith.

Proverbs pointed to the one Maker shared by rich and poor alike, the foundation on which their community was built. James, in a similar way, argued that since it is only by God’s mercy that any person has fellowship with God, we should receive into Christian fellowship all seekers of God’s holy mercy. There are no favorites in the Kingdom.

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

In other words, the works upon which James placed so much emphasis were, at heart, the disciplined skills and spiritual vision to welcome, befriend, and love one another in the Christian community—without distinction, regardless of each other’s lot, without judgment, regardless of what one can or cannot bring in return—because Christ has done all things on our behalf.

Echoing Jesus’ command to forgive as we are forgiven, James concludes with a proverb of his own.

For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
Our lessons from Proverbs and James barely touch the surface of what the scripture has to teach us about wealth, poverty, and justice—topics that the Word of God speaks about far more often than most people realize, often enough to keep us coming back for more and more lest we start to confuse our status quo or our preferred political platform with the fullness of God’s Kingdom. What we can conclude with conviction and clarity today, however, is that no income group, tax bracket, employment status, or economic station is more determinative of any person’s worth, any person’s identity, or the kind of welcome that any one should expect among God’s people than the truth that, through the merciful life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all can be called heirs to the kingdom and children of God.

And that is why words from Proverbs and James, why the truth about our shared maker’s mark and active faith working through love is, in word and in deed, Good News for all people.

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

August 30, 2015

Check Yourself

Friday afternoon I had the opportunity to meet with a group from a United Methodist Church in Massachusetts that was visiting New York to attend a seminar on global hunger and related issues of mission and social justice. The seminar’s organizers invited me to speak to group about the way in which our Methodist tradition informs and enlightens our approach to such matters, an opportunity I took to share something about John Wesley’s method for encouraging people to live holy lives.

You see, as I tell the groups who visit our church’s museum to learn about our history, John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, isn’t one of the revolutionary figures in history who argued that the Church was teaching the wrong things. He didn’t take on the Church’s Big Ideas like Martin Luther. No, Wesley, for the most part, was okay with what the Church had to say, but he was terribly disappointed with the way Christians of his day were living out the Faith.

Listless, joyless, filled with vice and void of virtue—common qualities like these were antithetical to the beauty and power of Jesus and his Good News, and Wesley intended to do something about it. We can think of him and our spiritual ancestors, then, as people who were committed to experiencing deeply the Gospel in the substance of their daily lives and living in trust that God gave them every gift—every grace—they needed to live in a truly right and loving relationship with God and their neighbors.

I told the group from Massachusetts how Wesley tried to instill an honest desire for the pursuit of these things among his people by encouraging them in the disciplines of introspection and self-awareness.

Wesley wanted the Methodists to love, and to think, and then to love better than they previously had. In order to facilitate that kind of spiritual growth, he often prepared lists of questions or rules for Methodists to consider and to check their hearts and actions against. Today, the most famous of these tools are the series of questions that are asked of every minister in our tradition at the time of his or her ordination and the three General Rules that are to shape everything we do; Do No Harm, Do Good, and Attend Upon the Ordinances of God (which is popularly paraphrased as Stay in Love with God).

However, I want to share a list with you this morning that seems to have been on John’s mind from his days at university until the end of his life. He published variations on these questions numerous times so they seem to warrant our attention. In fact, I share them with you with confidence that they’ll help us dig more deeply into God’s Good News for us today.

Here’s the list of questions that aim to help us live in holiness.

1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?

2. Do I confidentially pass on to others what has been said to me in confidence?

3. Can I be trusted?

4. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits?

5. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?

6. Did the Bible live in me today?

7. Do I give the Bible time to speak to me every day?

8. Am I enjoying prayer?

9. When did I last speak to someone else of my faith?

10. Do I pray about the money I spend?

11. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?

12. Do I disobey God in anything?

13. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?

14. Am I defeated in any part of my life?

15. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?

16. How do I spend my spare time?

17. Am I proud?

18. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?

19. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?

20. Do I grumble or complain constantly?

21. Is Christ real to me?

It’s a probing list of loaded questions, isn’t it, ranging from topics whose importance might seem obvious to us—Can I be trusted? / Am I a gossip?—to those whose association with holiness seems more tangential—Am I getting enough sleep? / How do I spend my spare time?

As interesting and thought provoking as this list is, however, it’s seems to me that the first question really is preeminent as it frames every other response.

1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
Jesus, as you probably know, had a lot to say about hypocrisy, especially when it came to matters of faith. For all the religious barriers that he broke down, Jesus had no tolerance for the person who could go through the motions of piety without engaging the heart. Hypocrites were, then, the targets of some of Jesus’ most pointed invective.

“Hypocrites! You tithe to the penny but you ignore the important things like justice, mercy, and faith."

“Hypocrites! You are so careful to clean the outside of a cup, but inside you are filthy.”

“Hypocrites! You’re like whitewashed tombs. Beautiful to look at, but filled with death.”

“Hypocrites! Why don’t you try taking the 2 by 4 out of your own eye, before pointing out the speck of dust in your neighbor’s?”

These examples are all found in Matthew’s Gospel, but in the seventh chapter of Mark we find Jesus at it once again.

The exchange recorded in this morning’s Gospel lesson speaks of an encounter Jesus and his disciples had with some local religious leaders who took exception to the fact that Jesus’ crew didn’t follow their traditions regarding washing their hands before eating.

Now, keep in mind, the group’s concern wasn’t for public health, like the signs in restaurants reminding all employees to wash their hands. Their concern was religious and the implication of their question was that Jesus and his disciples were behaving in a manner that was displeasing to God.

“You hypocrites!” Jesus began. “The old prophet Isaiah was talking about you when he wrote about people who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are far away. You’ve ignored God’s Law and substituted your own traditions.”

Jesus then weighed in on one of the hot button topics of his day.

“You tell people that it’s all right for them to tell their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you because I vowed to give to God what I could have given you.”

The practice Jesus refers to here was called corban and, at first glance it looks like a pretty good thing. To make something corban was simply to offer it or to pledge it as a gift to God.

According to Jesus, though, this tradition was being abused. Community leaders were teaching people that they would be absolved of their obligations to care for the needy, in this case their needy parents, if they made their gifts corban—kind of like a spiritual version of a Cayman Islands’ tax shelter.

“Sorry mom and dad. I wish I could help pay for your prescription medicine, but I already gave my money to God, and you wouldn’t want me to cheat God would you?”

The practice Jesus condemned, therefore, was a clear-cut example of trying to maintain a fa├žade of holiness without cultivating the necessary habits of prayer, devotion, and love.

“All of you listen,” Jesus said, “and try to understand. You are not defiled by what you eat; you are defiled by what you say and do!”

Actions always speak louder than words and hypocritical actions completely silence pious words, so it is our intention as disciples both to speak and enact Good News.

That Good News is, in part, the realization that Jesus offers us hypocrisy’s cure, the reconciliation that occurs between our hearts, minds, and our hands (our actions) when all are renewed by the Holy Spirit.

I once heard a personal trainer say, “You can look good without being healthy, but if you’re healthy you will look good.”

I’m sure we could quibble with this statement, but I think it’s on point. It also resonates with the truth of scripture.

We can look like pious people without loving God or our neighbors. We can do a whole bunch of religious looking stuff and say a whole lot of religious sounding things, but without love, as Saint Paul says, we are empty; we are nothing.

However, if we are growing in our love for God and our neighbors, then we will not only look and sound pious, we will be pious, holy, and righteous.

So, friends, are you defeated in any part of your life?

Is Christ real to you?

Are you consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that you are better than you really are? In other words, are you a hypocrite?

Yes? No? Maybe?

Wherever you stand today, the promise of God is that if your next step is toward Jesus, then you will be received with open arms for the love God calls us to share is nothing but the love already showered upon us.

Like our spiritual ancestors, then, we too can be a people who are committed to experiencing deeply the Gospel in the substance of our daily lives and living in trust that God gives us every gift—every grace—we need to live in a truly right and loving relationship with God and our neighbors.

Actions always speak louder than words and hypocritical actions completely silence pious words, so it is our intention both to speak and enact Good News that Jesus offers us hypocrisy’s cure, the reconciliation that occurs between our hearts and minds and hands when all are renewed by the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.


August 23, 2015

High Society (On Ephesians' Household Code)

Throughout the summer we’ve talked quite a bit about some of the scandals that arose in ancient Israel during the reigns of King David and King Solomon, his son. This morning, though, I’d like to shift our focus a little closer to home and discuss a scandal involving one of John Street’s own. Today I want to talk about the relationship between Reverend Freeborn Garrettson and Catherine Livingston.

Freeborn Garrettson was one of the leaders of early Methodism in this country. Remembered as the movement’s first great American born preacher, Garrettson was a man of peace. He chose to serve time in jail rather than taking up arms during the Revolution. He was also a man of principle who emancipated his family’s slaves, setting an example in word and deed followed by others throughout his native Maryland.

In Methodist circles, Garrettson is best remember for missionary work that took him deep into New England’s northern frontier, even to Canada. However, from 1788 to 89, Rev. Garrettson served for one year as the pastor of John Street Church and, right about that same time, he took a trip up the Hudson River where he met a woman named Catherine.

Catharine Livingston was a daughter in one of the wealthiest, most prominent, most powerful families in this country. The Livingston’s owned almost a million acres of land in the Hudson Valley. Catherine’s grandparents were Beekmans, as in there’s a street in this neighborhood named in their honor. Catherine’s brother helped write the Declaration of Independence and, later, administered the oath of office to President Washington, who was a friend of the family. Catherine attended parties with the likes of Alexander Hamilton and the estate on which she lived, Clermont, still stands as a historic landmark and tourist destination.

Against this backdrop of incredible privilege, Catherine’s heart and life underwent a dramatic change when she was in her mid-30s. First, she experienced a spiritual awakening while worshipping at St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway and, later, she became active in a Methodist circle in Rhinebeck, NY after receiving an invitation to join from a member of John Street Church, a slave nonetheless.

Catherine met Rev. Garrettson when he visited this group in Rhinebeck. In short order, the missionary and the socialite fell in love and were engaged to be married.

And then came the troubles.

Catherine’s mother refused to give the couple her blessing.

It was one thing for a child of privilege to associate with an enthusiastic religious movement, but allowing her daughter to marry a Methodist preacher was a bridge too far for Mother Livingston.

In this way, Catherine’s mom and many of her peers shared the aristocracy’s greatest concern about the Methodist movement in their era. Methodists simply did not respect the social order and brought together in their services slaves, workers, and the gentry without regard to their station in life.

Her wedding delayed by her mother’s intransigence, Catherine eventually left the family home.

“I have continual sorrow from without, and from within,” [she] wrote to one of her sisters, “I have been cast from my Mother’s affections, and house, and have now no other home than such I derive from the bounty of a kind sister, upon whom I have been thrown.” But her associations with the Methodists had provided [Catherine] with the thing her family had consistently refused her: an autonomous identity. “I declare to you,” she exclaimed to her sister, “I would not be what I once was, if every other thing which the world can bestow or enjoy were at my free choice.” When [Catherine] and [Freeborn] set their wedding date, various friends were still silent on the engagement, and [Mother] Livingston was unreconciled to the marriage. (Andrews, 108-09)
However, in June 1793, the couple married and soon, very soon, thereafter Catherine gave birth the couple’s only child, a daughter named Mary, whose portrait hangs in our church’s library downstairs.

This is one of my favorite stories from our church’s history. It’s a powerful love story in its own right, isn’t it, Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending? But it also serves as a powerful teaching tool to help us understand the radical nature of grace and the message of Good News Christ gives us to proclaim.

Think again of the players here. A woman of immense wealth and an itinerant abolitionist missionary brought together, in part, because a slave spoke up about the redeeming and empowering love of God at work in her life—this is not a common plotline, but it stands out as an example of the Gospel’s impact on human hearts and relationships.

What is this if not the playing out of the Apostle’s promise in the context of 18th century New York’s high society? The promise that,

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.
What is this if not the embodiment of the truths we hold dear, the truth that grace is a unifying force that will not respect the barriers society builds, the truth that each is “given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” the truth that together, in all our diversity, we are the Body of Christ?

The story of Catherine and Freeborn is beautiful and inspiring and hopeful and it overflows with grace and love, so you’re probably wondering what in Heaven’s name it has to do with the words we’ve read from Ephesians this morning, words that seem to reinforce rigid walls of social hierarchy?

“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling…”

It’s fine if that’s what you’re wondering. It’s ok if you’re trying to figure out how we can make sense of these seemingly antithetical witnesses.

I think the process of understanding begins by first acknowledging that the three statements I’ve just quoted from Ephesians—these statements about wives, children, and slaves—have been used to justify all manner of vile and wicked things throughout history.

Verbal, physical, mental and sexual abuse, human trafficking, degradation, disrespect, and oppression—hearts corrupted by these sins have tried repeatedly to justify themselves by appealing to these words from Ephesians, and all too often, people of faith have offered them immunity for these crimes against Christ and his people.

Part of the Church’s failure in these matters, then, is brought about by simply not reading what’s on the page, for while I still struggle with this passage, I think there are some keys parts of it that domestic tyrants have long ignored.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…”

“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

“Masters, [treat your slaves as you would treat Christ.] Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.”

Now, I’m not going to pretend or tell you that there’s no tension between the relationships described in Ephesians’ fifth and six chapters and the relationships that we call good and healthy and life-affirming today. This is a challenging text, but I’m convinced that anyone who uses these verses to hold down, or hurt, or dismiss anybody else is wrong, just flat out wrong, because the principle at the root of this passage is Jesus Christ.

The household described here is one in which every member is called to and empowered to love others in the manner of Christ as if they were Christ, and from 1st century Ephesus, to 18th Rhinebeck, to 21st century New York City, a household awash in Christ-like love is a place of refuge, and healing, and grace, and hospitality. Such a home is a “haven of blessing and peace,” something we pray for in every wedding ceremony in this Church.

“Be subject to one another,” the scripture says, “[all of you,] out of reverence for Christ.”

So, how does all this fit together and what does it have to do with us?

I think it’s this. The story of Catherine Livingston and Freeborn Garrettson and the household code at the end of Ephesians demonstrate a shared conviction that one’s identity in Christ—that is to say one’s identity as a recipient and participant in Divine Grace—shapes, influences, and gives new life to all other social obligations and expectations.

To the person who has been told that she is worthless, that he has nothing to contribute, these say, “You are loved and blessed and gifted by your Creator and Redeemer.”

To the person who loves the sound of his own voice, who relishes having others fear her, these say, “Look to Christ to understand real strength and true power.”

And to people who simply want to know what an ancient faith has to do with their very modern lives, relationships, and families, these say, “Pray to understand this: that you would love others in the manner of Christ as if they were Christ.”

Let it be so with us.

Let our homes and this church be a haven of blessing and peace. And let us, in all things, give thanks to God for this Good News. Thanks be to God. Amen.

August 16, 2015

Sharp-Minded and Tenderhearted

Would you be surprised if I told you that the politicking and scheming between David’s potential heirs about who would be Israel’s king when he died eventually turned violent?

If you’ve followed along with our summer readings and sermons about David, then this shouldn’t surprise you at all.

The opening chapters of the book called First Kings describe a chaotic scramble for succession. They tell us how one of David’s sons, Prince Adonijah, declared himself king while his father was still alive, only to have his plans undone by the prophet Nathan, Bathsheba, and Solomon, Bathsheba’s son. Then, in a chapter that reads as though it could’ve been the inspiration for the iconic baptism scene in The Godfather, we see how Solomon eliminated his rivals, settled some old scores, and consolidated his power. He even ordered the death of Shimei, the dirt throwing curser of David we met last week. These were the troubling circumstances of Solomon’s elevation.

After these things, Solomon went on to become a mighty king. He established numerous alliances that brought Israel and its leader unprecedented wealth, the kind of alliances in which, for example, a foreign king would give Solomon an entire city as a dowry for marrying one of the king’s daughters. He built a fleet of trading ships, an army of chariots, and, most famously, the Temple in Jerusalem. Solomon truly put his father’s old kingdom on the map.

According to the historian Michael Grant, with Solomon on the throne “for the first time Israel had been brought fully into the mainstream of near-eastern big business and diplomacy, as the accounts (even if exaggerated) of his 700 wives and 300 concubines, many of the foreign, effectively confirm.” (p. 88)

Students of the Bible will also recall that Solomon’s name became synonymous with wisdom. Three books of the Bible’s wisdom corpus are linked to him—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs—as is a non-canonical book which, appropriately enough, bears the title The Wisdom of Solomon. As we’ve read this morning, Solomon prayed to God for wisdom and, if we were to keep on reading, we would learn that stories of his thoughtful and prudent judgments abound.

Listen to this passage from First Kings 4.

God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else…; his fame spread throughout all the surrounding nations. He composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish. People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.
Solomon had a gift, of this there can be no doubt. He was intelligent and tuned into the ways of the world and its people, but this gift—like any gift we’ve ever given or received—was subject to abuse, misuse, and being taken for granted.

Like his walking contradiction of a father, Solomon had a knack for pursuing his own desires, rather than God’s purposes. His wealth became disorienting; his alliances a distraction; and, even in the age of polygamy, his sexual escapades a sign of embarrassing excess. Although exceedingly wise, the king often acted very foolishly and his most foolish decisions set the stage for his nation to fall apart when he died.

In all the chapters written about Solomon, no passage depicts his tragic flaw as succinctly as words we’ve read this morning.

Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.
This is a reference to Solomon’s worship of other gods and idols, a practice frowned upon in the Bible, to say the least. It’s literally the thing forbidden in the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Saying that Solomon loved the LORD, but worshiped other gods, therefore, makes as much sense as saying “Brutus was a great friend of Caesar until he killed him.” or “Judas was a wonderful disciple, only he betrayed Jesus to the Romans.” The end result sort of colors our impression of the whole relationship and, in the case of Solomon, colors our impression of wisdom itself.

Given the circumstances of the wise king’s reign, then, a few questions come to mind.

If Solomon was so wise, how did he get something so basic so wrong?

If wisdom didn’t offer its greatest practitioner protection from such a colossal error of judgement, then what purpose does wisdom serve?

Questions like these lead us to a deeper exploration of the biblical story where we discover that the bonds between wisdom and virtue aren’t as strong as we might think, as we might hope.

Dr. James Crenshaw, the champion of Wisdom Studies at Duke Divinity School for many years, illustrates this point with several examples. Crenshaw notes,

Scattered stories within the Hebrew Bible register suspicion about wisdom, since it can be used to accomplish rather dubious ends. The old story about the crafty serpent who seduced the first woman and man to rebel against external authority demonstrates an awareness of wisdom’s questionable features in ancient times. Similarly, the description of Jonadab as clever enough to devise [the scheme that would allow David’s son Amnon to commit his heinous crime against] Tamar, his half-sister, shows how widespread the knowledge of wisdom’s devious ends had come to be in Israel. (p. 49)
These stories illustrate that our ancient ancestors equated wisdom with knowledge about and an understanding of people—their fears, motivations, aspirations, temptations, and dreams. To be wise was to understand what made people tick, and understanding what makes people tick is no guarantee that one has their best interests in mind.

Think about it. Think about all the energy given to understanding human behavior, all the parties that have an interest in understanding you.

A potential suitor wants to understand you so that he or she can woo you.

A marketing department wants to understand you so that they can sale you something.

I want to understand you so that I can communicate the Gospel to you more clearly.

Others might want to understand you so that they can tune you in or turn you off to a cause or a way of thinking.

In this way, wisdom is simply a tool and it’s up to the wise person to employ that tool to do good or to cause harm; to inspire us to work for justice and to serve others, to convince us that we really need to buy a new product, to distract us from important matters with a never ending parade of click-bait.

As Crenshaw concludes, the Hebrews understood that “those humans who acquired [wisdom] did not always use it to accomplish noble goals.”

King Solomon falls into this camp. He absolutely knew what made people tick and was incredibly adept at motivating them to do his bidding. In many ways, that made him a successful, popular, and rich head of state. He was wise, but when his virtue wore thin, his judgement suffered and he “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD.”

Wise until the end, nevertheless, the Bible says Solomon’s “heart had turned away” from God.

For those who truly aspire to live righteously and honorably before God, Solomon’s story is a sobering reminder of wisdom’s limitations. However, this isn’t to say that Christians should be mindless and ignorant fools. Far from it.

Rather, the news of wisdom’s limitations calls us to recognize that a catalyst—an active ingredient—must be added to life’s wisdom in order to unleash its true potential and give direction to our labor, our judgments, our lives.

That catalyst is love.

When Jesus commissioned the apostles he said, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Sharpen your mind and soften your heart for work in God’s kingdom, the Savior seemed to say.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
That’s how Saint Paul began the passage destined to become the most quoted thing he ever wrote.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
But when we pursue love, when love is present—the All-Excelling Love of God—we gain life in the fullest, Good News to proclaim, and a mission of service to a hurting and exploited world.

Solomon had a gift, of this there can be no doubt, but his gift—his wisdom—like any gift we’ve ever given or received— was subject to abuse, misuse, and being taken for granted.

His gift, just as it is with all that we possess, needed a catalyst—an active ingredient—to unleash its true potential and give direction to his labor, his judgments, his life.

That catalyst is love—Holy Love, perfectly revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the love that abides, the love that will not let us go.

So let us be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.

Let us be sharp-minded and tenderhearted.

And let us always give thanks for the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

August 9, 2015

A Heart that is Broken

Two weeks ago I preached a sermon in which I observed that King David is one of the Bible’s most complicated figures. I compared him to Elvis and called him a walking contradiction.

Later, when I posted that sermon online, I included with it the inspiration for that description—a quote from a song called The Pilgrim—Chapter 33, written by Kris Kristofferson.

He's a poet, he's a picker,

He's a prophet, he's a pusher,

He's a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he's stoned.

He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,

Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

Kristofferson never said he was thinking about King David when he wrote that song—(Dennis Hopper and Johnny Cash, yes, but never King David)—but I stand by the comparison. In fact, this morning, I want to double down on it and share what I believe to be a pivotal moment in David the Pilgrim’s journey “on his lonely way back home,” a moment of heartbreak that resonates within my spirit more than any story of David’s military or political prowess.

But first, in order to give that heartbreak its proper context, we need to talk about David’s relationship with his son Absalom.

Absalom was the third oldest son in David’s royal house, but the Bible tells us more about him than any of his siblings save Solomon who became king. The reason the Bible tells us so much about Absalom is that he led a popular uprising against his father in an effort to grab the crown for himself.

David survived Absalom’s coup, but it exacted a tremendous toll on the king and solidified their relationship as one of Western Civilization’s iconic Father-Son rivalries.

There’s a reason William Faulkner named his novel about a tragic Southern family “Absalom, Absalom!” even though there’s no one with that name in his story.

Absalom’s relationship with David began to fall apart when the king failed to adequately prosecute Crown Prince Amnon for a heinous crime he committed against the Princess Tamar.

Consumed with hatred for his brother because of what he did to his sister, Absalom killed Amnon and fled from the country.

After three years of living in exile, he returned to Jerusalem where the prince made a striking impression on the people.

This is how the scripture describes him.

Now in all Israel there was no one to be praised so much for his beauty as Absalom; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him.

Having fled as a murderer, Absalom returned as the picture of beauty, style, and virility. He travelled about the town with a chariot and an entourage of fifty men. He was a family man now with a little daughter named after his beloved sister. Absalom and David even reconciled.

What wasn’t to love about this guy?

The homecoming was a ruse, though. Absalom was playing a long game to steal the people’s hearts before taking his father’s throne.

The coup started with a few well-placed observations and second-guesses about his father’s policies in the courthouse and marketplace.

In time, the people got the hint.

“Hey, Absalom,” they seemed to say, “you know everything and understand us a lot better than your father. Why don’t you become our king?”

The plan worked to perfection.

Absalom was so subtle that he basically raised an army and swiped counselors from his father in plain sight, right under David’s nose.

When the time was right, Absalom’s forces struck and the prince chased the king out of Jerusalem, claiming the capital city as his own.

But, as we read this morning, Absalom’s triumph was short lived. Aided by a network of spies, David eventually rallied his troops for a counter attack and, in the inevitable clash of armies, Absalom died at the hand of his father’s leading general.

The story of David and Absalom is just a tragic mess—the whole thing—but there is a pivotal moment on which I want to focus, a scene that captures the sadness, pathos, and drama of David’s life.

It takes place on David’s flight from Jerusalem. There, confronted by the hard truth that his own son turned on him, betrayed him, and sent troops to kill him—realizing that his family and his kingdom were in tatters—David reaches the bottom of life’s miry pit.

It happens as David and the handful of soldiers who remained loyal to him walked the lonely road out of Jerusalem that this guy named Shimei shows up. And Shimei is just letting David have it. He’s throwing rocks. He’s cussing him! He’s screaming that David should’ve never been king in the first place.

He’s being so obnoxious that one of David’s soldiers just can’t take it anymore and offers to go up and cut off the guy’s head, but David wouldn’t let him do it.

Instead, David describes his lowly state.

[“My own son is trying to kill me, so what’s it to me if this guy wants to curse me? Maybe God told him to do it? Maybe the Lord will see this and take pity on me.]

So David and his men went on the road, while Shimei went along on the hillside opposite him and cursed as he went, throwing stones and flinging dust at him. The king and all the people who were with him arrived weary at the Jordan; and there he refreshed himself.

This is a far cry from killing giants. It’s a pitiful moment in which David comes to grips with the mess that is his life while some nobody rains down curses and dirt on him. This is a disaster, and I think it’s one of the most important experiences David ever had.

It’s also one of the reasons David’s story remains so compelling.

Betrayed, defeated, humiliated, heartbroken—David had hit his rock bottom covered in dust and his enemy’s bile, but these circumstances didn’t crush him. These circumstances didn’t define him.

Instead, although he was sinful and sinned against, of these things there can be no doubt, David still called out and reached out to God.

Tradition holds that during his escape from Jerusalem, perhaps along the Jordan River than very night, David wrote the third Psalm.

O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me;

many are saying to me, “There is no help for you in God.” Selah

But you, O Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head.

I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy hill. Selah

I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the Lord sustains me.

I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.

Rise up, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.

Deliverance belongs to the Lord; may your blessing be on your people! Selah

Stories of kings and war heroes fill the Old Testament. David is both, but that’s doesn’t explain his relevance for people of faith today. No, what’s so compelling about David is that he embodies the truths on which our faith stands.

It’s the truth that God’s love, and not our circumstances, define us and tell us who we are.

It’s the truth that mercy and grace aren’t just reserved for the perfectly pious and piously perfect.

It’s the truth that, through it all, God never let go of David, and God will never let go of you. David is a lot of things.

He's a poet, he's a picker,

He's a prophet, he's a pusher,

He's a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he's stoned.

He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,

Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

David is a lot of things—and many of them are not admirable—but he, perhaps more than anyone else in the whole Bible except Jesus, shows us that a heart that is broken is a heart that this open—a heart ready to receive and share mercy.

There’s one last story from Absalom’s coup that needs to be mentioned.

After the war ended, after David grieved for his son and prepared to rule again, a certain man came to beg the king’s forgiveness. That man was Shimei.

Throwing himself at David’s feet and making quite a spectacle of himself, Shimei confessed how wrong he had been to curse his king. Unimpressed, the same soldier again offered to kill him, but, whereas in his humiliation David accepted the man’s taunts, now, with a heart lifted by God, David offered the same man grace.

‘You shall not die.’ And the king gave him his oath.
Betrayed, defeated, humiliated, heartbroken—David hit his rock bottom covered in dust and his enemy’s bile, but these circumstances didn’t crush him. These circumstances didn’t define him, but God’s love for him did.

A heart that is broken is a heart that this open—open to receive God’s love and open to share it with others, even the curse hurlers and dust throwers we meet on the lonely way back home.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

August 3, 2015


Last month, the Irish rock band U2 played eight concerts at Madison Square Garden, the last of which was just Friday night. I had the good fortune of attending two of those shows on my recent vacation and, in a development that really shouldn’t surprise anyone, what I saw and heard there has made its way into this morning’s sermon. In fact, I want to go so far as to say that there’s a common thread running from one of the band’s signature songs and through one of the hymns we’ve sung in worship today that leads us to a point of direct contact with God’s Word this morning.

The song is Sunday Bloody Sunday, the hymn is Make Me a Captive Lord, and the point of contact with God’s Word is a subversive, yet empowering message, delivered through the Letter to the Ephesians.

Sunday Bloody Sunday was one of U2’s first international hits. Released in 1983, the song has been a staple of the band’s catalog and live performances ever since. I hesitate to guess how many times I’ve listened to that song in my life—a relationship that goes back to the stereo in my parents’ basement and the tape deck in my first car.

The truth is, I’ve heard this song so many times that I wasn’t exactly thrilled when I heard them play it at the Garden last month. I received it with a been-here-done-this attitude. It wasn’t until I talked about the performance with Laura on the way home from Night 1 and then went back for Night 2 with a new attitude that I really appreciated what the band was up to.

You see, the song has always been a paradox. Its title references some of the darkest and most violent days during Ireland’s sectarian conflict, or The Troubles. With a title like that, pounding-militant drums, and an angry melody, upon hearing Sunday Bloody Sunday for the first time back in the 80s, many assumed it was a call to arms, a rebel song. But this song isn’t a rebel song. It’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, a peace song with a martial beat.

I was slow to grasp how powerfully the arrangement and staging of the current performance brings this original message to light.

It begins with the drummer coming out from behind his kit, carrying only a snare drum and leading the other musicians out on to the stage. It looks like a military parade and as images of 1970s era Dublin move across the screen above the band, it becomes clear that this is a parade through the band’s coming of age during the Troubles and the temptation to violence they faced—a temptation, perhaps, that all of us in every age face.

Opposite the parade, however, stands Bono. He’s singing familiar lyrics, but now, set against these images and sounds, their hopeful defiance comes into focus.

“I won’t heed the battle call. It puts my back up—puts my back up against the wall.”

“The real battle yet begun to claim the victory Jesus won.”

The lyric is subverting the music, wrestling with the music, and taking the rage that often leads to violence and transforming it into the energy of peace and bridge building.

Joe Marvilli, at writer at Consequence of Sound dot net, summarizes the song’s unique perspective.

Rock ‘n’ roll and political protests have gone hand in hand since the dawn of the genre. From the Beatles’ “Revolution” to Muse’s The Resistance, artists have always found ways to point out society’s problems and give a voice to the people being affected. Many of these songs are either a call to somewhat violent change (Rage Against The Machine) or a movement of peace (“Imagine” by John Lennon). However, U2 was one of the first groups to combine the two beliefs into an idea of aggressive pacifism. This idea culminated in the creation of…“Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
Subversive, ironic, looking for connection where none were thought to exist, that’s the stuff of Sunday Bloody Sunday, and the hymn Make Me a Captive Lord does something very similar.

The music is stirring, composed originally for the big Easter and Ascension song Crown Him with Many Crowns. The words, however, are some of the most ironic that we sing.

“Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free. / Force me to render up my sword, and I shall conqueror be.”

“My heart is weak and poor until it master find. / [My heart] has no spring of action sure, it varies with the wind.”

“My heart is like a gun that won’t fire,” “I shy away from life’s challenges.”—this has to be the most upbeat song about human weakness ever written.

But, of course, this hymn is no more about human weakness than Sunday Bloody Sunday is a call to armed rebellion.

This is, ultimately, a hymn about the transforming grace of Jesus Christ that comes to us—weak and frail though we are—and sets us free, empowers us, and gives direction to all our energies.

It plays with the great paradoxes of our faith—that there is strength in weakness, that there is power in the cross, that Jesus saved the world by refusing to save himself.

And in this case, just like the concert at the Garden, the ironic pairing of music and words leads us to a deeper meaning.

The tension contained within Make Me a Captive Lord does something significant. It gets to the essence of our faith and the root of Christian discipleship.

“I sink in life’s alarms when by myself I stand. / Imprison me within Thine arms, and strong shall be my hand.”

This brings us at last to Ephesians.

The Book of Ephesians is a rallying cry. It intends to inspire its listeners to lay aside their divisions and the tools of brokenness, and take up the work of the Gospel.

“Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” writes the Apostle.

And that calling is to be a community of grace, mercy, life, love, and salvation.

As another passage from Ephesians reads,

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him
God’s love has given us life, raised us up. God saved us by grace—by giving us salvation.

Therefore, “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”

Ephesians encourages the Church to sing the song God had given us to sing, the sweetest song on them all: a melody of mercy and divine favor; a chorus in which everyone has a part to sing, regardless of where they come from or what they’ve done; a song whose meter is Jesus and his grace.

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.
This is the Church’s beautiful song of freedom, and it was written in a prison cell. Isn’t that ironic?

It’s true. Tradition holds that Paul was speaking literally when he called himself a prisoner in this letter—that he was, indeed, held captive.

Ephesians, therefore, aims to inspire us to action. It wants to make us move—to move with the hurting and oppressed, to walk humbly with the Lord, to go with Jesus so that we might truly understand the lyric we've prayed, “Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free.”

Like a militant peace song or an upbeat hymn about our weakness, this stirring message composed behind bars requires us to slow down, to check our assumptions and expectations, and to listen attentively to what’s taking place.

And what we hear in Ephesians is the Good News that our circumstances do not determine our value to God, but that our value to God empowers and inspires us to bear, endure, confront, and engage any circumstance because God is merciful, because we’ve received grace, because God loves us.

Dear friends, believe the new today.

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us.
Go, therefore, and “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.