May 12, 2015

Pass the Peace, Please: Embracing the "Spiritual But Not Religious"

The journal Liturgy published my article today. Click the link below to read it.

Pass the Peace, Please: Embracing the "Spiritual But Not Religious"

By Jason P. Radmacher

Please be aware that the publishing agreement allows for a limited number of free clicks. After that, the article goes behind the journal's pay wall.

May 10, 2015

Mother Heck

Christians find the roots of Saint Paul’s world changing ministry in his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. As Johnny Cash puts it, Paul was blinded there so that he could see the Man in White.

Likewise, we trace the beginnings of the revival sparked by Saint Francis to a moment when he heard the voice of Jesus say, “Go rebuild my church.” Francis obeyed, sometimes using stones and timber to complete his task, but always employing his most effective tool—love.

And the genesis of our Methodist tradition, the pivotal point in John Wesley’s life that transformed him from a failed missionary to one of the most powerful preachers of Good News in the last three hundred years, was a prayer meeting on a London street called Aldersgate that left Wesley’s heart “strangely warmed.”

John Street Church, however, began around a card table.

I tell the story of that infamous game of cards often, but since the star of the story—Barbara Heck—became known to later generations as “The Mother of American Methodism,” this Mothers’ Day seems like a good time to tell it again.

It was early autumn in 1766. Six years earlier, Philip Embury, Barbara’s cousin, organized a group of about 40 people to sail from Limerick City, Ireland to New York. Barbara, Philip, and many others in the group were Irish Methodists, their faith nurtured by the ministry of John Wesley and his preachers.

Philip had actually become a Methodist preacher, too, but it was a simple hope for a better life, not religious zeal, that carried the crew across the Atlantic.

The group from Limerick only wanted to stay in New York a little while as they pursued their ultimate goal of purchasing farmland up the Hudson River.

But a little while became six years. During that time the group—especially the Emburys and Hecks—endured countless hardships and heartbreaks.

Money was tight. The economy had tanked soon after their arrival.

Navigating the real estate market was a chore. Not only were they still living in the city, but they’d probably been swindled out of some money a time or two.

The colonies seemed to be on a collision course with a political revolution, but Philip and Barbara were loyal to England’s king.

Above these, though, grief was their ever-present challenge. In the six years since coming to America, the Emburys and Hecks had mourned the deaths of five small children and Philip’s beloved brother.

Eula Lapp, the Canadian historian who wrote the go-to book about our congregation’s founders, offers what I believe to be a convincing account of Barbara’s state of mind at the end of summer 1766.

Lapp notes,

[Barbara experienced] a growing revulsion against [the group’s] sordid worldly environment and the mundane trivialities to which their lives were drifting. Through the chastening of sorrow and through her habit of constant prayer, she had seen the contrast between this life and that they had known among the Wesleyans in Ireland. She had begun to yearn for a change, for some renewal of their personal religion. (Lapp, pp 115-116)
That famous game of cards became the catalyst that transformed Barbara’s misgivings about where their group was heading and her desire for revival into action—specifically the actions that gave birth to this community.

It all took place one evening during the second week of October. That night, Barbara paid a visit to some old Irish Methodist friends.

A friend of the Emburys records what happened.

Mrs. Heck making an evening call on one of her neighbours, found them…playing cards. Bringing her arms with a sweep across the table she struck the deck of cards and dashed them into the fire, and said, ‘Now look at your idols; there are your gods!’ (Mason in Lapp, p. 113)
While the cards were still burning, Barbara rushed to Philip’s house and pleaded with her cousin to take up the mantle of preaching again. When Philip resisted, saying that he had neither a place to preach nor a congregation, she encouraged him to start in his house with their families and friends.

And so it came to pass—on the very next Sunday, October 12—that Philip preached in his home to a small congregation of six people, including Barbara and one of the young men whose card game she had broken up just a few days earlier, the event history marks as John Street Church’s first worship service.

It started with a deck of cards.

I admit that I thought this story was absolutely crazy the first time I heard it.

So the oldest Methodist congregation in America began with a deck of cards being thrown into the fire and Barbara Heck storming out of the room while I group of stunned Irishmen sat there stunned and wondering what just happened?

It seems a far cry from the miracle of Pentecost, or the Damascus Road, or even Aldersgate.

But living with this story for several years, I’ve truly come to love it, and Barbara Heck, too.

I love that our story has its roots in the lives of people who were simply trying to live out their faith while making a living in this city.

There’s nothing here about a people pretending to have all the answers. Instead, there’s an honest admission that their lives had not turned out the way they hoped and they needed some help to figure out what would come next.

In fact, I think that their honesty about themselves and their need for God’s grace was the primary reason Barbara Heck and Philip Embury left their mark on the city’s religious landscape.

Oh sure, you can do a lot in the name of religion by telling everybody else what they’re doing wrong, but it seems to me that the Gospel is most authentically and effectively proclaimed when God’s people are crystal clear that we need this just as much, if not more, than anyone else.

This is our daily bread.

This is the living water that I need to give me strength and satisfy my soul’s desire and there’s plenty more for anyone else who wants to drink, too.

That’s what I admire most about Barbara.

We need not strain our imaginations to picture a scenario in which the scene that follows the interrupted card game involves Barbara talking trash about those old Irish Methodist friends.

“Philip,” she might have said, “you are not going to believe what was going on over there. Can you imagine that those people would do something like that?”

One suspects that a little bit of gossip, not a two hundred fifty year old church, was the most likely result of the interrupted card game.

But instead of throwing shade at her friends, Barbara recognized that, just as much as anyone else, she needed the love of God to light her way.

Instead of tearing down others, Barbara worked to build something new—something for them, something for herself, something for anyone in this city who has ever come to one of life’s crossroads and confessed that they honestly could not figure out which way to go.

Friends, we are that something.

This church started around a card table, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Once, when speaking to his disciples, Jesus said,

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you...”
Sometime later, Saint John said something very similar.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.
For Christians, loving God and loving one another are inextricably bound. Loving and being loved in such a way propels us to make friends of strangers, partners of the hurting, and brothers and sisters of the lonely and lost.

In Christ, Sunday morning worship, Monday morning commutes, late night worries, and day after regrets are all held together. In Christ we are one body. We are one love.

Barbara Heck’s actions in the early autumn of 1766 demonstrate this holy love.

Where others have chosen to justify themselves by casting stones, she recognized that she needed to lay her burdens down.

Where others have seized an opportunity to tear down and belittle, she chose to build up and empower.

Where others have come to this city with the intention of becoming kings, she came with the intention of making life better for those who would follow and, in doing so, earned a far greater title.

Barbara Heck is our mother and her witness points us to the saving grace and sustaining love of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

May 3, 2015

Loved and Included

Jesus once challenged a self-righteous man to reconsider the nature of true religion by telling him a story that has been challenging self-righteous religious people ever since.

Jesus said,

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.
Two well-respected members of the community came along, continued Jesus, presumably on their way to do important work. When they saw the hurting man, however, they just kept on walking.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. The Samaritan tended to the man’s wounds, took him into town, and paid all the expenses of his convalescence.

This story, known to us as the Parable of the Good Samaritan, stands out as one of the most beloved episodes in Jesus’ ministry, and for good reason. The parable illustrates the ethic of love we seek to embody, it demonstrates the vital connection between faith and works we know to be true, and it offers us a word of correction whenever we place doing what is proper before doing what is right. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is an essential New Testament teaching.

There’s an enormously important part of the parable, however, that’s not exactly self-evident and is easy to overlook. This is the fact that by casting a Samaritan in the starring role, Jesus elevated to the center of God’s will a member of a group of people long judged to be beyond the boundaries of God’s people.

Samaritans were a group of people who considered themselves to be faithful to the Law of Moses. They thought they were good Jews. However, other people who kept the Law, especially those in and around Jerusalem, thought that the Samaritans were fatally flawed in this understanding. This group centered in Jerusalem had a whole list of scriptures and historical examples that proved, in their minds, how vastly superior their ideas were to their neighbors. In their eyes, Samaritans were inferior and incapable of pleasing God.

In other words, in addition to describing the actions of a true neighbor and a friend of God, Jesus also identified in his parable a religious and social outcast as the one whose merciful actions should be emulated.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is like a story about a good Lutheran told in 16th century Italy or a good German during World War II.

For that matter, depending on the audience’s preconceived ideas, it’s like a story about a good cop, a good young man of color, a good Muslim, a good LGBT activist, or a good white conservative today.

It’s a story that will not allow its listeners to equate their own snap judgments with the will of God.

The parable challenges everyone in every time who believes that the only people who are capable of knowing and being known by God are those who are within the neat and tidy boundaries of propriety with which they’ve surrounded themselves.

The Good Samaritan does this because Jesus wasn’t proper—and the early Church followed his example to the margins of their society where they loved their neighbors, proclaimed the Gospel, and watched the Spirit break open wide the gates to God’s kingdom.

The eighth chapter of Acts tells us that Saint Philip participated in just such a ministry on the margins.

After Pentecost, the birth of the Church, and Saint Stephen’s martyrdom, Philip went to the land of the Samaritans where he began to preach and, just like in Jesus’ story, the Samaritans proved capable of fully participating in the ways of God.

Through this ministry, God welcomed into the kingdom a marginalized people long believed to be on the outside looking in. It was an amazing development—so amazing, in fact, that saints Peter and John immediately came down to see the results of this revival for themselves. They came, and discovered that it was all true. Even Samaritans could receive the same Spirit that fell on the other believers at Pentecost.

Old barriers were irrelevant in the light of Resurrection.

And another old barrier was about to come down.

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”…So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
The Ethiopian eunuch’s story is pretty fascinating. This was an individual who obviously held the traditions and teachings of Judaism in high regard. He read the scripture. He traveled a great distance to worship in Jerusalem. He had a clear desire to be near to God and live faithfully. There was a problem, however.

The man from Ethiopia was a eunuch. This probably means that he had endured some sort of medical procedure that rendered him incapable of performing sexually, a procedure that was quite possibly required because he worked in such close proximity to his queen.

In our culture, we do background checks of potential employees.

In his culture, they simply eliminated the potential for a scandal.

Even if the procedure was done because of his work, though, becoming a eunuch meant that the man could not convert to Judaism. It was forbidden in the Law of Moses.

No matter how well he studied the Scripture, how often he worshiped in Jerusalem, how honorably and honestly he discharged his duties as treasurer, no matter the quality of his character, no matter how deeply this man loved God, he could never became a full participant in the people of God because he was physically sexually deficit. The Bible said so (Deut. 23.1).

But according to Luke, when Philip met him on the road, the scriptures that had been used to exclude people like this man didn’t even come up because old barriers were irrelevant in the light of Resurrection.

Philip knew the only thing that mattered.

So Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to [the Ethiopian eunuch] the good news about Jesus.
And after being told for God knows how long that he could never fit in, that he had done something and was something that rendered him unlovable in God’s eyes, the Good News washed over the man from Ethiopia like…well, like baptism.

“Look,” he said, “here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Nothing! Nothing would prevent this man on the margins from being baptized and welcomed into the new community the Risen Christ made possible.

And that is why we call the stories about Samaritans who received the Spirit and a eunuch’s roadside baptism Good News for all people.

Our resurrection faith thrives on the margins. Guided be the Spirit, believers—like Philip—move to the margins of what society calls acceptable so that they can proclaim and live the Gospel truth.

Through the grace of Jesus Christ—who was himself marginalized, emptied, and crucified—God invites all people to abide in him, and God in them.

“Through Christ,” said Saint Paul, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things”—even Samaritans and eunuchs, even you and me, even the ones proper people judge to be inferior and incompatible with Jesus Christ.

Resurrection faith thrives on the margins, so let us follow the Savior, the apostles, and the saints and move to the margins so that our neighbors who have been pushed aside and excluded—our neighbors who have been led to believe that God only offers them a cold shoulder—may know Christ’s warm embrace.

Let us never put what is proper before doing what is right.

Let us never forget that it was on the margins that Christ found us.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

April 27, 2015

The Good Shepherd

When Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd he wasn’t merely being clever. He was claiming as his own a title of rich biblical significance.

Old Testament authors often used the image of a shepherd to make their points. Given the place of shepherds within their culture and their audience’s familiarity with the work of shepherding this comes as no surprise. So, for example, when David wanted to sing of God’s goodness and mercy, he turned to this image.

The LORD is my shepherd, shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
Likewise, when the writer of Psalm 78 wanted to recall fond memories of King David’s reign, he also turned to this image and wrote,
[The LORD] chose his servant David, and took him from the sheepfolds; from tending the nursing ewes he brought him to be the shepherd of his people…With upright heart he tended them, and guided them with skillful hand.
And when the prophet Jeremiah wanted to chastise his nation’s political and religious leaders, he still found the image useful.

“The shepherds [of the people] are stupid,” wrote the prophet, “and do not inquire of the LORD; therefore they have not prospered, and all their flock is scattered.”

Jeremiah wasn’t the only one to speak of shepherds in this way. Zechariah and Ezekiel also spoke of bad shepherds among the people—leaders who cared more about enriching themselves than nurturing their flocks. In fact, Ezekiel’s condemnation of wicked leaders reads as if he’s holding the job description of a good shepherd in one hand and the leaders’ poor resumes in the other.

A good leader cares for the weak and the sick and the hurting, but Ezekiel writes,

You [leaders] have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.

So [the people] were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

Students of the Bible might recognize Ezekiel’s talk about the scattering and subsequent suffering of God’s people as a reference to their Exile in Babylon—the political, spiritual, and existential disaster that came about when the kingdom ruled by David’s ancestral house was humiliated in battle, lost its independence, and saw its elite citizens forcibly deported to a foreign land—like helpless sheep plucked from the fold by ravenous wolves.

We simply cannot overstate the importance of the Exile in the biblical story. Neglecting this moment and the inspired reflections upon it is the equivalent of trying to understand U.S. History without mentioning slavery, the 20th century without the Holocaust, or the resurgence of Lower Manhattan without 9/11. The Exile is the crisis we must acknowledge if we want to make sense of what happened next.

What happened next in the Bible was a growing sense that God needed to do something dramatic to heal God’s hurting people. Simply trying to restore the status quo that existed before the Exile wouldn’t be enough for what came next needed to be stronger and purer than its antecedent.

The prophets captured the spirit of this age by preaching about a refiner’s fire that would melt or purge away the people’s sin.

Some prophets preached about God writing a new covenant on the people’s hearts.

And, collectively, the prophets looked to God to intervene personally to do that which no intermediary could accomplish.

Micah lifted his eyes for “the one of peace” who would come from Bethlehem to feed the Lord’s flock.

Ezekiel proclaimed that God would not fail where others had left the people wanting.

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out…I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered…I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
Can’t you hear the echo of Psalm 23 in his words?

God would give the people a messiah.

God would be the Good Shepherd.

[And Jesus said,] ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’
When Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd he wasn’t merely being clever. He knew the term’s rich history and his disciples understood what it meant to ache and to pray for God to take action on their behalf—to lessen their burdens, to heal their hurts, to tend God’s flock.

With the Good News of Easter still ringing in our hearts, we come together this morning to profess our faith that Jesus wasn’t mistaken when he claimed this title as his own. He wasn’t mistaken because in his life and death and resurrection we witness God’s deep love and passionate concern for all people.

The Incarnation is God’s game-changing dramatic act.

Here we see God seeking out the lost, bringing home the wayward, and binding up the broken.

In Jesus, we see the hungry being fed, the restless being comforted, and the troubled experiencing peace.

He is the one who loves and leads and provides for us.

The King of love my Shepherd is, his goodness faileth never;

I nothing lack if I am His, and He is mine forever.

If we’ve truly grasped the truth about the Good Shepherd, however, we must also confess that we still face the temptation to follow the Siren-like voices of lesser shepherds and hired hands about whom we’ve been warned.

We might know the words of the prophets and the promise of God’s abundant provisions, but we also feel the pressure of forces and voices that tell us we’ll never have enough and we’ll never be secure until we control everything and have subdued all others.

We might know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but we need to admit that anyone who tells us what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear will be in the running to receive a piece of our heart.

The Good Shepherd is one of Jesus’ most beloved names, and one of the most significant. In order to appreciate what it’s all about, though, we need to stand beside our ancestors and acknowledge that we, too, have followed the wrong voice from time to time. We’ve placed our trust in those whom we should not have trusted and followed them down path we should not have traveled.

But even so, we rejoice that we neither have nor ever will be so lost that the Good Shepherd could not find us.

We never have nor ever will be so broken that the Good Shepherd could not heal us.

We never have nor ever will obtain or control so much as to rival the bounty of God’s pleasant pastures of plenty. But we will know the Good Shepherd and his peace.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

April 22, 2015

In this Place

While Easter is the most euphoric season for Christians, we do well to remember that fear, not joy, filled the disciples’ hearts in the immediate aftermath of the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb. As the sunset on the Day of Resurrection, the disciples weren’t celebrating, they were in hiding, having locked themselves away because they were afraid of Jesus’ enemies and uncertain about what would happen next.

Actually, I suspect that fear made them quite certain about what was going to happen next. I suspect they were convinced that there was a cross waiting for each one of them, too.

The people who wanted Jesus dead would come after them, right?

The people who considered Jesus a blasphemous and false king would surely have some tough questions for the people who followed him everywhere, wouldn’t they?

Wouldn’t they want to know if Peter and John and all the rest were co-conspirators in a grand and treasonous scheme?

Wouldn’t they want to know if there was a plot to start a populous revolution? Maybe they were planning on causing a scene at the Temple to stoke the flames of anti-Imperial sentiment among the Jewish people?

Come to think of it, hadn’t Jesus been stirring up trouble in the Temple just a few days before his arrest?

And for heaven’s sake, how much dirt did Judas have on them? If he gave up Jesus, surely he’d give them up, too; their names, their families, were the group met.

There was nothing good about the situation in which the disciples found themselves.

The door was locked, but they were exposed.

The disciples were is in danger. They just knew it!

The cloud of worry, fear, and tread hovering over the disciples on Easter evening brings to mind a scene from Israel’s biblical past.

It’s told, in the Book of Genesis, that there was a time, long ago, when Jacob—Abraham’s grandson and national patriarch in his own right—found himself alone with his worries on a fretful night.

Jacob was hiding also from an enemy who, he was convinced, wanted to kill him. Specially, he was hiding from his brother, Esau, whom he had wronged countless times and who, truth be told, probably did want him dead.

Locked up with fear, Jacob was just trying to get out of town. In the wilderness, he laid his head on a stone pillow…

And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring.”
In the dream, God repeated a promise about Jacob’s family made first to Abraham.

“You’re going to have countless descendants,” said the Lord, “and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.”

And, then, in the dream’s last scene, God assured Jacob that this moment—this epiphany—wasn’t just an isolated event.

Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.
That’s how Genesis records the story of Jacob’s Ladder, a story elevated in the hearts and minds of God’s people by Jacob’s response.

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!”

Revelation transformed Jacob’s fear into confession.

“Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!”

I don’t believe I’ve ever led a Bible study or read Jacob’s story in a worship service without someone telling me how deeply his experience resonates with their own.

Yes, there are moments in life when we’re blessed with a calm assurance that we’re where God wants us to be and doing the work God wants us to do, but it’s often the case that we feel as though we’re just bumbling our way through life, uncertain even about who we are, much less what we should be doing.

How splendid is it, then, to come through such a season, to look back upon it, and to realize that God was with us all along, showing us mercy before we even knew to pray, blessing us before we even knew to say thanks, leading us when we thought that we were the one’s calling the shots.

Walter Brueggemann, my go to Old Testament scholar, describes the impact of Jacob’s Ladder like this.

“I am with you.” That, of course, is the intent of the ramp-ladder. Heaven has come to be on earth. This promise presents a central thrust of biblical faith. It refutes all the despairing judgments about human existence. A fresh understanding of God is required if we are to be delivered from the hopeless analyses of human possibility…God commits himself to the empty-handed fugitive (Jacob). The fugitive has not been abandoned. This God will accompany him. It is a promise of royal dimension…It is the amazing new disclosure of Jacob’s God, one who is willing to cast his lot with this man, to stand with him in places of threat. (244-45)
The God who offers grace to the unworthy,

The God who gives direction to our hapless wandering,

The God who transforms fear into mission,

The God who shows up, This is the God of Abraham and his children, the God of Jacob’s Ladder, and the God who came to the disciples in the resurrected flesh and bone of Jesus on the first Easter Sunday.

Luke tells us that two travelers sought out Jesus’ disciples on the evening of the day that is history’s fulcrum. They said that they had just walked and talked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. They said that they knew it was him when they broke bread together. They said that his words set their hearts on fire.

And the disciples said, “Tell us something we haven’t heard because the same thing just happened to Simon Peter.”

A dizzying cloud of excitement, confusion, hope, and worry descended on the group. While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
And then Jesus had something to eat.

And then he began to explain just what was happening.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
Everything written about Jesus in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled, so he “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”

And the disciples grasped the significance of what was taking place.

They realized that God was in this place all along—on the mount when Jesus preached, by the seashore where he healed, at the table in the Upper Room, in Gethsemane’s tears, on Golgotha’s Cross, the garden tomb, the Emmaus Road, and right here, right now. Surely the LORD was in these places—and the disciples did not know it!

But they knew it now and so do we.

Jesus—God in the flesh—transformed the disciples’ fear into confession, and he does the same for us.

Like the disciples, then, let us make resurrection shaped faith our own.

Let us be about the liberating power of repentance and forgiveness.

Let us know the grace of the God who loves sinners and makes of them saints.

Let us share what we have, and welcome strangers as friends, and break bread in Christ’s name, and go where he leads.

Let us be an Easter people.

And let us always, everywhere, and in all things give thanks to God for this Good News.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

April 6, 2015

Go! (For Easter Sunday)

Last year, several members of the John Street Church community and I participated in a discussion of The Divine Comedy, the poet Dante’s the masterpiece of Western and sacred literature. That discussion proved to be one of the most thought provoking and inspiring experiences I’ve ever had and I’d like to revisit the poem this morning as a means of helping us experience anew the power and wonder of the Good News that draws us together today. Specifically, I want to lift up the Comedy’s final scene in order to help us see more clearly the vital connection between this holy moment and the hopes, dreams, responsibilities, and substance of our lives.

But first, a little bit of background.

The Divine Comedy is a seven hundred year old story about losing one’s way in life and the journey to go home again. It’s a story about Exile—Dante was exiled from his beloved hometown of Florence, Italy for backing the wrong political party. But it’s also a story about untying the knots and making sense out of the mess that life can become—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” was a miraculous trek through the afterlife, which, enabled him to meet his heroes, to see the consequences of sin, and, above all, to learn from the Redeemed the most important truths about himself and the God he worshipped.

On his journey, Dante learns a great deal about grace, forgiveness, and love—especially God’s love for him and the things in life that are worthy of being loved and loved well.

All these lessons lead Dante to a final scene, at the journey’s end, when he is blessed to encounter God face to face. Of course, even seven hundred years ago, the poet knew better than to say that God was a kindly old bearded grandfather in the sky. Instead, Dante describes three circles that seem to dance with one another in perfect, holy, light and color. Then, mesmerized by this vision of the Trinity—this vision of perfect harmony and balance—Dante makes an insightful observation.

He was a changed man.

“I learned to see more,” he confessed, “and the power of the vision grew in me.”

Maybe this speaks to your experience, or at least to your hopes, for Easter Sunday.

On one hand, the story of Easter remains the same. Jesus Christ “was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried,” but on Sunday morning, his tomb was open and Jesus wasn’t dead anymore.

This is the same story that brought us together last Easter, and the one before that, and before that, too. It’s the same story that Methodist preachers have been telling on John Street for almost two hundred fifty years, the story at the heart of the Christian faith.

Yet, on the other hand, while the story and its Author remain the same, you and I are changing. From the expectations of life’s different seasons, to the challenges of finding and maintaining meaningful work and relationships in this city, to keeping our wits about us while we sort through a dizzying array of choices and information—life is anything but static.

We are changing, and we hope and pray that the One who is without change will show us the way to go.

Like Dante, we want “to see more” of God and to experience “the power of the vision” growing in us.

Like Saint Paul, we want to declare that God’s “grace toward me has not been in vain.”

Like the travelers on the Emmaus Road, we want to meet Jesus, to feel him set our hearts on fire, and to receive the peace that only he can give.

Like God’s saints in every age, we want “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.”

Change my heart oh God, make it ever true.

Change my heart oh God, may I be like You. (Vineyard)

As we contemplate the changes and transformation that God could bring about within us, the changeless story of Resurrection brings us, once again, to the garden.

Mary Magdalene saw it first, then Peter and John verified, that Jesus’ garden tomb was, in fact, empty. Convinced that something wicked had taken place under the cover of darkness, the disciples hurried home, but Mary lingered there and wept.

While she wept she saw angels, and then, she met a stranger.

Supposing [the stranger] to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried [Jesus] away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
With one word, Mary was no longer the same. Standing face to face with Jesus, Mary recognized that nothing would ever be the same.

[And] Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

Face to face with Jesus, Mary recognized a new purpose. She had something new to do and somewhere new to go.

Mary went.

And like Mary, we can go.

Today the Good News of Jesus Christ transforms and empowers us go from this moment of resurrection splendor into the world both to carry and to share the light and the wisdom and the power of God’s pure and holy Love.

This is the hope of Easter Sunday.

This is the promise of Resurrection.

This is Dante’s last and lasting realization.

At the end of his journey, Dante recognizes that his journey not only changed him, but that, because of this change, he had an opportunity and the ability to assist those who, like him, might stumble into life’s darkest wood. Dante was a witness to God’s love. Indeed, God’s love inhabited his being. Love lifted him up and now love had set him free—free to write his poem, free to speak the Truth, free to love as he was loved by God.

At this point power failed high fantasy

but, like a wheel in perfect balance turning,

I felt my will and my desire impelled

by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars. (XXXIII.142-145)

On this holiest of days, I pray that you hear Jesus speak your name—like Mary in the garden—and that he brings peace and harmony—like a wheel in perfect balance turning—to the depth of your soul.

I pray that you go in love…

go lifted by love,

go propelled by love to prove the poet’s words.

“I learned to see more, and the power of the vision grew in me.”

Let it be so and let us give thanks to God for the Good News of Resurrection.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

April 3, 2015

Held Fast (For Good Friday)

I’m the youngest of three sons and I clearly remember the satisfaction I took as a child in undoing the works of my brothers’ hands. A carelessly tossed football in the direction of their sand castle at the beach, an accidental brush of the power button when they approached the high score on their favorite video game, any opportunity to embarrass them in front of their friends—I was the quintessential bratty little brother. I loved messing up my brothers’ stuff.

Of course, I’ve learned a few things since those days of childhood mischief. I’ve learned that, as adults, we still face the temptation find joy—or something like joy—in undoing what others have done.

At work, we hate on the person who gets promoted, rather than considering what we might need to do in order to advance.

In the neighborhood we dismiss the person who gets involved as a busybody rather than looking at ways we can make a positive difference.

And at church—well, it’s a whole lot easier to criticize someone for having “too much religion” rather than praying that God’s will, and not our own, would be done in our lives.

In so many ways, there’s a little brother or little sister in all of us who’s just looking for the next opportunity to tweak, or nudge, or hurt the object of our misplaced scorn.

Is it any surprise, then, that Saint Paul would say that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God?”

Is it any wonder that Jesus would teach us to remove the 2x4 from our own eyes before pointing to the speck of dust in our neighbors’?

You see, when we’re honest with ourselves and honest with God, it seems that the desire to use our words and our actions to tear down our neighbors, and co-workers, complete strangers and even to tear down ourselves—just come to us so easily, so naturally.

Quite simply, we find it easy—and a great deal more enjoyable—to tear down, rather than build up. As the scripture says in Job’s 20th chapter, “wickedness is sweet [on the tongue.]” In other words, we like to sin, and we’re quite good at it.

Jesus describes this aspect of our nature in John’s Gospel. “And this is the judgment,” he says, “that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

The Bible—both Old and New Testaments—is the story of the rescue mission God undertook to save and set us free from such disoriented affections. The Law of Moses, the reign of King David, the ministry of prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel—these are gifts from God intended to bind up and hold our lives together. But still we, like our spiritual ancestors, choose to pull down and tear apart. The Exodus from Egypt, entering the Promised Land, Exile in Babylon—these experiences of divine mercy, justice, favor, and correction were meant to show us how to live, and still we fell.

“O House of David [O People of God],” Isaiah complained. “Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?”

Bringing rebels like us back to God would stretch God’s reach to its fullest.

Today, however, we give thanks that God’s capacity to love, to forgive, to lift up and build up, greatly exceeds our ability to pull down and tear up. Today we give thanks that the seamless garment of Jesus Christ holds us safely in love’s embrace.

Mark’s Gospel tells us that after Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested, after enduring the inquisition of the religious and political establishments, after being mocked by his enemies and denied by his friends, after being condemned to die:

[The execution squad] brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
John’s Gospel adds something to this scene by giving us a noteworthy detail about Jesus’ clothing.
[The soldiers divided Jesus’ clothes.] They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top.
The seamless garment—if Jesus taught us last night that, in remembrance of him, it was no longer bread and wine which we eat and drink, but a feast of a new covenant sealed with his blood, then today we learn that the seamless garment is no longer the plunder soldiers seized from a dead man walking. The seamless garment is for us the symbol of Christ’s perfect sacrifice, the love of the sinless One who took on our sin, and bound us to himself in a perfect, unbreakable, seamless hold.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword…

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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.

Nothing, because we are wrapped up with Christ in his seamless garment.

The nature of Christ’s garment demands our attention today, as does the nature of the life he lived and the death he died—a life and death, we must admit, that were also seamless, perfect, and whole.

Jesus taught us and he showed us what God looks like. He set before us an example of prayer and mercy, an example of worship and justice.

Jesus revealed to us that God’s chosen one is just as comfortable in the Courts of Heaven as he is the haunts and dives of the fatally poor. Jesus is the one who gave us a new commandment—“Love one another.”

And those lessons and Christ’s example matter to us. They matter because the pursuit of a seamless life is the essence of Christian discipleship and living. Following in Christ’s steps, we want to leave our childish and destructive ways behind.

A life of faith and works, praise and service, holiness of heart and holiness of being, a life of integrity, a life dedicated to building up not tearing down, a life in which we are “made one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world”—this is what we’re praying for, what we hope will be done within us.

But the truth is this talk about ourselves, all this talk about what we can and should do, is best saved for another day, for at this moment, the only faithful response is to stop, to worship, and to stand amazed at the sight of the One who did for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Is crucified for me and you,

To bring us rebels back to God.

Believe, believe the record true,

Ye all are bought with Jesu’s blood.

Pardon for all flows from his side:

My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Within the seamless garment of Jesus, there is grace for you, and me, and a hurting world.

Thanks be to God.