June 28, 2015

Scandalously Reckless

Mark’s fifth chapter introduces us to a desperate woman. Identified, rather famously, in the King James Bible as “a woman with an issue of blood,” her plight is one of the scripture’s most compelling.

She was very sick, of this there can be no doubt. While there’s some debate as to the diagnosis she would receive today, it’s clear that her prolonged symptoms (Mark says she’d been sick for twelve years) resembled long (perhaps even unending) heavy periods.

In addition to her illness’ tremendous physical toll, it also left her financially broken.

She had endured much under many physicians, and spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.
When she learned that Jesus was passing through her town, however, the woman saw her last chance at a good life.

She said to herself, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”

Mark goes on to describe a chaotic scene. One imagines a crowd moving down the street. We see pious townsfolk, skeptical onlookers, curious children, attentive disciples, and, at the center of it all, Jesus.

Making her way through the press, we also see our woman. We see her weakened body summoning the strength to navigate her way through the crowd. We see her drawing near to Jesus, reaching out a hand to touch him, and….

Two amazing things seemed to happen in an instance.

Mark’s characteristically breathless style serves the moment well.

Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”
The question was absurd on its face.

“You see the crowd pressing in on you,” said the disciples, “how can you say, “Who touched me?”

Then Jesus did something that’s really quite striking. Mark says Jesus “looked around to see who had done it.”

Can you see him scanning the crowd—moving from face to face? I think this is an incredible scene.

But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.
Now if you’re wondering why someone who had just been healed of a depilating illness is acting as if she had just been caught in the act of committing some horrible offense, well, the truth is that that’s exactly what she had done.

You see, in addition to leaving her physically and financially broken, the bloody nature of the woman’s illness rendered her ritually unclean, as well. And anything or anyone that she touched was made unclean, too.

The woman shouldn’t have been anywhere near that crowd or Jesus and it seemed that the high cost of the healing virtue she stole was his defilement.

But it wasn’t so.

Jesus wasn’t interested in bringing his offender to account.

Jesus wanted to proclaim, for all to hear, the deliverance of God’s beloved child kneeling at his feet.

“Daughter,” he said, “your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

In the reading and retelling of this story my mind dwells upon the matter of the woman’s would be offense. By the prevailing wisdom and social mores of her culture, indeed by the very Law of God, she did act recklessly. She made Jesus unclean, but it was as if he took on or swallowed up her uncleanliness in order to set her free and make her whole again.

In this way, the story of the woman who used to have an issue of blood brings to life one of the early Church’s central teachings about Jesus—that he lifted from human hearts the heavy burden of sin, alienation, and brokenness so that we might have release and be made whole again.

At first glance, it seemed that this sick woman was acting recklessly, but her actions pale in comparison to the scandalously reckless love of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

This, I think, is a message Saint Paul, in particular, picked up as a clarion call for Christians to experience new life in Jesus Christ—a life in which old divisions and destructive habits fell to the wayside and forgiveness, reconciliation, and God’s peace triumphed.

At first glance, Paul said some truly terrible things about Jesus.

“By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin,” wrote Paul to the Church in Rome, “[God] condemned sin in the flesh.”

Paul invited the Galatians to rejoice because “Christ redeemed us from the curse of [relying on our own works to set us right with God] by becoming a curse for us.”

And in the passage that I find most enlightening for helping us to understand the Gospel text before us this morning, Paul told the Corinthians, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Jesus was sent in the likeness of sin.

Jesus became a curse.

Jesus became sin.

At first glance, Paul said some truly terrible things about Jesus, but, in reality, these bold statements point to the almighty power of God working for the deliverance and salvation of sinners like us.

And can’t we say, as well, that Jesus became racism, and homophobia, and elitism, and arrogance, and hate in order to conquer these forces and set us free to love one another in his name?

Saint Mark seems very clear about this. Jesus became unclean so that everyone with eyes to see would know that it was no longer acceptable to hold the woman kneeling before him at a distance because she was healed, restored, and one of God’s own beloved children.

In stealing a touch, she had revealed the breadth and warmth of God’s embrace.

Saint Paul is clear, too; his words to the Corinthians reading like a meditation on the woman’s story.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.
From the old point of view—an egotistical and self-righteous point of view—what does someone else’s experience of injustice, or suffering, or plight, or burden mean to me?

What does an encounter between a poor sick woman and sullied rabbi mean to us?

Thank God Christ sets us free from the limitations of such a vantage point.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
After the pain, after resolving to go to Jesus, after the press of the crowd, the outstretched hand, the startling discovery of what she had done, and her honest confession, our woman heard Good News that was better than her wildest dreams.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

The Gospel brings to us the same message today, if we would receive it.

It is the news that prayers whispered in a weakened voice and feeble steps to reach Jesus are not in vain.

It is the news that there is, in his presence, forgiveness, mercy, and healing for us; enough forgiveness, mercy, and healing to make all things new.

And it is the Good News of New Creation.

No longer bound by sin, we are set free to bear witness to this Good News through the lives we live—lives shaped by peace and reconciliation—lives that look a whole lot like Jesus’s own. Indeed, lives that would reveal his likeness in us for “we are [his] ambassadors,” according to Paul, Christ’s representatives in the world.

At first glance, it seemed that the woman with an issue of blood was acting recklessly, but her actions pale in comparison to the scandalously reckless love of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Go, and may your life bear witness to this love and this Christ.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

June 21, 2015

Goliath's Lies

The mere sight of Goliath caused Israel’s army to cower in fear.
Then Goliath, a Philistine champion from Gath, came out of the Philistine ranks to face the forces of Israel. He was over nine feet tall! He wore a bronze helmet, and his bronze coat of mail weighed 125 pounds. He also wore bronze leg armor, and he carried a bronze javelin on his shoulder. The shaft of his spear was as heavy and thick as a weaver’s beam, tipped with an iron spearhead that weighed 15 pounds. His armor bearer walked ahead of him carrying a shield.
Goliath was the biggest and meanest guy on the battlefield and if anyone doubted this to be true, he was happy to tell them about his awesomeness.
“Why are you all coming out to fight?” he called. “I am the Philistine champion, but you are only the servants of Saul. Choose one man to come down here and fight me! If he kills me, then we will be your slaves. But if I kill him, you will be our slaves! I defy the armies of Israel today! Send me a man who will fight me!” When Saul and the Israelites heard this, they were terrified and deeply shaken.
However, when David came to the frontline to deliver supplies to his brothers, the spectacle of Goliath’s taunts seemed ridiculous.
“Who is this pagan Philistine anyway, that he is allowed to defy the armies of the living God?”

“Don’t worry about this Philistine,” David told [King] Saul. “I’ll go fight him!”

What follows is one of the Bible’s most memorable scenes.

Unable to wear a soldier’s armor or carry a warrior’s weapons, David gathered up five stones that he carried onto the battlefield with his staff and a sling.

“Am I a dog,” [Goliath] roared at David, “that you come at me with a stick?” And he cursed David by the names of his gods. “Come over here, and I’ll give your flesh to the birds and wild animals!”
But the giant was wrong.

David spoke,

You come to me with sword, spear, and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of Heaven’s Armies—the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. [Today, you and your army will be routed]

And everyone assembled here will know that the LORD rescues his people, but not with sword and spear. This is the LORD’s battle, and he will give you to us!

Goliath charged David, David slung a stone, and the stone hit its mark.

The giant fell and Israel’s army routed its enemy.

David and Goliath—two names forever linked in a story that continues to capture our attention and stir human hearts. Honestly, how many Hollywood blockbusters will be released this year that are simply a variation on this old tale—a tale of the underdog overcoming seemingly impossible odds to win the prize?

For heaven’s sake, even Pitch Perfect 2 is a David and Goliath story.

But as popular as it is, this story still speaks a deeper truth to you and me. This isn’t just a tale meant to inspire us. This story intends to reveal the truth to us—in this case, the truth about the lies giants tell.

To that end, we do well to note the source of Goliath’s power.

Goliath was big and Goliath was strong—this seems obvious. Common sense said that facing off against him was a fool’s errand and the people were afraid—and that was the source of his power—fear.

Fear made him powerful.

And that’s always the way it is with giants.

They feed on fear.

In addition to Goliath, the Bible tells us how Pharaoh’s fear fed the giant named Oppression in Egypt, how the people’s fears unbound the giant named Idolatry during the Exodus, and how the giant named Temptation tried to lead Jesus astray by dangling the terrors of the cross before him.

And so it goes that the giant named Greed tries to convince us that we will never have enough so that we’ll be too fearful to do anything about poverty and economic injustice.

The giant named Racism tells us that he was another generation’s problem so that we’ll be too frightened to name privileges and prejudice when we see them today.

The giant named Guns tries to frighten us into forsaking our blessed assurance and believing the lie that we are only as secure as we are capable of taking another person’s life.

These giants feed on fear and, like Goliath, they lie.

They mock the name of God.

They slander the Almighty.

They heap abuse on God’s Children.

And David would have none of it.

David wasn’t afraid of Goliath and that changed everything.

Think on this. The stone that David threw was within the reach of Israel’s best fighters. It wasn’t some kind of secret weapon. It was just lying there on the ground. Anyone could have picked it up.

Likewise, the fatal flaw in Goliath’s armor was visible to everyone. It wasn’t as if David had access to the Death Star’s secret blueprints. He just looked Goliath in the eye and saw the giant’s weakness.

You see, the only thing that David brought to the fight that others lacked was faith in a greater measure than fear—a faith rooted in God’s steadfast love that revealed the truth about the giant’s lies.

You come to me with sword, spear, and javelin, but…everyone assembled here will know that the LORD rescues his people, but not with sword and spear. This is the LORD’s battle, and he will give you to us!
Faith-fueled-freedom-from-fear gave David the clarity of vision to see Goliath’s weakness and to bear witness to God’s almighty power.

Over eighty years ago, in his first inaugural address, President Franklin Roosevelt said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself —nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Now to be fair, FDR was a politician and, if you read the rest of that speech, it’s clear that he wanted the people to overcome their fears, in part, so that they would support some of his more radical efforts to steer the country out of the Great Depression. However, FDR was a brilliant politician whose one sentence analysis of fear and the things that frighten us communicated something essential about the human condition.

No matter the nature of the enemies we face—no matter how gigantic our foes appear—we have, by God’s grace, the ability to expose their lies and testify to God’s truth by living and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News of divine love which casts out all fear, for where there is no fear giants have no power.

On Wednesday night a man entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina and killed nine people. The hate and the gun that he carried led him to think that he was a giant and in control of the situation, but that was a lie. By all accounts, the saints of Emanuel AME met him not with fear but with kindness and ministered to him as they knew that Jesus would, a witness to true power that continued in a courtroom Friday.

Reporting from that courtroom the New York Times concluded,

It was as if the Bible study had never ended as one after another, victims’ family members offered lessons in forgiveness, testaments to a faith that is not compromised by violence or grief. They urged [the man] to repent, confess his sins and turn to God.

“You took something very precious away from me,” said Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, her voice rising in anguish. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Confronted by such love, witnesses to such an awesome power, we join the church is asking, “What then are we to say about these things?”

The words of Saint Paul come to mind.

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.

Greater than giants are they who call on the LORD.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

June 1, 2015

A Dose of His Own Medicine

Jesus taught some of his best lessons by giving cagey, seemingly ambiguous non-answers to direct questions.

“Who is my neighbor?” was the question from a self-righteous man to which Jesus responded by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

When his opponents set a trap for Jesus with a question about taxes, he told them to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that belong to God.”

And when Pilate gave him a chance to speak in his own defense, asking Jesus if he was, indeed, the King of the Jews, Jesus simply responded “You have said so.”

In each of these instances, Jesus passes up the opportunity to give a simple answer, perhaps a yes-or-no answer, and chooses, instead, to turn the tables on his questioners by inviting them, ultimately, to reconsider the presuppositions on which their questions were based.

I’ve come to believe that a similar dynamic is at work in Jesus’ exchange with a Pharisee named Nicodemus, only in this instance, Nicodemus gives as good as he gets and offers Jesus a dose of his own medicine.

John’s Gospel sets up the story like this.

There was a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who was a Pharisee. After dark one evening, he came to speak with Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.”

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again [or born from above], you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

So far, this seems to follow the familiar script, right?

Someone begins an exchange with Jesus and he immediately takes the conversation in a new direction.

“Jesus, I’ve seen your work and it’s clear that God is with you.”

“I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

But Nicodemus has a quick retort.

“What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”
The conversation between the two continues with Nicodemus asking Jesus to explain himself in greater detail and Jesus jabbing back by questioning how a learned man like Nicodemus could be so thick.

But I’m not so sure that Jesus really thought that Nicodemus was that dim-witted after all. In fact, I think it’s quite possible that Jesus enjoys this conversation—and not because he’s found an opponent that he can easily roll over, but precisely because in Nicodemus he found the exact opposite—a conversation partner who could question, and jab, and offer a retort while keeping an open mind.

You see, lest we dismiss Nicodemus as dim or foolish, we need to know that Jesus wasn’t the first person to talk about being born again. There were, in fact, numerous instances in Judaism in which individuals were said to be reborn.

In the biblical Book of Job, for example, Job’s wise friend speaks of a messenger from heaven who intercedes on behalf of sinners. God receives these intercessions, says the wise one, and restores sinners to the days of their youth.

Likewise, when a Gentile converted to Judaism, they were said to be born again.

Getting married, becoming a rabbi—these were also born again experiences.

It’s probably accurate to say that before he met Jesus, Nicodemus had been “born again” repeatedly during his life.

And that says a lot about Jesus’ back and forth with Nicodemus.

On one hand, it says that Nicodemus probably was very clear about what being born again meant to him and just wanted to be sure that this relatively young rabbi from Nazareth wasn’t a religious hack who was throwing around big ideas that he didn’t really understand.

On the other hand, it also says that Jesus wasn’t trying to be cryptic, or confusing, or difficult to understand. It seems, rather, that Jesus was doing something that actually characterizes most of his ministry.

When Jesus met Nicodemus he took something familiar—in this case, the understanding of what it meant to be reborn—and breathed something new and unexpected into it.

Just like he did with a questions about neighbors, taxes, and the charges against him.

Just like he brought the people a new understanding of the Law, and a new understanding of God’s kingdom, and a new understanding of Messiah, Jesus brought a new understanding of rebirth to Nicodemus, an understanding that was inextricably bound to Jesus himself.

So must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.

There’s a story I often tell so I’m sure some of you have heard it before, but it’s a good one and it’s about someone learning the lesson that Jesus was trying to teach Nicodemus, so telling it again seems worthwhile this morning.

A friend of mine remembers a Sunday morning when a member of her church—a regular participant in worship, a generous giver, a committed member of their community—came out of the sanctuary with this incredible gleam in his eye.

“What happened to you?” his pastor asked.

“Pastor, my whole life I’ve done all this stuff—worship and giving, and praying and serving—thinking that it made God love me more. Today I realized that God loves me, Jesus is the proof of that, and what I do is my way of saying thanks and worshiping him.”

I’d say the member of my friend’s church was reborn that day. I’d say he heard the Good News of Jesus Christ that day.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Friends, I’m not too deeply invested in whether you want to call yourself a born again Christian or not. I think there are so many understandings and misunderstandings surrounding the term in the media, politics, and even among Christians that each one of us can decide for ourselves if we want to take up the label.

What I am very invested in, however, is that we pursue and embody the high quality of religious life that Jesus spoke about and the life that he makes possible. I’m invested in us becoming a community in which our worship, our service—all that we say and all that we do—flows from a true and loving spot deep within our hearts.

I want my life to be bound to Jesus and his love, and I want that for each of you, too.

I want us to do great things in the name of God, because we know God has done even greater things for us.

And that brings us back to Nicodemus.

While it’s difficult to determine what came of the others who questioned and sparred with Jesus—the self-righteous man, his most devious enemies, even Pilate drops out of the biblical story—we’re clear about Nicodemus’ fate because he shows up again in Jesus’s story, near the end.

John tells us that after the crucifixion, and after a disciple named Joseph of Arimathea received permission to take Jesus’ body away, Nicodemus came to him with myrrh and aloes fit for a king’s burial. Together they prepared the body and laid Jesus in the tomb.

So it seems that Nicodemus understood these things, after all. He had been changed.

He wanted to be with Jesus.

Nicodemus had been born again.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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.