September 22, 2014

Tertullian: The Resurrection of the Body

Tertullian (c.160-c.225):
Shall that very flesh, which the Divine Creator formed with His own hands in the image of God; which He animated with His own afflatus, after the likeness of His own vital vigour; which He set over all the works of His hand, to dwell amongst, to enjoy, and to rule them; which He clothed with His sacraments and His instructions; whose purity He loves, whose mortifications He approves; whose sufferings for Himself He deems precious;-(shall that flesh, I say), so often brought near to God, not rise again? God forbid, God forbid, (I repeat), that He should abandon to everlasting destruction the labour of His own hands, the care of His own thoughts, the receptacle of His own Spirit, the queen of His creation, the inheritor of His own liberality, the priestess of His religion, the champion of his testimony, the sister of His Christ! (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, ch. 9)

Made Fresh Daily

Christianity is a bread based religion.

Bread is the silent player in so many of the New Testament’s most memorable scenes. With a little bit of bread, Jesus revealed his power to the disciples by feeding the multitudes. By sharing bread with his reviled and outcast neighbors, Jesus challenged prevailing ideas about who God could and could not love. Taking bread on the night before he died, Jesus gave us the sacrament of his body and blood—the pledge of holy and everlasting communion with our Lord.

Bread also gives life and lift to several great moments in the Old Testament. The unleavened bread of Passover, the heavenly bread which sustained prophets like Elijah and Ezekiel in the course of their ministries, and the mysterious bread that fed Moses and his followers on their way to the Promised Land—disciples of Jesus say that these are important passages in our story, too.

Christianity is a bread based religion and in this baker’s kingdom God meets us with Good News, “There is enough here for you.”

Taken together, two of this morning’s scripture lessons enlighten our understanding of this essential truth.

The Old Testament lesson returns our attention to the Exodus today. By this point in that story God has selected Moses as the one who would lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, overwhelmed Pharaoh’s power, and with a mighty wind, parted the waters that stood between the people and the road that led to freedom.

On the Red Sea’s distant shore, however, travelling the road to the Promised Land proved incredibly difficult. The path was dangerous, unforgiving, and stingy with its resources. Not surprisingly, morale among the Israelites declined and Moses’ approval rating reached an all-time low.

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and [his brother] Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
“If only God would have let us die in Egypt, at least we would have died with our bellies full.”

“Moses, has it been your plan all along to bring us our here so we could starve to death?”

We can only imagine how these words fell upon Moses’ ears.

“Let me get this straight,” he must have wanted to fire back. “You’re mad at me because now that you’re free you can’t count of your slave masters to feed you anymore? Are you kidding me?”

Well, whatever Moses said, no matter how he expressed himself, it’s forgotten. It’s forgotten because after what happened next it just didn’t matter anymore because God met the peoples’ complaining with compassion.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.”
God fed the people where there was no food to be found.

Have you ever had an experience like this?

Have you ever been lost, trapped, or discouraged in a seemingly hopeless situation only to find, in that moment, God making a way for you to go where there had been no way before?

Have you been weary and worn out, only to receive, by God’s grace, enough strength to complete your journey?

Have you even found doing the right thing (the good and life-affirming thing) so challenging, that you were willing to go back to the old places where old habits once ruined you (back to your Egypt), only to experience in that moment a peace that passed all understanding—a peace that steadied your nerve, strengthened your resolve, and ultimately set you free from temptation’s snare?

Or maybe I should ask if you’ve placed your trust in God’s grace today, feasted on daily bread today, depended on God to meet your complaining with compassion and your worry with mercy today?

After all, the promise within the Exodus isn’t just that we can count on God to show up when we get desperate, when our plans fall apart, or when nothing else seems to work.

Our faith isn’t just an exercise in breaking the proverbial glass in case of an emergency!

Instead, the scripture reveals a God who, in the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, greets us every morning with these centering words,

[It is I] who gives you this day [and] will also give you what you need for this day. [It is I] who makes the sun to rise. [It is I] who scatters the darkness of night and reveals to you the rays of the sun.
Christianity is a bread based religion and in this baker’s kingdom where grace is made fresh daily God meets us with Good News, “There is enough here for you.”

The God who provided daily bread for the Israelites during their Exodus journey stands ready to meet us, too, and lead us in the paths of peace and plenty.

The Gospel lesson presents us with this truth about God, too.

In Matthew’s twentieth chapter, we find a parable that Jesus told to his disciples about day laborers to illustrate an eternal message of God’s abundant love.

The story revolves around a landowner who, over the course of one day, hired several groups of laborers to work in his vineyard. One group of workers started at six in the morning, a second group started at nine, others came on at noon and three, and the final group went into the fields at five.

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Scholars remind us that this parable probably addressed some growing concerns among the first Christians.

Would the earliest disciples receive a greater measure of God’s grace than those who came into the group later?

Was grace a finite resource to be heaped out in generous portions to the first in line, but thinned out and tasteless when served to the last?

To people concerned with such things, Jesus told this story about a landowner.

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me,” he asked as the line between Jesus and his story’s protagonist blurred, “or are you envious because I am generous?”

The Good News is that we all belong to God and God chooses to be generous to us.

There’s no gap between the rich and poor in God’s grace-based economy, because God offers the full measure of daily bread to all who come.

“[It is I], says the Lord, “who gives you this day [and] will also give you what you need for this day.”

Christianity is a bread based religion and in this baker’s kingdom where grace is made fresh daily God meets us with Good News, “There is enough here for you.”

So what about you?

Have you’ve placed your trust in God’s grace today, feasted on daily bread today, depended on God to meet your complaining with compassion and your worry with mercy today?

The God who provided daily bread for the Israelites during their Exodus journey stands ready to meet us and lead us in the paths of peace and plenty.

And that’s Good News to all who will receive.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

September 17, 2014

Clement of Alexandria: Philosophy and Theology

Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215):
Accordingly, before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness. And now it becomes conducive to piety; being a kind of preparatory training to those who attain to faith through demonstration. "For thy foot," it is said, "will not stumble, if thou refer what is good, whether belonging to the Greeks or to us, to Providence." For God is the cause of all good things; but of some primarily, as of the Old and New Testament; and of others by consequence, as philosophy. Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring "the Hellenic mind," as the law, the Hebrews, "to Christ." Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ. (Stromata, ch. 5)

September 16, 2014

Athenagoras: Beauty and its Creator

Athenagoras (c.133-c.190) and the Christian appreciation of Creation's beauty, but worship only of the Creator.
Beautiful without doubt is the world, excelling, as in its magnitude as in the arrangement of its parts...Yet it is not this, but its Artificer, that we must worship...If, therefore, the world is an instrument in tune, and moving in well-measured tine, I adore the Being who gave its harmony, and strikes its notes, and sings the accordant strain, and not the instrument. For the musical contests the adjudicators do not pass by the lute-players and crown the lutes. (A Plea for Christians, ch. 16)

September 15, 2014

Ignatius: Respect for the Bishop

I've just returned from my bishop's funeral. Rev. Martin D. McLee passed away September 6. Today, his friends, family, fellow bishops, and colleagues in ministry filled NYC's historic Riverside Church.

In the United Methodist Church, when a bishop dies, his or her fellow bishops plan the service of death & resurrection. This means that there were a lot of people in purple shirts, the traditional garb of bishops, at Riverside this morning.

I'm thankful for the opportunity I had today to speak to both Bishop Ernest Lyght, who ordained me and first appointed me to John Street, and to Bishop Jeremiah Park, who served the NYAC from 2004-2012.

On the subway ride home from the service, I remembered this quote from Ignatius that I read last week.

Now the more any one sees the bishop [showing forbearance], the more ought he to revere him. For we ought to receive every one whom the Master of the house sends to be over His household, as we would do Him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself. (Letter to the Ephesians, ch. 6)
While it's interesting to compare and contrast the way ancient writers and contemporary United Methodists speak about bishops, I think it's fair to say that Bishop McLee worked tirelessly to see his pastors and congregations welcome into their life and community all people, whether they were wearing a purple shirt or not, as they would Jesus. For that work and witness to the Gospel, I am grateful.

May Martin D. McLee rest in peace.

September 14, 2014

The Miracle of Sound

U2 released a new album this week. Thanks to the band’s deal with Apple, many of you might already own a copy of that album and not know it, but if you do know about it and have listened to the album, then you’ve heard what I believe is one of the band’s best collection of songs in many years.

By all accounts, the album, titled Songs of Innocence, was the product of the group’s quest to rediscover the experiences that inspired them to form a band in the first place. For U2, that meant bringing back to mind memories of being a teenager on Dublin’s Northside in the 1970s…

…memories of pursuing something that felt like love;

…memories of a 14-year-old boy suddenly losing his mother to death;

…memories of rows between father and son;

…memories of Ireland’s political violence, of the Church’s abuse scandal, of the way in which forces within and without turned a family home into a war zone.

In tension with these, however, is the memory of how music—specifically the music of New York City’s punk pioneers, The Ramones, and those that followed in their steps in England like The Clash—offered four guys a way out of, or through, their troubles.

As Bono sings in the album’s opening track,

I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred

Heard a song that made some sense out of the world.

Everything I ever lost, now has been returned,

In the most beautiful sound I ever heard.

Now, given our community’s diversity, I don’t know how many of us would share Bono’s opinion of the 1970s punk scene.

I don’t know how many of us think of songs like Blitzkrieg Bop, I Wanna Be Sedated, and White Riot as pure sonic bliss, but I do know that a whole lot of us hold songs close to our hearts that made us feel something we’d never before felt when we first heard them.

In the interest of full disclosure, I suppose I should admit that U2 wrote several of the songs that play that part in my life. Their music from the early 90s was basically the soundtrack for my time in college. First dates, breakups, meeting Laura, getting a sense of what I wanted to do with my life—their music is bound up in my memories of all these things.

But, of course, you can think U2 is rubbish and that the Ramones and the Clash are trash, yet still be familiar with the miracle of sound.

We are of different generations, diverse experiences, and a multitude of opinions and tastes, yet so many of us have experienced the ability of a song or melody to give voice to thoughts that we believed only we had.

We’ve heard the promise—through speakers, or headphones, or from a stage—that we were not alone in this world.

We know the songs that transported us from theaters, clubs, dorm rooms, passenger seats, and parents’ basements to other places, better places, the places we wanted to be or to create.

I suspect that almost forty years ago there weren’t too many preachers in this city who looked to the music coming out of CBGB’s for inspiration, but I think it’s safe for us to admit today that that music—and music, in general—is not only a means of expression and communication, but of transformation, even teleportation.

In fact, as people of faith, I think we can go so far as to say that music is a gift from God, and as such, God gives this gift to woo us into relationship with Holiness; to find a voice, the courage, and the strength to step up and step out toward salvation, redemption, and our Promised Land as we walk on with God.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
The old hymn’s opening line resonates still today because it gives voice to the yearning of aching hearts everywhere to hear and thus to know that they are not alone and that what is broken now can be made whole again.
I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred.

Heard a song that made some sense out of the world.

The song of grace, you see, is the Bible’s repeating chorus.

It’s the song of prophets’ sermons, Sarah’s laughter, and David’s screw-ups and confessions.

It’s Mary’s solo, Paul’s harmonies, and Peter’s rhythm.

We hear it in the manger, on the mountaintop, and from the cross.

And, today, standing on the Red Sea shore, in the howl of an east wind moving over the water, we hear the sweet sound of amazing grace yet again, making sense of the world and creating a new way forward.

We’ve been building to this moment for several weeks in a series of readings from the book of Exodus. First, we learned about the terrible plight of God’s people who were made slaves in Egypt. We heard of their forced labor and the order to murder their innocents.

We learned, next, that God heard the peoples’ cries for deliverance, sent a man named Moses to be their leader, and overwhelmed the pharaoh’s hard heart with a stunning display of power and righteous anger.

The burning bush called out, Moses cried out, and God brought the people out of slavery.

And, then, the song of grace seemed to slide out of tune.

The Israelites’ journey to freedom had just begun when seawater blocked their way and their raging enemy forbade retreat. Moses and God’s people were stuck.

But in that moment, the angel of God moved to center stage, the houselights went down, and the spot light came up.

The pillar of fire that led the people to this place moved around them, standing between the people and their enemy.

And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night…

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground.

The Exodus from Egypt was under way.

Leaving their physical chains behind, the people were just beginning to understand that true deliverance came when hearts and minds were set free from sin’s bondage, but the miracle of sound made those all-important first steps possible.

The sweet sound of amazing grace is in that strong east wind blowing.

Can’t you hear it? It’s moving the water and making a way for you, and me, and all of God’s people go forward.

It tells a story of forgiveness and mercy, of love and freedom, of mission and purpose.

It brings Good News to the poor and outcast, sets a place of honor for those once kept at a distance, and puts a new song on a believer’s lips.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.

What a sweet, sweet sound!
I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred.

Heard a song that made some sense out of the world.

Everything I ever lost, now has been returned,

In the most beautiful sound I ever heard.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

September 11, 2014

Honestly


Preached 9/11/11 at John Street Church in NYC.

Honestly, I was in a foul mood for the better part of the last week.

Honestly, this didn’t really surprise anybody who knows me very well.

Never a fan of August and its Dog Days, there was a time in my life when simply thinking about flipping the calendar to September helped me escape the worst of the summer’s heat. After all, the ninth month would bring a change of seasons, breezes that carried autumn’s first chill, football, and—before I met Laura—the potential for a back-to-school romance. There was a time when I loved September, but for many years now I’ve endured August with the knowledge that some of the most challenging and emotional days of the year were near.

September’s first bright and cloudless morning now carries so much more than the announcement of fall’s arrival. Sad memories now fill the air on those days, on days like these.

Honestly, ten years ago this very moment I was kneeling at the altar of Grace United Methodist Church in Putnam Valley, New York, alone, in tears, and terrified on a bright and cloudless September morning.

A day to remember, each of us carries unique memories of September 11, 2001. Where were you when you found out? Did you live in New York when it happened? Did you work downtown? Did you lose a friend or a member of your family? We’ve all asked and have been asked these questions through the years, and the answers we’ve given and heard to them have left an indelible mark on our hearts and in our souls.

Of course, these answers have also raised more questions. Since September 11, 2001 we’ve asked countless questions of God, our government, our neighbors, and ourselves. In prayer, we’ve wondered why this happened and asked for a measure of healing mercy. Of politicians, we’ve asked what they intend to do to disrupt the terrorist networks that prey on innocent people around the world. In our communities we’ve wondered what we can do to honor the emergency first responders of whose daily sacrifices we have become more keenly aware. In our homes, churches, offices, and the places we go to be with our friends we’ve also wondered about and, at times, have fiercely debated questions about the First Amendment, war, torture, national security, and personal liberties.

In ten years, many questions have given shape to our lives.

A similar period of intense questioning gave rise to the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament.

Ecclesiastes is, I believe, best understood as a book of questions, especially the questions that get asked when life’s old answers no longer satisfy and leave the people wanting.

Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?

What’s the point in doing the right thing if it gives some cheater a leg up on us anyway?

Why should we bother?

Why should I believe?

Something within the book’s protagonist, a man named Qoheleth or The Teacher, drives him to find answers to questions like these. Did a restless spirit or a crisis of faith stir this up within his heart? We don’t know, but whatever set him in motion, the Teacher wanted to find his life’s rest on a solid, steadfast foundation.

His questions carried more weight than trite superficial answers could bear.

“Don’t question, just work hard,” somebody told him.

“Don’t worry, just pray,” said another.

“Forget all of it,” said still a third. “If hard workers and pious people suffer just like their lazy and uninspired neighbors, you might as well just do whatever you want.”

“If this is the best advice people have to give,” Qoheleth wondered, “what’s the point?”

“Vanity of vanities,” he declared. “All in vanity and a chasing after wind.”

Qoheleth’s persistent questions and consistent dissatisfaction with the answers he was given makes his story one of the Bible’s most difficult to understand. Given the way most believers treat Ecclesiastes—placing it along side Leviticus and Revelation on the list of books they’d like the preacher to talk about when they’re out of town—we can assume that the crowd would slowly shift to the other side of the room whenever the Teacher made his entrance.

“Give it a rest, Qoheleth,” the unfortunate ones he engaged in conversation must have said. “We’ve moved on, why can’t you?”

This is a sermon for any of you for whom this day raises more questions than it provides answers, for the restless spirits in this place, for everyone who has grown weary of chasing after the wind, who yearns for a strong footing on a substantial foundation. To you, this day, I proclaim the Good News that any question honestly asked is a means for God’s grace to enter our lives.

To honestly ask—to ask without agenda, to give voice to the mysteries and uncertainties perceived in our spirits—is to pursue truth, and the promise of our Lord is that the truth is holy. Specifically, Jesus said that if you continue in his word—a word spoken by prophets, apostles, and Qoheleth, too—“you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

The catalytic reaction between the truth and freedom shoots sparks throughout the Scripture. It’s present in every rebuke Jesus brought down on the hypocrites who used pious words to further their own ungodly agendas. It’s there in Mary’s Easter proclamation that regardless of what happened on the cross Friday afternoon, on Sunday morning she had seen the risen and living Lord. It lights up so many of those moments in the Gospel that enlighten and guide us.

Nicodemus honestly admitted that he had no idea what Jesus was talking about, so Jesus told him the truth about how much God loved the world.

The woman at the well was honest about why she had to fetch water in the middle of the day, so Jesus told her the truth that even if her neighbors judged her as a tramp, he had come to her with the promise of living water and eternal life.

Peter honestly admitted that, regardless of the rumors to the contrary, he believed Jesus was indeed the long-expected anointed one of God, so Jesus told him the truth that, with Peter’s help, his Church would stand forever on this good confession.

How easy it would have been for any of these to swallow their question, to remain deaf to the truth—to not expose themselves in the way that honesty required?

How easy it is for you and me to succumb to the same temptation.

That’s why we need to be honest today—honest in worship, honest with each other, honest with ourselves. With our memories, with our worries, with our fears, we are still free to bring our questions before God this day, and in doing so we aim to accomplish a holy task—to accept Saint Paul’s counsel, to examine and test ourselves so that God may perfectly and wonderfully fashion faith in our midst.

Pursuing answers to the questions we carry within our hearts may lead us down a path as challenging as the one Qoheleth traveled. However, in honest confession and Holy Communion, in praise and thanksgiving, in prayer and in passing Christ’s peace, I truly believe that all of us can find strength for today and for the journey before us. I honestly do.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

Image: John Street Church's east garden. Fall 2001. UMNS