May 1, 2016

Tom Joad and Healing Leaves

Born of the natural, economic, and social disasters that drove three and a half million men, women, and children from their farms in the 1930s, John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath explores the depth of human pain, depravity, and resilience revealed by the symbiotic American cataclysms—the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Steinbeck’s novel follows the Joad family—a group of dispossessed sharecroppers from Oklahoma—as they head west to find work in California. People of salt-of-the-earth dignity, the Joads are, nevertheless, subjected to hunger, humiliation, prejudice, and an ever-present specter of violence along the way.

The Joad family’s trials and tribulation culminate with a scene in which Tom Joad, the story’s protagonist, crashes headlong into the violence that haunts the landscape.

When Tom sees a good friend killed for standing up for exploited migrant farm workers, Tom lashes out and kills his friend’s killer.

Knowing that he is now a wanted man whose presence puts his family in an even more perilous position, Tom meets his mother in secret to tell her goodbye.

Ma Joad, of course, wants to know if she’ll ever see her boy again. She wants to know if she’ll ever hear from him again and what he plans to do.

Tom’s response to his mother’s plea is one of the great monologues in American literature. His response has inspired millions to stand up and stand with their hurting and beaten down neighbors. It’s inspired the likes of Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen to write songs, and when Henry Fonda delivered it in the book’s 1940 film adaptation, Tom’s farewell became one of the great scenes in Hollywood’s history.

Tom Joad told his mom,

I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too.
Moments later, Tom and Ma part ways. She goes back to the family and the book’s closing chapters, but Tom exits the story here and enters, instead, into the hearts of the hurting people his story reflects.

Tom Joad became a hero of this nation’s literary canon because millions of people recognized their neighbors, their families, and their best self in him.

A nameless, expendable, poor Okie in the eyes of many, to others Tom was a man of dignity, a loving and beloved son, a good neighbor, and a survivor.

In the late 1930s, he was exactly the kind of hero a whole lot of people needed to believe in.

You see, when The Grapes of Wrath landed on American bookshelves, loaded down caravans were still moving west, proud families were still being driven to despair, and the people of this nation was still searching for answers to the political, existential, and spiritual questions the Great Depression raised. It was a turbulent, chaotic, maybe even an apocalyptic time, yet John Steinbeck skillfully rode that turbulent wave and produced a revelatory work.

This is how First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt described the book.

“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, both repels and attracts you. The horrors of the picture, so well-drawn, make you dread sometimes to begin the next chapter, and yet you cannot lay the book down or even skip a page. Somewhere I saw the criticism that this book was anti-religious, but somehow I cannot imagine thinking of “Ma” without, at the same time, thinking of the love “that passeth all understanding.” The book is coarse in spots, but life is coarse in spots, and the story is very beautiful in spots just as life is.
As coarse as human experience, a challenge to those who would wield religion’s power to harm and exploit, as captivating as it is, at times, repellent, and “very beautiful in spots”—this morning I invite you to make Roosevelt’s words your point of entry into the Book of Revelation because what she said about The Grapes of Wrath could easily be said about the Bible’s last book.

Revelation tells the story of a Christian community tormented and persecuted by the Roman Empire. Faithful to Jesus as their Lord, Christians in this community were unwilling to declare themselves loyal to an Empire that demanded their allegiance and their worship. From the Roman perspective, this stubborn devotion to Jesus was treasonous and deserving of punishment—punishment they meted out in the marketplace, on the streets, and in the churches, even to the point of death.

Weary and nearly defeated, the faithful cried, “How long, Lord? How long will the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? How long will it be until you take up our cause?”

So many of the wild and mysterious images most often associated with Revelation emerge from the answer to that question.

Darkened skies, falling stars, broken seals, and apocalyptic horsemen—these are but characters in John the Seer’s inspired effort to assure the faithful that they are precious in God’s sight, that their cries have been heard, and that the Risen Christ has taken up their cause.

“See, the home of God is among mortals!” that’s what he heard from the heavenly throne the last time we were together.

Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God.(The Message)
This brings us to Revelation 22, where John describes the intimate relationship with God the faithful will experience.

The darkness of persecution lifted, they will walk through the City of God in the light of the Lamb who is Christ Jesus.

The pain of unjust suffering relieved, they will be nourished and find refreshment at the river of the water of life.

And, then, John describes a tree within the city whose blossoms benefit not just the faithful, not only the righteous, but all people, for the nations.

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
We do well to recognize that this mysterious book isn't as interested in predicting the End of the World as it is interested in inviting the Church to see and experience for ourselves the redeeming power of God at work in our lives. This book ultimately ends with an image—the tree’s healing leaves—that encourages the Church to share Good News of healing and mercy and redemption with a sin-sick world.

You see, when Revelation landed in the churches’ pulpits, the faithful were still suffering and still seeking a way through a wilderness of wickedness. It was a turbulent, chaotic, and apocalyptic time, yet John, filled with the Spirit, rode that turbulent wave and centered God’s people in the reality of God’s holy and awesome presence.

John told them, and he still tells us, you are loved with a love that will not let you go so, drink deeply of living water, lift your hearts in prayer, and as God brings healing to you-as God brings you to the point at which you can say, "Look at what the Lord has brought me through!"-you will find just what you need to bring healing to others in God’s name.

Tom Joad embodies this. He knew hunger, and injustice, and sorrow, and he gave himself over to standing with his hungry, exploited, and hurting neighbors.

The AA groups that meet here throughout the week embody this, too, for they are made up of people who know what it’s like to hit rock bottom, yet have committed themselves to helping others take their first step after they fall.

And we embody this, as well, when we give because we know how much we have received, when we forgive because we know that we are forgiven, when we love because we know that we are loved.

John Street Church, you are loved with a love that will not let you go, so drink deeply of living water, lift your hearts in prayer, and as God brings healing to you-as God brings you to the point at which you can say, "Look at what the Lord has brought me through!"-you will find just what you need to bring healing to others in God’s name.

At the heart of the city where God lives there stands a tree whose fruit is always in season, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

April 24, 2016


Acts is the sequel to the Gospel according to Saint Luke. It begins where Luke’s Gospel ends: with Jesus’ Ascension. From there, the story moves to Pentecost—the day on which the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples with a sound like rushing wind and “divided tongues, as of fire.” That day, Peter preached to a huge crowd of Jews gathered from throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. Thousands believed his message and were baptized on Pentecost, and a new community emerged in Jerusalem; a community devoted “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Despite the expectation that their group would offer an alternative to the world’s judgmental and stratified ways of organizing itself, or maybe it was because they expected more from themselves, the growing community of Jesus’ disciples tackled divisive issues among their members head and ministered to and with people traditionally pushed to the margins of society and excluded—people accustomed to being counted among the lonely, the last, and the lost.

When the Apostles learned, for example, that old prejudices and a language barrier were causing poor widows who spoke Greek to be excluded from the church’s food assistance program, they ordained deacons to oversee the program and ensure that it included all who had need.

When Phillip met a traveler from Africa who had been told that the medical procedure that made him a eunuch rendered him incomplete in the eyes of God, he told the man that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought Good News to all people, including him, and he baptized the Ethiopian eunuch in a roadside stream.

And when Jesus—in his resurrection splendor—came to a man of violence named Saul who was also known as Paul, the church’s first great enemy was blinded so that he might truly see what God was doing in the world.

The opening chapters of Acts catalog the social and theological barriers smashed by grace in Easter’s aftermath as the community of disciples spread out from Jerusalem and began to count the lonely, the last, and the lost in their number.

Then the same Holy Spirit that showed up on Pentecost descended on a group of Gentiles. Acts 10 recounts how God arranged a meeting between the Apostle Peter and a Roman soldier named Cornelius. It tells how Peter protested at first—doubting that grace could be so amazing, so powerful as to overcome the social and cultural chasm dividing these two—but God intended for the two to be reconciled.

With a vision on his mind and a believing Gentile standing before him, Peter repented of his protest and realized that God’s grace was for—and God’s people should welcome—everybody.

The apostle confessed,

God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean…[for] I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
“If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ,” Peter reported to his colleagues in ministry, “who was I that I could hinder God?”

News of Peter’s breakthrough spread among the disciples like electricity, bringing power and light to ministries that once seemed impossible. Acts chapter 11 tells us about the most significant of those ministries.

When chapter 11 begins, we find Peter in Jerusalem telling the believers there about Cornelius and the amazing things God was doing among Gentiles—people long regarded by many to be beyond the reach of God’s grace.

When [the church is Jerusalem] heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
The chapter then shifts our attention to a town called Antioch.
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen [that is after a group of religious leaders in Jerusalem stoned a man because he refused to renounce his faith in Jesus] traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch [a city favored by Rome in modern day Turkey, near the northeastern Mediterranean shore], and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists [Gentiles] also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus.

The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord.

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”

What happened in Antioch is a very big deal. This is the place where Saul also known as Paul first assumed a leadership position in the church. Considering all that Saint Paul would go on to accomplish, we must, then, count the church at Antioch among the manger in Bethlehem and Peter’s fishing boat on the list of Most Holy Humble Beginnings. More importantly, this is also the first recorded instance of believers who were raised Jewish and believers who were raised as Gentiles worshipping together in any significant numbers, the first example of a truly diverse and multi-cultural congregation.

And isn’t in incredible, isn’t it noteworthy, that in this place, in the city where Jews and Gentiles first came together in a new way because of the Good News of Jesus Christ that “the disciples were first called ‘Christians’”?

We have a name and it is Christian. However, we did not receive that name when we heard Jesus preach, saw him die, or beheld his empty tomb. It wasn’t when the Spirit moved within us, when we were baptized, or when we broke bread in remembrance of him. We earned the name Christian when our experience of the Risen Christ led us to release the reigns with which we’d been trying to restrain love so that barriers could come down, a new fellowship formed, and the full expanse of God’s grace celebrated.

According to Acts, the disciples didn’t become Christians when they correctly figured out everything about Jesus. They became Christians when they channeled the gifts and graces Jesus gave them into a community in which former strangers and sometimes enemies became brothers and sisters in the family of God.

And Paul was there, right in the middle of this amazing community.

Even though there’s no letter to the Church in Antioch in the New Testament, the evidence that his time in that place had a tremendous influence on his thinking abounds.

When Paul proclaimed that the Church’s mission is a ministry of reconciliation, I have no doubt that he was thinking about Antioch.

When he declared that all who have faith in Jesus are one body—the Body of Christ—surely he remembered the barriers in saw come down in that place.

When he preached that whatever we were before Jesus came into our lives—that who we were and where we came from were irrelevant because in Christ we are a new creation, don’t you think we remembered the how Barnabas sought to include him? Don’t you think he remembered what grace did for him and how God used him, of all people, to shape the newborn Church?

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Without love—without a willingness to sacrifice, without a commitment to see barriers come down, without Christ-like humility—all that the Church accomplishes, all that we achieve amounts to nothing and falls short of the name Christian.

Paul could write so boldly because he was there in Antioch. He was there when the disciples earned their new name. He was their when we discovered the “ministry of reconciliation” at the heart of the Gospel.

Dearly beloved

We are gathered here today

2 get through this thing called life

And life in the Resurrection Reality has a name. The name is Christian and it is the name we claim for ourselves when we respond to the call of our risen and living Savior and Lord to be agents of reconciliation and love in the world. Like the saints of old, we, too, become Christians when we channel our gifts and graces into a community in which former strangers and sometimes enemies become brothers and sisters in the family of God.

In Acts the Spirit creates and electrifies a community that smashed old barriers because of God's desire to see God's children gifted and empowered to love one another boldly and I think that's incredibly relevant to our journey to be a church in which everyone--gay and straight, rich and poor, liberal and conservative--discovers just what God can do in and through and for them.

Let’s work to make this community called John Street Church just such a place.

Let’s count ourselves among the lonely, the least, and the lost and celebrate the Good News that God’s grace is sufficient for us, God’s grace is sufficient for all.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

April 18, 2016

Bedside Manners

Long ago, while the first chapters of church history were still being written, the witness and faith of a woman named Tabitha made a tremendous impact on the community of Jesus’ disciples.
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha…She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.
If we pause for just a second and consider this albeit brief description of Tabitha, we need not stretch our imaginations to see the place of honor she held in the hearts of her friends.

Remembered as one “devoted to good works and acts of charity,” undoubtedly, there were in the community persons inspired by her generosity, others who were touched by her kindness, and even more who could point to the positive difference she made in their lives. I think it’s fair to assume that the people loved, respected, and revered Tabitha. That’s why her death was such a crushing experience for her friends.

At that time [Tabitha] became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.
When Tabitha died her church family came together for the funeral.

They prepared her body to be buried and came together to grieve their friend.

But they also sent word to the Apostle Peter “to come to them without delay.”

Given what happened next, we have to wonder what Tabitha’s friends expected Peter would do.

Did they expect him to perform a miracle? We don’t know.

Was Tabitha a close friend whose death Peter would need to grieve, too? We can’t say.

Was this congregation simply reaching out to their spiritual leader—like a family calling their pastor from the emergency room? The Bible doesn’t tell us.

What the Bible does tell us, however, is that Peter wasted no time in going to the grieving people.

So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that [Tabitha] had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed.
And after praying, Peter did the strangest thing.

He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.”

And then something stranger happened. She did.

[Tabitha] opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.
In a wonderful sermon entitled “Lady Lazarus,” Barbara Brown Taylor points out that at least one biblical scholar has criticized the way Acts presents Tabitha’s story. This scholars says that Luke shouldn’t mention Tabitha’s good works, because that might trick us into believing that the miracle was a reward that she earned. This person is also critical of Peter’s actions. After all, he didn’t even say anything about Jesus.

“To avoid misunderstanding,” this scholar writes, “the miracle needs to be clothed in explicit theological meaning.”

Barbara Brown Taylor’s answer to this scholar’s criticism becomes the touchstone of our encounter with God’s word today.

She writes,

[Criticizing the story’s lack of explicit theology] strikes me as an odd statement in itself…As far as I can tell, that is less of a problem for most people than the fact that they are not able to reproduce this miracle no matter where they line up theologically. They too pray for people they love who are dying if not dead. They too call on the most powerful help they can think of, but their prayers do not work the way Peter’s did. Their [loved one’s] eyes stay closed…while they stain their tunics with their tears.
Barbara Brown Taylor invites us, then, to hold together the scripture that is before us and the pain of grief and loss that is within and all around our human experience. In essence, she invites us, as does Saint Luke, to go into the upstairs room with Peter and to discover there the power and wonder and hope of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

There is Good News at Tabitha’s bedside because her experience helps us understand the impact Christ’s resurrection has on life in the here and now—life that is simultaneously fragile and finite, yet verdant and overflowing with God’s amazing grace.

After his resurrection, the reality of death continued to confront Jesus’ disciples. Even after Easter, Christians still died, but they also came to believe the Risen Christ was God’s pledge and promise to them that nothing, not even death, could separate them from God’s love.

That’s what’s going on in today’s passage from Revelation in which one of the heavenly elders reveals the identity of the white robed multitude to Saint John.

These are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb…They will hunger no more, and thirst no more…for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
These were people who had suffered and died because of their faith, yet even still, they had not lived and died in vain because God was still with them. God had not forsaken them.

In the midst of turmoil and hardships, grief and persecution, the faithful trusted Jesus to lead them beside still waters and restore their soul—now and forever.

They had faith that he was the Good Shepherd who would lead them through the valley of the shadow of death.

This is the faith Peter brought to his dead friend.

Now we need to be clear. Tabitha’s experience was not normal! Our ancestors did not believe that faith worked on the dead like Tylenol works on a headache. This is a story of a supernatural physical event that reveals a deeper spiritual reality, as all miracles do.

The reality is that the bonds of God’s love are greater than death’s sting.

In fact, Peter and all the saints believed that no created thing had the power to tear them away from God’s love.

“For I am convinced,” declared Saint Paul in his Letter to the Romans, “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.”

I think Paul’s defiant attitude is present in Tabitha’s story—encouraging the faithful to live in the light of love and life, not the fear of death’s darkness.

You see, even though the Church taught its members not to fear death, Christians always believed that this life was worth living to its fullness.

Life—flesh and blood, ups and downs, laughter and tears—life wasn’t something that the faithful thought they had to tolerate until they got to the good stuff with God when they died.

If that was the case, Tabitha would’ve been pretty ticked off when Peter woke her up.

But she wasn’t ticked off. She and her friends rejoiced the day that Peter came to town because they knew that every minute of every day was a gift from God.

They knew that joy and love in this life are worth savoring, and they knew that new life through Jesus Christ wasn’t limited to life after death with God in heaven.

Our ancestors didn’t fear death for they knew it wasn’t the end. They also didn’t seek death because they experienced life as God’s great gift to them.

We share this same faith with our ancestors.

There’s a beautiful prayer in the service we offer when a member of the church dies that underscores this point. Spoken in the midst of death, it is a prayer for the living.

[O God] Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you…
In life and in death, we rest in Jesus Christ.

This is why Tabitha’s story matters to us.

Because Tabitha got up, we can get up and get through whatever we face.

A difficult week at work or a fruitless job search, a dark night of despair or a season of grief—the Risen Christ has the final say in our lives, and he speaks love, mercy, grace, power, and truth.

Because those who came to mourn Tabitha became the first to rejoice with her, we find God’s strength made perfect in our weakness.

Because their weeping turned to dancing, we have confidence that when we walk with God, we will never walk alone.

Because the crucifixion led to an empty tomb, we know that our story does not end in Good Friday’s darkness but carries on into the new light of Easter morning.

In life and in death, we rest in Jesus Christ because he is the Lord of life, holds the keys to death, and hears us when we pray.

May, then, the Good Shepherd, the King of Love, Death’s Conqueror, and Fear’s Fiercest Foe “help us to live as those who are prepared to die” so that “when our days here are accomplished” we may “die as those who go forth to live.”

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

March 30, 2016

Asbury Needs a Facelift-Can You Help?

John Street Church is preparing to restore its Francis Asbury stained glass window in honor of the pioneer Methodist bishop.

Francis Asbury was the most distinguished figure in early American Methodism. He was sent by John Wesley to America in 1771, and spent the next forty-five years encouraging and organizing Methodist congregations. Asbury became bishop of the newly formed Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784. Asbury's commitment to frontier preaching and class meetings helped increase the number of American Methodists from under 1500 at the time of his arrival, to more than 200,000 at his death on March 31, 1816.

After Asbury died, New York City's Methodists created a stained glass window featuring the bishop's portrait as a memorial. Originally, the window hung in Forsyth Street Methodist Church. In the early 1900s, however, construction of the Manhattan Bridge required Forsyth Street Church to be demolished. Concerned Methodists salvaged the window and stored it in John Street Church's attic. It stayed in the attic for more than fifty years. Finally, in 1968, John Street’s congregation had the window incorporated into the church's sanctuary.

Restoring the Bishop’s Window

John Street Church is restoring the two-hundred-year-old-window in honor of Bishop Asbury, as part of the church’s 250th anniversary celebration. In addition to repairing the glass leading, the restoration will repair the remarkable artifact's most obvious flaw—a crack across Asbury's face.

You can make a donation to the church's Capital Restoration Fund to help cover the cost of this project.

The restoration of the Asbury Stained Glass is also made possible by a generous grant from the General Commission of Archives and History of the United Methodist Church.

March 27, 2016

A Poem for Easter

Early in the morning on Easter Sunday in the year 1772, Joseph Pilmore—one of the first missionaries John Wesley sent to the American colonies—proclaimed the Good News of Christ’s resurrection to the faithful assembled here on John Street. After that service—which probably included prayers and singing (maybe even some of the songs we sing today), Pilmore and several of his listeners walked to St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway, as was the custom for Methodists in New York before the American Revolution, and worshiped again. They heard another sermon, a choir sang, and the people celebrated the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist.

That evening, after a day filled with worship, Pilmore jotted down a brief reflection on the day’s activities in his journal. Since that journal survives, Pilmore’s note—which is now 244 years old—is the oldest written record we have of an Easter Sunday on John Street. His note is much more than an interesting historic artifact, however, as his words help to center our thoughts and minds on the Good News of Jesus Christ this morning. Our former preacher, it seems, still preaches.

Here’s what Pilmore wrote,

We gladly joined in the grand festival of the universal Church in celebrating the glorious resurrection of Christ our Lord and Saviour, and it was indeed a day of rejoicing. Both at preaching and the Sacrament, my soul exulted in the Holy one of Israel, and sat in high and heavenly places. (p. 128)
Have you ever had the experience of reading an author’s words when the work stirred something within you so deeply that it was as if you’d just been jolted awake from a deep sleep? It’s a disorienting sensation, right?

Last fall we offered a class here at the church on the poetry of Emily Dickinson whose words regularly had an electrifying effect on me—like the shock I used to get as a child after shuffling my sock-covered feet across the carpet in my parents’ living room. One such encounter came not through a poem, though, but through one of Dickinson’s personal letters.

In a letter to her friend and mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily offered an answer to fundamental question, “What is poetry?” This is her definition.

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?
By Emily’s standard, then, I experience Pilmore’s Easter Day journal entry as poetry. Specifically, I’m deeply affected by his description of what a day spent in worship accomplished within him.
Both at preaching and the Sacrament, my soul exulted in the Holy one of Israel, and sat in high and heavenly places.
“My soul…sat in high and heavenly places.”

What a day!

I confess, though, that I’m chilled by this thought—made cold by the realization that I’ve allowed myself to be content with significantly lower expectations for the day.

Oh, I have high hopes.

I hope all of you to enjoy this service.

I hope my son has a good time hunting eggs and opening his Easter basket.

I’m looking forward to spending the day with my family and talking to my mom and dad on the phone.

And I’d guess that my hopes for Easter Sunday aren’t too different from yours. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with wanting these things.

But this day, above all days, is the day to aim higher, to aspire to something greater, to gain our soul’s desire and see God face to face.

On Easter, we’d be happy with some inspiration, a piece of our favorite candy, and making some good memories with the people we love. That’s all well and good. In fact, if we are so blessed today, we should give thanks to God and consider ourselves incredibly wealthy.

Yet greater still are the tender mercies God pours out upon us, for this morning God offers to bless us in life changing ways through the Good News of Jesus’ victory over the grave and the announcement that, because of his glorious, amazing, and wondrous love, we can follow where he leads—into God’s holy presence.

“Soar we now we Christ has led, following our exalted Head.”

These aren’t just the lyrics to Easter’s great anthem, this is the reality of Easter people everywhere.

You see, Joseph Pilmore wasn’t trying to be clever with his description of Easter Sunday 1772. He was drawing, instead, from the wellspring of faith within his heart and drinking deeply from the fountain of Holy Scripture. He was claiming for himself the promise of transformation and new life in Jesus Christ, who said,

I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
Yes, the promise of this day is more verdant than spring’s most fertile garden. It is deeper than the ocean’s deepest depths and lifts us higher than nature’s most stunning precipice.

It is the promise of forgiven sins and forsaken grudges.

It is the promise that God’s love defines us—not money, not achievements, not our screw-ups or failures.

It is the promise that the cross wasn’t the last word about Jesus and that neither pain, nor illness, nor suffering, nor death will ever have the last word about us, about the people we love, about any of God’s children.

It is the promise that, through faith, we are seated with Christ on high and empowered to serve and minister to a hurting world with humble acts of mercy, love, and goodness.

People of John Street Church, hear the Good News.

God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places...For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God...For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works… (Eph. 2:4-10)
Why would we ever settle for anything less?

Christ is risen and we are “loved,” “made alive,” “raised up,” “saved,” “seated in the heavenly places,” and “created in Jesus Christ for good works.”

That’s the poetry of Easter.

That’s the Good News for which we give thanks.

Alleluia! Amen.

March 16, 2016

Mary's Hard-Won Verdict

Jesus and his disciples were attending a dinner party in his honor when Mary, one of their hosts, made quite a spectacle of herself. Approaching Jesus with a jar of expensive perfume made of a luxurious and imported essential oil, she anointed his feet and wiped them with her hair. It was a shockingly excessive scene—an excessive gift, an excess of emotion. The scene was so outrageous, in fact, that Judas, one of the disciples, took it upon himself to correct Mary’s lack of proper decorum.

In what we might call an example of biblical mansplaining, Judas pointed out to Mary how wasteful she was being and how many poor people could have been helped if she would’ve donated the perfume to the cause instead of being so thoughtless, but the guest of honor quickly came to Mary’s defense.

Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
This is the story from John’s Gospel before us this morning and it deserves our thoughtful attention.

When Jesus chastised Judas he drew a connection between Mary’s extravagance and his impending death. He said that she was anointing him for burial. In doing so, Jesus took the opportunity that Mary’s offering gave to him to imbue a situation with meaning that wasn’t readily apparent to the others who were present.

Jesus often acted like this. Sometimes it caused consternation and confusion, but Jesus regularly took a simple action or an everyday observation and added a new and deep level of significance to it.

We recall, for instance, the conversation Jesus had with a Samaritan woman at a well. She started talking about hard work and needing a drink of water, but he told her about springs of living water.

He said, “The water that I will give will become in [those who drink it] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
She said, “Sir, give me this water!” and recognized him as the Messiah. John also tells us about a moment when Jesus fed a great crowd with five loaves of bread and two fish. When that miracle led another hungry crowd to seek him out, again, he took the conversation in another direction by talking about bread from heaven.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Like the time when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume, these examples show us how Jesus regularly revealed to his followers a deeper understanding than what was most apparent.

Talk of water, bread, and an anointing—Jesus used all these to invite his disciples to discover who he was, what he was doing, and what God was up to in that moment.

But Mary’s encounter with Jesus was unique.

The story we’ve read this morning doesn’t tells us about Jesus turning some ordinary every day meeting into something significant.

No. When Jesus entered Mary’s house that day she was keenly aware that she was in the presence of true greatness and true power.

You see, when Jesus chastised Judas he drew a connection between Mary’s action and his impending death, but I think it’s clear that Mary had the death of another man on her mind—the death of her brother Lazarus who sat at the table that night with the man who raised him up to live again.

Lazarus died several days before Mary anointed Jesus.

He became ill so his sisters Mary and Martha sent for Jesus, but their brother died before Jesus showed up, and the sisters were devastated. They were angry.

Mary and Martha came to Jesus separately with the same charge, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

In John’s telling, Martha somewhat maintained her composure, but Mary was reduced to nothing.

Here’s how the Gospel describes their meeting.

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet…When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
From there, Jesus went to Lazarus’ tomb where he wept, too. Then, in the face of death’s stench, he cried, “Lazarus, come out!”

And the formerly dead man obediently walked out of his tomb.

John tells us that some believed in Jesus when they learned about this miracle and some plotted to kill him. But the next time we see Mary, she’ right where we left her. She’s back at his feet, but this time everything has changed.

Hear this again from John’s 12th chapter,

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Notice the remarkable reversals in this story. Lazarus has moved from the tomb to the table, the fragrance of perfume has chased away death’s stink, and Mary’s grief has turned to joy. Mary’s words of indictment have become speechless praise.

Mary’s experience embodies what Walter Brueggemann calls praise as a knowing act. She unflinchingly challenged Jesus and, finding him to be up to the challenge, she worshiped him without reservation because she knew him to be trustworthy. She came to Jesus with her anger and disappointment, which allowed him to lead her the reality of resurrection. By this, she leads us to see that the quality of our praise depends on our willingness to go to Jesus with our questions and heartaches so that we might discover for ourselves that God is faithful.

Brueggemann writes,

By terming praise “a knowing act,” I mean that the moment of praise arises out of a long and troubled history, and it is a hard-won verdict…What concludes in praise does not begin in praise. It begins rather in hurt, rage, need, indignation, isolation, and abandonment. [The faithful’s] first speech to God is not a speech of wonder but of deep need. (p. 115)
I can’t help but wonder if part of what ails the Church and the practice of Christianity in our time is our failure to welcome the dynamics of praise that Brueggemann describes and Mary demonstrates.

Perhaps the 21st century Church is simply reaping the fruit whose seed was sown among generations of believers who were told never to question God’s wisdom and never to doubt God’s plan.

Can we really blame people for having little interest in a Faith that they’ve been told offers nothing but the opportunity to sit down, shut up, and take what God gives them?

How many people have been made to believe that their questions and challenges to God’s authority render them troublemakers, instead of being encouraged to see those exact same questions and challenges as an opportunity to enter into the space in which they could worship God more perfectly?

What’s that? Life’s heartbreaks have stirred up doubts in your heart?

What’s that? Answers that satisfied you when you were younger just don’t cut it anymore?

You must be weak. You must not have real faith.

God forgive us for letting that be our witness, because that’s not the story God gave us.

No, we have Mary—Grieving Mary, Angry Mary, Frustrated Mary—who reached the hard-won verdict and laid herself, her all, at Jesus’ feet in praise—Grateful Mary, Joyous Mary, Worshipful Mary.

Mary unflinchingly challenged Jesus and, finding him to be up to the challenge, she worshiped him without reservation because she knew him to be trustworthy. She came to Jesus with her anger and disappointment, which allowed him to lead her the reality of resurrection. By this, she leads us to see that the quality of our praise depends on our willingness to go to Jesus with our questions and heartaches so that we might discover for ourselves that God is faithful.

And that is why we call her story, our story, Good News for all people.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

March 6, 2016

Sins, Slugs, and Stars

C.S. Lewis restated a fundamental Christian teaching about God and God’s relationship with humanity in his classic book Mere Christianity. “The Son of God became a man,” wrote Lewis, “to enable men to become sons of God.” Lewis’ gender specific language notwithstanding, his statement gets to the heart of the Good News that calls and holds all of us together as Christ’s Church. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became human to enable humans to become children of God. Lewis offers this statement—it’s actually a paraphrase of work by theological heavyweights like Saints Irenaeus and Athanasius—in order to lead his audience to a greater understanding of the Incarnation—the Christian belief that Jesus was fully God and fully human. Then, in his characteristic fashion, Lewis turned to the seemingly simple things of child’s play to illustrate this sublime Truth’s practical importance.

Here’s what he wrote.

Did you ever think, when you were a child, what fun it would be if your toys could come to life? Well suppose you could really have brought them to life. Imagine turning a tin solider into a real little man. It would involve turning the tin into flesh. And suppose the tin soldier did not like it. He is not interested in flesh; all he sees is that the tin us being spoilt.
Lewis continues.
What you would have done about that tin soldier I do not know. But what God did about us was this. The Second Person in God, the Son, became human Himself: was born into the world as an actual man—a real man of a particular height, with hair of a particular colour, speaking a particular language, weighing so many stone…If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab. (pp 154-155)
C.S. Lewis invites us to consider the radical nature of the Incarnation by asking if we’d be willing to put on a slug’s slimy skin or a crab’s hard shell to save slugs and crabs from perdition. Leave it to him to introduce an august theological statement then to turn our imaginations to the tiny creatures crawling in a garden’s dirt or on a sandy shore.
The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God…If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.
I really appreciate Lewis’ perspective because it helps us to approach a potentially intimidating topic with a fresh perspective. In this case, it helps us to recognize the Incarnation (or the capital-D Dogma of the Incarnation) not as the topic of stuffy Ivory Tower lectures, but as the defining event in God’s love affair with sinners like us.

Lewis’ simple images help us to see that the message we call Good News simply tells all who would listen of the humbling and humiliating lengths to which God went to save and restore the object of God’s love.

This is the same story we tell around the Table where Christ’s sorrow and our prayers meet.

And this is the same love story about which one of this season’s great hymns invites us to sing.

Alas! and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die?

Would he devote that sacred head for sinners such as I?

Yes, the Lord Jesus would do that for you, for me, for all the world’s people.

The Son of God became human to enable humans to become children of God.

Of course, before we had our hymns or liturgy, before C.S. Lewis, even before Irenaeus and Athanasius, there was Saint Paul.

This morning we’ve read a verse from one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians that has influenced the trajectory of meditations on the Incarnation ever since.

Paul wrote, “For our sake, [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Paul introduces an idea here that he explored throughout his ministry. It’s the idea that Jesus chose to humble himself and to become or endure something that he neither needed to become nor endure for us and for our salvation. In this case, he became sin (or bore the penalty for sin, or became an offering for our sin) so that we might become something pure and holy, “the righteousness of God.”

Lest we get hung up on the specifics of that thought, Paul describes the same gracious act in a different way in Second Corinthians 8.

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
Taken together, these examples show us the pattern of divine generosity intrinsic to Paul’s theology. Out of love for sinners like us, Jesus humbly gave of himself so that we might obtain that which was beyond our grasp—“though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

Finally, in what is arguably the most important and memorable illustration of Paul’s point of view, we see the same grace, the same love, and the same humility on display in Philippians 2.

In this passage, Paul invites, inspires, and cajoles the Church to rise above destructive conflicts borne of arrogance, jealousy, and pride. In so doing, he also brings his theology of the Incarnation home by making the direct connection between what Jesus did and how we should live and love.

The passage begins with familiar words.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

But Paul isn’t content simply to talk about Jesus. He wants to make plain the connection between what Christ did and what we can become.

He goes on.

Therefore, my beloved…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you...

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.

Did you recognize the pattern here?

“For our sake, [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

“Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

In humility, Christ became like a slave so that we might shine like stars.

What a beautiful story! What amazing Good News!

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became human to enable humans to become children of God. This is the theological bedrock on which the Spirit builds the Church, our faith, and our witness to God’s love. It speaks of amazing grace. It reveals how one act of selflessness can produce countless blessings. It shows us just how passionate God is about loving sinners like us.

And that is why we call this talk of sins, slugs, and stars Good News for all people.

Thanks be to God. Amen.