December 5, 2014

Christmastime at Sea, December 13, 3PM & 8PM

Join our voyage into a sea of traditional song, music & dance. Make this your new New York holiday tradition.

Featuring: David Jones, Henry Chapin, The South Street Mummers, Ring O Bells Morris, Captain’s Children, and The New York Packet

Scripted by Heather Wood

Saturday, December 13, Shows at 3pm & 8pm

John Street Church – 44 John Street – NYC (Please Note – This historic landmark venue is not handicap accessible. There is a flight of 12 stairs to the sanctuary and 2 into the building.)

Admission: Adults $20 (FMSNY Members $18), Children up to age 13 - $5 (babes in arms – free)

Limited Seating!

Order tickets online here.

Information - email: christmastimeatsea@gmail.com

Co-sponsors: Folk Music Society of NY, Inc. and John Street Church

November 17, 2014

The Heart of the Sermon: On the Parable of the Talents

The Good News for us today is that Jesus invites us to be our authentic, flawed, and blessed selves so that we may discover the gifts placed in our hands and our hearts by God.

To this end, I’m reminded of a story I read years ago when a group of us here at John Street were going through the small group study called, “Beginnings.”

The story is an old Jewish tale about a very old rabbi named Zusya, who, near the end of his life, said, “In the coming world they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”

So it is that we’re often found chasing after something—a perfect self, a perfect partner, a perfect body, a perfect soul—when what God asks is that we discover what we already have, what God created and placed within us.

And so it is that we find in the Parable of the Talents, Good News for all of God’s children.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

November 5, 2014

Marathon Faith

It’s Marathon Sunday. At this moment, nearly 40,000 runners are making their way through the city’s streets. World-class elite athletes, celebrities, and people who love to run—they’re all in the mix trying to reach the finish line.

Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot—the monotonous yet inspiring procession stretches over the Narrows, through Brooklyn and Queens, up the East Side to the Bronx, before making the ultimate push to Central Park.

What an amazing event! What a great day for New York!

Leading up to the Marathon it’s really quite easy to find out just about anything you could want to know about the race.

There’s information for the Marathoners, places spectators can go to watch, places to eat, and websites where you can follow your favorite runners as they make their way through the course.

A few years ago, Liz Robbins wrote a column for the Times that proved to be a great source of this pre-race information—a wonderful collection of feature stories, articles, and useful links.

One day, Robbins simply answered some of her readers’ questions about the race, and that’s where I found something that really caught my attention.

A reader wanted to know since the New York City Marathon isn’t the oldest marathon, or the fastest, then how has it earned the reputation as “the best”?

“What makes New York unique,” Robbins answered, “and for most runners, so memorable, is the chance to be part of a grand spectacle.”

More than 40,000…run through New York’s vibrant and eclectic neighborhoods in all five boroughs…cheered virtually the entire way by 2 million fans. [The New York City Marathon is] a 26.2-mile standing ovation...
Like so many others things in this city, it’s the people that live here that bring the race to life.

Two million fans, a 26.2 mile standing ovation—Marathon Sunday is a great day in our city.

Many of those two million fans line First Avenue as we speak. Their thunderous cheers and applause will soon greet the runners as they cross the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan—marking the completion of the 15th and, many say, most difficult mile of the race.

Can you imagine what that must feel like? You’ve made it through Brooklyn and Queens, passed the halfway point in the course and climbed the ramp to cross the bridge into Manhattan when this wave of sound crashes over you, and it’s nothing like the city’s normal sound waves.

There are no car horns or jackhammers, no cursing or anger. It’s just this great crowd cheering for you and the other runners.

What a feeling that must be, what a surge of energy the runners must get from that encouraging crowd.

The earliest Christians certainly knew something about feeling like that.

Familiar with Greek and Roman sports, our ancestors in faith knew about the physical and mental strain runners face and they knew from experience that the roar of an adoring crowd could have a tremendous effect on a weary athlete.

In the New Testament, this knowledge provided the saints with a useful vocabulary for talking about matters of faith.

Saint Paul, for example, repeatedly drew connections between the physical demands of racing and the spiritual demands of Christian discipleship.

Running and following Jesus, according to Paul, both of these passions require focus, discipline, and training.

The Book of Hebrews reveals another connection between the two by inviting us to consider the crowds that cheer for their favorite athletes and the mystical communion of God’s saints.

The Book of Hebrews is a celebration of faith—of faith’s power to save, of the amazing things God’s people accomplished with faith in their hearts. One section of the book is basically a history of faith traced through the lives of the ancient Israelites. The centerpiece of that history is Hebrews 11 where we read about some of the Old Testament’s great heroes—Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Samuel, and the prophets,

[the people] who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, [who] put foreign armies to flight.
It’s a beautiful passage that still offers inspiration to anyone who feels as though the challenges they face are just too great, the enemies arrayed against them, just too powerful.

Hebrews 12, which has been before us throughout our Season of Saints, brings this history to its crescendo.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…
The call of scripture to us is clear. Because “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness”—because the choirs of heaven, the faithful sainted ones, cheer us on—let us breathe deep, let us focus on that which is most important (on eternal things), and let us go forward faithfully with Jesus.

I have great respect for everyone who is running today, and I know that their hard work and discipline—their stories—will inspire a lot of people in this city to change their lives for the better.

Somebody will start taking better care of them self and live longer because of what they witness today.

Somebody will face their next round of chemo with greater confidence and renewed hope because of a story they hear today.

Somebody standing in the crowd today will run in the Marathon next year because of the feeling they get when the runners pass by.

Lives will change today because of the Marathon and that’s why this is an exciting day in New York, but it also makes me wonder.

The Marathon makes we wonder what difference we could make, what change could we inspire, if we would only run with renewed faith the race God sets before us?

In addition to being Marathon Sunday in New York, it’s also All Saints Sunday. Today, through the Word and at the Table, we renew our communion with those who have run well the race of life and celebrate the Good News that nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It’s a time for memories as we recall those saints who have touched our lives with the love of Christ, but it’s not a day for looking backward or glorifying what once was.

We still have work to do and a race to run right now.

To help us do that work and run our race, the scripture tells us that heaven’s witnesses have taken their place along these holy streets to cheer us on.

During the Season of Saints we’ve considered the faithful witness offered by some remarkable people—Francis of Assisi, Mary McLeod Bethune, Julian of Norwich, Jesse Lee, Shusaku Endo, Eudora Welty, Barbara Heck, and Philip Embury.

On All Saints, we give thanks that these, and the dearly beloved ones we remember whose faith is now sight—cry out for us, like the crowds on First Avenue.

“You can do this.”

“You’re on your way.”

“You can make it.”

“Just keep going and you won’t be disappointed.”

You and I still have work to do and a race to run. The poor still need to hear Good News, the blind still need to see and the oppressed still yearn for freedom.

So let us do what grace makes possible.

Let us “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

And let us give thanks for this Good News.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

October 29, 2014

Finally, a Sermon about Wrath (For Heritage Sunday)

The names and dates associated with this church’s founding generation have been well known in Methodist circles since the earliest days of this country. From the work of 19th century historians, to 21st century seminary classrooms, to the stone monuments that surround us in this place, our story has been shared countless times.

In 1760 a group of Irish Methodists sailed from Limerick to New York. Led by a lay preacher named Philip Embury, the group wanted nothing more than to save some money, buy some farmland, and raise their families in peace. However, six years of disappointments, personal tragedies, and financial setbacks ultimately took their toll on the group. Relationships were in tatters. Hearts were broken. Faith was lost.

Rather famously, the group’s fortunes began to change when Philip’s cousin, Barbara Heck, interrupted a card game. Convinced that the scene before her was emblematic of how far the Irish Methodists had backslid, Barbara threw the cards into the fire, rushed to Philip’s house, and begged him to preach.

At first, he resisted, but Barbara prevailed, and on October 12, 1766, Philip, Barbara, their spouses, and two others got together for worship and prayers at the Emburys’ house. This was the birth of John Street United Methodist Church.

The group of six quickly grew. In a matter of weeks, they were worshipping in a rigging house on William Street. Soon after that, an eye-patch wearing officer in the British Army named Thomas Webb joined their ranks as a second preacher. And it wasn’t long after Webb’s arrival that they began to raise money to build their own chapel.

On October 30, 1768, just two years and 18 days after that first meeting, approximately four hundred people—a diverse group of men and women, free people and slaves, Loyalists and Revolutionaries, rich and poor—gathered on this site to hear Philip preach at the dedication of Wesley Chapel on John Street, the first building in the world to be named after Methodism’s founder, John Wesley.

This is our story. I’ve told it many, many times and some of you have heard me tell it many, many times. There’s an element of this story, though, that I’ve neglected. And it’s not just me. This is a part of our story about which preachers and historians have been almost silent for over a hundred years.

It’s neither a person nor an important date that we’ve decided to ignore.

It’s not a great sin that we’ve tried to forget.

No, it’s an idea—the “Big Idea” of our founders—and, by their estimation, our reason-to-be.

This idea is “a desire to flee from the wrath to come.”

There was a time when this idea was synonymous with Methodism.

John Wesley regarded "a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins" as Methodism’s only upfront membership requirement.

Philip, who met Wesley in Ireland, certainly took this lesson to heart. One of the few contemporary accounts of his preaching describes Philip as “exhorting all who attended…to flee from the wrath to come.”

And Francis Asbury, Wesley’s right-hand man in America and the guy in our stained glass window, he also measured success in these exact same terms.

After Asbury’s first visit to John Street, he went north to tour Westchester County and, after preaching in New Rochelle, confided in his journal, “Many attended, but I fear few felt such deep concern as will induce them to leave their sins, and flee from the wrath to come.”

There was a time when Methodist preachers understood their mission to be inviting their hearers “to flee from the wrath to come,” but in fourteen years of preaching I don’t think I’ve even spoken these words. And it’s not as if I’ve heard a lot of requests to sprinkle my sermons with a little more wrath on Sunday mornings.

Heritage Sunday, the occasion of our congregation’s 248th anniversary, seems like the right time to address this issue.

For me, the burden of this legacy hangs on a few definitions. Before we can even begin to make sense of “fleeing from the wrath to come,” we need to be clear about what our ancestors thought was coming and how they intended to get out of its way.

First, probably because our generations were shaped by the Cold War, shaped by the thought that human existence could be wiped away at the push of a button, shaped, too, by the New Millennium hype, by Y2K and the heyday of supermarket tabloids which peddled in wild speculation about the End Times, I suspect a lot of us assume that our ancestors thought the end of the world was coming very soon.

“Get right with God because the world might end tomorrow.”

I think our ancestors believed that God held the past, the present, and the future in his hand, but fearing the world's imminent end isn’t really our story.

You see, the same people that preached about coming wrath also built schools, later they built hospitals, and from the beginning they worked for the betterment of the poor and needy—not exactly the stuff you would encourage if you thought the world would end in the next few days.

And, then, there’s this idea of fleeing.

Does this mean that our ancestors wanted to withdrawal from the world? Did they want to go off by themselves and start a Methodist colony or something like that?

Heavens no! They went to places like London, and Bristol, and Dublin, and Limerick, and Philadelphia, and New York City. They went to find work, to build friendships, to raise families, and to discover what it meant to love God and their neighbors in those places.

And this is so telling about what they understood the Methodist movement to be about.

They understood themselves to be standing at the intersection of forgiveness and holiness where people became so convinced of the reality of God’s love in their own lives that they aspired, with the Spirit's help, to love others like Jesus.

Our founding generation was convinced that whenever people gave their hearts over to material things and selfish, prideful pursuits, suffering was sure to follow.

Such suffering could be self-inflicted, it could come upon one’s loved ones and neighbors, or it could even fall upon strangers, but it was sure to come and it could be of eternal significance.

In Jesus, however, they believed that they not only found forgiveness, but the power and the grace to break free from sin’s chains and to take love, light, holiness, and righteousness to a hurting world.

When our ancestors preached about fleeing from the wrath to come, therefore, they were inviting their hearers to examine their lives, confess their sin, receive God’s grace, and make loving God, God’s children, and God’s creation the new goal of their life.

The wrath they wanted to flee was ugliness of naked ambition, anger and rage, of making idols of the things of this world, and the consequences of treating others as anything less than persons made in the Image of God.

Our ancestors wanted to flee from the chaos and carnage of sin in this life and the next and they believed that Jesus was the Author of their Deliverance.

Thou hidden source of calm repose, Thou all-sufficient love divine,

My help and refuge from my foes, Secure I am if thou art mine;

And lo! From sin and grief and shame, I hide me, Jesus, in thy name.

That’s how John Wesley’s brother, Charles, expressed this idea.

“I fled ‘from sin and grief and shame’ to Jesus,” we sing, “who is ‘my help and refuge,’ ‘love divine,’ the ‘hidden source of calm repose.’”

After 248 years in New York City, we still receive this as Good News.

Now, I’ll admit that I’m probably not going to make “fleeing from the wrath to come” a regular part of my vocabulary, but understanding what our ancestors meant by it and coming to terms with its relevance in our lives is vitally important to us and to this church.

Our founding generation was convinced that whenever people gave their hearts over to material things and selfish, prideful pursuits, suffering was sure to follow.

In Jesus, however, they believed that they not only found forgiveness, but the power and the grace to break free from sin’s chains and to take love, light, holiness, and righteousness to a hurting world.

Let it be so with us.

Let us “flee from the wrath to come.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

October 20, 2014

A Revealing Question

Note: This is the manuscript I carried into the pulpit on October 19. While I stuck to the same basic theme and scripture lesson, apart from the NYE story, I ultimately preached a very different sermon.

A few years ago, in the early morning hours of January 1st, Laura and I were in a cab on our way home after ringing in the New Year with friends at a party in Tribeca.

There were more cars and people on the street than usual for 2:00 in the morning, but all in all it was pretty quiet. We caught a red light on Worth Street near Foley Square, and while we waited, I almost drifted off to sleep.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

The sound of someone tapping on the window snapped me to attention.

I turned my head.

There, in the middle of Worth Street at 2:00AM on New Year’s Day, was a pedi-cab with two passengers buried under Lord-knows how many blankets in back.

I rolled down my window.

“Hey,” said the pedi-cab driver, “where’s Times Square?”

Now, living downtown, I’ve grown accustomed to giving people directions. I probably explain how to get on to the Brooklyn Bridge walkway at least two or three times a week. I’ve pointed plenty of people to the World Trade Center, to the Seaport, even where to pick up the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. But that’s still the only time someone in this neighborhood asked me for directions to Times Square.

Have you ever been asked a question that told you more about the person asking it than any amount of information your response could possibly convey?

That’s how I feel about that moment because, just in hearing the question, I learned that this person had no business charging people any amount of money for any ride anywhere in Manhattan and that the people under the blankets were in for a very long, very cold start to the New Year.

Sometimes a question tells us everything we need to know.

One day, some of the religious and political leaders of Jesus’ community asked him a question that revealed a great deal about their intentions.

This morning’s lesson from Matthew’s Gospel introduces us to two groups of people whom Jesus would have known well. The first group was the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a group dedicated to strictly applying the Jewish law to all aspects of their life. Unfortunately, as is the great temptation of religious groups like this, Pharisees often fell into hypocrisy and legalism, characteristics for which Jesus had no tolerance, as evident by the numerous confrontations he would have with then throughout his ministry.

In addition to this, because of their emphasis on the Law, the Pharisees viewed the Roman Empire as a pox upon their land. To the Pharisees, the Romans were pagan intruders in the Land of the Jews.

The second group, the Herodians, who took their name from the Roman endorsed king over the land, had an entirely different view. They saw the Romans as something positive. In other words, the Pharisees and Herodians were on opposite ends of the political spectrum when it came to attitudes toward Rome.

The fact that we find these groups working together in this passage of scripture is, therefore, evidence of a bipartisan conspiracy against Jesus.

The conspirators’ plot was to set a trap for Jesus and the bait would be a question, a loaded question to which any answer would cause him trouble.

When the moment was right, they set out their bait.

“Teacher,” [they asked,] “we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
This was a trap, a trap because to answer yes or no would cause a backlash.

If Jesus said, “Yes, pay your taxes,” his opponents could spin it so as to say to the Jewish peasants, “See, Jesus supports Rome. He doesn’t care one bit about you.”

If he answered, “No, don’t pay them,” his opponents could accuse Jesus of preaching treason and label him a dangerous radical.

Jesus, however, recognized the trap for what it was. The Pharisees and Herodians were up to no good.

Recognizing their agenda, Jesus returned with a question of his own, “Why are you playing these games with me? Why are you trying to trap me?”

He then asked them for a coin, and he held it up for them to see. “Look at this. This face on the coin, whose is it? Whose name is this?”

“The emperor.” They said. “Caesar.”

Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

And that’s how Jesus eluded a trap baited with a question about taxes.

This episode from Jesus’ life gives us another example of how he took what people knew and breathed something fresh, something holy into it. Take the Sermon on the Mount, for example, in which Jesus pushed people to recognize that God’s Spirit was breathing new life into ancient and familiar teachings.

“You have heard it said, “You shall not murder,” but I say that if you are angry with someone go and be reconciled to them.”

“You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say, “If someone slaps you, turn the other cheek.”

“You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Jesus said things like this to show people who wanted to live a godly life exactly what one looked like.

It was a teaching tool.

It should come as no surprise to us, therefore, that when confronted with a loaded question taken from the contemporary debates about how people felt about Rome in and around Jesus’ home that he turned it into a teaching moment, too.

“You want to label me a political conservative, and you want to call me a liberal, but I say your labels don’t apply to me.” That’s the essence of what Jesus told the Pharisees and Herodians.

“You’re trying to trap me with a question about what’s written on a coin, but I say that God only cares about what’s written on your heart. So, you tell me, what’s written on yours?”

What’s written on your heart? Whose signature is on your life?

Those were the questions Jesus asked of the crowds gathered both in support of and against his ministry. These are also the questions that Jesus asks us as we gather to worship him today.

The lesson that Jesus taught here, the gift he offered to people who were hungry for a deep, life changing faith that went beyond the legalism of the Pharisees was the good news that each person in the crowd belonged to God.

They belonged to God not in the sense that a toy belongs to a child, but like that child belongs to his or her parents, parents who care for their child without counting the cost, parents who seek to protect and teach, and parents who sacrifice their own desires to help the child that belongs to them.

This is like the love of the God to whom we belong.

If breathing something new and holy into the familiar was thematic of how Jesus taught, then sharing with all people the good news that God loved and blessed them regardless of their backgrounds was thematic of the content of his message. The message that he proclaimed told everyone from the poorest widow, to the richest businessman, from the most pious Jew to the most crooked Roman official that they were a unique creation of God, a masterpiece from the hand of the divine artist.

When we come together to worship God, we do so, in part, to remind one another that we do indeed bear the master’s signature on our hearts. Our lives, the lives of our children, the lives of our friends, the lives of those for whom we pray, belong to the God in whose eyes all life is precious.

We’re all asked a lot of questions and, sometimes, we’re looked foolish doing so. More important than these, however, is the question Jesus asks of us, “To whom do you belong?”

We belong to God.

All that we are, all that we have, these are gifts of grace.

The life we live, therefore, is a sacred journey during which God invites us to not only experience the wonders of God’s love daily, but to take these wonders to heart, to be changed by them, so that all that we are and all that we have may be offered to God in thanksgiving and praise.

May the One whose Image we bear bless us with the faith, hope, and love we need to experience the joys of this journey.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

October 16, 2014

Screwtape's Fingerprints

Last month our church’s Wednesday night discussion group delved into C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. For this book, Lewis created a protagonist named Screwtape, an eloquent and accomplished demon who, thanks to a successful career as a tempter of humans, rose up, or is it down, Hell’s corporate ladder. Now in management, readers get to know Screwtape through a series of letters he wrote to Wormwood, a young demon with his whole career ahead of him, about how best to lead a recent Christian convert astray.

Creating such a device allowed Lewis to speak about faith and the human condition from a unique point-of-view among devotional literature, the point-of-view of the other side. Rather than writing a pious story in which a hero speaks truth to power and boldly proclaims the Faith, therefore, Lewis gets to tell us, through Screwtape, about all the ways in which good intentions can be corrupted and the power of white lies and “little things” exploited.

Here’s a good example of Screwtape’s work. It comes from Letter 12 and it’s indicative of his overall approach.

[My Dear Wormwood,] like all young tempters you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one-the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
A suggestion, a nudge, a gentle reminder of a wrong that we’ve suffered—you see what’s Screwtape is up to. He intends to confuse us, blind us, and anesthetize us to the truth—the truth about God, about others, about ourselves. Jesus, however, Screwtape’s enemy, meets us with grace and love so that we can face the truth and walk in the light.

The Tempter says, “the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy,” but Jesus makes us one with himself, one with the Father, one with each other, one in ministry to all the world.

C.S. Lewis’ insights came to mind this morning as I read the 32nd chapter of Exodus because the story of the Golden Calf has Screwtape’s fingerprints all over it.

By this point in the Exodus journey, God has parted the Red Sea, committed to giving the people their daily bread, and set before them the fundamentals of worship and ethics, the Ten Commandments. As chapter 32 begins, Moses, the people’s leader, has been on the Holy Mountain with God for 40 days, the length of time he’d told the people he’d be away from them.

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron [Moses’ brother], and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
Aaron, then, told the people to bring him all the jewelry that they’d gathered on their way out of Egypt. After melting down the gold, he cast an image of a calf.
[The people] said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

That last phrase—“rose up to revel”—is a bit a euphemism. A more vivid translation would be that God’s people had a drunken orgy.

So, in the blink of an eye, we’ve moved from “Hey, Moses is running late,” to “Sure, let’s give that guy all our gold,” to a complete disregard for the God who set them free from slavery, met their needs, and showed them how to live with one another.

Screwtape would be so proud.

The people bowed their hearts to something of their own making, rather than to the One who made them. They dismissed the Living God and treated as real and powerful their own creation.

Years later, the Psalmist would recall the absurdity of this sorrowful moment and others like it.

The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands.

They have mouths, but they do not speak; they have eyes, but they do not see;

they have ears, but they do not hear, and there is no breath in their mouths.

Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them. (Psalm 135)

How could the people of the Exodus be so foolish?

Why would they choose to worship an object that they made rather than the Lord who heard their prayers and broke their chains?

Who didn’t notice that a nation-wide alcohol-soaked sex romp was at odds with a few of the rules God gave them to follow?

It’s easy to ask questions like these of the people we encounter in the Scripture, to clearly see their mistakes, to judge them harshly for doing things that we would never do.

It’s a good deal more difficult, however, to admit that, in our own way, we do the exact same thing—asking finite things to fill our soul’s deepest longings, regarding the idols of our own making as even better than the real thing, and going to incredible lengths to justify self-serving and hurtful actions.

A golden calf is no better than self-righteousness or materialism if self-righteousness or materialism can do the trick.

The Tempter says, “the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy,” but Jesus makes us one with himself, one with the Father, one with each other, one in ministry to all the world.

So what are we to do?

How do we keep our wits about us and our eyes open so that we can avoid Screwtape’s snares?

Ironically, it’s Screwtape himself who shows us the way.

In his fourth letter to Wormwood, Screwtape focuses on the tools at their disposal to corrupt and foul up the believer’s desire to prayer and worship.

Make him think his prayers need to be more sophisticated.

Make him think his prayers need to be more simplistic.

Above everything else, make him direct his prayers and worship to an object, not the Creator.

Screwtape writes,

I have known cases where what the patient called his “God” was actually located—up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside his own head, or in a crucifix on the wall. But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it—to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him.
Why is keeping the believer focused on an object so important to the Tempter?

Because it gets to essence of his con.

[My Dear Wormwood,] if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayer [not to his idea of God, but to God,] our situation is, for the moment, desperate. Once all his thoughts and images have been flung aside…and the man trusts himself to the completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room and never knowable by him as he is known by it—why, then it is that the incalculable may occur.
Friends, I pray that our worship truly invites the incalculable into our lives—the power of the Living God who sets the captives free, gives us daily bread, and forgives all our sins, even dancing with a Golden Calf.

The Tempter says, “the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy,” but Jesus makes us one with himself, one with the Father, one with each other, one in ministry to all the world.

Let it be so.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

October 6, 2014

Black to Red

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace;

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy.

Francis of Assisi, the 13th century Italian saint, didn’t write these words, but he lived them. That’s why the prayer with which we began this service bears his name and why his story sets the stage for us to glean lessons from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.

Francis was a child of privilege. His father made a fortune as a cloth merchant, and Francis basked in the family’s success.

This is how his first biographer described Francis.

[Until he was almost 25 years old], he squandered and wasted his time miserably. Indeed, he outdid all his contemporaries in vanities…and was more abundantly zealous for all kinds of foolishness. (Thomas of Celano)
Young Francis was popular, the life of the party, the spoiled rich-kid-villain in every John Hughes film.

Remember James Spader’s character in Pretty in Pink? Look it up on IMDB if you have to. That’s the picture of the would-be saint’s adolescence.

Francis’ disposition began to change, however, after a failed military campaign landed him in an enemy prison. It wasn’t long after his release that a serious illness interrupted his carefree days, yet again, and continued the process of waking him to life’s more important and substantial matters.

For Francis, waking up meant opening his eyes to his Savior and opening his heart to his neighbors. Once a frivolous youth, as Francis grew in faith and wisdom he passionately, yet humbly, accepted the Gospel’s invitation to holiness.

Francis wanted to be like Christ.

He wanted to love like Christ.

In his foolish days, he reviled his community’s outcasts. Because of Christ, Francis joined them on the margins.

In his foolish days, he squandered his money. Because of Christ, he gave his money away.

In his foolish days, his most valuable possessions meant nothing to him. Because of Christ, Francis realized nothing had more value than the simple cup of salvation and the broken bread shared in remembrance of Jesus.

In fact, Francis lived so humbly and grew to care so little for the perishable and material things of the world that his admirers said he married poverty itself.

while still a youth he braved his father’s wrath, [writes Dante]

because he loved a lady to whom all

would bar their door as to death itself.

Before the bishop’s court et corum patre

he took this lady as his lawful wife;

from day to day he loved her more and more.

Just in case we miss his point, the poet concludes,
Enough of such allusions. In plain words

take Francis, now, and Poverty to be

the lovers in the story I have told. (Paradiso, XI, 58-63, 73-75)

An instrument of Christ’s peace, a lover of the poor and poverty itself, the patron saint of animals and the environment—if the title, Best Christian Ever, was a thing, that title just might belong to Francis.

Honestly, his reputation for living peaceably with God and God’s creation is so pristine that, even in our salacious age, one of the biggest revelations about Francis in a recent book was that we wasn’t a vegetarian. That’s it! That’s how high history sets the bar for this guy. That’s the level of reverence with which Christians of every tradition esteem Saint Francis.

I’ve shared Francis’ story this morning because I think it embodies the essential message of the passage we’ve read from Philippians. That message is the Good News that Jesus’ lordship, proven by his death and resurrection, exposes as liars everything and everyone else that promises to fulfill the deepest desires of our hearts.

In Francis’ case, change came when he realized that wealth and its privileges couldn’t do the trick. For Paul, it was the realization that he had reduced the religious life to a closed system of dos and don’ts and rules and regulations that actually resisted God’s Spirit instead of helping him to move in its flow. Both stories, therefore, invite us to offer up to God the hurt and scars empty and vain promises have left in us, trusting that God is faithful and will lead us to a hopeful future on secure and holy ground.

Look again at how Paul gets at this.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more.
In Paul’s social circle, this was the equivalent of someone telling you that they graduated at the top of their Ivy League class, landed their dream job after their first interview, and used last year’s bonus to buy the house from Downton Abbey.

But he goes on.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.
Paul’s imagery here brings to mind a financial ledger. He’s telling us that the things he used to value as assets have moved over to the other side, the gains have become losses, black has turned to red.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
This is Paul’s testimony, his account of the change Jesus worked in his life, and he wants the Philippians to know, he wants us to know, that God can bring change to our hearts, too.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
People of God, hear the Good News, Jesus does not draw near to us merely to mock us for falling for promises that proved to be empty and vain. Neither does Jesus judge us for the scars being burned by these promises have left.

Instead, he comes with grace, and love, and peace.

He comes to lead us to a hopeful future on secure and holy ground.

Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Let it be so with us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.