April 22, 2015

In this Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The door was locked, but they were exposed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation transformed Jacob’s fear into confession.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The God who gives direction to our hapless wandering,

The God who transforms fear into mission,

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

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

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

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

And then he began to explain just what was happening.

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

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

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

But they knew it now and so do we.

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

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

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

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

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

Let us be an Easter people.

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

Thanks be to God. Amen.

April 6, 2015

Go! (For Easter Sunday)

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

But first, a little bit of background.

The Divine Comedy is a seven hundred year old story about losing one’s way in life and the journey to go home again. It’s a story about Exile—Dante was exiled from his beloved hometown of Florence, Italy for backing the wrong political party. But it’s also a story about untying the knots and making sense out of the mess that life can become—a sentiment expressed beautifully and memorably in the poem’s opening lines.

Midway along the journey of our life

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

for I had wandered off from the straight path. (I.1-3)

For Dante, the journey back to the “straight path” was a miraculous trek through the afterlife, which, enabled him to meet his heroes, to see the consequences of sin, and, above all, to learn from the Redeemed the most important truths about himself and the God he worshipped.

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

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

He was a changed man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change my heart oh God, make it ever true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary went.

And like Mary, we can go.

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

This is the hope of Easter Sunday.

This is the promise of Resurrection.

This is Dante’s last and lasting realization.

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

At this point power failed high fantasy

but, like a wheel in perfect balance turning,

I felt my will and my desire impelled

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

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

I pray that you go in love…

go lifted by love,

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

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

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

Thanks be to God. Amen.

April 3, 2015

Held Fast (For Good Friday)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is crucified for me and you,

To bring us rebels back to God.

Believe, believe the record true,

Ye all are bought with Jesu’s blood.

Pardon for all flows from his side:

My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

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

Thanks be to God.

March 30, 2015

Schedule of Services for Holy Week

John Street Church is pleased to announce its schedule of services for Holy Week.

Wednesday April 1, 12:15PM Wonderful Wall Street Wednesday Holy Week Revival (Day 1), Rev. Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, preaching

Thursday April 2, 12:15PM Wonderful Wall Street Wednesday Holy Week Revival (Day 2), Rev. Dr. Henrietta Carter, pastor of Mariners' Temple Baptist Church, preaching

Thursday April 2, 7:00PM A Service of Word and Table for Holy Thursday, Rev. Jason Radmacher, pastor of John Street Church, preacher/celebrant

Friday April 3, 12:00PM A Service of God's Word for Good Friday, Rev. Jason Radmacher, pastor of John Street Church, preaching

Sunday April 5, 11:00AM A Service of Word and Table for Easter Sunday, Rev. Jason Radmacher, pastor of John Street Church, preacher/celebrant

John Street Church's Welcome Statement

Learning from 250 years of ministry, and following Jesus Christ today, John Street United Methodist Church invites into its fellowship all persons seeking to live in the Christian environment of the Church, and to receive its nurture and assistance throughout the course of their lives. This invitation is extended without regard to one's economic status, education, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, political beliefs, ethnic origin, or the present state of their spiritual journey.

We publicly affirm that we welcome all persons to participate fully in the worship, fellowship, educational, and service life of our church.

Unanimously approved by the John Street Church Conference, October 28, 2013

Love Shows Up

Saint Paul’s meditation on love is on my mind this morning.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends.

With all due respect to the Apostle, I believe there’s something missing from his iconic list, a quality of love that is as essential as any he describes.

In addition to being patient and kind and believing, hoping, and enduring all things, there can be no doubt that love, also, shows up.

In friendships and families, in profound displays of selflessness and simple gestures and kindness, love seeks its object. Love must be expressed. Love must become manifest.

Love shows up.

Your actions reminded me of this last week as Laura and I gathered with her family to remember her grandmother who passed away earlier this month. There, in a quiet funeral home on a sunny spring afternoon in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, as we shared innumerable stories of the ways in which Laura’s grandmother showed up for others, Laura and I saw the flowers sent by the John Street Church, and it meant a great deal to us. Though we were hundreds of miles away, our church showed up in that place. Love showed up.

The witness of Scripture testifies that God, “The King of Love” about whom we sing, embodies this same characteristic. In fact, said another way, whenever love leads us to show up and be present to one another we reflect, however imperfectly, the perfect love of God, whose very nature is to show up and to be present.

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” wondered the author of Psalm 139.

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

The Psalmist actually continues with this train of thought for a while—pondering and contemplating God’s holy presence—until, in a beautiful verse, he confesses the unfathomable depths of Divine Love.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!

I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

“I come to the end—I am still with you.” What a beautiful reminder that our story with God is, above all else, a love story.

Ours is a love story about the God who showed up to Noah and Abraham, in the Red Sea waters and on Sinai’s height.

This is a love story about the God who showed up with a message for the prophets and an eternal dynasty for King David.

We worship the God of Love who showed up in Palm Sunday’s procession and Good Friday’s Cross, who showed up in the tomb and in the garden, and the God who still shows up in the bread and the cup, in this church and on this city’s margins, in the poor and forgotten, in us and for us.

Love shows up.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

March 16, 2015

Snake Bit

John 3:16 is one of the Bible’s most treasured passages. Many Christians regard it as their favorite scripture, finding in these words a beautiful summary of the Good News and a powerful source of inspiration.

Given the esteemed place John 3:16 holds in the hearts of God’s people, therefore, and the number of bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, and religious nick-knacks it’s inspired, it’s more than a bit ironic that the verses that immediately precede it and give it its context reference one of the most mysterious and problematic objects ever mentioned in the Bible—the Brazen Serpent of the Exodus.

Hear again John’s words.

Jesus said,

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
This morning I hope to help us dig more deeply into the Good News of Jesus Christ by recounting the Brazen Serpent’s history, a story that begins in the book of the Bible called Numbers.

Numbers tells us that there came a point on the Exodus journey from Egypt to the Promised Land when God’s people became angry with Moses. Actually, the scripture says that there were many points on the journey when the people became angry with and questioned Moses. In this specific instance, the issue was a detour from what would have been the most straightforward road to their destination.

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.
This is an imperfect analogy, but imagine if you and I left New York this afternoon to drive to Washington D.C. and as soon as we came through the Holland Tunnel I told you that we were going to D.C. by way of Pittsburgh.

You’d certainly want to know why, and I’d probably have a hard time convincing you that I knew what I was doing, much less that I had your best interest in mind.

Perhaps this helps us to empathize with the Israelites’ point of view just a little bit.

But even still, the Exodus wasn’t just a road trip. It was a pilgrimage, a journey with God that was filled with sites and wonders. After all, these were travelers who had walked over the Red Sea without getting their feet wet, witnesses to the thunder and lightning at Mount Sinai, and recipients of manna from heaven on a daily basis. Their journey had been filled with grace, and God had never left them wanting, so when the people grumbled, Moses took it personally, and so, it seems, did God.

Numbers 21 says that the people complained against God and Moses—rejecting the gifts they’d been given to accomplish the task at hand.

[So] the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
What a wild story, right? Of all the moments in Israel’s history Jesus could have referenced—of all the people, places, and events he could have invoked to make his point about God’s love and the gifts of salvation and new life—why did he choose the one about a shiny snake on a stick?

But wait, before you answer that. There’s even more to this story.

The scene from Numbers isn’t the only time the scripture mentions the Bronze Serpent. It actually shows up again—several centuries later—in a book called Second Kings where it’s revealed that the object made by Moses became an idol, a bronze god that corrupted the peoples’ hearts.

In Second Kings, the Brazen Serpent is such an odious thing that a good king named Hezekiah destroys it.

[Hezekiah] did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done...He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.
And that’s the last mention in the Bible of the serpent until Saint John wrote his Gospel.

So, what do we make of this? Let’s review.

The Brazen Serpent was a relic from the Exodus fashioned by Moses at God’s command. Initially, the people associated this object with their prayers for deliverance and God’s gift of healing. The serpent was the sign that the Lord heard their prayers and wanted them to live. Over time, however, the object that was once a sign of God’s healing presence became an end to itself. The serpent, divorced from the story of God’s love, became an idol and King Hezekiah, a descendent of David, destroyed it.

Then, centuries later, Jesus, who was also a descendent of David, said that the Son of Man would be lifted up like the serpent, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Again, of all the moments in Israel’s history Jesus could have used to make his point, why this one?

I suppose the answer could be very simple. Maybe Jesus is saying, “Way back then people looked up at the serpent on the stick and lived, and now, people will look up at me when I’m lifted up and live, too.”

But that leaves out a lot of the story, doesn’t it? And it seems strange that Jesus would make a one-to-one favorable comparison between himself and an object that had to be destroyed because of the ill effects it had on God’s people.

No, I think if we want to understand what Jesus says in John 3, we need to remember the ultimate fate of the Brazen Serpent in Second Kings. We need to remember that when the people forgot the connection between the serpent and God’s love, the serpent ceased to be of any benefit to them.

Without the Good News of God’s mercy and forgiveness, the bronze serpent was just as bronze serpent.

Jesus, then, seems to be cautioning those who would be his disciples from separating his story from the epic story of God’s love for all Creation.

In John 3, Jesus pushes us to recognize that when he welcomed the poor and outcast into his heart, when he healed the sick and cast out demons, when he died on a cross, rose from the grave, and ascended into Heaven he was bringing to life—bringing to flesh—the steadfast, all excelling love of God.

Without love the bronze serpent was just as bronze serpent.

Without love, to paraphrase Saint Paul, Christians and the story we tell is just a lot of noise.

Some Christians live with so little joy that they make people think that Good Friday is the end of our story.

Some wear a bejeweled cross over a heart filled with greed and materialism without a hint of irony.

Some seem so intent on condemning others to Hell that we have to wonder if they think that really matters is how many people they crucify, not their willingness to pick up their own cross and follow Jesus.

Think about it. One of the vilest expressions of hate in our culture is a burning cross, a symbol used by racist Christians to demean, intimidate, and terrorize their neighbors.

These are people who have forgotten their story, who have forgotten God’s story. Their sinful attitudes are Brazen Serpents that need to be smashed.

And whenever we act as though Christianity is more about putting people in their place, rather than lifting them up in Jesus name…

More about the indignation we feel at our perceived loss of privilege, than the compassion we feel for the outcast and marginalized…

More about us than anything else, then we have to confess that we’re still vulnerable to snake bites, too.

Thank God there’s a healer in our midst.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

March 9, 2015

Cleanse the Temple of My Heart

Jerusalem buzzed with anticipation for the upcoming Passover festival. Narrow streets burst with locals and as many as one hundred thousand pilgrims who had made their way to the Holy City for the annual celebration of God’s Law and the people’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt to freedom in a place to call their own.

Pilgrims came from the farthest corners of Rome’s Empire—from North Africa and Southern Europe—places like Libya, Greece, France, and Spain.

Pilgrims came out of sense of duty, desire, and devotion. Celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem was a big deal, a once in a lifetime opportunity for most faithful Jews, especially those who had to travel a great distance to get there.

But for the pilgrims who reached their destination, stretched budgets and sore feet were worth the experience of jaw-dropped and awe-inspired speechlessness that washed over them when they first caught a glimpse of the Temple on the horizon.

Remember the first time your plane began its descent into New York and you pressed your face against the window just to take in the scene?

The Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, the lights stretching out for as far as the eye could see—as awesome as that experience can be, I doubt it even comes close to the experience of ancient people making pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

What an incredible sight it must have been.

It was certainly a sight that stirred up something within Jesus.

That something is the subject of this morning’s Gospel Lesson, a passage commonly called “The Cleansing of the Temple.”

In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
Now the first thing that we need to grasp about this scene is that it didn’t take place in the Temple gift shop. This is not about souvenirs, knickknacks, and postcards. It’s about worship and justice.

You may recall that animals had an essential part to play in worship that took place in the Temple. Animals were sacrificed there, and because a sacrificial animal should be healthy and without blemish, and because getting yourself from, let’s say, Cairo to Jerusalem in one piece was difficult enough, officials allowed pilgrims to purchase animals on site rather than show up with a sheep that had just walked a thousand miles.

In Jesus’ day, money changers had also come to play an important role on Temple Mount. Money changers offered to exchange the pilgrims’ currency—which probably bore a blasphemous phrase or image praising Rome’s Emperor—for coins that were holy, sacred, and deemed to be an acceptable offering to God.

On one level, then, we could say that the people trading in animals and coins in the Temple were providing a valuable service. They were just filling a need that the pilgrimage market created.

But these brokers were providing more than a service. They were providing for themselves. Specifically, they were providing for themselves through a system built on exploitation.

You see, the market prices for animals were ridiculously inflated in an attempt to wring as much money as possible out of the faithful. After all, where else could they go to make their sacrifice? (There wasn’t any place else!)

Likewise, incredibly low exchange rates gave the pilgrims a terrible return on their investment.

It was a system ripe with corruption.

In fact, we know all of this because Jesus wasn’t the first person to call out the money changer’s corrupt practices. Other rabbis spoke out about these abuses. They called for reform. They called for lower prices. They, like Jesus, sought to remove the economic barriers that people were trying to build between God and the poorest of God’s people, the same barrier that gets patched up and built higher anytime anyone anywhere acts as though God’s love, grace, blessings, and forgiveness have a price tag that worshipers must pay.

With this timeless message before us, therefore, as we continue our Lenten pilgrimage with Jesus toward the cross, today we see that a Christ-centered life and a Christ-centered community zealously pursues justice for the poor because any group that makes peace with oppression cannot bear witness to God’s Good News.

Oppression and crippling poverty are not part of God’s redemptive plans for Creation. We know this because God’s disdain for exploitive practices and arrogant attitudes is one of the strongest threads holding the Bible together.

God told Egypt’s Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” and then told Moses and the Exodus people neither to steal nor lie, nor even to covet the things that belonged to another.

Later, prophets like Amos and Hosea proclaimed judgment against those who would “trample on the poor,” called them to repentance and “to hate evil, love good, and establish justice.”

Proverbs taught the faithful that “those who oppress the poor are an insult to their Maker.”

And the Psalms lift up praises to the One who, as a modern translation says it, “puts victims back on their feet.”

As Christians we believe that Jesus perfectly embodies this same message in the words he spoke, the life he lived, the death he died, and the reign he has begun.

We affirm around the Lord’s Table that God’s Spirit anointed Jesus to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, and sight to the blind—“to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to announce that the time had come when he would save God’s people.”

We say “Yes!” in baptism to the freedom and power God gives us “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression.”

And, at our best, we recognize that our Methodist ancestors grasped the truth when they confessed that there can be no real religion of the heart without the work of holy hands—that “there can be no holiness without social holiness.”

The Good News of Jesus Christ is Good News for the poor. He said so himself. But it’s also Good News for those who would marginalize them. It’s Good News for the money changers, too, because it tells them that they—that we—don’t have to go on living like that.

This is Good News for the rich and poor, for the slave and master, for kings and paupers because all are created in the same likeness—the Image of God. And if we can say anything about Jesus it is that his outstretched arms are wide enough to embrace all of God’s children—no matter where they’ve been, what they’ve done, or what they’ve put others through.

I’m convinced that cleansing the Temple was just as much about saving the money changers as it was standing with the poor. In the same way that God’s prophets went to extreme measures in order to bring God’s people to repentance, Jesus gave those who were profiting through dishonest means an opportunity to change their ways. He liberated them from their greed by shining a light onto an oppressive practice and revealing the way of salvation to the oppressed and the oppressor alike.

Now, Scripture doesn’t tell us what became of those money changers. For all that we know they were in the crowd shouting “Crucify him!” on the day Jesus died, a fitting end, in their estimation, for the rabble rouser who screwed up their profit margins.

But maybe, just maybe, cleansing the Temple got through to somebody. Maybe a former money changer changed his ways. Maybe he paid back those he had wronged. Maybe he was there when the news arrived that the tomb was empty. Maybe the day that Jesus turned over his table was the day Jesus turned around his life.

A Christ-centered life and a Christ-centered community zealously pursues justice for the poor because any group that makes peace with oppression cannot bear witness to God’s Good News.

As our pace toward Holy Week quickens, let us remember and ponder the Cleansing of the Temple—this sign, as Saint John calls it.

Let us do justice and love kindness.

Let us put down the tools of power and privilege so that we might take up the work of love and truth-telling, building a beloved community where enmity once held sway.

And let us always give thanks to God for the Good News of the Table-Turning-Life-Changing Christ.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.