July 26, 2015

Walking Contradiction

King David was a walking contradiction. He was a man of extreme faith, even giant-slaying faith, but, as king, he turned on old allies, waged aggressive wars, required military service of his citizens, and employed a professional mercenary force.

King David lived a life of extremes. His is a story that has us shaking our heads on one page saying, “Wow, I could never do that,” only to turn the page and gasp, “Oh my God, I would never do that!”

“David was a star,” remarked Bono, “the Elvis of the Bible”—an apt description even if David never played Vegas.

David had an eye for beauty, a passionate soul, and a talent for expressing the wide range of human emotion. He either wrote or had written in his honor some of the most famous song lyrics ever written; lyrics like “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want,” lyrics like, “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined and heard my cry.”

But, again, David was a walking contradiction.

The same soul that saw God’s beauty and majesty also saw a darkness, and when David gave himself over to that darkness, he unleashed chaos in his kingdom and in his spirit.

David’s dance with the darkness created a scandal that had it all—vile corruption, virtuous victims, lies, treachery, and murder.

We pick up the story in Second Samuel, which tells us that it was springtime, “the time of year when kings go to war.” That particular spring David’s sights were set on a specific enemy, the Ammonites.

A year or so earlier, Ammonite-Judean relations took a turn for the worse when the Ammonite king arrested David’s ambassador to his kingdom, charged him with espionage, and humiliated him by shaving his head—a definite breech of diplomatic protocol.

This political crisis led to a war in which David’s forces gained a decisive advantage by inflicting over 40000 casualties on Ammon, an advantage David hoped would lead to total victory in the New Year.

Now, even at this point in the story, even before any mention of THE scandal of David’s life, we have to admit that the king’s actions are, at best, highly questionable.

Over 40000 human casualties because of a diplomatic misunderstanding? Was this really the kind of leadership God wanted from his anointed one?

The campaign against Ammon, however, merely set the stage on which David’s greatest scandal played out, a scene set in motion one afternoon when the king spied his neighbor Bathsheba and decided that he wanted her for himself.

The Scripture describes the subsequent string of events with disturbing brevity saying simply that David, “sent for her, and when she came to the palace, he slept with her.”

There’s no hint of seduction, only an exercise of the king’s power and depravity.

Afterward, David sent Bathsheba home, but the scandal he had created was just beginning.

Bathsheba soon sent word to the palace that she was pregnant with David’s child. It was the last thing that David wanted to hear; evidence of his infidelity and a potential heir to his throne. His response, nevertheless, was bone chilling.

David quickly called Bathsheba’s husband—a man named Uriah and one of the king’s soliders—back from the battle hoping that a week’s leave would lead to a happy reunion of husband and wife, the kind of reunion that everyone, especially Uriah, would remember a few months later when Bathsheba gave birth.

Bathsheba’s husband, however, proved far more honorable than devious David anticipated. Despite David’s prodding, Uriah would not go home to his wife. He refused to indulge in such pleasures while his band of brothers were looking across the line sat the enemy, and nothing David did could change his mind.

He tried to bribe him.

He tried to engage him in bawdy bar room talk.

He even tried to get him drunk, but Uriah’s virtue never wavered, and he made plans to rejoin his comrades

. David’s cool now turned to panic.

He was already willing to abuse his power and his people—he was willing to base military decisions on how best to cover his own misdeeds—but now he would add murder to his résumé.

David ordered his top general to send Uriah to the front line, and then to withdraw all others from his side, thus ensuring the honorable soldier’s death.

It was a perfect crime.

It’s also a sick story, isn’t it?

On their own, the actions described here are despicable, but to see someone with David’s potential and someone from whom so much was expected sink so low adds exponentially to the scene’s pathos.

Of course, we could keep on reading. We could read about how the prophet Nathan called David to account, how David faced the truth, confessed his sin, ultimately found forgiveness from God in a tremendous display of divine grace, and how he and Bathsheba both found a place in the genealogy of Jesus. That’s all part of the story and part of what makes David such in interesting and complex figure.

But for today, we need to stay right where we are, with David at his worst.

I heard a sermon a few years ago in which the preacher argued that in his crimes against Bathsheba and her husband, David broke everyone one of the Ten Commandments. It was an interesting sermon, and not altogether forced, for David’s actions certainly show contempt for the fundamental principles of loving God and neighbor.

In fact, it’s obvious to me that the only person whom David was interested in loving was himself and narcissism like that always runs counter to God’s desires.

The twisted love of self that leads to wanton consumption stands in sharp contrast to the outward flowing and sharing love God gives and inspires, and in this case, it’s that twisted love that places David in the unenviable company of history’s worst despots, leaders who used their power to line their own pockets and bolster their own list of conquests.

David, God’s chosen king, ultimately behaved like every other land-grabbing, woman-chasing, power-hungry tyrant (and this is the picture that people who liked him decided to write!)

So what are we to do with this?

What does this say about David?

What does this say about us?

I don’t think that there’s any doubt that David’s failure serves as a cautionary tale about our ability to deceive ourselves, to harm others, and to treat others as pawns in order to satisfy our own desires.

David had so much. He had seen God’s promises manifest in his life and he had risen to a position of great power and privilege, but he gave into the temptation to forsake the blessings he had received and to define himself only by what we could take for himself.

If we—who also have so much—can’t see something of ourselves in David’s story, then I think it’s pretty clear that we’re reading it wrong.

The New Testament’s Letter of Second Timothy notes,

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
The story of David’s crimes does this by revealing the truth about our wandering hearts.

Gratitude escapes us, envy has its charms, and David isn’t the only person who sang praises to God one day and hurt and harmed and plotted and schemed and lied on the next.

David was a walking contradiction and so are we.

Prone to wander, though, we, like David, are also anointed and beloved of God. We’re offered forgiveness and mercy and shown the triumph of God’s compassion over our appetite for consumption.

We are blessed to be a blessing, because, in spite of ourselves, God loves us and gives us work to do.

This is the substance of the Good News. Our fundamental challenge, then, is to bring this Gospel message—this love story—to life through our acts of faith and devotion.

This, after all, is the love story about the Creator of all things dwelling within and among each one of us, flawed though we are.

This is the love story about the unimaginable holy hospitality that leads ordinary people like you and me to open our hearts to others even as we’re still learning about the amazing grace God shows to us.

This is the story in which light and life and love have the last word, not death; the story about a Sunday morning, long ago, on which Jesus’ friends found his empty tomb.

Our task as disciples of Jesus Christ is to live out this love story so that anyone who is already convinced about the power of their own failures, but still on the fence about the reality of God’s grace, can get a glimpse and a taste of just how much God loves them, could come to know that Divine Love which excels all others, could experience in the depth of their being the love that is stronger than our sin is foul.

That is our mission. That’s the teaching, reproof, and training David’s story offers us. That’s who we are —a wandering and flawed people, yes, but a people being shaped by and committed to sharing a love that will not let go.

Prone to wander, we, like David, are also anointed and beloved of God. We’re offered forgiveness and mercy and shown the triumph of God’s compassion over our appetite for consumption.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

July 12, 2015

Pride Robs Justice

The similarities between Jesus and his recently deceased colleague and mentor, John the Baptist, caused a lot of people to start talking. And when excited people started talking, then as now, the lines between truth and fiction became awfully cloudy.

“Did you know that Jesus is John come back from the dead?”

“No, he’s Elijah, the greatest prophet in the history of our people.”

“No, he’s a new prophet, unlike any other”

On dusty roads and in crowded markets, the people speculated about who this healer, teacher, and miracle worker named Jesus really was.

The Galilean king named Herod Antipas even had an opinion. Herod believed that Jesus was John, whom he had executed, come back from the dead.

Herod, you see, had arrested John soon after he baptized Jesus in that famous scene at the Jordan River. The charge was that John had made the king angry because he dared to point out that good leaders of the Jewish people don’t go around marrying their sisters-in-law, which is exactly what Herod had done, a direct violation of Jewish law and, therefore, a threat to his already tenuous grip on the throne.

Herod wanted John dead, but carrying out a death sentence would have been a political disaster for the king. After all, John was a popular figure known by many as a righteous, just, and holy man.

Herod might have been a homicidal tyrant, but he was still a good politician who knew better than to execute a folk hero.

Unable to eliminate John, Herod kept him around long enough for a new routine to develop. Mark indicates that while John remained a prisoner in Herod’s court, the king granted him permission to speak, and, though Herod obviously missed the point of John’s preaching, he derived enough enjoyment from listening to him to call off his imminent execution.

John was safe, that is a safe as one could be with Herod calling the shots.

Soon the king’s birthday arrived, bringing with it a tremendous feast and throngs of his closest friends, courtiers, and sycophants. Herod’s own daughter provided the entertainment. W

hen his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
The request deeply grieved Herod, but he had given his word in front of all his guests. Already fearing that power would slip away from him, Herod couldn’t risk the embarrassment of going back on a promise made to his own daughter while a room full of dignitaries watched, so he gave the order for the execution of the righteous, just, and holy John.
Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When [John’s] disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
With this, Mark drops John’s story line and immediately moves to another episode in the life of Jesus. As listeners, however, we find it hard to jump to something new so quickly. We need to linger here for a moment in order to process what just happened.

Why does Mark tell us this story? What’s the point? What lesson, what Good News, can we find here?

I think there’s a lot happening here and many reasons Mark might tell us the news of John’s demise.

First, John’s death foreshadows Jesus’ own and that’s significant because it reveals that the Way of God is not the same thing as the path of least resistance. In fact, doing what is right and good and true might come at a terrible cost. Mark seems clear about this.

One will also note that the circumstances surrounding John’s death also reveal something about the age-old conflict between those who are hungry for power and those with an insatiable thirst for the truth. Truth tellers have always had a way of pointing out the foolishness of tyrants, and tyrants have always had a way of turning truth tellers into martyrs.

Certainly these interpretations are faithful to Mark’s intentions. However, there’s a third point on which I want to focus today.

I want to focus on what Herod’s execution of John says about us—the truth it reveals about the human condition.

That truth is that pride always robs justice of its due because pride—that is believing self-serving lies about one’s self, station, and status—always seeks to obscure the truth. And justice always requires the truth.

We saw this in the scripture last week when the people of Jesus’ hometown just couldn’t get over their elitist attitudes when Jesus began to preach and, as a consequence, how they drove him away.

“He’s just a carpenter,” they said. “He’s Mary’s kid.”

And the people who were too proud to listen to a working class kid named Jesus “took offense at him.”

The Word of God had his sermon cut short because he didn’t have a proper résumé.

Likewise, biblical books like Psalms and Proverbs repeatedly speak of the relationship between the pride in our hearts and our capacity to harm others.

“Pride goes before destruction,” says Proverbs, “and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

Those who “wear pride like a necklace” will be clothed in violence says the Psalmist.

And so it is that Herod’s pride led him to value saving face more than John’s life, giving us one more example of pride’s crimes against justice.

Beyond the scripture, another powerful example of the truth about us comes from our church’s history.

In 1939, the two main branches of the Methodist Church in the Unites States that split from one another prior to the Civil War gathered in Kansas City to discuss reunification. The Uniting Conference, as it is remembered, was a time of celebration for many of its participants, the attitude of which was articulated in the words of the church’s bishops who said, “Methodism in America proclaims to the world today, with great joy, the culmination of one of the most outstanding and far-reaching movements which the Church of Christ has ever witnessed.” It was a warm fuzzy moment in the history of the Church, and Methodists were proud of a job well done.

But there was a problem with the plan of reunion. One of the conditions of reuniting Methodists from the North and the South was that the newly formed church would be racially segregated, a policy that was on the books until the 1960s.

The “most outstanding and far-reaching movement” that got the bishops all choked up was, in essence, Jim Crow’s baptism.

This example from our own church’s history should give us pause.

Perhaps history would have been kinder to the 1939 Conference if the bishops’ assessment had been more modest, more humble, more truthful.

Of course, it would have been a tremendous moment in our tradition and a watershed moment in U.S. history if Methodists from the North and South could have united around the good work of desegregation and equality 75 years ago.

One’s imagination runs wild considering the course the Civil Rights Movement could have charted if that would’ve happened.

But given the decisions that were made, I can’t help but think that it would have been a significant improvement if the church’s leaders could have just acknowledged that their unity plan was, at best, terribly flawed and the tiniest step toward what they hoped would be a more just future.

If only they could have admitted that the plan was a disaster, even if it was the best that they could do, then that would have been preferable to grand and pompous statements.

“The culmination of one of the most outstanding and far-reaching movements which the Church of Christ has ever witnessed.”—no, not at all.

Like John’s execution, the Uniting Conference of 1939 was a clear case of pride robbing justice.

But, in the final analysis, each of us, like the bishops of ‘39, has proven that self-congratulation is much easier to express than the humility that leads to confession.

Like Herod, each of us, with bruised egos, have hurt and harmed our neighbors.

In the practice of pride, we’re all experts.

The truth about us is that our pride always robs justice of its due because pride always seeks to obscure the truth. And justice always requires the truth.

With the Spirit’s help, let us choose a better path—the way of humility and love, the way of the cross, the way of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

June 28, 2015

Scandalously Reckless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two amazing things seemed to happen in an instance.

Mark’s characteristically breathless style serves the moment well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it wasn’t so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus was sent in the likeness of sin.

Jesus became a curse.

Jesus became sin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it is the Good News of New Creation.

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

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

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

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

June 21, 2015

Goliath's Lies

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

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

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

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

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

David spoke,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear made him powerful.

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

They feed on fear.

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

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

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

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

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

They mock the name of God.

They slander the Almighty.

They heap abuse on God’s Children.

And David would have none of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reporting from that courtroom the New York Times concluded,

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

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

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

The words of Saint Paul come to mind.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Greater than giants are they who call on the LORD.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

June 1, 2015

A Dose of His Own Medicine

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

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

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

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

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

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

John’s Gospel sets up the story like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Nicodemus has a quick retort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened to you?” his pastor asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that brings us back to Nicodemus.

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

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

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

He wanted to be with Jesus.

Nicodemus had been born again.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

May 12, 2015

Pass the Peace, Please: Embracing the "Spiritual But Not Religious"

The journal Liturgy published my article today. Click the link below to read it.

Pass the Peace, Please: Embracing the "Spiritual But Not Religious"

By Jason P. Radmacher

Please be aware that the publishing agreement allows for a limited number of free clicks. After that, the article goes behind the journal's pay wall.

May 10, 2015

Mother Heck

Christians find the roots of Saint Paul’s world changing ministry in his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. As Johnny Cash puts it, Paul was blinded there so that he could see the Man in White.

Likewise, we trace the beginnings of the revival sparked by Saint Francis to a moment when he heard the voice of Jesus say, “Go rebuild my church.” Francis obeyed, sometimes using stones and timber to complete his task, but always employing his most effective tool—love.

And the genesis of our Methodist tradition, the pivotal point in John Wesley’s life that transformed him from a failed missionary to one of the most powerful preachers of Good News in the last three hundred years, was a prayer meeting on a London street called Aldersgate that left Wesley’s heart “strangely warmed.”

John Street Church, however, began around a card table.

I tell the story of that infamous game of cards often, but since the star of the story—Barbara Heck—became known to later generations as “The Mother of American Methodism,” this Mothers’ Day seems like a good time to tell it again.

It was early autumn in 1766. Six years earlier, Philip Embury, Barbara’s cousin, organized a group of about 40 people to sail from Limerick City, Ireland to New York. Barbara, Philip, and many others in the group were Irish Methodists, their faith nurtured by the ministry of John Wesley and his preachers.

Philip had actually become a Methodist preacher, too, but it was a simple hope for a better life, not religious zeal, that carried the crew across the Atlantic.

The group from Limerick only wanted to stay in New York a little while as they pursued their ultimate goal of purchasing farmland up the Hudson River.

But a little while became six years. During that time the group—especially the Emburys and Hecks—endured countless hardships and heartbreaks.

Money was tight. The economy had tanked soon after their arrival.

Navigating the real estate market was a chore. Not only were they still living in the city, but they’d probably been swindled out of some money a time or two.

The colonies seemed to be on a collision course with a political revolution, but Philip and Barbara were loyal to England’s king.

Above these, though, grief was their ever-present challenge. In the six years since coming to America, the Emburys and Hecks had mourned the deaths of five small children and Philip’s beloved brother.

Eula Lapp, the Canadian historian who wrote the go-to book about our congregation’s founders, offers what I believe to be a convincing account of Barbara’s state of mind at the end of summer 1766.

Lapp notes,

[Barbara experienced] a growing revulsion against [the group’s] sordid worldly environment and the mundane trivialities to which their lives were drifting. Through the chastening of sorrow and through her habit of constant prayer, she had seen the contrast between this life and that they had known among the Wesleyans in Ireland. She had begun to yearn for a change, for some renewal of their personal religion. (Lapp, pp 115-116)
That famous game of cards became the catalyst that transformed Barbara’s misgivings about where their group was heading and her desire for revival into action—specifically the actions that gave birth to this community.

It all took place one evening during the second week of October. That night, Barbara paid a visit to some old Irish Methodist friends.

A friend of the Emburys records what happened.

Mrs. Heck making an evening call on one of her neighbours, found them…playing cards. Bringing her arms with a sweep across the table she struck the deck of cards and dashed them into the fire, and said, ‘Now look at your idols; there are your gods!’ (Mason in Lapp, p. 113)
While the cards were still burning, Barbara rushed to Philip’s house and pleaded with her cousin to take up the mantle of preaching again. When Philip resisted, saying that he had neither a place to preach nor a congregation, she encouraged him to start in his house with their families and friends.

And so it came to pass—on the very next Sunday, October 12—that Philip preached in his home to a small congregation of six people, including Barbara and one of the young men whose card game she had broken up just a few days earlier, the event history marks as John Street Church’s first worship service.

It started with a deck of cards.

I admit that I thought this story was absolutely crazy the first time I heard it.

So the oldest Methodist congregation in America began with a deck of cards being thrown into the fire and Barbara Heck storming out of the room while I group of stunned Irishmen sat there stunned and wondering what just happened?

It seems a far cry from the miracle of Pentecost, or the Damascus Road, or even Aldersgate.

But living with this story for several years, I’ve truly come to love it, and Barbara Heck, too.

I love that our story has its roots in the lives of people who were simply trying to live out their faith while making a living in this city.

There’s nothing here about a people pretending to have all the answers. Instead, there’s an honest admission that their lives had not turned out the way they hoped and they needed some help to figure out what would come next.

In fact, I think that their honesty about themselves and their need for God’s grace was the primary reason Barbara Heck and Philip Embury left their mark on the city’s religious landscape.

Oh sure, you can do a lot in the name of religion by telling everybody else what they’re doing wrong, but it seems to me that the Gospel is most authentically and effectively proclaimed when God’s people are crystal clear that we need this just as much, if not more, than anyone else.

This is our daily bread.

This is the living water that I need to give me strength and satisfy my soul’s desire and there’s plenty more for anyone else who wants to drink, too.

That’s what I admire most about Barbara.

We need not strain our imaginations to picture a scenario in which the scene that follows the interrupted card game involves Barbara talking trash about those old Irish Methodist friends.

“Philip,” she might have said, “you are not going to believe what was going on over there. Can you imagine that those people would do something like that?”

One suspects that a little bit of gossip, not a two hundred fifty year old church, was the most likely result of the interrupted card game.

But instead of throwing shade at her friends, Barbara recognized that, just as much as anyone else, she needed the love of God to light her way.

Instead of tearing down others, Barbara worked to build something new—something for them, something for herself, something for anyone in this city who has ever come to one of life’s crossroads and confessed that they honestly could not figure out which way to go.

Friends, we are that something.

This church started around a card table, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Once, when speaking to his disciples, Jesus said,

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you...”
Sometime later, Saint John said something very similar.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.
For Christians, loving God and loving one another are inextricably bound. Loving and being loved in such a way propels us to make friends of strangers, partners of the hurting, and brothers and sisters of the lonely and lost.

In Christ, Sunday morning worship, Monday morning commutes, late night worries, and day after regrets are all held together. In Christ we are one body. We are one love.

Barbara Heck’s actions in the early autumn of 1766 demonstrate this holy love.

Where others have chosen to justify themselves by casting stones, she recognized that she needed to lay her burdens down.

Where others have seized an opportunity to tear down and belittle, she chose to build up and empower.

Where others have come to this city with the intention of becoming kings, she came with the intention of making life better for those who would follow and, in doing so, earned a far greater title.

Barbara Heck is our mother and her witness points us to the saving grace and sustaining love of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.