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.

February 22, 2015

Show Me the Way

New York State outlawed slavery in 1827, but a variety of interests kept slavery at the forefront of the public’s consciousness until the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished the practice nationally, in 1865.

Many New Yorkers, especially wealthy investors, resisted calls for emancipation because of the city’s close economic ties to the nation’s cotton industry. Wall Street bankrolled the planting and harvesting of cotton in the South, the New England textile factories that spun cotton into fabric, and the buying and selling of African Americans whose forced labor in the cotton fields led to increased profits for everybody else. The cotton economy, including slavery, was so intrinsic to the New York way of life that in the historic presidential election of 1860 nearly two out of every three votes cast in the city went against Abraham Lincoln for fear of what his policies—which weren’t exactly radical—might do to this lucrative market.

While many New Yorkers supported slavery, some took up the cause of abolition, the effort to bring about slavery’s end. Some abolitionists wanted immediate change and were willing to break the law to make it happen, while others preferred a more gradual transition to freedom, yet they all agreed that slavery was an odious institution that needed to end.

In the decade before our nation went to war against itself, no single issue drew the pro and anti-slavery parties into the fray like a piece of legislation called the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Designed to protect the investments of interested parties, this federal law made it a crime to assist runaway slaves in any way, even in states where slavery was illegal.

The Fugitive Slave Act is the legal reason why the Underground Railroad had to be secret. Its passage made criminals of heroes of the American Exodus like Harriet Tubman while it empowered a cabal of kidnappers and corrupt officials who walked the streets of northern cities with impunity.

The fact that someone who offered a meal to a runaway could be sent to prison and fined the equivalent of $25000 under this law while slave catchers who violently seized families and separated children from their parents had the weight of the government behind their actions is one of the reasons that Frederick Douglass said that the Slave Act was born in hell, and why modern American historians regard it as one of the worst laws ever passed.

Throughout the 1850s, despite being more than hundred miles north of the Mason Dixon Line, the institution of slavery and the experience of enslaved people were ever present in the daily lives of New Yorkers and the members of this church.

They thought about slavery. They debated slavery. Some benefited from it. Some worked to abolish it. And thanks to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, all had to ask themselves some important questions, “What would I do if a runaway approached me and asked for help? Would I risk my freedom to break the law and assist them on their way, or would I turn them in, maybe even claim a reward?”

A few weeks ago, I found a sermon in our archives that attempted to help the members of John Street Church faithfully answer these questions. Undated and unsigned, I don’t know who wrote this sermon—it’s a sermon outline, actually—or the date they preached it, but it’s a pretty safe guess that sometime in the 1850s the pastor of John Street stood where I’m standing and delivered it to the congregation sitting in the pews where you sit.

The pastor spoke about the national debate, he raised the moral question, he examined several passages of scripture, and he concluded that the good God-fearing Methodists on John Street shouldn’t break the law. They shouldn’t help runaway slaves escape to freedom.

Learning history can be a sobering exercise. Learning church history can be especially humbling, even humiliating.

How exciting it would be to find an old sermon in which the preacher offered a stirring defense of freedom, a theological explanation of the Image of God borne by all people, and a call to offer hospitality to and to seek justice for all God’s children, the Fugitive Slave Act be damned?

That’s certainly what I hoped to find when I laid eyes on those aged pages, rather than an embarrassing chapter from our sinful past.

Thankfully, we have come to believe that it’s more important to be honest about our history than whitewashing the past and puffing up our egos with stories about how great our ancestors were, because attempting to be honest about the past is a vital step in our efforts to live honestly today.

I think we see the value of wrestling with the past, not just so that we can stand in judgment of it—insisting that we would’ve known better—but so that we can see ourselves in it.

I want to believe that I would’ve been repulsed to hear a sermon preached in favor the Fugitive Slave Act, but when I realize that the preacher was simply encouraging the church to follow a federal law that had been passed with what we would call bipartisan support and presented as the best hope at keeping the country from falling apart, I’m given pause.

You see, we have no reason to believe that our old preacher’s sermon was in anyway controversial, no reason to think that the people thought their shepherd was leading the congregation astray, no reason to think either the preacher or the congregation thought that they were hearing anything less than the Gospel truth.

They were blind to the harm they were causing, blind to their sin, and it seems a reasonable conclusion that so are we.

We are oh-so-capable of remaining blissfully unaware of the harm we cause, the way in which we benefit from other peoples’ pain, of the way, as Rev. Peter Storey puts it, we allow institutions to do our sinning for us.

Reflecting on the way in which sin befouled his sight, John Newton—a slave trader turned preacher of repentance—famously wrote, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

The witness of the ages, therefore, leads us to acknowledge that the thoughts and actions of the people who gathered in this space in 1850 weren’t just the products of a 19th century worldview and a slave-based economic system. No, our ancestors’ thoughts and actions were the product of the Deceiver’s lies and Adam and Eve’s fall—an inheritance in which we also share.

If history teaches us anything it’s how grave an error it is to assume one’s present generation is inherently morally superior to its predecessors simply by virtue of being born at a later date.

They were blind and so are we. This is the reality that beckons us into this season called Lent.

During Lent we intend to unite our prayers and sacrifices with God’s desires for us so that we might discern—so that we might see—the truth about ourselves to which we are currently blind and the path God sets before us whose trail head we just can’t find on our own.

We sing, “Be thou my vision,” because we need God to show us the way out of sin, over temptation, and directly to God’s Holy Presence and the blessings God would give us.

In this way, we follow Jesus who for a season entered the wilderness to pray, who faced temptation there, and who emerged with a clear sense of where he was going—to the poor and outcast, to the sick and lonely, to you and to me, to the Cross and his Father’s right hand.

“Be thou my vision.” Show me the way that I should go because I just can’t find it on my own and I’m hurting others as I stumble through the darkness.

George Orwell once wrote, “To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.”

In a moment of what even Orwell would call clarity, Saint Paul wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

In the light of these insights and the lessons learned from the recent find in our archives, I pray that this season brings to us clarity about the sins to which we are currently blind, a view of the path we’re called to travel, and a vision of the One whose boundless mercy makes this a journey worth making.

During Lent we intend to unite our prayers and sacrifices with God’s desires for us so that we might discern—so that we might see—the truth about ourselves to which we are currently blind and the path God sets before us whose trail head we just can’t find on our own.

“To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.”

Let us not shy away from this struggle.

Let’s endeavor to live honestly so that others would have reason to join us in giving thanks to God for this vision of mercy and love, for the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

February 15, 2015

The Real You Speaks

In C.S. Lewis’ book Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, the British author and Christian thinker picks up a metaphor about life many readers first encounter in Shakespeare’s Macbeth—the thought that life is a stage on which all our dramas play out. However, while Shakespeare’s treacherous king sees this comparison as a sign of life’s futility—“a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”—Lewis pushes his readers to think about the roles all of us play in life; the ways in which relationships and expectations shape us and our efforts to manage how others perceive us. In doing so, Lewis beautifully and creatively describes prayer as the gift given to us to elevate our status from poor, strutting, fretting players to complete and fully realized children of God. It is prayer, Lewis states, that helps us understand who and whose we really are.

He writes,

I cannot, in the flesh, leave the stage, either to go behind the scenes or take my seat in the pit; but I can remember that these regions exist. And I also remember that my apparent self—this clown or hero or super—under his grease-paint is a real self with an off-stage life…[In] prayer this real I struggles to speak, for once, from his real being, and to address, for once, not the other actors, but—what shall I call Him? The Author, for He invented us all? The Producer, for He controls all? Or the Audience, for He watches, and will judge, the performance? (Letter 15)
Prayer, therefore, is an exercise in finding one’s own voice—finding one’s real voice—through communication with the God revealed in Jesus Christ—the Ultimate Reality.

“The prayer preceding all prayers,” Lewis writes, “[the prayer that is the beginning of prayer] is “May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.”

The story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is about reality, about life as it really is.

Who is Jesus, really, what does it really mean to be his disciple, and what difference does it all really make?

Questions like these filled the air on Mount Tabor and give substance to our experience of Good News this morning.

The early chapters of Mark and the other Gospels tell us that once Jesus entered the public arena, he quickly developed a reputation as a powerful teacher and healer in his home region of Galilee. He demonstrated a special concern for his society’s outcasts—the lepers, the sick, and the poor, among others. He showed a tremendous willingness to challenge traditions and attitudes that separated religious observance from doing good to others. And Jesus established himself as a rabbi—as a teacher—by calling disciples to follow in his steps and to learn from his wisdom.

The Gospels also tell us how those disciples began to spread their wings by ministering throughout Galilee in Jesus’ name. They developed their own reputations as teachers and healers, took Good News to the poor and outcast, and, along the way, they began to realize that they were following an extraordinary Master.

In fact, immediately before the events recorded in this morning’s Gospel lesson, one of the disciples, Peter, confessed how extraordinary he believed Jesus was.

“Who do you say that I am?” asked Jesus.

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah of God.”

Peter’s proclamation that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah of God’s People was a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. It closed one chapter and opened another, the horror and beauty of which Peter could not imagine, but a chapter that Jesus immediately began to write.

While Peter’s good words hung in the air—Jesus spoke, for the first time, about his own death and resurrection.

And as all that they had heard—the magnitude of Peter’s confession and Jesus’ response—settled over the disciples, Jesus pointed them in a new direction.

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
What happened next is a most intriguing silence.

A week passed about which we know nothing. None of the Gospels tell us about how the disciples responded to Jesus’ new approach. Did they go home for a while to think things over—talk things over with their families? Did they go sailing or fishing to clear their heads?

Did he really say that following him would require them to carry a cross?

Really?

Truthfully, we don’t know what happened in the silence of that week. All we know is that Jesus’ ministry was at a crossroads as his followers came to terms with the reality of discipleship’s cost.

That’s how the Gospels sets the stage for the verses that are before us today.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.
On that mountain, Jesus shined like the sun, Elijah and Moses appeared at his side, and the disciples were dumbfounded.

This moment, therefore, stands out in the Gospels. The Transfiguration catches the eye of the casual observer because of its special effects—his face became radiant, his clothes flashed like lightning, and God’s voice thundered from on high.

The Transfiguration also captures the imagination of more serious students of the Bible because it’s such a crucial moment in Jesus’ life story. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe this event—telling us how it builds a bridge from Jesus’ early ministry to his final ascent in Jerusalem—his crucifixion and resurrection.

Because of its wide appeal, it’s not surprising that people of faith have found a great deal of significance in the Transfiguration, too.

It’s a manifestation of Jesus’ divinity—like his baptism, and something that the disciples remembered for the rest of their lives—like the Sermon on the Mount or turning water into wine.

It’s a moment in Jesus’ life that teaches us something about God’s glory.

It says something about holiness and beauty.

It tells us about God’s power, Christ’s mission, and his unique role in the story of salvation.

Without a doubt, the Transfiguration was a defining moment in Jesus’ life. That’s why we celebrate it every year on this last Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

But for all the things that it teaches us about heady spiritual matters, I believe there’s a very practical lesson to be learned today from the Transfiguration as well.

You see, with everything else that happened that day on the mountain top, it’s so easy to forget that this is really a story about what happened one day when the disciples went off with Jesus to pray.

It was prayer that set the stage for revelation.

It was while he was praying that Jesus shined so brightly.

It was because they were praying—and not sleeping—that the disciples saw God’s amazing display.

And it’s because we still pray, and believe that Jesus still prays with us, that we lift up the Transfiguration as a story about reality—the reality of a loving God who would be revealed to us so that, at our crossroads and with prayers on our lips, we will experience God’s presence more powerfully, know God’s grace more intimately, and realize God’s purposes for our lives more passionately.

“[The invitation to prayer,]” concludes Lewis, “is, at every moment, a possible theophany. Here is the holy ground: the Bush is burning now.”

Jesus shines with heaven’s light now!

Friends, the Gospel invites us to pray—to be real—so that our eyes may be opened and a wondrous sight—a vision fair—revealed in our midst.

May it, then, be the real you who speaks. May it be the real Thou that you speak to.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

February 2, 2015

Not Free Not to Love

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus... (Philippians 2:1-5)
The Apostle Paul delivered this stirring admonishment to Christians living in an ancient Greek city called Philippi in order to highlight the essential qualities of their community—a community gathered in Jesus’ name and proclaiming his Good News.

Paul indicates that these essential qualities include virtues like humility, self-sacrifice, and love; qualities, he points out, that Christians embody because we recognize them in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Paul continues,

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
These verses from Philippians chapter 2 are some of Paul’s most treasured. The exhortations found here to leave selfishness and arrogance behind still resonate with us, reminding us that humility, self-sacrifice, and love are at the heart of our identity as Christians.

Likewise, Paul’s insights into the Christ who freely chooses to empty himself are also an invaluable contribution to the New Testament faith we profess.

We worship neither a victim of circumstance nor a prophet who paid the price for ticking off the wrong people, Paul reminds us, but God in the flesh who freely and willingly took up the cross out of love for us.

And then there’s this passage’s most significant revelation—in our relationships with one another, in our attitudes and conduct toward others, we aim no lower than to be like Christ.

Be humble and loving and self-sacrificing as Christ is humble, loving, and self-sacrificing, Paul urges. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

There’s little doubt that Philippians 2 is one of Paul’s notable contributions to Christian thought. In fact, it’s such a wonderfully distilled statement of theological belief and ethical expectation that, if it lacks anything, it lacks only a case study, a practical application of this teaching to a real world situation.

I propose to you this morning that, just a few years before writing Philippians, Paul provided just such a study in a letter to Christians living in another ancient Greek called Corinth. First Corinthians 8, which we’ve read this morning, is that case study.

On the surface, the issue encountered by the Corinthians—eating food sacrificed to pagan idols—seems far removed from our daily lives.

Labels like “Grass Fed,” “Organic,” and “From Farm to Table” mean something to us, but something that reads “Sacrificed to Zeus” or “Butchered on Apollo’s Altar” would just be nonsense.

Be that as it may, however, if we follow Paul’s line of thought on this matter, we do find something relevant to our experience. We find a method for discerning what faithfulness looks like in our relationships and interactions. We find a real world application of what it means to love one another as Christ loves us.

At issue for the Corinthian Christians was the fact that the meat available to them in the marketplace had been butchered in rituals that honored gods and goddesses like Apollo, Aphrodite, and the Imperial Cult. Some Christians believed that this association with pagan worship tainted the meat and made it unfit for them to eat. Others argued that since there was only one god—the God revealed in Jesus Christ—whatever happened in the city’s temples amounted to nothing more than elaborate food prep.

“We worship the One and Only God,” the argument goes, “so how could this meat be tainted by its association with a deity that doesn’t even exist?”

There was a difference of opinion in the Corinthian Church. Unfortunately, rather than seek a constructive way forward together, the two sides drifted apart with the pro-meat camp apparently labeling the would-be vegetarians ignorant, stupid, foolish, and all the other things people call those with whom they disagree when they’re too lazy to make a more convincing argument.

Thankfully, someone in the church eventually had the good sense to ask Paul to settle the dispute.

“Paul, are we free to eat meat sacrificed to idols?” they asked.

“Yes, you are free to do so,” he replied, “but…”

[Yes, you are at free to do so, but] some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.
They were free to eat the meat, but they were bound by a greater commandment.

They were free to eat, but they were not free not to love one another.

Whatever they did, therefore, Paul insisted that it be motivated by love.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up… But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
Haven’t we heard something like this before?

Haven’t we heard about seeking a greater calling that satisfying one’s own desires?

Doesn’t it sound a lot like the Big Idea Paul shared with the Philippians?

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…
Christians, you are not free not to love.

We are not free not to love.

Notice the radical way Paul has directed the Church forward. He doesn’t dismiss the existence of differences among the membership. He doesn’t assume that Christians will always agree and see the world in exactly the same way.

Rather, he says that when differences become apparent (and they will become apparent) Christ leads us first to ask, “How am I to love those with whom I disagree, those from whom I differ, those with whom I quarrel?”

How do I love you?

Not “How do I defeat you, prove you wrong, or win you over to my side?”

Paul wants us first to ask, “How do I love you and what does love look like here?” because Paul knows that Christ binds our wandering hearts.

We are not free not to love.

There’s one last thing I want to share with you before we gather around the Table—the Table, not coincidentally, where we see love poured out and lifted up so that all might share in it. I want to share with you these words by J. Paul Sampley, Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Boston University.

Reflecting on St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians, Dr. Sampley writes,

Love is not just a sentiment, not just a feeling, not merely a sort of disposition. Love works; it acts; it does things; and the chief thing it does is edify, build up, cause growth in each of the persons who engages in it and who is engaged by it. (NIB, X, 898)
People of John Street Church, we are not free not to love.

Now, what are we going to do about it?

May we live in such a way that others see the mind, and the hands, and the heart of Jesus Christ in us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

January 25, 2015

Jonah the Jacked Up Prophet

Jonah is unique among the prophets we meet in the scripture. It wasn’t the substance or style of his preaching, however, that set him apart. It was the manner in which he went about doing it.

Jonah knew what God wanted him to do, he just had no interest in doing it.

Jonah’s dilemma began when God told him to go to Nineveh and preach. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, ancient Israel’s enemy and the biggest superpower in the Mideast at the time.

Jonah’s response to God’s call was clear and calculated. God wanted him to go east, so Jonah hopped on the first boat heading west.

When Jonah’s getaway cruise left him alone on the beach with the world’s greatest fish tale to tell, however, it was back to square one for the prophet.

That’s where our lesson picks up the story. The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying,

"Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD.

Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"

Again, there’s nothing unusual to see here, just a preacher preaching. Given the source of Jonah’s sermon, it also comes as no surprise that his words hit their mark.
And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
And even then, despite the fact that this was an enemy’s city, despite the fact that the people of Nineveh went to war against Israel, I hope you’re still not surprised to learn that when the people turned to God, God honored their sincere repentance.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

In the eyes of many, the people of Nineveh were foreigners, outsiders, enemies. According to the prevailing wisdom of the day, they were reprobate, unlovable, unclean, but when they eagerly received God’s promise of deliverance, they were forgiven, loved, and freed—just like we hope to be.

A message delivered, grace received, and a people given new life—Jonah’s ministry resounds with the melody of salvation that gives our worship voice.

But here’s where the story takes a twist.

Jonah couldn’t stand that he had played a part in this hope filled story. The scripture says that the whole scene “was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”

It’s true. The prophet did what God told him to do and saved an entire city, and he was furious. Jonah did the right thing which was the last thing we wanted do.

“I knew that you would do this,” he railed against God. “I knew that they would listen, and I knew that you would forgive them. That’s why I ran the other way! I hate them and I’m not about to do your dirty work of forgiving and loving them. God, I’d rather die than go on living knowing that the God I know can care for people like that.”

Now you know what’s unique about Jonah.

Here we have a prophet dragged kicking and screaming into the work of reconciliation.

We have a preacher delivering a message with incredible success even though he hates the very substance of the message he is preaching.

We have a child of God who can’t stand the fact that he’s not the only one.

We have an unconverted agent of conversion.

Jonah’s bitter reaction to the divine mercy shown the people of Nineveh is shocking. At worst, it’s indicative of the same kind of hypocrisy that ranks so high on the list of factors that drive people away from churches in droves.

“Oh sure, God loves you,” the sly hypocrite concedes, “but I wouldn’t be caught dead with someone like you.”

It’s possible, I suppose, to separate the message from the messenger, but I think we’d all notice something problematic with a church that talked a lot about God’s love for all people that allowed prejudice, bigotry, and enmity to fester among its members.

Furthermore, even when we place Jonah in a most favorable light, his attitude still seems a far cry from Saint Paul’s admonition to “rejoice always” and “give thanks in all circumstances.” In our estimation, the bearer of God’s Good News isn’t supposed to wear a perpetual scowl on his or her face.

Yet even still, I think this prophet’s work demands more from us than dismissing him as a selfish jerk.

In fact, rather than ignoring Jonah’s issues or trying to smooth out his rough edges, I think there’s something to be gained by tackling them head on, even embracing them, less we come to believe that our personal perfection is a prerequisite for God to use us to accomplish something good.

So Jonah’s heart wasn’t in the message he proclaimed. That would be a much bigger deal for us if we were charged with proclaiming the Good News about Jonah. But our charge is to carry the Good News of the God who loved and forgave the people of Nineveh despite the prophet’s protest, desire their history of war with Israel.

Ours is the Good News of the God whose love recognizes no boundaries and who uses broken and flawed people—like Jonah and you and me—to build up the beloved community.

You don’t have to be an expert in social analysis in order to deal with your neighbor justly and charitably.

You don’t have to be an A+ student of theology or biblical trivia in order to testify to the powerful presence of God in your own life.

You don’t have to have a perfect heart, a clear conscience, or a clean record in order for God to use you to accomplish something beautiful in this world.

In fact, if the Bible can be trusted at all, then we can say that God actually seems to relish proving the power of God’s love by using the scoundrel, this misanthrope, the rascal to do great things.

Paul was a Man of Violence, Moses a fugitive, Jacob a cheat, and David a real piece of work, but they stand, not on their own greatness, but on God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s propensity for giving second, third, fourth, and fifth chances.

Far from leading us away from St. Paul’s work, then, Jonah ultimately leads us to one of the Apostle’s most stirring passages.

We find that passage in Second Corinthians where Paul takes up the same issue before us today—God’s habit of using imperfect people to accomplish God’s beautiful will.

Paul writes,

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
Understand that we are the clay jars about which Paul speaks. We are breakable, imperfect, prone to chip and crack, yet capable of carrying this great and glorious treasure of Jesus Christ.

And that is why we call this treasure Good News for all people.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

January 18, 2015

The Sermon is in Your Hands

The young boy called out “Here I am!” as he ran through the dimly lit sanctuary and into the room of the priest whom he believed had been calling for him. The boy’s name was Samuel, the priest’s Eli, and neither knew that they were at the epicenter of one of the foundation shaking moments in the history of God’s people.

The story of Samuel and Eli began years earlier when the priest spoke with a woman who had been praying in that same sanctuary. The woman was Hannah and her prayer was that she and her husband would have soon have a child. In due time, her prayer was answered.

Hannah gave birth to a son and named him Samuel, which means, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

Time passed, Samuel did the things that babies do. He took his first step. He said his first word. He ate his first solid food. And when he had been completely weaned from his mother’s milk, Hannah took him back to the place where she had prayed, and dedicated him to a life of service in God’s house.

That’s how it came to pass that “Samuel was ministering to the LORD…[in days when] the word of the LORD was rare…[and] visions were not widespread.”

The story of Samuel’s calling, the subject of this morning’s Old Testament lesson, reads like a biblical version of a comedic farce. There’s humor here because the audience is already in on a secret than none of the players know.

We know that it’s not Eli’s voice that Samuel keeps hearing. And so, each time Samuel stumbles out of bed and down the hall to find Eli our anticipation builds.

When will Samuel discover the true identity of the One calling his name?

That time, of course, came when Samuel, with a little guidance from Eli, responded to the voice in a different way.

“Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Then the LORD said to Samuel, “See I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”
That’s a great line isn’t it? It’s one of my favorites in the whole Scripture. God was about to do something new, something shocking, something that would stir the pot, and breathe new life into the people’s situation, but what could it be?

A prophet—God would make Samuel a prophet. Not in the sense of a crystal ball toting fortune teller, but as a God inspired truth teller, one who could be trusted to receive and deliver God’s word to God’s people.

The child for whom Hannah had prayed would become a prophet of God- that was the big news.

By sunrise, then, neither Samuel nor Israel would ever be the same again.

Samuel’s life bore witness to God’s ear tingling goodness, and it all began with a call in the night and a faithful response, “Here I am.”

Although Samuel’s calling was specific to the needs of God’s people in that time and in that place—it’s important for us to remember that he was neither the first nor the last person to hear God’s call.

Abraham heard it and left the life that he and his family knew in pursuit of God’s promise. Moses heard it, too, and returned to the place where he was a wanted man in order to bring an end to the peoples’ slavery.

The prophets heard God’s call, so did Mary and the disciples. And as the church blossomed in the days after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the call continued to be heard by those whom we remember by name as saints and by those whose name time forgot, yet who bore witness to God’s steadfast love nevertheless.

With these examples in mind, what we find in the scripture and in our own history and experience is an image of God whose words can pierce the mind numbing clatter and commotion of our daily lives with the Good News that each of us not only has a calling, a purpose, a mission from God, but that we’ve also been blessed with the gifts, the talents, and the abilities to make that calling our reality.

It’s the image of God roaming the streets and courtyards of our lives declaring Good News to all who will hear.

Today the Good News invites us to consider just what God’s calling in our lives might be.

How is God reaching out to us?

What is it that God wants us to hear and understand?

What would God have us to do?

What blessings await us if we’ll only stop running and say, “Ok, here I am.”

One of my mentors in the early years of my ministry was fond of saying, “There’s nothing quite like seeing someone who is the right person, for the right job, in the right place, at the right time.” If you’ve ever felt that way about your own circumstances, or benefited from it in the life of another, you know just how true this is. There’s something beautiful, something holy, that happens when one’s talents and passions are the perfect match for the skills and experiences that are most needed in that moment?

I would say that this divine synergy is also at the heart of our experience of the Good News of Jesus Christ, an experience not limited to a few chosen elite, but available to all of God’s people.

If Christ is alive in you then the Spirit within you is not leading you to live a life in vain, endlessly chasing after ephemeral and fading things, for in Christ it is God’s pleasure that you would be fulfilled, that you would excel, that you would find that the blessings within your grasp are the exact tools that you need in order to fulfill your calling, a calling as unique as you are yet always consistent with God’s greatest commandment, love others as God loves you.

If you want to discover your calling, then, look within yourself, then look at the world around you. If you want to discover your calling, find the place where your God given talents, gifts, interests, and passions intersect with the needs of your neighbors.

Look within. Then look out. Amazing things can happen.

Discovering and fulfilling one’s calling is a holy endeavor, one with which people of faith have wrestled throughout the ages. It’s a struggle that brings us to this place today, wondering, as we do, how we can live an authentic life of faith.

I know that tomorrow is MLK Day, but it’s a passage from his namesake, the 16th century church Reformer Martin Luther that enlightens us this morning.

To use a rough example: If you are a craftsman you will find the Bible placed in your workshop, in your hands, in your heart; it teaches and preaches how you ought to treat your neighbor. Only look at your tools, your needle, your thimble, your beer barrel, your articles of trade, your scales, your measures, and you will find this saying written on them. You will not be able to look anywhere it does not strike your eyes. None of the things with which you deal daily are too trifling to tell your this incessanlty, if you are but willing to hear it; and there is no lack of such preaching, for you have as many preachers as there are transactions, commodities, tools, and other implements in your house and estate; and they shout this to your face: “My dear, use me toward your neighbor as you would want him to act toward you with that which is his. (Luther, The Sermon on the Mount, 1532)
Look to your tools, the building blocks of your life, if you want to discover your calling and ask what is it that is crying out to be employed in the service of love.

It's in your hands. The sermon is in your hands. The Good News is in your hands because we are the Body of Christ and yours are the hands of Jesus.

“Here I am.” Samuel’s reply to the One who called out to him echoes through the ages. It speaks to us still of his willingness and desire to be where God wanted him to be doing what God wanted him to do. It stands before us, then, as a powerful example of faithfulness, of the kind of faith about which Jesus spoke, the kind of faith he offers to all who believe, the faith that can do so much more than move mountains, a faith that can move you and me, can move us from brokenness to wholeness, from futility to fulfillment, from isolation to community- a faith that can move us closer to one another and closer to God so that we may after all, “be one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.”

Thanks be to God for faith like this, and for this Good News. Amen.