November 25, 2015

The Harvest Mare (For Thanksgiving)

This is the time of year when I feel particularly well connected to my rural roots. That’s why, in my opinion, the old hymn “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” is November’s soundtrack.
Come, ye thankful people, come;

Raise the song of harvest home.

All is safely gathered in

Ere the winter storms begin.

I didn’t grow up on a farm, but my hometown was a farming community. Like many of my childhood friends, therefore, I spent some time—not a lot, but some—working in my grandpa’s garden and baling hay on farms in the area, and while it’s true that most people who witnessed my efforts in the fields will tell you that I was destined for city life from a very early age, those experiences and that place shaped me and continue to influence my interests and perspectives.

I remember well working in granddad’s back field at the end of the harvest season so November’s gray skies and bare trees always stir up within me a sense of nostalgia—of thoughts about the year’s changing seasons, even thoughts of life’s changing seasons.

This morning, with our hearts tuned to the song of the harvest home, I want to explore one of Thanksgiving’s deeper dimensions—that is to say that I want to look at how the act of giving thanks can show us the way to living into more a purposeful and faithful future. To do this, I want to first lift up an old harvest tradition that comes from Wales in the United Kingdom. It’s the tradition of the Harvest Mare.

In the era before machines gathered farmers’ crops, workers in Wales developed a custom that attached great symbolic meaning to the season’s last sheaf of corn. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that the Welsh adapted an even older tradition, as similar customs existed in historic communities throughout England, Ireland, and Scotland, too.

After workers cut and gathered the entire crop of corn for the season, they received the last bundle or sheaf with great fanfare. First, workers braided the sheaf and decorated it with ribbons and flowers, fashioning it into something like an elaborate corn husk doll. This was the harvest mare and, once completed, it would be tied up like an old fashioned scarecrow.

Having prepared the mare, workers would then take turns trying to cut it down by throwing their reaping hooks at it. The person who threw the winning blade was cheered and toasted by his co-workers. He could also count on the landowner to reward him with drink, maybe some money, and, perhaps, a seat of honor at a harvest feast.

These were some of the old customs, but there were more.

In some places, the person who cut down the harvest mare had to pick it up and run a gauntlet or sorts, as the local women would line his path and throw water at him. His goal was to keep the mare dry. After this, “the sheaf was often hung in the house to show that all the corn had been gathered in.”

I really love old stories like those about the Harvest Mare. I love them because—among other things—they teach us something about the joy of life that unites the generations.

Can’t you just hear the old field hands’ laughter as they try to cut down the harvest mare? Their hard work is done and now they can play a bit, confident that there will be food on their tables come winter.

Can’t you also see the stolen glances and other flirtations as the townsfolk begin to celebrate?

Don’t you feel their sense of relief that the harvest is finished?

All is safely gathered in

Ere the winter storms begin.

Again, I think stuff like this is great. I love it. For our purposes, though, I think it’s also enlightening because the reason for the people’s celebration—the blessing for which they were grateful—had a direct relationship with what they would do next.

The people were thankful for a successful harvest because that meant that they could survive the harsh winter and, then, plant a new crop in the spring.

The received blessing pointed the way to a more fulfilling future.

Expanding on this point even further, Ray Buckley, a United Methodist leader in Alaska, notes a similar pattern among that region’s indigenous people.

According to Buckley,

When Winter comes, it is time to be inside and make things with our hands. To store up for the winter and start to make things with the blessings we had received.
Grateful for what they received, ancient peoples from Wales to Alaska found purpose, utility, and the seeds of a brighter future in their blessings, and so can we, if we will only seek them out.

This, it turns out, is one of the qualities of our Christian experience that Holy Communion strengthens.

We give God thanks around this table—thanks for all life’s blessings, thanks for bringing us together, thanks—above all else—for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We give thanks at the table for blessings received, yet we believe that gratitude and faith in the One from whom all blessings flow propels us into the future, too.

Giving thanks is the first step on the journey in which we are made one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.

Recalling Christ’s sacrifice empowers us to embrace all of our tomorrows with faith, hope, and love.

The received blessing points the way to a more fulfilling future.

For several weeks as a church, throughout our lives as Christians, and in the coming days with our friends and families across this nation, we turn our attention to giving thanks for our many blessings.

Good friends, family, loving and being loved, work, faith, hope, a Savior—we will give thanks for these because they’re important to us.

They help us to be and to understand who we are and what we’ve come through. However, they also show us what to do next.

Will you give thanks for your family this week? Then ask God to help you be a more loving and caring part of that family in the year to come—a more attentive spouse, a more patient parent, a more thoughtful child.

Thankful for your job? Then how can you do it better, or at least with a better attitude? Whatever the blessing is, offer up thanks to God and a prayer for guidance.

God, I receive this blessing as a gift from your hands, so please show we how to treasure it well and use it faithfully for your kingdom’s good.
And if you do that, if we do that together, this will truly be a Season of Thanksgiving in which we bring in a harvest of lifted spirits, good works, and passionate service—a time of joy and celebration in the House of the Lord.
Come, ye thankful people, come;

Raise the song of harvest home.

All is safely gathered in

Ere the winter storms begin.

God, our Maker, doth provide

For our wants to be supplied.

Come to God's own temple, come;

Raise the song of harvest home.

Thanks be to God for this and every good gift. Amen.

November 15, 2015

Moonlit Peace

Today our walk through what we’re calling the Season of Thanksgiving brings us to the personal events that have profoundly influenced and had a great impact on our spiritual lives. As you think about such moments in your life, I thought I’d share with you the story of one the pivotal moments in mine—the night of my ordination as an elder in the United Methodist Church.

Bishop Ernest Lyght ordained me on Friday night June 11, 2004 at the holiest of locations—the basketball arena at Hofstra University on Long Island during the session of the New York Annual Conference. My mom and dad, grandma, uncle, Laura, and my good friend Rev. Craig Gaither from North Carolina were among the hundreds of people in the arena at Hofstra that night to celebrate and worship and pray as fifteen of us made our ordination vows and received the church’s blessing on our call.

For me, that moment was a high point on a journey that began eight years earlier during the summer before my last semester of college. At that time, I had been wrestling with this uneasy feeling that God might be nudging me toward becoming a pastor for several months. I wasn’t exactly thrilled about this possibility, nor was I keen to find out if my girlfriend was interested in going down a path with me that might make a pastor’s wife out of her.

One night that summer my thoughts and anxieties about these things led me to talk a walk around the college campus where I lived. Eventually, I made my way to the bleachers at the baseball field where I watched the moon rise up over the East Tennessee mountains and, there, I began to pray.

I don’t think I’d ever prayed like that before. My prayer was desperate. I had big decisions to make and I was scared to death of screwing up everything.

What if I go to seminary and hate it or find out I’m no good at it?

What if my decision screws up a good relationship and leads to a break up?

What if I just make a mess of things?

What if?

Well, I had it out with God in the moonlight that night. I said everything I needed to say, and that helped. At least that gave me the peace of mind to go home and get some sleep.

And the next morning, I had an even deeper sense of peace as I reached an important decision. I would go to seminary and, if the thought of that didn’t scare her away, I would eventually ask my girlfriend to marry me.

It was the best I had ever felt about a decision and I think the sense of peace I felt that morning was a gift from God.

About a year later, Laura and I were married and moved to North Carolina where I started seminary. After that we came to New York and, in 2003, I became your pastor.

Many thoughts swirled through my mind as I knelt before Bishop Lyght during the 2004 ordination service, but foremost where the memories of that night of prayer and God’s faithfulness every step of the eight-year journey that followed—from the bleachers in Tennessee to half court at Hofstra.

I was so lost in my memories that night that I don’t remember the moment when the bishop ordained me.

Jason Paul Radmacher, take authority as an elder to preach the Word of God, to administer the Holy Sacraments and to order the life of the Church; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
I known from the church’s ordinal that that’s what the bishop said, but I don’t remember it. What I do remember, however, is that immediately following, I stood up and received a stole—the symbol of ordination—from Noel Chin, our district superintendent at the time. And as Noel put the stole over my shoulders he repeated the line that is said to every newly ordained person, “Be among us as one who serves.”

I think about that moment a lot, and it means a great deal to me. I think about it because of all the things that the church could say to someone at that moment, the church says to serve others.

We don’t say, “Be among us as one who preaches good sermons,” or “runs efficient meetings,” or “advocates for important causes.”

Instead, we distill all the hopes and expectations of ordination into this, “Be among us as one who serves.” And having those words said to me is one of the most formative and aspirational moments of my life.

“Be among us as one who serves.”

This morning, I want you to consider the formational significance of words you speak and have spoken to you every Sunday here at John Street—“The peace of Christ be with you.”

We regularly exchange this blessing with one another during the Passing of Peace—the time in the service when we all get up and move about the sanctuary to greet one another. But really, we’re doing much more than simply saying, “Hello.”

Rather, when we participate in Passing the Peace we’re actually saying “Yes” to our own ordination, so to speak, in the priesthood of all believers—the idea that all Christians have gifts to share and responsibilities to serve in the Body of Christ.

During the Peace—which, not coincidentally, follows the proclamation of the Gospel and the Confession of Sin—we are claiming the freedom to do the work of ministry that the Risen Christ makes possible. Here we bring to life the Good News that, though we are sinners, God has made peace with us through Jesus Christ and has commissioned us to share that peace with others in his name.

The stole I wear is a physical reminder that my work as an elder is a ministry of service.

The blessing we share when we Pass the Peace is a ritual reminder that our work as Christians is a ministry of peace and reconciliation.

This brings the words from Second Corinthians that we’ve read this morning to mind because there’s a direct line from Saint Paul’s teachings on the subject to the way we greet one another in this place.

In that famous passage, Paul says,

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
Reconciled to God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—that is to say, given the gift of a new relationship with God by grace, not our own achievements, we share signs of peace and forgiveness with others because ours is a ministry of reconciliation.

We seek to be a blessing to others because, first, God blessed us.

You see, as your pastor, I invite you to offer peace to the person sitting in the pew behind you today in the hope that you’ll be more likely to seek a peaceful resolution if the same person makes you angry at a church meeting next week, or if someone catches you with an elbow on the subway tomorrow, or if some burden you’ve been carrying or a decision you’re dreading has been throwing your spirit out of balance for months.

In this way, the Peace is sort of like rehearsing a part or training for a physical task.

In worship, we aim to discipline our minds and hearts toward peace so that when we are tempted to lash out in anger, we can, with the Spirit’s help, overcome that temptation and respond in a way that bears witness to our faith, glorifies God, and honors the Image of God in all people.

“I wanted to tear them down and cuss them out, but then I remembered that every Sunday morning I practice sharing with my neighbors the peace that God has given to me, and, thank God, I discovered a more faithful way forward.”

Ministry is the work of God, done by the people of God. Through baptism all Christians are made part of the priesthood of all believers, the church, Christ’s body, made visible in the world. We all share in Christ’s ministry of love and service for the redemption of the human family and the whole of creation.
Ordination services begin with these words—a clear statement that we have work to do together—to continue the ministry that Jesus began; the work of humble service and selfless love, the work of living peace and embodying forgiveness, the ministry of reconciliation shared with and offered to all.

Let’s renew our commitment to this work this season.

Let us give thanks for blessings received and eagerly share what we have in Christ’s service.

And let us always share in Christ’s peace.

The peace of Christ be with you. Amen.

November 9, 2015

Love Leaves a Mark

The Velveteen Rabbit is a story for children, but it speaks to a power that we hope to encounter throughout our lives: love’s power to create and make life new again.

In this classic nursery tale, a little boy receives a beautiful plush rabbit made of velveteen as a Christmas present. However, as is so often the case, the boy quickly turned his attention to the shinier and more expensive gifts he received that holiday and it wasn’t long before he forgot all about the poor stuffed animal.

Lonely and disappointed, the Velveteen Rabbit sought out the counsel of the wisest toy in the toy cupboard—the Skin Horse—who told him about the mysterious and beautiful power that could make him Real.

“When a child loves you for a long, long time,” said the Horse, “not just to play with you, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

Intrigued, and a bit frightened, the Rabbit pressed the Horse to tell him more about this strange transformation.

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Well, it all sounded wonderful, but the Rabbit was convinced it would never happen to him. That is until the night that the boy’s hurried Nana pulled the Rabbit off the shelf at bedtime.

“Here,” she said, “take your old Bunny! He’ll do to sleep with you.”

And from that night, the boy and the Velveteen Rabbit were inseparable. The boy grew to love the Rabbit. He took him wherever he went and drew him close at night.

And the Rabbit became worn and shabby, his stitches frayed, his fabric began to wear, and the nursery magic worked him over.

The Velveteen Rabbit became Real.

Now there’s a good deal more to the story, but this is enough to center our thoughts upon an important idea.

That idea is that love is a creative and transformational power. Love makes stuff. Love alters its object. Love leaves a mark.

In the Velveteen Rabbit, a little boy’s love transforms a toy into a real rabbit. In the story of our Faith, God’s love is the source of all reality.

God is the Maker of the just and unjust, the One in whom all people live, and move, and have our being. In fact, it’s said that Creation itself—from the farthest reaches of the Universe to the inner most qualities that make each one of us unique—all that is seen and unseen is God’s gift given in love.

Listen to this litany from Psalm 136.

O give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever.

who alone does great wonders…

who by understanding made the heavens…

who spread out the earth on the waters, for his steadfast love endures for ever.

The rhapsody continues—invoking the memory of the Exodus and how God’s love made a free people out of those who had been enslaved, the same love that makes each day possible.

It is he who remembered us in our low estate…

and rescued us from our foes…

who gives food to all flesh, for his steadfast love endures for ever.

O give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures for ever.

Of course, God’s love is essential to our experience as Christians and the Good News of redemption for sinners like us.

We say that love is the reason for the Incarnation because “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.”

Love created the Church as the Spirit enabled community in which barriers fall and strangers become friends and love gives us our mission and mandate to love one another as God loves us.

Love is our aim, our ambition, and our standard—the quality without which we believe nothing amounts to anything more than the sound of clanging cymbals.

Love shapes us and our knowledge of love and our gratitude for God’s love toward us empowers us to discern that which is truly important in life from all lesser things.

This is, in part, the message of the Beatitudes—those familiar verses from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which he turns our expectations of what a blessed life looks like upside down.

Calling those who mourn and the persecuted blessed doesn’t really mean a whole lot if Love isn’t more powerful than whatever is causing the hurt and harm.

No, the Beatitudes only make sense if—and their inner logic derives from the fact that—Love is stronger than our all heartbreaks and ailments.

The Beatitudes redirect us toward God’s grace so that we might follow the Way of Abundant Life back to God.

This thought brings us, at last, to the verses from the Book of First Timothy that are before us this morning.

The short passage we read today is the conclusion of a longer and more famous section about fighting the good fight.

Here, the inspired author encourages a young minister named Timothy to steer clear of life’s materialistic pitfalls and to embrace the best that life has to offer.

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man of God, shun [the temptation to define yourself by the measure of your wealth and the value of your possessions]; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

Then, in our passage, the attention turns to believers who have already obtained a high level of material comfort—to rich people.
As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
Notice what’s happening here.

First Timothy tells us that there are more reliable instruments with which to measure the quality and substance of our lives than the amount of stuff we’ve accumulated and the highs we derive from our things.

Instead of these, the Good News speaks of grace, mercy, and God’s blessings and provisions. The Good News lets us know that we are loved by God and empowered to be agents of love let lose in the world.

Like the Beatitudes and a classic nursery story, First Timothy points us toward love so that we might be clear about Reality and the things that really matter.

First Timothy steers us away from greed and materialism so that we might “take hold of the life that really is life”—the life lived with God.

Once upon a time, a wise toy horse shared good news about becoming Real with the Velveteen Rabbit.

Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” At another time, on a faraway hilltop, Jesus said you can’t trust your eyes to show you what a blessed life looks like, but if you open our heart to God you will see for yourself.
And at this time, in this moment, as a people gathered in the name of God, the steps we must take to walk the Way of Love become clear.

Do good.

Be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.

Take hold of the life that really is life.

Therefore, go, follow this path and “take hold of the life that really is life.”

And may the Love of God that has left a mark on you, leave its mark on this world.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

November 4, 2015

A Season of Thanksgiving at John Street Church

Dear Friends,

November is a Season of Thanksgiving at John Street Church. Over the next three Sundays, our congregation will dedicate our worship services to exploring the extravagant nature of God’s grace and considering the ways in which we have been richly blessed. Along the way, we’ll take time to name the people and ministries from within John Street Church that have touched our lives and shaped our hopes and dreams.

In order to help us begin this season in the right frame of mind, I want to ask you three questions.

What do you love about John Street Church?

What personal experiences have made the most profound impact on your spiritual life?

What is your vision and hope for John Street Church?

On Sundays November 8, 15, and 22, you’ll have the opportunity to answer these questions with—what I’m calling—Love Notes. By naming the experiences and memories that have shaped our spiritual lives, I hope that this Love Notes experiment will help us remember the abundance of God’s love for us.

You’ll find the Love Notes question for that day and a space for your answer in your Sunday service bulletin. Completed notes may be placed in the offering plates. You may also share your answers by email, by responding to this and all of the questions in subsequent emails.

The Love Note question for November 8 is, “What do you love about John Street Church?”

The Love Note question for November 15 is, "What personal experiences have made the most profound impact on your spiritual life?

I’m looking forward to celebrating this Season of Thanksgiving with you.



October 26, 2015

Excessive (Heritage Sunday 2015)

Jesus was a miracle worker. The Christian tradition testifies to numerous supernatural works Jesus performed in the course of his ministry. Jesus healed the sick. He liberated persons from foul spirits. He calmed the tempest and raised the dead with merely a word. Over and over again the Gospels recount how Jesus displayed unrivaled power, often as a means of drawing people close enough to hear his unrivaled message of salvation in and through him, the incarnate love and word of God.

The first work or miracle performed by Jesus about which Saint John’s Gospel tells us underscores this relationship between his power and his message beautifully. In this case, however, it’s neither a miraculous healing nor suddenly calm seas that grab our attention. John tells us about a miracle of abundance—a physical manifestation of God’s amazing and excessive love.

This miracle took place at a wedding celebration attended by Jesus, his mother, and his disciples in a town called Cana in a region called Galilee.

It happened at this wedding in Cana, after three days of festivities, that Mother Mary made a startling observation. All the wine was gone, but Mary didn’t want the party to stop.

She shared this news with Jesus who didn’t seem particularly concerned about this development. Sure, running out of wine would’ve probably embarrassed the host (no one wants to attend or throw a bad party), but this was a far cry from a life or death issue.

But Mary persisted and, as she took her leave of Jesus, told a group of nearby servants to do whatever he told them to do.

John records what happened next.

Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.

Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.”

So they took it.

But it wasn’t water anymore.
When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”
And that’s it.

That’s the miracle of turning water into wine. It isn’t that Jesus turned water into wine that had magical properties. This wasn’t some sort or enchanted elixir. Jesus just turned water into really good wine—and a lot of it; fifty, sixty, seventy cases by our count. And that was more than enough to “reveal his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

As I said, this is a miracle of abundance. Obviously, it involves a great deal of wine, that’s clear, but more importantly, Jesus’ gratuitous response to his mother’s request and the bridegroom’s need highlights the abundant love that flowed from his heart into this world.

This isn’t a miracle based on doing just enough to get by. This is about exceeding expectations. Ultimately, it’s about Jesus exceeding the expectations of those who would hail him as the Lord’s Anointed and the life his love makes possible exceeding our expectations of what a good life looks like. For Saint John, therefore, the miracle of turning water into wine anticipates the extravagant nature of Jesus’ ministry and the splendor of discipleship in his name.

As Jesus said, “I came [so that those who will follow me] may have life, and have it abundantly.”

The Gospel of Jesus Christ promises us that Jesus can fill us up with something new and wonderful and exquisite, just like the water jars in Cana. It is the experience of many people, however, many Christians and many of us gathered here included, that the fulfillment of this promise seems to be denied us, seems out of reach, or seems like it has slipped from our grasp.

Work, money, bills, responsibilities—it’s clear that these things fill our lives. Their impact on our calendars is self-evident.

But what about grace, redemption, God’s love, the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit—our experience with these can appear tangential, even absent, from our daily routines.

The realization, then, that a distance exists between our faith’s high aims—what we believe God could do—and our experience—what we believe is actually going on in our lives—is a sobering insight.

When we come to this realization, however, we stand ready to hear and receive the beautiful story that John Street Church claims as its own.

This congregation’s founders—cousins Barbara Heck and Philip Embury—came to New York from Ireland with their families in search of a better life. They came to work and to save and, hopefully, to buy a parcel of land to call their own where they could live in peace.

Life in New York, however, dealt them a series of heartbreaks that derailed their plans and led them to question their faith in each other and in God.

Historians note that the roots of John Street Church are in a card game that ended when Barbara walked into the room, couldn’t believe what she saw, and threw the deck into the fire place. Far from a temper tantrum, however, we claim that this outburst was as much Barbara’s fervent prayer as it was evidence of her frustration.

This was Barbara’s heartfelt cry, “Is this all there is? Isn’t there more to life than this? God, show us a better way! Give us the abundance you have promised?”

Our presence here today testifies to God’s faithfulness to Barbara Heck.

The fact that we can draw a direct line from that interrupted game of cards to this moment of worship is evidence that God was faithful to hear Barbara’s prayer, light her way, and bless her with strength, passion, and a vision that left its mark on this city, that has left its mark on the hearts of countless souls who have gone before us.

From the first sermon that Philip preached for the small group that Barbara assembled to this day, for two and a half centuries our community has endeavored to discern and follow the abundant way Jesus sets before us. And even though we have at times wandered from that path and squandered God’s good things it is John Street Church’s experience, our hope, and our story that Jesus remains faithful to fill our hearts with the substance of abundant life.

It is our experience, our hope, and our story that Jesus still gives us himself.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. O what a foretaste of glory divine!
One hundred and forty two years ago, two women who worshipped in this church and sat in these pews wrote that song lyric and we’ll sing it again today because there is still abundant life and amazing love in the abiding presence of Christ our Lord.
Perfect submission, all is at rest!

I in my Savior am happy and blest,

Watching and waiting, looking above,

Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.

These words and prayers belong to a people who knew well the ache of desire for God to heal their wounds, give their life direction, and renew their hearts.

This is the song for a people who want Jesus to do something miraculous within and through them—to fill us up and pour us out so that this world that God so dearly loves may know the grace, mercy, and healing touch of Jesus himself.

Jesus turned water into good wine so that the wedding guests could enjoy it and so that his glory would be revealed to his disciples.

Jesus turns strangers like us into his church so that his name will be glorified and so that the lonely, the lost, and the last will be honored, included, loved, and blessed.

This is our hope. This is John Street Church’s story.

The miracle at Cana in Galilee demonstrates the abundant love that flowed from Jesus into this world. It is a powerful sign of God’s amazing and excessive grace.

Sustained by this grace, then, may we press on—like Mother Mary, like Barbara and Philip, and all God’s saints—to see the promise of abundant life revealed in us—the promise of Divine Love that refreshes our spirits and steadies our steps, the promise that no one need go without because Jesus “came so that you [so that everyone, especially those who have been kicked around and forgotten] may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

October 12, 2015


October 12, 2015 is the 249th anniversary of our congregation’s first worship service—a sermon preached by a German-Irish immigrant named Philip Embury to a small group gathered in his home. Within a few weeks, Embury’s small congregation outgrew his living room and rented a room near our City Hall Park. Not long after that, they rented an even larger place on William Street in a riffing loft. The group continued to grow and it wasn’t along before they were looking for yet another new home. They found that home on John Street where they bought a small piece of land—this piece of land—and build a proper Methodist Chapel, the first of its kind in North America.

I’ve told (and it’s likely that you’ve heard) something about our congregation’s story many times. It’s well documented in our museum, on numerous websites, and in several church history textbooks.

I’m been thinking about these familiar people and events in a new light recently, however, thanks to a book written by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, two of my old teachers at seminary. The book is simply called “Holy Spirit” and it’s an effort that the authors hope will get Christians thinking and praying about the work of the Spirit in their midst, in our midst.

The passage from Hauerwas and Willimon that has stayed with me is this reflection on God’s ongoing relationship with us. Contrasting the Church’s teaching with the deists’ view of a hands-off, laissez-faire god, the duo writes,

Christians believe the countercultural, peculiar claim that through the Spirit God is active in history….We believe, moreover, that the Spirit did not stop working after the first days of the church; the Spirit is present in all times and places making Christ known…(p. 23)
Then, the old teachers ask the question that’s stayed with me.
How might our understanding of our time change if we spoke not of American church history, but rather of the history of the Holy Spirit in America? (23-24)
What do you think?

How might our understanding of the last 249 years change if we spoke not of the history of John Street Church, but rather of the history of the Holy Spirit among the Methodists on John Street?

One change that immediately came to my mind upon reading this question was that, in addition to names and places and dates, when telling our story we would talk about power, about what we see and claim as God’s power at work among our ancestors. We would talk about God’s power because, while people like Philip Embury and Barbara Heck, Captain Webb and Francis Asbury are remarkable, and courageous, and admirable, they would all tell us that they were nothing without the gracious and loving power of God. It was God, they would say, who powerfully attended to their prayers and their efforts and it was God who changed peoples’ lives here on John Street.

Our ancestors, you see, were a lot like us. These were people who worried about work, and money, and taking care of their families in an increasingly radicalized and violent time. These were men and women who were trying to be good friends, and good neighbors, and good parents.

And together they discovered that there was power in the name of Jesus to face the challenges of life in this place. They found mercy, and love, and forgiveness, and wisdom, and patience in Jesus to grow and to go on in his name.

The power of God is an essential part of this church’s story, and it’s also an essential part of Mark’s Gospel.

The power of God embodied in Jesus Christ gives the Gospel its verve.

An individual suffering from paralysis, someone with “a withered hand,” another someone bed-ridden with a fever; in Mark, we see Jesus drawing near to these individuals and, with his power, healing them.

A man who was chained up and forced to live among the tombs on the outskirts of town because he was plagued by “an unclean spirit,” a woman whose “issue of blood” left her bleeding and bankrupt, a little girl whose funeral had already begun; again, Mark tells us that Jesus entered these bleak circumstances and left life and vitality in his wake.

Jesus tamed a tempest with merely a word.

He restored the lepers’ skin, gave sight to the blind, and opened the ears of the deaf.

Over and over again, Jesus took on the seen and unseen forces of this world and his power seemed unrivaled, but then he met a guy who really loved his stuff.

As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And Jesus asked him about the commandments—Don’t Murder, Don’t Commit Adultery, Don’t Steal.
[And the man said], “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

All the battles Jesus fought and won, all the shattered lives he put back together, all the darkness he turned into joy, yet in this instance, the one who drew near to Jesus walked away shocked and gloomy because he owned “many possessions.” It was a stunning development.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
As it perplexed the disciples, this whole exchange may seem perplexing to us as well and saying a bit about what this passage isn’t can help our understanding.

Does this story mean that Jesus is against private property and that all Christians everywhere should sell everything that they have? No, I don’t think that’s what this passage means. The Gospel message is far more communitarian than our individualized American preferences, but it’s a leap to say that the Church should forbid its members from owning private property.

Was this an object lesson in humility? You know for a very long time preachers told a story about a gate into an ancient city called the Needle’s Eye that was so narrow travelers had to remove their bags and goods from their mounts before proceeding? Despite being a popular sermon illustration for several centuries, there’s no evidence that such a gate ever existed so while humility is always a good idea, it doesn’t seem to be the main point here.

But is this saying that possessions and materialism present very real challenges to the quality of our discipleship?

Does this passage raise serious questions about the ways in which our privileges blind us to our ultimate need for Jesus?

Does this mean that one of the toughest battles Jesus will ever fight is raging in our hearts, even now, to determine if we’ll place our total and complete trust in him and his power, or hedge our bets by agreeing to follow him, but only so far, as if the old hymn lyric is “Some to Jesus I surrender, a little to him I freely give.”

Yes, Yes, and Yes.

When the rich man met Jesus an epic battle began in his spirit that was no less dramatic than some of the wild stories Mark tells us about people being healed and evil spirits being banished.

Would the man trust in the power and security he could obtain with his possessions, or would he trust in the power and security Jesus offered to him?

And the man made his choice and walked away.

This is a sobering passage and it’s clear that this scene deeply affected the disciples.

You see, it wasn’t that this was a bad man. We have no reason to believe that he didn’t keep the commandments and live an honorable and decent life. He conforms to our image of what “having it all together” looks like a great deal more than the slobbering blithering outcasts Jesus met who had the misfortune of being sick or disturbed or broken or dead.

But the outcasts were blessed and the rich man chose to walk away.

[The disciples] were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”
“This was a good guy,” they seemed to say. “We could’ve really used someone like that in our group.”

If not him, then who can be saved?

Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
And, perhaps, at that moment, the disciples understood a little more clearly what Jesus meant when he told them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Maybe the disciples were beginning to understand the power that Jesus possessed.

And maybe we can understand these things, too.

Like the rich man, the temptation we face to define ourselves by the possessions and stuff we accumulate is powerful. Indeed, at times we’ve found that power overwhelming.

Like the disciples, we also have a tendency to confuse an abundance of material things with evidence of God’s favor in someone’s life.

But Jesus simply and powerfully and eternally says, “How are you going to receive what I will give you when your hands and your heart and filled with stuff?”

Why don’t you put it down and follow me, he says.

Follow me to the poor and hurting.

Follow me to Good Friday’s sorrow and Easter’s first light.

Follow me and you will know God’s love and power at work in your life.

May we, then, guided and sustained by the same Holy Spirit that led our ancestors on John Street, follow Jesus and discover the impossible things God would do with disciples like us.

Come, Holy Spirit, and make it so, and thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

October 5, 2015

Childish Disciples

The Israelites’ journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land is one of the Bible’s great epic stories. Sparked by the miraculous burning bush through which God commissioned a man on the run named Moses to led the march, the Exodus moved from a plagued land, over the Red Sea, through the wilderness, up Sinai’s height, below the Jordan’s current, and into Canaan. Along the way, God met the peoples’ every need with pillars of fire and cloud to guide them, bread from heaven and sweet water to sustain them, and God’s own Law to shape them. The Exodus is a story in which God’s awesome power is repeatedly on display and faithful hearts are summoned to worship and obedience.

“Who is like you, O LORD?” This is the rhetorical question at the heart of a triumphant poem taken from the Book of Exodus, chapter 15, called the Song of Moses.

“Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?

You stretched out your right hand, the earth swallowed [our enemies].

In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode...

Terror and dread fell upon [our enemies]; by the might of your arm, they became still as a stone until your people, O LORD, passed by, until the people whom you acquired passed by.

You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession, the place…that you made your abode, the sanctuary…that your hands have established. The LORD will reign forever and ever.”

The Exodus is cause for celebration, even now, revealing God to be powerful, merciful, gracious, and attentive to the cries of the oppressed. If you’ve ever read this story before, however, you know that the Exodus is also cause for humble introspection and sincere repentance, for, in addition to a liberating God, in this epic we also encounter a people struggling to drop the chains that enslaved their hearts and minds.

The Exodus is a story of miracles, but it is also a story of mundane failures, sins, and prideful actions.

It’s a story of deliverance in which the liberated wistfully recalled time in bondage.

“If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread...”

It’s a story about the people’s dissatisfaction with God’s lifesaving provisions.

“Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

It’s a story in which a Golden Calf became more popular than the Author of Salvation.

They said to [Aaron], ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’

The Exodus speaks of God’s capacity to do new and amazing things and it speaks of the capacity of God’s people to be too full of themselves to grasp what God is doing.

Over the past few weeks we’ve been working our way through a story that, I believe, delivers a similar message. This story is the Gospel according to Saint Mark.

There can be no doubt that Mark wants us to know that God did something incredibly new and amazing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

God tore open the heavens and called out from above when Jesus was baptized.

Guided by God’s Spirit, Jesus healed the sick, ministered to the outcast, and ate with sinners.

Jesus corrected the hypocrites and overturned the assumptions of the self-righteous.

He fed the multitudes and walked on water.

He was transfigured and revealed to be the Son of God who was, is, and always shall be.

That’s the story of Mark’s Gospel.

But, like the Exodus, Mark also tells us about a people who were too full of themselves to grasp what God was doing in their midst.

Remember how Peter chastised Jesus for talking about the cross and James and John asked to be given the seats of honor in his kingdom.

Remember that when the disciples should have been thinking about Jesus’ challenge to deny themselves, they challenged one another, instead, in order to prove which one of them was the greatest.

Remember that when they caught someone ministering in Jesus’ name, they tried to stop him because, in their own words, “he wasn’t following us,” an indictment that raises some serious questions about who the disciples actually thought was the leader of their little band.

The Gospel according to Mark is a story about the miracle that is Jesus Christ, but it is also a story about the mundane failures, sins, and prideful actions of his closest disciples.

To truly be the Church, you and I must open our hearts to both of these stories.

That leads us, at last, to the passage from Mark that’s before us this morning; Mark chapter 10, verses 13-16.

Mark is quite clear that Jesus recognized something in children that was useful for instructing his disciples about the Kingdom of God. On multiple occasions, he demonstrated his power by healing children—both boys and girls. Then, in a famous moment that we discussed a few weeks ago, Jesus drew a child into the circle of his disciples and told the crew that they welcomed God into their lives whenever they welcomed “one such child in his name.”

How interesting it is, then, that in Mark’s very next chapter we see the disciples doing exactly the opposite of what Jesus taught them to do.

He told them that welcoming children in his name was a means of encountering God—a means of grace, we might say—but it seems that the first time they had an opportunity to put that teaching into practice, they pushed the children away.

And Jesus was “indignant.” The King James Bible says he “was much displeased”—a reaction that harkens back to God’s frustration with the people during the Exodus.

And Jesus said,

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
Now, was Jesus saying there’s a window of time that closes forever in adolescence in which we must respond the Good News if we’re to have any part of salvation? No.

Was Jesus asking his disciples to imitate the most idealized aspects of childhood—qualities like innocence, wonder, curiosity? No. I don’t think so.

Based on everything else in Mark’s Gospel, I think Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that they were dependent on God like children who depend on the adults in their lives.

Telling his disciples who, let’s face it, could be a little full of themselves, to imitate or aspire to the dependent status of children—a far lower social status than the one usually held by followers of great and powerful rabbis—was a dramatic object lesson in humility, a lesson that we would do well to receive.

Arrogance is the antithesis of faithful discipleship. Arrogance convinces us that we’re so good we don’t need grace, and tells us that everybody else is so bad that they don’t deserve it. Arrogance, therefore, undermines personal piety and our capacity to embody God’s justice and righteousness. Arrogance is love’s enemy.

But Jesus said his humble disciples would take up their cross and follow him.

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

From the Exodus journey to the streets of this city, the humble path is the holy path.

The high road is traveled by pilgrims with bowed hearts and contrite spirits.

And today these streets, the humble path, and the high road converge at this table where an abundant feast awaits sinners like us.

So, “come, sinners, to the gospel feast, let every soul be Jesus’ guest. Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind.”

Thanks be to God for the Good News offered to childish disciples like you and me.