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.

January 13, 2015

Confounded Sophistication

Over the Christmas holiday I decided that I wanted to start a small collection of some of my favorite music on vinyl. If you know anything about my taste in music, you can probably guess my first two purchases: an album by U2 and two albums by Johnny Cash.

Through the years, I’ve mined Johnny Cash’s life and music for a lot of sermon material. I’ve talked about Johnny’s struggles with addiction, I’ve quoted him on Easter Sunday, and I’ve even sung “A Boy Named Sue” from the pulpit. (And, yes, ten-pound-tough-as-nails Chihuahua mix is named in his honor, too!) I’ve drawn a good deal of inspiration from the Man in Black.

It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the area of Johnny’s life and music to which I’ve given the least attention in my work as a preacher is his most explicitly religious songs—his gospel recordings.

Johnny recorded traditional gospel music throughout his career. Even when his career was in its ascendancy with the release of “I Walk the Line”, Johnny’s desire to sing the songs that he grew up hearing in church caused friction with his label and set him on a path that few performers have ever dreamed to travel.

Who, other than Johnny Cash, could produce a greatest hits collection called “Love, God, and Murder”?


For many of his fans, though, myself included, the gospel songs recorded over the last decade of Johnny’s life have a unique resonance.

These are very simple songs—familiar tunes played on a single guitar.

These are profound songs—reflections on faith and hope/sin and redemption sung by my man who seemed to know that his days on this world were few.

After Johnny died, many of these songs were released on an album called “My Mother’s Hymn Book” and, as it happens, Mother Cash likes a lot of the same songs that some of our mothers and grandmother’s liked, too.

“Just as I am without one plea…”

“Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling…”

“Let the lower lights be burning…”

“I come to the garden alone…”

Songs like these certainly played an important part in my formative years. I remember singing them in church. I remember my grandparents humming and singing them around the house.

And I remember that there came a time when I thought these songs had nothing left to say to me.

I thought they were too sentimental.

I thought they were too old fashioned.

I thought they were too simplistic.

And then I heard Johnny sing them, and what was once too sentimental suddenly became sincere, what was once old fashioned became a firm foundation, and what was once too simplistic became just simple enough to confound my supposed sophistication.

In so many ways, Johnny Cash gave these songs back to me. That’s why I’m a fan today.

Like the gospel songs from “My Mother’s Hymn Book”, the first verses of Genesis are, for many of us, a memory of a childhood faith whose efficacy we question as adults.

Perhaps hearing our first scripture lesson brought such questions to your mind this morning.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
In hearing this, we might wonder about the relationship between science and faith and ask if we must make a choice between the two.

We could become aware of different stories created by other cultures and ask why we should esteem this one above the others.

We might review the familiar material of God’s six-day work week and a seventh day of rest, and wonder if these verses have anything left to say to us.

Even for people who are serious about taking their faith seriously, there’s a great temptation to leave these verses and the questions they raise behind.

What we need, therefore, is a fresh perspective, a point of view that’s capable of setting the text in a new light.

What we need is someone to give the creation story back to us.

Faced with such a challenge, I believe Walter Brueggemann is this generation’s go-to Old Testament scholar. His work is a critically sound assessment of the passage, but he never loses sight of the fact that this passage exists to enable the community of faith to praise and worship God. His commentary on Genesis, therefore, sets the stage for us to reclaim these verses and encounter Good News this morning.

About our situation, Brueggemann writes,
On the one hand, there is the temptation to treat this material as historical, as a report of what happened. This will be pursued by those who regard science as a threat and want to protect the peculiar claims of the text. If these materials are regarded as historical, then a collision with scientific theories is predictable. On the other hand, there is the temptation to treat these materials as myth, as statements which announce what has always been and will always be true of the world. This will be pursued by those who want to harmonize the text with scientific perceptions and who seek to make the texts rationally acceptable.
Dissatisfied with these options, Brueggemann identifies an alternative, insisting that the familiar text is neither history nor myth, but a proclamation—“a proclamation of God’s decisive dealings with his creation.”

In order to give these verses back to us, you see, the scholar reminds us that the Good Book begins with Good News.

It’s is the Good News of the Creator God who reigns over creation, eternally beyond the limits of space and time.

It’s the Good News of the Maker God, the One in whom we live and move and have our being, the One who has entered into covenant with us.

It’s the Good News that, in the fullness of time, the Word spoken at Creation took on our human condition to make us whole again.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being….
And the Word became flesh and lived among us.
If you’ve been inclined to leave the first verses of Genesis behind, then I hope you’ll consider taking them back today. Take them back because, like “My Mother’s Hymn Book”, they speak a truth and have a value that we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss.

They speak of God’s love and promises.

They speak of a divine order that breaks into our chaos.

They speak Good News.

And that is why we call them God’s Word to us this day.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

December 5, 2014

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

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

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

Scripted by Heather Wood

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

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

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

Limited Seating!

Order tickets online here.

Information - email: christmastimeatsea@gmail.com

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

November 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God. Amen.

November 5, 2014

Marathon Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The earliest Christians certainly knew something about feeling like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can do this.”

“You’re on your way.”

“You can make it.”

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

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

So let us do what grace makes possible.

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

And let us give thanks for this Good News.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

October 29, 2014

Finally, a Sermon about Wrath (For Heritage Sunday)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let it be so with us.

Let us “flee from the wrath to come.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

October 20, 2014

A Revealing Question

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

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

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

Knock. Knock. Knock.

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

I turned my head.

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

I rolled down my window.

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

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

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

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

Sometimes a question tells us everything we need to know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The emperor.” They said. “Caesar.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a teaching tool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We belong to God.

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

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

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

Thanks be to God. Amen.