Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Fourth Sunday of Easter [Year C] - April 17, 2016 (Psalm 23 and John 10:22-30)

Chaperoning youth trips. There was a lot of discussion about chaperoning youth trips in the office this week because final plans are being made for the youth group’s service mission trip to Atlanta this summer, and youth trips always involve chaperones. I need to be careful because I’m told “chaperone” is actually a passé term nowadays. The word “adult leader” is more in vogue because it supposedly sounds more active and engaged than “chaperone.” While I agree with the philosophy there, I’m not really sure it matters because every trip I’ve been on as an adult has required me to be very active, very engaged, no matter what they’ve called me…and I’ve been called several things.

There was also a lot of discussion about chaperoning trips this week because two of our staff members returned late last Sunday night after accompanying a high school band trip to Nashville and they had stories to tell. Apparently one evening a student ended up needing serious medical attention and had to be rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night. The chaperones became first responders, in that case, tending to the student’s needs promptly and tenderly while the ambulance arrived. It was a pretty dramatic scene, and eventually the trip had to return to Mechanicsville without that student because they were unable to be discharged in time.

A leader?
As serious as medical emergencies are, the worst logical fear of a chaperone is that a student would get lost or left behind at a stop. Thankfully, Beth and Kevin said that no student got lost or separated from the group, but another chaperone did go missing for a while. Texts and cellphone calls went unanswered. People got worried he might be in danger. Eventually they had to call in security officers to scour the Country Music Hall of Fame for a certain assistant principal who had, as it turns out, lost himself in nostalgia looking at exhibits of old country music stars. They ended up giving that adult chaperone his own bright green t-shirt to wear with his name on it and the number of the bus he was assigned to in case he ever got lost again. It could happen to any of us.

When it comes to whether he is the Messiah and what he thinks he should be called, Jesus is careful about the terminology. He says he’s a shepherd. Of course, if Jesus is the Messiah, which is what the Jewish authorities are dying to know, they can expect him to seize the reins of power in Jerusalem and take charge. Even when they manage to track him down on the temple portico and press him on his identity, Jesus prefers to use language and metaphors that suggest a gentle, nurturing style of leadership.

This doesn’t sound like the Messiah they have pictured in their brain. In fact, his response to these leaders who want to know if he is the Messiah has unmistakable echoes of one of the psalms of King David, himself a shepherd, and the last great anointed One. Many of you know this psalm, don’t you? They would have recognized it, too. This is some kind of chaperone! He will lead them beside still waters and green pastures. He will guide them through the valley of the shadow of death so that he may give them eternal life and not one of them will perish.

In the ancient Middle East, shepherds led their sheep only by a prod of the staff every now and then. Most of the time they just used their voice. The sheep had spent so much time with their shepherd, and he with them, that they could pick his voice out of a crowd. It was a relationship not based on force or power but one built over time through listening and paying attention. This turns out to be a key understanding of how Jesus will serve as the Messiah. The Festival of the Dedication is an interesting time to be having this conversation, as it turns out. The Festival of the Dedication was the festival we know as Hannukah. It was an eight-day celebration that commemorated the time that the Jewish people, under the leadership of a mighty warrior named Judas Maccabeus, hunkered down in the Temple and eventually overthrew the Syrian oppressors.

This, you see, provides a nice contrast to the type of leader Jesus wants to be. Here he is, actually in the temple, in the seat of Jewish power, but he prefers to be a shepherd who guides and uses his voice, a leader who has already performed works that should make it clear that he is God’s chosen. In fact, they are works which reveal he and God are one.

"Jesus Walks in the Portico of Solomon" (1886-1896)
And that is the real scandal, the most significant term Jesus uses to describe his leadership. The most surprising thing is not that Jesus sees himself as a shepherd. It’s that Jesus places himself on the same level as God. By this he means that God is visible in the things that Jesus does, that God is united in a particularly focused way in whatever Jesus is up to. Jesus doesn’t get this explicit about his relationship to God very often, but here he does. And those works? Well, all of his life, it turns out, is one big shepherding move on God’s behalf: he’s here to call out and make sure that God’s flock gets led safely through life and called home. He is here to feed the hungry with the bread of life. He is here to give sight to the blind, to raise the dead…here to see to it that, despite whatever may happen to us, we dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

When we wonder what kind of things God does, what God’s character is like and what God’s priorities are, Jesus is saying that we need look no further than the things he is doing. And when we wonder what the Messiahs’ reign will look like, and how the powers of evil will be overthrown, we need look no further than Jesus of Nazareth to get that picture. Jesus tells the Jewish authorities that they don’t get this because they don’t hear his voice—because, at least at that point in time, are not responding as one of his flock.

Christ the Good Shepherd, image in the Catacomb of Calixtus
See, the question is not whether you, like the Jewish authorities, come to understand how Jesus leads, how he sees himself as a shepherding Messiah, but whether you realize that he is your shepherd and Messiah. The question is not simply whether or not you can make sense of Jesus’ special relationship to his Father, that you can grasp that Jesus and God have something to do with each other, but whether you realize he is calling your name and that he loves you to the end. Because Jesus does. He is the Shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep, the Messiah who is willing to hand over all that he has in order to save us sinners.

What’s unique and interesting about Jesus’ identification with a shepherd here is that in other places in the New Testament it’s the lost sheep that the shepherd seems concerned about. It’s the seeking and finding that everyone focuses on, how the shepherd leaves ninety-nine behind to find one that’s wandered away. That is certainly a great image full of grace—it is wonderful to know Jesus sees himself as this shepherd who’s concerned about searching the lost ones, the shepherd who puts on the security guard outfit and calmly gives us a t-shirt to wear and escorts us back to the bus we belong on. However, in this instance at the Portico of Solomon, when the Jewish leaders would have been gathering to celebrate a military victory and restoring the Temple to the right worship of God, it’s not the lost sheep or the lost chaperone that Jesus mentions or that the Good Shepherd is concerned about. It’s the ones that might get snatched away. Wandering away is one thing. Being snatched out of the Father’s hands is another, and I think you’d agree that there are a lot of times in life where we feel things are snatching us from the Father’s hands.

And Jesus is determined never to let that happen. No one is going to let any sheep get snatched away because those sheep where given to him by the Father and they matter a great deal, each and every one of them. In fact, Jesus will enter death itself so that none of those sheep will ever be ultimately snatched from his Father’s hand. When we look at the cross of Jesus, we can see a God who is going to do everything to make sure that they will always be in his presence, even after they die.

Christ the Shepherd
This particular mention of God’s hands and Jesus’ determination to keep us all there always makes me think of that old spiritual I learned as a kid in Sunday School, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” It’s such a simple song, and good for audience participation. When we used this at camp or in Bible School we would always go around and have the kids add on verses. They’d name things like, “He’s got the sun and the moon in his hands,” or “He’s got the trees and the flowers in his hands.” A big favorite was “The little bitty baby.” All those verses seemed pretty tame and cheery. But, if Jesus is going to die on the cross and enter the valley of the shadow of death for us I think we can be a little bolder with our verses. Because nothing will snatch the sheep out of God’s hands. We could go around the congregation and shout out our own additions:

“He’s got the single mom on night shift in his hands…”
“He’s got the brother who needs rehab in his hands…”
“He’s got the grandpa in hospice in his hands…”

Yes, there are a lot of verses we could add. A whole long list of them, each one just as scary and “snatching” as the one before it. But the all end the same way: He’s got the whole world in his hands.

With Jesus as the chaperone-Shepherd, God’s always got the whole world in his hands.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Resurrection of Our Lord [Easter 1C] - March 27, 2016 (Luke 24:1-12)

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”

“He is risen, indeed, Alleluia!”

Yes, that is the message of this great day, as has been repeated for centuries since that first Easter morning since the women first stumbled upon the empty tomb.

Christ is risen…unless, as it happens, you are attending worship at Acomb Parish Church in North Yorkshire, England, this year. The on-line news source The Daily Dot reports that members of that congregation ordered large banners to attract worshippers and announce the Easter message to the town without carefully proofreading the final order. Instead of having signs that proclaimed that message that was first proclaimed at the empty tomb, the news that forever changed the world, the parish ended up with large banners that say, in large red letters, “Chris is Risen.” Able to laugh at themselves, they posted the unusable signs to their Facebook page. As you can imagine, the comments they received were equally funny. One person wrote, “No need to make a song and dance about it.” A person named Chris responded, “I have risen every morning so far. I plan to continue. Thank you for your support.” And yet another commenter went with the typo theme and wrote, ‘Thank the lard.’”[1]

Chris is risen….Christ is risen…what exactly is the message of this day? What precisely did occur at that tomb outside of Jerusalem so many years ago? Are we any better about communicating and articulating what this event means, what this news involves? It’s not just Acomb Parish who has had a difficult time getting the message across. Are we surprised to learn, in fact, that the first ever Easter banner is chalked up as nothing but a verbal typo? The women—those dutiful, faithful women, discharging the dirty work of tending to the dead—show up at the tomb only to find it empty and return to tell the other disciples only to have it dismissed as nothing but an idle tale. “Surely you’ve left out a letter or something,” reply the eleven and the rest, scoffing.

"The Women at the Tomb" Il Baciccio (1685)
Women, typically treated as second-class citizens in that day and age, had actually been integral in Jesus’ ministry from the very start. Luke has told us that at least once already, earlier in his gospel. They worked alongside him and probably even served as leaders in this growing community of faith, but this bit of news is too much for anyone to grab hold of. The men do not believe their report, and you can guarantee that if there had been social media in that day and age, they would have had a heyday with what the women said. “Christ is risen? Whatever your sign is supposed to say, you’d better it re-ordered right now before people think you’re silly.”

Yes, whatever the message of today is, it’s been struggling to catch on since the start. Whether we’re drawn to its promise, intrigued, or defiantly hopeful in its gift and joy; whether we’re suspicious of it, or even downright doubtful, it’s somewhat comforting to know that people have been wondering about it since the beginning. Even Peter, fresh off his night of denying any association with his Lord, who runs right to the tomb to proofread the women’s message, does not appear to make sense of or even believe what has happened. We only hear that he is amazed.

And, to be accurate, the confusion about the resurrection’s message goes back even farther than Peter’s discovery and the women’s report. There is apparently major misunderstanding and mistaken motives right from the start, when the women first show up at the tomb. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” ask the two mysterious visitors whom the women bump into at the tomb. The original language is even a little more provocative: “Why are you seeking among the dead the one who lives? He is not here, but has risen.”

To be sure, all four gospel writers report some confusion and disorientation that first Easter morning. It’s understandable. Dead bodies are not supposed to get out and walk out of their grave. But Luke is the only one who includes this sense of “You should have known!” a sense of “Didn’t you proofread anything, women and disciples? Jesus told you it would be like this all along…that he would come to Jerusalem and suffer and be crucified at the hands of sinners and then rise on the third day?”

The news of the resurrection, then, begins with a missed up message, a misprinted banner. Christ’s followers are looking in the wrong places. And they don’t even realize what they’re looking for. Life has been promised. Suffering will be defeated. Death itself will die. This is the kind of God they believe in, the particular God who has called them into service, but they’ve continued along like none of it has ever happened or mattered.

It is God who delights in overcoming the insurmountable, the God who miraculously embraces the runaway son, who doggedly seeks out the lost sheep, who works through the compassion of a despised Samaritan. It is the God who whips up dinner for five thousand with a handful of ingredients, the God who arrives for dinner at the tax-collector’s house, the God who restores the leper, long invisible, to his community, the God who began this journey of overturning the power of death in, of all places, a manger! Such a long track record he has, ladies! And gentlemen! Things would be no different with that cross. Now tell me again, “Why do you seek among the dead the one who lives???”

And that’s right where I think all of us can jump right in this morning. My fear is not that we get the message wrong, that the words are misspelled or misplaced on the resurrection banners we wave with our lives, that we misrepresent what this day means. My fear is that we’re so surrounded by death today that we forget to look for the God who lives. There are a lot of things about culture, about world events, about the direction of things in these times in which people feel don’t have a future. We see so much decay and degeneration that it’s all we begin to look for. It’s all our eyes are trained to see, all our hearts are trained to trust. But God specializes in living! The God who has formed and made each of us has a long track record of surprising with mercy, with love, with life.

Last week an amateur metal-detectorist in Denmark got off work early and decided to go looking for treasure, as was his hobby. Lo and behold, he ended up unearthing a gold crucifix dating back to the tenth century, startling and amazing archaeologists and causing the historians to re-write the history books, all of whom had no idea that Christianity had arrived in Denmark that early. Says Dennis Holm, who made the discovery, “[Ever] since I cleared the mud and found the jewelry, I have not been able to think of anything else.”[2]

Sisters and brothers, believe it or not, some people are still looking amidst the terrorism, amidst the hospitalization, amidst the fear in their hearts, wanting to believe there is a God who can clear away the mud of this messy world and bring about the living from among the dead. It may seem like an idle tale, but it will forever change the way they think. And you, shiny treasures of gold, have gotten the message, despite the obstacles of understanding: “He is not here. He is risen. Remember how he told you?”

So…figure out a way to say it, to be amazed by it.

Make your sign and live it.

With the Spirit’s help, you can. You will.

Christ is risen! Absolutely appropriate to go ahead and make a song and dance about it. Thank the lard.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “Easter Church Banner Declares that ‘Chris is Risen.’” The Daily Dot. Gabe Bergado.
[2] “Ancient Crucifix discovered by amateur treasure hunter” in Christianity Today. Florence Taylor, March 18, 2016

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - March 20, 2016 ("The Cry of the Whole Congregation")

If you haven’t personally taken part in a political rally or a political counter-protest this year, you’ve no doubt heard about them on T.V. They’re practically inescapable. We’re in the throes of an election season that is turning out to be more tumultuous than usual, and many of people’s anxieties and hopes seem to be coalescing and sometimes erupting at these large group gatherings. Hardly a week goes by without reports of some mob violence getting a bit out of control. There have been roadblocks and protests, and now there are Anonymous hacking attacks on a lead candidate. We hear all kinds of shouting, both from excitement and from fear. Hopes are pinned on a particular outcome, only to have them dashed on an election day.

So, rallies and protests all around us—sick of them as some of us may already be—and here we come into church on Palm Sunday to find out we’re going to be in one! This entire week—that is, the defining story of Christian faith—culminates with one giant mob scene surrounding a guy who seems, at least at the beginning, to have a direct pathway to a coronation. It’s worship, yes, and we’re reading from Scripture, but there is an unmistakable crowd mentality at work this morning. We have shouting, underscored by a palpable fear. There’s even an Anonymous hacker (“Is it I, Lord?” “Is it I?”) who knows secret information about the leader’s identity and plans to reveal it to the public.

I promise I’m not being clever here, drawing out some strained connection between our faith and modern-day events. Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem is a political rally. The people who shout Hosannas, waving palms with one hand while trying to figure out how to balance their bulletin open with the other so they can sing the hymn, have political hopes for their candidate. They want him to topple the oppressive, out of touch rulers. They want him to establish God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness. They have professed all kinds of loyalty to him, but they are still fickle in their hearts and if he goes off-message they will jump ship. In the course of that one week, the overwhelming majority of them do just that. Disappointed with his message and unimpressed with his power, they congregate in a big angry mob and demand his downfall.

It’s a funny thing that in both of the Creeds of the church—the Apostles’ and Nicene—it is Pontius Pilate who gets directly associated with the crucifixion.  Pilate did have legal jurisdiction over this event, and early Christians found it important to include a mention of his governorship in their statements of belief, probably because it gave it some historical credibility. However, it is clearly the crowd who rises up and demands Jesus’ death. In Luke’s account of the trial and crucifixion, especially, Pilate seems to do everything he can to proclaim Jesus’ innocence, but to no avail. Encouraged by the religious leaders and egged on by the rising sense of frustration surrounding him, the crowd is enraged, whipped up into a frenzy, They are the ones who become primarily responsible for sending Jesus to the cross.

A large part of the experience of Holy Week involves searching our souls and realizing we’re in that crowd, somewhere. As much as we’d like to distance ourselves from it all, as much as we’d prefer to lump these crazed people separate from us and remain objectively distant and collected, the cross won’t really let us do that. Jesus’ path of suffering and death involves each one of us at some point, whether it is our outright denial of him and his peaceful way before others…or our willingness just to go along with the flow…or our ability to shrug off others’ suffering as “just the way the world works”…or our inability to do anything about the rampant brokenness we see around us and in us. We are in the mob, and the mob is within us. We are anonymously part of the in-group that betrays him whether or not we want to be. We all, in our own ways, want to bring him down.

And here’s the thing. Jesus does not choose a side in order to vindicate any one side. He chooses death to free everyone. He chooses the cross, revealing to us the dead-end of all our dark ways, liberating us from the temptation to save ourselves, the temptation to think we’re better than all that. He chooses the cross, electing to hand himself over to the masses and die so they may eventually see, with eyes of faith, that he’d rather love all of us and forgive all of them than begin making distinctions of who is worthy and who is not. He chooses the cross, or it chooses him. And his path to the coronation takes detour through some suffering where he takes away the sin of the world.

So, I hate to break it to you, but this is a rally. By all means. Every worship service is, come to think of it. God is rallying God’s great love for us, even though we do not always claim it. God is rallying life for us, even though we hand him death. God is rallying through the shame of the cross to set us free for him.

That’s what is so evocative in the imagery on these new stoles Pastor Joseph and I are wearing, made by Ms. Mary Cathron Brown. Made to match this hanging here, they show a cross bordered on one side by black, thorny branches, the kind that would like to choke it. They are thorns that scream, “Crucify!” and thorns that say, “I know him not.” But on the other side, growing from the same root, is a green, vibrant branch, rallying to new life, reaching out in welcome. Know this: God promises that this kind of Jesus-growth is going on in our lives right now, right in here amongst the rabble. Our thorns giving way to his righteous new life. Right in here amidst our mob.

I believe we may pin your hopes on this one, this strange king. Let’s see how things turn out next Sunday.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Fourth Sunday in Lent [Year C] - March 6, 2016 (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)

It was a brilliant attempt at bridging an increasingly polarized conflict. The two sides had become irreconcilable to each other, and it had actually gotten kind of nasty. They both found each other repulsive, and the dislike between the two groups had become so strong and intense that members of either side wouldn’t dare be caught with the others. In fact, as time wore on, even though the plan was to bring people closer together, the two groups were actually moving farther and farther apart. There had been debates, and, my, how the sparks had flown! Those who had watched them had harbored some hope that they would clear up some of the issues, but the disputes had actually muddied the waters even more. Things were reaching a boiling point, and so the person at the center of the controversy, the one person who had been able to listen and engage both sides reached for one of the most trusted tricks in his bag. He told a story.

He told them a story—a story that he hoped would illustrate that they both had a place at the table, that in the new regime no one was going to be left out intentionally. It was a story which would use everyday images and occurrences but then he would twist them just a bit, then add a mixture of exaggeration in order to get them interested in how it might all play out. It was a story which, of course, he hoped they might recognize themselves in—both the members of the legalistic rule-following crowd and the ones who didn’t seem to care about rules.

"The Return of the Prodigal Son" (Batoni, 1773)
In the story there was a father with two sons and right at the start everyone knew what that meant: boys do what father says. The older one would one day be fully independent and receive the majority of the estate—once the father died, of course—and the younger son would receive whatever was leftover. But right at the start of the story something goes horribly, offensively wrong. The younger son, seemingly out of nowhere, walks up to his father and unceremoniously demands his portion of the property right that moment. This is kind of unheard of, and that group of rule-followers listening to the story probably would have thrown up a little bit in their mouths at that point. No one has the audacity to do that, except the most vulgar of people. No one makes a request for their inheritance while their parent is still living. It’s basically like saying, “I wish you were dead.”

Most other fathers most likely wouldn’t have handed his son the money, but for whatever crazy reason this father does. He takes the younger son right to the bank, gets the attorney and the will, does some basic calculations, and liquidates the assets. He divides out who gets what and the younger son then promptly takes his share of the cash and gets as far from his dad as he possibly can. Think Vegas. Or the Cayman Islands. Wherever you would go to escape it all and put your past behind you…that’s where this guy heads. And there is no intention of staying in touch. He goes off the grid completely. He wants absolutely nothing to do with that place he came from.

But the way in which he lives ultimately is a dead end for him. He never sees the famine coming, but even if that hadn’t happened, he would have had plenty of problems sooner or later. He winds up working for some guy who pays him just to slop pigs, a dirty job that no self-respecting Jewish person would lower himself to, even if he weren’t that religious. And a strange things starts to happen to him while he’s hungry and covered in mud. Maybe it was a childhood memory. Maybe it was the thought of his mother fixing his old favorite food. Something starts him thinking about all that he left behind him. He’s an awful long way away now, but might there be a way to get back? He knows his father, if he’s like any normal father out there, would never welcome him back as an equal, but maybe he’d be able to get a job there and he’d at least not have to worry about starving to death.

So he comes to himself. Literally. It’s like part of him had been wandering elsewhere while a small part of him had secretly stayed behind, and at this point, the two parts meet up again.  The wandering him comes back to the long-lost version of himself and he realizes everything more clearly. He practices a little speech that might win his father back over, and he starts off back towards home.

So far much of this story has been very over-the-top—the disrespect shown by the younger son, the profligacy of the father, the job slopping pigs out in Timbuktu. But the most over-the-top part of the story what comes next. The father sees his son on the road back and runs out to meet him. At this point you realize that this father must have been waiting the whole time, because otherwise it would have been really uncanny that he just happened to spot his son in the distance coming back. The father runs out to his son on the road and is so excited he tries to chest bump his son. He starts high-fiving him, basically smothering him with love because he’s so happy to see him. And the younger son, probably a little taken aback, starts to go through his well-rehearsed speech about being sorry and everything, but before he can really get to the end of it the father has already started texting the kitchen to throw on some barbecue. He’s ordering a tent so friends can come over and they can party all night. And he’s got the D.J. lined up. Just to drive it all home, they’re going to start the party off with that song by American Idol winner Phillip Phillips from a few years back, the one that goes,

Settle down, it’ll all be clear.
Don’t pay no mind to the demons, they fill you with fear.
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found
Just know you’re not alone.
‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home.

That’s what’s playing in the background as they head back to the ranch.

Which is what the other son must have heard. All the focus so far has naturally been on that younger, wandering son, but all this while the older, dutiful son has been helping out dad and not interfering with anyone’s life. And yet, he is just as distant as the young son. He hears the party and can’t even bring himself to join in. Not only that, but instead of asking his father what’s going on he goes to one of the slaves to find out. He is so angry and confused about what his father is doing that he doesn’t even want to be a part of it. He’s out there Tweeting, though, all kinds of nasty things about his family. #unfair #cantbelieveit #wheresmyparty.

And then, for the second time in the story, the father comes out of the house to greet a son. For the second time in the story, the father deals lovingly and patiently with profound disrespect from one of his sons.

"The Prodigal Son" (Auguste Rodin)
Remember that one of the original ideas behind telling the story about these two sons was to get them to recognize themselves, the Pharisees and scribes, especially, since they were acting kind of like the older brother. But the main idea, the storyteller hopes, is to get them to recognize the father. He’s the one who brings it all together. He’s a father of profound grace and understanding, a parent who is more excited to celebrate the restoration of someone’s life than in handing out punishments. He’s a father of seemingly unlimited compassion, who waits patiently and pleads insistently. He’s a father who illustrates that the kingdom of God is always running out onto the road to forgive and renew, who wants both sides—all sides—to join in the joy of bringing everyone home. That’s the nature of this father’s love, which is something the older son is too self-focused for the time-being to understand: It is inherently a love that looks outward, waiting, anticipating a chance to show mercy. That’s who the man telling them the story wants them to recognize, because that love can actually pull these two groups together.

The story ends, though, without any resolution, which is another quirky feature of the way this guy tells stories. We never know if the older son actually makes his way into the party and is reconciled with his brother and his father. We don’t know if the younger son, perhaps, wanders away and gets lost again. It’s kind of open-ended, any conclusion playing itself out over and over again in the lives of the listeners who get lost and then found, then lost and found again…or who get self-possessed and resentful and then found again.

Eventually the time for storytelling, however, runs out, and the man who tries desperately to bring all of God’s children under one loving kingdom of profound forgiveness ends up dying to do so. He lays his life down on the cross in order to show what so many of his stories and sermons tried to: that it’s impossible to get too far from his Father’s love. It just can’t be done. No amount of turning your back on his life, no amount of ignoring the grace, no amount of internal resentment and selfishness no amount of dying can separate you from this God.

The focus of Lent is repentance, learning to receive again and again God’s grace in Christ. Two weeks ago repentance looked like coming to terms with our vulnerability as humans and realizing God is our refuge. Last week it meant understanding our lifelong responsibility for growth in faith and God’s desire to give us new chances to attempt that. This week it’s about coming to ourselves, turning around, and running back into the open arms of a God whose instinct is to come out onto the road of life to meet us.

The troubles, they might drag you down
You get lost, but you can always get found.
Just know you’re not alone…
This God will always be your home.



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


Monday, February 29, 2016

The Third Sunday in Lent [Year C] - February 28, 2016 (Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13:1-9)

It’s been another bumpy week in the news for Starbucks. On Monday the Seattle-based coffee chain made a lot of folks unhappy when they announced major changes to their rewards system, which is one of their gimmicks to cultivate lots of repeat customers. Beginning in April rewards will be earned based on how much money a customer spends each time they visit, rather than on how many times a customer simply visits. This means those who purchase the really expensive—and unhealthier—drinks on a regular basis will have a much easier time earning reward stars and the freebies that come with them. Those who stick to plain coffee come up shorter. They will spend and spend, just the same as they always did, but it will take longer to rack up new reward stars. I figure under the new rewards system, it will be next August before I get my free drink that I so clearly deserve.

It’s funny how successfully enticing those little rewards systems are, aren’t they? Not just for Starbucks, but for everything! They hook you right in, making you spend far more money than you normally ever would simply because they dangle some free rewards treat out there in front of you. You usually get a card, along with some distinction of privileged status like being called a member or a premier client. Starbucks calls them members—gold-level members, even—and the chain reveals that Rewards members spend three times as much as non-members.

Contrast all this with God’s Rewards system, announced, as it is, with such gracious openness by the barista Isaiah:

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
Come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!”

There is no special card here, no elite privileged status that you must earn or maintain. God is simply prepared just to give it out, the best there is around. It’s always free. Loyalty is valuable, but God’s got no gimmicks to keep us interested. It makes no sense, especially for the business-minded. And that’s quite alright, for God reminds us,“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” That is, “I don’t do things like Starbucks. This gracious and open-ended anti-rewards program of goodness that I offer is intended wholly for your well-being. Like a feast of foods both delicious and nutritious, it has been offered for us you to thrive and grow.”

Early church giant St. Augustine once said to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Isaiah would have worded it, “Our souls are continuously hungry, and they do not find nourishment until they feast on God.” This is the way we stand before God from the time we are born until the time we take our final breath: a thirsting, a hungering for the God who gives us life. And even though we are prone to go searching for things which eventually leave us empty, and sink our roots into soils that never really nourish us, God still stands there offering his goodness for free. God still draws near, hoping we will notice we can turn to the Lord and listen that we may live. The rewards in this relationship is the relationship itself. There is no manipulation here, so salvation latte dangling on the edge of a stick. We are created to receive God’s mercy and, as we receive it, grow in the faith and love of God.

In Jesus’ day, then, it was tempting to think that when bad things happened to people, then it must be some form of divine retribution. People were prone to believe that one stood before God in terms of whether or not they were getting what they deserved. That is, if one did not turn and listen to receive the mercy and pardon God granted, that person could expect some form of just desserts. Luke tells us about some people who come before Jesus to ask him how God might have been at work in a tragedy involving some Galileans who Pilate ordered killed during their trip to the Jerusalem temple. Did they somehow get what was coming to them? And Jesus not only answers, “No,” but he adds on another story that people of that time would have probably known about, a story about a freak accident involving a tower that fell and killed eighteen people. In neither case, Jesus clarifies, was God somehow at work handing out justice or revoking rewards points because of something those victims had done at some point.

It may frustrate us to hear this, but Jesus doesn’t seem concerned with the question of why bad things happen, whether they’re the result of human deeds of evil or seemingly random acts of nature. What Jesus is concerned about is our repentance, His point is this: we do not stand before God in terms of whether or not we’re getting what we deserve. Jesus certainly didn’t get what he deserved, and he stood before God blameless. To paraphrase Bono, front man for the band U2 says, love has interrupted any type of system of karma we might believe the universe ever had.[1] We stand before God in terms of listening and living, of seeking and searching; that is, we stand ready to receive him as nourishment, or as medicine, or as sunshine that tilts the head of a flower towards it so that it may grow.

Jesus doesn’t reach for the image of a sunflower to illustrate this, however. Instead he uses a fig tree and manure. There is a fig tree that isn’t producing any figs. It’s at least three years old, which is the traditional length of time that even a young fig sapling would take to grow some fruit. Sadly, it just sits there, using up a valuable spot in the vineyard, wasting precious soil that could be used for another plant. If the fig tree truly got what it deserved, the landowner would rip it out immediately, but love interrupts. The gardener still sees potential, in spite of its reluctance, in spite of its age. It was made to grow and produce figs. Maybe one more year and an extra helping of free, nutritious fertilizer will wake it up to a life of fruitful repentance.

A couple of weeks ago Epiphany hosted a one-day conference called, “Engaging Adults in Faith Formation.” Geared towards church professionals and volunteers responsible for leading things like Sunday School for grown-ups, it challenged us to think of adult faith formation as the primary emphasis of a congregation’s ministry. So often all the resources and attention go into faith formation of children and young people. Congregations beef up offerings for their youth group. They look at our numbers of children’s ministry and Sunday School. And while the conference reaffirmed that all of those things are important and good, it also pointed out that learning about faith and growing in understanding of God is something that continues lifelong.

The presenter pointed to the work of John Bowlby, a British researcher whose pioneering work on orphans in the 19th century showed that children can literally die of loneliness. He further demonstrated that we never outgrow our need for human contact and deep emotional bonds. The thought that we reach some point final maturity, at least in terms of our need for growth in our relationships, isn’t really true. Likewise, our ability to grow figs is always there. And yet it is so easy to harbor this thought that our bond with God is something that kind of stops growing once we get confirmed or when we think we are too old to go to Sunday School anymore. For whatever reason—perhaps fear, perhaps apathy—we neglect our desire to engage those roots and wrestle with deeper questions within the community of our brother and sister faith travelers as we get older. Studies show that by the time our children are age 10 or 11 they have figured out if faith practice is really real and important to their parents or if they do it only for the sake of the kids.
I must say that this congregation is blessed to have so many people of all ages who have felt that continuous interruption of God’s love and who are regularly searching and seeking, who aren’t participating in worship and other activities out of a sense of obligation or duty but because of a desire to grow and learn. Last summer our minister of faith formation, Christy Huffman, planned a week of Vacation Bible School for whole families in addition to the one we traditionally offer for pre-school and elementary aged children. The children had a blast, but it was the adults who requested we do it again and maybe expand it. A new fellowship group for those who are in their 50s and 60s who may now be empty-nesters has formed and is getting ready for their second event next week. Adult Bible studies are full and growing, and Dr. Westin’s class on the history of the Reformation has almost been standing room only. Over the past year, we have supported three members who have been pursuing seminary studies.

Numbers are nice, of course, but it is not the only way to measure the growth God gives us. Even if just one fig tree suddenly produces a fruit it is something the landowner would look on with pride. There is one gentleman in his 80s who is hear on a regular basis whom I regularly hear saying after a Men’s lunch gathering or a Bible study, “You know, I had never thought of that Scripture in that way before.” Still growing. Still admitting the need for wisdom, still listening so that he may really live.

It’s another instance of that love that interrupts, a grace that offers itself again and again, without money and without price. It’s another gracious run-in with the gardener who still believes in that fig tree, who intercedes with his life and says, “Nuh-uh. Not so fast. I like this tree. It just needs a little more attention.”

Yes, it’s another surprising encounter with a most rewarding God who tells us there is no need for points. “Throw away that silly member card. You, my child, are my star.”

 Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas. Michka Assayas

Monday, February 15, 2016

The First Sunday in Lent [Year C] - February 14, 2016 (Luke 4:1-13)

(photo cred: USA Today)
Well, another Super Bowl is in the books; another winning team has been crowned. Another quarterback’s legacy has been validated, and…another coach has endured a Gatorade shower. Gary Kubiak, coach of the victorious Denver Broncos, was doused last Sunday evening with orange Gatorade as the final seconds of the game ticked down. Those who watch football may understand the significance of the Gatorade shower: it’s that moment when victory seems definite and the winning team “sneaks up” behind the coach to pour a whole cooler of Gatorade on him.

For many people, the Gatorade shower is the real end of the game, meaning more than the clock actually reaching zero  or more than the referees’ final whistle. At some point in history it was probably some team’s spontaneous reaction to a hard-fought win. Now it’s become a necessary ritual that signals the real end of the battle. In fact, the Gatorade shower is such a traditional part of American football that bookies now take bets on what color the Gatorade will beat each Super Bowl. I’ve never had anyone dump a cooler of Gatorade on me, but I imagine it’s quite a rush. All the bumps and bruises of the long season are in the past, all the self-doubts and second-guessing are washed away. You are named and claimed as the winner. Everyone gathers around you, supporting you, congratulating you, and you are free to do nothing but beginning to bask in the glory.

Jesus’ life is like a football game in reverse. His Gatorade shower comes at the very beginning of everything—when he is baptized in the Jordan River—and the struggle only intensifies from there. He is named and claimed as the winner—the Son of God—but there are no shouts of joy to accompany it, no basking in glory, no sudden end to the self-doubts and second-guessing. Immediately after his baptism, which all four gospel writers mention in some way as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the Spirit leads Jesus into solitude in the wilderness where he does battle with his enemy. The bumps and bruises are just beginning. He eats nothing and is weakened by hunger. He undergoes a series of temptations where the devil tries to lead him astray. His baptismal shower has freed him from nothing. Instead, it has initiated a life of challenges.

In Luke’s version of this story, those challenges begin with three tests which include just about every type of testing a person of faith can experience in life. One test tries to lure Jesus away through his body by offering to diminish his intense hunger. Another test attempts to strike through his heart and sense of ego by laying before him the kingdoms of the world. And a third test battles his intellect by using Scripture to argue against God’s power. Strength, soul and mind are all find themselves under siege in the wilderness.

Here’s the thing: these challenges make it very tempting to look at the account of Jesus’ temptation and think it primarily tells us about how human Jesus is. That’s a common reaction. We read it and think, “Look! This shows Jesus knows what it’s like to be human. The One we call Savior feels temptation. He struggles with hunger. He understands the lure of power and control.” And that reaction is not all wrong. Jesus’ undertook baptism, in part, to show solidarity with humankind, and the fact that he has to contend with temptation, with being hungry, for example, is part of that solidarity with us.

But the temptation of Jesus does not ultimately show us how human or ordinary Jesus is. It shows us how godly he is. It shows us he is not your ordinary human being. He is something extraordinary because he contends with evil and evil does not defeat him. The great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky is credited as saying that if the whole Bible were somehow to be lost and only the account of Jesus’ temptation were to remain, it would be enough for us to have hope. A Savior has arrived. Someone has appeared on the scene who can contend with temptation, even in his weakened, isolated state, and stand down the dark forces that draw us from God.

That’s who, after all, this devil character is: the one who draws us from God. Those who constantly want to debate and wonder about what the devil looks like or whether the devil is a real physical being are missing the point. Scripture talks much more about things like voice and strategy when it talks about evil. There are voices and influences and ideas that try to lead us away from the good. There are influences that tell us lies about the strength of our own autonomy. And in the wilderness Jesus somehow manages to hear those voices and feel those influences and not believe them.

The account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness traditionally kicks off the Sundays in Lent, this time of the year when the Church pays special attention to Jesus’ sacrificial way of the cross. Modelled after Jesus’ own time of temptation and fasting, Lent is a season of forty days of special prayer and other spiritual disciplines. It has several purposes, but one of them is to have us pause and reflect more intentionally on what it means to turn to God. And this morning we remember that we are only able to turn to God because Jesus has contended against the forces of evil for us. He is the gift. He is the way. He stands up to the voices and influences that would separate us from God and, ultimately on the cross, puts them to death for us.

None of this is done for us because we deserve it, or because we are distinctly loveable, wonderful people. God rescues us in Christ Jesus out of God’s great love and desire to have us back, to grant us a future that of communion with him. Just like the ancient Israelites stand at their first harvest in the land God promised them and recount how God brought them out of Egypt into a land flowing with milk and honey—how God heard their cries of affliction and  saved them with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, not by any power of their own—so do we stand in God’s promises of life because of what Jesus has done for us. The battle has already been won. The gift has already been given. Our life, our journey, is now one of repentance; that is, learning to receive and re-learn what this great gift means.

I don’t know if you heard the story this week out of California about the couple who were getting ready to buy the boat that they’d always dreamed of, that they’d saved up all their money for, but had a change of heart and ended up instead using the money to send an entire kindergarten class to college. Navy veteran Marty Burbank estimates that it will take about $1 million to accomplish this, so he’s set up a private foundation for Ms. Ashton’s class at Rio Vista Elementary School. All twenty-six kids speak Spanish at home and arrived this year not knowing much English or what college even was. Many of the families at Rio Vista would never even be able to afford college, and for many of them it may not be the right thing to go to college, but Burbank, after something he heard one Sunday at church, of all places, decided to take all the money he was going to spend on himself and instead offer it in some way to the school he had been volunteering at for several years. The gift is theirs.  All the kids have to do is draw a picture or write an essay every year about what going to college will mean for each of them and their families.[1] Now someone needs to buy Marty a boat.

It occurs to me that that’s an illustration of repentance: a conscious reflection on the fact that the gift has already been given what it means to you, and how you plan to receive it. Repentance, especially in the church, often gets reduced to just meaning your sorry or asking for forgiveness, but really it’s far more interesting—than just that. Repentance is a process, or a frame of mind, or a series of movements of the heart and mind that are far too complex to summarize in one image or action.

In fact, repentance is the way of Christian life. Martin Luther, in his first line of the 95 Theses, which is the document he posted to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg as he attempted to reform the church, says, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Just as thankfulness, for example, may take look different depending on the situation and the thankful person’s specific circumstances…just as Valentine’s Day involves different gestures and celebrations—or lack thereof—depending on the beloved’s mood…so does repentance take on different aspects throughout the life of a believer.

Sometimes it does involve apologizing for and confessing sin, but sometimes it entails something different, like a dimension of realizing your potential for growth in ways you’ve never noticed before. Sometimes repentance may look like coming to terms again with your overall helplessness and weakness in this scary world. At other times it may look like the practice of learning to desire and treasure the right kinds of things in the right way, and seizing a chance to do so. Each of the gospel readings this Lent will focus on a different aspect of repentance, offering up two opposing examples of the choices we might make as we learn to receive the gift. Regardless of what the life of repentance looks like today and again tomorrow, it is always a reflection on what Christ has already done for us, a rejoicing in the triumph over death and sin that Jesus has already accomplished and handed to us.

No, I don’t know a thing personally about what a Gatorade dump feels like at the end of a game I’ve fought hard to win. Nor do I ever want to. But I do know what baptism feels like, and what it’s like to hear that the battle has already been won for me. O Lord, may I, like a fresh little kindergartner in Ms Ashton’s class, always be ready to sit down and at least draw a picture or say a prayer of what that means to me.




The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday - February 10, 2016 (Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)

When my sister and I were little, there was a book in the toy bin at our grandparents’ house in Winston-Salem that my sister loved to have read to her. It was a little Golden book in the Rocky and Bullwinkle series called something like Rocky and Friends. It was only about twenty pages long, and, being a children’s book, its very simple storyline was driven more by big, colorful pictures than by sentences with words. But my sister loved the story, and whenever we were over at their house, she would inevitably end up on granddaddy’s lap at some point and he’d read it to her, over and over and over.

I was never involved in the listening or telling of Rocky and Friends—I would always be occupied with something else that I thought was less baby-ish—but the plot had something to do with a camping trip in the woods which seemed to be going wrong. One by one, Rocky’s friends would leave the tent where they were all sleeping and disappear into the dark night, never to return. Every time a new person left the tent, the words would go, “One second, two seconds, three seconds went by.” For most little kids, that kind of stuff is suspenseful. My sister ate it up. As for me, I would get so put off by repetition of that middle part, the way it droned on and on, that about halfway thought I’d tune it all out. Bored by the monotony and frustrated with the tension, I never actually listened to the end to hear what happened to Rocky and his friends in the woods. I must have heard granddaddy read that book to Katherine a hundred times. I can hear his kind voice and see her legs dangling under the edge of the book. I never paid attention to how it ended.

Today is about paying attention to the end. That’s what the ashes soon to be placed on our foreheads are all about. Our lives are a story that can be, especially in the long middle stretches, boring and monotonous, tedious and filled with tension. We can get caught up in the repetition of certain aspects or distracted by things that don’t really matter. And even if we are successful at tuning it out for a while as we worship the idol of youth or burnishing the impact of our legacy, we ultimately won’t be able to ignore where it all winds up for us. We are dust, and to dust we will return.

Today, tonight, throughout the world, friends and strangers gather in worship to be reminded in stark fashion that we will disappear back into the woods at some point. It’s unavoidable. It happens whether there is suspense in our lives or not. It happens whether we are surrounded by worldly success or not. God formed each of us from the same raw materials of his universe, and that is the direction our bodies eventually take. Ash Wednesday is considered by many to be the most jarring, the most solemn time of worship of the entire year. It reminds us that we are not in total control of what is happening to us and that we have inherited a human story that ends in death. Pope Francis has said, “Lent comes providentially to reawaken us, to shake us from our lethargy.” Indeed, call it the lull of “one second, two seconds, three seconds going by.” We need to be shaken to pay attention to the end of our story.

That appears to be one of the motivations for the people of God during the time of the prophet Joel. They too, are confronted with a great darkness on the horizon that promises to wipe all of them out. They see the day of clouds and blackness approaching, which we think may have been a swarm of crop-devouring locusts, and they contemplate their end. It could mean massive famine, disease, war between those who have and those who have not. No matter what, it is their end, and in contemplating it through the acts of repenting and praying, even mourning for their impending demise, they remember that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Because just as they become aware of their story of sinfulness and decay, they are also aware of God’s story. It is a holy story that began with their very creation out of dust and continues through the mighty acts of that loving Creator, each time pulling them out of the monotony and tedium, sorrow and boredom of their human story and making them aware of another end that God has in store for them.

And that, we remember, is a story of salvation, not of ultimately clouds and thick darkness. It is a real history of God working among God’s people to love them and restore them to blessing. This God had once called their patriarchs and matriarchs like Abraham and Sarah, in order to become a holy people that would be a blessing to the earth. God’s story continued as God heard the cries of suffering of the slaves in Egypt, the offspring of those matriarchs and patriarchs, now stranded in a strange land. God brought them out, delivering them through a great Exodus into freedom that would renew their covenant with God and allow them to shine once again as God’s treasured people.

As God’s story for them continues, they plead for a leader who would be able to unite their bickering tribes and help them maintain their treasured status among so many other diverse peoples. And God renews his covenant once again, and makes of them a real city on hill. Unbelievably, God would come to reside with them in that city, taking up residence in a holy temple. But unlike other holy shrines elsewhere, God’s temple would not contain God goodness and glory in one place. Rather, God’s light would stream out from there to be embodied in the relationships of the people in the kingdom where grace and love for the neighbor would rule over all else. 

The Flight of the Prisoners (Tissot)
When their efforts at that began to burn once more into ashes, God would draw near, this time forming them through a period of great hardship and sorrow. In foreign Babylon they would become like slaves again, scattered from their holy city and the temple that inspired them so. Into exile and then back, they’d yet come to realize God was still with them, honing them to be people who lived according to his Word, no matter where they were.

Then, to fully link the human story of death and sin to God’s holy story of life and freedom, God gave his Son, Jesus of Nazareth. His birth, life, and death among us unites our story as mortal creatures with God’s story of salvation and life eternal. This is the story, the great history of hope, that we have inherited through our faith in Christ. When a person receives the water of baptism, the pastor stands at the font and sometimes says, “We are born children of a fallen humanity; by water and the Holy Spirit we are reborn children of God and made members of the body of Christ.” Though our human story is broken by sin and ends with the ashes of death, we are now also united to God’s story in Christ who is risen from the dead.

The traditional disciplines of Lent are designed to awaken us and help us pay attention to that story, to that hope. Fasting, the giving of alms, and prayer all, in different ways, jolt us out of the humdrum of a normal, self-centered existence and help us re-learn and receive this new ending in Christ’s life. We become living and breathing—and even dying—reminders that our story of decay and sin has now overlapped with God’s great salvation. Devoted to God and to neighbor, we can bear God’s image, answer the call to be God’s people, enjoy deliverance from sin, build God’s kingdom in our presence, and be molded by God’s judgment of slow anger and steadfast love. The life of faith helps us remember that everything—everything—comes to an end except for the love, grace, and peace of Jesus Christ.

My own grandfather reached the end of his earthly story last October at the age of 93. As we sat gathered with close family in his final days, the subject of that old Rocky and Bullwinkle book came up. As an act of remembering him and honoring that time together, my sister hunted and hunted for a copy of it somewhere. It’s out of print, of course, so it wasn’t on any of the major booksellers on-line, but eventually she got it from an obscure Etsy seller for a whopping $3. It arrived the week or so after he died.

I was curious about the end, and as it turns out there’s a little surprise. Rocky’s friends disappear one by one in the forest not to meet some terrible demise, but because they’re throwing him a secret surprise birthday party. After so much worry, or boredom, or tedium, or suspense, the story ends in a celebration of life and thankfulness.

Huh. A story with a surprise end of joy and thanksgiving. Well, now how to you like that?

Granddaddy (Bob) and my sister (Katherine)

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.