Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Third Sunday of Advent [Year B] - December 14, 2014 (John 1:6-8, 19-28 and Psalm 126)

To a large degree in our culture—at least for many adults—any sense of really waiting for Christmas has long been done away with. It could be that I’m just projecting my own feelings of frustration here, but as I listen to others and their long do-do lists, as I observe the ever-increasing stream of traffic around shopping areas, as I fret about deadlines for having things ordered so they’ll ship in time, it occurs to me that there is no waiting anymore. Young children, I’d bet, still feel that agonizing tension of expectation, but for so many of us, the primary feeling of Advent is not “When, oh, when will the day get here?” but, rather, “Oh, sweet Jesus, it’s barreling right at me!”

Memorial angels for the fallen in Newtown
I read a blog entry this week of one of the mothers who lost a child in the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, CT, which happened exactly two years ago, today. It was a moving post, difficult to read. She wrote movingly about how much that day has permanently affected her, how it effectively divided her life into time before Sandy Hook and time after Sandy Hook. She lamented the loss of her old, optimistic personality, wondering if it would ever return. Towards the end of the woman’s post, she allowed that she was beginning to see glimmers of that joy, but was clearly eager to have it increase and take over again. Now that, I thought to myself, is waiting. That is the agonizing tension of expectation.

When we take modern-day Christmas out of the equation, that’s the kind of waiting that Advent wants us to ponder. If we were to take Christmas out of the equation—I know it’s hard to, but just for a minute—I think we’d realize that that kind of waiting permeates all our lives, to one degree or another. It’s the kind of waiting that pervades this entire “benighted sphere,” as the old Swedish hymn calls the planet Earth. In all the slums and cities and suburbs the world over people, each in his or her own way, are racked by grief, by boredom, by the curse of sin, and they are wondering if the joy will return. “Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,” go the words of today’s psalm, “will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.” We want that to be true. We want to shoulder the sheaves of joy.

It is into that kind of waiting—that agonizing tension when joy seems to be so delayed—that John the Baptist appears. In first century Israel, everyone seemed to be waiting and wondering whether God’s time would come. God’s rule would be marked by the return of a prophet, or the anointing of a Messiah, a savior, and just about everyone was on edge with that expectation.

John the Baptist suggested that it was near at hand, and his appearance out in the wilderness, near the small town of Bethany, rather than within the halls of power in the city, captured the imagination and hope of the people. Out in the wilderness their ancestors’ dreams had been honed with a time of expectation. This voice made sense to them, booming as it was. It evoked promise, sounding as if he had been sent from God as a witness. It reminded them that God most often acts at the margins (how could they have forgotten?), at the bottom of society first, and so they flock to see him, to be cleaned with baptismal waters and be ready because that which they were waiting for was here.

Even the powers-that-be from way up at the Jerusalem Temple show up to check John out, sending their representatives to interrogate him. Granted, at any given time back then there were probably a number of people claiming to be prophets like John, but John gets their attention. He might be stirring something up.

What grabs your attention these days? What commotions and disturbances out there on the edges of your life do you think deserve a closer look?

St. John the Baptist (Barbieri Giovanni Francesco)
What the people find when they finally reach John might surprise them. John, you see, wastes no time pointing away from himself to someone else, someone greater. He, after all, is to be a witness, not the subject himself. He is not the one everyone has been waiting for. That one, in fact, stands among them now. John’s role is only to help prepare people for his arrival, to carry the seed and toss it out into the soil, to remind people that they have the chance to receive him. John understands he’s not the light, but he will testify to the light. John knows he is not the Promised One, but is one who speaks of the Promise. John is not the answer to the eternal question if God loves us, but because John speaks of Jesus, John is the witness to the answer.

I caught a part of a radio broadcast the other day where people were calling in to the D.J. explaining their favorite Christmas song. One person called in to say that “The Little Drummer Boy” was most meaningful to her because she felt that song somehow placed her in the manger scene, sharing her humble gifts with Jesus. Might I suggest this morning the message is that we are not to be Little Drummer Boys, but little John the Baptists? It is good to share our gifts with Jesus, but we are also to testify to him, to point to him, to help the world notice, in humble ways, that joy has arrived…that, at least as far as wondering whether God loves us and remembers us, the wait is over.

Often without being aware of it, we followers of Christ can often take on the tone that we are the answer to the world’s problems. Without realizing the sanctimoniousness of our actions, we burst onto the scene, into the neighborhood, into the village, into the political debate with the attitude that now that we’ve arrived, things will start looking up for everyone.

Hand-carved wooden crosses
The reality is that Jesus is God’s response to the sin in the world, to the agonizing tension of expectation. Jesus is the one who proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor. Jesus is the one who brings liberty to the captives, who binds up the brokenhearted, in Newtown and elsewhere. It is Jesus who is born to bring justice, who makes his way from the murky waters of the River Jordan to the cross on Golgotha.

Those who testify to him, therefore, must walk that fine line between being those who, like John, may know about the light and even attract people because they stand so close to it, but yet who always remember the importance of pointing away from ourselves to that light. It is striking the balance between humbly trusting we have a claim on the truth, and knowing, more importantly, that the truth has a claim on us.

And that truth stands in our midst.  We are not worthy to untie his sandals, and yet he still comes to tell the world with his life and death that its agonizing wait is over.

Last Sunday evening the congregation celebrated its Consecration Sunday dinner in order to tally and announce the financial commitments for the coming year and enjoy some congregational fellowship. As is the custom, once the dinner was over, we put on our coats and traipsed outside in the cold to the front yard of our church for the Grand Illumination of our little town of Bethlehem Christmas display. Earlier in the week, a team of volunteer men, led by a master electrician, had rigged the large star and the angels high above us, and all the electrical switches and cords were in order. We tested it. We were ready, yet for some unknown reason when the time came to flip the switch, the lights flickered for a second, and then immediately went out. That left us in the pitch-black dark, for whatever went wrong had also knocked out the power to the large flood light that had been focused on the manger.

We all stood there for a second, wondering what to do. The person at the switchboard flipped the switch again, and then the lights came on…and then went out again. This on-then-off happened about two more times before we finally had to call it quits. The crowd took the incident really well. I don’t think anyone was really that let down, and, in fact, it gave a few people the chance to chortle out some lines from a movie with Clark Griswold. Another person later said that with our crescendo-ing and descrescendo-ing voices we sounded like people watching a firework display: “Ahhh…. ohhh… AAAAHHH….ohhhh.”

Looking back, I wonder what the people thought who happened to be sitting at the stoplight at Horsepen and Monument, the people who happened to be driving by at that precise moment. Did they catch what happened? Did they chuckle, too, or have pity on us for our mishap? Or did they perchance catch that when the lights on the Christmas star and the angels go out, what is left is the cross? Did they see, then, a bunch of women and men and children looking up at this sign of ultimate love in our midst and going, Ahhh…oohhhh…ahhhh?

I’d like to think that’s what they really could have seen: a people who were clearly waiting for something spectacular, but ended up looking in wonder at the cross. I hope that’s what we really are—a community of disciples who witness in that way, not drawing attention to ourselves and our own dazzling displays of faith, not attracting seekers and guests merely so that they may be a part of “us,” but a people who testify in word and deed in such a way that they are drawn in to see this light with us, even if it means we have to stand in the dark every once in a while.

I pray, too, that this is what we continue to become—a gathering in the cold dark night of the world that is inviting others to trust alongside of us that the agonizing wait is over. At long last we are beginning to shoulder sheaves. The Promised One has come and we may receive him in joy as far as the curse is found.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Day of Thanksgiving [Year A] - November 27, 2014 (Psalm 65

There's nothing like a having a day set aside for nationwide thanksgiving—a day which, perhaps more than any other, proclaims our unity as a people—preceded by two days of violent protests,  reminding us that not everyone experiences the blessings of this land the same or equally. Granted, the discrepancies between various components of American society are always there, especially when it comes to wealth and economic opportunity, but the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the “tumult of the peoples” in other cities and states have brought them into stark relief for us once again. The psalmist this morning says that “those who live at the earth’s farthest bounds are awed by [God’s] signs,” a sentiment which claims that God’s abundant goodness is so vast in its scope no one anywhere can deny it. Yet plenty have reason to, and we don’t have to go to earth’s farthest bounds to find them. They’re on our TV screens.

For many, Thanksgiving will be celebrated this year through the haze of tear gas and smoldering buildings, to say nothing of those whose lives and livelihoods have been so deeply affected by the shooting of Michael Brown in August. Indeed, emotions are running so high for so many people that it is even difficult to offer a simple observation about what is going on without raising the ire of someone, which only serves to prove the point that in so many ways we are a divided people.

Camille Pissarro "Women farming"
It is fitting, then, that before he begins listing the his descriptive examples of God’s bounty and generosity in things of the earth—the rivers that enrich it, the grain that feeds the people, the wagon tracks spilling over with the harvest---the writer of Psalm 65 begins with a reflection on God’s forgiveness. That is, before we sing of those wagon tracks that overflow, we confess that our sins overflow, and that God’s mercy overflows all the more. It is chiefly in pardon through the love of God’s Son on the cross where we begin to see God’s abundant giving.

Our eyes may then, in faith, be opened to the ways in which our whole lives are enriched by God’s presence, every dark and forsaken corner illuminated by Jesus’ mercy, and like the one Samaritan leper for whom that eye-opening happens, we can fall down in thanksgiving to praise God.

For the writer of Psalm 65, The thanksgiving for God’s mercy then develops into a realization that all human ingenuity and prosperity comes from God, that our blessings are not entirely of our own design, nor are they by accident. The psalmist’s images are agrarian in nature—the furrows and ridges of the grain fields, the flocks that blanket the hills—and may sound a bit foreign to us in the digital age.

"Grace" (Eric Enstrom, 1919)
A story is told of a farmer from the country was in the city to do some business. While there, he stopped at a diner to get a bite to eat. As was his custom, before he ate, he bowed his head to give a word of thanks to God. There were some other patrons in the restaurant who took notice of this bumpkin and his traditional, quaint ways. Once he was done praying they asked him in jest, “Does everybody where you come from pray before eating?”

The farmer looked up and said, “Nope. There are some who don’t. We call them pigs and they just dig in.” 

Yes, the connections between agriculture and God’s blessings in nature are often clear, but are we any less dependent on God’s goodness? The types of gifts that surround us today may not be immediately recognizable as coming from the earth that God so generously waters, but somewhere back at their source they still do. Those whose immediate prosperity is so closely tied to the annual harvest, are likely to be more aware of their vulnerability, especially if it were all to be taken away by bad weather or community strife. But in fact, we are all growing and succeeding as a result of God’s gift of a fertile earth, a cosmos that just happens to be perfectly tuned to harbor life, and the thoughtfulness of human hearts that are created to think of others.

Last week at one of the men’s lunch groups our discussion centered around people who we knew in high school who were especially gifted or talented at something and then what they did later in life. Did they manage to make much of themselves? Had they recognized their blessings and used them in such a way to bring success? As we were sharing our stories, one among us told a story about a kid in grade school who had nothing. His family was poor, and he showed up to school every day without any lunch. A particularly venerable teacher, named Ms. Loving, spent some of her own money every day to get the kid something to eat. Years later, long after he had graduated from school and settled across the country to make a name for himself in Hollywood that student, Forrest Tucker, sent a check to Ms. Loving for $1000.

Abbotts' Farm, Mt Lebanon, PA
Yet returning thanks as a follower of Christ means more than following through with our gratitude to the Great Giver. It also involves following through with the mindfulness of others’ needs. Our thanksgiving to God is fullest  when we receive the generous blessings of paid-for lunches, valleys bedecked with ample grain and remember that they are not for us alone. They are for sharing, collecting and distributing so that all may take part in the bounty.

“God is able,” the apostle Paul calmly explains to the wayward congregation in Corinth who is trying to go it alone, “to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” Yes, it is even those who live at the earth’s farthest bounds who will, through our thanksgiving, sense awe and wonder by God’s signs of generosity.

In our truest thanksgiving we come to understand not just God’s largess but also our interconnectedness. We pray that God give us our daily bread, not me my daily bread. We are inspired to see a universe that the psalmist envisions: where God’s desire to give and provide and especially forgive is always the root, the genesis of all good. And, furthermore, he whose actions toward us are even more loving than Ms. Loving: always bigger than our failure to follow through.

sorting donations of school supplies
This year’s celebration is as good a one as any to remember the importance of framing all of our thanks with a recognition that the only way we come before the Lord to say anything at all is by his great mercy, his great love. Therefore, before we launch in with our declarations on how good the past year may have been for us personally or even as a nation we start with an honest confession of human selfishness and our need for Jesus’ mercy. As we gather to partake of good food and cherished family memory-sharing, let our thoughts fall to those who still feel ostracized as well as those who struggle to keep us safe in this great land.

Likewise, before we become too obsessed with our differences and our divisions, before we become too glum about the things we argue about and the way some things never seem to change, let also remember that, as the psalmist also says, to God all flesh—black, white, illegal immigrant and permanent resident—shall one day, by the grace of Christ, come.

And, for that, give great thanks.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ the King [Year A] - November 23, 2014 (Matthew 25:31-46)

A very peculiar but well-timed story popped up in my newsfeed this week, especially considering I’m not a gamer and don’t really know much at all about video games. The bottom line, as best as I can understand it, is that some video game company just announced an exciting new expansion to one of its really popular games that will feature warfare action between—get this!—goats and sheep. The game itself is called (wait for it) Goat Simulator.

Now, I’ve heard of a flight simulator and a race car simulator, but never a goat simulator! As best I can tell, when you play it, your character on the screen is actually an unruly goat and your objective is to run around and try to head-butt things and cause trouble. I don’t know how the sheep factor in, but…it’s warfare! It’s got to be cool, right? Maybe the sheep just go around trying to fix the things that the goats mess up, or maybe the two actually fight each other! I might have to get into gaming just to find out!

Apparently the conflict between goats and sheep has been going on for millennia, which is why I decided this peculiar piece of news was well-timed. I knew what was coming up as the gospel lesson this Sunday. When Jesus decides to tell a parable to prepare his disciples for what the final judgment will be like, he uses goats and sheep, too.

But it’s not warfare. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite, because in the parable it looks like the sheep and goats intermingle quite well. That was the way people took care of their livestock back in ancient Israel. Sheep and goats typically got a long fine together. They had different grazing habits, and so goatherds and shepherds let their flocks freely roam on the fields and hills together during the day. In the evening, however, they were put into separate stocks and kept that way until morning. The goats were gathered together for milking. The sheep were left alone.

My guess is that this was a scene which Jesus’ disciples and the others who listened to him saw repeated, day in and day out, in the countryside and in the farming towns where they had lived. Jesus grabs hold of this common scenario in order to illustrate for them several aspects of what discipleship in his name is like. Jesus finds this everyday sheep-versus-goat situation—both the part when they saunter among the hillsides and pastures and the part when they get separated at the end of the day helpful in explaining what life in God’s kingdom entails.

This part about the life is under the reign of Christ is especially important because, as the disciples will begin to understand—and as we are reminded each and every day—Christ’s kingdom is not fully here among us yet. Pretty soon that will be their frustration, and it is ours too. We glimpse it and experience the presence of God’s kingdom from time to time when instances of humility and self-sacrifice triumph over pride and self-centeredness or when forgiveness is practiced, when systems of aggression and dominance give way momentarily to peacefulness and equality. We trust the news about Jesus’ triumph over those ways of aggression and death and the life of the new world to come, but there is still much about the world—and, quite frankly, about ourselves—that isn’t fully reflecting God’s righteousness. And so the whole world mingles and grazes like the sheep and the goats, going about our business like usual.

The mixing and grazing that the world does, this mix of good and evil, is the easier part of the parable for us to get our heads around. It’s that separation that looms at the end of the day, though, that catches our attention, especially because the unruly goats meet a rather gruesome end. Maybe the Goat Simulator game is more based in reality than I realize!

A woman in my home congregation always fretted whenever this parable came up in worship because she was so afraid she’d be a goat. She couldn’t get that out of her mind. I think that’s an honest reaction to this lesson, one that Jesus might want to provoke in his listeners. However, if all we do when we hear Jesus’ words here is worry about our ultimate fate and whether, at the end of the long day, we’re going to end up simulating goats or simulating sheep…we’re letting the law rule our life and our faith. If all we do is concentrate on those labels then it is fear and anxiety that will dictate our discipleship, and we’ll end up missing the best part of what Jesus is trying to teach.

The best part—the most important part—of Jesus’ lesson is not that one day the righteous sheep will be rid of these unruly goats but that we get to see our Lord’s face in the meantime. As we wait for that time when all creation will recognize the authority and the love of the Risen Jesus, his living presence is still among us.

The proper posture of one of his disciples, then, is not one that continually looks inward, asking “Am I a sheep or am I a goat?” but one that looks outward, wondering “Where will I get to see my Lord’s face today?”

And the answer to that isn’t so easy to forget. The Lord who has claimed us forever as his own as he gives himself up on the cross is still present among those who are suffering. If we want to see him, serve him, have his grace imparted to us, then we can go find him among the “least of these.”

Amidst all the political and even religious grandstanding about immigration this week, amidst the xenophobia and the racism that still poisons our country’s debates when it comes to that issue, amidst the confusing arguments about things like deportation and undocumented migrants and what care for our neighbor means appeared this story out of a southern California:

The Valley Springs Manor is an assisted living facility that shut down last fall. Once they stopped getting paid for their work, the staff all left except for two—the cook and the janitor. “There was about 16 residents left behind,” said the cook Maurice, “and we had a conversation in the kitchen, ‘What are we going to do?’” Realizing the residents wouldn’t have anyone to care for them, they transformed their roles very quickly. Both men, Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez, ages 34 and 35, started taking care of the sixteen residents, many of whom suffered from dementia, around the clock. They doled out the medications, fixed their food, changed their clothes and bedding for several days by themselves until the fire department and sheriff took over.

“I couldn’t see myself going home,” Rowland said, “next thing you know they’re in the kitchen trying to cook their food and they burn the place down.” He went on to say, “Even though they wasn’t our family, they were kind of like our family for this short period of time.”

“Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty? When did we see you as a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you as a resident of an assisted living facility?”
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Living under the righteous reign of the risen Jesus, you begin to see family where you didn’t think there was any. Living under the promise of the gospel—that Jesus has suffered and died out of God’s great love for you—empowers us to greet his face each and every day. The least of these among us are, as it turns out, playing Jesus simulator, and we grow in faith and hope when we jump in their game and begin to serve, clothe, feed, and love. When we let that gospel rule in our hearts, we see the kingdom of his righteousness begins breaking in all around us.

Recently I was performing pre-marriage counseling with a young couple who recently got married, a process I always enjoy. As we were winding our session up one day our conversation drifted from the discussions about the nitty-gritty of sharing a common life, combining checking accounts and negotiating conflict, to some of the joys of having a spouse.  They got a little glint in their eye as they talked about how they had already begun to enjoy, as they described it, doing “grown-up things together.” I was a little curious to know what exactly they meant by that, because they clearly had something particular in their mind. When I asked them, they coyly looked at each other for a second and then said, “Well, last week we shopping together for items for the food pantry, and last Sunday we brought them in…together, like our parents used to do when we were little. Doing that on our own made us feel so ‘grown up.’”

Lord Jesus, hasten the day when we all define maturity that way, in terms of giving, in terms of feeding the hungry.

Humble Savior, hasten the day when your grace fully dissolves my tendency to live and serve others solely from a sense of fear that I might be a goat.

Christ our King, hasten that great day when you gather us all before your throne and there are no more border patrol and immigration disputes because there are no more borders, when there will be no more assisted living facilities because you will be our only assistance, the day when there will be no more food pantry shopping because there will be no more hunger. Hasten that great day and remind us—you Gracious Gamer, you—that you were present with us all along.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 27A] - November 9, 2014 (Matthew 25:1-13 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

The grandmother carries her cellphone everywhere she goes. Overall, members of her generation might not be labelled the most technologically-savvy, but she has learned how to make calls on it and how to text. She has figured out how to read the number of bars that signal receptivity and knows how to keep the battery with ample charge. Most importantly, however, she never turns the phone off and she never, ever, puts the ringer on silent or even on low. If that means it might ring out loudly in the middle of something else—in the middle of a meal, in the middle of a worship service, in the middle of night—it doesn’t matter. People will have to understand, and they will understand once they know why that cell phone is so important, once they know what it helps her be ready for. She is awaiting a call. It is not just any call, mind you, but rather the call that an organ donor has been found for her granddaughter who is suffering from a life-threatening health problem. 

And as those things tend to go, the call could come anytime. Their wait has already lasted nine months, seven months longer than her family had initially anticipated. Everything is in place: the surgeons, the daily rounds of physical therapy, the tens of thousands of dollars it will take to perform the surgery…and now it is a waiting game.

The picture of faithful anticipation, that grandmother is a member of this congregation. She is an inspiration to me, and those who know her know that every fiber of her being is poised for that day to come, so that she may to respond and arrive at bedside. That phone call means life. And so, you see, it would be foolish to turn the ringer off.

It would be foolish to turn the ringer off. It would be foolish to do anything—or to fail to do something—that could cut yourself off from a future of life, that could exclude you from a time of celebration and hope, from the chance to be included in a bright new day. On the other hand, it would be wise to wait with all of your resources of mind and body focused on preparedness of that day as if it could arrive—as if the phone could ring—at any given moment.

That is the point of the parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids that Jesus tells his disciples not too long before his final days in Jerusalem. As Jewish people who were anticipating the arrival of an apocalyptic figure called the Son of Man, they might have started to wonder just when Jesus’ own exciting kingdom of the future was going to explode fully onto the scene. It was also the message taken to heart by early Christians, like the Thessalonians, for example, who could have sworn that Jesus, once resurrected and ascended to heaven, would be back very soon. And yet he appeared to be lingering.

That time of lingering brought about anxiety in some, and fatigue in others. The wise bridesmaids, in this parable, are like that patient but pragmatic grandmother who travels everywhere with her cell phone ringer on. They know what to do with that anxiety and fatigue, and have come prepared with extra oil for their lamps in the event that the wait for the bridegroom goes on longer than anticipated.
And that, as it turned out, was something that could very well happen. In first-century weddings, all the financial and legal negotiations of two houses’ fortunes coming together had to take place before any celebration or consummation was involved. As the attendants for the couple waited outside at the Dominion Club or the Jefferson Hotel Ballroom the bridegroom and the bride’s family could have easily gotten tied up elsewhere, trying to iron out the details of the wedding contract.

Every wedding back then, as it turns out, involved a bit of a waiting game. As a guest, you would not want to be caught unprepared when the bridegroom finally showed up. That is, if you wanted to join in the grand celebration, you needed to do whatever you could to prepare for that moment to start. After all, if the bridegroom finally shows up in the night, he might slip by without notice. Therefore, it would be helpful to bring lamp-like torches. And some extra oil in case you run out. Keep the cell phone ringer on, as a loud as you possibly can.

For those who hear this parable, especially those who have heard Jesus even refer to himself as the bridegroom on a number of occasions, at least two things would have made an impression. First, Christ might seem to be delayed, detained by some obligations or commitments we don’t yet understand. Followers could expect a lull between his first earthly appearance and the time in the future when he promises they would see him again. Moreover, they cannot predict when that lull would end, although many people will try to. It might last for ages, inexplicably dragging on through the night—or through centuries of nights—long past a time we think would be opportune.

Second, this time of waiting comes with certain obligations for the people who long to be reunited with him. A spiritual wakefulness is entailed. Just as the bridesmaids stand at the door of the banquet hall, right there at the edge where they can probably hear the party musicians warming up and smell the food that is being laid out on the tables, those who follow Jesus wait with a sense that the new kingdom is just about to dawn, that they already have in mind what they’ll do and how they’ll live once the kingdom of mercy comes in full. When the door finally opens to that bright new day, they’ll be right there in the midst of it.

In our time as we await the return of our Lord I think that we can fall prey to foolishness just as easily as those five bridesmaids. Some of us, for example, will be convinced by the false theology that some type of so-called rapture will occur, that Jesus’ sudden arrival means that a select number of people will be sucked up from daily life into the heavens to be with him. While some Scriptures, including Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, seem to suggest that possibility, no one gave them that unbiblical interpretation until a minority sect the 1830s gained popularity. Thoughts of the rapture make for great science fiction books and movies, but it fully denies the fact that Jesus himself repeatedly talks about his kingdom’s full arrival as something that happens on earth when he joins us. It also suggests that God is somewhat vindictive and despising of the world he has created and redeemed.

All too often, however, I think our foolishness can lean in the other direction—that is, we think the world really never will be different, that the doors to a bright new future in this life or the next will never open, that we just inch along with no real hope in sight. To be honest, apathy is a far greater temptation than anxiety. Complacency is what cuts us off from a future of life and hope.

Interestingly enough, an inspirational quote on a bag I received when I dropped by a local restaurant this week for lunch took a noble stab at eliminating that complacency. It was noon, and we all kind of inched along methodically in this dimly-lit eating establishment through our burritos’ assembly line, numbed, perhaps, by another instance of the daily grind—but there the cheery bag waited for us at the end. It read, “We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naïve to work toward a better one.”

While I can appreciate its attitude of optimism—and while I certainly want more people to do things that make the world better—I’m not sure bridesmaids who wait for the bridegroom should sign on so quickly. After all, our Lord did not come and die in order to make the world better. He came to make it new. We do, in fact, hope for a perfect world, and we have that Jesus’ love will achieve it, just as we see the cross as a victory over evil. We do anticipate that, at some point, the doors will swing open and the eternal celebration of God’s victory in Christ will begin for us, just as we are confident it has already begun for those who have died.

No, it’s not romantic to perform works of justice and compassion, to practice peacemaking and care for the world’s poor, regardless of which political party you affiliate with. It’s not naïve to forgive others seventy-seven times, to share talents and time generously. It is not idealistic to worship in the assembly of Christians with regularity, to speak out for those who can’t speak for themselves.  It’s not romantic or naïve to do these things. It is wise to do so. It is wise to illumine the dark world with our mercy and our diligent longing for God’s presence. It’s wise because these things are like oil for our lamps that prepare us to greet him when he does arrive. These things are what we, led by the Spirit, naturally do as we stand with our ears to the door of that great future where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

As that faithful and fiercely-loving grandmother demonstrates, there is a good life in waiting, holding the torch-lamps up. We do what we can to make sure we don’t miss that call that means life. Strengthened by his presence now in the Word and mystically in the bread and the wine, we wait and we work and we watch for our Lord and his blessed, perfect world with our ringer…on.

To do otherwise would be foolish.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Reformation Sunday - October 26, 2014 (Matthew 22:34-46)

Back to the basics. That is one way to view the Reformation movement that Martin Luther and his fellow reformers, including his wife, Katie, began in the early 1500s. Martin Luther looked at the church of his day—a church that seemed to be entrenched in all kinds of rules about how God’s grace works, a church with a structure and format so convoluted that the ordinary person had a difficult time relating to a loving God—and he decided it was time to get back to the basics, because it was important that people relate to God’s love.

Granted, the Reformation turned out to be more than just an event for the church. There were a whole bunch of social and political pressures in Rome's declining empire that played into the upheaval that the Reformation brought about. Nevertheless, Luther saw his time as an opportunity for the church to look again at some of the core principles of the faith and his position as a priest and professor and his educated background gave him the opportunity to know what people were struggling with. His own challenges as a person of faith trying to be assured of God’s favor also helped give him a good bit of insight into what needed reforming.

95 Theses is a lot of basics...but still
Some of those basics that Martin Luther used to reform the church are still well known today. The biggie, of course, is that we are justified by grace through faith alone, apart from works of the law. This was the main one Luther arrived at early on as he read the New Testament and drove home over and over again in his teaching and writing. Luther really felt this was the core of it all, the belief on which the church stood or fell, the belief which should have completely invalidated many church practices in his day: that is, God’s gracious love in Jesus Christ is nothing we could ever deserve or earn on our own. It is not possible purchase or work for real estate in the kingdom of heaven. Rather, it is a free gift to each and every one of God’s children, granted once and forever in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You can see how that’s a basic belief: if Christ’s death on the cross is ultimately not really necessary because God still expects us to do something on our own, then Christ’s sacrifice was in vain.

Another one of the basics that Luther brought up was the importance of Scripture’s authority. That may seem rather obvious to you and me nowadays, but in Luther’s time the Bible was rather removed from the practice of Christian faith most ordinary folks. For one, it wasn’t printed their language. In Latin, it was something only the priests and monks could read and understand. Luther changed that by translating the Bible into German. With that, along with Gutenberg’s printing press, everyday people soon had access to the Scriptures. Furthermore, it wasn’t always clear that things the church taught and drew a hard line on had any basis in Scripture. So, Luther did a lot of housecleaning, and the tool he used was the Word of God. Seven sacraments, for example, got narrowed down to the basic two the Protestant Church has today. Since Scripture was silent about papal infallibility, Luther saw no more use for believing the Pope in Rome had the final say on everything. There were a few other basics that Luther tried to bring the church back to, some of which proved to be more controversial than others. To some degree, these are still the main, basic issues that Lutherans attempt to hold the church to today.

Interestingly enough, Jesus had also sought to bring people back to the basics, too, in his time. We see a prime example of that effort in the gospel lesson this morning. In the face of the Pharisees questions of theology and belief, who are trying to find something to fault him for, Jesus gives a simple but straightforward answer: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

In other words, these two commandments are the basics. Everything that was contained in the Jewish law code and the words of the prophets through the ages were in some way dependent on or in support of those two commands about a disposition toward and actions of love toward God and neighbor. The Pharisees, you see, liked to use that law and those prophets’ words as weapons as they hurled them at their opponents or as walls against people who they viewed as unclean. Jesus very quickly reminds them that the foundation of their entire religious system was really about loving God with every fiber of your being and loving other people as you love yourself. That is, everything the people of God are about should really come down to these two related commandments about love. One of them involves a vertical dimension—from God to us—and the other a horizontal one that unites us with the people around us.

The Pharisees gather...
Interestingly enough, this is the final encounter Jesus has with the Pharisees and the scribes. The last little argument that Jesus has here involves his identity as the son of David and Messiah. The Pharisees had essentially denied that anyone could ever be greater than King David, their ancestor. Jesus, however, uses Scripture to prove that a Messiah would come that would be even more “anointed with the Spirit” than David was. Again, those were the basics: that a Messiah would arrive who was God’s own son and that that God was concerned about a relationship based on love more than anything else.

As it happens, love really becomes the centerpiece of Jesus’ life and witness, and not the kind of love that is based on emotions or dispositions toward others. It is a love that stoops to serve. It is a love that reaches out to the other. It is a love which risks alienation and death, a love that Jesus eventually demonstrates in his death on the cross, the perfect but painful intersection of a vertical dimension and a horizontal one. The basic of all basics the cross of Jesus. That is where we come to understand the depth of God’s great love for us and the kind of relationship God calls us to extend to our neighbor. That is where Pharisees and outcasts alike all come to terms with their sinfulness and their shortcomings but also God’s gracious forgiveness and desire to include everyone in his kingdom.

The church should really always be about the basics, if you think about it. In fact, when we start going too far past them and adding things on to the mission of Christ’s Church is when we start to get in trouble. When the church, for example, gets aligned too closely with certain political or social agendas as it did even in Luther’s day, then the church can become just a tool for certain powers. When the church becomes too mired in rules of religious purity, as if following Christ is only about ticking off boxes and chiefly avoiding certain behaviors then we risk becoming more like the self-righteous Pharisees.

When it comes right down to it, the church should be a place where these two commandments are at the center of everything we do and say, where an understanding of God’s love for us in Jesus leads us to a love for our neighbors, especially those who are different or distant from us. As I heard a pastor once say, the holiness of the church is not its perfection. The holiness of the church is its capacity to love. That is to say, what makes the church the church is not our ability to be morally perfect people, but rather our embodiment of the love Jesus has for people. And we can only learn how to love over and over again when we are constantly reflecting on who Jesus is and what he does.

That, in fact, is the focus of that second argument with the Pharisees in this morning’s text. The Pharisees struggle to explain Jesus’ relationship to King David and to God. I think many of us—church leaders, included—struggle to explain just who Jesus is to us and why we feel he has rescued us, and just what we feel he rescues us from. It has been said that Lutherans are great at demonstrating the gospel through their actions. We could probably, however, bone up on articulating that gospel in our words.

Some interesting research has come out recently from the Barna Group about faith of Millennials, those who were born between the years of 1984 and 2002. One extensive study discovered that of those in the Millennial generation who are still active in the Church today, a full 68% responded that “Jesus speaks to me in a personal and relevant way.” It was the single-highest response across the board. Of those who have dropped out of the church, only one-quarter claimed that. According to that study, then, developing that basic relationship with Christ was more important than anything else—more important than beliefs about the Bible, for example, or style of worship. Two of the other most important factors in the faith of Millennials still active in church? “Close relationships with an adult in the congregation or parish” and “an experience serving the poor.” It strikes me that right there in those three responses you see both dimensions of that love…vertical and horizontal.

A few months ago we were sitting down to eat supper and our older daughter, who is seven, asked to say the prayer. That is nothing out of the ordinary. They often take turns offering one of our usual rote table prayers, “God is great, God is good…” But that evening she folded her hands and offered up a completely original prayer, in her own words. I was flabbergasted by the beautiful pattern of it, and her boldness to say it. It was clear that she had learned to speak to God that way, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t from me. Someone in this congregation—a Sunday School teacher, a Cherub Choir director, someone—had taught my own daughter to speak to God with her own voice. Someone here is modeling how to love God with her heart, her soul, and her mind.

Now, I wouldn’t want to base all ministry on studies and surveys, but it is striking to me that some research points to what we, in some ways, already are doing and knowing. That is, well…the basics. Here we are, almost 1500 years into this Reformation movement, and you can still see the need for many of the Lutheran reformers’ main points. They are simply a re-telling of Jesus’ own lesson, that on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

In the middle of it all, of course, is that intersection of the two dimensions: developing that relationship with God through Christ so we may love with all our heart, and soul and mind, and strengthening our relationships of service and compassion with our neighbor. Therefore, in the Spirit of Luther’s reforms, let gather at that cross in the middle and recommit ourselves…to getting back to the basics.



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24A] - October 19, 2014 (Matthew 22:15-22)

It’s that time of the year again when we human beings are going to engage in what must be one of the most peculiar and uniquely human of all behaviors. Many of us are going invest a good bit of time and energy and even some hard-earned money to locate and obtain a specific variety of squash that we think fits a certain criteria we have in mind. In fact, some of us are even going to ride a wagon or a tractor out into a field that we don’t even own with the sole purpose of choosing one of these perfect squashes. We are going to buy that specific variety of squash, called a pumpkin, and we are not going to eat it. We are going to hollow that thing out and we’re going to carve a face in it. And then we’re going to put a candle in it so that the face lights up at night.

Regardless of what you believe about the origins of this Halloween practice, you have to admit it’s quite a preposterous one. Personally, I have no problem with making jack-o-lanterns. I think it’s a lot of fun and, in fact, the youth group will be doing it today. However, as human practices go, from start to finish, it’s pretty eccentric! If you ever are tempted to believe that humans are really not that different the rest of the animal world, that we’re just another organism inhabiting the galaxy, think about all these hollow, grinning-wide squash.

In fact, you can branch out from there quite easily, because we humans like to put our image and leave our mark on a lot of things. From graffiti art on a subway car to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, from cave drawings thousands of years old to computer avatars today—in art, poetry, or the craftsmanship of a decent and honest job, in the wisdom we impart to our young—human beings have always felt drawn to imbue the things they create with their own image. It’s one of those features we share in common with God. It’s a way we take control of our surroundings, make order from chaos. This is the way that we place our mark on the world and leave a legacy. And it is also a way we claim things as our own, for ourselves…not simply a goofy pumpkin with the lopsided smile, but things with far greater importance: This cave corner that keeps me safe. This cathedral. This city skyline.

This is likely how coins and other forms of money had come to be formed with the images and trademarks of emperors and queens and other people in power. It was a way for them to it to consolidate their power and to control the people. Almost as extraordinary as putting human faces on pumpkins, Caesar, in Jesus’ time, had stamped his own face on the denarius coin. So, then, every time goods and services exchanged hands it was like Caesar was there, saying “This is mine.” Every time one of the empire’s taxes came up, Caesar was there, proclaiming, “This is mine, too.”

The people of religion loathed it. Currency, especially with a human face on it, was the stuff of idolatry. It was easy to see, for one, how people could start to worship it, to give it more value than anything else. In fact, in addition to Caesar’s likeness, each coin also bore an inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of divine Augustus.” So it was no wonder that the Jewish authorities would have despised them so much. Simply the use of the money was a constant reminder of the Roman occupation, and the yearly census tax made it even worse. Each time that tax was paid with one of those coins, it felt like worship to a false god.

This is precisely why the Jewish religious leaders find this to be the perfect way to trap Jesus. If Jesus agrees to the payment of Caesar’s yearly tax, then he will become immediately unpopular with the crowds of ordinary folk who are following him. They, too, feel that Caesar’s face is everywhere, oppressing their livelihood, and this yearly tax (I know it’s hard to imagine) was deeply unpopular. It was another form of tribute; that is, a system whereby they handed over a portion of their livelihood in return for protection and the right to live. By consenting to that system he will be seen as just another one of the spineless leaders in hock to the Roman army trying to maintain the status quo. However, if Jesus agrees it is unlawful to pay the tax then he becomes a normal revolutionary, an upstart warmonger who wants to overthrow Rome. It will be much easier for the authorities to encircle him and label him as trouble.

Jesus’ response about paying the tax is remarkable. He manages to wiggle out of the trap by reminding them of something that everyone finds so easy to forget, or worse, deny. What’s more extraordinary and ingenious than the face of Caesar on a coin? Well, the fact that each one of us—each pumpkin-carver among us, each cave-wall scribbler, each money-minter—bears a mark on his or her very life. What’s more astonishing than an entire system of currency containing the image of the emperor who made it? The truth that each one of us human beings is minted in the image of our Creator. From Jesus’ point of view, it is no big deal at all to pay Caesar’s tribute with the money in our pockets once we remembers that we pay tribute of thanksgiving and service to God the Father each and every day with our lives. The currency of Caesar is copper, stone, and sword. Those are powerful, insofar as you want to build a city or an army. But the currency of the Creator are things like flesh and blood, intellect and language, creativity and morality and kindness. And imagine what those things can build.

To be reminded that we are created in God’s image is no small thing. I wonder if the Pharisees and Herodians had forgotten it, caught up, as they were, in fretting about how Caesar was laying claim to everything. Come to think of it, I’m not sure we really know what it means anymore to be made in God’s image.  We hear so many competing definitions of what it means to be human nowadays that our divine qualities get glossed over or downplayed. The brain is just one giant computer, programmed from birth, some say. Others tell us all our features of human-ness can just be explained by cold-hard science, as long as we have the time. More likely, we don’t hear these things; we just feel them. So many of us get the impression that we are just cogs in a giant machine, working, day in and day out, to pay the bills and make ends meet, worrying if we’ll have enough for retirement, slaving to consume and purchase things that leave us unfulfilled. Millions of others of us scrape by in the filthy slums of the world’s poorest communities, living on little more than a denarius a day. We see, we hear, we sense deep in our bones that we are just pawns of whichever cruel empire we have, that we are massed-produced squishy computers that can just be controlled and manipulated.

The reality, we must remember, is different. The reality is that God has carefully picked out and chosen each person who has ever walked on this earth, male and female, and said, “This one. This one is mine.” The reality is that each victim of Ebola who seems destined to become just another statistic, destined to become just another contagion for us to fear in the attention-hungry news cycle, bears the image of God. It means that Hannah Graham bore God’s image, just as whoever abused her and left her to die, though we are so prone to call such a person a monster.

But bearing God’s image does not just mean that we are precious or worthy. It means that we have the capacity re-present God in our very thoughts and actions and interact with creation in the same manner that God can. It means that as much as we participate in a world that will always try to convince us otherwise, we have been designed to reflect these qualities back to someone else in a way that contributes to the good, to praise someone other than ourselves.

A recent edition of the magazine Intelligent Life ran an article where they asked six leaders in very intellectual fields to answer a question: what’s is the point? Noted novelist and atheist Philip Pullman weighed in, as did a philosopher, a poet, a psychoanalyst and a reporter. Their articulate responses were all fairly interesting to read, very auspicious-sounding, full of wisdom and observation. Most compelling, however, was the simple four-word response that came from the biographer and obituarist Ann Wroe. She was the person among that list whose career essentially involves scouring the sum total of people’s life stories and finding within them some pattern and meaning. Ms. Wroe responded curtly, “The point is love.”

Yes, love is ultimately what we and no one else are able to render to God and creation. It was placed there in the beginning and it remains there still, like a small tea light in the bottom of a hollowed-out pumpkin. And even when our godlike image is so tarnished and broken, so demolished by sin and our self-serving behavior that we are not sure we are even able to love, not able to recognize the healing powers of our speech, our intellect, our creativity, much less lift it to God…then we remember that God become one of us in that human image. And because of that, we can see that even in death, even in utter suffering, we still bear the image of the divine. Even as we breathe our last and the story of our life comes to a close there is still opportunity to reflect God’s glory. Caesar’s army and tax may be powerful, but imagine all the force of justice and righteousness if our redeemed lives were offered in tribute each and every day to the Lord of heaven and earth because the point is love.

That, I believe, is what Jesus envisions as I see him flipping that coin back into the hands of the Pharisees. He isn’t all that impressed with the power of cash or currency, but rather with the beauty of our very beings offered in grateful devotion, each one of us, like a beautiful jack-o-lantern, who learned from Christ that the point was love, our light glowing from the inside and shining that smile of existence right back in praise of the one who carved it.

And he envisions that Creator gazing right back, with them lined up on the front porch of his creation, saying, “These. These beauties are mine.




Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22A] - October 5, 2014 (Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46)

I had a rough go with my backyard garden this year. Granted, that little 8’ x 8’ plot, which is bordered by basic landscaping timbers and situated in barely six hours of daily sunshine, has never been all that lush and productive, but I was always proud of it. I was proud of the ways in which the soil I had worked received the seeds and seedlings and nurtured decent growth. I was proud of the juicy tomatoes that I sliced in early August. In fact, I might have been guilty in previous seasons of taking periodic photos of its growth throughout the spring and summer and posting them on Facebook so everyone could see the fruits of my labor.

This year, however, I was not proud of it, and there was absolutely nothing worth taking a photo of. The half-dozen or so cucumbers we got looked like something grown in Chernobyl. Have you ever heard of someone having to stake sunflowers? Well, now you have. Not one batch of pesto could be made from the skimpy basil plants that eked out a yellowish existence, and many folks consider basil the easiest plant to grow. The place where I planted leeks gave way to copious stands of crabgrass, and even that seemed to throw in the towel by late July. And out of nowhere one random volunteer cornstalk grew up in the middle of the tomato vines.

 All in all, it was a disaster. In the past I’ve been pretty meticulous with it, but somewhere along the line this year I suppose I assumed the garden could just take its own course. Somewhere along the line I suppose I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need to be that involved…that, on its own and without any work from me, the garden would naturally produce the results I wanted. The truth is I am ashamed of that conclusion, and now, because of my neglect, between now and next spring I will have to rip out the termite-infested landscape timbers and scoop out all the old, tired soil, and start all over.

On a much grander and more complicated scale, that is the gist of the situation between God and God’s people over the years and years of their unfruitfulness. As the prophet Isaiah explains, God has taken great pains in planting his people as a vintner tends a vineyard. He has chosen the spot carefully in an area where they will get plenty of sunshine. He has removed all the stones from the soil so the roots can become established. It’s got a watchtower to prevent thieves from climbing in and a vat right in the middle where the grapes can be pressed. He expects it to produce grapes so that he can make wine, but instead he gets a bunch of crabgrass grapes and a random volunteer cornstalk.

It proves to be nothing but an embarrassment and a disaster. The vintner has no choice but to let it take its course and go to waste, since that’s essentially what had already happened anyway. He removes the protective landscape timbers and lets the wild weeds take over. What was supposed to be a special area of beauty and productivity among the rough hillside is allowed to return to ugly barrenness.

For Isaiah and the people of ancient Israel, this love-song for the vineyard becomes a picture of their unfaithfulness and a prophecy of God’s judgment. It becomes a poem about their unrighteousness and bloodshed despite God’s desire that they be a special people of justice and beauty. Eventually they will read in this prophecy the story of their descent into weedy chaos once the armies of Babylon run them over and cart them into exile. They will read how their inability to be people of righteousness and peace had grieved God to God’s core.

It’s a peculiar thing to consider, isn’t it: that God the Creator of the universe can’t even determine what crops up in the hearts of his people? On one hand, it might raise questions about God’s omnipotence and effectiveness. On the other hand it makes one ponder the great amount of free will God has turned over to humankind, the depth of the relationship God actually wants to cultivate in his creatures…and the joy God must get when they do. We are far more complex than plants, which turn their leaves to the sun and start growing up. We can turn in to ourselves and not even realize it—which is one definition of sin—and assume all along we’re growing the way we’re supposed to. Left to take our own course, we’ll put forth maybe a misshapen cucumber or two, but for the most part we’ll struggle to do even that. It will take enormous effort and sacrifice and suffering on God’s part to break into our hearts and our communities to turn us to him.

And that, my friends, is the basis for this parable that Jesus tells the Pharisees and chief priests as he comes out of the Temple in Jerusalem. Borrowing this vineyard imagery from their prophet Isaiah, Jesus explains how those whom God had left to tend the vineyard, those whom God had put in charge of helping God’s people produce their trademark righteousness and justice had turned wicked. As Jesus re-tells it, the problem lies not just in the vineyard itself, with all its crabgrass grapes and random cornstalks, but with those who are supposed to steward it. They repeatedly reject the landowner’s attempts to get involved from a distance. Slave after slave is sent to help with the harvest, but slave after slave is slaughtered. Prophet after prophet had been sent to assist God’s people in their production of God’s justice among the nations, in their role as special place of beauty and righteousness among the otherwise barren hills.

Eventually the landowner takes the final step and sends his own son, which, you understand, is tantamount to going there himself. The son is the heir to the vineyard. What his father own he owns, too. And still the tenants refuse the care and leadership of the landowner! They have grown so in-on-themselves, they are so overrun with greed and spite and jealousy, they are so misled into thinking that the vineyard belongs to them and not to the landowner that they kill the son, too.

I looked in several sources at what this parable is called. In the version we used this morning it is titled, “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.” They certainly play a major role, and in Jesus’ first telling it was clearly directed at the leadership of in the Temple. They were meant to hear themselves as those tenants. Another version called this parable “The Parable of the Vineyard,” a title which certainly highlights the role of God’s people in the analogy, but quite frankly isn’t that descriptive. Vineyards are featured in about a half-dozen parables.

artist unknown
One version, however, called this parable “The Parable of the Passion.” That one interests me the most. It takes the focus away from those terrible tenants and even away from the beloved vineyard and focuses it on that son, that son that comes as not just a representative of the landowner, but as blood of the landowner himself. It focuses on the length to which that landowner plans to go in order to have his vineyard produce what he wants it to. The vineyard will not just run its course, and neither will the wicked tenants just run theirs. For that vineyard to produce anything the landowner’s son will have to suffer and die.

This is the harsh reality that our sinfulness will require from a God who loves so passionately. As much as we would like to think humans are just naturally much as we like to believe that, given the right environment, the right upbringing, we’ll grow the way we’re created to, the truth is we grow wickedness. To paraphrase Martin Luther, we will never naturally, on our own accord, give ourselves over to the type of wholesale re-working that is needed to produce works of justice and compassion. God will need to get involved for that to happen. New life and new harvests will only come as a result of suffering. Bread will be broken. Blood will be shed. And a cross will need to be planted squarely on that barren hillside.

It has been quite the year for this congregation, this little vineyard. Within the span of nine months—to the day—we have had three congregational meetings. A senior pastor has been called, property has been purchased, and the call for another associate pastor has been considered. That’s just the ministry that has required congregational approval, according to the Constitution. Think of what else has gone on! Even as leadership has experienced major changes, the amount of ministry undertaken by our staff, our teams, our volunteers, our Council has hummed along with remarkable consistency.

Epiphany youth group at Shalom Farms, Oct 2013
As this congregation begins a new chapter, however, it will be imperative for us to remember one lesson from the Parable of the Passion. That is, fruitful ministry in a congregation or in an individual does not ultimately come from the people who are leading or even the people who are serving. Faithful ministry in a congregation or in an individual does not lie chiefly in the ingenuity or creativity of mission statements or the size of endowment contributions or the vitality of youth programs. All those may be nice, but fruitful ministry in any setting truly arises from the faith that God is deeply, deathly involved in what is going on here. Our life together is a result of someone loving us to death. God’s Son is the cornerstone. This Son is dying to forgive sins and mend relationships. This Son dying to plant in us the righteousness of his kingdom that we might share that with the world.

And—good news of good news, my friends of the vineyard—this Son is dying even to take our pitiful malformed cucumbers and random volunteer cornstalks and transform them through his passion into a tasty treat from the garden.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.