Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24C/Lectionary 29C] - October 16, 2016 (Luke 18:1-8 and Psalm 121)

“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

I tell you, it’s hard not to lose heart when I read through the Post-It Notes that the HHOPE ministry volunteers place in my office box each Saturday after one of their distributions. The Post-It Notes contain the prayer requests, in their own handwriting with a ball-point pen, of the HHOPE guests, those people who are receiving food from our own church narthex. From its beginning, that ministry has sought to listen to and pray for the specific prayers of the people it helps, not just hand out food. On one of their tables is a stack of Post-It Notes and those who have prayer requests write their concern down and hand it to the volunteers, who then include those prayer requests when they hold hands and circle for prayer at the end of each distribution. Afterwards, one of the HHOPE volunteers then traditionally deposits them in my box, and I have to say it is moving to come into the office on Sunday and read through prayers of these people in our community, although, I have to say after reading them for almost three or four years now, I’m still seeing the same desperate appeals.

That’s where it’s hard not to lose heart. Some of the requests are vague and general, but some are very specific, and it makes me wonder: when will relief come for the woman who prays for her child with special needs? When will resolution come for the person who conscientiously scribbles down her request month after month for settling a dispute with a landlord? The persistent, relentless faith of these individuals is inspiring, even as I, their eavesdropper, wonder if I would ever have the nerve to enlist my own prayers so fervently.

The heart for trying, the heart for believing: Jesus knows his disciples run the risk of losing just that—of getting discouraged with the tasks of faith and witness. They are about to be sent out into a world that will not readily receive them where they will often feel vulnerable and unwelcome. They are about to be sent out as ambassadors of a kingdom that is often not visible. It won’t have borders or boundaries or strong castles to defend it. It will occur right in among them in a moments of love and forgiveness, where the cruel ways of the world are momentarily turned back and God’s grace reigns. That is the particular kingdom they offer their lives for, they seek and strive for, and the cruel ways of the world will often roll right over them.

Jesus knows they will feel a lot like the ancient Israelites did as they made their way up to the holy city of Jerusalem for pilgrimages, having to pass through the hills and mountains of the surrounding countryside. Those hills and mountains were the territory of the pagan enemies who off and on threatened them with war. Those foreign peoples would build their shrines to unknown earth gods on the peaks of those distant hills and the Israelites would sing and wonder aloud as they trekked to the Temple of the one Lord, coming up out of the shadowy valleys where it is always easy to lose heart, “I lift my eyes up to these mountains which loom over me, threatening my journey…from where will my help come? And the Israelite faithful would answer themselves, “My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth, the maker of even those looming mountains.”

"Pilgrimage to Jerusalem" (Roberts & Hauge)
Yes, Jesus knows they could lose heart and so he gives them a remedy, a bulwark as they traverse their valley: pray always. It will be taking a ball-point pen and ripping off yet another Post-It Note and placing it in the hands of caring people who will pray with you. It will be repeating, in various and creative ways, sometimes even only to themselves, that the LORD is more powerful than the mountains that tower over us from time to time.

And to give them an example of what he means Jesus tells them a parable of a people engaged in a kind of dialogue, except for it is a very one-sided dialogue. It is the unjust judge versus a widow. It is the person who occupies a privileged place within the community, tasked with using his voice to create new realities for people versus the person who has no place at all, and who has no voice, since that’s the Hebrew root word for “widow”: silenced.

The judge, we find out, is a downright shameless character, concerned neither with how his behavior affects those around him nor how his decrees ignore or damage the community. The widow is seeking some sort of justice. Perhaps it’s a landlord issue, too. Whatever the case, it must be related to be the one small shred of legal standing she has. She persistently calls on him, stands outside his office every single day. She is on first-name basis with his receptionist, and when the people in the office see her coming each day they start to roll her eyes, shuffling their papers to look busy. Over and over she does things to get his attention, but he won’t listen, sends her straight to voice mail.

(Eugene Burnand)
Finally the judge caves, but not because he cares about her, but because he’s worried that she may end up making him look bad. He says he’s concerned she’ll “wear him out,” which is a Greek boxing term which, directly translated, means, “give me a black eye.” The judge only listens to her because of what it might mean for him if he doesn’t. That is, he’s never really willing to be engaged in what she’s going through. He stays outside of it, even as he grants her request.

Don’t worry, says Jesus, once he finishes with the story, you’ve got a God who comes to this dialogue of prayer as a partner. You’ve got a Father in heaven who cares, who doesn’t stay outside of it, who wants to be involved somehow. You’ve got a God who ultimately will get a black eye—and in fact, far more than that in order to grant justice and bring about his kingdom.

It is tempting to think of prayer as something like writing Christmas wish lists to God. We think that since God is listening and has all the power of the universe at hand, we can just lob our requests out there into the air and see what happens. And I know even as I say this that I’ve spoken with people who have lost their faith in God because they’ve prayed and prayed and what they felt they wanted didn’t come true. So I speak with great caution here, but we can forget that prayer is a dialogue, even a whole-body affair at times. We can forget that the models we have of people who engage with God are like this widow, who does far more than just go through the motions. She gets up and tries again, maybe shifting her tactics slightly, rephrasing the request. They are models like Jacob by the Jabbok, who, tormented by his past and fearing his future, grapples with his Creator mysteriously almost as an equal and is forever changed as a result of it. He comes away very different than he started.

In his novel, Jayber Crow, author and poet and farmer Wendell Berry wonders at one point, “Perhaps all the good that ever has come here has come because people prayed it into the world…Prayer is like lying awake at night, afraid, with your head under the cover, hearing only the beating of your own heart. It is like a bird that has blundered down the flue and is caught indoors and flutters at the windowpanes. It is like standing a long time on a cold day, knocking at the door.”

We don’t always know where our praying will take us, but one question Jesus’ parable asks of us is where are we ultimately looking for vindication? The mountains around us, the temples of those gods who stand aloof, like the capricious ones who supposedly affect the outcome of football games? Or perhaps within our fickle selves? Do we only look there for the answers? Techniques offered by self-help programs and achieving inner peace may work for some things, but at the end of the day issues that have to do with justice, that have to do with the needs of the widows in our midst, of establishing that real reign of peace and joy of Christ will come only from God, of standing sometimes a long time and knocking at the door. At the end of the day,  being an ambassador and witness to that kingdom will come only from looking to Christ.

It is looking to the model of all model, the example of all examples, who once prays so hard we are told his sweat turns to blood. He is the one who reminds us more than anything else that God engages us in our striving and in our losing heart to the point that he comes down to lose heart with us, who prays, on the cross, “Where have you been, Lord? Can you even hear me?”                 

Ultimately, you see, prayer should change us, too, and not because we give up or grow frustrated but because, in engaging the One on the cross, we come to see how God can still be at work even when the tides of injustice roll right over us. We come to see the world outside ourselves, the places where God is showing up to establish justice. We receive what God knows we really need: Suffering that gives way to growing. Dying that gives way to living. A Lord that preserves us from all evil and keeps our life, who watches over our going out and coming in from this time forth forevermore.

A funny little story about the going out and coming in, about praying always and not losing heart and being changed: Each night before bed we pray the same stock prayer with our daughters. We’ve done it for years. It was the same one I prayed as a child. It goes, “Now I lay me down to sleep/ I pray the Lord my soul to keep./ In the morning when I wake,/ I pray the path of love to take.”

Not too long ago we listened closely one evening as one daughter was praying along with us And, interestingly enough, we discovered she had changed the words ever-so-slightly and made it her own. “In the morning when I wake,” went her fervent plea, “I pray the path I love to take.” And, let me tell you, if you know our daughters—our beautiful, strong-willed, independent-minded daughters—you know God has been listening. And answering!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23C/Lectionary 28C] - October 9, 2016 (2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c and Luke 17:11-19)

Cleansing of Naaman

I can imagine that ancient Israel absolutely loved to tell and re-tell this story about Naaman, the commander from the army in Aram. During those long years when Israel was in exile in Babylon, far away from their homeland, far away from their River Jordan, I can just imagine that this story, peculiar though it may be, brought them great relief, made them proud.

I remember that when I first lived in Pittsburgh and the Steelers were still coming off of their long exile from the postseason any time the subject of football was brought up (and it’s brought up a lot in Pittsburgh) I would inevitably hear about the Immaculate Reception. I would hear every detail—every stirring detail—about the crazy, accidental play that saved their divisional title in December 1972 when they were trailing to the Raiders with 30 seconds to go in the game. A pass from quarterback Terry Bradshaw was intended for one receiver but it seemed to get tipped by the Raiders’ defensive player. The ball ricocheted to the feet of Steelers fullback Franco Harris who scooped it up—from his shoe or off the ground, no one really knows—and ran it in for the game-winning touchdown.

If you’ve never heard a Pittsburgh native who was alive in the 1970s tell you the story of the Immaculate Reception, you’re missing out. Fathers tell it to their daughters, mothers tell it to their sons. That crazy event brought—and still brings—any Pittsburgh Steelers fan so much pride. The play was like this proof that the Steelers had magic, had destiny, that they occupied some special status in pro football.

I imagine that’s kind of how the ancient Israelites told this story about Naaman coming to Israel’s River Jordan to get healed. There are so many intricate details in it, signs that oral tradition was really doing its duty as father passed down the story to daughter and mother to son. They were not going to forget anything about how it happened. It probably reminded them that they had a certain destiny, special status in God’s grand plan.

In this story you have Naaman, the distinguished commander in the army of the King of Aram, a foreign military power. Naaman is a bigwig, has lots of power, but unfortunately he has a skin disease, which at that time, was basically a kiss of death. Back then all skin disorders were lumped under the term “leprosy,” and they were a one-way ticket to outsider status. He had probably been searching for a cure for this skin disease for a while. He ends up finding out that there may be a prophet down in this small, inferior kingdom to the south who could do something about it.

So a letter is written to arrange some type of meeting but the king of that small, inferior kingdom, known as Israel, immediately thinks he’s being set up. At that point the prophet, named Elisha, decides to step in and follow through on Naaman’s request. For whatever reason, Naaman rolls into town with all of his war cabinet and his chariots and horses. It would be like if Vladimir Putin came to get something from our HHOPE pantry here one day and he came up Monument Avenue with some of his tanks and officers. Elisha gives the word that all he needs to do is bathe in the River Jordan and he’ll be made clean.

After some initial reluctance and a temper tantrum, Naaman eventually goes through with it and, lo and behold, after dipping in the river seven times, he’s cured. Then before he rolls his huge entourage back up to Aram in the north, Naaman, overcome with thankfulness, journeys back to Elisha and proclaims praise to God’s name. Then, in the next part of the story, Naaman orders two mule-loads of Israel’s dirt to be brought back to Aram so that he could continue to worship the God of Israel.

That’s the story that ancient Israel probably loved to tell and re-tell. Here are some of the things that story was supposed to teach them: First of all, it was a reminder that the greatest faith is more often found in the lowliest faces. Notice throughout the story how the rich and powerful are the ones who have the least confidence in God’s ability to heal and save. Whether it is Naaman, who is dissatisfied with the proposed cure and wants to go back home, or the king of Israel, who freaks out at the chance to showcase God’s power, neither of those in the story with strong relative power are initially examples of faithfulness.

By contrast, it’s the unnamed folks at the edges that display faith in the Lord. The whole story gets started, after all, by this servant girl who merely mentions the abilities of the prophet living in Israel. And when Naaman almost backs out and gets ready to take his chariots back to Aram, it’s his servants who come through and convince him to trust the prophet’s words. It was an important lesson for Israel to ponder, especially as they constantly seemed to be seeking worldly status and power. Great faith so often resides in those the world overlooks or ignores or enslaves or devalues. Notice Jesus’ own shock when he sees the one thankful leper turns out to be a foreigner, not a regular Israelite. God loves those people, draws near to them, desires to help them. And it is those who have relative power and privilege who, somewhat ironically, are the easiest to convince they have no need of a God to redeem and heal them. Lesson one: great faith is found in the lowest faces.

Another thing the healing of Naaman was supposed to teach the Israelites was that healing comes in the most unexpected places. The kingdom of Aram was on a roll. They had an army that could conquer anyone; they had talented military personnel. But to give Naaman the healing he needed, he was going to have to visit lowly old kingdom of Israel, almost a vassal state. The Rivers of Damascus, Abana and Pharpar, were beautiful, big and fresh compared to the dinky, dirty Jordan. He travelled all the way down here for a simple bath in that water? Naaman was expecting some big show of power and drama, some mystical secret weapon of healing (after all, he is a weapons guy). But God’s word is not chained, as the apostle Paul would say, and God often prefers the simple and unassuming to bring about wholeness, in spite of our desire for the masterful.

Because of where our church is located, every once in a while we have someone off the street drop by looking for assistance. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred they claim they need financial assistance, but one day several years ago a woman showed up who said she wanted to talk with a pastor. Pastor Price must have been out at the time, so I ended up setting down what I was doing and speaking with her. The conversation lasted for quite a while, and my memory is hazy now, but I remember that she was really agitated and worried about the health of her husband, who had just finished a round of cancer treatment with no results. I kept waiting for her to get to the point where she would tell me she needed something—like a hotel room or money for food, but as the story went on, it appeared she wanted me to tell her what she was supposed to do now. There were some family conflict, too, and she felt overwhelmed. It was a bizarre conversation and I remember feeling absolutely helpless. She never wanted to tell me her name, even though I asked her for it so I could pray for her. Like Naaman, I expected of myself some magical, dramatic words or gesture that would reassure her, calm her down, give her hope. But nothing came. When she finally left, I felt like it was fifty minutes down the drain. I wanted to do something difficult, something impressive. She seemed every bit as disoriented and upset as when she arrived.

Then, about a week later, an unmarked envelope came to the church through the mail. All that was in it was a $50 bill wrapped in a piece of paper that said, “Thanks for listening to me. Signed, your stranger last week.” Why she felt compelled to respond in that way, I don’t know, but I have a feeling I was being taught Naaman’s again. Faith comes in the lowliest faces. Healing comes in the most unexpected places.

We cannot predict how God is going to work among us, and because we’re typically infatuated with the showy and spectacular, the giant and the grandiose, we’re apt to miss the profound healing that can come through the humble and humdrum. We can often overlook Jesus, that is, and the places where Jesus walks among us, in steady gentleness and kindness, calling out to us that we are clean. We can often overlook the point of the cross—that face, that place where God’s grace is poured out in a crucified man so that we may be cleansed of our sin and made well.

Cleansing of the Ten lepers (Codex Aureus)
God is not going to require us to perform some magnificent ritual or deed of glory to prove our worth. God is going to take us as we are, unclean and broken, and love us back to life in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God is going to meet us in the ordinary, in the Godforsaken path we’re taking, to give us his healing. And like Israel and the disciples of Jesus learned, it often takes an encounter with another person—a stranger, a foreigner healed of leprosy, a nameless visitor in the office, a person who has experienced that new life for us to see its power, ourselves.

That brings me to the last thing the story of Naaman should have taught the Israelites, and which still teaches us: We show thankfulness for God’s graces. A clean Naaman could have gone straight home from the River Jordan. Ten clean former lepers started running off to the priest that day. The visitor in my office could have gone about her business, clean from her worry. But there is something about expressing thankfulness that makes us well. There is something about the thanksgiving that completes the relationship, which seals the deal. We are created for God’s glory and joy, and as much delight as it must give God to have us clean and whole, imagine how delighted God is to hear or see our thanks. Imagine how much it does for us when we respond in that relationship with our gratefulness.

Living our faith in the world, living out the grace of our baptism is like carrying back those two mule-loads of holy soil. That is, wherever we walk becomes holy ground, an opportunity where we express our thankfulness for what God has done. Each person with whom we talk becomes an opportunity to show our faith in God. And as this happens, through God’s strange but humble power, we are face of faith for someone who needs it. We are an unexpected place of healing. And, if I may be so bold as to say, an immaculate inception—a moment where the crucified and risen Lord may find an opening.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

125th Anniversary Celebration for Augsburg Lutheran Church - October 2, 2016 (2 Timothy 1:1-14)

When I first looked at the set of readings for this Sunday it was fun but challenging to consider what they would say to a congregation like this one on an occasion like this. The words from this Old Testament lesson, this rather obscure prophet Habakkuk, seem especially fitting for the situation of our world and nation at present but maybe not as uplifting or as pertinent to an anniversary celebration. And the lesson from Jesus in Luke’s gospel lesson…well…who doesn’t like to hear about faith the size of mustard seeds?! But in the end, I realize I had only one real option: that beautiful epistle lesson. And so today (unrolling the scroll) I offer you a special, newly-discovered reading from 2 Timothy. We’ll call it the 125th anniversary edition:

Phillip, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, to Augsburg Lutheran, my beloved home congregation: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—ancestors that sat in these very pews with me each week, ancestors that now reside on the other side of that wall, in the columbarium—ancestors that tried to show and teach me what worshiping with a clear conscience meant: letting the Word I heard on Sunday nourish my actions Monday through Saturday. Knowing this God claims and transforms all of me, not just the parts I want people to see.

I am grateful to God when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. I know that sounds redundant, but it’s the truth! There are some days I can still feel Ross Ritchie’s wet fingers on my forehead. I remember these pews as a child remembers the street he grows up on. To this day, whenever I have Pepsi in a paper cup, I am at the feet of Alma Hayworth and Billie Kirkman. And even now, when I log on to Facebook, which I do quite often, there you are!

So, yes…I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day!

Recalling your tears at baptisms, at funerals, at the Christmas Eve candlelight service when we sang “Silent Night,” I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first for me in pastors Ritchie and Riley, and then Glenham, Rinn and Winkle. But a faith that lived also in Fisher, Lutz, and Bumgarner and others before them, and Anderson and Harrison and Pugh thereafter. It is a faith that shaped and honed the calls of countless interns through the years—the faith of a congregation committed to the formation of servant leaders.

But the faith that lived in you was not modelled principally by the pastors, no offense to any who are here, but by the countless Eunices and Loises I know have lived among you: Ones like Mike (Inez) Holderman, whose large spherical earrings use to jiggle back and forth in rhythm as she played the piano for Saturday Night Fellowship while our parents served the food.

And ones like George Barkley, Sunday School teacher for more than 50 years,  who insisted even in the 1980s upon handing out Depression-era goodie bags of raisins and tangerines to each child as they finished their part in the Christmas pageant.

And others like Angie McHugh and Coty Nelson, my sister and brother in Christ with special needs, who were wisely not segregated out of our Sunday School class or worship, so that we could learn at an early age that we are one and that all God’s children have many gifts.

And the sincere faith of Colin, Neubert, Albritton and Eppert, who taught us how music is the church’s truest voice, who knew as Luther believed, “whoever sings, prays twice.” It is a faith that lived in Roediger, Kooken, Vinesett and Drawdy, and others who volunteered countless hours with the youth groups, who navigated us through turbulent adolescent years with patience and creativity and, much to our delight, a VHS video camcorder. It is a faith which, through all of these and more, outfitted me with a bedrock identity since you helped me see myself as God sees me: though a sinner, a redeemed one.

For this reason, on this 125th year of your life together, I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of all those hands. Rekindle, I say, and not revise, not refurbish, and definitely not re-invent. Rekindle, because like a fire you have an ember deep down there that you need to hold on to. There is no need for change, no wholesale re-production on order. Just a blow from the Holy Spirit and your flame will keep roaring. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-sacrifice.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord, but join me with Paul in suffering for the gospel. I don’t know about you, but I am always a little taken aback by that part. For, as beautiful as our worship may get as functional as our Family Life Centers may be, and as fun as our drama productions and service projects and choir trips to Ireland may be, I’m afraid suffering is what we’ve really signed up for. Some would so far as to say, in fact, it is the best barometer of the strength of our witness.

I’ll be honest: this is the part that is hardest for me to remember, and I’m afraid I’m not very good example to follow. Like so many others, I take for granted this country’s relative freedoms and openness towards religion and therefore worship so casually, so non-chalantly most of the time. Church is “safe,” and my faith doesn’t really make me stick out. But, you know, they say the number of religiously-unaffiliated is on the rise, and I believe them. Fewer people are being raised weekly, even monthly, in the context of faith communities like you. I guarantee that no one went jogging by a church on Sunday 125 years ago. Perhaps there will be one day when one might truly feel ashamed of this testimony of ours, when, in mixed company, admitting belief in a crucified Savior or contributing time and, not to mention, a portion of our income, to that Savior’s body might be laughed at.

This makes it all the more critical, then, that we rely on the power of God and not our own cleverness. For it is God who has saved us and called us with a holy calling. It is God who has laid his life down for us and made our lives sacred, not according to our own works of love or our own righteous agendas of social justice but according to his own purpose and grace.

This grace was given to us in Jesus Christ before the ages began—before Ron and Ross began their storied tenures, before the first group gathered at the original building on Fourth Street, even before Martin Luther did his thing with the church door—but it has been revealed through the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light.

This timeless grace is present even now, right here in this room, just as new as it ever has been—as fresh as a whiff of wine when a chalice is passed. This timeless grace of Jesus is yours for the taking, once again, yours for the listening, the eating, the drinking. There is not one thing you must do to receive it, to know it, to grow up, as I did, in it. It is yours. By the power of the cross and the blood of the Lamb, this love is yours.

For this gospel—this exact gospel—you helped appoint me in 2003 as a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and I’m here to remind you that you are still appointed, too. You are appointed as heralds and apostles and teachers in the heart of this city and, by gracious extension, in the workplaces and school rooms and dinner tables and athletic fields where you spend your days. Together you and I have come to know the one in whom we can put our trust, the one who claims us right here in this water, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day all that we have entrusted to him.

Hold to the standard sound teaching you have heard from your forebears, my brothers and sisters of Augsburg, for you have such a legacy of it. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you—the treasure, for example, of prime real estate in downtown Winston-Salem, near to the cool hangouts of the trend-setting, but truly prime because it is near the needs of the people who are homeless…the treasure of music programs of Cantor Olsen and youth ministries headed by Ms. Norris, which help articulate a distinctly Christ-centered worldview to a new generation of Loises and Eunices…the treasure of Sunday School classes for adults of every age (you have no idea how rare that is!) where people can come to learn and share life’s struggles and joys together.

But remember above everything else, congregations are not meant for glorifying the past, or celebrating what has been. They exist to uproot mulberry trees. They exist to nurture mustard seeds.Congregations, no matter how old they are, or how young they are, or whether they’re downtown or whether they’re in the country, they exist as a little outpost of servant labor in the name of Christ. They exist to teach people, all people—ha! well, now looky there, the obscure prophet Habakkuk!—to live by faith.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21C/Lectionary 26C] - September 25, 2016 (Luke 16:19-31 and Psalm 146)

Sometime about a year ago a house on my way to and home from church got painted pink. All the other houses along that street are plain-colored, ordinary-looking houses. That whole house, however, from the ground to the roof and every bit of siding and shudder in between, is a bright pink. It is so pink that even I, someone who suffers from red-green colorblindness, can tell it stands out. My wife says it is a Pepto-Bismol shade of pink, just to give you a mental image. We happen to like it. It’s just…different. Who knows? Maybe the person who lives there is a John Cougar Mellencamp fan.

The other day as I was driving that route I got to the next stoplight past that house and for some reason a question popped into my head: is that house still pink? And then I couldn’t believe I had even asked myself that question because, after all, I had just driven past it. It was clearly painted to be noticed, to turn heads, and yet, after going right past it about nine or ten times each week, I had somehow managed to stop seeing it altogether. It had become just a part of the scenery, I suppose, part of my way to work. I hadn’t necessarily chosen to ignore it, but my mind had moved on to other things. The really interesting thing is that later that day, on my way home, even after I had resolved to look at it, I passed the same house again and, once again, failed to notice if it had been re-painted or if it was still pink.

Lazarus and the Rich Man (Fedor Bronnikov, 1886)
The parable that Jesus tells the Pharisees this morning which has come to be known as the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, is about noticing things. It’s about not passing by, over and over again, that which really should stand out, that which should really disturb and distract. It’s kind of an extreme example, an embellished tale about two people and the drastic consequences that befall them after they die, but the message Jesus has for his listeners is there are certain pink houses smack in front of us and, believe it or not, it’s awfully easy to let our minds be lulled into ignoring them.

We begin with a rich man. He dresses in the finest clothes available and he eats whatever he wants and however much he wants every single day. We would say he’s in the 1%. In fact, he’s the top 1% of the 1%. Then there’s Lazarus, the bright pink house situated at the opening to his property. Right of the bat there is something noteworthy. No other character in any of Jesus’ stories has a name. Not even the rich man has a name. Lazarus happens to mean, of all things, “God helps.” He’s the bottom 1%.

Jesus really piles on the details with Lazarus, and it’s kind of gross. In the time before napkins, they say wealthy people used to use pieces of bread to wipe their mouths and then toss it to the floor. That’s what Lazarus wants to eat. He doesn’t get to, of course, but if he could just get one spit-covered piece of leftover bread with some half-chewed pieces of food on it he’d be satisfied.

And then there are the open wounds all over his skin. Every day, right there in front of the rich man’s house, right where Lazarus’ friends had laid him, the mangy street dogs come, almost like they expect him to die. The wounds on his skin are oozing with something they like to lick, and poor Lazarus is too weak and tired to shoo them away.

And that’s Lazarus’ day: lying at the rich man’s gate, dreaming about scraps of slobbery bread while dogs lick his wounds. It’s a really, really a sad sight. Except the rich man apparently doesn’t see it. And if he does see it, he doesn’t see it for what it is, or, I should say, he doesn’t see Lazarus for who he is. He is someone God helps. And therefore Lazarus is an opportunity to practice compassion.

Meister des Codex Aureus
Of course, the real interesting action takes place after the two men die. Lazarus is whisked away by the angels to rock in the bosom of Abraham and the rich man goes down to Hades where he suffers in extreme heat, where it’s, like, 95˚ with a heat index of 110˚, and he didn’t get to bring his water bottle. Suddenly, for the first time, he sees Lazarus! He notices Lazarus, even though now he is far away, because Lazarus has something that he wants. Abraham and the rich man go back and forth over this request for a water droplet until finally the rich man thinks of someone else…his brothers, who are probably just as well-off as he was. Jesus’ parable ends with an intriguing bit of foreshadowing. Those who are not able to notice through God’s Word through history that God helps the downtrodden, that God desires mercy for the neighbor, that God looks on the lowly, are probably not going to understand God’s essential character even should someone rise from the dead.

Jesus never intends for this parable to be a literal description of what happens to people when they die. And neither is Jesus trying to teach that only by doing good things can someone avoid Hades and get into heaven. Those are exaggerated, folklore-type features that Jesus has added in. They’re in every parable Jesus tells, over-the-top elements that surprise and sometimes warn. Here he’s added them so that the Pharisees and anyone else who is listening may understand that a great reversal is taking place. With Jesus, the entire system of the world will be upended, turned upside down, and it is high time to notice the kinds of people God has decided to help, the kind of situations God has chosen to get involved in.

It just so happens that wealth, possessions, material things can blind us to that great reversal. And it’s not just affluence that has that ability. Educational level, class, race, even technology can do the same. There was a piece in the Washington Post this week titled “Why Church Can Rescue Us from our Smartphones” which made excellent observations about how our constant desire to be connected through technology has actually, in many cases, “disconnected us from our sense of humanity and from one another.”[1] All of these things—money, education, technology—are gifts from God but, allowed to run amok, can have a power over us, reinforcing our innate selfishness and encasing us in a type of privilege that prevents us from understanding what it’s like from someone else’s perspective.

As for the Pharisees, those in Jesus’ day who are a bit infatuated with wealth, no one speaks with greater authority than Abraham. And Abraham reminds them that the whole gist of God’s law and order is to practice compassion, to take care of the unfortunate. That is, to open our eyes and see the things that God sees and God helps. God sees the orphans and the widows, as the psalm appointed for today reminds us. God sees the stranger, the one who doesn’t have a home, the one who doesn’t belong. God notices those who are oppressed. God never, ever, drives by and gets to the next stoplight and wonders, “You know, did I just pass someone who the world seems to have forgotten? That house, where that family just lost a loved one, is it still there? Or that house, where someone’s struggling with addiction and the shame it has brought them, is it still there?” In Jesus Christ of Nazareth, crucified for the world, God is driving around and stopping at all these Lazarus places—and making them his priority. It would be a shame for us to miss out on the great reversing, the first-shall-be-last-and-the-last-shall-be first-thing that is happening for real in his resurrection from the dead.

Speaking of people like orphans and widows and noticing them, of being in tune to Christ’s great reversal and jumping in to help, Matt Greenshields, our Council Secretary, received a special thank you note last month from Lutheran Family Services of Virginia. The email contained a link to a story about a 12-year-old boy named Jahem who had spent most of his life in the foster care system (and in hospitals) but who had recently been adopted by a family and given a forever home. The note, which Matt shared with me and Council, and we think needs to be shared with you, read,

“Dear Matt,

I wanted to send you a link to this story and share with you how we used some of the donation money received from Epiphany Lutheran Church.  This little boy has had multiple surgeries over the years for his medical needs and we finally found an adoptive family for him!  Several years ago, Epiphany also donated money for a special speaking device for this young man, as he is nonverbal.  We used a portion of the donation money to throw him a huge adoption party and to buy some nice gifts for the family – including a picture of a family tree with all of their names on it. We are so very thankful for the support Epiphany has provided us through the years.”

So, Jesus’ parable reminds us we are on a journey of grace to see the ones God sees, to help the ones God helps, the ones first in line for the great big turnaround his creation is longing for. As we open up our eyes, as we receive God’s Word, as we remember he has risen for us to have new life, we begin to see them, too. And when we have our eyes opened wide enough by the Lord of heaven and earth, we look around at the people in the news, the stories from around the world, the Jahems and Lazaruses and rich men and women who are right around the corner and we may even begin to realize, my goodness, (Grant us wisdsom! Grant us courage!) this parable isn’t such an exaggeration after all!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “Why Church Can Rescue us From our Smartphones.” WashPost. Russell Moore, Sept 21

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19C/Lectionary 24C] - September 11, 2016 (Luke 15:1-10)

Several years ago I was locking up the building one Sunday after worship and before I had a chance to leave I saw the car of one of our members pull up in the circular drive out front. The woman got out of her car and came and knocked on the front door of the church. I unlocked the door and let her in. She explained that she had gotten home from worship and quickly realized that one of the bracelets she had worn to church that day was no longer on her arm. It was a very special bracelet that her husband had given to her when they were courting over seventy years before. I could see that the bracelet like that meant a lot to her and would warrant getting back in the car and immediately driving back to church to find it. She didn’t know where it was, she said, but since she hadn’t really gone many places that morning, she figured there were only a few places it might be.

Of course, I offered to help her look for it. Even though I didn’t know what it looked like, I figured a bracelet can’t be that difficult to locate. It’s not like an earring or a ring or something like that. We went in the sanctuary and she showed me where she had sat during worship and I got down on the floor and looked all around. She checked the racks where the hymnals are kept. We then did the same kind of searching in the pews in front of and behind where she had sat, and all along the wall in case it had fallen off and someone had unknowingly kicked it. She attended the 11:00 service that day, so we figured it couldn’t have gone far. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn up in the sanctuary, and she was a little bummed because that was the only place she had really gone inside the church. So we went outside and retraced her steps in the parking lot between the front door and where she had parked.

Nothing turned up. There was no telling where that thing could be. And then she remembered one other place she had gone: the bathroom. So we went and looked in the back bathroom there together. I got down on the floor while she picked up things on the counter and looked under them. No bracelet. We looked through the waste paper basket. No bracelet.

The funny thing is now I can’t remember where her husband was during all of this. In my memory she had left him back at home, but, come to think of it, she may have left him in the passenger seat of the car with the motor running while the two of us ransacked the church. In any case, she left that afternoon without her bracelet, but I promised that if it turned up we’d call her immediately.

About two hours later I was at home and the phone rang, and it was her. She was laughing as she tried to explain to me that she had found the bracelet. She had gone to use the restroom and found the bracelet, of all places, in her underwear. Apparently it had fallen off her arm in the bathroom at church but her undergarments had caught it. That whole time we’d been walking around together she had still been wearing her bracelet, she just didn’t know it!

Lost sheep, lost coin, lost bracelet. In one real-life episode, that woman managed to tie together all the important aspects of the first two parables Jesus told about God’s determination to find those who are lost. In coming all the way back to church, leaving her husband who-knows-where by himself, she was like the shepherd who leaves the 99 perfectly-safe-and-sound sheep to go rescue the one who had gotten separated. In carefully retracing her steps at church and turning over every hymnal and pew cushion and stack of paper towels she could find in order to uncover the precious item that belonged to her, she was like the woman in the parable who loses the coin. And, in telephoning me in great joy in order to tell me she found it—no matter how embarrassing that discovery may have been—she was like both the shepherd and the woman, go the extravagant extra mile by inviting friends over and throwing a party simply to celebrate the finding. She was like the shepherd and the woman. And therefore she was like God, becoming a sermon for this religious authority as I was locking up the church on the wideness of his mercy.

That’s the point of those two over-the-top characters in the parables Jesus tells the Pharisees. Jesus has found that he needs to make an important point about the basic character of God. The Pharisees and the scribes, religious authorities of Jesus’ time, are watching Jesus eat with people they think are deplorable. The tax collectors and sinners were the folks who, by their actions and by the company they kept, seemed to show open disregard for the laws of God. Everyone knew they were in sore need of repentance. The Pharisees were used to shunning these people, looking down on them, drawing a line to make sure they weren’t included in God’s circle. But Jesus takes the opportunity to explain in very relatable, ordinary terms, that God doesn’t look down on anyone. God simply looks for them. God looks for us. Both the shepherd and the woman—two run-of-the-mill, everyday characters—are symbolic of God the Father, who, as it turns out, is obsessed by what has gotten separated from him, fanatical about who has been lost, fixated on who has gone astray. That’s the basic character of God.

But here’s the thing: for as ordinary and run-of-the-mill as these two characters may be, they both do something very extraordinary and peculiar that surprises us all. It’s one thing to look for something that you’ve lost—that is, to sweep the house up one side and down the other, to leave the ninety-nine to traipse off into the wilderness—but to throw a party when you’ve found it? That’s a bit extravagant. In both parables, they are so overcome with joy that they invite their friends and neighbors to take part in it. In the Greek “friends and neighbors” essentially meant anyone around you, the people in your close peer group as well as those who share the village with you.

This is an over-the-top reaction to finding what you’ve lost, and Jesus wants the religious folk to hear that. When even one person realizes how lost he or she is…when even one person faces up to how unsafe they really are in this world when left to their own measly powers…when even on person comes to terms with how susceptible they are to chasing after that which is invaluable, God is filled with joy. That’s why God doesn’t look down on the lost and the least. God, in Jesus, looks for them. Over and over. Nonstop. Knocking on the church door and searching the bathroom with the pastor, if he has to.

This is the lesson about God’s character that Jesus wants the Pharisees to hear, as they look down on that crowd, and it’s a good one for us to reflect on again and again. I can’t presume to know what “being lost from God” looks like or feels like for anyone else. I imagine it feels different for everyone here. But I do know this: Repentance, however you like to define it—the changing of the mind or and turning around to realize the treasure of God’s presence—is something always open to us, and even more easy to undertake now that we know we have Jesus looking for us, now that we have a shepherd who wants to put us on his shoulders and carry us home when he’s found us.

I think most of us are aware that today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  I find a lot of conversations regarding that event still begin with questions like, “Where were you when you found out about the Towers?” and “What was that day like for you?” And yet I’m kind of shocked to realize that the 9th graders who will start confirmation with me this week have absolutely no memory of that day or its immediate aftermath. They were born after (or right before) it happened. It’s a historical event to them and to all the children younger than they are. There is a lot about the world now that seems to have just picked up and moved on. The feelings of camaraderie and compassion that flowed out of the response to 9/11 is basically gone. The spike in church attendance we experienced even here at Epiphany in the two years following the attacks as subsided. There have been additional terrorist attacks in other countries, there are wars still being fought today as a result of that event, and tens of thousands of people have died as the world starts to reshape itself in response to these acts of terror. With so many competing understandings out there regarding what God is like, let us be clear about our witness of God’s basic character. We need to proclaim more than ever that the shepherd is still looking for lost sheep, that this woman is still sweeping the floor for that coin because every single person is a child of God in need of a relationship with their Creator.

When I recall 9/11 I’m most moved by the stories of all those first responders who sacrificed their lives to go into the tower to search for people who were stuck in danger, people who were lost. Maybe that’s the best parable we can find today, For, as it turns out, Jesus doesn’t just look and look and sweep and sweep to find whatever belonds to God. He dies and suffers in order to have them, to bring them back, to save them from forever being separated from the God who loves them. He offers his own body on the cross to search out and rescue from the darkest corridors of life all those who belong in God’s care.

And he throws a party! Bread and wine are passed around, people share of themselves and rejoice in the love of the shepherd. Pharisees and scribes, sinners and tax collectors—we’re all going to be gathered in the feast of friends and neighbors.

And that leads me to the other way that woman here reminded me of God that day. God sweeps us up into his search-and-rescue efforts. We’re not just the sought-after. We’re also the seekers, his helpers, pressed into action, down on our hands and knees, searching high and low to invite, to welcome, to offer another blessed word of hope that God is still running into the dark to seek and to save. And that this good news is a reason to join the Rally, the party, the phone call to friends and neighbors. What was lost has been found.

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18C/Lectionary 23C] - September 4, 2016 (Luke 14:25-33)

Like so many of you, my wife, Melinda, and I have spent a lot of time and energy over the past week getting our children ready for a new year of school. We are always both flabbergasted by the amount of school supplies, even though we both agree it all makes sense. I’ve learned that there’s a whole ritual to it—we get the list of things the teachers are requesting, we go out and purchase what’s needed, and then on school orientation day we cram everything into paper bags and head over to the elementary school along with all the other students and their parents. We schlepp our bags of school supplies into the classrooms, locate our daughters’ desks, which are labeled carefully by the teacher with a nametag bearing the neatest handwriting you’ve ever seen, and then follow the instructions for unloading and unpacking everything in those paper bags for a new school year:

Colored pencils and five erasers—count them—go in the green pencil box that stays in the desk. Ziploc baggies and boxes of Kleenex are deposited in the appropriate bin on the table on the other side of the room. Pencil sharpeners go here, markers go here, tennis balls get sliced and put on the feet of the chairs right here. Armed with a clipboard and organizational skills that could single-handedly run a space program, the teachers make their way in the midst of this crowd, putting names to faces, allaying fears, pumping the enthusiasm.

That’s the ritual. Here’s what it has taught me: What teacher, preparing her students for a year of learning, doesn’t first calculate how many glue sticks they’ll need, how many bottles of hand sanitizer they’ll go through? What teacher, encouraging her class to seek new horizons, doesn’t remind them of what they’re getting into? The adventure of education seems so exciting and refreshing each year, but the teacher knows more than anyone else: there are costs involved, sacrifices to be made, preparations to be considered.

The crowds are swarming around that other Teacher, too. We think we’re ready. We claim to be excited. We sign up for the Bible study, the Sunday School class, the baptism preparation sessions. We say “I’ll serve,” or “I’ll believe,” and we rush in closer to where the enthusiasm is being pumped, and then we’re handed the disciples’ list of supplies.

As it turns out, it doesn’t involve items we need to accumulate, but rather mindsets we need to adopt. This Teacher’s list doesn’t mention anything about things we need to pull together, but about what we need to give up. Interestingly enough, this Teacher’s idea of being prepared doesn’t involve saying “Yes” to a new year or a new experience as much as it will involve saying “No”—“no” to cumbersome relationships, “no” to a sense of entitlement, “no” to unhealthy relationships with possessions. This Teacher, like any good teacher, wants his followers to know as much as they can right up front what they’re getting themselves into, that sacrifices will be made. What kind of preparations have you taken as you’ve walked with Jesus? Is there anything you wish you had known about before you responded in faith?

The part of Jesus’ little discipleship pep talk that raises the most eyebrows is the line about hating your family members and even life itself in order to follow Jesus. That sounds harsh to us, especially because there are so many other times when Jesus is telling us to love others. And there are times when Jesus and other biblical voices embrace the joys of this life. Jesus’ use of the word “hate,” might just be an example of exaggerated speech which was common—and still is common—in the middle east. That is, he doesn’t literally mean despise your family and wish them dead.

No matter what, he is getting us to acknowledge that following Christ takes priority over other commitments. He is hoping we understand that a disciple’s identity in Christ is paramount to any other identity we have, even the one we receive from our family. In Jesus’ time, the loyalty to family and clan outweighed all other bonds. It determined just about everything about who you were and what you could do and who you could associate with. When Jesus says disciples must hate their family and even life itself he is not saying they must turn their backs on those they love, but he is saying from now on his followers will not make all decisions based on what is best for themselves or their family or even their country but on which option forward best embodies the love of Christ.

It’s been interesting to watch San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick struggle  with allegiances to different ideals and movements this week as he takes heat for refusing to stand for the national anthem. Despite what any of us may think about his thinking and decision, whether we support Kaepernick or disagree with him, that kind of resolve is precisely what Jesus is looking for in a disciple.

Another mindset change that Jesus issues to his would-be followers involves the carrying of a cross. Jesus wants the crowd to know that self-promotion and self-assertion have no part of his mission. He is about self-denial and self-sacrifice. Carrying a cross doesn’t mean to suffer for any ol’ reason, which is how we often twist it when we don’t like the choices we’ve been given. It means to be a part of the kinds of activities and the ways of living that involve a giving over of self, even when it’s painful, choosing the more difficult path in a given situation because there will eventually be greater good.

Third on the list of school supplies Jesus hands out is the handing over of possessions. Those who are on a journey of faith are really learning to value things that cannot be bought or sold or even held. They are seeking things like hope and love and justice and peace. They are staking out a place in a kingdom that has no boundaries, no weapons, no money. To live there, then, one must learn to release things that get in the way of travel in that direction. Material things aren’t bad, but they will eventually weigh the disciple down.

This weekend Pope Francis in Rome declared Teresa of Calcutta a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Some have criticized her work, but she founded an organization that runs nineteen relief hospitals and homes for what some consider the world’s poorest in the slums of 160 cities, helping in regions where no other company or government has been able to make a similar difference. The only possessions to her name when she died in 1997 were a bucket at two saris.

“No” to competing loyalties, “no” to and attitude of entitlement and “no” to cumbersome possessions: that is the Teacher’s list of supplies. But with so many “nos” it would be awfully easy to forget what a disciple is saying “yes” to. With such stark instructions for what it means to follow, it would be easy to forget the element of surprise and mystery that accompanies a walk with Christ. We may be able to count the costs, but we still don’t know what is going to be in store for us.

I know a friend who hesitated quite a bit before saying “yes” to a year as a young adult in global mission, the same program our Emily Dietrick just left on. She knew it meant leaving behind for a while the security of life in the States, saying goodbye to close friends, and going directly into a teaching job. But then once she did, she was introduced in her new country to a community of different Christian denominations, which ignited an interest to enroll in seminary. She then said “yes” to a her supervising committee’s urging that she pursue a Master’s Degree, which led to a “yes” to ordination. She now serves a Lutheran congregation in South Carolina that also hosts an Episcopal congregation.

There is also the story of a man in the congregation of one of my colleagues who said “yes” to marrying his wife, who then talked him into flying lessons, which then led to a job in small craft airlines where he flies planes for CEOs. Because most of the planes are small enough, he finds time to talk to his passengers, when the opportunity arises, about God and his faith.

There’s stories from within our own congregation Ask the people involved with the HHOPE pantry at some point, who’ve reluctantly said “yes” to organizing this feeding ministry. They’ll talk about how they initially thought about how they’d be sacrificing some Friday nights and some Saturday mornings to sort food and set up the donation tables. But then they never thought about the weekly hugs they’d receive from the community members who depend on the bags of food, or the relationships they’ve build with people who live right around our church. How do you calculate the benefits of those things?

Jesus knows those things really can’t be calculated. Jesus knows grace can’t be figured out beforehand, like you can when you put the colored pencils in the supply box and the eighteen glue sticks in the Ziploc bag. The irony of Jesus’ list, of course, is that when the Lord of life is involved, none of us really knows what we’re getting ourselves into. We walk the journey, making each decision with the help of the Holy Spirit, confident in God’s mercy if we get things wrong. We walk the journey with this gracious Teacher, certain that we do have a God who has counted the cost for us. We have a God who is exactly like the person who builds a good foundation and knows what it will take to complete it. We do have a King who understands the price of doing battle, who knows the terrible nature of what he’s up against, and still goes in for the fight so that, on the cross, all may win victory.

With faith in that, we can agree to this list of “nos” knowing that many new “yeses” await us, too. As Samuel Wells, vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, says about the church he serves, “We haven’t arrived, but the journey’s great. We’re not sure exactly where we’re going, but it’s getting better all the time. We’ve had wonderful experiences, but the best is yet to come.”[1]

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “Seven Possibilities for church.” The Christian Century, June 22, 2016. P 29

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 16C/Lectionary 21C] - August 21, 2016 (Luke 13:10-17)

One popular understanding of Jesus out there is that he was a rule-breaker, some kind of rebel-figure who liked to go around flippantly thumbing his nose at restrictions and regulations. This imagines Jesus as somewhat of a maverick who doesn’t really follow anyone’s laws, who does his own thing and blazes his own path often just for the sake of being contrary, or for the sake of showing people that rules are stupid. I think that the story Luke tells us this morning contributes to that understanding of rule-breaker Jesus. He really sticks it to the religious authorities, doesn’t he? Good! Someone needs to. It is the Sabbath day, the day reserved for refraining from labor, and they have very particular rules about what constitutes as “work.” Instead of playing into their concept of Sabbath rest that the priests and the rabbis have obviously created, it appears that Jesus ignores it all and does his own thing, healing when he’s not supposed to.

To some degree, this image of rule-breaker Jesus fits. He does often cross boundaries and commit taboos, but in this particular scene that might not be the case. Rather than ignoring the Sabbath rules, Jesus actually applies them more robustly and wholesomely than the religious leaders do. The Sabbath, you see, was not the brainchild of humans but one of the commandments of God. And when Jesus decides to heal a crippled woman on the Sabbath day, he is not breaking rules of the Sabbath, but following the intent of God’s holy day more precisely. He is not throwing out a time-worn system that seems arbitrary, but lifting it up and renewing its meaning.

The Sabbath day was, by the time of Jesus, still one of the defining marks of the Jewish faith. No other culture or religious group in the near East before Jesus’ time and during it had anything like the Sabbath, a weekly day of rest. It appears other societies and civilizations had calendars with special days, but all of them followed lunar or solar events and they seemed to have different purposes. The Hebrews’ holy day, by contrast, came every seventh day, regardless of what the sun or moon were doing, and it was set aside purely for delight and rejoicing. It was a time when people were to refrain from the toil and tedium that consumed their lives to open up a day they might reflect on all that God does for them behind-the-scenes. The commandment to rest for one whole day at the end of the week came directly from their understanding of how God brought creation into being and how creation functions with God as its sovereign. Intentional time for pause was built into its very system; even the planet and its creatures are given to a rhythm of work and relaxation, expansion and contraction. Humans, too, were designed to take a step back on occasion, and this step back was so important that it was a law, a mandatory weekly event.

The issue that we glimpse in this account this morning is that by the time of Jesus the Jewish religion had developed all sorts of formal ideas about what constituted an appropriate “step back.” There were all sorts of rules to help people figure out just when they’d crossed a line from rest to work. For those in power in the synagogue, healing someone, no matter how dire the case, qualified as work. Because, could you imagine the crowd of sick people that might show up if that rule wasn’t followed? For Jesus, however, this bent-over woman’s condition becomes a perfect situation for displaying what the Sabbath was intended for.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Sabbath was not to give humans a break from the mundane and tedious existence of life but in order to re-establish their identity. Its purpose was to remind Israel who and whose they really were, about grounding their everyday comings and goings not in their work or in what the world would say about them but in God’s grace.

Over the course of just one day people accumulate all kinds of labels and roles. It’s unavoidable.  It happens to us when we’re going through life. One study conducted about ten years ago—and that was before social media had the influence it does now—suggested that the average American is bombarded with around 3000 messages a day. And if you couple that with the content of many of those messages, whether they come through news or advertising media or elsewhere telling us to buy or to be something in particular, it’s easy to see how a person can come to any number of conclusions about the worth or meaning of their life.

In confirmation class when we study the Sabbath, we liken it to wearing headphones all the time. Going about life is often like listening to any number of definitions of what it means to be us even ones we give to ourselves. And the problem is these labels and messages and these things give us a false perception of our humanity. They can puff us up, make us narcissistic, give us an inflated importance to our work and our influence on the world. Or, alternatively, the cumulative effect of all these labels, all our daily tasks and requirements, is to bend us over, to bend us right into ourselves, like this woman who comes into the synagogue that morning. We feel broken and beat down by life and by others expectations. In both cases, honoring the Sabbath, that is, gathering to worship with our community, reading Scripture intentionally, singing hymns, has the effect of removing those headphones so we can hear what God says about us.

Martin Luther, in his explanation to the third commandment in the Small Catechism, says we are to “so fear and love God that we do not neglect his Word and the preaching of it, but regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it.” Hearing God’s Word does a lot for us but perhaps the greatest thing it does, like that Sabbath, is to remind us who and whose we really are. We are not our own. We do not belong to any other person or idea or program or platform. Just as the Sabbath day would periodically break up the Israelites’ monotonous and often back-breaking existence to give them a chance to praise God and rest, so does our repeated hearing of God’s Word remind us that we are God’s. We are not the sum total of our days and what we do with them. We are the sum of what the Lord did with this day. Our life is not ultimately decided by how we use or spend our days, but how Jesus spent that day.

When this woman comes into the synagogue that day she ends up encountering the Word of God, the very person who, more than anyone else, can remind her of what her life really is. Jesus takes the headphones off of her, and she stands upright for the first time in almost twenty years. If the Sabbath Day was originally designed for praising God and relaxing, there can perhaps be no clearer image of that for all those religious leaders to see than a woman who literally hasn’t been able to lift her face to the Lord for eighteen years suddenly have the ability to do so. Notice that the first thing she does is to praise God.

In Jesus’ challenge to the religious leaders is a challenge for us as the people of God who have occasionally had our headphones removed. How can we continue to find ways to lift up those in our midst who’ve been bent over by life’s struggles? How can we help remind others who and whose they really are, that they’ve been loved with a death-defying love? How can we make sure that making others well, that re-establishing someone’s relationship with their Creator, will never be considered “work, but rather our new life of freedom in the Spirit? How can our life as a congregation embody Jesus’ compassion, that the act of freeing people from bondage to sin is not something from which even God rests, even on the Sabbath. In fact, it is the reason for the Sabbath. A religion with restrictions and guidelines surrounding these things, even in our hearts, needs Jesus to show up on Sunday and bust through.

This is one of the reasons that “Worship the Christ” lies at the middle of our proposed Mission Statement for the congregation. On the journey of faith, worshipping the Lord of the Sabbath is central. We come to have the headphones removed, to have our curves and bends straightened out, to have our sin forgiven. And yet time is so rushed these days for so many people. Even these summer weeks, which are originally designed as a break from the rat-race of the rest of the year, become hectic and over-scheduled. Worship can even seem like just another thing to cram into the calendar. And for others, worship can seem boring or uneventful. In some ways, your worship planners welcome this. We need time for boredom, for reflection, time to unplug and just sit. It’s one reason why I do not take issue with people falling asleep during the sermon. This is called a day of rest, and if people need to take five or ten minutes while I’m talking, then let it happen!

But whether we’re bored or invigorated by our time together here, or challenged and made uncomfortable by the ways God’s Word is embodied in our ministry, one thing is sure: here we can encounter the One who gives us our best name, our most valuable self. We come face to face in the bread and the wine with the One who does break the dumb rules and shows us the heart of the good ones. We receive in the Word the One who does a new thing and blazes his own path…a path right to the cross where he empties himself.
It’s the One who cuts through the 3000 messages to say again, “You…you’re worth something. I’ve died for you. I’ve given you a kingdom that can’t be shaken. Stand up straight. Look the world in the eye.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.