Monday, February 23, 2015

The First Sunday in Lent [Year B] - February 22, 2015 (Genesis 9:8-17)

Who doesn’t like a clear, undeniable sign? I think it’s a universal fact that when people want to be told something, they’d want to be told in a straightforward, unmistakable, and preferably timely way.

You know who gets that? Andy Jenks gets that. He’s the Director of Public Relations and Communications for Henrico County Public Schools, which means he’s the one who has been in charge of announcing school delays and closings for the Richmond Metro area. And, as you may have guessed, those whose lives are affected by the public school schedule have heard a lot of him this week. Maybe it’s his past career as a local news reporter, but he seems to understand that when the weather gets bad, people are hanging on his every word. I don’t know how it is in Chesterfield or Hanover County, but in this neck of the woods we follow Mr. Jenks on Twitter, we check our email, we wait for his robocall...whatever we can do to get that undeniable sign that once again (ahem) the children of the earth in Henrico County and every living creature that is with them shall be cut off from another school-day because of 1 inch of snow. In an age when digital signs and symbols are the name of the game Mr. Jenks knows how to play.

This guy (me) is still learning.

You know who else is into clear, undeniable signs, don’t you? Noah’s God. Can’t you see Noah there, finally on solid ground after forty days and forty nights of rain, constantly updating his Twitter feed, wanting to know what God is going to do next? And then comes the sign: a bow in the clouds, rays of divine light bouncing off dark, foreboding clouds. It’s a sign, says God, of the covenant that I am establishing between you and every living creature that is with you that never again will you be cut off by the waters of a flood. God is an excellent Director of Public Relations and Communications! God is establishing a new covenant with the people he has saved through the flood and is announcing it with an enormous, undeniable Tweet of a million colors.

Early peoples must have been amazed by rainbows, if you think about it. They had no scientific understanding of things like light waves and refraction and dispersion of water droplets. To them, dark clouds were primarily scary things that threatened destruction with their thunder and lightning, but that every once in a while could also hold a thing so wondrous and ephemeral and harmless as rainbow. For Noah and Noah’s God, this was the perfect sign that the flood’s cleansing was over. The sin that had scarred the earth and all its human relationships had been washed away.

On its own, the story of Noah and the rainbow is intriguing enough because it reassures us of a God who values setting things straight with his creation, but set against the backdrop of other ancient cultures, the sign that God gives Noah is even more surprising and unique. In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, the word used here is actually “bow,” which referred, of course, not only to the arc shape of the rainbow, but also to the bow that was used as a weapon. In every other ancient civilization that we know about that the Hebrews had to live among and sometimes share stories with—people like those of Mesopotamia, Babylon and Ugarit—a bow in the sky, often in star constellations, was always a sign from the gods that symbolized warfare and hostility. Noah’s God, by contrasts, boldly turns this symbol of violence into something good and hopeful, a sign of reconciliation. Rather than a re-establishment of God’s power and force, which is so easily what it could have been, for Noah and his people it’s a sign of a fresh, new beginning.

Who knows how much they actually pay attention to it. But, still, God’s sign in the heavens was clear and undeniable, and for the millennia that followed, God’s people could look up after a storm and be reminded of God’s goodness, hope.

Yet as true and as good as that is, notice that the rainbow was never really intended to be a sign to Noah or God’s people, The sign of the rainbow was a sign for God to remember God’s covenant. This undeniable symbol of new beginnings was a reminder for God to heed God’s word. So here in this colorful, peaceful ending to the flood we find something important for Noah and all of Noah’s descendants to understand about the God with whom they are dealing, the God who created them. That is, we see that a central piece of God’s identity is that God is going to remember the covenant God makes with them. There is nothing in this covenant-relationship about Noah needing to do anything in order to validate this arrangement of grace and hope. The responsibility of salvation—the hard work of redemption—is going to fall to God, not on Noah or anyone else. When it comes to making good on this promise, God is the one whose name is on the line.

"Noah's Thankoffering" (Joseph Anton Koch 1806)
And our part? What must we do to make this covenant count? Nothing. Like Noah, we just get to receive it, look at it, give thanks for it, and live into it. A clear, new beginning. This is grace. Interestingly enough, spelled backwards in Hebrew, the letters for “Noah” spell “grace.”

Of course, God’s people eventually come by a different way to spell grace: “J-E-S-U-S.” As the waters subside at Jordan one day, the skies are torn open, like after a storm, and God’s people realize they realize the journey out of sinfulness is finally over and that they’re waking up to another fresh new beginning that God has freely given. Interestingly enough, God had promised Noah many, many years before that there never would again be a flood to destroy the earth…but, as it turns out, God does send another flood. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God, out of God’s own desire and will, floods the earth with mercy, forgiveness and grace so that our lives may begin again. And the sign of the bow in the sky given to Noah becomes a foreshadowing of God’s ability to take a symbol of oppression and violence and turn use it as a sign for hope and goodness.

Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Beloved Son on the cross, is God’s final and full sign—undeniable and clear—that God loves us and wants to continue a relationship with us. Our life in Christ begins in the flood of these waters. And, in a way, we’re like Noah all over again. In faith, we learn to look to the cross and see that there is nothing we do or can do at all to receive God’s love. God is going to do the hard work of redemption. With the company of others on this journey, we trust that we can look into the darkest of the darkest clouds and still expect to find a token of God’s presence, a sign that God is there, recalling his covenant of life. And with the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, we learn that the wilderness is a place where, despite the temptations of life, Jesus shows up to walk with us.

That’s why we Lutherans like sacraments so much. They are clear, undeniable signs of God’s grace to us. In fact, Martin Luther liked to point out that the best response to the powers of darkness and doubt that can overwhelm is to shout, “But I am baptized!” not “I was” but I am baptized. That is, this is not just one event along our life’s path, but a status we live in. It’s not just a certificate we receive, but an identity that is formed by an ongoing relationship with J-E-S-U-S. As God’s people, as descendants of Noah, we are baptized. Henceforth we pray that Kaito here will always feel the wet fingers of Pastor Joseph Bolick on his forehead. He has been claimed in Christ because God loves him, and there is nothing he will ever have to do to deserve it.                                                                  

Every now and then I come across blog posts by other pastors and church leaders who talk about reasons why people don’t attend worship or take part in congregational ministry. Just this week Gallup released some statistics about church attendance, broken down by state.

Virginia’s weekly attendance rate is around 35%. I don’t know if I think that’s high or low, but I know that those who do think it’s low blame it, at least in part, on the prevalence of other Sunday morning distractions, like sports, in our culture. Quite frankly, a lot of people have to work on Sundays now.

To be honest, though, I often wonder how many stay away because they don’t feel worthy enough to attend church.  Maybe it’s that they feel they can’t hang with a group of people who seem on the surface to be holy, or be with people who talk about a God who seems distant and disinterested. I know I’ve heard that at some places folks feel more welcome in the Twelve-Step programs that meet during the week than they do on Sunday morning.

If that’s the case, and there’s probably some ways that it is, perhaps it’s time to consider the job we’re doing as Public Relations and Communications agents for God. Perhaps it’s time remember that we’re all born again in these waters. In fact, it is time—it’s always time—it’s good to begin our worship, our life, with a the reminder that God’s flood of grace has claimed us here, that no matter where we are in life and no matter how unlovable we are, no matter the power of temptations we struggle against, the skies have parted again and God has given us a fresh new beginning.

We are baptized people. Every day, every week, every month…we are baptized.

The sign is there. It is in the sky, up there, at the top of Golgotha, and we can trust it. God has washed us and set us free to go, once again, on dry ground. Thank heavens, this is undeniable.

Tweet it.

Tell it.

Live it.

Paint it in a million beautiful colors.

We have been saved.                          


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday - February 18, 2015 (Psalm 103:8-14 and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)

The heart of the matter.

What’s the heart of the matter to you…about today? About life? The psalm gets right to it in our opening text of Holy Scripture tonight, right to the core of just what we are and whose we are: “For you know well how we are formed; you remember that we are but dust.”And in case those words don’t sink in, we’re all going to be wearing some dust on our foreheads in just a few minutes.

"Pillars of Creation" nebulae (Hubble telescope image)
That’s really the “heart of the matter,” isn’t it? Despite all the amazing things we humans do and are capable of doing—our amazing progress in medicine and technology, our successes in creating just and free societies, our capability to create beautiful, lasting works of art and music—we are but dust. The ancient Hebrews knew long ago from their stories of Adam and Eve being breathed up from the mud what has taken us years of astrophysics to prove: the atoms of our bodies are really just reorganized and reconstituted stardust, the same stuff that the rest of the universe is made out of.

Yet, miraculously and mysteriously, life has been breathed into us, and for a while we exist. For a while we are given this chance to learn and grow and love, make decisions that affect others’ lives—sometimes disastrously—before we all return to that same elemental material. “For you know well how we are formed; you remember that we are but dust.”

Yes, the heart of the matter of life is that we are the creature, the created, and the Lord is the Creator. The heart of the matter is that because we are the created, we are not eternal. And for as long as we’ve been around, we have been prone to deny this fact or ignore it altogether. Forgetting that we are someone’s prized creation, we either disregard our beauty and our power—this heritage of our Divine’s image—or, even worse, we idolize them. We have been given this chance to fashion from our atoms lives that reflect the goodness of our Creator, and we squander it at just about every turn, oblivious as to whose we are. This corrupts us from within, and there’s nothing we ourselves can do about it.

Last night my six-year-old asked, out of the blue, “Is Ash Wednesday a hump day?” Yes, my child, I thought…and what a hump to get over. It is the hump day of the year, for today we are forced to look eye to eye with our mortality and our brokenness. Ash Wednesday and Lenten disciplines once again present the struggle with what it means to be made, to be designed for something other than our own glorification. They cause us to pause and consider that fundamental heart of the matter, and if we get over that sobering hump, there is hope at the end.

For there is another matter, of course, and it has a heart, too. It has to do with the Creator’s unexpected answer to our dusty, dirty condition. It the matter about God’s boundless mercy, his desire through Jesus, his Son, to live as we do, to encounter the brokenness we know. It is the heart of a God who is full of compassion, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. The psalmist, along with the witness of the ancient Hebrews, would have us know that this is the primary quality of this God who has formed us from dust: steadfast love. Of all that might be said of God this one thing must be central: God’s heart of tenderness towards us wins out over any anger and disappointment God feels about us.
"The Crucifixion" Leon Bonnat
So, just as we tonight receive reminder that we are undeniably mortal and corruptible, we also receive reminder that God is undeniably forgiving and compassionate. The cross of Jesus is the other heart of the matter which we confront on this hump day of all hump days…that God has not dealt with us according to our sins, and has not repaid us according to our iniquities. Instead, Jesus has borne in his body—which is formed of the same stardust as we are—the full result of our waywardness and brokenness. He suffers, so that we may thrive. He dies, so that we may live.

That’s the tension that lies at the center of Christian life, on the one hand, our failure, our dustiness, and on the other hand, God’s prevailing perfection for us in Jesus Christ; on the one hand, our inability—down to our very bones—to respond on our own to God’s grace and goodness, and on the other, God’s will to “make our bones strong,” as the prophet Isaiah says, to make us like “springs…whose waters never fail.”

Practices of faith are intended to support us in this tension throughout the year, but Lent has always been set aside by the church as a specific time for focusing on the cross, and how sacrifice in the manner of Christ heals us and empowers us to love the world. For example, the discipline of giving from our own finances to charity is not merely a way to deny materialistic impulses for ourselves, but a way to contribute in a real way to Christ’s healing of the world. Again, if I were to take on a discipline of increased prayer and worship attendance, this would not only become a way for me to take time away from other personal endeavors that lead me away from God, but they would also have the benefit of developing my communication with God and aligning my life with whatever Christ’s compassion is doing in the world. And the act of fasting is not simply a way of reminding ourselves of the control our passions can have over our bodies, but a way to hand over for the betterment of creation resources that we often horde for ourselves. The three particular disciplines of faith that Jesus mentions to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel, when taken to heart the right way, always help us keep in mind both our need for God’s mercy and the fact that God is already giving it.

For many people throughout the centuries, holding these two matters in tension has led to profound artistic and creative expressions. Using that quality of creativity that God has bestowed on us, people have sought to articulate in some original way what God’s steadfast love in Jesus means for them and the world. Perhaps you’ve seen a painting of the crucifixion that draws your attention to a particular feature or character. Some have chiseled for hours at marble or granite or wood into the shape of a human figure with a surface as smooth as human skin and with facial expressions that look as real as ours. Others have composed works of poetry or moving songs that re-interpret or even quote the words of Scripture. Maybe you have a hymn that sums up your own reaction to the cross.

On Wednesdays this Lent members of the staff will offer for you something of that discipline: a series of meditations on some of these artistic creations. Our speakers will lead us through several meditations and even demonstrations based on examples of Christian art that strike at the heart of the matter: on the cross of Christ, our dust is given new life.

Michaelangelo's "Pieta"
That being said, there is nothing particularly aesthetic or beautiful about the real cross, the real death of our Lord. Safe to say that last thing anyone was thinking as our Lord gave up his life is how the lighting looked, or what particular color palette was being used. It was a gory, desperate scene. Nevertheless, as the years have unfolded since, the faithful have been drawn to express what that event means by giving glory to God through stunning art and music. In each we see or hear both the horror of human loss and tragedy, and also the beauty of a God’s steadfast love. In each we will be offered a chance to come to terms with our own human fragility, but also respond to the compassion of a God who knows well how we are formed. Whether sound waves coming from guitar strings, light shining through glass, words leaping from a page…they will be examples of matter—stuff of the universe—arranged to show that on the cross we are saved.
They will be arranged to display, that is, the heart of the matter: that we matter to God’s heart.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year B] - February 15, 2015 (Mark 9:2-9)

Mount Tabor, southern Galilee
The high mountain where Jesus is transfigured in front of his three closest disciples does not have a name in any of the gospels, but for centuries it has been thought it was Mount Tabor. Somewhat of a landmark in the area of southern Galilee, which is where Jesus and his disciples were travelling at this point, Mount Tabor is one of the highest mountains in southern Galilee. At almost 2000 feet above sea level, it was visible from most locations in the area. People could plot distance and direction with it on the horizon. In addition to that, it has a broad, almost flat summit. It could be climbed fairly easily, yet was high enough to be actually in the clouds some days.

Besides the fact that mountains are often, in many religions and cultures, associated with leaving the mundane world below and having an close experience with the divine, mountains also help people get their bearings. My parents have a house in the North Carolina mountains that is perched, facing westward, at the very edge of the Blue Ridge. When I’m up there, I spend a good bit of my time glancing back and forth between the wondrous view in front of me and Google Earth on my computer, trying to find out where I am on this earth in relation to the mountain peaks I’m seeing.
Richmond is just far enough east not to have any real peaks from which to survey the area, unless you count that strange, giant dirt mound just off 288 and I-64 at the edge of Short Pump—what is that thing? I remember that when I first arrived here I spent a good bit of time one day looking out of one of the windows down at MCV hospital while I was visiting someone. Looking out over the landscape, I tried to make sense of where Shockoe Bottom was from where I was standing, how downtown slopes off suddenly around 14th street, how the James River starts to curve a bit more southward past downtown. A newcomer to the area, I was getting my bearings.

I think that’s a large reason why Jesus takes his disciples up this mountain. He’s getting his bearings, and he’s giving them theirs. They’ve had a string of good experiences with healing and teaching. Peter has just started to put two and two together about Jesus’ identity. Like the vantage point offered by any high spot, this transfiguarion on Mount Tabor will now give them perspective. It gives them the chance to see their own location—their own relationship to him, their own call to discipleship—in relation to where they’re going. Although the Scripture here doesn’t mention anything about what they can see off the side of the mountain—where, for example, the Jordan River starts to flow southward out of the Sea of Galilee—it’s clear that they’re given some sort of glimpse of Jesus’ final destination.

"Transfiguration of Christ" Giovanni Bellini (1455)
The specific events of this transfiguration may seem a little otherworldly, but if you put all the images and visions together for a moment, you start to realize that one perspective they gain has to do with Christ’s being at the center. All the focus is on him. That’s what the dazzling white clothes are for. Appearing together with the two biggest heroes of Hebrew history underscores it. The voice of God, which had also occurred at his baptism, is now heard by others for the first time. And even though Jesus strangely silences them about what they’ve heard and seen, we get the idea that they come down that mountain with a slightly greater appreciation for who he is and for how important he is.

This is all a very helpful but sometimes jarring remedy to any spirituality or religion that ends up being too “me-focused.” I know I spend hours wondering how God is speaking to me, or how God fits into my life and consider, for example, whether there may be signs intended especially for me from God that I am misinterpreting, or—worse yet—missing altogether.

Maybe you have the same struggles, too. The perspective from the mount of Transfiguration should shake us out of all that. This voice from above hones in to say, “Listen to Jesus. It matters more to you, Phillip Martin, that I speak through him than if I ever speak to you.” Said differently, while it true that God is present in each of our lives, speaking here and there through this or that person, nurturing us through prayer, none of us is ever the complete center of God’s activity. That position has been given to Jesus, and ultimately faith in Christ means that we should be more interested in how God is present in his life. Ultimately our time and energy are better spent, spiritually-speaking, paying attention to Jesus and the life Jesus leads. It is better for us to listen to Jesus and the words Jesus speaks, because eventually Jesus—not any of us—will die and rise as a ransom for many.

Notice as soon as that mysterious voice stops speaking, the disciples saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus. The point is driven home: only Jesus. All the world gets its bearings in him and the love he has for us.

Another way that perspective comes into focus on that mountain of transfiguration has to do with the place Jesus is ultimately going. The disciples do not appreciate it at the time, but they have received a glimpse of the glory for which Jesus is bound, a glory to which he will bring them, as well. Like a sunrise that is visible from one mountain summit to another, but not noticeable in the valley below, the transfiguration is a glimpse of the resurrection, the dazzling, beautiful light of Jesus’ risen glory. It is the consummation, the completion of all that God had hoped for God’s people through the words of the prophets like Moses and Elijah. It is a life where all of creation will be given a bright, dazzling new existence because of its relationship to Jesus.

"Transfiguration" Fra Angelico
This is the perspective that Jesus gives the disciples, and it is vitally important, because they will come down that mountain. They will watch Jesus come down from that high point into a real shocking bottom, and it will be crucial that they remember that glorious, transforming light is still the destination. Of course, they won’t really remember. The darkness of Good Friday makes it easy for them to lose their way. Indeed, all perspective is lost as Jesus climbs that lonely dirt mountain of Golgotha nestled in that valley of death. And yet, in the distance, the rising sun will pierce that gloom. The transfiguration is a reminder, a promise that greater glory does call us onward, that our end is in Christ, because Christ holds the end.

I read a piece by a school headmaster and long-time counselor of teens a few weeks ago who wrote about the three most important questions parents these days should be asking their teenagers. The first one, he said, is, “Who tells us who we are?” Could you imagine that conversation happening around the dinner table? I think the transfigured Christ would like to tell us who we are. The second question was “Where do we want to go with our lives?” As it turns out, the article was written in response to the millennial generation and their emerging signs of ennui, their sense in young adulthood of being lost and without purpose. According to this writer, it’s if we’ve raised a generation (or more!), that is well-educated, well-heeled, and well-prepared, technologically-savvy and well-resourced, but with precious little sense of who determines their identity and even less sense of what the ultimate goal is. They’re good in the moment…but they suffer from lack of grand perspective.

It was really an article about all of us, truth be told. With no one like God speaking out of the cloud of our sin and our waywardness, we don’t know who we really are. With no one like Jesus leading us through the shocking bottoms of our lives, we have no idea that God has descended to the valley eventually to take each one of us to the top. With no promise of the glory that God grants Jesus Christ, it is easy to forget that we are bound for greater things. We, too, are promised a great transfiguration when we are finally rid of this weight of sin that clings so tightly.

A lot of people have been waiting for this day, Lucia. Plans have been made, parties organized, family gathered. And people have already been talking about the family you have, the roots of faith and love and hope you’ve been given. There is no doubt the foundation is strong and you’ve got a lot going for you here at the beginning. Both of your parents are ordained pastors. (Well, on second thought, start praying now!!). Your grandfather is a beloved bishop in your branch of the church. All of your grandparents are living and healthy, involved in their communities of faith and wanting to hold you every moment they can. You’ve got aunts and uncles who love you and model Christ for you.

But, Lucia, it’s not really your beginning in faith that we’re celebrating today—as strong as it is—and the greatest gift of this baptismal journey is not the wonderful roots your parents are giving you as they bring you to that font. The biggest gift is that today they're giving you an ending. It’s your destination that we’re focusing on. For in this water you are claimed by that Man who climbs all mountains for you. And the man who descends the darkest valley for you. Today you are claimed by the promise that this Savior will welcome you home, transfigured, whenever your life here comes to an end. Lucia, little burst of light, you get perspective today that no one else in the world can give you. Life-giving, life-saving perspective...a perspective that will help you answer any of the questions life throws at you.

And we rejoice partly because your baptism gives us the opportunity to ponder again our own journeys in light of this perspective. We lean in a little closer…listen a little harder to his words…cherish the light a little more. We are transfixed by the glimpse of glory today, but trust all the more that God’s beloved Son will walk down this mountain with us and then ascend--Alleluia, Praise Him!--to an even greater mountain Son-rise in the end.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year B] - February 1, 2015 (Mark 1:21-28)

Fighting words.

We’ve had to listen to them for about two weeks now, and I don’t know about you, but I’m hoping they’ll come to an end at about 6:30 this evening. I’ve heard enough about deflated footballs to last me a lifetime. I realize it’s all part of the annual build-up to the Super Bowl, and that it’s all intended to get us worked up about this supposedly epic showdown, but all these press conferences and the silly back-and-forth just seem like fighting words to me. I’m ready for some action.

Fighting words.

There were some on Capitol Hill this week at a congressional hearing on global security. One Senator went up against some protestors—called them low-life scum!—and had them and their protest signs cast out of the room like a demon. The protesters, in turn, responded with more fighting words in the newspapers. Come to think of it, there are fighting words on Capitol Hill every week, which is a large part of the problem up there. The spiteful rhetoric between our two political parties these days makes every issue sound like it’s part of an endless confrontation between good and evil, no matter whose side you stand on. Again, enough of the fighting words. If it’s truly necessary, let’s see some action.

Fighting words are the first thing Jesus hears as he tries to teach in the Capernaum synagogue. In fact, fighting words are the first thing any human speaks to Jesus in the entire gospel of Mark. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” asks the man who stumbles into the middle of Jesus’ lesson, interrupting it. In the original Greek, the man’s question sounds more like, “What’s it to you and us?” which is exactly how many of us might pick a fight with someone. “What’s it to you, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”

We don’t have to wait long for some action this time, however. Jesus immediately puts down what he’s doing, addresses the confrontation, and throws the protesting scum out of the man and out of the synagogue.

It is Jesus’ first day. He has just called his first disciples. He is teaching his first lesson in his first synagogue visit, and he is interrupted by these dark forces that were possessing this man. It’s almost like they knew he was coming.

Truth be known, that is who is doing all the talking here. This man is not in his right mind, and it is not this man who is challenging Jesus. Something dark and disruptive has a hold on him, and it is that dark and disruptive entity that Jesus casts out. If one of the first things that Jesus hears is direct confrontation and challenge to his power, one of the first things Jesus does is to free a soul from torment, to separate the human from that which binds him.

Let’s be honest.  Modern folk often don’t know what to do with the demoniac. Cases like this seem like a relic from another time when science and medicine were cruder. We’d certainly get out the clinical encyclopedia and diagnose him with something else now. When director Franco Zeffirelli depicts this scene in his 1977 epic Jesus of Nazareth, the young man barges into the synagogue screaming, writhing around, and foaming at the mouth as if he is having a grand mal seizure. That was his interpretation. Who knows what kind of special effects we might add in nowadays, but it’s true that we think demons and possessions are really something only for Hollywood to deal with. In real life we often don’t know what to do with this “antiquated” exorcism stuff, and we’re rightfully sheepish about labeling anyone or anything anymore.

the entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp, which was liberated
on January 27, 1945
However, if we are in doubt that evil forces can grip the human psyche and cause terrible damage, if we have a hard time believing that humankind is ever under siege by influences that can only be described as demonic, we only need to be reminded of the macabre, awful anniversary the world marked on Tuesday of this week and speak with an Auschwitz survivor. Evil doesn’t always have to be spectacular in its manifestation, writhing about on the temple floor, foaming at the mouth. Sometimes it is remarkably mundane, made up of little dastardly acts that slowly build up to something horrific.

No matter what it is or what form it comes in, one thing is clear: these things do not get along with Jesus. Ultimately they cannot exist in this world at the same time as him, and so just as soon as he shows up they show up to protest.

It’s why we begin each baptism with three clear renunciations. Before anyone is washed in the waters and joined to Christ, we ask them questions like, “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” “Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?”         It would make for an interesting Sunday if someone suddenly answered “NO!” at that point, but at least the truth would present itself. Joining to the side of Jesus Christ, who rescues us from sin, who brings life and light to all the world, whose Spirit empowers us to work for justice and peace would never be appealing to a force that works to advance darkness and destruction.

Fighting words. It’s what we’ll hear throughout the life of Jesus, but he will stay true to his mission, which is to separate these forces from the people they enslave, to proclaim release to those who can’t release themselves. He will never label anyone, but he will be honest about that which corrupts us, addressing the demons head-on, and in the most humble, self-giving way possible. This morning he rebukes gently, commanding the unclean spirit to leave the young man. That will work for now, but eventually he will let his own life be handed over to those forces of evil. On the cross, fighting words turn to brutal action against Jesus. He will demonstrate his authority over all that lays siege to humankind by letting all our demons have their way with him. But he will rise. At length we begin to see that no force will ever stand a chance against God’s unconditional love. No words fight quite like words of mercy do.

Because the church speaks with the authority of Jesus, it too can expect fighting words from time to time. As people of faith attempt to embody his kind of love and forgiveness, they will draw opposition. The life of faith is not a cake walk, and those who have been claimed by these waters can expect hecklers. But like Jesus, we are driven by the Spirit to respond with courageous action, to make the distinction between the demon from the human, to cast out the former and love the latter. It will be to remember the words of another in this country who confronted many demons: As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

All this talk of camp reminds me of my first ever experience as a camp counselor at one of our other Lutheran camps. It was 1993, and I was only 19. We had gone through 10 days of orientation to learn the ropes before we were thrown into the Capernaum synagogue to do some teaching to the kids. The only issue was that Sam barged in to our area, a 4th grade boy who would do anything but listen and follow rules. Day after day, he brought terror to our idyllic woodland scenario. As the week wore on, it seemed to get worse: foul language, hitting, biting…constant fighting words directed at us and at other young campers. He was inconsolable.

Lutheridge, summer of 1993
It was hellish, and all of us first-timers wondered if the whole summer would be like this. We wanted to send him home, but when we looked at his paperwork, we made the discovery there was no home to send him to. A child in foster care because of early childhood abuse and neglect, he happened to be between homes that week. He made us counselors so angry,  but our director told us we had to respond sternly, but gently. To be firm, but always loving, even when we wanted to retaliate out of frustration. He was in the grip of dark forces we could not understand.

It was an emotional week, but by the time the case worker showed up on Saturday to pick him up—the last camper to leave—he was hugging us and literally wouldn’t let go. Everyone was weeping, because something had finally released the real Sam to us, who eventually ended up being just as fun and silly as the other 4th graders. A scholarship was found that enabled Sam come back for another week later in the summer, and again the next year. Sam had experienced what we on staff had taken for granted one too many time: that in our summer community Jesus was at the center, and when that is the case, and forces of darkness and evil and selfishness cannot abide there for long. They may come out of the woodwork, spitting and foaming at the mouth, ready for a fight. But they find a God who stands ready to love.

The same scenario plays itself out, week after week, at our Lutheran outdoor ministries. Indeed, it is a scene that is repeated each and every week in our congregations and in our worship where Jesus word is proclaimed and the sacraments are celebrated. Love driving out hate. Words that fight with mercy. One morsel of bread and splash of water at a time, the Spirit helps us renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God. And with an authority that reveals itself in weakness and humility, God rebukes the demons in each of us to set us free.

When those forces approach, asking in doubt and anger, drawing us in to combat with fighting words, “What’s it to you?” We can respond, with the authority of God’s word: Life. Life is what this is to us.


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Year B] - January 25, 2015 (Mark 1:14-20)

So, I saw in the news this week that the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences has set the Doomsday Clock up two minutes so that it now reads three minutes to midnight. Supposedly, that’s a bad thing. The Doomsday Clock is a big, symbolic timepiece that certain nuclear scientists and environmentalists came up with during the Cold War to alert us all to how near we are to a second nuclear age or even world annihilation.

I know: real cheery concept, right?

To calculate where we are on the Doomsday Clock, the scientists take into consideration things like the proliferation of nuclear warheads, the military tensions between major world powers—and now they even include data on climate change—to estimate the world’s proximity to some kind of meltdown or age of destruction. On the clock, midnight symbolizes that terrible moment. We’re not really three literal minutes from destruction or whatever, but the idea is that things have gotten to the point that the world is supposedly nearer now than we have been in a long time.

Although the Cold War officially ended almost two and a half decades ago, some people apparently think the Doomsday Clock still has a purpose in getting our attention. Does it get yours? I’m not sure it gets mine, but it is an interesting concept. Even if I did buy into what it said, I’m pretty sure there is nothing I could do about it. If that day comes, I guess I’ll just be swept along with everyone else.

This concept of a certain time finally arriving—the nearness of big change and the start of a new era—is exactly the message Jesus brings once John the Baptist gets arrested and Jesus arrives back in Galilee from his baptism. It’s like God has pushed the minute hand to midnight, except this isn’t a Doomsday Clock that Jesus is holding up. In fact, it’s the total opposite. It’s a Good News Clock. With Jesus’ arrival, we’re talking about total world reconciliation, not total world obliteration. When Jesus shows up in Galilee, calling disciples to follow him, we’re looking at the arrival of a bright new future, not the end of it.

“The time is fulfilled,” Jesus proclaims, “and the kingdom of God has come near.”

Jesus calls his first disciples (mosaic, Ravenna, Italy)
With these uncomplicated words, Jesus begins his ministry. And they’re meant to get our attention…and, unlike the Doomsday Clock, we can do something in this time change. This news affects us on our level, down to the in-and-out of our daily lives. You and I, ordinary people that we may be, can join up. As New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright says, “the news what God has done in and through Jesus creates a whole new world, and we are invited into that world.”[1] The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.”

For first-century Jewish folks, and for the Christians that Mark and the other gospel writers were first addressing, this first announcement about the kingdom of God’s arrival would have been loaded with meaning. They would have heard Jesus’ words and immediately thought of the ancient prophet’s words and God’s coming reign of glory and power. That’s what a gospel was, to be sure. In our text it is exchangeable here for “good news.” Somewhat like a newspaper headline on the day after an election, a gospel was a general announcement about the reign of a new leader or emperor, a change in regimes. Announcing a gospel provided the one who heard the gospel the opportunity to change their loyalty, to surrender to the new ruler. So, when Jesus comes announcing the gospel about the nearness of God’s kingdom, then they would have understood it was time to align their lives with that new regime.

That might be one reason it’s so easy for Jesus to attract those first followers. Mark, who is the one telling this version of the story, likes to drive home that Andrew, Peter, James and John all respond immediately. There they are, just fishing with their dad, mending the nets, and…bam!...they leave everything to follow Jesus. Some Christian scholars suggest that in that day and age any young man would have jumped at the chance to be called into service with a rabbi. Since they were working as fishermen (the theory goes) we can assume that they weren’t accomplished enough in their study of the law to make the cut. Therefore, when Jesus the rabbi comes along and offers them a spot, they immediately seize the chance to follow, like it was a no-brainer. Other scholars claim that leaving their station by the fishing boats would have entailed a real sacrifice for them. Some recent archaeological findings suggest that fishermen were comfortable middle class folks. This might have been a profitable family business and a semi-respectable position in the community they were leaving behind.

I don’t think we’ll ever know the full of it. The fact remains that their call is immediate; they hear the word “gospel” and they perceive that they are being invited into a whole new world. That is, they sense the minute hand has hit the moment of God’s grace, and they go with it. Even if it does come across as very abrupt, the initial disciples give us a powerful, real life illustration of what it means to repent—change direction—and believe in the good news. It gives us an idea that the new age has finally come and that anyone may respond.

This is crux of the church’s life: to proclaim in word and sacrament that the new age has begun. It’s to point people to the fact that God, in Christ, is in charge, and that we all are invited to go with it. The church’s ministry, whether we’re talking about things we do as a group or as individuals in the world, is to bring to everyone’s attention the news of this gospel. “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.” Sometimes it will look like it’s not. The world will seem dark and doomsday-like, which reminds us that while the time has come for the kingdom to begin, the kingdom itself is not quite fully here. When times are difficult, God’s kingdom is more hidden, operating by stealth in many instances, but it is still near at hand. It doesn’t mean we turn a deaf ear to those who call for nuclear disarmament and care of the environment and the like, but we certainly operate out of a sense of hope and love, not fear.

Photo source unknown
When we start to wonder and doubt, it is important to remember that those first brave disciples were not always clued in, either. What begins so clearly and optimistically on the beach in Galilee quickly dissolves into the anguish of a hopeless Good Friday. But this is precisely how God’s kingdom likes to occur. Its grace forces and sneaks its way in to the brokenness of the world. God will not be frightened by the mess we make of things, or the mess we make of ourselves. Remember what precipitates Jesus’ announcement of the gospel? The arrest of his cousin John. Yes, each and every moment, as mundane or as frightening as they may seem, is a chance to proclaim that God is victorious, that Jesus is risen, and that the time has come to believe, to respond, to turn around and follow.

One of my good friends visits a Waffle House every Sunday morning before he goes into church. It’s basically intended as his alone time, a chance to have a quiet breakfast and morning devotion by himself before the fun craziness of church. Several months ago, the cook at the stovetop noticed my friend’s collar, and he walked over to my friend’s table to share that his sister had been diagnosed with cancer and was beginning treatments. Things didn’t look good, and the cook asked my friend to pray for her. So he did, and my friend asked some folks at church to include her in prayer, as well.

Last week my friend walked in for his quiet breakfast and saw the cook standing outside, and asked how Stella was doing. The cook shared that she had died right before Christmas. My friend expressed his sympathy and spoke with him for a minute. Later, as he went to settle up at the cash register, the waitress said that it had already been paid for, and the cook, behind the counter, gave him a wink.

To think that God’s kingdom would have occurred only if that sister had survived the cancer misses the point. Quite the contrary: that Waffle House cook recognized that God had come near in the presence of a stranger who willing to listen and express interest in her well-being, in the existence of a community who cares enough to remember her life. In fact, the 2nd grade Sunday school class here last Sunday was asked to put the Lord’s Prayer into their own words and one girl wrote “thy kingdom come” as “make my community more like heaven.” In some way, it was that day for that cook and my friend, standing on the sidewalk, and a meal of grace marked the occasion.

That is the call of a disciple, of one who heeds the gospel and repents and who believes our communities can be more like heaven precisely because Jesus has come. We may not know much about the credibility of this Doomsday Clock, but the Spirit gives us faith in a risen Lord Jesus. His time has started, and all may follow. Don’t let the drastic job change of those first followers trick you into thinking that the call to follow only comes in the form of major career or educational changes, although it often may. Jesus approaches each one of us, sometimes by the door of Waffle House, and bids us to pay attention to the new age that is at hand.

As a matter of fact, you may even have an opportunity to hear the good news and respond with your own life even before…tick, tick, tick…this sermon is over.



Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Baptism of Our Lord [Year B] - January 11, 2015 (Mark 1:4-11)

We live in a world where things can be holy.  Such a concept may not seem real to some, or terribly modern, but that doesn’t really matter. You can go back a long time and observe that humans have always sensed that certain things in this universe, things around them—tangible, visible things, things that actually take up space and time—have been visited by some divine presence. Such things are then holy, sacred, designated for use by God, who is the embodiment of holy.

For some folks, it is a stretch to even conceive of a God, a Creator, in the first place. You can see that it is even harder for many to comprehend that the Creator of all that is, the source of all life and energy, would descend to associate him or her or itself with certain objects, places, and people, especially considering how filthy objects, places, and people can be on this troubled planet. And yet, we have holy things, sacred moments, hallowed ground, and they command special attention, a turning aside.

That is, I as see it, one of the main issues at play in the tragic shootings in France this week. In the eyes of a violent few, the satirists of one publication routinely disregarded the holy things of another people by depicting something they hold to be sacred in image form, not to mention hurtful and insulting. Granted, the great majority of us do not believe that violent retaliation is the appropriate response to blasphemy, which is the term for doing something improper with things that are holy. But the fact still remains that, regardless of what a government policy is, and regardless of what the prevailing public opinion is about equality among people or the truth of religion, some people among us maintain that certain things have been set aside by God and are therefore holy, blessed, just as many believe the right to blaspheme it is also, somehow, holy.

There are no easy answers to this issue and other ones like it, which I fear are in our future, other than condemning violence when we can, speaking up for the innocent and oppressed, and comforting the grieving, but perhaps one way forward is to acknowledge and respect the presence of holiness among us, even if these things are nothing you personally would designate as holy, as something that God’s own self has touched or associated himself with.

It is worth noting, then, that when this man from Nazareth steps into the water in the Jordan River to be baptized by John, a holy moment is occurring. The divine, in all its glory, in all its total other-ness from creation, is associating itself with this particular figure, Jesus. The Creator, with all that power and splendor, is visiting those particular waters at that very ordinary moment. In fact, when Jesus comes up out of the water, he notices that the heavens are torn apart, which is a big cumulus clue that anything separating God from humans is being ripped away. Just as at the beginning of creation when chaos started to give way to order because God spoke right into the messy mix of it all, now God is descending again to say, “Enough of this separation. My holy will mix with your commonplace.”

We’ve probably all seen the heavens open up at some point. It doesn’t happen all that often, because the sky and the sun have to be just right, but occasionally the clouds part in such a way that only a little bit of sun streams through. When that happens, the beams of sunlight look a lot like a spotlight from God, or maybe even the bright, outstretched arm of the Creator. This is what I imagine occurs right over top of Jesus, right there in that river that separates the wilderness on one side and the Promised Land on the other. This tearing apart of the heavens is what happens right there as John the baptizer wades out into the muddy water, offering people a new beginning, a chance to pause, turn around, and look aside because God is moving in their midst. There are holy things to be revered.

The baptism of Jesus is one of those moments—and for Mark, the gospel-writer, it is THE moment—when God decides to get directly involved in creation, to sanctify the lives of humankind, to boldly declare as “blessed” the relative obscurity of human life. Who is this man? Where is he from? For as long as it has been around, the gospel has maintained this crazy thought: that God himself ripped the boundary between God’s heaven and God’s earth and entered human history in the life of a specific person.

This is important because the tendency is always to base an experience with God all on our ability to attain some spiritual nirvana, to tap into some divine wireless access point of our brain or tune into the right frequency. We acknowledge that crucial separation between us and God, but then make it all about us reaching in that direction. This is not the gospel. Ultimately, we learn that the truth is the other way around, beginning with Jesus’ baptism: we know God and experience the holy only because God first comes to us. Ultimately we only ever touch the divine because God showed up on the banks of the Jordan River about 2000 years ago over the life of this man from a backwater town about 40 miles to the north and effectively pointed to him and said, “Him. He is holy.”

As we learn, this will be Jesus’ mission: to make all humankind holy, each and every human life, especially the most forlorn and obscure. It will be a powerful thing that he does, full of vigor and might. He will address evil head-on. He will even be forceful at times, dealing in a strong and direct way with the powers and principalities that enslave and corrupt human beings, but he will never be violent. He will never avenge or need to be avenged because that is not how God will work in him. The Spirit descends on him like a dove, not a drone. He will demonstrate the unstoppable influence of love and peace when one offers his life as a ransom for many. Wherever he goes he will be like the heavens torn apart right there, with the holy otherness of God shining through. In him we will see that God’s holy kingdom belongs here on earth, too, not just in some realm we go to after we die. And through him, by the power of that same Spirit, we will be included in moments of his peaceful, powerful kingdom throughout our lives.

On their test last semester on the Lord’s Prayer, the confirmands were asked to describe a time in their life when they experienced God’s kingdom coming. Their responses were uplifting to read. They spoke of feeding the hungry and working with at-risk and special needs children. One said the kingdom of heaven was like the feeling she gets when she knows she can call her mom to come pick her up from a party where people are doing dangerous things. One confirmand answered, very perceptively, “Experiencing God’s kingdom can happen whether you realize it or not,” and a couple of others mentioned that they were not sure they ever had been a part of God’s kingdom. Quite frankly, that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it? That’s the miracle we see in Jesus’ baptism: that God’s holiness can pop up even in our murky lives, with our unclear vision and slippery grips.

And so this inauspicious Jordan River entrance is where God chooses to rip open the heavens and let his holiness descend. This man from Nazareth is the person God is designating as most holy, most blessed, most well-pleased. Sad to say, in our own messiness, in our own muddiness, we eventually reject him and blaspheme him and hang him out to die. Unable to handle holiness in such plain human attire, we reject it, we execute it. Like some of those confirmands are bold enough to admit, I don’t think we ever fully grasp that God’s holiness breaks in around us, and claims us as a part of it. In our brokenness, we never fully grasp that in Christ, each person bears the image of the divine. Each living being is a cartoon, if you will, of God the Maker. And each person, because of Christ’s appearance among us, can be an instance where the heavens open up and let the light of God shine through. That’s the real wonder of God’s grace.

Carrie Underwood, God love her, is on the radio with a new song. Over and over she sings “There must be something in the water.” If you listen, you can tell it’s a song about baptism, about the wonder of God’s grace, about the miracle of order being brought from chaos. Our response to Ms. Underwood this festival of our Lord’s baptism is that, yes, there is something in the water, even this old ordinary water. The something is Jesus, Son of God and holy Beloved, the Word, full of power and ready to change the world by even dying for it.

There is something in the water, and in his baptism he gives creation a fresh new beginning, free from its sin and chaos. In his death he claims you and he claims me and he claims each and every kind of person on this planet. And in our baptism, the public sign of that claiming, God bestows us with the same promise that his Father bestows on him: “You are my child.”

“You—yes you—can consider yourself sacred because you may show forth ME. My cross will be on your brow.”

Therefore, John the baptizer’s call rings ever true: Stop. Turn around, and look aside. Treat each other with love and respect. We live in a world where things—and people—can be holy.



Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.