Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - March 29, 2015 - "The Cry of the Whole Congregation"


 
Many churchgoers, especially Lutherans it seems, often poke fun at themselves about sitting in the same spot in the same pew over and over again. Of course, I suppose I can’t throw too many stones in this regard, considering I get the benefit of the same seat week after week. The fact yet remains: we can get a little set in our ways, and even a little territorial, and woe to the unwitting guest who “bumps” us out of our regular seat!

There was a legend in the first congregation I served about one woman in particular who liked to sit every week in the very back pew, in the seat right next to the aisle. When one former pastor supposedly tried to rope off the back third of the nave one particular poorly-attended Sunday so that everyone would sit closer together and closer to the front, this one woman simply got up and left. She wasn’t going to worship unless she could sit in her preferred seat. I ended up getting to know Florence pretty well and she was super nice, but I was too afraid to ever rope off her seat to see what she’d do. That’s an extreme case, perhaps, but we all know what I’m talking about. We can laugh about it because there’s an element of truth to it.

However, as much as no one person really belongs in any particular pew here, I have to admit I was touched this week when I heard one member her talk about her “pew buddies.” I had gone to visit her in the hospital. As we were talking she mentioned to me that the people who sat around her on Sunday mornings had known about the upcoming procedure She then named them—one by one, the people who sit around her each week—and the individual ways they offered care to her during her rehabilitation. Now, her place in that pew is not “hers” by some right, as if no one else could sit there, but it hers in the sense that it identifies her place within the community. It gives her a space, a roll, a part in the bigger scheme of things.

Two Italian photographers recently published a book of photos using a camera set up unobtrusively in front of the altar in several different congregations. It was meant to give people and idea of what worshippers look like as a body as they go through the motions of worship from the priest’s point of view. Most people never get to see that perspective, but, as you can see in the book, clearly each person has their place. The book is titled Go in Peace.



In a world that is shifting so quickly, that gropes for peace, there is a lot to be said for knowing our place, having a designated role, identifying where we belong,  understanding where we fit in relation to the larger community, and, for some of us, becoming attached to a particular pew on a Sunday morning is just one example of that. It certainly isn’t or shouldn’t be the case for everyone. Nevertheless, what about you? Do you feel like you have a place—a roll, a spot—in this community, or in any community, for that matter?

For the people of God, the reading and re-telling of Jesus’ suffering and death is ultimately about finding our spot. This is perhaps the principal reason why, every year—and on a much smaller scale, every week as the pastor lifts the bread and the cup in Christ’s holy meal—we gather in churches and cathedrals and worshiping communities around the globe and hear again the story of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem. We read and listen to hear again where it is we fit in, which role we might be playing in this great and tragic epic of God.

Pastor and writer Kazimierz Bem writes in a recent article about worship: “Some things are bigger than us. There needs to be a place where we are told uncomfortable truths about ourselves, our world and even about God—where we ask the questions our pop culture ignores or caricatures, and where we can look for answers. Where we pause — and reflect theologically.”[1]

In fact, one of the first acts of devotion that early Christians undertook was to retrace Jesus’ footsteps in Jerusalem leading up to his crucifixion. Just as the crowds once gathered to acclaim him as king and then later paraded him to the hill of crucifixion, early people of the faith gathered annually in Jerusalem to retrace his steps…but also theirs. They took palm branches and walked along the city streets. They gathered for special celebrations of the Lord’s Supper and kept vigil in darkened sanctuaries on Good Friday.


"The Denial of Peter" (Simon Bening, 1525)
But none of this was done purely for the drama. It was done out of a need to remember where they stood, where they sat, so to speak, as God’s wayward people, as these events unfolded. They grasped, as we do, that this story was not just something they listened to. It was something they participated in. It is not just a chain of events that make us imagine things about God and the world. It is a chain of events containing links that join us right to it.

So it is, we pause again today not simply in this sanctuary but in the midst of this story that is bigger than we are. We are confronted with uncomfortable truths and, whether we admit it, we find ourselves asking difficult questions, often prompted by different personal perspectives from the story itself. If they love him, why don’t Jesus’ followers do more to stop this from happening, like get him out of Jerusalem? Do I so quickly deny my relationship with the Lord the way Peter does? For what reasons is releasing convicted murderer Barabbas the better option? Deep down are we still more convinced of the power of violence over the hard way of peacefulness? Do I, like Pilate, feel pressure from society—from friends or culture in general—to take a stance about Jesus, but end up noncommittal? And then clincher: if Jesus really has the forces of God at his disposal, why on earth doesn’t he find a different way to bring about his kingdom? This whole ordeal with the cross and the nails is ridiculous, in the truest sense of the word. It’s like we find ourselves asking, along with the mockers, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God!”

Yes, before we know it, the story has done exactly what it set out to do: put us in our place, whether we like it or not. We know that when we hear it we have a place in this great and tragic—but ultimately triumphant—story of God.


"Crucifixion" (Guilio Carponi, 1648)
And, as it turns out, that’s the good news. Everyone, as it turns out, has a seat with their name on it. Everyone has a place in the story of God’s love, whether they are new to hearing it or deeply familiar with it. Everyone—even those people driving by our worship right now, headed to Martin’s or to the gym—everyone has a place in God’s love, because in Jesus, God has come to forgive and save. In Jesus, God has come to seek out the lost and the lonely, the cold and indifferent, to die for the ones who deny him and the ones who will betray. In Jesus, God has come to identify specifically with the person who feels they have no place at all, the one who feels the most hopeless, the least powerful. The point of Christ’ Passion is this: God has a place for each person in his kingdom, even though we gave him no place in ours.

So, today, I invite you to glance around at your “pew buddies,” your fellow members of a broken world, and speak up with boldness and claim a part. There’s a place for you in there somewhere. Maybe you’re like Florence and know exactly where you belong. But remember: just as we take in the despair of this part of the story, I assure you we will take part in the hope to which it leads, a permanent place at the table of mercy…from God’s view, one congregation, one people, faces all lifted up toward the risen Lord.

 

Thanks be to God!

Andate in Pace ("Go in Peace")
 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Fourth Sunday in Lent [Year B] - March 15, 2015 (Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21)



Serpents in the wilderness. Everyone, it seems, has a story about a serpent in the wilderness…or at least the backyard.

As it happens, my most memorable story was from less than two years ago. On the way back from visiting the youth group while they were at the Kairos event at Roanoke College I stopped briefly at the Humpback Rocks parking lot to do some birding. I wandered off the path for a little bit over by the old homestead area, not realizing there were clear signs warning people to stay on it. As I was honing in on something in front of me I wanted to see close-up, paying no attention to my immediate vicinity, I began to hear a little whispering that sounded like a tiny baby’s rattle. I had never heard the sound of a real-live rattlesnake before, but it took my autonomic nervous system about 1.2 seconds to figure out that was what I was hearing. I froze in my tracks and looked down.

There, plain as can be, in the exact spot where I would have put my next step, was a 4-foot long Timber Rattler. And I was wearing sandals.

What likely saved me, I quickly discovered, was that it already had something in its mouth. A lifeless rodent of some sort was wedged in its jaws. However, as cool as my inner Steve Irwin might have thought it was, I didn’t want to tempt fate, so I very, very slowly and cautiously backed up from him and made my way back to the trail. What I noticed though, as I was doing this, was that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Literally—to look away, even for an instant, meant I could get seriously hurt and maybe die. The snake could change his mind in the blink of an eye, decide a protective strike against me was worth dropping his meal, and sink those venomous fangs in my foot before I knew it. I’m not sure I could have reacted fast enough if he had tried that, but I wasn’t going to look anywhere else. I kept staring at him like my life depended on it.

Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Esteban March)
The ancient Israelites had serpent-in-the-wilderness story. It wasn’t one of their more well-known stories, mind you, but it played out like a nightmare. They, too, had wandered off the path of gratefulness and devotion God had plainly laid out for them, so God sends deadly snakes into their wilderness. When the people are bitten, they aren’t told how to make an antivenin. They aren’t taught how to tie a tourniquet, or run away like crazy. Rather, they must stare at the bronze serpent statue that Moses makes like their life depends on it.

Indeed, their life does depend on it. According to the way that God has arranged this peculiar little lesson, that’s how they will live. They have to look straight at the very thing that is causing them to die. In order to be saved, they can’t take their eyes of the result of their sin, which are those awful snakes that God first sent as a judgment against their impatience.  Their salvation involves coming to terms with---looking in the eye of---the very problem in their midst.

That’s how I think this country feels now about the racism in its midst, and, quite honestly, about any number of problems that we fight and that fight us, biting us on our foolishly-sandaled feet. The videotape that emerged this week of some college students singing a racist chant on a bus on the way to a party was difficult to watch, especially if you’ve ever been or known a college student going to a party. The reports of more shootings of police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, are difficult to hear and see, especially if you’re one who has ever denounced those who serve in law enforcement.

Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Augustus John)
Yet in both of these scenarios, and plenty more like them, a way out of the wilderness will only come if these things are lifted up for us to confront. Rescue will arrive only if they are held before our faces in order to remind us there are deadly tendencies in our midst, slithering like snakes in the confines of our hearts, waiting to strike at any moment. Truly dealing with our sin and brokenness will never involve leaving examples of it in the dark. Salvation from the sin that infects us will involve bringing it out into the open, letting it sit in the light. That will be its judgment.

Theologian and church historian Leonard Sweet says, “What is wrong with humanity cannot be fixed simply by what is right with humanity.”  Oh, it’s so tempting to think it can be, to think that the goodness within ourselves will overcome the bad on its own, to believe that we’ll eventually drag our foolishness out into the light of judgment more times than not. But everyone has a story of serpents in the wilderness, and we know, deep-down, we aren’t able to outrun, outsmart, or out-serpent them. God is going to have to get involved. God is going to have to send the way of life that comes through looking at death.

As peculiar as we think the story about Moses and the bronze pole is, it turns out to be the perfect story for the lesson that Jesus is trying to teach Nicodemus. Nicodemus has come in the dark. He’s drawn to Jesus, interested in what he is teaching, but he’s afraid of what others may think of him for seeking out knowledge from him. He fears the judgment that would come by doing such a thing in the daylight. Jesus welcomes him, engages his question and his quest for knowledge. However, Jesus informs him, rescue for the world will not come from seeking more knowledge or gaining a more enlightened perspective, simply nurturing what is good about humanity. It will come only when the Son of Man is lifted up. Rescue for humankind will only come when the Son of Man is hoisted on a cross, for then we will see the full result of our sin. When Jesus dies that death, we will see that the endgame of all our inner and outer brokenness spells despair and death. We will remember that humans can be given the way out of slavery—right through to the Promised Land—and will still wander away, will still find cause to be ungrateful about it.  We will see the Son of Man dying and realize this is where all our paths in the wilderness will ultimately lead unless God gets involved.


Crucifixion (Bartolome Esteban Murillo)
But here’s the good news, for Nicodemus and for us. This isn’t solely about our judgment. The verse goes God so loves the world “that he sends his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him—“everyone who looks at him hoisted on the cross”—may not perish but may have eternal life.” The line that follows is perhaps even more important, “Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

You heard that right: God’s judgment of the world is to save it, to love it…not hate it or despise it, reject or abandon it. The cross of Jesus is at the same time God’s judgment of sin and also God’s victory over it. The cross of Jesus is at the same time God’s act of hauling out into the light all the things that are wrong with humanity that we need to see, and also God’s pronouncement of love for humanity anyway. God’s lifting up of his Son in death is God’s way of lifting us to eternal life.

One danger, of course, is interpreting this message as if it’s a once-and-done deal. It’s easy to fall into that trap. To this way of thinking, it’s like we get one chance: we either accept it or we don’t…we either respond or we reject. We either have faith…or we doubt. In this view, believe that Christ died on the cross for you and it’s like somewhere in heaven your name is moved over from the “condemned” column to the “saved” column. Then we are prone to turn this view on others: are they one of the saved or one of the condemned?

To take Jesus at his word here, however, this interpretation does not sound quite correct. If we must believe God is keeping columns or lists, it’s more proper to think that God has one column. That column is labelled “loved,” and you either realize you’re name is already in it, or you don’t. Your name is already in it because Jesus has been lifted up. Your name is already loved because God has sent his Son. That, my friends, is once-and-done. Looking to the cross to remember that love, to ponder it, and wonder it? That must and will happen over and over and over again. “The hour I first believed?” If we’re truly honest with ourselves, that hour comes again almost every single day.

Everyone has a story about a serpent in the wilderness, and if you don’t yet then pay attention, because it’s bound to happen at some point. They’re all around us! And when you do, here’s something to keep in mind: no matter how far you’ve wandered off the path, no matter how deep you find yourself in the wilderness with nothing but sandals on your feet, no matter how much of a nightmare life feels like, you may always look at the cross of Christ, lifted high, and remember you—you and this world of darkness that so often runs from the light— you are loved.

Don’t take your eyes off of it.





Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Third Sunday in Lent [Year B] - March 8, 2015 (Exodus 20:1-17 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 and John 2:13-22)


 
I can still remember the first days of early elementary school when the teacher took great pains to explain classroom rules and consequences. It was a big deal. The message had to get across. Before any real learning could begin, she had to explain how behavior in her classroom was going to look. There was one list on the wall of rules and another list of consequences. In those days, if you transgressed the rules, the consequences entailed having your name written on the chalkboard in front of class. If you transgressed again, the teacher would go and place a big check mark beside your name. That was bad. If that happened, a note would go home to your parents. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that if you had walked into one of the classrooms at South Fork Elementary on any given day you would have known if I was in there because “Phillip Martin” would have been engraved on the blackboard. But never a check mark! I learned pretty quickly, like several others of us, exactly how much I could do to get that one warning and then go no farther.

For my daughters, who are now in elementary school, the system has changed somewhat. Rather than simply punishing bad behavior these days, teachers are just as likely to reward good behavior, and they indicate this by moving a clothespin that has your name on it up or down on a rainbow in the room. Everyone starts on green, a nice benign color. Do something good, and you “clip up,” as they say, to yellow and orange. Break the rules, and you “clip down.” I had to laugh at what one of my daughters said last year when she was thinking about the following year of school. Very matter-of-factly she remarked, “In second grade, the teacher won’t give you a warning. If you do something wrong, you just ‘clip down.’” I thought to myself: I guess second grade is where it starts to get real.

Whether that’s true or not, it’s clear that the message has gotten across: this is how you are to live and learn in the classroom. It’s gotten across so well, in fact, that my girls have made their own version of the rainbow chart and hung it in their playroom. I’m not going to tell you where my clothespin is.

When the Israelites are delivered from their captivity in Egypt and they make their way, with God’s mighty help, through the waters of the Red Sea, Moses goes up Mt. Sinai to meet with the Lord. When Moses comes down, he doesn’t have a rainbow chart and clothespins. He has ten very powerful, life-giving words that will eventually get engraved in stone. And all the Hebrews learn that this is where it starts to get real.

Every aspect of Hebrew culture and faith will come to be built on these ten words of life, which come to be known as the Ten Commandments. These are the basics, given right here at the beginning of their life together. And God hopes the message gets across: that they are God’s chosen people. That they are freed from slavery and have been given freedom because God is a God of freedom and hears the cries of those who are oppressed.

From a structural standpoint, these ten words are laid out in genius fashion. They’re not just willy-nilly thrown out there—“don’t do this, don’t do that”—which is what I thought as a kid. They all flow very logically and lovingly from each other, starting from the very first one, which actually doesn’t even begin as a commandment, but as a statement of grace: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” It’s right there at the front of it all: before Israel is asked to do anything, God reminds them of all God has done, and whose they are. And then the rest of them flow from there: ones that focus on the relationship between God and God’s people and then to the ones that focus more on the relationships between God’s people.

That’s all well and good, but the problem is the message doesn’t really get across. Over time, God’s people begin to see them as nothing more than a list of rules. Rather than viewing them as they are intended, as a gracious gift that describes and defines the life of a free people, they start seeing them as some authoritarian blackboard name-writing system. God’s people become like that selfish, unruly little clever schoolkid who knows exactly how far he can go, and exactly how he can split hairs of interpretation, so as not to get the check beside his name. Or they become completely oblivious and disrespectful, racking up all kinds of checkmarks and not knowing (or really caring) what to do about it.

That right there is a nutshell history of God’s people. God sends prophet after prophet in order to call the people back to covenant faithfulness, but prophet after prophet essentially gets ignored. Some of those prophets end up getting downright angry. They pronounce all kinds of hellfire and brimstone in order to get that message across.  Eventually the people of Israel build a temple in Jerusalem in order to put in one place their worship and their devotion to God. While that seems to help somewhat, it isn’t too long before the same problems start to creep in again. God’s words of life and the wonderful relationship of grace that they are meant to form between God and God’s people get used and abused by human sin. When people come in to worship God and encounter the holy, they end up encountering this entire system of religion that’s been set up revolving around the rules of sacrifice.

And it becomes manipulative across the board. The religious leaders use the words of life and the system of sacrifices to manipulate the people. The people use the system of religion to try to manipulate God. People feel like God is manipulating them. And it’s hard to get past the feeling that faith—this initial trust in a God who has saved us and desires life for us—is nothing but just a phony rainbow chart. It looks like the message of God’s love isn’t ever going to get across.

Then along comes this new prophet who comes up to the temple during the big Passover festival and finds all those manipulative systems of religion and sacrifice. There are tables selling animals for sacrifice, along with booths where you can exchange your Roman coins for currency that Jewish scribes and Temple leaders would accept. The man gets angry. In a very vivid scene of chaos, he makes a whip out of cords, he starts overturning the tables and driving out the merchants. And this is how his message is going to get across: the message is going to get a cross.

"Christ Driving the Moneychangers from the Temple" (El Greco)
[in the upper left corner, on the temple wall, there is a depiction of
Adam and Eve being driven from the Garden of Eden.]
But if we listen closely, we notice that this scene in the temple isn’t about another message that someone’s trying to get across, whip of cords though he may use. It’s not a message about overturning a system of manipulative religion.  The message is Jesus, himself. Jesus doesn’t just come, like all the other prophets before him, bearing the message of God’s forgiveness of sin. Jesus will become the forgiveness of sin, himself. Hence the confusion about the temple’s destruction and rebuilding. He’s not talking about the stone temple. He’s talking about his very body. What we learn from Jesus, you see, is that God’s message is not going to get across until God’s message gets a cross. Because of the presence of human sin, the tendency to think we can control where we ultimately fall on God’s big rainbow chart of God’s love, hasn’t been getting across. So in Jesus, the message gets a cross. All of the things that stand in the way of a direct relationship with God, all those systems and rules and guilt and shame die forever on the cross of Jesus.

It is something that never really seems to make sense: that God would go to this length to redeem this relationship with us, that he would let his own Son become both the rules and the consequences for us. As the apostle Paul puts it, “for the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” For the message about the cross makes absolutely no sense at all to those who are still trying to keep their name off God’s blackboard. But for those who are aware they will always eventually and always move down the chart, the cross is salvation. It’s the teacher taking a chalkboard eraser and saying, “I love you anyway.”

"Christ on the Cross" (Sebastian Lopez de Arteaga)
One thing, then, I often think about is, “What message are we giving across here, in our little temple of the Lord, in our ministries in Jesus’ name?” Do we give off the impression that we’re all about a system of rules? Do we come across as people driven by some sense of game-playing religion, or as those who know that the cross of Jesus claims us as God’s children forever, period. Thanks to one of our Sunday School classes and some other conversations that people have been having in the congregation, the topic of a congregational mission statement has been a topic lately. When we think about messages that we get across, especially as it relates to our identity and our ministries, mission statements can be pretty important.

The congregation does currently have a mission statement, but it is not well-known, and that’s probably not that helpful. As a process moves forward to look at possibly re-forming a mission statement, I think we all know that it will be crucial to remember that central message that has claimed us and has given us life. At the end of the day the most important statement will be not the one that is printed on our bulletins or on our newsletter. Neither will it be the one any church erects in statue form in front of the local courthouse. In reality, all of those can and often do just come across looking and feeling like a list of rules rather than words of life.

No, the most important statement will be one reflected in our faith and trust of God. It will be a message clear to anyone by the faith Christ reflects in us—to the person who comes here weekly or the person who comes among God’s people for the first time seeking forgiveness and compassion or maybe even seeking just a sign that God does exist. When we’re at our mission best, brothers and sisters, is when we’ve realized that the message we’re trying to get across is the cross.

It almost doesn’t even make sense.

The foolishness of God.

Our names have been erased from the blackboard.

Now, my brothers and sisters, things are about to get real.

 

Thanks be to God!


 

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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.