Sunday, October 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, October 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21A] - September 28, 2014 (Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13)

It was bound to happen at some point. Like a video game character who slowly and methodically encounters and then bests the competition in each level of a video game, Jesus has slowly worked his way through the opposition in the small synagogues and communities through Galilee and has finally arrived at the final stage. He is in Jerusalem now—the crowded, cosmopolitan, capital city, with its colossal Temple and hornet’s nest of religious activity. The challenges to his ministry that were thrown out by the priests, Pharisees, and scribes in all those small towns outside of Jerusalem had been, for the most part, easy for Jesus to handle. But the ones who congregated in and around the “big league” Temple up in Jerusalem were the best and the brightest. They were the chief priests. And if those guys weren’t exactly the best and the brightest, they were certainly the most influential religious leaders and the ones most concerned with maintaining the status quo. They helped control the levers of power that kept the Roman occupying government pacified and the local Jewish population calm and obedient.

Jesus cleanses the temple
Therefore, when Jesus enters Jerusalem and the local population waves palm branches before him and acclaims him as Son of David, King of Israel, the chief priests and scribes get more than a little irritated. And when Jesus makes a bee-line for the Temple and drives out all their money-changers’ tables and upsets the system of keeping religious order in place, they zero in on him immediately. There in the Temple they confront him like the big, fierce opponents that they are. It was bound to happen at some point: Jesus would get in trouble with the final authorities.

That is the scene we witness today, just so you have an idea of what the stakes are. I was never very good at video games, but I was always in awe of my cousins who could reach the final level on Super Mario Brothers and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. It involved knowing how to press the buttons on the game controller at just the right time and in just the right order. We can similarly be in awe of Jesus’ ability to silence them. He knows how to respond to their traps with just the right counter-questions so they don’t know how to respond.

Their main concern is over Jesus’ authority, itself. Where is he getting the authority to do the things that he’s doing? No one just walks into the Temple and starts teaching, much less flipping over tables, unless he can claim someone gave him the authority to do so. His response to them about where they stand on John the Baptist’s authority is not really straightforward. Jesus doesn’t come out and say, “God the Father gave me this authority,” but what he does say is very clever and manages to silence them.

He knows that, for one, the religious authorities are not genuinely curious about him. They are only confronting him in this manner because they are trying to trap him. If they catch him in a trap, if they catch him saying something that is outright blasphemous, they can do him in.

the chief priests question Jesus, still from Jesus of Nazareth
Secondly, Jesus answers in a less than straightforward manner because he is a little hesitant to put right out there all of the details about his identity as Son of God and where his authority comes from. To us, this may seem strange and a little shady. It may seem like he’s ducking and weaving, but, in fact, Jesus is always a little reluctant to declare too much about what and who he is. The reason is because if people reach any premature conclusions about his identity and the nature of his power before the final event of his crucifixion, their understanding will be entirely incomplete. Jesus is the Messiah, but he is the suffering Messiah. Jesus is powerful Lord of all, but he is chiefly going to display that power on the cross. In short, Jesus holds all of God’s authority, but he exercises that authority by laying it aside completely. No one will really understand that kind of authority—or know how to respond to it—until after he is hung on the cross in shame. That is, it’s bound to happen at some point: the people will eventually comprehend just what kind of Savior Jesus is, but it won’t be here in the Temple, and it won’t be this day.

Before the religious leaders slink off to conspire again,  Jesus follows up with this this short parable about the two sons who are asked by their father to go work in the vineyard. In Jesus’ day, rejecting a father’s authority in public by declining to do what he asked was a big no-no. It was seen as a direct challenge to the father’s status and power. The first son would have raised serious eyebrows. Even a polite “No, thank you, dad” would have been viewed like a temper tantrum. This son would have been shunned and ridiculed and treated in his society similar to the way that folks like the tax collectors and prostitutes were treated by the religious leaders.

The second son, by contrast, says, “Sure, I’ll go work,” thereby maintaining that level of public respect, but then never follows through on that promise. This second son certainly would have looked good, as someone who agrees to the right authority, but he never enjoys the full relationship of that authority. He certainly would have fit right in to the surrounding cultural mores, appearing dutiful and respectable, but never really joining his will to that of his father.

Meanwhile, it dawns on the first son that living under of the authority of his father is something good for him, and that the invitation to go work is still open. He changes his mind, even though he would have been written off by so many for publicly rejecting at first, and is welcomed under his father’s authority.

It is easy when hearing this parable to get stuck on the comparison between these two sons, trying to figure out which one we are more like…or, as is more often the case, trying to label other people in terms of the two sons. That was certainly one of Jesus’ points in telling it; that is, to cause reflection upon the ways in which the hearer does or doesn’t respond.

Jesus condemned (artist unknown)
However, what would have been most peculiar to the listeners in Jesus age, would have not have been the reactions of the two sons, but the reaction of the father. This father does nothing to scold or punish or reject the first son, the one who initially rejects him. This strange father does nothing to write him out of the will or shower praise on the second, publicly-obedient son. This father shows compassion and patience. He displays longsuffering and openness. His invitation to work in the vineyard doesn’t not immediately expire…as if it’s just one offer and then done. Rather, it seems to be open, waiting for as many of his sons and workers as possible to join in on the fun.

That father, you see, realizes what’s bound to happen at some point: the first son will realize it’s better to work in the vineyard, even if he insulted and defied that father in the first place. That father understands that eventually his children will realize that although his authority is firm and clear, it is exercised graciously and in a loving manner. That father understands that it will dawn on his children at some point that his power is made known in his compassion, that, to quote Jesus in an earlier scene, he desires mercy, not sacrifice.

As for the tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus tells the dutiful religious authorities (who have said “Yes,” to God’s authority so many times but then never follow through), they and the other sinners may have publicly chosen a life that rejects God’s desires, but they are changing their minds and responding to their Father’s invitation and guess what: they’re probably loving the chance to go back and work in the vineyard.

This peculiar father and the way he allows admittance to his vineyard is the very father Jesus has come to represent. This peculiar way of showing authority—by suffering with patience and dying to show compassion—is the very way our God demonstrates his love for us on the cross. Eventually we will understand, through faith, that his kingdom is open to us, and it’s not so much the issue that any of us has to live under his authority, but that we get to. We get to say, “That kingdom is really where I want to be—and because of Jesus, I may be there.”

For Scripture assures us, that’s bound to happen at some point too. One day every knee—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—shall bow and every tongue will confess his authority. We’ll reach that final level, so to speak, to find him there before us: he who submitted to the worst of our earthly authorities—our torture, our coercive ways, our despicable violence, the dubious nature of all our tendencies of human power—he will be the final authority. All of creation will answer to him and wrestle with his justice…and there will be no tricky responses that will enable us to wiggle our way out of it. At some point, it’s bound to happen. He will be ours to confess, no matter how many times we’ve denied it beforehand.

So, in the meantime, let’s give some thought to that vineyard. It’s better to be in there right now anyway, under the authority of a father who, for the time-being, is leaving the gate open for one and all.



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist - September 21, 2014 (Matthew 9:9-13)

Heard any good news lately? I mean, really. It seems that all we get anymore is bad news. At a local level, if we’re not trying to stomach the sordid details in the trial of our former governor and his wife, we’re bracing ourselves for more terrible and ominous news from Charlottesville and the disappearance of UVA student Hannah Graham. At a national or global level, things aren’t any better. Take your pick—the cost of health care, the spread of Ebola, the bloody wars and hostage-crises in the Middle East—no matter where you look it’s just more bad news. And that’s not even including some of the football scores from yesterday!

In all seriousness, the steady diet of bad news we receive from our papers and podcasts and TV programs is probably due to the fact that reports of horrific crimes and salacious scandals sell the best advertising. Nevertheless, with all the turmoil and tragedy around us, you think we’d know a piece of good news if we came across it. You’d think we’d be able to seize upon one of those instances of the noble and decent and be able to share it with others just as instantaneously.

"The Calling of Matthew" Reymerswaile (1536)
In the New Testament, the law-loving Pharisees come across good news several times and they don’t…or they can’t. It happens right under their nose, and they don’t see it. Instead, they question it and criticize it. Like a Palestinian TMZ, they seize upon it as another scandal, another sensational affair that needs to be lampooned: Jesus, the upstart rabbi from Nazareth, the one who announces the kingdom of heaven is at hand, is—get this!—reclining at table with people who are anything but acceptable! That’s actually good news in action, right there. Fresh-off-the-presses, ink-still-wet good news. In fact, Jesus’ strange table fellowship that morning in Capernaum after he calls Matthew from the tax booth is the beginning of the most amazing kind of news possible, but the Pharisees are too caught up in their conventions of religion and piety to see it and understand what’s happening. They’re too stuck on the letter of the law to see that God’s kingdom is breaking in right in front of them.

You see, tax collectors were about the last possible people one could imagine being called into God’s service. First of all, they handled money—the emperor’s money. Not only did that technically make Matthew an agent of the occupying power, but the handling of money was also unclean. Second of all, tax collectors were seen as making a living off of other people’s hard work. Some scholars think that Matthew was actually a toll collector, which is more like a deputy tax collector, or a franchisee. He was employed by someone who had purchased from Caesar the rights to exact commerce fees from tradesmen in a certain geographical district. Anytime someone came into his little zone to peddle something, they would have had to report to Matthew’s booth to pay some tribute. Like a TSA or customs agent today, he’d rifle through their wares to assess the value and bully people into paying up. It was really rough work, hassling these merchants for Caesar’s cut, and it was widely thought that riff-raff like Matthew were toll collectors because they couldn’t really get another job.

"The Calling of St. Matthew" Terbrugghen (1616)
That Jesus would call someone like a tax collector to come and follow was ludicrous—like the kingdom of heaven was scraping the bottom of the barrel. And then for Jesus to go and eat around a table with Matthew and a whole assortment of riff-raff was downright detestable. Bad news. What a scoop of dirt on Jesus.

On the other hand, one can see how Matthew would jump at the opportunity to follow Jesus and listen to what he is talking about. In other words, Matthew knows good news when it hits him, and Jesus’ call to leave that infernal tax booth was the best news he’d ever received. Up until now, the riches of God’s mercy were off-limits to people like him because he just didn’t make the cut. Up until now, the joy of living in God’s kingdom was something he’d never get to experience because he was an outcast. But Jesus had changed all that. He came to call not the righteous—not the people who thought they had it all figured out, but those who were ever aware of their detestable-ness.

This is good news. It is good news that God wants to scrape the bottom of the barrel. It means that in Jesus God is opening up a new future for those whom the religious elites have written off long ago. It means God’s kingdom is now bringing in all types people who have had to resort to living up to whatever awful label the world has given them, or they’ve given themselves. It means that God’s kingdom is open to sinners and that furthermore that sinners can be changed, not through the applied force of God’s law and following rules, but through Jesus’ granting of unbounded mercy.

Naumberg Cathedral (c. 1250)
Matthew would want us to take note of an important distinction here: the good news of Jesus Christ is not that God has declared that being a ruthless tax collector is now acceptable, as if in God’s kingdom people get to go on being tax collectors and prostitutes or other things that degrade and diminish humanity. Could you imagine that? That wouldn’t be good news to a tax collector like Matthew at all, or to any sinner, for that matter. The tax collector wants out of his social quagmire, out from behind his booth.

Rather, the good news that Jesus brings is that the kingdom of heaven is now open to all people, because mercy is available to all people, especially those who know they don’t deserve it. Because of Christ, sinners like Matthew—and like you and me!—may envision and grasp a future where our sin does not always define us, even though it still may cling to us so tightly. Because of the life and death of Jesus, we now have hope that the demoralizing power of sin will not always have its way. It will be nailed to the cross and left to die. God’s mercy shown in Jesus wipes sin away and any time Jesus strolls into our midst—whether in his Word or around his very presence in this table for sinners here—the news is good because he has the power to turn us to life in him.

It’s almost never a quick turning, and Martin Luther understood it was something that happened daily, over and over again, not once in life time, not once you say a special prayer. With that in mind, any congregation of Christians must learn to see itself as a place where space can be made for the new people who are being called by that mercy, the new Matthews (and the old ones!) who are hearing and wanting to engage the person who has opened up a new future for them. One key to doing that is for those who are already at the table to remember that they’re all sinners, too. It is to remember that the very presence of this community is always good news, something to seize upon, for here the kingdom of heaven is breaking in.

The congregation I served in Pittsburgh held a brief Holy Communion liturgy every Wednesday evening. It was attended by the same five to ten diehards every week, and in the summer months, we’d bring our folding chairs and small altar table outside on the lawn with the hopes that people would see us and join our ranks, but to my knowledge few ever did. One early fall evening—in fact, I remember it was September 21, the festival of St. Matthew—we decided it was a little too cool and dark to be outside, so we just stayed in the sanctuary. We left the big red front doors to the church open, however, thinking that even if the sound of our piano didn’t echo out onto the busy street, at least we had made ourselves look welcoming.

We had just heard this same gospel lesson about Matthew and Jesus table for all sinners. I had offered a brief meditation, and that simple little wooden table we used as an altar was ready to go for Holy Communion. When the proper time came, the worshippers got up from their pews and, being so small in number, stood shoulder to shoulder to form one tight semicircle around the altar at the head of the main aisle, their backs to the front door far behind them.

Right as I was breaking the bread, something caught my eye in the evening sunlight. Lo and behold, walking down the aisle straight toward our communion table was a woman from off the street. She was shuffling along unevenly, laden with several bags from the Dollar Store, but clearly making a bee-line for communion. Although I didn’t know her name, I recognized her. She was one of the residents of our eclectic little borough who might not have been technically homeless, but seemed to spend her days wandering around almost shadowlike along the sidewalks, not really talking to anyone or doing anything. Something had summoned her off the street and to our table at that very moment, as if she were one of St. Matthew’s old friends, testing us, testing to see if we thought this was still good news. I was in the middle of a prayer, my hands occupied with the chalice and loaf, so I couldn’t really respond, but the worshippers caught sight this strange newcomer, heard the plastic bags brushing her body down the aisle, and instinctively opened up a break in the semicircle and let her stand right there among them, no longer in the shadows. She took the bread and the wine, and we spoke briefly with her after worship. We only saw her a few other times, but she brought friends with her, a few fellow sidewalk pacers who saw the open door.

In that strange, microcosmic moment I believe we were all reminded again that this is good news. We were shown again that this is how this particular gospel works, and how a congregation that is properly gathered around it is transformed to share it, to open up the semicircle just a little bit more for everyone. The kingdom came crashing in, once more. That any of us were there at all is due to the fact that God scrapes the bottom of the barrel.

Oh, that we would be so moved to announce the grace and make room so instinctively in every instance! Oh, that we not be Pharisees that overlook it. Mercy is the name of this God’s game, not sacrifice.  Tax collectors, sinners…all kinds of outsiders can now be in. Come to think of it, there really is no outside or “inside” anymore. The cross has opened the door to the street.

Come, now: in a steady stream of so much bad—I mean, really!—is this not the greatest news you’ve ever heard?

Matthew is often depicted with the gospel that bears his name.

Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18A] - September 7, 2014 (Matthew 18:15-20)

Every once in a while I hear the claim that the Bible isn’t practical for today’s living. People say it’s out of touch, too difficult to understand, or it talks about an ancient world that doesn’t bear any clear resemblance to modern life. I’m not saying I hear those kinds of things here, but I do believe it’s an attitude that people contemplate in wider culture. Although I ultimately disagree with it, it’s an understandable view. There’s still a lot that initially leaves me scratching my head.

But there’s not much to scratch our heads about in this morning’s gospel lesson in Matthew. Talk about practical! Talk about real-life applicability! Here is Jesus giving step-by-step instructions to his disciples about what to do if someone in the church sins against them. In other words, Jesus prepares his followers for the off-chance that there might be some conflict in the church at some point. It is an off-chance, however—a contingency plan for that rare scenario when someone in the church actually does something to hurt another. I know, I know: things like this only happen in congregations south of the river. Nevertheless, Jesus feels it might be helpful to be a little explicit with everyone about how to handle it.

Some could say that if Jesus were ever going to get practical about life in the church, he should save it for something we could really need, like how to run a Rally Day that doesn’t wear everybody out, or how to choose hymns that make everybody happy, or how to call an associate pastor in six weeks or less. But no, none of that. Jesus is all but silent on those areas of church life. When choosing to get his disciples ready for the life of Christian witness, he spends his time focusing on how to repair relationships when they become broken. That is sin’s nature, after all: brokenness.
The King James Version of the Bible once translated this as “trespass,” a word which has taken on a very narrow definition in our time, meaning to cross unlawfully into someone else’s property. This where we get the traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer, the one that says, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Speaking of that, that would be another practical thing Jesus could include: how to get folks to agree to one version of the Lord’s Prayer!

My uncle, who is a Lutheran pastor, once interviewed at a small rural church situated on a large tract of land in another state. As he drove up to the church, he noticed a sign on the far edge of the property that said, “No Trespassing.” To be fair, the sign had probably been put up when the property was privately-owned and the members had forgotten to take it down when the church acquired it, but it made an impression on my uncle. “Here,” he said to himself, “I’ve hit the jackpot! A congregation where no one trespasses!”
It’s easy to laugh at one congregation’s folly, but the fact of the matter is that many congregations don’t need to post a “No Trespassing” sign to convey that message. I think we’re all aware of the perception out there that people who go to church think they’re perfect, that congregations project the attitude that they’ve got it all figured out, that they can do no wrong. The reality is, brokenness doesn’t just affect those congregation’s “south of the river.” It affects any group of disciples, because the brokenness of sin affects every human relationship. It would do every congregation well to remember the adage of one of my theology professors: the church is a hospital for sinners where even the doctors are sick. Considering that, congregations might want to post a sign that says, “Trespassers WELCOME.”

Looking more closely at these practical instructions, we see Jesus does not spare us the nitty-gritty. First, go to the offender alone and point out the offense. Let’s be real: at that stage, 99% of interpersonal conflict would probably be solved. The person who has done the trespassing, for example, may not even know that his actions hurt the victim. In confirmation class, we talk about how this important first step is actually just honoring the 8th commandment: you shall not commit false witness against your neighbor. False witness does not have to occur in a courtroom. In reality, it involves honoring your neighbor’s word and character and keeping a matter of reconciliation between the people who are affected rather than involving others unnecessarily. All too often when we’ve been hurt by someone, who’s the first person we go talk to: someone else! Or we just never bring it up and passive-aggressively move on somewhere else.

Jesus continues: if the person still does not repent of the sin and wishes to continue in the wrongdoing or not ask for forgiveness, then the matter may begin to involve the support—not the gossip—of others. If, at that point, there is still no reconciliation, the matter should be brought before the whole assembly in some fashion. If even that does not help bring about forgiveness and reconciliation—and here’s the real surprise—that person, Jesus says, is to become to you like a tax collector or Gentile.

At first, that sounds like the person is to be banished, rejected, and forgotten about, until you remember how Jesus himself treats tax-collectors and Gentiles. He reaches out in mercy to them. He shares meals with them. In spite of their sin, he announces that God’s kingdom is open to them. Repentance will come at some point.

If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us find following such a detailed set of instructions just too painstaking. The truth of the matter is, when it comes to sin and reconciling, many of us would rather just not bother with it. Faith in God is reduced to a private, personal issue, so that the only real reason why “I” come to church or participate in its activities is to work on “my” own relationship with God. Such an attitude is not helpful for the church, and, in the long run, is not helpful for the individuals either. One bishop in the Church of England writes, “The church isn’t simply a collection of isolated individuals, all following their own pathways of spiritual growth without much reference to one another. It many sometimes look like that and even feel like that…You can hide in the shadows at the back of church for awhile,  but sooner or later you have to decide whether this [community] is for you or not.”[1]

He is absolutely right. Sooner or later, we will realize that the other people in this place matter, even if we don’t really know their names or much of their stories. Sooner or later, it will dawn on us that God is more concerned with the formation of a moral community than God is with the formation of moral individuals.

And sooner or later we will realize that the world, even in its skepticism, is paying attention to followers of Christ and how they relate to one another. As impressed as we often are with well-run Rally Days, or worship that jazzes us up and hits home runs every week, or which pastors we call to serve us, those things eventually lose traction with the “tax collectors and Gentiles.” They really want to see the quality of our common life, the grace contained therein. The world wants to see how dedicated we are to embodying forgiveness—whether we take seriously our commitment to “owe nothing but love to one another,” as the apostle Paul reminds us in this morning’s portion from Romans. Those on the outside will take notice if we treat each other like dirt, or if we take the steps of grace that involve binding and loosing, the tedious but life-giving process of holding each other accountable and extending mercy.

The one thing about practical instructions from the Bible is that the sermon ends up sounding more like a “how-to” seminar than an opportunity to announce God’s grace. To a certain degree, there’s nothing a preacher can do about that. But what I can announce today is that Jesus has some skin in the game. This is not just a list of instructions we’re left to do by ourselves, and the hard work of negotiating forgiveness will not be done in a vacuum. “Whenever to or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus says, “I am there with you.”

These words are spoken by someone who knows what the hard work of forgiveness really means, how you have to hang in there with those who have wounded you and often have to live with the brokenness for a while. Just as sure as we are that the cross means complete forgiveness for all of our brokenness, we also have the assurance that Jesus is always on the side of those seeking to restore broken relationships, ever-present with his steadfast love.

The middle hymn this morning, which I suspect was new to many of you, was written several years ago by a man who grew up during the Nazi occupation of Holland. His family had sheltered a young Jewish woman and a political prisoner—and he watched three of his grandparents die of starvation—before they immigrated to England. He eventually became an ordained pastor and hymn-writer. The words of this particular hymn were written by couples he was counseling who were going through divorce. Here is a hymn that is literally borne of people who are literally seeking the path of forgiveness and restoration, people who trust the Lord is with them in the midst of it, just as he promises. The third verse is perhaps the most moving. Speaking to God, it goes,               

“You in us are bruised and broken: hear us as we seek release.
From the pain of earlier living; set us free and grant us peace.”

“I am there among you,” Jesus says to his disciples. And one day he shows his hands and his side, and he opens his arms. Waving us in, he says, this is for you. He invites us to his table—tax-collectors and Gentiles, and everybody who bears some kind of scar, themselves. “Eat,” he says. “Drink. Come, let’s get practical.

Trespassers welcome!

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. N.T. Wright. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006 p203
[2] “God, When Human Bonds are Broken,” words by Fred Kaan. ELW #603

Sunday, August 24, 2014

St. Bartholomew, Apostle - August 24, 2014 (John 1:43-51 and Exodus 19:1-6)

It is safe to say that much of the world was somewhat caught off guard and deeply appalled this week by the news and the video coverage of the execution of American journalist James Foley at the hands of Islamic State militants. The footage shows him there with shaved head as he kneels before the camera next to an ominous, masked figure dressed totally in black, as he pleads for his life and asks, under duress, that the U.S. stop its air assault on the Islamic State’s forces. Seconds later, a knife is brandished and he is beheaded in chilling fashion. Even as our own heartland finds itself embroiled in race-related riots and violence for the second week in a row; even as we have endured years of similar stories from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the scene of Foley’s grotesque death seemed out-of-place. Indeed, our own President rebuked the Islamic State and its actions by saying such a group “has no place in the 21st century.”

As much as I or anyone else may want that statement to be true, and as much as I hope we could all work together to ensure the protection of innocent people and the respect of those we view as different from us, the president’s thoughtful comments on the matter did make me wonder, what century does such an act belong in? In what era would such a disgusting display of cowardice not be out of place?

"The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew" Jusepe de Ribera (1632)
One convenient answer for that would be Nathanael Bartholomew’s, the saint the church commemorates on August 24. There is no firm data on who Bartholomew was or how his life ended, but the paraments hang red this morning because the church has long suspected blood and violence were involved. Perhaps he was beheaded. Perhaps he was flayed alive, like the tradition claims. Regardless, Bartholomew (who likely went by the other name of Nathanael), is remembered as a martyr like most of the other apostles, recalled as someone who was killed by his captors because of his witness to Jesus as the risen Lord.

I’m not certain that the 1st century was overall any more violent or dangerous than the 21st century, but the truth is that for many of the earliest followers of Christ, a horrible, gruesome death was not too uncommon. Standing up for one’s allegiance to Christ was often a very risky affair, and the church has always, for good reason, treasured their witness. Their ability to tell the good news of Jesus even in the face of violence is inspiring and becomes for all believers a sobering reminder of what it often means to stand up and speak out for the cause of the gospel, a truth that is so profound it demands a person’s whole life in order to tell it.

However, it is worth noting that Bartholomew wasn’t always standing up or speaking out. His journey to being an apostle begins in cynicism and disbelief. When we meet him this morning by his other name, Nathanael, we find him under a fig tree, doubting whether anything good can come from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. To be fair, it is an honest question. Nazareth was a rather small Podunk town that could claim no A-listers. To believe that God would choose it as a hometown for the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, was a more than a little preposterous. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is the quote that Nathanael gets remembered for, and it is often adapted to express initial skepticism about a place or a people we have come to associate with mediocrity or even bad news. One can imagine people nowadays might mutter things under their breath like, “Can anything good come out of Baghdad?” or “Can anything good come out of Ferguson?”

Yes, Nathanael Bartholomew’s life as one of the twelve called disciples begins with this air of condescension and doubt, and yet Jesus praises him for his honesty, contrasting Nathanael with Nathanael’s ancient ancestor Jacob, the father of the entire nation, who was full of deceit and trickery. Even after Nathanael joins up with Philip to find out more about this Jesus figure, Nathanael is still a little bit suspicious, wondering how Jesus would know anything about him. Eventually, however, through this encounter, Jesus transforms Nathanael into a devoted disciple. He goes from fig tree to followership, from sitting in cynicism to standing and speaking the truth in a matter of minutes. Jesus promises him he will see even greater things than Jacob did, who once had a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. As a disciple, Nathanael will be stepping into a way of life where all of God’s promises will be ascending and descending in what Jesus is doing.

It’s like the message that God gives his people as they stand at the base of Mt. Sinai in this lesson from Exodus. God reminds them that they did not do anything in order to be brought into the heart of God’s presence. That was all God’s doing. God bore them on eagles’ wings. God brought them out of their slavery in Egypt, even in spite of their recalcitrance and doubt. There was no way they could revoke that love or go back to not being God’s people. Now, however, comes their response to God’s saving act. Keeping God’s commandments, living into God’s covenant is what they do in response to that.  They don’t earn God’s favor by keeping the commandments and the like, but by faithful response to God’s grace they become God’s treasured possession, the jewel in the crown that shines with the truest and brightest hue. That is, they become truth-tellers about God’s mercy and grace. They, too, become apostles, people sent to spread the message in word and deed about the kind of God they have. Nathanael Bartholomew will discover what Israel time and time again discovered, and what James Foley’s bravery demonstrated: the world does not always appreciate truth-tellers. It is surprisingly difficult to stand in the midst of things and speak the truth about God and live the truth of his love.

James Foley (photo: Globalpost/AP)
However, God doesn’t just leave the Nathanaels and the Israelites and you and me to stand up and speak on our own. As it turns out, we have no better example of God’s desire to tell the truth about our sin and the world’s darkness and the truth about God’s repeated sacrifices for us than the rabbi from Nazareth, himself. He is executed, too, in cruel fashion by captors who are trying to send a message to get him to stop with his compassion and humility. But God raises him from the dead, and in doing so sends his own message that the powers of good ultimately triumph over evil…that the truth about human cruelty and God’s love will eventually be heard by all people, whether they can accept it or not.

Sometimes I wonder if we start to believe that the price of following Jesus, the of telling the truth about God in a brutal world, just isn’t as costly as it used to be. We convince ourselves that less bravery is required nowadays because we think our century is less ruthless and violent than earlier ones. In some ways that may be true, but the Lord of grace is still beckoning people from underneath their fig trees of complacency to stand up and speak out and witness to the wondrous demonstrations of Jesus’ love and power in the world.  Let us not forget that the school cafeterias and the soccer practice fields we inhabit are, for many of us, still terribly difficult places to stand up and speak out. And yet Jesus shows up there, suffering and conquering alongside the weak.

Thankfully, the pictures of James Foley kneeling beside his executioner weren’t the only chilling images scrolling before us this week. We were also subjected to hundreds of renditions of the Ice Bucket Challenge, a social media phenomenon that has celebrities and regular folks alike pouring buckets of ice water over their heads and filming it in order to raise awareness and funds for the foundation that fights ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. At last count, the ALS foundation has received $48.1 million dollars as a result of the challenge, which is 20 times more money than the organization received at the same time last year. My Facebook newsfeed included several of you completing the challenge, and at least one staff member here has challenged me to do the same. It’s been a lot of fun to see this happen, a great diversion from all the ever-present, unrelenting negative stories.

To be honest, I’ve enjoyed watching all these people pour water on their heads but not as as much as I enjoy pouring baptismal water over people’s heads. It occurs to me that whether or not you’ve taken on the ALS Icebucket Challenge, every Sunday we essentially issue our own Icebucket challenge. Someone stands beside that basin right there and remind you that you are God’s chosen possession. The worship leader reminds you that God calls you and transforms you from fig tree complacency to faithful follower. And then the Spirit urges you to “take the challenge” of contributing your life to the cause of the gospel, in this crazy 21st century.

Bartholomew the Apostle took it. And, by the grace of God, you do too.


Thanks be to God! 



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.