Sunday, August 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 13C/Lectionary 18C] - July 31, 2016 (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 and Luke 12:13-21)

It is summer, and so it is wedding season in my world, and I find that I’ve been spending a good bit of time with couples in pre-marital conversations. A lot of these conversations are designed around establishing some good patterns for life together, to talk about things like conflict resolution and healthy communication practices, and to work out who’s going to do the dishes and who’s going to take out the trash, you know…the kinds of things that make the conflict resolution part so important. One of the areas we typically touch on involves the nature of their spiritual life. The workbook we use walks us through some of the questions related to that—questions about which holidays are important and what they mean, whether church involvement is important or expected, what is the reason for giving gifts, etc. The last question in the workbook is, simply, “What is the meaning of life?”

Now, if someone had asked me that question when I was in my twenties or early thirties I’d be scared to know what I’d say. Sometimes I’m not even sure nowadays how I’d answer that question. When we get to that question in pre-marital conversations it often provokes silence. It’s interesting to watch a couple suddenly shift gears from discussing the more mundane things of life like how much they’ll set aside for savings each month to the question of what life is all about in the first place. To their credit, most of the couples end up bouncing a few ideas off each other, and even agreeing that it’s not something they’ve been able to reach any conclusions about. I’m left wondering about my own marriage and close friendships: would those I’m spending my life with see eye to eye with me on this? Does it matter? It’s so much easier to focus on who’s supposed to do the dishes.

It may come as a surprise to hear this, but Scripture never gives a succinct answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” If you were to go to the Bible looking for a nice, packaged response to that question, you’d likely be very disappointed. What you would get is a long, beautiful, epic story of God’s relationship with God’s people. There is one writer in Scripture, however, who pondered the meaning of life. We don’t know what his name is, but whoever it was goes by the name “Teacher.” Teacher is wise and teacher is observant and insightful. He watches people, he scrutinizes human behavior, and he looks for patterns and themes in all of the business of humans under the sun, trying to deduce what the point of living is. He has authority beyond his peers and he writes down his thoughts on life and human activity in a book that we know as Ecclesiastes. He contemplates the struggles of daily life and, like all wisdom literature, offers some advice here and there.

As it turns out, Ecclesiastes sounds at times a lot like that country music song on the radio right now by Chris Jansen:

I ain’t rich, but I darn sure wanna be
Working like a dog all day, ain’t working for me
I wish I had a rich uncle that’d kick the bucket
And that I was sitting on a pile like Warren Buffett
I know everybody says
Money can’t buy happiness

But it could buy me a boat, it could buy me a truck to pull it
It could buy me a Yeti 110 iced down with some silver bullets
Yeah, and I know what they say,
Money can’t buy everything
Well, maybe so,
But it could buy me a boat

In all of this, Teacher struggles with what the meaning of life might be. Like the song, he sees so many people practically break their bodies just to get by and he watches others work and work to gather up riches only to watch all that wealth get used and enjoyed by others after they die. He has a word for this: Vanity. He begins and ends his teachings with that word: “All is vanity!” It basically means emptiness, pointless, meaningless. “Everything is meaningless!” Teacher says. Now, in all my years of pre-marital counseling, no couple has ever said that! If they did I might say, “Let’s just go back to the part about cleaning dishes and conflict resolution.”

With the book of Ecclesiastes and the wisdom of teacher in the back of your mind, picture Jesus traveling to Jerusalem with his disciples when he’s approached by a man in the crowd who comes forward and calls him “Teacher.” This person is appealing to Jesus’ wisdom and sense of fairness. As it turns out, he’s there for some conflict resolution, himself. He wants Jesus, as the wise Teacher with special insight about life and living, to negotiate an inheritance dispute.

At some point I believe we all approach Jesus in this way. We know him as a Teacher, as someone with special understanding about the road of life and how to travel it. We ask him our questions and seek his wisdom. When Jesus answers this particular man’s question, however, we get as close as we ever do to Jesus’ own definition for the meaning of life. He does not tell us what the meaning of life is, necessarily, but Jesus does say what it isn’t. It doesn’t consist in the abundance of possessions. It doesn’t involve the accumulation of wealth and things.

An icon of the Parable of the Rich Fool. On the left, the laborers hastily build
bigger barns. On the right the rich fool dies in his sleep.
In order to elaborate, he tells a parable about a man who does just that. This man is a landowner who, because he enjoys a few years of bumper crops, decides to tear down the barns he has and build bigger ones so he can store it all. But, just like the writer of Ecclesiastes says so often happens, before he can enjoy any of this excess, he dies. God doesn’t kill the rich man because of what he’s done. There is no element of punishment here, as if God despises wealthy people or penalizes people for how they use their possessions or not. It’s just that the length of the man’s life, like everyone else’s, is unpredictable and he just happens to die right after he’s surrounded himself with all that he has.

The story may sound extreme to us, but all parables are, aren’t they? Jesus the teacher is trying to drive home the point to this man who is only using Jesus to gain more wealth. If there is a meaning to life, Jesus believes it revolves somewhere around being rich toward God. It has something to do with being drawn deeper into relationship with the giver of all that we have, of hearing this ongoing story of God’s love for what God has made and knowing you have a place in it. We can see a clue to the rich man’s mistake in the way he speaks only to himself when he is contemplating how to handle his wealth. When the money starts rolling in, he thinks only to himself, and when he comes up with the idea for bigger barns, he actually consults his own soul, rather than seeking wisdom from someone else or from God. There is nothing wrong with eating, drinking, and being merry…or with buying a boat and a truck to pull it. That is actually a quote straight from the teacher of Ecclesiastes. But when someone has so surrounded themselves with possessions that they can’t even include the neighbor or God then it really is meaningless, vanity.

I’ve been moved by the life and witness of a man named Xavier Le Pichon, who is considered the founder of the modern understanding of plate tectonics, which the science of how the earth’s crust is structured and how it moves around and shifts over time. Le Pichon was born in what is now Vietnam when it was still a French colony. During World War II his family was rounded up and he spend a few years as a child in a Japanese concentration camp. Eventually he ended up in France where he became the world-famous scientist that he is now. He was the first person to explore the bottommost reaches of the ocean and was the one to figure out that Japan was getting closer to Hawaii by eight inches every year. He understands more about how the earth has been created and how it is evolving than probably anyone else on earth, and he is also a commited Christian who attends Catholic mass every day.

Le Pichon had in 1973 what he calls a crisis. He explains how he was so entrenched in his research and his successes that he felt isolated from the world’s suffering. He resigned all of his positions and went to Calcutta as a 36 year old to work with Mother Teresa for a while. And while he was there he had this experience where he had to feed a child who was dying of hunger. Le Pichon states, “this experience [revealed to me] the founding experience of humanity, which is discovering through empathy that you really are one with the man who is suffering. You identify yourself with this person, and this can be so strong. So I made, at the time, the promise to the small child that I will try, from now on, not to ever turn away my eyes from somebody who is suffering. And that was a turning point in my life.”[1]

Nowadays Le Pichon is still a scientist, but now his understanding of the way plate tectonics works—that is, how the fragile places in the earth’s structure give it new life and ultimately make it stronger—informs his faith and his own definition of the meaning of humanity. The point of life is to engage those who suffer so that God may be met. He and his family live in community he founded that provides retreat for families with people who are mentally disabled. Every day he is surrounded by people with great needs, the most fragile neighbors around. There is encounters people who deepen his own human experience and who can use the gifts and skills. He does this when he could otherwise store his great talents in bigger barns for himself.

As inspired as I am by Le Pichon, I’m not sure I have a nice answer for the meaning of life, although I have learned that it should inform how much I set aside for savings each month and who needs to do the dishes. Jesus never offers a succinct answer for the meaning of life, either. But he does keep walking. He keeps journeying towards Jerusalem, reaching out to the fragile and the suffering. He is more bent on giving meaning to our lives than he is philosophizing about it, offering his own fragile body up as a way to draw us into a life-giving relationship with God our maker.

He is a teacher, but he also a Savior, and his message is that our lives, too, are demanded of us, each and every moment. Each and every moment can present a crisis wherein we can either become more aware of the way he is present (and suffering) in those around us…or not.  When we only ever speak with our own souls, when we seek wisdom only from within and ignore out the needs of the world, when we are bent on being rich in relation to others or to our own benchmarks, life will become vanity.

But as we walk the journey with Christ, that vanity turns into beauty, our toil turns to being merry, and death turns into life in this long, beautiful epic story of God’s love for God’s people.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 12C/Lectionary 17C] - July 24, 2016 (Luke 11:1-13)

The French Cathedral, Berlin, will soon be outfitted with Wi-Fi
Coinciding with its country’s celebration in 2017 of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which officially began when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the Protestant Churches of Germany announced last month they would be providing free Wi-Fi in each of its churches beginning this summer. The plan is to start with 220 churches and then get on pace to outfit 3000 more church buildings with Wi-Fi by March of next near. While the church authorities are not intending the free Wi-Fi to be used as a recruitment tool, it does look like they are getting a jump on addressing a shortcoming in Germany’s technology. Most other European nations offer more public Wi-Fi than Germany does. The church’s Wi-Fi will be offered at no cost and will involve no passwords. People can enter the building, turn on their smart phone or lap top, and start websurfing and checking email, just like that. The church has decided to call these areas of Wi-Fi Godspots. And while it doesn’t appear these Godspots will enable a connection to God, strictly speaking, they may offer a way for people to connect with each other in cyberspace.

Meanwhile, in this country, hundreds of churches have figured out that they’ve been designated as Pokestops in the past week; that is, places where people can congregate with their smartphones and get more Pokeballs which is what one uses to catch Pokemons (pocket monsters). Apparently it’s a good thing to be a Pokestop. People of all different walks of life may end up gathering to get Pokeballs side-by-side. Some churches have tried to take advantage of their Pokestop status by offering water and places to charge phones to people playing the game. One church even put up a sign: “Come inside for Pokeballs. Stay for Jesus.”

The theme here is connectivity. The church perceives itself—and is often perceived by others—as a place to connect, as a place to send and receive information. As it happens,  our own congregation just spent several thousand dollars from its Endowment Fund disbursement to upgrade our outdated network system. Council last week got a brief explanation about what Cat-6 cable is and what its benefits are.

This morning we see that Jesus’ own disciples sought connectivity in their time. They’ve observed Jesus and how he occasionally withdraws to connect with God, and they’ve watched John the Baptist outfit his disciples with Cat-6 cable, and they reach the conclusion that Jesus must be a Godspot. There is something about how Jesus sends and receives information with God, that intrigues them. And so they come to him and ask him to teach them how he does it.

What’s interesting about Jesus’ response is that it is so specific. He could have just answered that there is no right or wrong way to pray, or he could have responded by saying, “Do your own thing,” or “Just enter the mystery of God and the words will come to you.” Some people may have found those types of response helpful, and in some sense they are also true, but Jesus actually gives his disciples a clear and definite pattern for prayer, for the language we use to connect with God. We can even assume it was the language Jesus himself was using in his own prayers. Nowadays, given the way they teach songs at VBS, we might assume he’d give each line hand motions, too.

The Lord’s Prayer, as it has come to be known, is a comprehensive prayer that in a very simple but very thoughtful way helps frame our most basic needs in terms of God’s grace.

One writer has noted that when the disciples ask Jesus about prayer, he responds by teaching them about the type of God they have. It begins by recognizing that God is a divine parent, a heavenly Father, who can be addressed not with fancy, flowery language like you would a king or queen, but with the very words you would use to talk to your closest friend.

In fact, the very first word Jesus uses to address God and wants his followers to address God is best translated as “Daddy.” To pray that this Daddy’s name be made holy does not mean that our words have some special effect on God’s nature but it acknowledges that while God is set apart from the ordinary, he also has the power to come into our ordinary lives and establish his reign. When God does this, his kingdom does come to us. And that kingdom is not necessarily a physical place with a castle or a wall, but any time and place when God’s sovereignty is realized, when God’s love and mercy is seen and known.

Adult and youth leaders this week provided the opportunity for over a hundred young children to experience the kingdom come during our Vacation Bible School. It is always interesting for me to watch the transformation from the time some of the children first walk in on Monday morning, many of them apprehensive and even frightened of the experience, to the end of the week when they don’t want to leave. Many of them cry when it begins and then cry when it has to end. They’ve felt, even if just for a while, the sense of community and joy that God’s kingdom will eventually bring to all of creation.

One young girl who is not a church member here sobbed in the hall on the first day, crying, “Daddy, daddy, daddy,” because her father had dropped her off and she felt lonely. I believe her heavenly Daddy must have heard that as a prayer because pretty quickly she came to know He was very much present with her. One of the youth group volunteers came up beside her, sat down with her and comforted her and slowly integrated her into the class. Imagine how that young girl now will perceive connecting with God in church. Imagine how any person entering a church or encountering a Christ-follower out in the world would perceive God’s kingdom coming if Jesus’ disciples were to come alongside the suffering with such parent-like tenderness.

Once Jesus tells his disciples to begin with God’s name and God’s kingdom, the Lord’s prayer focuses on the three basic needs that humans have. Daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance. Daily bread, as Martin Luther explains, is not just food, but anything we need each day for life. Like the manna that the ancient Israelites gathered every morning, Jesus instructs his disciples to concentrate on what is needed only for this day.

Forgiveness, as the prayer implies, is never something that happens in a vacuum. We often think of it this way, however…as if whatever happens between me and God stays that way. However, God’s forgiveness, even if it is held and announced privately in the heart of one person, is always something that affects the whole community. When God forgives us, we are made new. A change occurs in us that cannot help but be shared, then, with others around us, which is why Jesus, in this prayer, links God’s mercy to us with our mercy to others.

To pray for deliverance from evil or the time of trial is a realization that God is ultimately responsible for our salvation from the world’s brokenness, that at some point all our accomplishments and all our accolades will not be able to help us overcome death or estrangement from our Creator. That task will be up to God, and it is good news that the one who is teaching us this prayer is also the one who will go to the utter end and experience total estrangement on the cross on our behalf. He will place himself in the very time of trial for us. When it comes to connectivity and connection with God, you see, it is ultimately not our prayers or our words that do the trick, but God’s decision in Jesus to be with us in the hall when we’re crying, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” in the moment of need, at the point of loss and suffering.

Because I think all of us, at some point, have struggled with prayer. We’ve stumbled over how to put our feelings and thoughts into words that God would like and understand. We get intimidated by God’s holiness and purity—and the fanciness of church—especially when it’s matched up with our imperfect speech. We expect our prayers to be eloquent if God will hear them.

And while Jesus clearly gives us a pattern to follow and some words that will never get worn out, Jesus also assures his disciples that God hears and listens with our true needs in mind, just like a father will give what’s best for his child and a friend will come through in the middle of the night for a buddy in need. There are no special words you need to say when you knock on a neighbor’s door for a loaf of bread in the middle of the night when you’re trying to help someone else. It’s in the knocking itself when the petition occurs. The point is not necessarily the words, but the position we are in when we come before God…not as people crafting a list to Santa Claus or a person forming a To-Do list for a lackey but as a child who is in need…a child in need of love and guidance…a child who trusts and listens.

A year or so ago Melinda and I were having some friends over for dinner. One of the people coming over had been diagnosed with something serious and was preparing for some intense and risky treatment. Believe it or not I stressed for days about how I was going to offer a prayer that would appropriately call attention that situation but not get overwhelmingly emotional or make it too central. I tried to think about what exactly I was praying for and how to craft the right words. The moment finally came. We all circled up and joined hands for prayer. All my time for preparation and forethought had run out and I was going to have to open my mouth and pray something. I bowed my head and closed my eyes and then words began to flow…

But they weren’t my words. Nothing was coming out of my mouth. They were words from a familiar voice that surprised me. One of the children among us—an 8-year-old in this congregation—had seized the moment before I had, in front of all those people, like a child humbly asking for an egg or a fish. So natural, so pleading, so confident. “Now where in the world did she learn to do that?” I thought to myself. Who has modeled talking to God like God’s just a friend or a parent who needs no magic words but who listens and knows what we need? Ah-ha! People in her community of Jesus-followers must be teaching her prayer, must be helping to connect her to her heavenly Father.

Oh, that they could teach me again! And again! This place, I realized, must be some kind of Godspot, after all.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 12C/Proper 7C] - June 19, 2016 (Luke 8:26-39)

"The Gerasene Demoniac" Sebastian Boudon (1653)
I imagine a lot of people who are already a little skeptical about the reality of some of the stories in the Bible probably hear this one from Luke’s gospel about Jesus visiting the country of the Gerasenes and it puts them right over the edge (pun intended). It contains so many factors that stretch the limits of believability that many people just say, “No way. Someone made up this craziness. There’s no way this really happened or this world really existed.”

I know that even for me, any story that includes a demon possession automatically makes me scratch my head a bit. It seems to be more like the stuff of Hollywood horror flicks---grand but dark imaginations that stray far from the world of facts—than the telling of a true story. After all, we come from a time when very few people, or so we think, receive a diagnosis of demon-possession. Things like that have been explained in terms more acceptable to us now thanks to modern medicine, Freud, and pharmaceuticals. Not only that, but these are no ordinary demons, even by Bible standards. These demons talk out loud! They even have a name, which is weird, and they shout at Jesus when he comes near, as if they know exactly who he is and that he spells danger to them.

The weirdness doesn’t stop with the demons and their voices. There’s this part about the pigs running down the hill and plunging into the sea to their deaths. I mean, what did the pigs ever do? Where is PETA when we need them? It’s a genu-swine case of scape-pigging: the poor hogs don’t have anything at all to do with the demons, but they get tagged with all the ill effects and run out of town.

To make things even harder to believe, the man, of course, is healed instantly (when does that ever happen?!?), and we hear that in the span of one moment he goes from being a man bound by chains in public, living in the tombs, and driven into the margins of society to a man freed from torment, sitting placidly at the feet of Jesus the next. Yes, it is altogether reasonable that we, from our cool, rationalist and scientific perspective, would judge this story—this event, this world these people are telling us about—as totally crazy, unbelievable, and…if real…then a terrible place to be.

And yet, I wonder what a person from first-century Gerasene would say if they could look at just one or two weeks from the 21st-century America. They’d probably say, “Look! That’s a totally unrealistic world! Somebody’s making these stories up! It looks like they’ve got demons everywhere! Practically no one is in their right mind! For one thing, a few of them, every so often, will walk into churches, schools, bars, movie theaters, and shoot people. Then everyone else has this amazing, immediate ability through this strange power they call social media to let thousands of other people know what they’re thinking as they think it. They rush to judgment about each other and drive all kinds of people to the margins of society, except they don’t use chains and shackles anymore, but labels and unfair judgments and uninformed opinions. They scape-pig, or scapegoat, like it’s going out of style, blaming everything on everyone else, especially if they look or act different. Their religious leaders are often the worst at this! They all act like they’ve become experts in every matter, and although this ability to Tweet, post, and communicate digitally with each other should be bringing them together, it more often than not causes them to retreat into like-minded camps so that all they really listen to is those who already agree with them! And…look at all the bacon they eat! They’re concerned about this one herd, but look at the conditions they raise their livestock in to support their pork habit! There is no way a world like that could exist! And if it does, it sounds terrible!”

God’s creation is broken. Whether we view it through 1st century eyes or 21st century eyes, we can pretty quickly reach the conclusion that there is a whole lot of pain and heartache in the world, that things are not as they should be, that we are separated from each other by all kinds of anger and mistrust. Yes, there is good too, but sometimes the evil is just too overwhelming. Whether it is on a global scale, like the legions of atrocities of the so-called Islamic State, Boko Haram, or the gangs of central America…or whether it’s national, like the tragedies in Orlando and last year’s Charleston shooting…or local, like the tragic death Friday night of a beloved Godwin teacher and mentor, we are stunned by its presence and terrified by our vulnerability. Whether it raises its head in specific, violent events or whether it lurks like an undertow beneath the surface of everything in currents of racism and prejudice it still does immeasurable damage to us.

The issue with the land of the Gerasenes, which was a shadowy country of non-Jews lying somewhere across Lake Galilee from the region where Jesus and his disciples grew up, is that they seem to have gotten very accustomed to the presence of evil. It terrifies them, for sure. They try to shackle it and keep it under guard, even if it keeps breaking loose and causing trouble. People who are consumed by self-destructive impulses no one can control are so feared that they are allowed to live only at the margins. However, once such people are freed from their affliction, once Jesus makes this man whole and places him in his right mind, the people of Gerasene don’t rejoice or look for more healing. They become seized with great fear. They don’t know how to handle this sudden gift of freedom and peace. They don’t all suddenly draw nearer to Jesus, amazed by his power to overthrow the evil in their midst. That’s what usually happens. No, the Gerasenes ask Jesus to leave.

Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston
I was recently speaking with someone who was going through a tough time. She was talking about the tendency, whenever she was dealing with difficult challenges and loss, to look at what others were going through and momentarily wish she could trade places. The grass, I suppose, is always looks less brown in someone else’s yard. But whenever she’d complain this way as a kid, this person’s mother always used to tell her that if everyone were to toss all their troubles into one pile, people would still go through and pick theirs out.

That’s the Gerasenes, I suppose. They’ve gotten used to living with all the brokenness in their own way. They’ve made space for it, even if that space was at the edge of society and not entirely controllable. Some biblical historians say that the Gerasenes were more concerned with the economic loss from the lost pig herd than with the healing of the man. Others say that their rejection of Jesus shows that his mission is still, at least for the moment, primarily to the sons and daughters of Israel. Whatever the case, it’s pretty clear that the Gerasene people see Jesus and his ministry of restoring wholeness and placing people back into community with one another as some kind of a threat. They don’t want new struggles, even if they are positive. They like status quo. They’re quite content to keep things as they are, even if it means that some people have to bear the brunt of the world’s brokenness more than others.

And here Jesus does something we might think at first strange: he actually leaves. He turns immediately around, for he has just gotten off the boat, and goes back to Galilee. He doesn’t force himself and his viewpoints on the Gerasenes, he doesn’t tell them they’re wrong, he doesn’t talk smack about them. He shows true strength by letting go and true compassion by honoring their desires.

But he does not leave them unchanged. The man who is now in his right mind is denied the opportunity to come with Jesus and instead told to stay home. The Gerasenes may still be content to live with their status quo, but in their midst now is someone who has been set free, someone who has experienced the power of the gospel. He’s like the reverse of a scape-goat. In a scape-goat scenario you pin all the troubles to one person or one group and let them pay the price for everyone’s sin, running them out of the village or the country. Here, all the hope and joy of new life in Jesus is given to one man and he is sent back into the community with a mission to share it. He becomes an icon of hope in a land of fear, a storyteller in a land that doesn’t want to listen, a believer in a land of doubt, a lover in land of hate.

Sometimes I sense we are overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world today. It’s like everyone is dumping out all their troubles and the pile has gotten far too large. We know ours are in there, but they seem in some way connected to it all. No one seems to have any decent answers for which directions we’re supposed to take, which makes it all the easier to fall into the trap of wanting to go back to the way things were, whatever that means. But today I know I’m looking at dozens of storytellers, a hundred or so of icons of hope who have been set free by God’s grace. Today Jesus’ boat has landed once again on the shore of this strange land filled with demons and with his love and forgiveness he is putting us in our right mind. On the cross he is taking on the brokenness of the whole world, and running headlong off the cliff of despair into the abyss for us.

And now I suppose you could say we are all reverse scape goats, running off to wherever “home” may be with the task simply to talk about what God has done for us. No one can argue with that, even on Facebook! No one can argue with what you say God has done for you. We all run out into communities that are sorely divided, and talk about a Savior who gathers a community where divisions have no proper place, where folks are no longer slave or free, or Gerasene or Galilean, or male and female. It’s a place where the undertow of racism and class or gender distinctions are to be wiped away. We are sent out by Jesus into a 21st century crazy, unbelievable world that is susceptible just to make space for its legions of demons and point, insistently, but not coercively to the One who will overthrow them.

And soon and very soon we will be living in the kingdom—not of Gerasene, but the kingdom of God—belonging to Christ, heirs according to his promise. And all of creation will be like that hymn we sang, where every line and every life will end with the words, “May Jesus Christ be praised, may Jesus Christ be praised!”


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 5C/Lectionary 10C] - June 5, 2016 (Luke 11:11-17)

I was speaking recently with a Henrico County police officer about his job and he explained to me, much to my surprise, that one of the riskiest and least favorite parts of his job was escorting funeral processions. I’ve been in dozens of funeral processions before, but it had never occurred to me that from the police officers’ perspective they are complicated and dangerous to manage. There’s a lot of maneuvering and delicate choreography, if you will, that needs to happen between the different cars to pull one off. The worst part of escorting a funeral procession, he said, was managing the intersections. In order for a procession to move smoothly and continually through a stoplight or stopsign, the police have to position their own cars and lives against the flow of traffic. It’s not always a guarantee that the people coming in the perpendicular direction, or those getting to turn left against the line of cars, for example, will pay attention. That’s what this police officer found so risky. For it not to turn into a disaster, the police officer has to rely on other drivers’ alertness and other people’s compassion. It must be a bit frightening to be so vulnerable and in the midst of such confusion as the living make way for the dead.

This morning’s gospel text, there is an intersection and there is confusion, and the living have to suddenly make way for the dead. The scene unfolds at a major stoplight of the ancient world: the town gate. Each town and city in Jesus’ time would have had at least one gate. It was the breach in the protective city wall where traffic essentially bottlenecked. Commerce flowed in and out through the gate, and so often there was a lot of commotion due to trading and bartering going on. Certain people who were considered undesirable and unwelcome in the city often congregated at the city gate, looking for help. And likely, every day there would have been some sort of funeral procession through the gate since bodies would have been buried or entombed outside the city. Just as one of these funeral processions, with all of its accompanying drama of wailing and mourning, is making its way out of the city of Nain one day, Jesus and his entourage are approaching it. There’s no police officer to make sure these two groups don’t collide.

At this point it’s important to realize that there are really two dead people in this funeral procession. There is the son, who is lying on the bier, which would have been similar in function to a hearse. He has just died a physical death and is on his way to disappearing into the ground. The second dead person is his mother, and in many ways she is the one worse off. She is in the process of dying a social death and is disappearing into poverty and obscurity.

It is never easy to suffer the death of a spouse. It leaves a gaping hole that can never be filled. And in ancient times in Jesus’ culture it was especially difficult for women who survived their husbands. They had no property rights and if they had no male heir who agreed to care for them and bring them into their house, they were utterly vulnerable in society. Their existence was entirely dependent on hand-outs from others, and people tended to treat them pretty poorly, especially if they were of a younger age. In fact, the Hebrew word for “widow” was associated with the term “one who is silent” or “unable to speak.”

That tells us something about what kind of future this woman would be contemplating as she weeps over the death of her son. Without a family she’d have no community. Without a name she’d have no identity. And without an heir she’d have no future.

There at the gate they run into the other procession that is making its way into the town. This procession is basically just a crowd of people following a new fascinating teacher. And there as they intersect compassion becomes the force that transforms the scene. Hundreds of funeral processions had passed that way before. Countless widows had walked those steps, fearing the danger that would come once the crowd put the body into the ground and went back to their lives. But on this day the Lord is there, touching that which is said to be unclean. On this day the Lord and his compassion is present, and we see the living make way for the dead.

So, just as there are two dead people in the funeral procession, there are also two restorations to life. The young man on the bier sits up once Jesus addresses him and returns to life, and the first thing he does is speak. I wonder who is the first person he speaks with? Wouldn’t it be cool if were his mother, who until that moment, as a widow, was bearing this label of “one who is unable to speak”? Even if the son doesn’t speak first to his mother, Jesus brings about such a transforming experience by immediately giving him to his mother.

That is the second instance of new life in this story by the gate, in this place where people are coming and going, changing directions, doing trade. Jesus’ compassion does not just resuscitate this young man. It restores this woman to life. It makes her visible again, and gives her a voice, a place, a future.

Christians talk a lot about being raised to new life. We throw that phrase around all over the place—in our weekly worship, in our prayers and hymns, when we baptize.

Jesus raises us to new life…but what does that mean? Surely when we use the phrase “raised to new life,” one thing we mean is that after our own death, we too, shall be raised to eternal life. That is the power of the cross and the promise of our baptism. Jesus, by his death, makes way for the living. He conquers sin, he places his own body at the intersection of evil, into the traffic of all that goes against God, and dies that we might live.

But before that occurs for us, before that day we are taking part in our own funeral procession, we say Jesus raises us to new life elsewhere, and that is what we see happening at the gate of Nain. When we say we’re raised to new life it means is that we hear we have worth again. It means we hear the news that we are not meant to be invisible, meaningless. It means the brokenness of what came before can give way to something better, that the labels the world applies to us or we apply to ourselves matter less than the dignity the Word of God gives us. It means we are re-dedicated in service to our neighbor, able to see that our life can and does make a difference in this universe. It means that, like the son in this story, we are given to one another, over and over.

New life in Christ is no end unto itself. Jesus does not enter Nain or any life, for that matter, as some kind of “Zen” experience, as if inner balance or peace is his goal. Jesus comes that we may rise from whatever death we’re in so that we may be given to others in service and love. The reorientation of compassion towards the world that Christ gives us—towards each individual human being, especially the most vulnerable among us—is one of the most truly life-changing parts of this new life.

Phillip Sossou
There was a remarkable story out of Boston this week about high school senior named Phillip Sossou who gave himself to others by taking the time to draw a portrait of every single person in his graduating class, all 411 of them. He worked on them during every moment of his spare time beginning in February, and this week he snuck into the school to hang them on the walls. It was an especially moving gesture of love given that the school, Boston Latin, has had a rough year regarding racial tension. When the students came in this week to see them a kind of new life was breathed into the community. Many were moved to tears. As one of his classmates put it, his portraits (which were beautiful, by the way) kind of made them all realize that each one of them was noticed.

That’s one way to think about what worship is in a congregation each Sunday morning. Here Jesus, amidst all the confusing tension of the world, is entering the intersection. He is entering and stopping dozens or hundreds of different funeral processions of meaninglessness and pain, division and discord. They are the funeral processions of those who file in here broken or lost by what life has handed them, unsure of what their next step will be and whether anyone will notice it.

And it is Jesus, in his compassion, noticing every single one us, giving the painstaking time to restore each of us to life…rendering us again beautiful as we are…handing each of us a piece of his own broken body and blood and reminding us we have a place, bestowing on us true dignity, and giving us to one another again.

And we witness this with joy, knowing God has once again looked favorably upon his people.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 4C/Lectionary 9C] - May 29, 2016 (Luke 7:1-10)

To this day in parts of the Middle East it is still considered a serious insult to show anyone the soles of your shoes or the bottom of your feet. Even if you don’t mean it that way—even if you accidentally cross your legs in your friend’s house and prop your foot up on your knee or an ottoman, even if you have the cleanest, newest shoes and there’s nothing gross sticking to them—letting someone see the bottom of your feet is a big no-no. And to this day, even though it’s been almost 15 years since I lived in Cairo, I still struggle with what to do with my feet in meetings when there’s no table to hide behind. This past week I met with one ministry team in the parlor where there are just chairs and sofas and no conference tables and as I got relaxed and started to pick my feet up off the floor, I had this twinge of worry that one of the team members would find me rude.

It’s not just that in Arab culture the bottom of the foot or the sole of the shoe is considered the dirtiest part of the body. It’s the fact that the foot is the lowest part of the body and by showing someone the bottom of it you are essentially sending the message, “You are beneath me. You are lower than whatever status I am.” I got busted on this several times when I was over there, and I guess it has just lodged itself in my subconscious.  So now, if you see me fidget awkwardly in a meeting, please don’t take it personally. I’m just trying to make sure you don’t think I’m insulting you.

I’m not really sure that there is anything comparable here in American culture. I can’t think of a gesture or public action that someone would use to suggest to another person that that person is beneath them or lesser than them. In fact, we are in a particular period of history in our country where we are being challenged to think about systems of privilege that exist and possibly how to dismantle them or at least be aware of them.

In Jesus’ day in the ancient Middle East, things were very different. Society was based on a very hierarchical structure of privilege that almost everyone played by. Of all the gospel writers, Luke is the keenest to point this out for us. Like an archaeologist or anthropologist, Luke lets this system of honor and shame, as they call it, come through in the stories of Jesus he tells. Perhaps no other story illustrates this quite as much as this one where Jesus has an encounter with a centurion. No one in the account shows anyone else the bottoms of his or her feet, but we do see a clear distinction being made as to hierarchy and authority.

In Roman culture the centurion was basically at the top of the social ladder. They were actively serving in the military and their rank was fairly high. They were in charge of battalions of troops and they also commanded a nice salary. They also likely owned a number of slaves, although the way slavery took shape in the ancient world was not exactly how it took shape in this country prior to the Civil War.  We can see from this morning’s story that strong bonds of love and even tenderness could form between a slave and his owner. Centurions, because of their status and wealth, often were key members of a community. They donated funds for public buildings and festivals. They were responsible for keeping people safe and protected. That, too, seems to be the case in this story. We know that the centurion has contributed towards the building campaign of the local synagogue.

All of these social arrangements were based on trying to make people your “clients.” Those toward the top of the social ladder were due the most honor and respect and had the biggest number of clients. The way you worked yourself higher in this system was by getting people to come into your debt in some way, and one of the most common ways that happened was by having people to dinner in your house. If you invited someone and they accepted, then they were acknowledging your power and authority over them, that they were your client and you were their patron.

The other way this system was reinforced was by seeking favors. By asking a favor of someone—perhaps you needed a donation to a building project or protection from a threatening neighbor—you acknowledged they were higher than you. And by granting that favor that person took on the role of patron (and you were their client). Historians tell us that in Jesus’ time, daily life was almost a constant game of that system of privilege and honor, of patron and client, which is probably why the issue of showing the bottoms of one’s feet is still lingering today. People were constantly trying to work their way up as a patron by inviting people over to their house or by showing that they could grant favors to other people. Remember…the New Testament is filled with people eating meals with each other.

Knowing that background, we can better understand what’s happening here. The centurion, who is in a position to offer favors to many people, asks Jesus for a favor to heal his servant. And when Jesus, always willing to humble himself, takes that as an invitation to be a guest at the centurion’s house and essentially become the centurion’s client, the centurion stops him. Two different times the centurion attempts to show he thinks Jesus is a superior. Two different times the centurion uses this patron-client system to display respect and a type of allegiance to Jesus. And two different times Jesus upends it. God is not going to play by the typical rules of dominance and control that humans are so often enamored with.

"Healing the Centurion's Servant" (Paolo Veronese, 16th cent.)
The centurion is impressed with the authority that Jesus commands, and as such he kind of stands out as a character of faith, even above the Jewish leaders that the centurion first sends to speak with him. What is not known, of course, is if the centurion will ultimately be impressed with the way that Jesus displays his authority and uses his power. Being a great healer and restoring life with just one word of command is one thing. Dying on the cross is another. Further down the road, Jesus will seem to hand over his authority and have it mocked by people like the centurion. Jesus will lay down his life, his words all but gone, in order to heal all our divisions, to raise to new life those dead in sin.

I’m pretty sure that we don’t have the same type of patron-client system Jesus dealt with anymore. No one but me is worrying about showing shoe soles and foot bottoms, but yet we do still tend to give a lot of authority and power to people and things who impress us. Celebrities get a lot of worship and attention these days, and we prostrate ourselves at the altar of technology and science and medicine. Favors are sought from people like Mark Zuckerberg and the leaders of Apple. We absolutely idolize those who excel in sports. The most popular movies are filled with all the traditional examples of how to use power and authority. The two superhero movies that were released this spring, “Batman v Superman,” and “Captain America: Civil War” have already grossed more than $2 billion combined. While they may be entertaining, they all still a variation on the same old story: ultimate good must overpower evil with evil’s own tactics in order to win.

In the midst of all of this, I’m not sure we can ever fully grasp just how unimpressive the cross of Jesus really is, even as we worship around it each week. In the midst of all this, I think we all bear a tendency to long for a God who will just dominate, who will come up with a fair and just system of crushing the opponent and outsmarting our enemies, just in a cooler and more novel way than the last, that we can get God just to say a word and everything will be OK.

But that would be, as Paul says to the Galatians, a different gospel. That would still be a way of seeking human approval, of playing client to a divine patron, thinking that if I just do everything right, all will be well.

(Fra Angelico)
So, then, just as a reminder, here’s the gospel, the only one: God does not find ways to place us in his debt so that we serve him like clients. Rather, In Jesus, God finds a way to pay our debt so that we may be free. God not find ways to show us the bottom of his feet so that we know where we stand on the ladder of status. Rather, In Jesus, God stoops to wash our feet and shower us with grace and love and forgiveness. God does not seek ways to impress us and dazzle us with his power. Rather, in Jesus, God seeks ways to love us. God seeks ways to display the unsurpassable value of laying power aside, of letting humility do the talking, of laying down one’s life for one’s friends, and of even laying down one’s life for a stranger.

That’s the gospel, the good news. The central force that created this universe and will redeem it is not one based on accruing honor or assigning shame.  It is one of self-sacrifice and compassion, mercy and generosity. In fact, it’s not even a force that is trying to gather us, but a particular person. A particular person it is who loves us and wants a relationship with us, and no matter where you feel you fall on the ladder of life, no matter how many times people have shown you the bottom of their feet, that person—the Christ of Nazarath—he gathers us all here, at the foot…of his cross. That, my friends, authority.

And here’s irony. When you come up to receive him today, you’ll kneel in respect and admiration and, in the process, show everyone behind you the soles of your shoes!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Day of Pentecost [Year C] - May 15, 2016 (Acts 2:1-21)

A story is told of preacher who got a little tired of constantly writing sermons so he decided that one week he was not going to do any of his usual researching and writing and re-writing ahead of time. Instead, when it came time to deliver the sermon, he was just going to step into the pulpit and let the Spirit speak, kind of like Peter at the first Pentecost. Whatever the Spirit said would become his sermon for the day. So the week went by and he enjoyed having some extra time, but he trusted that when the time came to deliver, the Spirit would give him something to say.

Sunday came.  He stepped into the pulpit, opened his mouth, and, by golly, the Spirit spoke. The Spirit clearly said, “You should have written a sermon.”

That, in a nutshell, describes the nature of God’s Spirit. It is both very unpredictable but also completely reliable. It’s a paradox, of course—it doesn’t seem possible that these two qualities could go together, but when it comes to God’s Holy Spirit, they do. The Spirit is unpredictable, volatile, capricious. It defies our desire to pin it down, to structure it for our own purposes, to contain it or control it.

An icon of Pentecost. Note the small flames
over their heads.
We see this impulsive nature not just at that first Pentecost when the disciples are gathered together to celebrate the giving of the Ten Commandments and the law to Moses at Mt. Sinai, and suddenly they begin speaking in different languages and understanding each other. It is there, in fact, from the very beginning, doing things and bringing about things that don’t immediately make sense to us.  The Spirit of God creates life out of nothing, it calls leaders for Israel who have questionable pedigrees, it leads the people of God on a meandering path through the wilderness for forty years. Those are just a few examples of how the movement of the Spirit is not always something you can forecast.

And yet, God’s Spirit is reliable. Its presence is something on which we can count. The Spirit may not ever act in ways we can completely foresee, but we know that Jesus has promised it will guide us, and we know we can rely on its power to move people into action and to create possibilities when it seems like none exist. We can rely on the fact that the Spirit of God—whatever it is that’s at the core of God—to speak to us, to call to us, to unite with our own spirit, but we’re not always able to know when that’s going to occur and what the specific message is going to be.

As a result, I think a lot of people are unsure of what to make of the Holy Spirit, especially Lutherans. Lutherans like predictability. We value reliability, too, but we really like predictability. And we’re pretty solid with the first two persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father and the Son, in part because of this. To some degree it’s easier to get a handle on those two, especially the Son. After all, his whole existence and the crowning point of his ministry was all about people getting a hand on him. When it comes to God the Father we have his voice and his words, and when it comes to Jesus we have a human figure, but in Scripture the Spirit is typically presented in abstract metaphors like fire and wind.

Fire and wind are both unpredictable. They are also technically invisible. One can see presence of wind, for example, in the rustling of leaves or in the spin of a windmill, but the moving air itself is not visible. And the same goes with fire. One cannot actually see the chemical reaction that causes the flame, but is clear that something dynamic and transformative is happening when you get near a fire. There is something a little mysterious about both wind and fire. They’ve got energy, but they really can’t be contained or stopped. They tend to come and go as they please. And so it is with God’s Holy Spirit.

As I reflect on this, I realize that over the last few weeks I’ve become acquainted with another metaphor for the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is like a crying newborn. It, too, is not controllable. It has great energy…far out of proportion to its tiny size. And the source of the crying is often mystery—why the baby is crying you may never know! It’s unpredictable, but it’s very reliable, and all you really can do is pick it up and roll with it. Just see where the crying will take you, bouncing as you go, with constant motion! Out of the bedroom, down the hall a few times…around the kitchen…into the car seat…into the car…down the road at 12am…

Unpredictable but reliable. Ever since the beginning it has been apparent to those who’ve been called into this life of faith in the God of Israel, the Father of Jesus, that there was this third element, this third person of God that brought it all together. And at Pentecost, it became clear that this third person, this Spirit of God, this very interior force that brings things to life, has been poured out on God’s people. Our role is to let it rush through us, to let the fire touch us and transform us, to pick up the mysteriously crying newborn with lungs that never cease and bounce with it.

So, because the Spirit of God is both unpredictable but reliable, then we should not be surprised that the church, is going to live a life that is both unpredictable but reliable. It will be unpredictable because there will be no way to foresee or anticipate just where the community of those who follow Jesus will end up, or what specifically they will do. There will be no way for the church, for individual congregations, or even individual believers to know precisely how their faith will burn along the way. Peter and the disciples gathered at Pentecost have no idea that the Spirit of God is about to propel them through the Mediterranean world, taking a small, marginalized message of hope in Jesus to the very halls of power in Rome within just a few decades.

Our own congregation’s new mission statement begins with this realization. “Walk the journey” names the fact that faith in God is ongoing and meandering, often surprising and always unpredictable. The earliest members of Epiphany would have had no idea that sixty some odd years later there would be a Chapel built here, along with a columbarium, or that we’d have a community garden. I also bet they only imagined the possibility of one day having enough resources to have a full-time, called director of Christian faith formation, and that, again, one day that person would have to leave and pursue her call elsewhere. As the Council develops a long-range plan for us, we need to keep in mind this unpredictability factor. We really don’t know just how the Spirit will lead and transform us. It will be exciting, and probably a bit disorienting at times.

But just as our life of faith this side of the resurrection will always involve a measure of unpredictability, the church is also called to be reliable. The people of the God are the vessel for this life-giving presence of God that the world needs to know and hear, that the world will turn to for hope, for love, for justice.

One of my colleagues in Pittsburgh was this man who had been called to a downtown congregation in an old German neighborhood that had been slowly evolving as its original white European members either died off or moved out into the suburbs. Within just a few years its surrounding neighborhood had changed completely. Old stately buildings had become crack-houses and gang dens.  My colleague tried to adjust his ministry to serve the people who were there, but he found it incredibly challenging. The church began to fall into disrepair, too, and there were fewer financial resources to sustain the ministry. He got a few grants to keep things running. He began an afterschool program to get kids off the streets. Eventually he started a summer program to give them a safe haven during the months they weren’t in school. He found people jobs and organized community projects. Slowly but surely he persevered, holding on for dear life most of the time, I’m sure. It went on like this for over twenty years.

By the time I had come to Pittsburgh it was a thriving ministry to the neighborhood. You could say that countless lives had been saved, and some of those children had even been sent on to seminary. He had become a fixture in that neighborhood, and when he announced his retirement, the local paper ran a story on him and the effect his congregation had had on the North Side community. They asked him why he was led there. And he told this story of one of those days early on when he was almost about to throw in the towel. You might say he had gotten weary of the unpredictability. One of the little kids in the afterschool program came into his office and hopped up on his lap and put his arms around the big man. Pastor John asked him how he was doing and the kid seemed sad, as if something in his home or at school had not gone well. The kid looked at him and said, “I’m scared right now. I don’t know how my life is going to turn out, but as long as you’re here, I know I’ll be OK.” That, Pastor John Cochran said, was the turning point. There were people relying on this message he had brought.

The church is called to be reliable in that way, for that is the way the Spirit leads us. We are a people entrusted with the message that God has saved the world through Jesus. We are a people who call on the name of the Lord, ourselves, in such a way that people come to see we are not perfect, but we have faith in a God who is, that we have reason for hope in the future, and that we know love conquers all. We are a great diverse conglomeration of people spanning all time and places, children of God called out from every nation who stand in workplaces, in neighborhoods, in schools, in cities and rural places as a reminder that God is present with humankind. We are called to be reliably united, even in the midst of conflict.

It’s an unpredictable journey, for sure. It’s not always easy to know how to put it into words, if it should be planned out ahead of time or done on the fly. But we trust God is present through the Spirit that has been given. Most of the time all we really can do is let the fire rage within us and see who it transforms. Of, if that metaphor doesn’t work for you, then just think about picking up the screaming baby and move and bounce. Walk that thing right down the aisle and into the narthex. And from the narthex out into the streets…and right out into the world.  

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.