Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18A] - 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.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15A] - August 17, 2014 (Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28)

After years of trying my hand at children’s sermons and chapel services for our nursery school, and still trying to get it right, I am slowly learning that usually the ones that go best are the ones where I use some kind of object as a lesson. Ms. Christy, our diaconal minister is especially adept at this…although I must say I was curious to see how she might incorporate an object lesson today to discuss “evil intentions, murder…and fornication!” Naturally, given the nature of the children’s sermon target audience, things can still go awry, but, generally-speaking, object lessons help focus everyone’s attention. They give people something concrete to concentrate on. They make topics that are usually pretty abstract, “out there”—like faith itself (which is pretty abstract)—and make them real and “down here,” which is doubly helpful since most adults are paying as much attention to the children sermon as the children are. In fact, one of my colleagues suggests that perhaps the sermons preachers deliver from the pulpit should contain an object lesson each week.

There may be something to that idea since Jesus, himself, is not above using an object lesson here or there to make a point about the surprising grace of God’s kingdom. He does it, for example, this in this morning’s gospel text when he goes from his lessons about the Pharisees’ rules regarding ritual defilement and food purity laws to this encounter with a desperate Canaanite woman in the region outside of his native Galilee. Although in real time these two instances—the teaching itself and then the teaching moment—probably spanned a few days because of travel, Matthew puts them right next to each other to make sure Jesus’ point is concrete.

Now, to be completely honest: it’s not altogether clear from what Matthew tells us whether Jesus initially intends for this encounter with the Canaanite woman to serve as an object lesson or if the opportunity just falls in his lap. Regardless, her presence and her request for her daughter’s healing present a wonderful occasion for Jesus to give a concrete, real-world explanation of his abstract lesson about the rules of religion. As Kentucky author and environmentalist Wendell Berry says, Jesus “seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.”[1]

It is that religion in the temples and synagogues which Jesus had been talking about. The religious leaders, such as Pharisees and scribes, had taken issue with Jesus’ disregard for the rules and restrictions they helped maintain and enforce, rules like the ritual washing of hands before eating and not sharing a table with people who were deemed “unclean,” rules like the avoidance of certain foods and how those foods were obtained. These rules and restrictions went far beyond being a hassle to follow; they had terrible power in Jesus’ day. They helped determine who was fully a member of the righteous community and who was left outside of it. They created strict boundaries around what was holy and therefore life-giving, and what was defiled and therefore essentially deadly.

Granted, the temple in Jerusalem was to remain a place of purity and holiness where worshippers’ faith could be renewed through an encounter with the divine presence, but the leaders of the religion had barnacled over a great deal of that relationship between God and human with their own numerous interpretations of the laws. As a result, they had claimed that power of determining who was in and who was out, who was clean and who was defiled. Safe to say, that was probably most people’s impression of religion in Jesus’ day: a habitual fascination with clean and unclean, following rules and ticking off boxes.          

"Eating with Unwashed Hands" Jan Luyken (2008)
All that really was, of course, was a desire to control. Borne of human sin, focused purely on self-preservation, a religion of rules and regulations is nothing but a longing for power—power to ensure that we can keep ourselves in God’s good graces, keep ourselves pure from the world and other people not like us, keep ourselves…alive. And Jesus sees right through it. The experience with God in the Temple was always supposed to be about relationship, not power and control. It is about faith, not following rules. It is about life in God flowing from of the hands of a few and out into the fields and sheep pastures, to the houses and tables of everyone in creation.

The disciples get to see exactly what this all means when the object lesson appears. It would be difficult to find someone more removed from the heart of rule-obsessed religion than a Canaanite woman in Gentile territory. She wasn’t part of the household of Israel and she was a woman—to the religious authorities that was two big strikes against her. Jesus then illustrates the ability of religious rules to demean people and harm that relationship with God by letting them take their course: first, Jesus ignores her. When she appeals to him a second time, he reminds her that she is not in the in-crowd, that she is an “other.” Eventually he even insults her verbally, using a common put-down of the day. In the end, it is her strong faith in Jesus as Lord that cuts through all that religious convention. It ultimately pays little attention to the rules and boundaries that humans use to divide and control and demean and exclude. It just looks at Jesus and says, “You alone can help me.”

"Christ on the Cross between the Two Thieves"
Peter Paul Rubens (1619-1620)
Of course, you are right to say this Canaanite woman is not an object at all. She’s a human, and that’s part of the point. Rules of religion, used without care, can dehumanize people, turning us all into objects that are labelled clean or unclean. But no amount of regulation-following and ritual-completing will eve make one clean in God’s eyes. No amount of church attendance or participation in service projects or money donated will secure that relationship of faith that God is reaching out to create in us. That, my friends, has been accomplished by the teacher who dies on the cross to rid the whole world of the sin that defiles from within, the man who suffers and becomes an outsider himself in order to make firm God’s relationship with us even through the barrier of death.

Yes, the sermons that go best are the ones that have some visible, tangible aspect to them often, and lo and behold it is a foreign woman well off the beaten path who becomes the perhaps the best example of faith in God through Jesus that the gospels offer. Thank goodness God is still teaching this way!

Two weeks ago members of the Epiphany high school youth group returned from a week of service projects on the Eastern Shore. Most of these projects were undertaken among regions there that might be compared with Jesus’ adventure into Tyre and Sidon. That is, we worked not among the posh tourist towns or even among the many different farms that spread out on either side of the peninsula’s main highway but rather down the unpaved roads well off the beaten path into places ironically named Dreamland 1, Dreamland 2 and Mirina, the neglected trailer parks that house the migrant workers who pick produce on those farms.

Some of us were given the task of putting a new layer of paint on their rusting and leaning single-wides. Others of us went into the trailer parks to pick up pre-school and elementary-school-aged children and shuttle them to a local Methodist Church where we ran something similar to Vacation Bible School. We’d pull our minivans and rental vans into the communities and the kids would come streaming out of the dark and empty-looking trailers, literally by the dozens, excited for a day of art and games.

On our last day there, we had the additional responsibility of organizing and then distributing donated school supplies to the children, of whom there were about a hundred. The whole affair got pretty chaotic pretty quickly, kids jumping into vans, our youth trying to count squirmy kids to make sure everyone got the school supplies they needed. In the midst of this, there was a language barrier, too. Unfortunately, there were not enough book-bags for each kid to receive one, and pretty soon we noticed an argument was brewing in the van I was driving over a particularly desirable book-bag. Two elementary school girls started to get a little testy about who would receive it, and, knowing how these things can go with my own two elementary-school-age daughters, I began to worry that we’d have to come up with some rule or regulation to decide who got it. Without any bright ideas of how to do that, one of our youth and I just looked at the two girls and stated the obvious, as if a plea for help: “Only one of you can have this.” Immediately, one of the girls pointed to her friend and said, “Then I want her to have it.”

Later that evening, Matthew, the youth, shared that’s where he had seen Christ that day. I fully agreed, and then it got me thinking: were those migrant worker children objects of our charity? Or were they human examples of faith and life in God? Had they been placed in our path to offer us an opportunity to serve and practice acts of Christlike kindness, to offer them the crumbs of donated school supplies? Or had we been brought into their path so we could experience little outbursts of Christlike humility?

What do you find to be the case in your lives, as you share your faith and practice your religion, as you come to conclusions about what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri, or Gaza? Are you the in-crowd or the outsider?

I’m not really sure where I am all the time in that dichotomy, but I am more and more thankful to have a God who is still teaching all of us wandering Canaanites wherever we are with the love and compassion of his Son…a Teacher who takes his religion out of the temples and into the fields and trailer parks and focuses our attention on all the people of God…a gracious Lord who cleanses even defiled religious leaders like me with crumbs that fall from his good table.


Thanks be to God!




The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Jayber Crow. Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA 2000. P121

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 12A] - July 27, 2014 (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 and Romans 8:26-39)

There has been a lot of talk about borders lately, where they fall, how to patrol them. It goes beyond the growing crisis of undocumented migrants that are being housed at the border of our own country and the discussions about how that border should be policed. Ukraine and Russia are apparently in conflict over their borders, too. It’s not really clear where their dividing line is, but the shooting down of a passenger airliner suggest that even the boundaries of air space are, tragically, a little murky, too. Then there’s Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel, an issue involving borders and walls and checkpoints and bombings so complicated and convoluted most people wonder if it will never get straightened out.

The list goes on of those in territorial dispute: Iraq, Pakistan, South Sudan…good grief, the issue of boundaries is even pressing down upon this congregation! In a week, we will have a vote concerning the first possible expansion of our congregation’s borders in its history. Council is well aware that this proposal has raised some questions among some of you, which is good.  Although they’re ready to present information and allay fears at next week’s meeting, they’re hoping things don’t get quite as contentious as some of the some of these other current events!

When you think about it seems that almost all of the world’s present-day hotspots are in some way a dispute over boundaries and borders, conflict over where one kingdom’s or domain’s authority ends and another’s begins. We like boundaries and borders, even if they often end up being the root of so much bloodshed and friction. Borders are reliable; they give clarity. They let us know who is in and who is out, in which places whose authority can be exercised and counted on.

Jesus may not be able to offer much wisdom about any of our boundary disputes, be they in Ukraine and Russia even our own backyard. He may not be able to give any direct advice regarding of the countries and empires and kingdoms of the world. But Jesus can talk an awful lot about the kingdom of heaven, and based on the vivid but confusing images and analogies that arise out of his teachings today, one thing seems certain: that kingdom of heaven—whatever it is—doesn’t appear to have any boundaries. And if it does have clear boundaries—lines that determine who is in and who is out—they are certainly hard to pin down and they sound like they’re ever-expanding. Yeast in a loaf of bread does that. A mustard seed grows and spreads its branches. A net expands and pulls in all kinds of things once it hits the water. Incidentally, the same can be said of a Vacation Bible School song. It starts out on Monday, so simple, but it has no boundaries, and by the end of the week it has taken over your brain. No, the kingdom of heaven sounds like anything but a typical worldly kingdom, and the comparisons Jesus uses throughout the New Testament to describe it and illustrate it are hard to get a handle on.

To further complicate matters, the kingdom of heaven doesn’t even sound like something that we pass into after we’ve crossed that final frontier, death. Truthfully, I think this what most of us think of when we hear the words “kingdom of heaven,” but when Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven, he’s clearly not talking about the afterlife. He’s talking about something that happens right now, even in our midst. In fact, the kingdom of heaven is what Jesus first talks about in the gospels. As he walks among the towns of Galilee, he proclaims, over and over again, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” He speaks about the kingdom in ways that suggest it is not just something we are waiting for once we die. The kingdom is also now. And because it is now upon us, a response is requested of us. Would we like to live in this kingdom? Would we like to be a part of it?

Anyone, however, who is expecting to be able to locate this kingdom on a map is going to be extremely disappointed (and frustrated), which is why even saying things like “in” God’s kingdom can be problematic. The kingdom of heaven is more like a happening, an occurrence. It is less about place and more about an event. It has less to do with physical geography and more to do with allegiance. The kingdom of heaven has less to do with where my feet are planted and more to do with where my heart is pointed. We come to learn as we watch Jesus and listen to his words that the kingdom of heaven occurs wherever God’s authority in Christ is recognized and acknowledged.

That means right now can be an occurrence of the kingdom of heaven! The Spirit has gathered us as the church on this day of resurrection and we are joining together in praise and worship to God through Christ. In Matthew’s gospel, especially, the church—along with its sacraments—is understood to be that community where the kingdom of heaven continues to break into in the world. Although there are plenty of times when the church falls short of acknowledging God’s love and embodying it for all people, we still understand that it is through the church and its ministry that the word of God is proclaimed for the sake of the world. The kingdom of heaven, then, is wherever the love of Christ is embodied, even if it’s not immediately noticeable. This almost always happens by stealth, often by surprise, and without any real effort on our part. The kingdom is something that happens to us and then invites us to be a part of it as it continues. If it has borders, it enlists us to help expand them.

But see, all that explanation is very sermony, dry and, quite honestly, boring. So as Jesus speaks about the kingdom of heaven, he uses metaphors and images to try and say the same thing. When Jesus says the kingdom is like a mustard seed, we understand that that the kingdom may start small in us but grow substantially and provide goodness and grace for many around us. When Jesus says that the kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great value, we come to understand that the kingdom is something to be treasured above all else.

Yet the comparison goes beyond that: the kingdom is often hidden, its value not immediately aware to the rest of the world. Those who have responded to it, however, by following Jesus and loving him know what meaning it gives to life and believe it is so precious it can’t be traded for anything in this world. Has that ever described your relationship with the Lord?

Let me give you a real-life example of a surprise occurrence of God’s kingdom that happened at my colleague’s congregation in Florida this week. Fourth-grader Antwan was attending the Vacation Bible School day camp run by my friend’s parish. The day camp was open to any kid who wanted to attend, not just members of that congregation. Antwan was one of the kids who came from a nearby Christian Methodist Episcopal church. The camp counselors who helped run the day camp had brought with them their traveling camp store where day-campers could purchase little souvenirs of the week.

Last year, Antwan had seen a cross necklace in that box that he wanted. However, it was $10, and Antwan didn’t have $10. This year, Antwan showed up with a backpack full of pennies in little Ziploc bags. He said he spent all year finding pennies and saving them because he knew he was coming back to camp and wanted that cross. My friend said Antwan waited patiently as the counselors counted out 1000 pennies. He then picked out his cross and proudly put it around his neck, and then dumped all the leftover change he had into the offering bucket for the ELCA Malaria campaign.

Again, Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is like Antwan with a backpack full of pennies. God’s authority recognized and treasured, whenever and wherever. I don’t know where or how you will experience the kingdom of heaven this week, but my bet is that it will take you by surprise, or that it will take you by stealth. No matter what, you can know that on the cross, it has taken you for good. That is ultimately where Jesus goes to make sure God’s gracious authority is established, pushing the moving borders of God’s reign right into the darkest valley. So many things will try to separate God’s people from God’s kingdom—hardship, distress, persecution, peril…and death. But they won’t succeed. Even our feelings of being separated cannot separate us, because God’s Son felt separated on the cross, and yet God was still there. The kingdom still broke in.

Yes, there’s been a lot of talk about borders recently, where they fall, how to patrol them. One day, it is hoped, all people will imitate Antwan and acknowledge the surpassing value of that cross. They’ll gather up all the scattered pennies of their lives, realizing that God’s blessed kingdom has come near to them, too.

One day, for certain, all God’s children will come realize, either through their joy or through God’s fire that, because of Jesus, they reside in a kingdom whose borders are constantly pushing outward, sheltering more people….leavening life…pushing ever further…the good and the bad…pushing…Ha-lalalalalaleluya…right into eternity, forevermore.


Thanks be to God!

It may not be a mustard plant, but those are some wide branches!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11A] - July 20, 2014 (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Romans 8:12-25)

Over the past few months, my wife has been slowly introducing our daughters to George Lucas’ masterpiece Star Wars series. To some degree, viewing these movies is a rite of passage in our culture. They’ve become a permanent part of modern folklore, and their special effects expand the child’s imagination to include galaxies that are far, far away. Many of us, I suspect, can remember the experience of seeing one of the movies in the theater.

For our daughters, the initiation is happening at home in front of the television screen. One by one, over the course of weeks and months, the movies have been shown—although first Melinda and I had to decide whether we should view them in the order in which they were released, beginning with Episode IV, or if we should show them in narrative order, beginning with Episode I.

Jar Jar Binks: Friend or Foe? I'll let the experts decide...
As it turns out, I don’t think it matters for our 6-year-old. She instinctively understands what is going on, and although she may not have the vocabulary to explain it, she grasps that there is a cosmic conflict between good and evil brewing. And she grasps that eventually it’s going to lead up to a big showdown. In fact, every time a new character appears on screen, she will lean over to Melinda and whisper, “Is that a good guy or bad guy?” She wants to know right up front which side everyone’s on, whether she can trust them or malign them. The fact is, of course, you can’t always tell which characters are evil, especially at first…and especially just by looking at them. After all, Jar-Jar Binks is a pretty freaky looking dude! Truth be told, many of the characters end up having a little bit of sinister in them at some point, and most of the sinister ones end up having a small streak of purity somewhere. Regardless, there is much clarity, which makes it appealing. That’s what the whole saga is based on, anyway: a battle for the heart of a kingdom that is good, the stand against the creeping forces of evil and destruction.

They didn’t have Star Wars—or anything like it, for that matter—but the disciples of Jesus were well-aware of the creeping forces of evil and destruction. They were aware of the fact that God’s good creation was afflicted with some dark corruption deep within, that God’s purposes of righteousness and love were constantly being thwarted by human selfishness and pride. Imagine how disappointing, then, it must have been when they hear Jesus explain through a parable that God’s own kingdom is going to be like a universe where, at least for the time-being, good and evil must coexist, where that dark corruption is somehow allowed to spread and intermingle amidst the growing goodness and joy!

After all, it was so easy—or so they thought—just to lean over to each other as it all played out and whisper about who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. It was so uncomplicated to label who should be allowed to grow in the kingdom and then expel those who shouldn’t. However, Jesus’ foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. As much as the disciples would have liked to uproot the evil at once, as much as the disciples would have liked to go in with light sabers blazing, God has a purpose for letting it grow together for now, like weeds among the wheat.

"The Tares" Sir John Everett Millais (1864)
It occurs to me that this parable about the kingdom still plays out in so many ways today. Are we not like those slaves, running to the householder, who are first surprised by the presence of the weeds and then frustrated by the instruction not to pull them up? We look around at a world that has so much going for it, at a creation that is filled with beauty and goodness, and are perplexed by the ongoing existence of evildoing. Initially Jesus likely used this parable to address the disruptions of wickedness that often occur within the church communities. Sad to say, at any given time it’s usually pretty easy for people to look at their congregation and see so much potential if it weren’t for certain people, and especially if it weren’t for certain pastors!

Jesus’ parable of the weeds among the wheat teaches several important things to his disciples. First of all, it acknowledges that not everyone at every moment is working toward the righteousness of God’s kingdom, not everyone at every moment is producing the fruits of justice and peace. Just as the householder’s enemy goes about sowing bad seed in and among the good, so does the reality of sin take root in and among our actions and intentions. Jesus’ whole ministry can be seen in this light, after all. As he makes his way through the towns and villages of Judah and Galilee, conflict and opposition to him crop up just as much as faith and commitment from new followers do.

Second of all, it outlines some faithful ways to deal with this reality by correcting some of our common responses. One common response is to be so overwhelmed with the complexity of the problems around us that we effectively throw our hands up and say that there really is no such thing as evil, that everything is just ambiguous shades of neutral, depending on where you stand. In doing so, we rationalize the weeds as beautiful, too, and the truth is they’re not beautiful at all. The weed to which scholars think this particular parable is referring, darnel, was actually mildly poisonous. If it was ground together with the wheat at the end of harvest and used for baking, it would render the food inedible. While it would be helpful if all evildoing were as obviously repulsive as Darth Vader’s visage, the reality is that it’s not always so. That doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be vigilant against it.

Another response we have is the desire to take matters into our own hands and immediately eradicate all evil at its root. In our rush to label the good guys and the bad guys, to create communities that are completely pure, we come up with solutions that are a little too cavalier, a little too drastic for the issue at hand. For example, we may look at the rise of immigrant children at the southwestern border and we surmise that immigrants are nothing but weeds, evildoers who have broken the law. Therefore we say, turn them away immediately, for their presence here disturbs our good wheat. Or, on the other hand, we view that same situation and conclude that borders and immigration laws are evil! Therefore, rip them out, for they are preventing the wheat from prospering! In the situation at our country’s border, as in just about every scene of conflict in the world and congregation, Jesus suggests that a faithful response is much more nuanced and measured. Good and evil often are intertwined in complicated ways. Indeed, they are truly intertwined within our own lives! When we’re confronted with the presence of evil, it is best to follow the instructions given to the slaves and continue to tend to the field in ways that are good for the wheat. That is, we sow seeds of righteousness and Christlike compassion to everyone and let the Spirit nurture the growth.

migrant minors in Texas
One last response we often have in this situation is to reach the conclusion that this is just how it’s always going to be, that we are destined to live in a universe which will always be haunted by the Imperial Forces, that eternity will stretch on and on with one Episode after another. For true Star Wars fans, that many be a dream scenario (more Episodes!), but for those struggling with life among real weeds, it leads to despair. Therefore Jesus emphatically says this view is false. The householder loves his field and wants it to produce good, and no amount of weediness will get in his way. At times, it may certainly seem that God is distant and uninvolved, that God has let the garden get so overgrown and filled with nastiness that God must not care, but that is not the case. For, as Jesus explains in the parable, there will be a final showdown, a telling of the truth and a setting things to rights.

Indeed, the idea that evil will always spoil the good is so false, so detrimental to our well-being, that Jesus decides show us so on the cross. There, in his death, Jesus demonstrated God’s full commitment to a final harvest of good wheat from all of us. There, one grain of wheat surrounded by nothing but wicked weeds, he offers up his life with the hope that God will still make it right in the end…for you, for me, and for all the folks we label good guys and those we label as bad guys. The cross is the place where the groaning world may plant its hope with the promise it may grow. That particular death, more than anything else, assures us of whose love will triumph in the end.
As we wait for that time, then, brothers and sisters, when the growth of that love finally reaches its full conclusion…as we wait for God’s own patience with evildoing to run out…patience and prayer are required of us. With the Holy Spirit bearing witness within us that we are children of God, we continue to sow seeds of righteousness and love. The sufferings of this present time—profound though they may be—are not worth comparing to the glory of that final harvest (Romans 8:18).

We read his Word and let the Lord nurture the wheat that does grow within and among us. We take the bread of forgiveness and drink the wine of compassion. Then from the border-towns of Mexico to the avenues of comfortable suburbia, from the wreckage in Ukrainian wheatfields to the service sites in Richmond where youth are using summer vacation to serve the homeless and hungry, we gather with our Lord and with each other.

And even as it all plays out in drama and suspense before us, we lean in to him with hearts that question “Where is this all going?” just to hear him whisper so assuredly to us, over and over: “My child, I am risen!


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 10A] - July 13, 2014 (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

Does anyone here remember secret decoder rings? I’m sad to say that I never actually had one, myself, but I knew all about them growing up. Secret decoder rings (or devices) were simple little gizmos—usually they were plastic—that food companies would hide in boxes of their product—usually it was cereal or snack foods. You’d open the box of cereal and fish around down in there to find it. I think technically you were supposed to pour the cereal out and patiently let the decoder ring fall into your bowl whenever it naturally did so, but what kid does that? Anyway, the point was that the company would send out secret messages that you couldn’t decipher and understand unless you had that secret decoder ring. The secret decoder ring was the key to figuring out what was being said. I don’t think many companies use secret decoder rings anymore, which is too bad. I guess we’ve gone more high tech now. Maybe cereal would instead need to come with a secret log-in password to a website. Bor-ing.

But why am I talking about secret decoder rings? Is it because most of us probably feel we need one to understand these rambling sermons? Maybe we should put one in the doughnut box every Sunday. Find that thing and the sermons will finally make sense!

"The Sower" (Vincent Van Gogh)
In all seriousness, that’s how I’ve always thought of this parable of the sower who goes out to sow some seeds all over the place. This parable is like the secret decoder ring of all the other parables. What’s a parable? A parable is a short-ish story or scenario involving commonplace images which Jesus tells teach a lesson. In a way, they are kind of like Jesus’ sermon illustrations. This one is like a decoder ring lesson because once we understand what Jesus is saying with this lesson, then we can start to understand all of the rest of the lessons. In fact, I think that’s why Jesus tells it first, before any other parable. It’s also probably why Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the three gospel writers who include this parable, all are so careful to include Jesus’ own explanation of it. It is like actually wants us to fish through the cereal box right at the start and find the clue that will help us grasp his teachings. That is, not only does this parable introduce Jesus’ listeners to the concept of the parable, but because in a lot of ways it is the parable about parables.

So, just what is the parable trying to say? If we didn’t have Jesus’ own explanation of it, it would be much more difficult for us to decipher that—as if part of the secret decoder ring had fallen apart. In fact, only a very small handful of Jesus’ parables come with Jesus’ explanations in the New Testament. The point of the story is that a sower goes out casting seed fairly vigorously and somewhat recklessly. Rather than carefully confining his sowing to one area where he knows there is good soil, he broadcasts it far and wide. In fact, he casts the seed so wantonly that some doesn’t even make it onto soil at all. It ends up on the path. That seed never really has a chance. Birds come and eat it. Other seed falls into rocky soil that has not properly been prepared for growing things. Some falls among thorns, which prove to be too much competition for the young seedlings. Eventually some of the seed does fall in the good soil, but there is a surprise there, too: not every seed produces the same amount of grain.

Thanks to the explanation of this parable that Jesus gives in private with his disciples, we know this is not a lesson about how to grow a garden. If it is that, then it’s clear Jesus doesn’t know how to grow a garden. That is a very wasteful, careless way to go about it. No, this parable, as it turns out, is a lesson about how Jesus is going to spread God’s Word and how it will grow—or, as the case may be, fail to grow—in the lives of those who hear him. The different soils are metaphors for different types of people in the various life circumstances they may find themselves at any given time. Sometimes people are like the path, where the word of God never really has a chance to grow. It can’t even begin to take root. The Word also experiences difficulties in reaching its fulfillment of producing righteousness in the lives of those who are like rocky or thorny soil.

But, lo and behold, the Word does sometimes land in the lives where things are, for whatever reason, well-prepared to hear what Jesus teaches and faith takes root and prospers. Maybe the soil has been prepared by careful attention to devotional practices. Maybe the soil has been tilled under and made ready because they’re experienced a particular tragedy in their life and they’re hungry for a fresh perspective. Maybe they just got a good night of sleep. Who knows? But the Word takes root and grows. Sometimes that growth results in a bumper crop. Sometimes it results in a more modest yield. But the growth is always somewhat mysterious and never really up to the expert planting ability of the sower himself.  Let anyone with ears, listen! 
And that right there is how this parable is the decoder ring. It is like Jesus is saying: “I’m going to tell all kinds of stories and preach all kinds of sermons and perform all kinds of deeds of power and sometimes it’s just not going to seem to make a difference to people. They’ve clearly got those ears, but it’s going to go in one and out the other.” This parable explains, more or less, why these differences in reactions occurs even to us. Sometimes we cultivate great worship attendance patterns and sometimes we read up on our Bible and we get all involved in other faith practices and we still just don’t get it. Either things don’t make good sense on some days or nothing appears to have much effect on us. Sometimes hearing Jesus’ own lessons, teachings, and miracles doesn’t produce faith in us. We don’t grasp the story that’s behind the parable’s story, or the point that is behind the miracle. At other times we find we do understand these life-giving things. Faith grows, but maybe only thirty or twenty-fold.

Does any of this mean that God is not real or that God is not active in the life of the universe? Does it mean that God has withheld God’s Word from us? Not at all! But it does mean that in a world still shrouded by sin, even God’s Word can encounter challenges in producing what it is given to produce. With this decoder ring we can start to understand, “a-Ha! Because of that strange sowing technique, Jesus includes all people—even me!—in his kingdom, and sometimes that good news will cause me to grow and change and give thanks, but at other times people—even I—will scratch their heads and wonder what in the world is going on.”

I think we could go one step farther, however, and say that this parable of the sower is not just the key to understanding the other parables. It is, in fact, the key to understanding how God works, and what kind of God God is. Like the sower in the parable, God is overly generous with his life-giving Word. God does not pick and choose who gets to receive the love made known in Christ. God does not go out and find only the good soil and drop his grace there. God broadcasts that stuff everywhere. All over the place. It may seem like a waste of time to us, but does an eternal God really need to worry about wastefulness? It may seem like a misuse of resources to us, but doesn’t the Source of all Goodness, the one who created the resource in the first place, get to decide how God wants to use the Word?

Yes, this is how our God operates, generously bestowing that Word of life everywhere God wants, over all of creation. In teaching, in preaching, in healing, in prayer…God is at work in myriad ways and myriad places with the confidence that one little seed will grow somewhere and produce many more times than that in faithfulness. Eventually the way God casts this Word will lead his Son to die on the cross in order to have his Word take root in the hearts of his people. He will cast that kernel of grace and righteousness on the most godforsaken, bloody, lifeless piece of ground. Come to think of it, there were thorns there, too. He will cast his whole life there in the hope that anyone who ever appens to be that kind of soil, too—anyone who feels parched and desolate from the turmoil of sin and death—will still have a chance to rise with Jesus and be included in God’s kingdom.

It stands to reason, then, if the secret decoder tells us how people receive God’s Word and that this is how God works in all things—spreading his Word and his grace and his love so liberally—then that is how the church should be, too. We are the ones who go out and spread this message in our lives. We know we’re not supposed to keep it in the seed bag to ourselves. And we’re really not supposed to carefully pick and choose who we think is worthy of receiving it, either, which is what I’m afraid any of us can be guilty of at times.  Good soil, you see, isn’t always apparent on the surface. In fact, we can pretty much say that good soil is almost never apparent just by looking at someone’s surface. The point is that we’re never really in charge of those people’s growth in faith in the end, anyway. Our job is to hear the Word spoken and sung, to be fed at the table and washed at the font, and then spread God’s Word of love and joy to all people following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ who in this morning’s text sees so many people with ears to hear that he steps out into a boat on the shore and delivers the message.

I think you all understand this concept more fully that you might realize. This morning, for example, your backs rest against one of the seeds of faith and love that you’ve been sowing. You’ve also been sewing, you see: Quilts for LWF! Over a hundred of them, carefully stitched by dedicated volunteers over the past several months. They will be flown to various distant parts of the planet and placed in the hands of villagers and urban residents who need them.

Now I hate to break it to you, but some of them will be distributed and received…and then never used as they’re intended. Some may not even be used at all. Some folks will receive them and cut them up for clothes, or maybe even tossed aside. Others might use them for shelter. Some for a floor covering, others for warmth. But in the midst of all that, I bet more than one newborn baby will be wrapped in one of these quilts you’ve made today. And that’s pretty amazing. Hundred-fold yield.

The point is, you know you’ve not made these quilts with the thought that you will hand-select those you deem worthy to receive them. You’re simply making them, blessing them, and handing them over to the soils of the world and trusting in the providence of God’s care and the Spirit’s growth as they go.

May it be so with all your demonstrations of faith and service, your Sunday School teaching and confirmation mentoring, with all your efforts to share your faith, with all the conversations of compassion and care you have privately with those you know. You’ve been given the Word, and you know it has, from time to time, grown in you. Well, now you have the secret decoder ring, too! Get to spreading the Word.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.