Sunday, January 25, 2015

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

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

I know: real cheery concept, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Second Sunday of Christmas - January 4, 2015 (John 1:[1-9] 10-18)

I had it made this Christmas.

Normally I get all tied up with gift-giving, especially when it comes to my beloved Melinda. Either things don’t get shipped in time or I can’t figure out what she wants, or I can’t find the time to shop, but this year she just went ahead and bought the gift for me to give to her. It was a winter coat, an item which she needed. When the package came in the mail, she even opened it, tried the coat on in front of me, and said, “Why don’t you just get me this for Christmas?”

And I said, “Merry Christmas, honey!”

I tell you, I had it made this year. All the hard work done for me. Do you think I had the decency to wrap the gift, or even just put a bow on it?

That would be a ‘no.’ It sat there on a chair in our bedroom for about three weeks in the same brown box it arrived in.

Wrapping paper seems like such a meaningless, wasteful thing until the moment of the unwrapping. That’s the thing. The gift itself is nice—even when someone does all the hard work of getting it on your behalf—but how the gift is presented is important, too.

What the people of God have long understood and attempted with their lives to explain is that when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth, the wrapping is as important as the gift itself. Indeed, the wrapping, the presentation, is an indispensable part of the gift. What I mean is that the idea that God would descend to give himself to his own creation is monumental on its own. It’s a bit crazy down here, after all. We’ve got waterboarding and influenza and internet article comments. That God would choose to wrap himself up as a human being is the real miracle, the bold new step of love no one saw coming.

orthodox icon of Jesus, Christos
This is how John, the gospel-writer, wants to explain what we call the mystery of the incarnation. Luke tells us about the baby in the manger. John talks about the Word becoming flesh. Luke gives us a story to hear, with characters and music, so that we can paint a picture. John gives us poetry, with words and concepts, so that we can start making sense of who Jesus, theologically-speaking. And theologically-speaking, John says, Jesus is God wrapped up as a human being.

Granted, John is not so succinct as that. He begins by referring to Jesus as the Word of God. This Word that God uses to create everything was with God at the very beginning. We can go back and read Genesis and, regardless of where we each stand on our interpretation of the creation stories, we can all agree that God uses the power of speech—utterance—to bring things into existence. Even light, the first thing God makes, which eventually brings life to everything, was brought into existence by this Word of God.

People of faith have long been amazed and perplexed by all of that, but they at least have always understood that words that come from God are part of God just as your words, when they’re at their most honest, are part of you. Yet John wants to explain this a little more. He says that this divine speech—this moving power of God with all its wisdom and efficacy—is so near to whatever God is that when one talks about that Word of God, one is talking about God, too.

That’s why John says, “In the beginning the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Whatever path the philosophers and scholars and you and me conceive this Word of God to be, the the point that John is really driving at here is that that Word, that very stuff of God that was responsible for all this great creation—that became flesh and dwelt among us.

And I think we tend to forget this, or overlook the magnitude of it. As Lillian Daniel observes, we are all so prone to talk about God’s presence or God’s beauty in other aspects of creation—sunsets (that’s a favorite), or the ocean…nature…animals…even the interstellar cosmos…yet rarely we do find ourselves waxing eloquent about how other humans embody the divine. The church’s celebration of Christmas, the mystery of the incarnation, is that God has looked past the sunsets, past the serenity of the oceans, past the star-studded wondrous heavens, and has picked up the gift off the chair in the bedroom that is God’s very self and wrapped the Divine Self in brownish skin. Brown, human skin. That was probably dirty most of the time. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” Theological and poetic, for sure, but it starts to sound just as beautiful and real as the story about the baby in the manger.

I don’t think I can put it any better than Denise Levertov, a British-born American award-winning poet who did not convert to Christianity until the age of 60. In one of her short poems “On the Mystery of the Incarnation”, she phrases John’s thoughts like this:

It's when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind's shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

Entrusted. Given. The Word, wrapped up a very specific way just for our sake. And just as Bible translators have struggle with how to explain “Word” over the years, that part about the wrapping has produced some interesting interpretations, too. A few versions say, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” One version I found says, “The Word became flesh and took shelter among us.” That one echoes my favorite translation of John’s original Greek, one which gives me a vivid mental picture: “He pitched his tent among us.” The root verbs for “pitching one’s tent” and “living among us” are the same in Greek. Tents, after all, used to be made out of hide, so the connection is there. In Jesus, God pitches his tent right here in our camp, right here with all the pain and joy of being wrapped in skin in a crazy world that has waterboarding and influenza and internet article comments.

I once met a young woman who worked as a counselor with troubled teens at a camp in a rural part of this state. This camp is actually better described as a wilderness school that serves as a last-ditch effort for troubled youth in order to get their lives back on track. Many of the teens who come there have been convicted of minor drug violations or petty crimes, and many are struggling with addictions and issues resulting from abuse or neglect. They stay there at this wilderness school, learning survival techniques, how to care for animals and themselves, learning how to live in harmony with nature, until they are clean enough to leave and re-enter life as responsible young adults. Here’s the thing: they sleep out in tents all year round. The ruggedness of the environment and their education helps put their lives in perspective, I suppose, and helps flesh out some of those issues they need to deal with.

image: source unknown
The part that struck me was that this young woman I met, who worked there as one of the “teachers,” helping the students lay out their curriculum, was required to live in a tent, too. Quite literally she pitched her own tent right in there with the kids, through all kinds of weather and all kinds of temperatures. If they slept in it, so did she. If they didn’t get much sleep because it was too cold or two loud, neither did she. The idea was that whatever issues they were facing, whatever inner demons they would confront, whatever tests they would endure, their teacher—their leader—would also. By pitching her tent in there among with the youth, she was not only learning to identify with their struggles, but she was also more accessible. If the night got scary and lonely, and the way to sobriety too twisted, their support was right next to them, not in some distant heated cabin or apartment, out of the woods. Not exactly a job I could do, but I’m glad there are people willing to pitch those tents with the youth, thankful there are people willing to wrap themselves in the dangerous circumstances of others in order to lead a way to redemption.

The step that God takes toward his creation by sending his Son to pitch his tent among us, to be wrapped in flesh like we are, is rough and dangerous. Jesus will be abused and beat up. He will be rejected even by the people he is sent to save. Yet God wraps him up and sends him anyway to take shelter with us. And he shows us the way to redemption. In the life and ministry of Jesus, the heart of God is revealed, and we can see God’s glory through him.

Our principle task, then, as people of this Word, is to let ourselves be present in and among the people of this community, this city, this planet. We, too, are to be wrapped up just as we are, residing with those who feel the strain of life with skin, reminding them in our words and our actions that though the night is often dark, the light has been overcome. It is to be people who explain through our ministries and our worship that the great gift has not been left lying on the chair in some back room—hey, Merry Christmas, go find it yourselves—but that someone has taken the great care to present the very essence of God’s love to us so that we may see it.

Our task is, in short, to let that “awe crack our mind’s shell” and tell the world that this Christmas…and every Christmas…and every day we breathe…and the day we cease to breathe: because of Jesus Christ, we have it made.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.                  

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve - December 24, 2014 (Luke 2:1-20)

The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

There it is, shining out in the darkness like one of Richmond’s world-famous tacky-light displays: joy.

The first word—the first thought, the first idea, the first commentary—associated with the message about Jesus’ arrival is…joy. It is not some theological term like “salvation.” It is not a moral term like forgiveness or holiness. It is not even love. It is joy. And, in fact, it is not just any old joy. The angel said, “I am bringing you good news of GREAT joy.” In the Greek: mega joy.

The baby is birthed in a crude stable area, wrapped up tightly in bands of cloth that happen to be lying around laid in a manger with all that straw and—who knows?—maybe even some leftover animal slobber. Most of us would probably put ourselves in that situation and think, aghast, “Oh, NO!” but the instead heaven opens up and the messenger says “Oh yes, yes YES! Mega joy!”

"The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds" Thomas Cole (1833-34)
The centuries upon centuries that the world has waited for a Savior are finally over, and it seems as if his grand entrance is getting a little botched. The shepherds are afraid, and they’re not exactly the right kind of people anyway. Many of us would cry, “Cut, cut cut! This isn’t right!” But instead the cameras keep rolling and out of heaven spills mega joy anyway.

It seems so basic, but then again, think of how often we end up centering the news of Christmas on something other than joy! Think of how often followers of Christ, when given the chance, lead off with some other concept or doctrine or belief or emotion when presenting their faith in speech or action!

Pope Francis is onto it. In his annual Christmas address to Vatican City insiders this week, he named 15 “ailments” that can plague people of faith, especially religious leaders. One of them he termed “the illness of the funeral face,” which he went on to define as that spiritual illness displayed by “those who believe that in order to be serious it is necessary to paint their faces with melancholy and severity and to treat others—especially those they consider inferior—with rigidity, harshness, and arrogance.”[1]

It’s no wonder that all our best Christmas villains—Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch—are noted most for their severity and melancholy. That is, they’re joyless! The angels say to the shepherds, No Funeral Faces tonight, boys! A Savior is born. For you!

Years ago in another congregation I had a co-worker from the United Kingdom who, I eventually learned, had not been raised in a churched family and who had not identified as Christian until his college years. Many admired him for his confident but calm witness. Intrigued, I asked him once what had led him to faith as a young adult, especially in the midst of a such a pluralistic university environment. He replied, “I got to know a small group of people who identified as Christian and they seemed to have something I didn’t. As I thought about it, I realized it was joy. It wasn’t necessarily because I thought they were right. I just wanted to be a part of them because I wanted to have that joy.”

And so tonight we gather once again to be reminded of the joy. Tonight we come together to hear again or maybe for the first time that at the heart of the angel’s message lies the amazing news that we have been given a Son. Amid the candlelight and carols, and amid the claims that Caesars the world over make on their people…amid the harmony of the choirs, and amid the clashes of racial tension and religion-inspired violence…amid the unwrapping of presents and amid the heartbreak of loved ones’ absence…we are assembled to hear that the world’s long wait for redemption is over. To us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Mega joy.

But, just to be clear, the joy that this message brings is no artificial, fabricated joy. It is not a joy that comes from hoping that for one day each year we get to escape from our sorrows or tinsel over them, to recreate the glory of Christmases of years past. It is a joy that comes from believing that with Jesus’s birth, God has now entered each of our sorrows and leads us forward into a future of new life. It is the joy that takes root when one realizes that this isn’t news simply of a birth…but a birth that will lead to a particular death for the sins of the world.

That’s what the “To you is born” part of this really means. It means the “you” that is burdened by the worries of the world, the “you” that is tired and weary, the “you” that feels unworthy or unloved. It the “you” of a whole world that has really gone astray, a world which gropes in the darkness and lurches about looking for meaning, a “you” that will understand in due time that its Creator is not distant or indifferent but willing to suffer and join in with the lurching and meet it in the dark.

It is against this backdrop of darkness and thinking about the Pope’s warning against funeral face, about joy and gifts and wonder and grace, that I begin to remember the particular face I have come to most associate with the angel’s message on Christmas Eve. It was the face of Mrs. Rohrbaugh, a member of the congregation of my childhood. Mrs. Rohrbaugh was a fairly regular worshipper, but on Christmas Eve every year, without fail, she sat in the front pew of our sanctuary. I sat much farther back, nestled with three generations of my family in one pew.

In most normal circumstances a person wouldn’t be able to see the faces of those who sit in front of them, but in our congregation on Christmas Eve, we would all file out, pew by pew, during the final carol in order to gather for the Christmas blessing on the church steps and sidewalk. As a result, you watched people pass you, their faces illuminated by their candles’ glow. Because of where she sat, Mrs. Rohrbaugh was one of the first, to round the bend and approach my pew, And although I could tell she wasn’t trying to be seen, the bright glistening of her cheeks were unmistakable. Tears were smeared across her face reflecting the light. The corners of her mouth bent slightly downward in sadness, but her lips were open wide, mouthing boldly the words of “Silent Night, Holy Night.” And past she went into the night with us all.

That’s an image that a small child doesn’t forget: someone sobbing on Christmas Eve, when all childish senses are focused instead on the presents that will be unwrapped in the morning. It was not until I was older and another adult in the congregation filled me in on the painful and difficult stories behind Mrs. Rohrbaugh’s tears on that front pew: the early death of a first, beloved husband, followed by the cruel abandonment by a second one directly following the birth of a child with acute special needs.

Who knows what all was behind that expression, but hers was certainly not funeral face. But it clearly wasn’t happy, either. It may at the time have seemed out of place, but what a gift Mrs. Rohrbaugh gave me those Christmas Eves—what a gift she gave all of us—a glimpse of someone who was truly receiving the gift of a Savior who suffers, the expression of someone who had heard that because of Jesus, lying in the manger—and later hanging from a cross—God had met her in her darkness. I think we can say hers was the face of unbridled joy, a face that knew the hopes and fears of all her years were going to be met when the angels showed up to announce, once again, that there is good news of great joy—for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.

I suspect there are Mrs. Rohrbaughs here tonight, sitting among us, and Mr. Rohrbaugh’s, too…just as there are little childhood “me’s,” nestled in cozily with their kin. There are those like the shepherds who reside on the fringes, too, but then strangely pulled in. There are those who are wondering, those who are pondering the truth, those who are simply amazed. There’s even a pastor here who’s prone to funeral face from time to time. Well here’s something: the Savior is born for all the people.

As we gather at the manger, may God’s Spirit build in and among us such a sense of community that others will see us and say, “Oh yes, yes YES…I want to be a have some of that mega joy.”

Adoration of the Shepherds (pupil of Rembrandt, 1646)


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “The Fifteen Ailments of the Vatican Curia,” Abby Ohlheiser, The Washington Post, Dec 22, 2014

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Third Sunday of Advent [Year B] - December 14, 2014 (John 1:6-8, 19-28 and Psalm 126)

To a large degree in our culture—at least for many adults—any sense of really waiting for Christmas has long been done away with. It could be that I’m just projecting my own feelings of frustration here, but as I listen to others and their long do-do lists, as I observe the ever-increasing stream of traffic around shopping areas, as I fret about deadlines for having things ordered so they’ll ship in time, it occurs to me that there is no waiting anymore. Young children, I’d bet, still feel that agonizing tension of expectation, but for so many of us, the primary feeling of Advent is not “When, oh, when will the day get here?” but, rather, “Oh, sweet Jesus, it’s barreling right at me!”

Memorial angels for the fallen in Newtown
I read a blog entry this week of one of the mothers who lost a child in the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, CT, which happened exactly two years ago, today. It was a moving post, difficult to read. She wrote movingly about how much that day has permanently affected her, how it effectively divided her life into time before Sandy Hook and time after Sandy Hook. She lamented the loss of her old, optimistic personality, wondering if it would ever return. Towards the end of the woman’s post, she allowed that she was beginning to see glimmers of that joy, but was clearly eager to have it increase and take over again. Now that, I thought to myself, is waiting. That is the agonizing tension of expectation.

When we take modern-day Christmas out of the equation, that’s the kind of waiting that Advent wants us to ponder. If we were to take Christmas out of the equation—I know it’s hard to, but just for a minute—I think we’d realize that that kind of waiting permeates all our lives, to one degree or another. It’s the kind of waiting that pervades this entire “benighted sphere,” as the old Swedish hymn calls the planet Earth. In all the slums and cities and suburbs the world over people, each in his or her own way, are racked by grief, by boredom, by the curse of sin, and they are wondering if the joy will return. “Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,” go the words of today’s psalm, “will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.” We want that to be true. We want to shoulder the sheaves of joy.

It is into that kind of waiting—that agonizing tension when joy seems to be so delayed—that John the Baptist appears. In first century Israel, everyone seemed to be waiting and wondering whether God’s time would come. God’s rule would be marked by the return of a prophet, or the anointing of a Messiah, a savior, and just about everyone was on edge with that expectation.

John the Baptist suggested that it was near at hand, and his appearance out in the wilderness, near the small town of Bethany, rather than within the halls of power in the city, captured the imagination and hope of the people. Out in the wilderness their ancestors’ dreams had been honed with a time of expectation. This voice made sense to them, booming as it was. It evoked promise, sounding as if he had been sent from God as a witness. It reminded them that God most often acts at the margins (how could they have forgotten?), at the bottom of society first, and so they flock to see him, to be cleaned with baptismal waters and be ready because that which they were waiting for was here.

Even the powers-that-be from way up at the Jerusalem Temple show up to check John out, sending their representatives to interrogate him. Granted, at any given time back then there were probably a number of people claiming to be prophets like John, but John gets their attention. He might be stirring something up.

What grabs your attention these days? What commotions and disturbances out there on the edges of your life do you think deserve a closer look?

St. John the Baptist (Barbieri Giovanni Francesco)
What the people find when they finally reach John might surprise them. John, you see, wastes no time pointing away from himself to someone else, someone greater. He, after all, is to be a witness, not the subject himself. He is not the one everyone has been waiting for. That one, in fact, stands among them now. John’s role is only to help prepare people for his arrival, to carry the seed and toss it out into the soil, to remind people that they have the chance to receive him. John understands he’s not the light, but he will testify to the light. John knows he is not the Promised One, but is one who speaks of the Promise. John is not the answer to the eternal question if God loves us, but because John speaks of Jesus, John is the witness to the answer.

I caught a part of a radio broadcast the other day where people were calling in to the D.J. explaining their favorite Christmas song. One person called in to say that “The Little Drummer Boy” was most meaningful to her because she felt that song somehow placed her in the manger scene, sharing her humble gifts with Jesus. Might I suggest this morning the message is that we are not to be Little Drummer Boys, but little John the Baptists? It is good to share our gifts with Jesus, but we are also to testify to him, to point to him, to help the world notice, in humble ways, that joy has arrived…that, at least as far as wondering whether God loves us and remembers us, the wait is over.

Often without being aware of it, we followers of Christ can often take on the tone that we are the answer to the world’s problems. Without realizing the sanctimoniousness of our actions, we burst onto the scene, into the neighborhood, into the village, into the political debate with the attitude that now that we’ve arrived, things will start looking up for everyone.

Hand-carved wooden crosses
The reality is that Jesus is God’s response to the sin in the world, to the agonizing tension of expectation. Jesus is the one who proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor. Jesus is the one who brings liberty to the captives, who binds up the brokenhearted, in Newtown and elsewhere. It is Jesus who is born to bring justice, who makes his way from the murky waters of the River Jordan to the cross on Golgotha.

Those who testify to him, therefore, must walk that fine line between being those who, like John, may know about the light and even attract people because they stand so close to it, but yet who always remember the importance of pointing away from ourselves to that light. It is striking the balance between humbly trusting we have a claim on the truth, and knowing, more importantly, that the truth has a claim on us.

And that truth stands in our midst.  We are not worthy to untie his sandals, and yet he still comes to tell the world with his life and death that its agonizing wait is over.

Last Sunday evening the congregation celebrated its Consecration Sunday dinner in order to tally and announce the financial commitments for the coming year and enjoy some congregational fellowship. As is the custom, once the dinner was over, we put on our coats and traipsed outside in the cold to the front yard of our church for the Grand Illumination of our little town of Bethlehem Christmas display. Earlier in the week, a team of volunteer men, led by a master electrician, had rigged the large star and the angels high above us, and all the electrical switches and cords were in order. We tested it. We were ready, yet for some unknown reason when the time came to flip the switch, the lights flickered for a second, and then immediately went out. That left us in the pitch-black dark, for whatever went wrong had also knocked out the power to the large flood light that had been focused on the manger.

We all stood there for a second, wondering what to do. The person at the switchboard flipped the switch again, and then the lights came on…and then went out again. This on-then-off happened about two more times before we finally had to call it quits. The crowd took the incident really well. I don’t think anyone was really that let down, and, in fact, it gave a few people the chance to chortle out some lines from a movie with Clark Griswold. Another person later said that with our crescendo-ing and descrescendo-ing voices we sounded like people watching a firework display: “Ahhh…. ohhh… AAAAHHH….ohhhh.”

Looking back, I wonder what the people thought who happened to be sitting at the stoplight at Horsepen and Monument, the people who happened to be driving by at that precise moment. Did they catch what happened? Did they chuckle, too, or have pity on us for our mishap? Or did they perchance catch that when the lights on the Christmas star and the angels go out, what is left is the cross? Did they see, then, a bunch of women and men and children looking up at this sign of ultimate love in our midst and going, Ahhh…oohhhh…ahhhh?

I’d like to think that’s what they really could have seen: a people who were clearly waiting for something spectacular, but ended up looking in wonder at the cross. I hope that’s what we really are—a community of disciples who witness in that way, not drawing attention to ourselves and our own dazzling displays of faith, not attracting seekers and guests merely so that they may be a part of “us,” but a people who testify in word and deed in such a way that they are drawn in to see this light with us, even if it means we have to stand in the dark every once in a while.

I pray, too, that this is what we continue to become—a gathering in the cold dark night of the world that is inviting others to trust alongside of us that the agonizing wait is over. At long last we are beginning to shoulder sheaves. The Promised One has come and we may receive him in joy as far as the curse is found.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Day of Thanksgiving [Year A] - November 27, 2014 (Psalm 65

There's nothing like a having a day set aside for nationwide thanksgiving—a day which, perhaps more than any other, proclaims our unity as a people—preceded by two days of violent protests,  reminding us that not everyone experiences the blessings of this land the same or equally. Granted, the discrepancies between various components of American society are always there, especially when it comes to wealth and economic opportunity, but the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the “tumult of the peoples” in other cities and states have brought them into stark relief for us once again. The psalmist this morning says that “those who live at the earth’s farthest bounds are awed by [God’s] signs,” a sentiment which claims that God’s abundant goodness is so vast in its scope no one anywhere can deny it. Yet plenty have reason to, and we don’t have to go to earth’s farthest bounds to find them. They’re on our TV screens.

For many, Thanksgiving will be celebrated this year through the haze of tear gas and smoldering buildings, to say nothing of those whose lives and livelihoods have been so deeply affected by the shooting of Michael Brown in August. Indeed, emotions are running so high for so many people that it is even difficult to offer a simple observation about what is going on without raising the ire of someone, which only serves to prove the point that in so many ways we are a divided people.

Camille Pissarro "Women farming"
It is fitting, then, that before he begins listing the his descriptive examples of God’s bounty and generosity in things of the earth—the rivers that enrich it, the grain that feeds the people, the wagon tracks spilling over with the harvest---the writer of Psalm 65 begins with a reflection on God’s forgiveness. That is, before we sing of those wagon tracks that overflow, we confess that our sins overflow, and that God’s mercy overflows all the more. It is chiefly in pardon through the love of God’s Son on the cross where we begin to see God’s abundant giving.

Our eyes may then, in faith, be opened to the ways in which our whole lives are enriched by God’s presence, every dark and forsaken corner illuminated by Jesus’ mercy, and like the one Samaritan leper for whom that eye-opening happens, we can fall down in thanksgiving to praise God.

For the writer of Psalm 65, The thanksgiving for God’s mercy then develops into a realization that all human ingenuity and prosperity comes from God, that our blessings are not entirely of our own design, nor are they by accident. The psalmist’s images are agrarian in nature—the furrows and ridges of the grain fields, the flocks that blanket the hills—and may sound a bit foreign to us in the digital age.

"Grace" (Eric Enstrom, 1919)
A story is told of a farmer from the country was in the city to do some business. While there, he stopped at a diner to get a bite to eat. As was his custom, before he ate, he bowed his head to give a word of thanks to God. There were some other patrons in the restaurant who took notice of this bumpkin and his traditional, quaint ways. Once he was done praying they asked him in jest, “Does everybody where you come from pray before eating?”

The farmer looked up and said, “Nope. There are some who don’t. We call them pigs and they just dig in.” 

Yes, the connections between agriculture and God’s blessings in nature are often clear, but are we any less dependent on God’s goodness? The types of gifts that surround us today may not be immediately recognizable as coming from the earth that God so generously waters, but somewhere back at their source they still do. Those whose immediate prosperity is so closely tied to the annual harvest, are likely to be more aware of their vulnerability, especially if it were all to be taken away by bad weather or community strife. But in fact, we are all growing and succeeding as a result of God’s gift of a fertile earth, a cosmos that just happens to be perfectly tuned to harbor life, and the thoughtfulness of human hearts that are created to think of others.

Last week at one of the men’s lunch groups our discussion centered around people who we knew in high school who were especially gifted or talented at something and then what they did later in life. Did they manage to make much of themselves? Had they recognized their blessings and used them in such a way to bring success? As we were sharing our stories, one among us told a story about a kid in grade school who had nothing. His family was poor, and he showed up to school every day without any lunch. A particularly venerable teacher, named Ms. Loving, spent some of her own money every day to get the kid something to eat. Years later, long after he had graduated from school and settled across the country to make a name for himself in Hollywood that student, Forrest Tucker, sent a check to Ms. Loving for $1000.

Abbotts' Farm, Mt Lebanon, PA
Yet returning thanks as a follower of Christ means more than following through with our gratitude to the Great Giver. It also involves following through with the mindfulness of others’ needs. Our thanksgiving to God is fullest  when we receive the generous blessings of paid-for lunches, valleys bedecked with ample grain and remember that they are not for us alone. They are for sharing, collecting and distributing so that all may take part in the bounty.

“God is able,” the apostle Paul calmly explains to the wayward congregation in Corinth who is trying to go it alone, “to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” Yes, it is even those who live at the earth’s farthest bounds who will, through our thanksgiving, sense awe and wonder by God’s signs of generosity.

In our truest thanksgiving we come to understand not just God’s largess but also our interconnectedness. We pray that God give us our daily bread, not me my daily bread. We are inspired to see a universe that the psalmist envisions: where God’s desire to give and provide and especially forgive is always the root, the genesis of all good. And, furthermore, he whose actions toward us are even more loving than Ms. Loving: always bigger than our failure to follow through.

sorting donations of school supplies
This year’s celebration is as good a one as any to remember the importance of framing all of our thanks with a recognition that the only way we come before the Lord to say anything at all is by his great mercy, his great love. Therefore, before we launch in with our declarations on how good the past year may have been for us personally or even as a nation we start with an honest confession of human selfishness and our need for Jesus’ mercy. As we gather to partake of good food and cherished family memory-sharing, let our thoughts fall to those who still feel ostracized as well as those who struggle to keep us safe in this great land.

Likewise, before we become too obsessed with our differences and our divisions, before we become too glum about the things we argue about and the way some things never seem to change, let also remember that, as the psalmist also says, to God all flesh—black, white, illegal immigrant and permanent resident—shall one day, by the grace of Christ, come.

And, for that, give great thanks.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.