Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year A] - February 26, 2017 (Matthew 17:1-9)

The late Jim Valvano, basketball coach for the NC State Wolfpack, whose team won the NCAA Championship in 1983, had a very unique and some would say outrageous way he’d begin each season of practice. Before they would practice a single free throw shot, before they would run any passing drills, before they’d even do laps around the court, Jimmy V would have his players dress out and bring them out on the court with a ladder. He’d put the ladder underneath the basketball hoop and then hand them a pair of scissors at which point he would have the whole team practice cutting down the net. In case you’re not familiar with college basketball, the act of cutting down the nets from a basketball hoop is reserved for tournament champions. Only one team gets to do it, obviously, and it is done right at the end of the final victory. As the television crews come onto the court and the wild, celebrating fans are corralled back into their seats for the presentation of the trophy, someone brings out a ladder and the winning team-members climb up, one-by-one, to cut the net down. And in the Men’s NCAA Division 1 basketball tournament, which will begin in a little less than a month, the song they begin playing in the background is “One Shining Moment.”

Practicing that championship ritual, that end-of-the-season, final, culminating ceremony is how Coach Valvano began his season. It’s a bit outrageous, but I suppose he did that in order to get his players to glimpse the glory that could be theirs before they descended into the hard work and discipline and day-to-day drudgery of the season. I suppose he did it to inspire them forward, to give them a vision of what they could be before the season had a chance to disillusion them.

In many ways, that is what the Transfiguration of Jesus was for his disciples. This whole experience is outrageous, if you look at it. Even Jesus refers to it as a vision once it’s over, as if something about it wasn’t quite real, almost a figment of their imagination. Whatever it was, it was a glimpse of the final glory of Jesus, a brief peek, if you will, into One Shining Moment that would be a precursor, a little foretaste, of the Everlasting Shining Eternity Jesus would bring at the end of his story.

An 11th century icon of Christ's Transfiguration. This is at St. Catherine's
Monastery, which sits at the base of Mt. Sinai
The fact of the matter is they needed a brief peek, they needed a glimpse of that glory, for two main reasons. First of all, they don’t really have a clue about who Jesus is. They’ve never been given the information that Jesus is, for example, God’s Son. For those of us who have the benefit of reading the gospel of Matthew, that’s something that’s been more or less clear since the beginning. We know the story of his birth, and the miraculous, mysterious events that surrounded it. We have heard about the angel that visited Joseph in dream that informed him his son would save the people from their sins. We also know about the events at Jesus’ baptism, how he went down in the water and when he came up a voice boomed from on high identifying Jesus as God’s Son.

None of the disciples, you see, were there at those occasions. For them, Jesus is a rabbi with some very compelling (if not confusing) teachings and an incredibly insightful understanding of God’s law. For them, Jesus is a teacher and leader who also has the ability to work some miracles every now and then. There have been a small handful of vague references to Jesus and God the Father, but no one has an idea of the depth of that relationship until this One Shining Moment.

Who is Jesus for you? Hearing the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is an excellent time to ask ourselves that question. Is he an idea in your head? How do you see him? What’s his point?

Sorry for the blurriness. This was in the days before cell phone cameras.
I remember one of the the first times I really grappled with these kinds of questions and the difference between the Jesus in my head and the Jesus that’s out there, as a real person I was in Hong Kong for a trip during seminary and we were at a Chinese Lutheran Church one morning during worship and Sunday School. Some kind of special faith formation event was going on between the worship services that morning—much like our Explore Camp Day today—and there were some materials and pieces of art laid out on a table. And among those pieces of art was a pair of painted plates. One plate had nothing but Chinese writing on it, which I couldn’t understand. The other plate, however, was a picture of a man under a tree surrounded by a bunch of children. One of the children was even on his lap. And it took me a second to figure out who I was really looking at because all of the figures were Asian. It was Jesus blessing a bunch of children, but Jesus had what I would consider—and what I think the artist would have considered—Asian features. Even the tree they were under looked like something out of an old Asian piece of art, branches kind of bending downward like a willow. While my brain understood that Jesus was not Asian, it made me acknowledge that in my mind’s eye I had always formed Jesus into a white, Caucasian Jesus. I had essentially imagined Jesus just as a wiser, more capable version of myself and the people that were around me most of the time.

In a way, those plates transfigured Jesus for me. They presented him in a new way that made me pause and really consider not just what but mainly who it is that I believe has named and claimed me in faith.

"Transfiguration" (Raphael)
Jesus can often come across so much of the time as an idea, a concept that can be mulled over in our heads rather than a person that can be beheld, that can amaze us. We can so easily reduce Jesus to some kind of moral teacher, or even just a moral teaching. We go through life and its complex situations thinking in terms of “What Would Jesus Do?” almost as if that were some kind of philosophical question. And those kinds of questions and outlooks aren’t necessarily wrong or bad—because disciples are supposed to imitate their leader—but neither do they quite offer a complete picture of who Jesus is. On the mount of Transfiguration the disciples don’t hear, “This is a great wise teacher. He’s got great ideas. Listen to him!” Or “This guy’s a great example. Ponder him!” They hear, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!”

Disciples of yesterday and disciples of today may begin to follow Jesus with the hopes that they will just end up as better people. But the reality is that following Jesus means being given something better. It means being granted new life, a bright, unending future. It means being given Jesus—being in his presence, knowing him, sharing life with him—which is reward enough because he is the Son of God.

So, one thing this net-cutting event on the mountain does is tell the disciples more about Jesus’ identity. The other reason God gives those disciples a glimpse of the future glory is the one we already know. We know it in our bones, but we try to ignore it, deny it. Peter becomes voice of our denial because what we know (but have a hard time admitting) is that we have to head back down the mountain for a while and life is way different down there than on the top. Christian faith doesn’t call us to an escape from the world. It calls us to a greater engagement with it, and that is not always fun and games. Just as the Wolfpack learned from Coach Valvano that the season requires practice, drills, and sweat, we learn from Jesus that discipleship will involve a cross.

That is, in fact, what Jesus has just finished telling them when he takes Peter, James and John up the mountain that day. He has let them know that the Son of Man will undergo great suffering and be killed, but on the third day be raised again. It is on that mountain where we will see the nature of God truly revealed before our eyes, where we come to terms not just with a new kind of ethnic Jesus or fresh interpretation of his teachings—but that we are following a God who does not hold himself back from the darkest parts of our journey, a God who offers all of his life for us to have his. It is a God who is willing to lose everything, absolutely everything, to climb down into all of our “things” and make us new.

A faith, he is telling them, which is built on seeking out transfiguration experiences, linking them together, one mountaintop experience after another, will ultimately become problematic. Faith is built on learning to listen to Jesus, the Son of God. And faith is, most importantly, coming to know that when all fades away—when the cloud of our glorious vision dissolves when the exhilaration of a fresh new understanding of God wears off, when reality of whatever life has handed us hits us in the face—we will not be left alone.

I said two, but there we hit on a third little thing about this outrageous event. It involves some irony. Peter, you see, wants to do something so that he and the others can stay with Jesus. He sees the vision, beholds the glory, and wants to build some huts in order to remain with that God. But in the end, it is Jesus who does the staying. All that fades away and Jesus has to touch the startled disciples and show them that he, alone, is left. He shows them he will travel with them back down the mountain.

Brothers and sisters, I hope you come to know that the exciting, mountaintop experiences you have with God may become like a drug, enticing you to find more, but Jesus will remain. Your faith may get wobbly—like mine does—but Jesus will remain. The season before the championship will get rough, filled with disillusionment, but Jesus will remain. You, me, we all may forget to listen, forget what we’re heading for from time to time, but Jesus will remain. The valley below may get dark and dreary, but it won’t end there. Jesus remains. And pulls us through. He holds us fast and he promises the end will come, the victory will be won, and, let me tell you, it will not involve just one but a zillion back-to-back shining moments!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany [Proper 1A] - February 12, 2017 (Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:21-37)

Moses makes it sound like such a no-brainer!

He stands there with all the people of God on Mt. Nebo at the very boundary between the wilderness of their wandering at their back and the Promised Land of milk and honey in front of them and he says, “Choose this or choose this.” The way behind them, remote and dangerous and filled with the peril of the competing tribes, was like choosing death and adversity, and the way in front of them, with the land they could occupy, beautiful and promising and filled with abundance, was choosing life and prosperity.

Yes, Moses makes it sound like a no-brainer, and you’d better believe that if I had been an Israelite standing there that day, after having lived through forty years of wandering and wondering in the harsh, godforsaken desert, I think I would have known exactly which choice to make. To choose life was to choose a home, a future, the good things God had promised me. To choose life was to realize that the commandments and laws God had given us weren’t arbitrary rules that made life less fun, but were a way of blessing and honor and right living. The commandments were, as Moses pointed out, a gift to help God’s people live in community, the way to prevent them from surrendering to the chaos of their desires and to fully enjoy the freedom God was giving to them.

But choices, even when they are pared down to the basics and set in life-or-death contrast to each other, are rarely no-brainers. We find a way to make it more complicated that it should be, to make everything seem equal. The stakes aren’t quite as high as what Moses was presenting, but I can tell you that Melinda and I have had the most intense disagreements of our marriage when it comes to making decisions about where to eat when we’re travelling on the road. Even when we have learned to narrow down options offered on those blue highway signs to just two alternatives, we seem rarely able to come to some sort of clear decision. It’s as if we’re choosing life or death: fast food or sit-down dinner. Cold subs or hot meal. If Bojangles’ isn’t listed as an option, then we’re really lost. Sometimes, at complete loggerheads, we have inadvertently made the decision not to decide and instead travel on down the road, ever hungrier, ever angrier. The fact of the matter is no matter how clear and obvious the choices are—even if they are laid out before us as getting food and staying hungry, blessings and curses, life or death—we still find we are unable to make the right choice so much of the time. And so to some degree I can imagine those ancient Israelites, frozen in their bickering and looking at Moses’ obvious choices on the blue sign by the side of the wilderness road and still wondering what to do.

Martin Luther spoke a lot about this. His understanding of Scripture and observation of human behavior led him to believe that we don’t really have the freedom to choose what’s good for us. He called it the “bondage of the will,” which is a fancy way of saying that even our ability to discern and decide is tainted by sin. There is a darkness in here (our heart) that we must acknowledge. Captive to an innate desire to put ourselves first, we tend to do whatever we want to do, to satisfy some of our most immediate desires, which aren’t always innocent and harmless. There are interpretations of the Christian faith that say we need to “make a decision” for Christ, or that our salvation is dependent on accepting Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, but Luther would have said that just can’t be done. To say so doesn’t do justice to that inner darkness and assumes we are somehow moral or pure enough on our own to bring about God’s grace. To say it another way, Moses can stand on the edge of the Promised Land and lay out the choices as if it is a no-brainer, and the people of God are still going to struggle with it, are still going to choose death and adversity, if not now, then at some point down the road. And God, in God’s infinite grace, will hold out the option of life again and again.

Then along comes Jesus, a new prophet and rabbi and descendent of Moses, and he sits down on a small mountain not too far from the River Jordan and gives another description of the land that lies before them which his followers could go in and occupy. And as he speaks about it and their choices, they learn this land they could dwell in, this kingdom of God, is far more beautiful and abundant and complex than they might ever imagine.

Jesus Preaching the Sermon on the Mount (Gustave Dore)
In this land, for example, no one expresses or maybe even feels anger with one another. They certainly never insult one another, label one another. In this kingdom people practically jump at the opportunity to practice forgiveness and reconciliation with one another. They apologize readily when they’ve done wrong and hurry to show mercy to those who’ve offended them. People in this land don’t manipulate relationships for their own benefit. They don’t objectify women or men or children and don’t take advantage of anyone who is vulnerable. When they speak, their words are trustworthy in and of themselves and they are so honest in their speech with each other that there’s no reason to take oaths or get anything notarized.

It’s a kingdom that anyone would want to lay claim to and live in, far better than the purposeless wandering they find themselves in now. It’s a place where each person deals with one another in the perfectly correct and most beautiful way, and even though, deep-down, they know it resonates as something really right, the people still hear it all as just more commandments and more laws they’re supposed to follow. “Do this, don’t do that”…in fact, now it seems to be a place even more rule-bound than what Moses had described.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes each commandment, here the fifth, the sixth, and the eighth, and rather than lessening them, loosening them up a little, he expands them, makes them more strict and detailed. What is meant by murder, as it turns out, is actually broader than just physically taking someone’s life. What is meant by adultery is broader than just having sexual intercourse outside of marriage. What is meant by bearing false witness is more than just gossiping and lying. And the choice to enter there and live in that land is, once again, not as much of a no-brainer as we might expect.

There was a story this week where a prominent news organization that had recently aired a story about people’s views regarding the recent election and politics. The organization posted it to their Facebook page, like usual, and got thousands of comments lambasting one of the people interviewed in the article. Most of the comments were quite rude and mean-spirited. So, in an interesting twist, the news organization reached out to ten of those people who made the comments and offered them the chance to sit down and learn from the person who was interviewed in the story, the person they had insulted and called an idiot. Only two accepted.[1] Life is offered—a chance to live in abundance and harmony—but so often we just can’t seem to choose it.

The good news is, however, that God knows this. After travelling with us in the wilderness, God knows about that inner darkness. And the Teacher who sits on that small mountain and offers up this beautiful kingdom for us understands we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. He is not content just to stand at the edge and explain what his Father’s kingdom is like or point us how to get there. He is going to take us there, himself. He is going to become that kingdom, giving himself over to us. And to do so he is going to confront the darkness we bear within and die to any belief system that is based on our choosing and deciding.

He is going to represent a choice, you see, but not our choice, not our choosing. Jesus is God’s choice for us. Jesus is God’s life for us. Jesus is God loving us, and redeeming us from ourselves. And henceforth having faith and living as one of God’s children will be more about God’s decision to have us than our decision to have God. Having faith and living in God’s kingdom will more about God’s holding fast to us in love and mercy than about our holding fast to him.

Last week in one meeting here one person shared the story about an elementary school teacher in Charlotte, NC, who has created a personalized handshake with every single one of his fifth-grade students. Each day, when they arrive at school, they form a line at the door and, one by one, as they enter the classroom he has prepared for them, he extends his hand and holds fast to each one of theirs in their own unique way. Some of the handshakes are pretty elaborate and involve turning around, waving limbs in the air, incorporating fist bumps and snaps. He has committed them all to memory—that is, how he holds fast to each student, how he claims them for the day and offers them the classroom. The administration loves it. “The only way to help our scholars achieve at high levels every day,” says the principal, “is to embrace the need for meaningful and deep relationships.”[2]

So there is Jesus, the Teacher, embracing relationship with us, holding to us fast so that we can enter the kingdom and live with him forever. See him there, at the font in the water, welcoming us in, maybe giving us a fist bump. Then again at the table, with his body and blood, reaching out his hand for a high-five. One at a time, over and over, the decision is made and we respond, held fast: “I’ve chosen to love you deeply, my child,” he says. “You are a no-brainer.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A] - February 5, 2017 (Matthew 5:13-20)

Several years ago my sister, father, and I started giving my mother a hard time because she suddenly became very particular about how dark it had to be for her to go to sleep. It had to be completely, 100% pitch black, and if somewhere there was the littlest light shining—maybe the dull glow from a streetlight outside the window, maybe from an alarm clock beside the bed—she would not be able to fall asleep. She would lie there awake, irritated by the light. She even got so dependent on having utter darkness whenever it was bedtime that she started to travel with a roll of electrical tape in her toiletry bag. When they’d turn off the main lights of some hotel room, inevitably there would be other smaller lights around the room still shining. Little light on the thermostat? She’d slice off a piece of electrical tape and cover it up. Little light emanating from some device in the bathroom? Slice off another piece of electrical tape and slap it on there. It was like a little bed time ritual, one in which she discovered how difficult it actually is to control the amount of light when it is supposed to be dark.

You can imagine how awful we felt when we realized that she had developed quite a serious eye condition that left her extremely sensitive to light. (Moral of the story: don't ever, ever tease your mother). And you can imagine how silly I feel now that I have somehow developed a similar nightly ritual. I don’t have an eye condition, but for some reason I, too, need as little light as possible. In fact, there are some nights I don’t get good sleep and I’m convinced it is because there is this little teeny weeny green light on our printer and it is keeping me awake. Mind you, the little light is about the size of the head of a pin, and it sits on our desk about 5 feet away from our bed, but when I wake up in the middle of the night it IS THIS BRIGHT. I’ve made a special cover for it, not out of electrical tape, but out of black construction paper, and when someone prints something it often knocks that paper out of the way. You think I’m crazy, but that teeny tiny green light ruins the darkness.

“You are the teeny tiny green light that will ruin the darkness,” Jesus tells his disciples. It’s a good thing to say, and the right time to say it. Jesus has just begun what many consider his most thorough, most important teaching about the kingdom of God and it’s totally imaginable that they’re starting to get a bit overwhelmed by the sound of it all. He has come on strong, even mentioning right up front the fact that they may face some persecution, some blowback, for their beliefs and their works of mercy. And so now he gives them an idea about how special and important and influential their witness will be. Like a city situated up on a hill that stands visible for all those in the valleys and hillsides, like a candle set on a table in a room at night that enables people finish their work, like the small bit of salt that flavors the dish it is in, they will have an effect on the world around them. And even if someone walks around with electrical tape, they will prove by their very presence that it is actually very easy to banish the darkness.

Light is difficult to control. Just a little teeny tiny bit can make a huge difference. In a time long before people knew the physics of light—that it had characteristics of both a particle and a wave—Jesus is telling them that their very actions in Christ’s name will be mysteriously explosive, impossible to shut away. As little photons of good in an evil world, disciples could beam and bounce off of others and transmit holy energy to them, and like a wave their actions could reach distances far beyond the distance their legs could ever take them, like when a prayer shawl stitched here warms a person in a hospital on the other side of town. And long before anyone knew the chemistry of salt—that it is a stable compound with positive and negative ions (polar opposites!) which allow it to dissolve and spread into a larger surrounding substance—Jesus is telling them that although they might be small and pretty ordinary-looking and totally different from each other they would be able to season and enrich an entire community, like when a church’s Jesus stained glass window brings joy to thousands of people driving up Monument Avenue. Incidentally, this scripture is what one architect used as he presented his initial ideas to the building Team back in December as the congregation contemplates a new addition.

But Jesus is not just lecturing on the power of positive change, or spreading random acts of kindness. Those things are nice, but Jesus is talking about something more serious here. By calling them salt and light, Jesus gearing up his followers to understand they will represent to the world the true life of the kingdom of God. Jesus says that he is the fulfillment of the law, the culmination of all that God desired to teach and convey through the giving of the law and the words of the prophets in the days of ancient Israel. When Christ lives in them through faith, they will display that fulfillment of God’s desires for the world through their own words and actions. That is perhaps why for so long the first thing said to a new daughter or son of Christ after they pass through the waters of baptism is, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

However, as important as your one teeny tiny green light is …or yours…or yours…Jesus is actually not speaking about individual lights here. He is speaking to his disciples as a group, as a community. Each time he uses the word “you” in this passage, he is actually using the plural form of that word, which we don’t have in English…unless, of course, you live in the South. He is saying, “Y’all are the salt of the earth. Y’all are the light of the world. Let y’all’s light so shine before others.”  In other words, it is not each person’s ability to shine that Jesus is focusing on, but their power as a collective.

I think this can be especially challenging for Americans to remember, for we are really fascinated by the power of the individual. We tend to like stories where one person makes a difference. In fact, not just here but elsewhere in the gospels Jesus seems far more concerned about the impact his followers have when they function as a group.

"Pentecost" (Salomon de Bray, 16th cent.)
Early church historian Robert Louis Wilken drives this home in his book about the first thousand years of Christianity, the years from Jesus’ death and resurrection to about A.D. 1000. The communal aspect of Christian faith cannot be overstated, especially because they were formed in a time of great persecution, when it was often a death sentence to be identified as a follower of the risen Lord. “The early Church,” he says, “was a community with a distinct anatomy; it was not simply an aggregate of individuals who believed the same things.”[1] It came into existence, he says at another point, as a community, not as a bunch of individuals. That is to say, the first Christians would have a very difficult time with the modern understanding some seem to have that someone can be a follower of Christ apart from the church. In fact, Jesus doesn’t even seem to make much room for that understanding, either.

In any case, baptism and faith make a person part of a body, and that body, and the way it moved and functioned together, was what had the quality of light. By the power of the Holy Spirit the disciples of Christ learned to work together to display the love of Christ, to share their bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into their houses, to cover the naked, to offer their lives for the sake of others…and when they did so their light broke forth like the dawn.

It seems to have been this “y’all” characteristic of discipleship that led Christians to create the first hospitals the world had ever known of. In ancient Greece and Rome, when people worshipped many different gods and goddesses, people who were sick used to go and sleep in the temples of certain gods with the hopes they would be healed. Within the first few hundred years of its existence, the church transformed that trend. They designed and built structures where the sick could come and be tended to. They trained people that we would call doctors and nurses to take care of the sick because that is what they had known Jesus to do. The earliest hospitals were, of course, very rudimentary, but they were no doubt a new kind of salt for the earth.

It is this y’all characteristic that still attracts attention today. One of my colleagues who went to high school with me ended up getting ordained as an Episcopal priest and served right down the road from me when I was in Pittsburgh, is now the rector of a parish down in Waco, Texas. We’re only really in touch through Facebook these days, but I found out that he was invited to participate in a very rare experience a couple of weeks ago. Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, who was until recently a self-described atheist, scheduled a meeting with the pastors in Waco. Apparently Zuckerberg just wanted to listen to what pastors had to say, and he was especially keen on hearing what the pastors said about the communities they served—what was important to them, how they functioned. In an article about the meeting, my colleague said you could have knocked him over with a feather. They had no idea they were going to be interviewed by such an influential person. Zuckerberg, who practically invented the concept of social media and who has made it the force it is today for connecting with people and spreading information, suddenly seems to want to learn from pastors of small congregations what is really important to communities and how they work together?[2] It almost wonders if someone might be seeing our light.

In these tense times when it seems there is so much that wants to pull people apart, when there are clear, competing visions and desires for what our human communities and even our country wants to be, the light of Christ evident through the Church is especially important. We can even disagree about political and social issues of our time here—like positive and negative ions that mysteriously still work together—because ultimately it is the truth of the cross that illuminates our lives. It draws us together, pulls us in to its forgiving and cleansing center, telling us that we aren’t just a bunch of “yous,” but one great big y’all. It draws us in and reminds us that there is something in our witness that can shine, that we exist as that one community in the world which by its very presence reminds the world that God loves it, cares for it, has died for it so that it may truly live. That is flavor, my friends. That is some kind of seasoning.

And, lest we forget, even when the world seems really, really dark, sometimes all it takes to ruin it is a teeny tiny green light.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The First Thousand Years. Robert Louis Wilken. Yale University Press, 2012. p 35

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A] - Matthew 4:12-23 and 1 Corinthians 1:10-18)

I don’t know if you caught it or not as I was reading the gospel lesson, but there is an awful lot of leaving involved in Jesus’ ministry, especially here at the beginning. As it turns out, there must be something about the kingdom of God that causes people to break with their past, and even move them around.

It’s Jesus that this happens to first. He gets word that his cousin and fellow preacher, John, is thrown in jail, and something about that news—it’s unclear exactly what that is—causes Jesus to leave the area around Jerusalem in the south where he has just been baptized and where he’s been hanging out in the wilderness, and head back up north to Galilee where he was raised. He goes back to Nazareth, his hometown, but then doesn’t stay there very long, either. Maybe he drops in to say hello to mom and dad, to do some laundry, pack a duffelbag, get a bit to eat, because then he hits the road again to a bustling fishing village known as Capernaum. As far as we know, Jesus never goes back to his childhood home. When he leaves, and leaves for good.

Once Jesus is in Capernaum, we see that there’s even more leaving. Jesus calls his first followers, and immediately upon hearing meeting Jesus and hearing him, they get up and leave their jobs as fishermen. The second set of brothers he calls, James and John, even leave their father in the boat in order to become one of Jesus’ disciples.

St. Andrew's Basilica, Ravenna
To be selected or called into the fellowship of a rabbi, or teacher of the law, was a very high honor for young men of Jesus’ day. Some historians note that typically what happened is that young men, once they finished their schooling in the scriptures, would apply to rabbis with the hope they’d be selected as a student. The fact that Jesus reverses that system by walking up and directly calling followers, even ones who haven’t “applied,” may explain why they are so quick to leave.

I realize my own launch into the world as a young man probably matches others in my generation and those after it. It had fits and starts where I’d head out on one adventure or another, only to have to come back to mom’s and dad’s for a while. It was very humbling and eye-opening, however, to hear many of the older men in the congregation this week share that their abrupt departure from home came with a draft notice. They left home to serve their country, never to return home again, having to fit their own life dreams and goals into and behind the command handed down from a higher authority.

One gentleman explained how the army bounced him around a bit at first, interfering with his plans to marry his fiancée. As soon as he finally arrived at his permanent post, he promptly reported to his commanding officer and boldly asked for leave in order to travel to Florida and have a wedding. Somewhat perturbed, the commanding officer eventually gave in, but under one condition: that he actually show him he had one ticket for the trip down to Florida and two for the trip back!

What about following Jesus, though? Leaving is somehow always involved, isn’t it? It doesn’t need to involve a geographical or physical shift, putting one or two tickets in our hand, but there is always some sort of departure coming our way. There is always some kind of dropping of the nets and stepping away from the old boat. Jesus comes to draw us into a new way of life that will affect our current relationships with other people, with the world, and even with ourselves. And on some level that requires a letting go.

Last Sunday at the second service we held a baptism for a sweet little girl who is just past her second birthday. Her parents had dutifully prepared her for what was going to happen, but when the time came for the water to be poured on her head she got scared and would not let go of her mom. She clung as tightly as she could to her mom’s neck so that she wouldn’t have to go through with it. There were a few milliseconds in there when I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but eventually we got her baptized and it all worked out just fine, but I think her reluctance kind of caught everyone off guard, including her parents. After the church service was over, I told the parents I happen to love that kind of baptism every once in a while. What may have been a temporarily awkward moment for them ended up being a perfect model for everyone of how most of us actually respond to the call to follow Jesus. It the call that involves letting go of some of our old ways of thinking, our old ways of dealing with people, our old values and priorities. Jesus offers us a place at his side and instead of willingly, blindly submitting, we balk. We waver. We get in that moment and suddenly remember maybe we don’t really want this whole new life all that badly and start realizing the former ways are more comfortable.

And, truth be told, they probably are more comfortable. The thing is, Jesus is rarely into offering us something more comfortable. But he is into offering us something new. He is into giving us the kingdom. You see, the call to follow Jesus, the Lord of life, the opportunity to respond to his kingdom, is not always about some career decision, or some big, momentous life choice or even the moment of baptism, which is how we often make it out to be. We hear these stories of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and one danger is to think we’re given this one chance, that our faith has to be traced back to one singular moment where it all made sense and when we held that draft notice in our hand. For some people, that may be the case. But for everyone, those already walking in confidence behind him and those still clinging to mama’s neck, Jesus walks onto the ordinary seashore of our lives in and every day, each and ever hour, really, offering us the chance to respond in each situation of our lives the way a redeemed child of God would.

The call to follow him comes when you wake up in the morning and get the chance to begin a new day. The call to follow him comes whether you’re out on your own or whether you wake up every morning in your parents’ house. The call to follow him comes when you’re trying to figure out how to make money and when you are trying to figure out how to spend the money you just got. The call to follow him comes when you are thrust into a new situation at work or at school and you can’t immediately figure out a way forward. The call to follow him comes when you realize someone has wronged you and you have to figure out how to respond. The call to follow him comes when you realize you’ve wronged someone and you have to figure out how to respond.

The call to follow and learn about God’s ways in Christ is always there, never really rescinded, at least for now, and is ready for new recruits, or old recruits. And it always involves leaving our comfortable sinful selves behind and grabbing onto something new. Because the call that Jesus issues to be a disciple is based on grace, which means Jesus is going to lay claim on you and all your gifts that you don’t even think you have before you even get a chance to apply and have a Teacher.

My guess is that if you’ve been watching the news this week, you’ve seen lots of photos of crowds. Maybe you’ve even been in one of those crowds, or wished you had been in one of those crowds. They are scenes of people who have left the comfort of home to be drawn into something larger than themselves. There’s also been lots of talk about sizes of crowds and the conclusions we’re supposed to draw when we are asked to compare those crowds.

Whether they were related to the inauguration of a new president or gathering in streets to march for other ideals related to women’s rights these crowds can give us a sense that movements are afoot. They give us the sense that we can be a part of something, or that we are a part of something that is happening—a march, an action, a change. And as exciting and empowering as any of those moments and movements are to some people, there are still a great many who stand on the sidelines, not knowing where they fit, or where there concerns are being voiced. And there is also the undeniable feeling that we’re being divided, not too unlike the folks in Paul’s congregation at Corinth, who started to make too big of a deal about which leader had baptized them, which leader they most resembled in stature and wisdom, among other things.

No one needs to make light of any movement these days, but the truth is, if you have heard the call of Jesus, if you have passed through these waters, if you have looked at the cross and contemplated its significance, you are already part of the greatest movement that creation has seen. You are part of a movement that draws people in, inexplicably, to get behind a man who dies in order that others might live, who denies his own so-called rights in order that we may live rightly. You are part of a movement that draws people like light attracts people who’ve sat a long time in darkness waiting for mercy.

You are part of a movement, to cite one example, that collected and spent over $43 million in agricultural, medical, and educational aid in 36 countries over the last year just through one of its charity organizations, Lutheran World Relief.

And you are a part of a movement that, to cite another, got 20 teenagers making quilts and clearing up a neglected East End cemetery this past Monday, on a day off from school. This is your movement…our movement…His movement…That fishes for people. I can’t explain how it works, but it does. It’s the Holy Spirit’s presence.

And whether we were baptized at 2 or 92, or baptized by Paul, or Apollos, or Pastor Joseph, whether we tiptoe in tentatively or can show our commanding officer we’ve got two tickets already, whether we march for the President or march against him, let us all be reminded today, at this table of mercy, we are part of a movement that is proclaiming the kingdom of God—a kingdom that began, of all places, on the streets of little a dusty ordinary fishing village with four ordinary guys who said. “We’ve got a Teacher. Let’s leave!”



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Baptism of Our Lord [Year A] - January 8, 2017 (Matthew 3:13-17)

Well, it’s “Go Time.” For eight pro football teams that either faced or are facing play off games on this Wild Card weekend, it is what they call “Go Time.” Sadly for the Raiders and the Lions Go Time has become “Gone Time,” for they lost their games yesterday, but any other team that still finds itself in this do-or-die postseason, knows it is now “Go Time.” What “Go Time” usually means is that things have started for real. Anything that came before this point doesn’t really count for much. It was all important, on some level, but from here on out things really matter and there is no room for messing up, no chance for starting over. Each team, each player, each coach, will need to step up to the line and show everyone what they’re really made of. They’ll need to keep their eyes on what’s ahead, because the stakes are higher.

In addition to all that, when people typically say it’s “Go Time,” they mean that time for talking and deliberating is over. That is, it’s time for action. It’s time to go through with the plan and see how it turns out.

"Theophany" (St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church, Emmaus, PA)
The baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan is “Go Time,” in every sense of that term. Anything that happened before this point may be important, but none of it is as important and consequential as what happens from this point and beyond. It’s interesting: two of the four gospel writers, Mark and John, don’t even tell us anything about Jesus before his baptism. They don’t mention his birth or the prophecies leading up to it. For them, the baptism begins it all. And the two gospel writers that do mention Jesus’ earliest years—Matthew and Luke—don’t really include much about his infancy or youth. It’s as if all of that part of Jesus’ life was like the NFL regular season, or, better yet, pre-season. Those early years are, at best, just points on the road that lead up to this sky-shattering moment when Jesus steps into the particular river that formed the historic boundary between the wilderness and the Promised Land and is publicly identified as God’s Son, the Beloved. And now that he is baptized, now that he bears this awesome title, creation really must sit up and pay attention because things are going to start to matter like never before. The things he does after this point—the things he says, the things that happen to him and how he reacts—are going to bear a new kind of weight. We’re going to hear a lot more of what his life is like because it is “Go Time.”

There’s a line in a beloved Christmas carol which is actually sung to Bethlehem, the place of Jesus’ birth, that goes:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Truth be told, the same words could be sung about the water in that Jordan River. The hopes and fears of all the years of human existence—the long wait for an anointed king and savior, the anxiety people have about their distance from God, the dangers of their own sins—are finally being dealt with—are finally being met—in this man in a muddy little string of water in Israel.

That’s what all of this dramatic heavenly fanfare is all about. In order to emphasize just how significant this moment is in Jesus’ life and ministry, the heavens tear apart the Spirit of God descends like dove upon Jesus and there is a booming voice from overhead. These mysterious, almost difficult-to-describe events converge upon each other as if to say, “This is The One.”

Several weeks ago the children of the congregation received the chrismon that had been made for them by our chrismon ministry team. This year’s chrismon was a descending dove delicately fashioned from pearl beads and gold wire. During the point of the children’s sermon when the adult leader was explaining how the descending dove appeared at Jesus’ baptism, one child interrupted and asked if he could hold the dove for a moment. The woman giving the children sermon was a little caught off guard by the request and graciously agreed to let him hold it. He immediately took it and, pretending it was a dive-bombing airplane, he shoved it into the carpet making the sound of a dive-bombing plane and crash explosion.

It was the kind of unscripted moment that children’s sermons can live (and die) on. I’m not sure how many people actually saw what happened, but it occurred to me at the time that we often want a huge, spectacular sign that God is present and active. The dove at the baptism might seem light and airy, but Jesus’ life is going to be an unmistakable crash of love and forgiveness, God’s love descending to us in spectacular but tragic form.

And that’s really the point of this short conversation we hear between John the Baptist and Jesus this morning. John has some clue as to who Jesus is, that Jesus is the superior one, but is surprised to see how Jesus is going to handle that superiority. At the time, John is baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins, giving people a chance to start over. Jesus doesn’t really need to have any sins forgiven, but he does want to demonstrate as clearly as possible, right at the beginning, that he has come to crash his life right into the mess of humankind. Rather than staying aloof from what humans experience in a broken creation, Jesus is going to jump right in.

Jesus has authority, as John notices, but Jesus’ authority over us is going to be grounded in uniting himself with the human experience, not remaining removed from it. He will submit to John’s baptism to fulfill all righteousness, and he will eventually submit to Pontius Pilate, and the chief priests and scribes, and the people who mock him and nail him to the cross. At the Jordan River it is “Go Time,” and in Jesus God is going to dare to go right where we’d never imagine a holy God to go in order to love us completely. Jesus is going to head right where we’d never imagine a God to go in order to accomplish his plan.

I imagine that is the understanding of Jesus’ authority that is inspiring the ministry of the Reverend Eric Manning, the new pastor of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, as he sits with members of his congregation through the trial of Dylan Roof this week. In the courtroom he clutches nothing but his Bible, calmly listening to every word that each of his parishioners’ families has to hear. Appointed to lead the grieving church back in June, Pastor Manning has begun his ministry by intentionally reminding them that he is with them through it all, because they follow a God who has submitted to every bit of pain and sorrow they’re going through. In an interview this week, he speaks about the steady stream of visitors that now come to the church, some to worship, some out of a “macabre sense of curiosity” regarding the shooting there in 2015 that took the lives of nine Bible study participants.[1] Whichever reason brings them there, those visitors find a loving community that is living face to face with some of the darkest ills of human existence and, by God’s grace, moving forward. They know that Jesus leads through this because he has submitted to what evil can do and come out a conqueror.

Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC (Google Street View)
This understanding of Jesus’ authority as coming from his desire to submit to human suffering in order that God may make things right with the universe is what should ground every congregation’s ministry, every Christians’ witness. Therefore our purpose has less to with sitting back and letting people to come to us, than it does with going out and engaging them where they are. Our witness is built less on expecting people to listen to us and our stories and more on being willing to listen to the stories and concerns of others. People will experience our love and our ministries as legitimate the more we model the spirit of Jesus’s baptism in our ministries—that is, the more we realize God helps us shed our pretentions to serve and care for the world God made in all its brokenness. This will be especially critical for those who feel like a bruised reed or a dimly-burning wick at this point, those who feel the world is about to snuff them out, for whatever reason.

We will be able to see ourselves in this type of ministry because we will have faith that our own baptisms have united us to this person who has conquered even death. Our own baptisms have washed away our complacent, egocentric selves and joined them to the man who knows that the hopes and fears of all the years have crashed upon him there in the waters of Jordan and again in the cross of Calvary. He has the authority because he comes to serve. We will be inspired together by the fact that in this very baptismal water (or a font like it) our lives have been joined forever and ever to the man who always knows what time it is. It’s Go Time for God.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Name of Jesus - January 1, 2017 (Luke 2:15-21 and Numbers 6:22-27)

One thing people often like to do when they reach the beginning of a new year is look back on the one that has just ended and take stock. That’s actually what January means. This month is named after the Roman god Janus, who had two faces, one facing forward and another facing back. And at this transition time many people replay the high points and low points of what happened and make a judgment about it. Maybe they lost a loved one in the past year, or went through a tough transition of some kind, or they’ll reflect on major world or cultural events and they’ll say, “2016 was a bad year.” Or maybe 2016 was a good year, a game-changer, because they achieved certain goals or the year brought them a new relationship or new opportunities. It’s as if each year tells a story—that it has its own unique theme and plot—and when each January 1 rolls around, we feel one story has come to an end and a new story begins again. And like Janus with his two faces we all wait to see what the story will be for us and for the world.

In the ancient world, calendars often got switched up almost every time a new ruler assumed the throne, and so individual years didn’t have that same story-telling character, but you know what did? People’s names. Nowadays we choose names mainly because we like the way they sound or they were names used by people in our family, but for much of human history and certainly for people in Jesus’ time, someone’s name typically said something about their story, about their life, their character. Their name wasn’t just their “handle” that moved them down the highway, à la Jim Croce. Their name also told something about their identity, about who they were.

There are still examples of this today, of course, usually in other cultures. I remember one time I was worshipping years ago in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Geneva, Switzerland, a congregation that had an English-speaking pastor but which served the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural population of the city. Every Sunday there were probably no fewer than fifteen different nationalities represented in the pews. This one particular Sunday the pastor was mentioning the name of an Kenyan orphan who had been found on a bench as a baby and taken to an orphanage. They knew nothing about his origin or who had left him there. He had no papers or anything. They named him “Mwenda,” which in Swahili means “One who is Found,” which obviously told people something about his story.

Several years went by and this young boy was adopted by a forever family and the family had his name legally changed to “Mpwenda.” And at that point in the sermon the pastor pointed to this teenage African boy sitting at the edge of the balcony with his family and said, “And in Swahili, ‘Mpwenda’ means ‘One who is loved.’” And the atmosphere in the congregation was electric at that point. It was like we were thinking, “The One who is Loved is in the room with us right now!”

Now, just imagine if you went through life with a name that mean “One who is loved.” Every time you signed up for something, every time you were in the doctor’s office filling out form after form, every time you bubbled in the answer sheet on a standardized test you wrote, “One who is loved.” It’s always a bit more than a name; it would remind you of a core aspect of your identity, the crucial narrative that shapes your whole life. Let me tell you: every time I fill out a form, I’m just thinking “Phillip,” and nothing more. I do not think “lover of horses.”

Receiving a story, an identity, is what the ritual of circumcision was to the Jewish tradition. On one level, the boy was made a part of his people’s story, the story that had begun with Abraham and Sarah and had continued down through Moses and Aaron, and then the kings and prophets of Israel. He received the story that came with the covenants God had made with God’s people through all those years, a covenant that promised God would be with them and that they bore a holy responsibility to live in a right relationship with God and each other. He also received what would be his own personal story, his name, as circumcision was a naming ceremony.

Observant Jews performed this ceremony eight days after birth, as the law stipulated, and that’s what happens to Mary and Joseph’s son. We may assume they make the proper arrangements for this procedure right there in Bethlehem somehow and he receives the name Jesus. Typically the son would receive the name that the father had selected, but in Jesus’ case, at least according to Luke, the name had already been revealed to Mary. He is given the name “Jesus,” which means “he saves,” or “to save.”

I can’t imagine what it would be like to step into that kind of identity. That’s a very serious story to live into. Probably every time he introduced himself or filled out his name on a form somewhere people would think to themselves, “Well, well. Savior! Just who does he think he is??” And there are times where things similar to that happened. In a time when the Jewish people were especially hopeful for someone who could ride in and re-establish their kingdom and their glory as a people, that name must have brought with it all kinds of complicated cargo.

And as we watch Jesus live out this identity, we might think he has forgotten it altogether. He does nothing that outwardly seems to be particularly saving. His story involves a lot of teaching about the law and healing people with various illnesses and then getting into arguments with the religious authorities about the nature of God’s kingdom. Then, at the end of his life, which comes all too quickly, he hands over his life to those who want to mock him and kill him rather than speaking out for himself, or, more importantly, doing anything that would save himself. It appears as though he is a total failure at his identity.

But then three days after his body is taken down from the cross and left in the tomb the strangest thing happens. Some of his followers, who are already beginning to be persecuted as well, begin making claims that he is alive again. They eat with him, relive some of the stories with him, and come to realize that if this is really him—if Jesus is really raised from the dead—then all of reality, all of creation, is now completely different. God really has made good on God’s covenant to restore and re-establish the kingdom. The story is far better than they ever imagined. Everything is being made new, even in the face of death. All of creation is, in a word, saved. It is saved from its own decay, from its own ridiculous tendency towards self-absorption, from its habit of thinking just a few new resolutions, a handful attempts at self-improvement will make everything better.

This way in which Jesus lives—by giving himself over to others totally, by loving and serving those he comes to save—really is the way God moves his purposes forward. In that sense, we see that Jesus really is the savior and is the name above all names, his story filled with more truth than any other story, the identity he gives us is more important than all our many identities.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a little book called Life Together, says it like this:

“It is not in our life that God’s help and presence must be proved, but rather God’s presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ…The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important that the fact that I shall die, and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, shall be raised on the Last Day.”[1]

Because Jesus comes to save us no matter what our name is and no matter what our life’s story is, and because we are washed in this water of new birth, we have faith that that hope has been given to us. We are ones who are found, and we are ones who are loved. The one who can put all time and history together for us has been born and has now been named…he has been named for you. Today we may commemorate the fact we’ve revolved one more time around the sun, but we can even more give thanks that our lives revolve around the Son.

As the ancient Israelites made their way through the wilderness, preparing to take up residence in the Promised Land, they needed some assurance that God would bless their journey. So God instructed Aaron to pronounce the following blessing upon them:

“The LORD bless you and keep you.
The LORD make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you.
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

They are the words we say as a blessing, or benediction, at the end of many worship services as we go forth into the world. We use it because in Jesus we come to know we have a God who doesn’t have a face looking backward or forward, like Janus. We have a God whose face is always upon us, whose countenance is lifted up on us, on our neighbor—ever outward into new dark and dangerous and exciting and hopeful places where we will go.

And so as you venture into 2017, whether it be a good story or a bad one, know that the Lord’s blesses you and keeps you. Know that the Lord’s face is upon you and that you bear Jesus’ name.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, HarperSanFrancisco, 1954. pg 54

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve - December 24, 2016 (Luke 2:1-20)

A very peculiar thing happened this year in the Martin household as we decorated for Christmas. The boxes were down from the attic and we were all set to take the family out to pick out a Christmas tree, when we realized we had no idea where we were going to put it. The birth of a third child this year has crowded things a bit in our living spaces. Lots of stuff comes with babies and children. We tuck them in the corner, we shift things under the ottoman to accommodate it all. So there we were scratching our heads there that day, wondering how we’d solve this problem, wondering if there were maybe another room in the house that could become Christmas central this year until we finally realized we had only one real option: dismantling the baby’s Pack ‘N Play to so that we’d have a place for the tree. If we needed somewhere safe and secure in which to lay him in the month of December…well, sorry kid.

And there, you’ve heard it: we removed a manger because there was no room for Christmas.

Don’t worry! It’ll come back, of course, once the tree is taken to the dump and all vestiges of the holidays are cleaned away, but the irony of what we were doing was profound. One of the main messages of this night—the beginning point of our Savior’s story—is that although things were crowded, a place was found to lay the baby. In all the rearranging that must have been going on—the shuffling around, the last minute cleaning up, the pressure to make sure Mary was doing OK—the priority was finding somewhere the child could sleep and not be trampled on.

Rearranging. Finding a place. The world seems to be particularly full of it these days, and it’s not just Christmas trees and trying to fabricate an authentically festive holiday, whatever that is. A recent election in this country promises us that the government is going to be rearranged. Some are hopeful, others are not. Outside of our country, the world is seeing record numbers of refugees get rearranged due to wars and ethnic conflict. This creates anxiety for many, not the least of which are the ones with small children who are caught between the bombs in their own family rooms and the borders that say, “Nope. No room for you here.” The rising threat of global terrorism causes uncomfortable rearranging, too. “Things don’t seem as safe as they used to be,” we muse as we hustle through airport security, rearranging the boxes on the conveyor belt, and as we reorganize the ways we assemble in public.

When we step back we find that so much of life is about rearranging and finding space, often at the last minute: The massive downsizing to make living in the memory care facility more manageable. The moving around of a week’s events you thought were set in stone in order to make room for a funeral service and burial. The ways we end up having to shelve our joy and relaxation in order to make space for grief or recovery.

Earlier this fall a member of our congregation had to drop everything, take a leave of absence from work, and tend to her mother who had fallen gravely ill. She rushed to the town out of state only to find that every room in every hotel was occupied due to a local university football game. She managed to find the one vacant room available. It was the handicapped room in a 2-star hotel, and things had to be rearranged for it to work for her and her adult children. Her mom managed to cling on, and so this woman had to keep adding on days, but the overworked and probably underpaid hotel staff bent over backwards to make sure she was comfortable. Fresh towels, clean sheets before they even asked for it—and then one afternoon a personal note from one of the housekeepers, left on the nightstand: “I heard about your mother. You’re in my prayers.” A few weeks later, reflecting on those long days and nights in that inn out of town she said to me, “Such a simple place it was. Not fancy. But everything we needed was somehow provided for us. And more. It was like being born in a stable.”

God apparently doesn’t need detailed daily planners and careful clockwork to make an entrance. God didn’t then, and God doesn’t now. We may rearrange, reschedule, reposition, delay and dismantle, but grace won’t. It finds room. It makes itself welcome.

a first-century Pack 'N Play
The traditional understanding of Jesus’ birth story has Joseph and a pregnant Mary going from place to place looking for a room, coming across an inn—maybe 2-star hotel—and learning that there’s a home football game census taking place and they’re going to have to use the barn out back. It’s a fine understanding, and it certainly might have happened that way, but in reality it could just as easily have been that Joseph and Mary were already in a family room somewhere in someone’s house, maybe even a relative’s. The meaning of the word for “inn” in this passage is actually very ambiguous, very unclear. It is not the same word used for “inns” in other parts of the gospels, like, for example, the inn that the Good Samaritan uses when he helps the man he has found beaten along the side of the road.

In fact, this place where Jesus is born may have just been a regular first-century Middle Eastern house. Families lived—that is, slept, ate, worked, raised children—in one big room connected by the same roof to the area where the livestock were kept. The manger was a stone feed trough that marked the separation between where the humans lived and where the animals rested.

layout of a typical first-century house
So, Mary begins to deliver. Things are crowded. There’s not a Christmas tree, of course, but other items are temporarily cluttering the living area because family from Nazareth and other little villages are here. Things are crammed under the ottoman. More towels and bedding and laundry than usual. As it turns out, it’s not that there is no room in the inn, (Mary and Joseph being turned away by cold-hearted innkeepers), but rather little available space left in the living area where they’re overnighting, and the baby needs to be laid somewhere safe and secure. Viola! In all the rearranging, God finds a way in and lies down in the manger.

Of course, we don’t know exactly how it all went down, or what the real meaning of that ambiguous Greek word for “inn” is, but what we do know is that in Luke’s story of Jesus that particular word appears one more time. Years later, Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem and he tells them to go looking for a place where they can celebrate the Passover. Jesus instructs them:

10 “Listen, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ 12 He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there” (Luke 22:10-12)

More rearranging, more last minute readying, and what do you know? The type of place that is too crowded at Jesus’ birth is the same type of place where Jesus’ has his last supper. As it turns out, from birth to death, our God’s life among us is framed by borrowed space, by last-minute rearranging. And that includes our preoccupied lives.

So tonight, as we hear the message from the shepherds and the angels, as we imagine the young couple looking for a Pack ‘N Play, here is what we’re beginning to learn: God is going to find a way. He’s ready to make an entrance. He’s comfortable here, in a world that is constantly shifting around, in lives ever in need of rearranging, ever being reminded of how temporary things are. The One who never changes, will be fine for now amid our ceaseless changing. The One who gives life without end is fine to let his life end.

"Nativity," Master of Hohenfurth (1350-70)
God will find a way, and we discover this will lead to him borrowing one more space that won’t belong to him. It’s on a spot of ground just outside of Jerusalem, in the area where sin gets paid for. As the Christmas carol so bluntly puts it,

“Nails, spear, shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you.”

The part about the inn or the living area, the manger, the Upper Room, well, it’s all prologue to the big rearranging that God has in mind: He comes and finds a way so that we will know the Way.

And so this day and every day, in this room and in all your rooms, in every bit of rearranging you find yourself doing, happy or sad, be prepared for the God of the manger and the God of the cross to leave a note, to set a table, to make a place for you and find a way for faith to be born again.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.