Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Third Sunday of Easter [Year B] - April 19, 2015 (Luke 24:36-43)

Teeth and bones.

We took our daughters to Washington, D.C., for a short trip last week and of all the things they saw there, the teeth and bones probably fascinated them than anything else. The monuments, the Metro system, the marvelous dresses of the first ladies—it was hard to choose just one highlight, but I did notice a distinct spark of curiosity arise in both of the girls when we came to the mummy exhibit and the early human exhibit in the Museum of Natural History. They had a thousand questions. Fossils and replicas of the “cave people” captivated one of them, and the funeral practices of ancient Egypt was entranced the other. If it had not been for the glass of the display case, I guarantee you they would have picked up those old teeth and bones and held them in their hands. Instead they had to settle for a fragment of cow bone we came across the next day in the pasture behind their great-grandmother’s house.

I don’t think I could have predicted their fascination with these things, but it makes sense. Most things about living creatures eventually waste away and disappear but teeth and bones are like rocks. Solid and more permanent, they linger around to present us with mysterious truths about life in another era.

Teeth and bones.

In this morning’s gospel lesson Jesus is the exhibit, and there’s no glass display case to keep people from touching him. In fact, he invites it. “Touch and see,” he says, offering himself up like an old cow bone to be picked up and turned over in their own hands. This time, Jesus is full of mysterious truths about life in a new era, an era where death and suffering will not ultimately have power over God’s creation.

The wounds on his hands and feet are surely there, but Luke does not mention them. It appears Jesus’ aim here is to focus on the parts of him that prove he’s real, that he has substance. It’s for that same reason that he then asks for something to eat and he chews on some fish: his disciples are not convinced that what they’re seeing isn’t just a ghost. Typical Middle eastern dress for men was a long tunic that would have covered his whole body except his feet and hands, two body parts whose bony structure also happens to be clearly discernible. I suppose that if there are such things as ghosts, they could have wounds just as easily as not. But teeth and bones? Those belong to real people. Jesus wants them to be able to grasp him, to know that they can grab hold of him. The mysterious truth of this new era where death and suffering have been conquered is not just something in our heads or sense in our hearts. It takes real shape in our world in the form of people who have teeth and bones, themselves.

Does Jesus’ proof of existence work? To be quite honest, it’s not clear that it does. The disciples’ reactions certainly change, though. At first they are startled and terrified. Jesus mentions that they have doubts in their hearts. After a while they move to a sense of joy but they are still wondering, and even disbelieving. Even after he eats the broiled fish, no mention is made that he’s persuaded them. In fact, nowhere in this story is any mention is ever made of their faith, or that they change their minds about his substance and respond to him as their risen Lord.

"Appearance Behind Locked Doors" (Duccio de Buoninsegna, 1308)
No matter. Jesus just launches into his explanation about how the whole crucifixion and resurrection was part of God’s plan, that was revealed in the Scriptures. Then, in what is perhaps the biggest surprise of this whole interaction, he enlists them in the ministry of his mission.

Jesus suffered, died, and rose again so that forgiveness of sins may be announced and lived in the way of repentance; that is, in the repeated turning around, hearing about God’s mercy and having the opportunity to align our lives with it. “You are witnesses of these things,” he says. The bones, the teeth, the story of forgiveness, the empty grave…they are witnesses of these things.

Notice that Jesus coerces no one to believe, and neither does he exclude or belittle those who can’t or don’t. He simply presents himself again and again in a loving and unaggressive way that seeks to reassure. And despite what conclusions of faith they must reach about his presence before them, they are still witnesses of what they have seen and heard. Despite what they may eventually come to believe about those promises and prophecies revealed in Scripture, they can’t un-see the exhibit in front of them. They are witnesses.

Sisters and brothers, let me suggest that this is one of the best descriptions of the church’s ministry: to be witnesses to this story, to be people who testify to the apostles’ experience of eating with their real, human Lord, on the third day after his crucifixion. When all is said and done, that’s really what we are: wide-eyed children of God who’ve been led to the display case with the teeth and the bones. We can and will reach our own conclusions about the mysterious truth we’re beholding—that Jesus is risen—but we can’t un-see it, un-hear it. We are witnesses of these things. Likewise, we can and will feel any number of emotions about this table the Lord gathers us around and about the heavenly food we receive at it, but we can’t be un-gathered now, and we can’t be un-fed. We are witnesses of these things.

The principal task of our faith and life together is not, then, to be arguers for the existence of God (as much as I love to do that at times), especially people who coerce or belittle others into believing—and neither is it to be moral policemen and policewomen, lecturing others on what they should and shouldn’t be doing. Gently correcting others’ behavior and engaging in lively debate about God are both good things, given the right opportunity, and confident witnessing may, in fact, involve them, but the ministry of Jesus disciples is first and foremost to be witnesses, to say, “We have heard these things and let me tell you how I have experienced the Lord’s grace.”

Because just as the disciples needed an authentic Jesus that day, just as the disciples needed teeth and bones to help them move from terror to joy, the world is in need of an authentic witness to Christ, one that takes up space in the world, one that has a backbone and bites down on things like injustice and pain. After all, the psalmist reminds us this morning that “There are many who say, ‘O, that we might see some good!’” The church’s call is not just to be people who gather every now and then to think nice thoughts about God (as happy as they may be) but a communion whose presence and activity puts “flesh and bones” to the presence of Christ in the world.

Rollie Martinson, an authority in youth and family ministry who teaches at Luther Seminary gave some remarks at a youth mission conference I was following on Twitter this week. He was talking about the current religious landscape in American and how people in our culture have more options and obligations on Sunday morning than probably ever before. In one sense, this is good: that means there are more places for us to be the body of Christ. However, with such a consumerist culture, the idea and practice of church as a community—as a body—is easy to lose sight of. In his observation, young people, especially are being lost in this shift. One result of this change is that families tend to look for congregation to give their children morals rather than as a place to nurture the gift of faith. Said a little differently, the church’s challenge to be a body of “teeth and bones,” as a communion that takes up space in the world, embodying forgiveness, that nurtures its ability to be witnesses together with Word and sacrament is a little more difficult to keep track of—from my perspective as well as yours, I’m sure—if people view church as little more than time to tank up on spirituality, say, or religious entertainment, or even intellectual stimulation. Yet even when we do, the teeth and bones Jesus is liable to appear and pull us back in, give us new eyes.

A few weeks ago it was Maundy Thursday, the worship service where many of our fourth graders receive their First Holy Communion. As the worship service began, the acolyte, a fifth-grader, came to sit down next to me after lighting the candles. The first thing he did was pick up his bulletin and point to something on front cover where we had listed the names of those receiving the Lord’s Supper for the first time that evening. With unmistakable pride and wide-eyed wonder, he wasted no time telling me, his finger placed on one name, “Pastor, this guy’s my cousin!!

Now that’s someone who gets it, I thought. It’s easy for me to see those names sometimes and think of them as just another crop of 10-year-olds or however-year-olds going through the motions of religious piety, getting their morals. But I realize now I’ve seen that face before. That’s the face of someone whose eyes and hands are pressed against the glass display case, filled with excitement because he knows he grabbed hold of something at that table for the first time last year. That, my friends, the look of a child of the living God who wants to know more, wants to reach deeper, a disciple who is living in forgiveness. It’s the look of a young disciples who is convinced and is glad to view me and the others around the table with him as what we truly are: we are witnesses.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Resurrection of Our Lord [Year B] - April 5, 2015 (Mark 16:1-8)

“The women had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’”

Do you know people like this…people who are always thinking of what needs to be done? They’re the people who are constantly planning ahead, people one or two steps ahead of most of the rest of us? These are the folks who, despite being tasked with so many duties all the time, are constantly taking stock of the situation at hand and figuring out what needs to be done.

Thank God for these people! I’m married to one and work here with a bunch of others.

“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

Do you know people like this? If not, you do now, for it happens to be the question asked by the three women who are on their way in Jerusalem that morning to perform the ritual anointing of the dead. If they were like all the other women of that day and age—and we have no reason to believe they weren’t—they had plenty of other things to do to keep the village and its households running. This trip to the cemetery was no pleasure stroll, and although this act of devotion and grief was likely something they were honored to do, they couldn’t be wasting time. They planned ahead.

"Holy Women at the Tomb" (Bouguereau)
“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” Of the four accounts of Jesus’ resurrection that we have, Mark is the only one who includes this little snippet of dialogue. The other three gospel writers all rush us right to the tomb, eager to present to us the scene that the women will find, eager to get on with the news. My guess it’s because Mark and these women both are familiar with just how large these stones were. Archaeologists tell us just about every tomb in Jesus’ day had one. Wealthier folks had neatly rounded stones that rolled nicely back and forth. Middle class and lower class people had to settle for more roughly-hewn, square-ish stones that had to be pushed and did not move so easily. Weighing several hundred pounds apiece, and were designed to slow down grave-robbing, if not prevent it altogether. So it’s a question, then, asked by those who are good at planning and wonder how things are going to play out:“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

I’m thankful that Mark included this question of the journey instead of just taking us right to scene of wonder. In addition to the fact that it seems realistic, I also find it to be very honest, very applicable, because “Who will roll away the stone for us?” is essentially the question we ask so often on our various journeys of life. It’s what people ask, for example, when faced with sudden unemployment, and there is suddenly a big boulder of job-seeking to worry about. It’s what people tend to wonder when a cancer diagnosis is received, and suddenly a path to healing seems treacherous and filled with all kinds of looming obstacles. It’s the same question people ask who are seeking a way out of the cycles of violence and hatred of this world, cycles much like the unfair, bloody process that led to Jesus’s own death on the cross.

Without too much effort we can rephrase the women’s same question and put it on the lips of those living under the threat of ISIS’ advance, or on the lips of those parents in Kenya whose children will never come home from university, and on the lips of our own soldiers who come home with stress disorders and nightmares of warfare that won’t leave them alone: What’s the next step, Lord, and how on earth are we going to take it? We need that stone moved, Lord, but it is too large for us, the grief is too deep, the way forward too dark. Yes, we’re thankful for this question from the women that Mark is so careful to include because we know it, even if we’re not careful-planning type. We ask it because we’re broken humans in a broken world that is riddled with boulders.

Of course, we know how the story continues: the women eventually arrive at the tomb and all their worrying and planning is for naught. The stone is already rolled away and, oh, by the way, they won’t be needing those anointing spices anyway. The body they were supposed to anoint with them is no longer there. He is risen, and is ahead of them in Galilee. God, as it turns out, is already a step or two ahead of the people who are a step or two ahead. God is a mile ahead of the people who are a step or two ahead.

But if Mark’s gospel begins with this realistic question of planning and thoughtfulness, it ends with even more realistic abruptness. The women, even after they’re carefully instructed about what to do, flee the scene in silence and terror. The most miraculous event in history has occurred, the biggest stone—death—has been done away with—and suddenly they’re speechless, without questions and without plans.

In his poem, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” John Updike says,

The stone is rolled back, not paper-maché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

Yes, it is so tempting to take the message of Easter and turn it into something easier to swallow, something metaphorical or allegorical, as if the news of the empty tomb is simply that is something that imparts warm fuzzy hope on the inside but doesn’t change the boulder-ridden world we live in. The discovery of the rolled-away-stone message of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead isn’t just that God is somewhere ahead of us, like God is some sort of man waiting around the next corner with balloons and a birthday cake to cheer us up. The message of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is that the future is already here. The news of the empty tomb is that God has already begun a new creation, one where Christ is risen and reigning. Because that stone is moved and Christ is really freed from the grave, death no longer has the final word.

"Women at the tomb of Christ" (Carracci)
Again, the women—this time in their fear and haste—remind us that this reality is earth-shaking, and for those who like to use death as their tool to get their way, for those who think death will always eclipse life, the resurrection of Jesus is a frightening event. Death has lost its sting. Its methods aren’t effective anymore. This changes the world we live in, for a God of infinite love will actually have the final word. Therefore God’s people get to adjust their lives to reflect this reality. Easter faith is bolstered by the knowledge that behind all those stones of disease and violence, hopelessness, and despair, stands the rolled away stone at the entrance to Jesus’ tomb. We therefore can change our words so that they speak of hope and compassion, unafraid to speak light into the dark. The Spirit comes to help us reform our actions so they mirror God’s grace and justice and make us able to suffer alongside the suffering. The Spirit can transform our outlook so that we can remember that our dead rest in Christ and will one day rise, with us, victorious with him.

“Who will roll the stone away for us?” Do you know people like this? It was the question directed at me on one Sunday here just a few weeks ago on one snowy Sunday, by two different women in the congregation. One was in her 20s and the other in her 90s—but both were wondering the same thing: “Who is going to shovel the snow out of the columbarium?” I had been so proud of our efforts to get the sidewalks and parking lots cleared that week, I hadn’t even thought to take the shovel to the very place where our own blessed dead are resting. Both of these women questioned me that morning, but not in worry or hesitation about the “next step,” but rather in sure and confident hope of Christ’s resurrection. They had shown up that Sunday like they did every week, fully intending to spend a moment in prayer and thanksgiving with their loved one who was far from forgotten, alive to Christ.

“Who will roll that stone away for us?” I know people like this. Thank God for them! And I’m looking at dozens of them right now, people burdened by the boulders of life, the “vast rocks of materiality,” but confident that because of Jesus, the path has been shoveled. I’m looking at dozens of them right now, in fact—people whose faith and upturned faces suggest to me that from now on,  the columbarium should be the first thing we shovel.

And I know I’m likely looking at dozens of others, faces upturned in sorrow and worry who need to hear the news that those women discovered that day: the stone has already been rolled away. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed.

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - March 29, 2015 - "The Cry of the Whole Congregation"

Many churchgoers, especially Lutherans it seems, often poke fun at themselves about sitting in the same spot in the same pew over and over again. Of course, I suppose I can’t throw too many stones in this regard, considering I get the benefit of the same seat week after week. The fact yet remains: we can get a little set in our ways, and even a little territorial, and woe to the unwitting guest who “bumps” us out of our regular seat!

There was a legend in the first congregation I served about one woman in particular who liked to sit every week in the very back pew, in the seat right next to the aisle. When one former pastor supposedly tried to rope off the back third of the nave one particular poorly-attended Sunday so that everyone would sit closer together and closer to the front, this one woman simply got up and left. She wasn’t going to worship unless she could sit in her preferred seat. I ended up getting to know Florence pretty well and she was super nice, but I was too afraid to ever rope off her seat to see what she’d do. That’s an extreme case, perhaps, but we all know what I’m talking about. We can laugh about it because there’s an element of truth to it.

However, as much as no one person really belongs in any particular pew here, I have to admit I was touched this week when I heard one member her talk about her “pew buddies.” I had gone to visit her in the hospital. As we were talking she mentioned to me that the people who sat around her on Sunday mornings had known about the upcoming procedure She then named them—one by one, the people who sit around her each week—and the individual ways they offered care to her during her rehabilitation. Now, her place in that pew is not “hers” by some right, as if no one else could sit there, but it hers in the sense that it identifies her place within the community. It gives her a space, a roll, a part in the bigger scheme of things.

Two Italian photographers recently published a book of photos using a camera set up unobtrusively in front of the altar in several different congregations. It was meant to give people and idea of what worshippers look like as a body as they go through the motions of worship from the priest’s point of view. Most people never get to see that perspective, but, as you can see in the book, clearly each person has their place. The book is titled Go in Peace.

In a world that is shifting so quickly, that gropes for peace, there is a lot to be said for knowing our place, having a designated role, identifying where we belong,  understanding where we fit in relation to the larger community, and, for some of us, becoming attached to a particular pew on a Sunday morning is just one example of that. It certainly isn’t or shouldn’t be the case for everyone. Nevertheless, what about you? Do you feel like you have a place—a roll, a spot—in this community, or in any community, for that matter?

For the people of God, the reading and re-telling of Jesus’ suffering and death is ultimately about finding our spot. This is perhaps the principal reason why, every year—and on a much smaller scale, every week as the pastor lifts the bread and the cup in Christ’s holy meal—we gather in churches and cathedrals and worshiping communities around the globe and hear again the story of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem. We read and listen to hear again where it is we fit in, which role we might be playing in this great and tragic epic of God.

Pastor and writer Kazimierz Bem writes in a recent article about worship: “Some things are bigger than us. There needs to be a place where we are told uncomfortable truths about ourselves, our world and even about God—where we ask the questions our pop culture ignores or caricatures, and where we can look for answers. Where we pause — and reflect theologically.”[1]

In fact, one of the first acts of devotion that early Christians undertook was to retrace Jesus’ footsteps in Jerusalem leading up to his crucifixion. Just as the crowds once gathered to acclaim him as king and then later paraded him to the hill of crucifixion, early people of the faith gathered annually in Jerusalem to retrace his steps…but also theirs. They took palm branches and walked along the city streets. They gathered for special celebrations of the Lord’s Supper and kept vigil in darkened sanctuaries on Good Friday.

"The Denial of Peter" (Simon Bening, 1525)
But none of this was done purely for the drama. It was done out of a need to remember where they stood, where they sat, so to speak, as God’s wayward people, as these events unfolded. They grasped, as we do, that this story was not just something they listened to. It was something they participated in. It is not just a chain of events that make us imagine things about God and the world. It is a chain of events containing links that join us right to it.

So it is, we pause again today not simply in this sanctuary but in the midst of this story that is bigger than we are. We are confronted with uncomfortable truths and, whether we admit it, we find ourselves asking difficult questions, often prompted by different personal perspectives from the story itself. If they love him, why don’t Jesus’ followers do more to stop this from happening, like get him out of Jerusalem? Do I so quickly deny my relationship with the Lord the way Peter does? For what reasons is releasing convicted murderer Barabbas the better option? Deep down are we still more convinced of the power of violence over the hard way of peacefulness? Do I, like Pilate, feel pressure from society—from friends or culture in general—to take a stance about Jesus, but end up noncommittal? And then clincher: if Jesus really has the forces of God at his disposal, why on earth doesn’t he find a different way to bring about his kingdom? This whole ordeal with the cross and the nails is ridiculous, in the truest sense of the word. It’s like we find ourselves asking, along with the mockers, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God!”

Yes, before we know it, the story has done exactly what it set out to do: put us in our place, whether we like it or not. We know that when we hear it we have a place in this great and tragic—but ultimately triumphant—story of God.

"Crucifixion" (Guilio Carponi, 1648)
And, as it turns out, that’s the good news. Everyone, as it turns out, has a seat with their name on it. Everyone has a place in the story of God’s love, whether they are new to hearing it or deeply familiar with it. Everyone—even those people driving by our worship right now, headed to Martin’s or to the gym—everyone has a place in God’s love, because in Jesus, God has come to forgive and save. In Jesus, God has come to seek out the lost and the lonely, the cold and indifferent, to die for the ones who deny him and the ones who will betray. In Jesus, God has come to identify specifically with the person who feels they have no place at all, the one who feels the most hopeless, the least powerful. The point of Christ’ Passion is this: God has a place for each person in his kingdom, even though we gave him no place in ours.

So, today, I invite you to glance around at your “pew buddies,” your fellow members of a broken world, and speak up with boldness and claim a part. There’s a place for you in there somewhere. Maybe you’re like Florence and know exactly where you belong. But remember: just as we take in the despair of this part of the story, I assure you we will take part in the hope to which it leads, a permanent place at the table of mercy…from God’s view, one congregation, one people, faces all lifted up toward the risen Lord.


Thanks be to God!

Andate in Pace ("Go in Peace")

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Fourth Sunday in Lent [Year B] - March 15, 2015 (Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21)

Serpents in the wilderness. Everyone, it seems, has a story about a serpent in the wilderness…or at least the backyard.

As it happens, my most memorable story was from less than two years ago. On the way back from visiting the youth group while they were at the Kairos event at Roanoke College I stopped briefly at the Humpback Rocks parking lot to do some birding. I wandered off the path for a little bit over by the old homestead area, not realizing there were clear signs warning people to stay on it. As I was honing in on something in front of me I wanted to see close-up, paying no attention to my immediate vicinity, I began to hear a little whispering that sounded like a tiny baby’s rattle. I had never heard the sound of a real-live rattlesnake before, but it took my autonomic nervous system about 1.2 seconds to figure out that was what I was hearing. I froze in my tracks and looked down.

There, plain as can be, in the exact spot where I would have put my next step, was a 4-foot long Timber Rattler. And I was wearing sandals.

What likely saved me, I quickly discovered, was that it already had something in its mouth. A lifeless rodent of some sort was wedged in its jaws. However, as cool as my inner Steve Irwin might have thought it was, I didn’t want to tempt fate, so I very, very slowly and cautiously backed up from him and made my way back to the trail. What I noticed though, as I was doing this, was that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Literally—to look away, even for an instant, meant I could get seriously hurt and maybe die. The snake could change his mind in the blink of an eye, decide a protective strike against me was worth dropping his meal, and sink those venomous fangs in my foot before I knew it. I’m not sure I could have reacted fast enough if he had tried that, but I wasn’t going to look anywhere else. I kept staring at him like my life depended on it.

Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Esteban March)
The ancient Israelites had serpent-in-the-wilderness story. It wasn’t one of their more well-known stories, mind you, but it played out like a nightmare. They, too, had wandered off the path of gratefulness and devotion God had plainly laid out for them, so God sends deadly snakes into their wilderness. When the people are bitten, they aren’t told how to make an antivenin. They aren’t taught how to tie a tourniquet, or run away like crazy. Rather, they must stare at the bronze serpent statue that Moses makes like their life depends on it.

Indeed, their life does depend on it. According to the way that God has arranged this peculiar little lesson, that’s how they will live. They have to look straight at the very thing that is causing them to die. In order to be saved, they can’t take their eyes of the result of their sin, which are those awful snakes that God first sent as a judgment against their impatience.  Their salvation involves coming to terms with---looking in the eye of---the very problem in their midst.

That’s how I think this country feels now about the racism in its midst, and, quite honestly, about any number of problems that we fight and that fight us, biting us on our foolishly-sandaled feet. The videotape that emerged this week of some college students singing a racist chant on a bus on the way to a party was difficult to watch, especially if you’ve ever been or known a college student going to a party. The reports of more shootings of police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, are difficult to hear and see, especially if you’re one who has ever denounced those who serve in law enforcement.

Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Augustus John)
Yet in both of these scenarios, and plenty more like them, a way out of the wilderness will only come if these things are lifted up for us to confront. Rescue will arrive only if they are held before our faces in order to remind us there are deadly tendencies in our midst, slithering like snakes in the confines of our hearts, waiting to strike at any moment. Truly dealing with our sin and brokenness will never involve leaving examples of it in the dark. Salvation from the sin that infects us will involve bringing it out into the open, letting it sit in the light. That will be its judgment.

Theologian and church historian Leonard Sweet says, “What is wrong with humanity cannot be fixed simply by what is right with humanity.”  Oh, it’s so tempting to think it can be, to think that the goodness within ourselves will overcome the bad on its own, to believe that we’ll eventually drag our foolishness out into the light of judgment more times than not. But everyone has a story of serpents in the wilderness, and we know, deep-down, we aren’t able to outrun, outsmart, or out-serpent them. God is going to have to get involved. God is going to have to send the way of life that comes through looking at death.

As peculiar as we think the story about Moses and the bronze pole is, it turns out to be the perfect story for the lesson that Jesus is trying to teach Nicodemus. Nicodemus has come in the dark. He’s drawn to Jesus, interested in what he is teaching, but he’s afraid of what others may think of him for seeking out knowledge from him. He fears the judgment that would come by doing such a thing in the daylight. Jesus welcomes him, engages his question and his quest for knowledge. However, Jesus informs him, rescue for the world will not come from seeking more knowledge or gaining a more enlightened perspective, simply nurturing what is good about humanity. It will come only when the Son of Man is lifted up. Rescue for humankind will only come when the Son of Man is hoisted on a cross, for then we will see the full result of our sin. When Jesus dies that death, we will see that the endgame of all our inner and outer brokenness spells despair and death. We will remember that humans can be given the way out of slavery—right through to the Promised Land—and will still wander away, will still find cause to be ungrateful about it.  We will see the Son of Man dying and realize this is where all our paths in the wilderness will ultimately lead unless God gets involved.

Crucifixion (Bartolome Esteban Murillo)
But here’s the good news, for Nicodemus and for us. This isn’t solely about our judgment. The verse goes God so loves the world “that he sends his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him—“everyone who looks at him hoisted on the cross”—may not perish but may have eternal life.” The line that follows is perhaps even more important, “Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

You heard that right: God’s judgment of the world is to save it, to love it…not hate it or despise it, reject or abandon it. The cross of Jesus is at the same time God’s judgment of sin and also God’s victory over it. The cross of Jesus is at the same time God’s act of hauling out into the light all the things that are wrong with humanity that we need to see, and also God’s pronouncement of love for humanity anyway. God’s lifting up of his Son in death is God’s way of lifting us to eternal life.

One danger, of course, is interpreting this message as if it’s a once-and-done deal. It’s easy to fall into that trap. To this way of thinking, it’s like we get one chance: we either accept it or we don’t…we either respond or we reject. We either have faith…or we doubt. In this view, believe that Christ died on the cross for you and it’s like somewhere in heaven your name is moved over from the “condemned” column to the “saved” column. Then we are prone to turn this view on others: are they one of the saved or one of the condemned?

To take Jesus at his word here, however, this interpretation does not sound quite correct. If we must believe God is keeping columns or lists, it’s more proper to think that God has one column. That column is labelled “loved,” and you either realize you’re name is already in it, or you don’t. Your name is already in it because Jesus has been lifted up. Your name is already loved because God has sent his Son. That, my friends, is once-and-done. Looking to the cross to remember that love, to ponder it, and wonder it? That must and will happen over and over and over again. “The hour I first believed?” If we’re truly honest with ourselves, that hour comes again almost every single day.

Everyone has a story about a serpent in the wilderness, and if you don’t yet then pay attention, because it’s bound to happen at some point. They’re all around us! And when you do, here’s something to keep in mind: no matter how far you’ve wandered off the path, no matter how deep you find yourself in the wilderness with nothing but sandals on your feet, no matter how much of a nightmare life feels like, you may always look at the cross of Christ, lifted high, and remember you—you and this world of darkness that so often runs from the light— you are loved.

Don’t take your eyes off of it.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Third Sunday in Lent [Year B] - March 8, 2015 (Exodus 20:1-17 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 and John 2:13-22)

I can still remember the first days of early elementary school when the teacher took great pains to explain classroom rules and consequences. It was a big deal. The message had to get across. Before any real learning could begin, she had to explain how behavior in her classroom was going to look. There was one list on the wall of rules and another list of consequences. In those days, if you transgressed the rules, the consequences entailed having your name written on the chalkboard in front of class. If you transgressed again, the teacher would go and place a big check mark beside your name. That was bad. If that happened, a note would go home to your parents. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that if you had walked into one of the classrooms at South Fork Elementary on any given day you would have known if I was in there because “Phillip Martin” would have been engraved on the blackboard. But never a check mark! I learned pretty quickly, like several others of us, exactly how much I could do to get that one warning and then go no farther.

For my daughters, who are now in elementary school, the system has changed somewhat. Rather than simply punishing bad behavior these days, teachers are just as likely to reward good behavior, and they indicate this by moving a clothespin that has your name on it up or down on a rainbow in the room. Everyone starts on green, a nice benign color. Do something good, and you “clip up,” as they say, to yellow and orange. Break the rules, and you “clip down.” I had to laugh at what one of my daughters said last year when she was thinking about the following year of school. Very matter-of-factly she remarked, “In second grade, the teacher won’t give you a warning. If you do something wrong, you just ‘clip down.’” I thought to myself: I guess second grade is where it starts to get real.

Whether that’s true or not, it’s clear that the message has gotten across: this is how you are to live and learn in the classroom. It’s gotten across so well, in fact, that my girls have made their own version of the rainbow chart and hung it in their playroom. I’m not going to tell you where my clothespin is.

When the Israelites are delivered from their captivity in Egypt and they make their way, with God’s mighty help, through the waters of the Red Sea, Moses goes up Mt. Sinai to meet with the Lord. When Moses comes down, he doesn’t have a rainbow chart and clothespins. He has ten very powerful, life-giving words that will eventually get engraved in stone. And all the Hebrews learn that this is where it starts to get real.

Every aspect of Hebrew culture and faith will come to be built on these ten words of life, which come to be known as the Ten Commandments. These are the basics, given right here at the beginning of their life together. And God hopes the message gets across: that they are God’s chosen people. That they are freed from slavery and have been given freedom because God is a God of freedom and hears the cries of those who are oppressed.

From a structural standpoint, these ten words are laid out in genius fashion. They’re not just willy-nilly thrown out there—“don’t do this, don’t do that”—which is what I thought as a kid. They all flow very logically and lovingly from each other, starting from the very first one, which actually doesn’t even begin as a commandment, but as a statement of grace: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” It’s right there at the front of it all: before Israel is asked to do anything, God reminds them of all God has done, and whose they are. And then the rest of them flow from there: ones that focus on the relationship between God and God’s people and then to the ones that focus more on the relationships between God’s people.

That’s all well and good, but the problem is the message doesn’t really get across. Over time, God’s people begin to see them as nothing more than a list of rules. Rather than viewing them as they are intended, as a gracious gift that describes and defines the life of a free people, they start seeing them as some authoritarian blackboard name-writing system. God’s people become like that selfish, unruly little clever schoolkid who knows exactly how far he can go, and exactly how he can split hairs of interpretation, so as not to get the check beside his name. Or they become completely oblivious and disrespectful, racking up all kinds of checkmarks and not knowing (or really caring) what to do about it.

That right there is a nutshell history of God’s people. God sends prophet after prophet in order to call the people back to covenant faithfulness, but prophet after prophet essentially gets ignored. Some of those prophets end up getting downright angry. They pronounce all kinds of hellfire and brimstone in order to get that message across.  Eventually the people of Israel build a temple in Jerusalem in order to put in one place their worship and their devotion to God. While that seems to help somewhat, it isn’t too long before the same problems start to creep in again. God’s words of life and the wonderful relationship of grace that they are meant to form between God and God’s people get used and abused by human sin. When people come in to worship God and encounter the holy, they end up encountering this entire system of religion that’s been set up revolving around the rules of sacrifice.

And it becomes manipulative across the board. The religious leaders use the words of life and the system of sacrifices to manipulate the people. The people use the system of religion to try to manipulate God. People feel like God is manipulating them. And it’s hard to get past the feeling that faith—this initial trust in a God who has saved us and desires life for us—is nothing but just a phony rainbow chart. It looks like the message of God’s love isn’t ever going to get across.

Then along comes this new prophet who comes up to the temple during the big Passover festival and finds all those manipulative systems of religion and sacrifice. There are tables selling animals for sacrifice, along with booths where you can exchange your Roman coins for currency that Jewish scribes and Temple leaders would accept. The man gets angry. In a very vivid scene of chaos, he makes a whip out of cords, he starts overturning the tables and driving out the merchants. And this is how his message is going to get across: the message is going to get a cross.

"Christ Driving the Moneychangers from the Temple" (El Greco)
[in the upper left corner, on the temple wall, there is a depiction of
Adam and Eve being driven from the Garden of Eden.]
But if we listen closely, we notice that this scene in the temple isn’t about another message that someone’s trying to get across, whip of cords though he may use. It’s not a message about overturning a system of manipulative religion.  The message is Jesus, himself. Jesus doesn’t just come, like all the other prophets before him, bearing the message of God’s forgiveness of sin. Jesus will become the forgiveness of sin, himself. Hence the confusion about the temple’s destruction and rebuilding. He’s not talking about the stone temple. He’s talking about his very body. What we learn from Jesus, you see, is that God’s message is not going to get across until God’s message gets a cross. Because of the presence of human sin, the tendency to think we can control where we ultimately fall on God’s big rainbow chart of God’s love, hasn’t been getting across. So in Jesus, the message gets a cross. All of the things that stand in the way of a direct relationship with God, all those systems and rules and guilt and shame die forever on the cross of Jesus.

It is something that never really seems to make sense: that God would go to this length to redeem this relationship with us, that he would let his own Son become both the rules and the consequences for us. As the apostle Paul puts it, “for the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” For the message about the cross makes absolutely no sense at all to those who are still trying to keep their name off God’s blackboard. But for those who are aware they will always eventually and always move down the chart, the cross is salvation. It’s the teacher taking a chalkboard eraser and saying, “I love you anyway.”

"Christ on the Cross" (Sebastian Lopez de Arteaga)
One thing, then, I often think about is, “What message are we giving across here, in our little temple of the Lord, in our ministries in Jesus’ name?” Do we give off the impression that we’re all about a system of rules? Do we come across as people driven by some sense of game-playing religion, or as those who know that the cross of Jesus claims us as God’s children forever, period. Thanks to one of our Sunday School classes and some other conversations that people have been having in the congregation, the topic of a congregational mission statement has been a topic lately. When we think about messages that we get across, especially as it relates to our identity and our ministries, mission statements can be pretty important.

The congregation does currently have a mission statement, but it is not well-known, and that’s probably not that helpful. As a process moves forward to look at possibly re-forming a mission statement, I think we all know that it will be crucial to remember that central message that has claimed us and has given us life. At the end of the day the most important statement will be not the one that is printed on our bulletins or on our newsletter. Neither will it be the one any church erects in statue form in front of the local courthouse. In reality, all of those can and often do just come across looking and feeling like a list of rules rather than words of life.

No, the most important statement will be one reflected in our faith and trust of God. It will be a message clear to anyone by the faith Christ reflects in us—to the person who comes here weekly or the person who comes among God’s people for the first time seeking forgiveness and compassion or maybe even seeking just a sign that God does exist. When we’re at our mission best, brothers and sisters, is when we’ve realized that the message we’re trying to get across is the cross.

It almost doesn’t even make sense.

The foolishness of God.

Our names have been erased from the blackboard.

Now, my brothers and sisters, things are about to get real.


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The First Sunday in Lent [Year B] - February 22, 2015 (Genesis 9:8-17)

Who doesn’t like a clear, undeniable sign? I think it’s a universal fact that when people want to be told something, they’d want to be told in a straightforward, unmistakable, and preferably timely way.

You know who gets that? Andy Jenks gets that. He’s the Director of Public Relations and Communications for Henrico County Public Schools, which means he’s the one who has been in charge of announcing school delays and closings for the Richmond Metro area. And, as you may have guessed, those whose lives are affected by the public school schedule have heard a lot of him this week. Maybe it’s his past career as a local news reporter, but he seems to understand that when the weather gets bad, people are hanging on his every word. I don’t know how it is in Chesterfield or Hanover County, but in this neck of the woods we follow Mr. Jenks on Twitter, we check our email, we wait for his robocall...whatever we can do to get that undeniable sign that once again (ahem) the children of the earth in Henrico County and every living creature that is with them shall be cut off from another school-day because of 1 inch of snow. In an age when digital signs and symbols are the name of the game Mr. Jenks knows how to play.

This guy (me) is still learning.

You know who else is into clear, undeniable signs, don’t you? Noah’s God. Can’t you see Noah there, finally on solid ground after forty days and forty nights of rain, constantly updating his Twitter feed, wanting to know what God is going to do next? And then comes the sign: a bow in the clouds, rays of divine light bouncing off dark, foreboding clouds. It’s a sign, says God, of the covenant that I am establishing between you and every living creature that is with you that never again will you be cut off by the waters of a flood. God is an excellent Director of Public Relations and Communications! God is establishing a new covenant with the people he has saved through the flood and is announcing it with an enormous, undeniable Tweet of a million colors.

Early peoples must have been amazed by rainbows, if you think about it. They had no scientific understanding of things like light waves and refraction and dispersion of water droplets. To them, dark clouds were primarily scary things that threatened destruction with their thunder and lightning, but that every once in a while could also hold a thing so wondrous and ephemeral and harmless as rainbow. For Noah and Noah’s God, this was the perfect sign that the flood’s cleansing was over. The sin that had scarred the earth and all its human relationships had been washed away.

On its own, the story of Noah and the rainbow is intriguing enough because it reassures us of a God who values setting things straight with his creation, but set against the backdrop of other ancient cultures, the sign that God gives Noah is even more surprising and unique. In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, the word used here is actually “bow,” which referred, of course, not only to the arc shape of the rainbow, but also to the bow that was used as a weapon. In every other ancient civilization that we know about that the Hebrews had to live among and sometimes share stories with—people like those of Mesopotamia, Babylon and Ugarit—a bow in the sky, often in star constellations, was always a sign from the gods that symbolized warfare and hostility. Noah’s God, by contrasts, boldly turns this symbol of violence into something good and hopeful, a sign of reconciliation. Rather than a re-establishment of God’s power and force, which is so easily what it could have been, for Noah and his people it’s a sign of a fresh, new beginning.

Who knows how much they actually pay attention to it. But, still, God’s sign in the heavens was clear and undeniable, and for the millennia that followed, God’s people could look up after a storm and be reminded of God’s goodness, hope.

Yet as true and as good as that is, notice that the rainbow was never really intended to be a sign to Noah or God’s people, The sign of the rainbow was a sign for God to remember God’s covenant. This undeniable symbol of new beginnings was a reminder for God to heed God’s word. So here in this colorful, peaceful ending to the flood we find something important for Noah and all of Noah’s descendants to understand about the God with whom they are dealing, the God who created them. That is, we see that a central piece of God’s identity is that God is going to remember the covenant God makes with them. There is nothing in this covenant-relationship about Noah needing to do anything in order to validate this arrangement of grace and hope. The responsibility of salvation—the hard work of redemption—is going to fall to God, not on Noah or anyone else. When it comes to making good on this promise, God is the one whose name is on the line.

"Noah's Thankoffering" (Joseph Anton Koch 1806)
And our part? What must we do to make this covenant count? Nothing. Like Noah, we just get to receive it, look at it, give thanks for it, and live into it. A clear, new beginning. This is grace. Interestingly enough, spelled backwards in Hebrew, the letters for “Noah” spell “grace.”

Of course, God’s people eventually come by a different way to spell grace: “J-E-S-U-S.” As the waters subside at Jordan one day, the skies are torn open, like after a storm, and God’s people realize they realize the journey out of sinfulness is finally over and that they’re waking up to another fresh new beginning that God has freely given. Interestingly enough, God had promised Noah many, many years before that there never would again be a flood to destroy the earth…but, as it turns out, God does send another flood. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God, out of God’s own desire and will, floods the earth with mercy, forgiveness and grace so that our lives may begin again. And the sign of the bow in the sky given to Noah becomes a foreshadowing of God’s ability to take a symbol of oppression and violence and turn use it as a sign for hope and goodness.

Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Beloved Son on the cross, is God’s final and full sign—undeniable and clear—that God loves us and wants to continue a relationship with us. Our life in Christ begins in the flood of these waters. And, in a way, we’re like Noah all over again. In faith, we learn to look to the cross and see that there is nothing we do or can do at all to receive God’s love. God is going to do the hard work of redemption. With the company of others on this journey, we trust that we can look into the darkest of the darkest clouds and still expect to find a token of God’s presence, a sign that God is there, recalling his covenant of life. And with the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, we learn that the wilderness is a place where, despite the temptations of life, Jesus shows up to walk with us.

That’s why we Lutherans like sacraments so much. They are clear, undeniable signs of God’s grace to us. In fact, Martin Luther liked to point out that the best response to the powers of darkness and doubt that can overwhelm is to shout, “But I am baptized!” not “I was” but I am baptized. That is, this is not just one event along our life’s path, but a status we live in. It’s not just a certificate we receive, but an identity that is formed by an ongoing relationship with J-E-S-U-S. As God’s people, as descendants of Noah, we are baptized. Henceforth we pray that Kaito here will always feel the wet fingers of Pastor Joseph Bolick on his forehead. He has been claimed in Christ because God loves him, and there is nothing he will ever have to do to deserve it.                                                                  

Every now and then I come across blog posts by other pastors and church leaders who talk about reasons why people don’t attend worship or take part in congregational ministry. Just this week Gallup released some statistics about church attendance, broken down by state.

Virginia’s weekly attendance rate is around 35%. I don’t know if I think that’s high or low, but I know that those who do think it’s low blame it, at least in part, on the prevalence of other Sunday morning distractions, like sports, in our culture. Quite frankly, a lot of people have to work on Sundays now.

To be honest, though, I often wonder how many stay away because they don’t feel worthy enough to attend church.  Maybe it’s that they feel they can’t hang with a group of people who seem on the surface to be holy, or be with people who talk about a God who seems distant and disinterested. I know I’ve heard that at some places folks feel more welcome in the Twelve-Step programs that meet during the week than they do on Sunday morning.

If that’s the case, and there’s probably some ways that it is, perhaps it’s time to consider the job we’re doing as Public Relations and Communications agents for God. Perhaps it’s time remember that we’re all born again in these waters. In fact, it is time—it’s always time—it’s good to begin our worship, our life, with a the reminder that God’s flood of grace has claimed us here, that no matter where we are in life and no matter how unlovable we are, no matter the power of temptations we struggle against, the skies have parted again and God has given us a fresh new beginning.

We are baptized people. Every day, every week, every month…we are baptized.

The sign is there. It is in the sky, up there, at the top of Golgotha, and we can trust it. God has washed us and set us free to go, once again, on dry ground. Thank heavens, this is undeniable.

Tweet it.

Tell it.

Live it.

Paint it in a million beautiful colors.

We have been saved.                          


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.