Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Fifth Sunday of Easter [Year A] - May 14, 2017 (1 Peter 2:1-10 and John 14:1-14)

Our younger daughter likes rocks, and any little pebble or stone, no matter how nondescript, has the potential to wind up in her collection. She’ll just be walking along the street or in the backyard or often just in a parking lot or here at church and she’ll bend down and grab one that fits into her hand. Usually she’ll bring them into the house and hold onto them until she finds a little place to squirrel each of them away, and to this day you can come over to our place and find little rocks in random places: on the cabinet in front of the TV, on the bathroom counter…the other day I found one (it was like a mommy-baby combo, actually) behind a picture frame in the family room. They are all little-ish rocks of no particular beauty or form, mostly ones that have been kicked underfoot by untold numbers of people, but somehow special and meaningful to Laura.

One day we decided enough of these little rocks everywhere and be bought her a box that she could put them all in. It was one of those clear plastic sewing boxes with little different-sized compartments. Laura went around through the house and picked up every little rock and pebble and brought them together into that plastic box. They had a home. The amazing thing is that for a while she could tell you where each of those rocks came from.

I remember one time when she was just in first grade and we were standing at the bus stop She had bent down and was picking around through the gravel at the spot where they stand. She settled on one little light gray rock and when the bus came she turned around and handed it to me and said, “Dad, here. Keep this rock for me.” I’m embarrassed to say that as soon as the bus rolled away I just tossed it back into the gravel because she had dozens of them just like it already. That afternoon she came plowing into the front door, furious. Believe it or not, she had that exact rock in her hand. “Daddy!” she fumed, “Why is this rock still at the bus stop? I told you to keep it for me!”

I had rejected it. She had redeemed it.

In his letter meant to encourage what appears to have been a newly-baptized group of Christians, the apostle Peter says, “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood.” We are all rocks in Laura’s hands, Peter might say. Once we were no people, but now we are God’s people. Though each of us is surely unique and gifted and special, we do not know our value until we have been spotted and chosen by the God who loves us and knows we count.

God chooses what is going to be valuable. God chooses what He wants to work with. And though we can feel quite alone in this world, we exist to be brought together. We have been selected for a fine collection where our stories can be told and shared, where our redemption can be celebrated and marveled at. We are living stones, small and broken but still important pieces of building material who find their purpose in being connected through faith to the Living Stone that was rejected. That stone was sneered at, deemed worthless, tossed back into the gravel pile, beaten and nailed to the cross. But God has found it again, selected it from the grave of death and raised it up to be the cornerstone of the entire universe.

That is the message that Peter has for his disciples. As it happens, they are not feeling particularly cared for and cherished by the world. We can’t tell for sure exactly what they were enduring, but it sounds like from the whole of the letter of 1 Peter that followers of Christ were suffering some kind of persecutions for their faith.

This was a common feature of early Christian life, just as it is still common in many areas of the world today. We can forget that sometimes, but the fact of the matter is that professing a belief in God—and a God that identifies with the weakness of the cross, at that—is liable to get you laughed at, if not worse. But God has a strong love for the ones who are laughed at, the ones who feel like no people. And he brings them together and lays them down with holy purpose in relationship to the cornerstone of Jesus Christ.

In construction, the cornerstone is the first block laid. In the time when Peter wrote this letter, it was common for there to be great ceremony at the laying of a new building’s cornerstone. Often it was engraved with the mark or symbol of the person who was paying for the building. It is placed right where the first two walls come together, and its position and evenness determines the strength and shape of the entire structure. All other blocks and stones find their position and placement in relation to that cornerstone. Maybe Peter just liked rocks a lot because that’s what his name means in Greek, but the point is clear: all who have been formed by the Creator (and that’s everyone) and redeemed by him (and that’s everyone, too) find their true identity and purpose insofar as they show forth Jesus and point to him.

Jesus, on the night before his death, made clear the importance of their working together, of the communal aspect of their discipleship. He tells them that their life of faith together would be a way to show the world the glory of God the Father. With the help of the Holy Spirit, they would be able to carry on the witness of Jesus himself. In fact, they would be able to do greater works than even Jesus did. It is for this reason that living stones are meant to be together, not just laid around the house by themselves, tucked here and there, squirreled away for some special point in the future. This is a message most important for today, for we live in a time that can glorify the individual to a fault. We hear things like “Be your own person,” and “Stand apart,” and “You do You,” and while living stones do each bear unique attributes and intricacies that need to be nurtured and perhaps even celebrated, the fact is we were never meant just to be our own, solitary rock.

In her book entitled, Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of our Elders, sociologist Mary Pipher discusses how much today’s culture can feel like a foreign land to senior citizens, people who grew up in the era of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War. She explains that the concept of personal maturity has changed over the last couple of generations. Nowadays, she discerns that the sign of true maturity seems to lie in realizing some aspect of your individuality and selfhood or in learning how to express one’s utter dependence and uniqueness. But for earlier generations, personal maturity involved the integration of everyone into a whole. It was found in recognizing each one’s gifts and their need for interdependence, and seeing how each person in a community needed to play their part. I think those who are called living stones would have a hard time arguing against her.

The church, when at its best, becomes the way for people to learn this and embody this lifegiving togetherness. We are little pieces of gravel, seemingly unrelated, but by the power of Christ the cornerstone, we form a whole. Here a community is brought together, much like squares on a quilt. We are fed together, empowered for service to the community together. We are collected from any old place and then Jesus’ forgiveness situates us in our proper place, and we are built into a holy dwelling place for God on earth just as one day we will inhabit the dwelling places Jesus prepares for us on high.

As it happens, the church occasionally needs a physical building too, as even the earliest followers of Christ discovered. Suburban congregations like this one—ones that serve a wide metropolitan area—find it especially helpful to bring together real stones and bricks to form a space that enables them to gather and do God’s works of mercy and justice even better. We are a congregation with living stones that are spread over a six county and one city area. Richmond City, Henrico, Hanover, Chesterfield, Powhatan, Goochland, New Kent, and Caroline Counties are all represented here on most Sundays. We have service outreach in at least 4 of those areas on a regular basis. That is truly amazing.

As you know by now, Council has formed a Building Team that has been working hard to implement some of Epiphany’s own goals from its Vision 2020 plan, a long-range vision that was adopted by vote of the congregation back in November. That plan identified the need to expand and renovate some of our physical building in order to better equip and house current ministries and staff and so that we might grow and reach out even deeper into our ministry area. The Building Team will be presenting some initial ideas in this plan next Sunday, and drawings for Vision 2020 will be on display over the summer.

As we all chew on these concepts, it is important to remember that things like gathering areas and welcoming areas are vital to the life of the church, especially in today’s world, because they provide the space for conversations to take place and for relationships to be built. In the old days and in more rural areas, members of a congregation could count on overlapping with each other in meaningful ways over the course of the whole week. Nowadays our living stones are strewn quite wide. We’ve grown, and it has become apparent we may need our physical spaces here to grow too.

As we all pray about this next step of the congregation together, let us think about Christ the cornerstone, and the ways our works in his name can be a cornerstone of this region.

As each of you living stones ponder your own meaning and worth, may you be reminded that Christ was rejected but is now the base of all that is good and right and true.

And as you walk the journey and witness with joy remember that Jesus has bent down and grabbed you in baptism, looks at his Father and says, “Daddy, I want you to hold this rock for me. It belongs to me.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Third Sunday of Easter [Year A] - April 30, 2017 (Luke 24:13-35)

I am unable to read or hear this story where Jesus appears as a stranger to his disciples as they make their way to Emmaus without thinking of that TV show “Undercover Boss.” In case you haven’t seen it, “Undercover Boss” is a reality show on CBS prime time wherein a CEO or some other high-level corporate exec leaves the office for a few days and secretly takes some low-level job within his or her company to see how things are really being run and, more importantly, what their employees really think of them. What’s critical to the show’s concept is that the executives who go undercover not be recognized by those employees that they encounter. A make-up and costume crew comes in to totally transform the boss and then hidden cameras follow him or her around as they do everyday things like make tacos or run amusement park rides.

I’m not a big watcher of television, but I’ve seen the program a few times, and it’ll draw you in. It’s won a few Emmy’s, and it’s in its seventh season. It’ll also make a grown man cry. Each episode culminates with the revealing of the boss’ identity, and it almost always catches the employees off-guard. They’re surprised they were able to work alongside the person who runs their company, the person who is responsible for the direction and ethos of the whole company without ever knowing it. What makes the show especially touching is that the executive is often moved to tears when he or she sees how successfully the people at the bottom actually carry the company through their dedication and work ethic.

I haven’t watched too many episodes of “Undercover Boss,” but I’ve never seen one where the boss is disappointed in how his rank and file are doing. But if the risen Jesus is an undercover boss this morning, coming unrecognized into the presence of his followers as they make their way to the village of Emmaus, we might catch a scene of disappointment. The disciples don’t seem to know what their purpose is anymore. Maybe they’re too grief-stricken to concentrate. They don’t believe the news they’ve heard. Maybe they’re suspicious of the preposterous message that the women have brought them from the tomb. Furthermore, even with all the help from the prophets and scripture, the disciples can’t understand how the crucifixion and death of Jesus fits into any kind of saving plan of God’s. Why is that? Maybe they’re still too convinced of the merits typical worldly power which is enamored with violence and domination and threats and fear. Suffering and dying doesn’t seem like the way a decent divine CEO would run things. They were looking for their Messiah to start a fight. All in all, if the business of the disciples is to have faith— if the business of Jesus’s followers is to proclaim that Jesus is risen Lord of all—then they’re not up to snuff.

The main puzzler, of course, is that they don’t immediately recognize Jesus, their boss. It’s not clear why this is, but we can assume that might have something to do with their mental state. They are obviously upset; things didn’t go the way they’d expected. At one point when the undercover Jesus asks them what they’ve been talking about, it says they actually stop walking for a minute, looking sad.

Road to Emmaus (Robert Zund)
The question is: are our eyes bound to be any more open to the presence of Christ in our midst? It’s easy to look at these guys thousands of years later and call things into question, scratching our heads and wondering how they couldn’t have noticed their very leader but are we any more observant? If it’s not sorrow or grief that preoccupies us these days it could be ambition, work, busy-ness. It’s so easy to get overcommitted these days. Sometimes I even fear that church adds to that busy-ness factor, if we’re not careful. There was a report and interviewon NPR this week about how busy-ness has become the new status symbol in the United States. It used to be people bought things in order to show off their wealth and status, but now we’re showing off how packed our schedules are, how many different things we’re doing. The report said that celebrities, for example, post on social media, and whereas they used to show off things they had, now they’re tending to boast about their lack of time.

I heard about an interesting conversation a few weeks ago in our office between a high school student and a mother who was in there taking care of a baby. The student looked at the mother and said without any prompting, “I have some advice as your child gets older. Don’t let him do too many things in high school. We’re all involved in too many things these days and we’re all exhausted.” Exhausted by our busy-ness, consumed with calendars—it’s easy to see how it would distract us from possibly noticing special things like Christ in our midst.

Road to Emmaus (John Dunne)
The extremely gracious thing about Jesus on this walk to Emmaus, however, is that he doesn’t give up on them. Jesus is not going to give up on us, even when we miss him or are too preoccupied to receive him right away. He walks right along with us. Just as he does throughout his life, he will present himself over and over again, offering his grace and mercy over and over again, so that God’s foolish, stiff-necked people will have the opportunity to receive him. As he continues on their way,  he begins with Moses and the prophets and illuminates for them how Jesus’ suffering and death had already been revealed in the Scriptures. There’s no telling how many times he had done that before, but now he does it again, patiently but still secretly giving himself in the Word.

Later we find out that as Jesus was talking with them about the Scriptures, their hearts were burning within them. When I hear that phrase I often think of embers in a campfire that have grown black and cold over the course of the night. They look lifeless and useless in the morning, but really there is still a spark of life deep within them and all they need is a bit of air to coax the warmth out of them. How often have we had that happen in worship or in prayer? We feel that we’re just a shell of ourselves, our faith has died out, but then we hear the line of a hymn or a verse from Scripture and something within us begins to burn again?

What’s interesting is that conversation alone does not reveal the undercover Savior alone. It isn’t until they share a meal and Jesus breaks the bread that their eyes are opened. Depending upon how you break it down, we have about five or six different stories involving the resurrected Jesus in the four gospels. Three of those accounts—at least half, that is—involve food. The last time the disciples had been together with Jesus as a group had also involved a meal. There is something about the basic human act of eating and sharing table fellowship with one another that tells us something about God’s nature. There is something about breaking bread as a community that makes it a way through which God chooses to reveal and share himself.

Around this table in Emmaus, once the day is ending, is where the reveal happens and the undercover Savior lets his disciples in on the secret. He does not evaluate their performance or give them a rating. He does not make any judgment on the worth and success of this resurrection enterprise as if it all rides on their shoulders. He simply offers himself to them again. That’s is where this community is going to be nurtured and re-energized for its life together and its mission in the world. As he eats in their midst and takes the bread, their eyes are opened to who he really is.

A few months ago we gathered at my grandmother’s house in North Carolina for what would be our last Sunday meal with her. At the age of 98 she was moving into an assisted living facility where she would not be able to host her family for their weekly after-church southern dinner like she had for maybe sixty or seventy years. She used to live for Sunday afternoons when her family could gather and she could feed them. As I went through the buffet line that last time, getting a dab from each dish and placing it on my plate, it suddenly dawned on me that not once had I brought something to contribute to this meal. For 43 years I’d been a guest at that table and not one time had I even thought to add something I’d made or purchased. To know my Maw Maw is to know that Sunday dinner that she loved to provide. It is to know the chocolate cake and macaroni and cheese that only she can make—because we’ve asked her for the recipe a dozen times and no one can replicate it—will be there no matter what, and that you are welcome to help yourself.

The Supper at Emmaus (Carravaggio, 1602)
Such is the meal of bread and wine for our merciful Savior Jesus Christ. Eating here is to know him, to understand what his mission is all about. Here he offers himself each Sunday, each time this community gathers around this table. Our altar care volunteers grab some bread from the grocery store on the way to church, set the table with the chalice and wine, and Jesus shows up to let us know just what he’s made of. His body is once again broken so that we each may be made whole in forgiveness. His blood is poured out so that we can be restored. To share this meal is to know who Jesus is for us and for the whole world, as the community gathered around this table grows and grows.

Martin Luther had a very unique way of explaining just how Jesus is present for us in the meal of Holy Communion. It is not because the pastor has some special ability to transform the bread and the wine. Neither is Holy Communion just a symbol of Jesus’ body and blood, as if the only way Jesus is present is through the power of our own thoughts and memories. No, Luther said that the true body and blood of Jesus is “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. There you have it: Jesus, the risen Lord, who has conquered death for us, is our “In, With, and Under”-cover Savior.

With the ordinary acts of pouring wine and breaking bread, Jesus is the “In, With, and Under”-cover host who today comes to offer you his life once again. And he says, “Come. Don’t worry about bringing anything with you. No need to contribute to this banquet. Only the offering of your own brokenness and need is all I will take.”

And his hope is that deep within you is that smoldering ember. And as you eat and drink and hear his word your hearts will once more burn within you—that once more you realize your Lord is with you—and as you get up to go back on your way and work alongside of him you will share with the world what you really think of him.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Resurrection of Our Lord (Easter 1A) - April 16, 2017 (John 20:1-18)

"Peter and John running to the tomb" (Eugene Burnand, 1898)

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

On one evening a couple of years ago, Pastor Joseph and I went out for a beer after a long Wednesday at work. We drove down to Scott’s Addition to one of those breweries there, and I parked the car along the curb. It was already dark, and things were kind of winding down. As I stepped onto the sidewalk and shut my door, I looked into the window of the brewery to see if it was actually still open, and to my surprise, I saw what looked to be my Lord.

I turned around to Joseph, who was a little bit behind me, and said, “It looks like they’re still open. But Jesus is in there.” Thinking that I must be making some silly theological comment about the fact that Jesus liked to hang out where the people were, Joseph just chuckled and said, “I know. Jesus is everywhere!” So I peered into the window again, craning my neck, as Joseph came around the corner of the car. I knew my eyes weren’t lying: there was a guy dressed up like Jesus in the brewery. I had no idea what the guy was doing, but it was clearly the man from Nazareth.

Again, I said to Joseph, “No, really. Jesus in in the bar.” So we opened the door and walked up into the brewery, and sure enough, there was a guy wearing a crown of thorns, and a white tunic with a scarlet robe draped over it, with sandals on his feet. It appeared that he was leading the people of the brewery in a game or some group activity. Joseph about fell down the stairs when we saw him. But you should have seen the color that Jesus turned when he saw what looked like two priests, in their collars, coming toward him! He did look like a ghost!

Several minutes later, after he finished his game-leading duties, he immediately stripped off his crown and costume and sheepishly came over to where we were sitting to apologize to us. Imagine his surprise when we insisted he put his costume back on so we could have our photo taken with him. We had seen the Lord!

All in all, that experience reminds me of what is happening as the disciples first come to the tomb on the second morning after Jesus’ death. We have Mary Magdalene and the disciples, all reaching the tomb at different times, peering inside, seeing different things, peering into the tomb again, coming to different conclusions, ending up in different locations, and being surprised with what they learn. And the first Easter message is not “Christ is risen!” or “Death has been defeated!” but “I have seen the Lord.”

John the gospel-writer does not tell us why Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. It could have been to anoint his body with spices, but it could have just as easily been because she just wanted to be near him, the man who had inspired her and given her hope. She travels back and forth that morning, shocked and dismayed that Jesus’ tomb has not just been tampered with, but that they may have a garden-variety case of tomb-robbing on their hands. After that Peter and the anonymous other disciple take off, almost in some kind of race. But then, strangely, the one who gets there first—who parks the car along the curb and steps onto the sidewalk first—stops and just looks inside. His buddy Peter, still rounding the corner, barrels right on in there, wondering what is going on. Then they’re both in there. They take turns understanding, on their own level, why the linen wrappings were rolled up without a body. Only one of them believes what’s happened, but then neither of them fully understand. They return home, as if nothing is really strange there.

(Cerezo Berado)
It’s Mary who is left to put the pieces together, but it all comes very slowly for her too, and only through the blur of her tears and sorrow. Distraught, she even carries on a conversation with Jesus at one point, thinking he’s the gardener.

That the resurrection of Christ begins with such confusion and lack of clarity probably perplexes us on some level. The strange sequence of events, the wide range of differing reactions, are not exactly what we might expect from the first account of someone rising from the dead. After all, we are more accustomed with the news of death and terror coming this way. In broken-apart bits and puzzling pieces the bad news comes out—whether it’s from the doctor over the phone, or worse yet, the coroner, despite their best intentions to keep it straightforward, or whether it’s through the media as we filter (often on our own) fact from fiction.

It was ten years ago this day, for example, when people of this nation and even moreso of this congregation were beginning to hear the horrific news out of Blacksburg and not knowing what was real and what was false. Details were difficult to come by no matter how long we stared at the news. Everyone was wondering and guessing: How many were injured or dead? How many shooters? And, sadly, who was to blame for such an evil?

Yes, it is as precious life is shattered and enters its tomb that we often encounter confusion and fear, grief and despair, not when it bursts back from it. Interestingly, though, not one of the gospel accounts of Jesus resurrection has a witness at the tomb as he comes out of it. Instead, we hear bits and pieces like today, first this person’s account, then that person’s understanding. Some might find this to be evidence that the resurrection of Christ stands on shaky historical footing, but for me and others, it only amplifies its truthfulness. These are humans without agendas encountering something totally unprecedented and left with nothing but their real, human emotions and doubt to figure it all out.

Furthermore, it is not Jesus’ closest disciples, the men he hand-picked to learn his new way of embodying God’s law and love, who get a handle on this miracle and marshal this message to its first hearers. It is Mary Magdalene, who stands by the tomb in her grief, who is too timid or maybe too respectful to go inside it like they did, who first begins to understand what God has done. It is Mary Magdalene, whose honest response of sorrow honors all our grief at what death has done to us. All those who have ever stood at a graveside weeping, who have struggled to carry on like normal after the death of a loved one, who have felt so isolated by grief are there with Mary, seemingly alone.

Loneliness and despair is not how Mary’s story ends. Easter puts a twist ending on all the grief we bear, all the sorrow we carry with us through this life. As she stands there she is approached by the very Lord himself, and she only recognizes him when he says her name. She doesn’t piece together a theological mystery. She doesn’t recall the prophecies in the Scripture. She doesn’t dazzle anyone with her grasp on the Apostles’ Creed. She simply hears him speak her name…and she knows Jesus has returned. She knows God has triumphed over death and the grave. She hears and knows the best news, the Mother of all Balms.

Easter is God’s appearing first not to the disciples who run the fastest, or who believe the quickest, but to the ones who are weeping, questioning, stuck in their confusion. Easter is God’s surprise that we never know exactly where we might bump into the Lord next, but it’s probably best to look around the dark corners of life. The earliest Christians, in fact, built their first churches not on city squares or in the middle of some beautiful flower-bedecked valley, but basically underground, right next to the tombs and burial chambers of their loved ones. They worshiped the Lord right in the presence in the places where they had wept. They were prepared to greet the Lord, to see those bones rise up in the new creation God was bringing forth in his Son Jesus Christ.

This is what Mary’s first Easter message, “I have seen the Lord,” has done to people. It provides the courage to look death in the eye, to peer into the open tomb, to gather at the drillfield at Virginia Tech where today they will speak the names of the 32 who died because we have faith Christ is out and about. The transformation from pain and grief to joy may not be so quick for all of us, but the joy will come. Christ is risen, and we have faith that those who have cried, those who have died, will some day hear him call their name.

The other evening, as we were getting ready for worship on Maundy Thursday, a young man in our choir was complaining that he didn’t feel well. He had a headache and felt yucky and was wondering whether it might be better for him to go home and get in bed. His mother lovingly urged him to do what felt best, but suggested he might start feeling better in a few minutes and go on with the worship service. His younger sister, however, who was to be receiving her first Holy Communion that night, felt selfless compassion for him and said,  “Just go on home if you feel bad. It’s OK to miss worship. You already know how the story ends.”

Yes, now we do. We know how the story ends. Mary has seen the Lord. So, Joseph, you, me, all of us: you never know where we might bump into him again.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Maundy Thursday - April 13, 2017 (Exodus 12:1-14, John 13:1-17, 31b-35)

“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: this month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you” (Exodus 12:1-2)

It must take a lot to start time over. It must take an event so big, so significant, so meaningful to begin an entirely new and different calendar.

I know that each year in about July, our office administrator, Hanne, orders new daily planners for all the staff. It’s a little strange and yet invigorating to be thinking about what might happen past January of the next year when we’re still in the middle of the current one, to look ahead and see all of those blank white squares advancing into the future, ready for action, but that’s not even what’s happening here for the people of Israel. God isn’t just ordering them next year’s daily planner. God is marking a brand new set of months for them. This is a new beginning of time itself, like they’re starting over at zero.

And it was new in both of the ways people counted time back then—the movement of the moon and the movement of the sun. The sun was the way yearly time was marked and the moon, with its easily discernible phases each night, was how monthly time was marked. Therefore this moment they find themselves in is not just the beginning of a new month, but a whole new year. Everything, therefore, is starting anew. All that came before is a different era, and this is the moment that begins it all.

It is certainly is significant, by all accounts. They are being set free from a life of slavery in Egypt. They are being released from a life as no people at all, a life at the bottom of society, which is all that they had every known. God has heard their cry and, in his grace, God is going to make a way for them to live a new life. God is going to give them a name and a home and restore them to their proper place as his holy people, shining in the world. From now on, no matter how many new daily planners they buy, the progress of time will be marked from this point, the moment they were freed.

unleavened bread, a Passover staple
And each year when the anniversary of this event is remembered, the people of God and their descendants will gather like they did that first time when they were commanded by Moses and Aaron. They will slaughter a lamb like they did back then and they will eat bread made without any yeast because there was no time for it to rise. They will remember how they ate with their traveling clothes on and sandals on their feet because they were in a hurry. Time was starting over. Is was the Passover of the Lord. In fact, Rabbi Gamaliel, a teacher of great authority who was alive at the time of Jesus, is reported to have said about celebrating the Passover, “In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he himself came forth out of Egypt.”[1]

This was the meal that Jesus gathered his disciples for on his last evening. We have come to call it the Last Supper, his last time with his disciples for teaching and sharing fellowship. Even Jesus was certainly aware that time for him was winding down. And tonight, once we celebrate this supper, we will conclude with the stripping of the altar, a powerful ritual that certainly feels like a bitter end.

"The Last Supper" (El Greco, 1568)
To some degree, all of this is true, all of these “lasts.” Jesus is about to hand over his life and there is an air of finality hanging in around tonight. However, it is important to remember that this was still mainly a meal about beginnings, about time starting over again, about countless blank white squares laid out into the future before the people of God.

On some level, that’s what would have been going through the disciples’ minds as they sat around that table with Jesus. They would have been thinking about the bread baked quickly, the blood spread over the door. And they would have been thinking about those sandaled feet, ready to run out the door and into that new freedom.

So when in the middle of all this Jesus gets up and begins washing feet, they realize something profound must be going on. Those are feet that should be dirty—and that’s OK! They are supposed to be ready to travel! As he takes those feet in his hands, maybe even untying the sandals, Jesus slows them down, and prepares them for a new kind of freedom, a new kind of life. In washing their feet that evening during the Passover celebration, Jesus gives his disciples a new vision for what following God will entail and a bold new definition for what freedom in his name will look like. It will entail acts of humility and servanthood in ways that build up community. It will look like stooping down at the feet of others, tending with kindness and care to the lowlier, more neglected aspects of their lives. And perhaps the part that shocks us most: those who normally have authority and who are in positions of control and expertise take on thankless tasks of love.

So, in the middle of a meal that is all about remembering who they are Jesus sets this lesson about how they relate to each other will be their true identifying marker. In the midst of an event that is about new beginnings, Jesus hands them a new commandment. And in the middle of a celebration that is based on people from the very bottom of society finally being lifted up, Jesus goes from the place of authority down to the floor.

What he’s doing is starting time over. He’s giving them a brand new beginning. And he’s going to do it by offering his body and shedding his own blood.

This is the meal that he shares with his disciples, the meal that Christ shares with us tonight. It may be his last Supper, but for us it is a time to start anew, just as it is every time we eat of his body and drink of his blood. He makes it his end so that we can have new beginnings. Each time we share this meal, each time we digest his words, we know his forgiveness for us. We are set free, we begin anew, as if time starts over for our soul, for our feet, for our life. We get a new calendar, full of blank squares to live. But because it is also a time for us to remember our identity as servants of the Servant Lord, it means we don’t just run out into the world, filling those blank squares with whatever we want. We now have a freedom to serve others, to love one another like Christ has loved us.

As you know, the world will always present us with plenty of opportunities to practice this new covenant and live this new freedom these days. It seems like the stakes are being raised these days, though. Many of you may have heard of the bombings in Coptic Churches in Egypt this past weekend as worshippers were gathered for Palm Sunday. Terrorists made their way into the congregation and detonated bombs while the Christians were worshipping. Nearly 50 died and many more were wounded in what would be their last worship service on earth. I’ve read that several of the congregations in middle Egypt, where there are higher percentages of Christians amidst the predominantly Muslim population, are still going to gather for Easter services this weekend, but they are scaling them back out of respect for the dead.

Mar Girgis (St. George) Coptic Church in Tanta, Egypt,
site of one of the Palm Sunday 2017 bombings
I’m sure it must be unbelievably difficult to know how to forge ahead in the wake of such despicable tragedy and evil. I do not purport to be an expert in it. I think it would be easy to give into hatred and anger and violence, or, better yet, apathy and denial of that Christian identity. Yet the Copts are coming out in droves to show their love and support for each other, surely a strong witness of this new commandment Jesus gives. In a sermon called, “A Message to Those Who Killed us,” delivered earlier this week, one Coptic priest, Father Boules George, took the opportunity to preach directly to those who carried out the bombings and to those who might be planning more. Instead of anger or despair, he preached thanksgiving and love. He says at one point to the murderers, “thanks for refilling our churches for us.” Normally on the Monday of Holy week the attendance is very low, but this week they were there by the thousands. He says every nook and cranny of the churches were filled with worshippers. People they’ve begged for years to come to church were there. He also preached about love. He says at one point, “I want to explain to you about our Christ. I want to tell you about how wonderful He is.”[2]

As I read the sermon I realized these must be words from someone who has shared supper with a Lord who has set him free. It is the witness of someone with washed feet—washed and sandaled—cleansed, ready to go out into the world and live this new beginning of love. Since the first time this meal was celebrated with Jesus, the enemies of God have circled around with crosses, spears, and suicide bombing jackets with the intent to intimidate and eradicate his followers. However, all those different enemies have come and gone, appearing and then eventually disappearing into the shadows of history without ever altering our message.

That is life in our new calendar. The community of this meal and its Host remains, growing, beating with the heartbeat of forgiveness, through all eras of time—through countless blank, open squares of countless calendars. Today, he beckons you and me…and Samuel, and Krista and Clare and Patrick and Fiona…again to take the bread and the cup, to begin again the journey of freedom and service.

With broken body and blood that is shed, he wants to explain to you about himself.

Taste and see how wonderful he is.

icon of Jesus washing feet


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Robert Louis Wilken. Yale University Press, 2003. P 34

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Fifth Sunday in Lent - April 2, 2017 (John 1:1-45)

One of the lessons our seminary worship and music professor, Dr. Hawkins, hammered into our brains in class was the importance of being ready to receive a funeral procession as it arrived at the church on the day of a funeral. Dr. Hawkins was not ordained, and he understood deeply that the sight of the pastor at the front of the church to a grieving family making their way into the sanctuary with the casket of their loved one was an important gesture of pastoral care. Perhaps because he wasn’t ordained is why he understood this so deeply. He had always been on the receiving end of things like this. It’s why he wanted us, budding young pastors, to take this seriously. When death was involved, when real grief was involved, we needed to be on point. We needed to bring our A-game. If at all possible, he thought, we shouldn’t just be standing at the door of the church, but already in our vestments. The sight of the pastor dressed and ready to face death and people’s brokenness, to Dr. Hawkins’, at least, communicated comfort, communicated compassion right from the outset.

it's sunny here, but in my mind it is rainy
And so every time he brought this up, which seemed like every class session, I imagined myself the only place I could—standing in robes at the tippy-top of the front stairs at my home congregation, in the rain, as a long, slow procession of black cars with their headlights on pulled up to the church. There I was, in the right spot at the right time, filling my utmost role as a pastor and someone who was called to speak life into death. It wasn’t until I became a pastor when I realized death and funerals are almost never that choreographed. There is often no procession arriving from the funeral home, people don’t always come through the front door of the church, and nowadays, especially, the time frame for when viewings occur and when all the family arrive is so fluid. It’s almost impossible to know exactly when a worship leader is supposed to be where.

In any case, Dr. Hawkins would have been extremely displeased with Jesus in this morning’s gospel lesson, which tells the last and most dramatic story of Jesus’ ministry before he heads into Jerusalem to die. I mean, talk about not having a clue! Lazarus gets gravely ill, then he dies, then they have a funeral and a procession, and then place him in the tomb, and Jesus is nowhere to be found for any of it! He’s not in Bethany, where Lazarus and his sister’s live, even though he’s told to go there. He’s not at the tomb to be a presence of compassion and caring     for the grief-stricken. He’s certainly not in his holy vestments, standing at the top of the staircase in the rain ready to speak hope into the darkness of death. There’s even a point in the story when it sounds like Jesus dilly-dallies a bit. Maybe it’s because he fears for his life as he travels into Judea but he waits two days longer before he starts on his way.

Martha’s and Mary’s searing question to Jesus highlights his absence. She speaks for all of us—doesn’t she?—who have ever found ourselves shocked by sudden loss, who have found ourselves stunned by the cruel timing of death, or the unexpected hospitalization, or the scary diagnosis, and wondering how it all might have gone differently. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

The Raising of Lazarus (Giotto, 14th century)
And just look at the scene by Lazarus’ tomb when he does finally arrive: things are out of control!! A whole crowd has gathered, and they’re following Martha and Mary around, weeping as they go. Even Jesus himself seems to get caught up in the emotions of the day. First, we’re told two different times that he becomes disturbed and moved, and then we’re told that he, too, starts to cry. It makes you wonder: perhaps this all could have been prevented—if not Lazarus’ death, then at least the sobbing and open weeping—if Jesus had just made good timing his priority, or if he had been more concerned about communicating his compassion.

The raising of Lazarus, which is what this event is often called, isn’t primarily about Jesus’ timing and preparedness to deal with human tragedy. It’s not about the magical effect brought about by being in the right time and the right place. In fact, it sounds as if Jesus casual approach to Bethany is part of his plan. It’s like he’s late to the scene just so that he can show God’s glory doesn’t work on a time schedule. God is not bossed around by time, as if it’s something he has to deal with or work against, which is how we often feel. Jesus’ raising of Lazarus is a moment when we are given the chance to see that in Christ, God has power over death and sin. It is a point where we are shown that God in Christ is able to overcome the decay and the destruction that confronts every one of us, even after we die!

When Jesus arrives on the scene and Lazarus has already been dead four days, Jesus does not say, “I am the treatment and the cure,” or “I am the prevention and the medicine.” Or, “I am the compassion at the right time.” His words are “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus isn’t going to just deal with death, hold it off, or stand at the top of the concrete stairs and comfort people in the rain. He’s going to conquer it. And while to us things so much of the time often look like “all is lost,” while we still deal with the grief and the sorrow Jesus has yet given his own life to make sure that grief and sorrow don’t have the final word.

Raising of Lazarus (Rembrandt, 1620s)
Lazarus’ tomb is actually getting the disciples ready for what will happen in Jerusalem. That’s why Jesus begins to talk about his own death before he heads there. The world is increasingly hostile to him, but Jesus is going to head into it anyway, and just as he stands at the edge of the tomb after Lazarus has been dead four days, Jesus will go straight into his own death on the cross. He will go straight into his own death to reveal that God is done once and for all with the things that separate us from him and send the living into disarray.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in this, those who grasp this by faith, understand that death will not be their final destination. Those who trust in Jesus come to know that our deaths, no matter how sad or tragic, are not the end of us. Jesus will stand on the brink of death and shout, “Come out!” and one day our bones will join together and walk right out.

The news these days reminds us that the world is filled with valleys of dry bones, places where despair and hopelessness reign. And yet we can still trust that God is raising up new life, undoing the decay of the tomb to remind us of the day to come. This week there was the news of the loss of Michael Sharp, a 34-year-old American aid worker who whose body was found in a shallow grave in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sharp devoted his life to trying to attain peace in one of the worlds longest and bloodiest conflicts, which has been waged for years in the remotest regions of Africa. He started out as part of a Christian missionary team, but his bold an unorthodox way of bringing about peace among the rebels was so successful that he was eventually appointed by the United Nations to lead some of their teams. Like Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, so confident that dealing openly and honestly with long-festering feelings of decay and anger was the best way forward, Sharp would walk into the dark jungle with each attempt, armed with nothing but his desire to listen and have dialogue with the fighters’ feelings. Before he died, it is estimated that Sharp’s tactics persuaded over 1600 fighters to lay down their weapons and come back out of the jungle, like Lazaruses released from the tomb, unbound from the ways of hatred and violence. Michael Sharp’s death was felt by the international peacekeeping community, but even now we know that God will raise him up in the eternal kingdom he worked so hard to tell others about during his life.

Emily and other YAGM personnel at Robben Island
I also heard from our own missionary in Africa this week, Emily Dietrick. Emily grew up as a child of this congregation, and now she is serving as an ELCA Young Adult in Global Mission in a much more serene and peaceful part of Africa, South Africa, but nevertheless a country with its own history of conflict and violence, a history it is still dealing coming to terms with. Last week she visited Robben Island, the notorious tomb-like prison that housed the blacks who spoke out against that country’s racist policies of apartheid prior to 1991. Robben Island’s most famous inmate was Nelson Mandela.
Emily received her tour from a man who served seven years there, a man who was subjected to repeated rounds of torture and interrogation. His crime was leaving and re-entering the country without a valid passport. Emily said that he ended their tour by saying, “There is power in forgiveness.” This man walks even now, out from his tomb of oppression, because he has been summoned forth by the hope of reconciliation even with his enemies, the power of life triumphing over death. There is hope, too, in the presence of congregations who form young people to have faith in the power of Jesus' life so that they can seek out experiences like Emily.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says. And it appears that through lives like that former prisoner, and those like Michael Sharp, there is faith in Jesus’ power to conquer darkness, evidence that sacrificial love ultimately wins and the world is made new. This resurrection is promised in our baptism, and this life is offered for us now in the bread and the wine.

We often weep, too, like the people at Lazarus’ tomb, our vision of a bright future blurred by our tears, our frustration with the timing of it all, the multitude of dry bones around us. And yet we are also called forth to live in the hope of that future, to know that by the strength of his grace we, too, have the ability to stand in the midst of the world’s suffering…at the edge of the jungle…in the rain, at the top of whatever staircase we can imagine, and announce to those who are just pulling up and don’t know what comes next in their heartbreak: “But even now the Lord is here. Even now he brings new life. Yes, Lord, you know. These bones will live.”

It wouldn’t just make Dr. Hawkins happy. Jesus would be proud.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"Scriptures in the Vernacular...also known as God Talks Like Us" - Lent 2017 series, Lent with Luther: 1517 Ideas through 2017 Eyes

A reading from Acts of the Apostles, the 2nd chapter:

1When the day of Pentecost had come, [the disciples] were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 11b in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." 

And a reading from Philippians, the 2nd chapter:

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
 6who, though he was in the form of God,
 did not regard equality with God
 as something to be exploited,
 7but emptied himself,
 taking the form of a slave,
 being born in human likeness.
 And being found in human form,
 8he humbled himself
 and became obedient to the point of death —
 even death on a cross.
 9Therefore God also highly exalted him
 and gave him the name
 that is above every name,
 10so that at the name of Jesus
 every knee should bend,
 in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 11and every tongue should confess
 that Jesus Christ is Lord,
 to the glory of God the Father.

Our Lenten series this year has introduced us to central theological ideas that Martin Luther wrote about and spoke about during the Protestant Reformation, ideas and concepts which were not new, but which he unearthed and rediscovered to help reform the Church in his day and set it back on the right gospel track. The idea that we look more closely at this week was not really something Luther so much wrote about as it is something he wrote. That is, one of the most lasting contributions Martin Luther made to the church’s life—and many historians would say it is the single-most profound contribution of Luther’s—is his act of translating the Holy Scriptures into German, the language of his people.

In 1521 and 1522, when Luther was holed up in the Wartburg Castle in Saxony in order to gain protection from the authorities who wanted him imprisoned or possibly executed, Luther sat down with a Greek translation of the New Testament provided by the Dutch scholar Erasmus and began writing it in the German he heard spoken in his day. In fact, that’s precisely how he worked on his translation of the Bible. During the day he would roam the streets of the nearby town of Eisenach, often in disguise, visiting taverns and markets to hear what words and phrases people were using on an everyday basis and weave them into the document he was producing. His complete version of the Bible was eventually published in 1534, but his New Testament by then was a blockbuster success. Printed in large quantities by the recently-developed and improved printing presses, his Bible spread like wildfire in the German provinces.

In an age of digital communication and Google translator, this might seem like no big deal to us, but it was a huge deal at Luther’s time. In order to understand just how groundbreaking this was, we must imagine for a moment what it was like to be a Christ-follower in the late middle ages and early Renaissance. If you lived in northern Germany and attended worship on a Sunday, you have to imagine that not one word was spoken that you would understand, unless you had been fortunate enough to receive an education in Latin, which was extremely rare for the common person. As you listened to the priest chant the liturgy, you might not have known when the Scripture readings began and ended, since it would have all been one long stream of a language you didn’t know. There were no hymnals or books in the pews to follow along with; you were most likely illiterate, but even if you weren’t, you really weren’t expected to say anything, anyway. The main worshiping was done by the priests and cantors; as a lay person, you were just there basically to eavesdrop.

Don’t get me wrong—worship was undoubtedly divine and transcendent, but there was very little you could take away from it other than the experience of hearing it and being moved by its beauty. If you wanted to know a verse of Scripture, you likely had to rely on a priest, who was probably poorly-trained, reciting it for you, and it would probably have been taken from the Vulgate, the official Latin translation the church used. The Vulgate had been translated in A.D. 382, almost 1200 years earlier!

Luther's translation is still used as the base for German
Bibles to this day. This is the Bible I received about 20 years
ago when I lived near Wittenberg.
In contrast to this, Martin Luther wanted everyone to hear the Word of God. He wanted worship to involve the people, from letting them partake of the wine in Holy Communion (along with the bread), to hearing Scripture readings and the songs and hymns of the faith in their own language. He even developed large-print versions of Scripture so that people with poor eyesight could see. The Bible that he translated ended up becoming so popular and so widely-used that it is credited with creating the modern German language. In effect, it was a continuation of Pentecost. By streamlining and bringing together into one linguistic warehouse of a book all the diverse Germanic dialects spoken across the country, Luther created a form of German that everyone could understand and adopt. As a result, he is known as the father of the German language.

So, why did he do all this? These changes were much more sweeping and drastic than just changing a few words and lines of the Lord’s Prayer, which is something many of us still struggle with. For Luther, if the church constantly used language that sounded nothing like the language the people used and communicated with, it didn’t just potentially make church boring. It sent a message contrary to the very gospel itself. That is, keeping the language of Scripture frozen in one particular language or dialect suggested we humans had work to do in order to be understood by God, as though our natural speech wasn’t good enough. It sent the message that humans had to speak a certain way, or that we had to pass a vocabulary or grammar test, in order to be reconciled to God. It made God seem distant, and that we could climb to him on a Babel tower built of the right words.

And to Luther, that was the exact opposite of the message of Jesus, who had shown us God descends to us, becoming flesh to dwell among us. To the reformers, the fundamental life-saving message of grace was that even though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. God desires to be understood, and not simply admired or revered. God so wants to make himself known to us that God strips himself of divine pretentiousness so that and we can respond to him and confess him as Lord in our own tongue.

"The Tower of Babel" (Pieter Bruegel the Elder)
Just as we believe God has become human as a first-century Jew who spoke a language called Aramaic, so do we understand that God’s Word can bring life and wisdom in German, in English, in Spanish, in Creole—in whichever speech people are using at any moment. God is so alive, so present, that God can talk like us…and like those people over there! His is a living word, fully transparent, thoroughly “enfleshed,” taking on all the jargon and grammar devices of humankind. Even a Hip Hop paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm from something called the Hip Hop Bible, gets the point across, even if it’s not something you or I would use:

The Lord is all that, I need for nothing
He allows me to chill.
He keeps me from being heated
And allows me to breathe easy.
He guides my life so that
I can represent and give
Shout-outs in his Name.
And even though I walk through
The Hood of death,
I don't back down
For you have my back.
The fact that you have me covered
Allows me to chill.
He provides me with back-up
In front of my player-haters
And I know that I am a baler
And life will be phat
I fall back in the Lord's crib
For the rest of my life.

And our own hymnal contains the evocative words of a Christmas hymn written by French Jesuit missionaries when they taught the gospel to the Huron Indians in the early 1600’s. If you’ll turn to hymn 284, “’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime,” and look at the second and third verses, especially:

“Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found;
A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round;
But as the hunter braves drew high, the angel song rang loud and high:
Jesus your king is born! Jesus is born, in excelsis Gloria!

And in the third verse you’ll see that it is chiefs from afar that bring gifts not of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but of fox and beaver pelt, valuable riches to the Huron people.

Martin Luther did not put the Scriptures in the vernacular just for shock value or to be cute. It was an extension of his theology of the cross, his understanding of being saved by grace alone. It was also dependent on his understanding of what the Scriptures were. First of all, they were not just inspirational words that had no original anchor. Each of his translations were careful, scholarly interpretations from the original Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament. For whatever reason God had chosen those languages to reveal his Word in, so they must be taken seriously.

Secondly, Luther thought that the point of Scripture was to point us to the Christ. It was not principally a rule book, or a science or history book, but a holy set of writings that revealed to us Jesus. As he once famously said, “the Bible is the manger wherein Christ is laid.” This strikes at the very humble nature of our Lord and the simple ways he comes to us. Faith is not best ignited in people by inspiring them to rise to a certain kind of holiness or liturgical atmosphere, or by getting them to worship a set of sacred texts. Faith arises, rather, whenever it is shown that Christ is given for you. And, in some instances, hip hop can do that even better than the Queen’s English.

My seminary preaching professor, Dr. Tom Ridenhour, always stressed that sermons should be both profane and vulgar. That’s a provocative statement, but he wanted us to take him seriously, His point was classic Luther: we were to keep the language of our preaching unchurchy, not too “of the temple,” which is what profane really means. And we were to speak in the pulpit like people speak in their everyday conversations, which is what vulgar means. Ironically, the word “vulgar” is taken from the title of that old Bible, the Vulgate. It’s Latin had once been the language of the people, but by the time of Luther no longer was.

It reminds me of a saying by Eugene Peterson, a popular and wise pastor of our time who, like Luther, has gone back to the original Hebrew and Greek and come up with a translation for our time known as The Message. Peterson says, “In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true.”

Language is always changing, evolving, perhaps even now more than ever before. I remember the reaction when the Pope created his own Twitter account and began tweeting.

But now he has over 10 ½ million followers! We are all about a Word that became flesh, a God who is eternally giving himself to us, so issues about how people of faith speak and the way we use and translate Scripture will always be relevant.

How many people nowadays attend church and have absolutely no idea what’s going on because pastors have kept it a little too churchy?

How many in our time question Christian authenticity when they hear us speaking in what sounds like a secret code?

How do we stay true to the original texts and a common understanding that Scripture primarily leads us to Jesus?

How do we balance respect for God in our words and speech with the need to show God’s own accessibility?

Where do we draw the line with use of language that is gender-specific for God?

Has this sermon even met its own standard of being plain-speaking and ordinary?

Can we somehow balance the old language of hymns and prayers that flow off our lips from years of blessed use with the new songs and linguistic offerings that are arising by the power of the Spirit every day?

One of the big problems that Lutheran reformers encountered when the Bible went so public was that each person felt called to interpret the Scriptures their own personal way. How do we ensure that interpretations and translations are normed by what the whole community understands and holds true?

Each of these questions—and the others like it—is not superficial to the gospel. We may not think we’re engaging in serious theological discussion as we tackle them, but, as Luther knew, speaking for God is speaking about God. And if you have a printing press, or a printer, or a pen, a handheld device, or even if you have a tongue then you are able to confess, you are able to profess, you are able to witness to the Word become flesh.

And to that, all we can really say, is “WORD.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.