Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Seventh Sunday of Easter [Year B] - May 17, 2015 (John 17:6-19)

Just about every family I know has stories they like to tell again and again, and my family is no different. One that gets rolled out from time to time that always makes us laugh is about the time my grandparents took my sister and me to the North Carolina zoo while my parents were on some trip. We were both very young at the time. I was probably about six or seven, meaning my sister was just three or four. I was really into animals back then, so I could have stayed at that zoo for hours, despite the fact that it was 90 degrees, but as far as my sister was concerned we had already seen one too many zebras. She was done.

At one stopping point, our grandparents asked me what I wanted to do next, and I gave them some answer about heading on to the next group of animals. When they turned to ask my sister, who was typically very quiet and shy as a little girl, she quickly responded: “I want you to take me to the car, I want you to buckle me into my car-seat, then I want you to take me to McDonalds and buy me my own French fries.”

Of course, to those in our family, the funniest part of my sister’s response was the part about getting her own French fries. This whole zoo experience had already been a hardship for her and it warranted what our parents would regularly not allow: that is, her own packet of French fries, not one that she’d have to share with her brother from a pile in the middle of the tray.

It occurs to me we live in a world that is all about getting our own French fries, if you know what I mean. It is so easy to be an individual, to demand and claim our own anything…our own meal, our own smartphone, our own understanding of God that, increasingly, will never be challenged. We don’t even need other people to take our photos anymore! We can do that ourselves, too. And what do we call it? A selfie! I bet you could go on Instagram and find a selfie of someone eating their own French fries. In fact, I’ve probably taken that selfie.

Granted, in some ways all our individuality has been good. Millions of people have been empowered by thinking and doing things on their own. Individuals have broken from the pack and made major changes to the world for the better. However, it’s interesting that Jesus never, ever prays for us to be our “own” person. Jesus never, ever says anything like, “You do you.” When Jesus does pray for his disciples, however, like in this portion of John’s gospel right before his crucifixion, he prays that they come together, that they stay together, that they be one. When Jesus does pray for those who follow him, he most often prays that their common life—not their individual life—will reflect the gracious outpouring of love that God has for the world.

It’s quite counter-cultural, then, because as the world, with all its technology and digital communication, enables us to become sequestered in our own little zones, Jesus wants to pull us back in together. In a time when there is so much anxiety about the rise in numbers of those who claim they have no religious affiliation, Jesus’s most fervent prayer is that we be affiliated with himself and with each other.           

Of course, when Jesus first prayed this on that night before he was betrayed, he wasn’t immediately concerned about the fragmenting dangers of technology. He was concerned that the terror of his suffering and the shock of his resurrection would have the potential to scatter them. Instead of running closer together, they might run back to their former associations and the old groups that defined them. In the prayer that he offers on their behalf—right there on the spot, as they’re still seated from the Last Supper, he pours out his heart—he asks God his Father to protect them and to strengthen their resolve to handle the pressure of the coming zoo. He asks God to safeguard them so they couldn’t give in to the urge to demand their own French fries.

Jesus gives at least three main reasons why our faith is to be a community thing. The first has to do with our knowledge of God. There is something about keeping us together, Jesus says, that will keep us in the truth. The truth that Jesus is talking about here is the fact that Jesus comes from God, that he is the promised Messiah, that the Son has been sent from the Father to demonstrate love. We will need each other to remind ourselves of this fact and of the promise that brings. We can’t just expect that we’ll remember and know these things on our own if we scatter ourselves from this community that embodies the love that God has for Jesus. Although we need the individual beauty and uniqueness of each person who has ever been created (because there will never be another like them), we also need each other in order to keep the goal of our beauty and the purpose of our uniqueness in mind. Our individuality and our gifts have been given to proclaim Jesus to the world, and that truth resounds more clearly when we are doing it with each other.

Reason number two for the importance of our community: there is something about keeping us together that will keep us safe. Think of it as the buddy system on the scale of several million. When we go on trips with the youth group, we ask them to stay in groups of three as they go about during free time. Here, as he prepares them to be sent into the world without his direct physical supervision, he prays that they “billion up.” He has prayed for their protection the entire time he’s been with them. He has loved them. He and his Father know that the closer the disciples remain with each other, the safer they will feel from things like temptation and despair, hopelessness and greed. Granted, the larger the group, the clunker things will get for Jesus’ followers, but that’s OK. Jesus never mentions anywhere that following him is a race.

The last reason Jesus gives for their buddy system is not something we know with our head like truth or experience with our bodies like protection, but something of the heart. There is something about keeping us together that will bring us joy. Truth and protection are wonderful things to have, but joy is the clincher, and it’s not just any old joy, but Jesus’ own joy. There is joy in knowing that just as Jesus belongs to the Father, that we, then, belong to the Father. It is the joy from knowing that in our baptism we have been made God’s forever.

There is a deep, abiding joy that comes from the realization that the same One who is responsible for the beauty of the ocean, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the majesty of the Milky Way is the same One responsible for all your individual beauty. And that that One behind all of this is good—so good and strong and loving that that One has undone the power of death and decay. This One has forgiven our sin. You and I will be sent together, Jesus says, to share this news, and there is something very joyful about the fact that we’re not in that task alone. We can gather and share stories and build one another up.

Truth, safety, joy: they come from our communion with each other in Christ Jesus. However, Jesus doesn’t just gather his followers together around the ideal that togetherness is better, that togetherness itself is the goal. Any old group out there could do that—the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the Red Hat Club, our workout buddies at the gym. Jesus does not gather us around an ideal. Jesus gathers us together around himself. He is the goal and the source of the joy. He is the protection we seek, in life and in death, just as he is the truth that God loves us and makes us God’s own.

For the confirmands’ last test this year they were asked to pretend they were an architect who had been hired to create the worship space for a new sanctuary. They were invited to be imaginative in their designs, and we didn’t give them too many requirements. We just wanted to make sure they, being good Lutherans, would include places in their worship space where the Word and sacraments would be proclaimed. There were really no right or wrong answers to this exercise; it was thought up in order to see how they had integrated what we’d tried to teach and that you have so thoughtfully modelled.

Their results were very interesting and fun to read. Some were incredibly detailed. I wish I could keep them, but I’ll have to give them back. What I found most remarkable, however, is that in every single design, the cross of Jesus was somehow central. In some of their designs, in fact, the prominence of the cross could not be missed. There it stood, either in the middle of the assembly’s space or on a wall above everything so that everyone could see it, so that everyone would grasp, at least on some level, the main reason for their gathering. One confirmand wrote in their explanation for their design, which placed the seats in a semi-circular way, “Everyone [is] seated near each other in such a way that they are one, drawn together to the cross.” And in one explanation of the practice of the sacrament of Holy Communion, one confirmand wrote, “You cannot take part in communion alone because you are not nor will you ever be alone in Christ.”

There are perhaps a several great reasons for designing a worship space where the cross is so central. These young people who are sent with us into the world today remind us of the one that Jesus prays for: that really, in spite of all the clunkiness, we are one. “The testimony is written on these confirmands’ hearts,” as John later says in his letter. It reminds us that we are a family—one great big family with our own great story that we love to tell when we get together.

And it’s not about our own French fries. It’s the one story about the night he was betrayed…how Jesus died to keep us in truth, in safety and in joy. It’s the story about how he continues to pray that God protect us and keep us, make his joyful face shine on us, and in the wonder of his resurrection, draw us from our scattered ways of death to be the community of his cross.



Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Fourth Sunday of Easter [Year B] - April 26, 2015 (John 10:11-18 and Psalm 23)

One of the most popular television shows these days is “The Voice.” I have not watched it many times, but I’ve enjoyed it when I have. “The Voice” is a music competition that involves four stars from the music industry who serve as judges for people who are trying to start a singing career. The premise is that the judges begin by listening with their backs turned to the people performing on stage. When they hear a voice that they like—one that’s got talent, one that might be a winner—the music stars smack a button on their chair that makes it immediately swivel around so that they can face the singer and, at that point, see what the singer looks like.

The idea is that the judges and the coaches respond to and judge only to the voice of the singer, rather than their appearance or stage presence. It is the voice that grabs their attention. One of the best parts of the show is when all four judges realize they’re hearing a winner and they all smack their buttons right away. That’s when the magic starts to happen. The excitement builds as all four experts, the audience, and the millions of folks watching on their TVs across the country realize they may be hearing the next voice.

There is no music industry in Jerusalem, of course, and no one watches television either, but Jesus wants his disciples to know that he is the voice. He sings and speaks from the stage of a hectic and often dangerous life. His people hear him and respond to him, smacking those buttons and swiveling their chairs to face him no matter where they are because they know they’ve found a winner. “I know my own and my own know me,” he explains, and then he reaches for the most familiar and easy-to-understand image of the day. Hearing Jesus’ voice and following him will be like sheep who respond and follow the voice of their shepherd.

As it turns out, sheep are one of the few types of livestock that can actually be led. Cattle, for example, have to be driven, as if you’re forcing them to go where they need to go. Pigs are the same way. Could you imagine what Psalm 23 would sound like if this weren’t the case? “He drives me beside still waters (yee-haw!). He whips me until I walk in the right paths for his name’s sake.” It just doesn’t sounds quite the same, does it?

Sheep, by contrast, can be led. In fact, in Jesus’ time flocks of sheep spent considerable time mingling with other sheep at watering holes and wells. When the time came to graze for the day, the shepherd would go off to a hill that looked like it offered good grazing and would call out. The sheep that belonged to that shepherd would respond and join him wherever he was.

a shepherd in Afghanistan (Wikipedia)
This, Jesus explains, is what life in his Father’s love is like. This is how he will lead his disciples. He knows his own and his own knows him. We can trust, then, that Jesus is not going to force us or drive us to get us to follow him. He is never going to coerce us or scare us. The good shepherd does not work that way. Jesus loves the sheep and tends for them by leading with his voice.

However, disciples don’t just naturally follow that voice because it’s naturally so compelling or beautiful or true (which it is, by the way). They follow because, like sheep, they’ve been around the shepherd enough to know what his voice sounds like. They’ve associated that voice with protection in times of danger. They’ve learned to connect the voice of that shepherd with green pastures and safe pathways. What have you come to associate with the voice of Jesus? How have you spent time in relationship with the one who calls out and beckons you to follow? To be sure, this is something that happens over time when we become aware of the dangers that actually exist around us and how vulnerable we are. It takes relationship and patience to be able to recognize that voice of the shepherd.

This point about relationship ties in to a crucial concept to understanding what we’re praying for, for example, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. In his Large Catechism Martin Luther is sure to point out that humans need more than material things for existence. In a time where everyone tends to be so careful about the food they’re eating and the quality of the environment around them—good things, for sure!—it is easy to lose sight of this. Praying for daily bread covers those things—food and drink, house and property, work and income, a devoted family, etc.—but human existence is not just about things, even as you expand that definition of daily bread ever outward. Human beings also need love to survive. We need trust. We need comfort. We need to hear the voice of someone who says they love us so much they’ll die for us. The petition in the Lord’s Prayer that follows daily bread, the one about the forgiveness of sins, addresses these innermost needs of ours. Through its appeal for forgiveness, it acknowledges our community with other sheep and the fact that trust and love can be broken and needs to be mended.

a shepherd in Romania
Learning the ways of the Good Shepherd involves praying to the Father and learning more about him, but it also therefore involves remaining in contact with the other sheep, by recognizing that we are a species that flocks. The word congregation, in fact, comes from the Latin words “con,” or “com” which means together, and “gregare,” which means to gather into one. Jesus is reminding us this morning that there is something fundamentally group-oriented about following him. Remember? The magic happens when lots of people smack those buttons. That’s how God designs it.

And unlike the television show, we also can’t choose Jesus for our team and have him for ourselves. He’s chosen us for his, and part of our salvation, part of our deliverance in God’s kingdom, is the deliverance from loneliness and isolation. It’s not just that we learn to respond to a savior shepherd, but that we learn to respond to each other, and that we learn to respond along with each other. There are those who say they don’t need the church in order to lead a life of faith, but Jesus words about the flock seem to go against that. I know that many people tell me that when they feel alone in the valley of the shadow of death it is the nearby presence of other sheep who have embodied for them the presence of the shepherd.

In fact, it also sounds like Jesus isn’t finished calling his flock together. There are more that will join him. They aren’t in this flock at the moment—not in this congregation, not in this denomination, maybe not even in this faith—but they are out there. Jesus promises that there are others who will eventually, at some point realize how comforting this voice is, too, and turn to face him.

This is all well and good, of course—the growth of our flock, the green pastures, hearing the voice and staying nearby so we learn more about him and each other—but the real fact of the matter, even with such a large flock, is that sheep don’t always remain close. Sheep don’t always listen either, or know what’s good for them. They wander and they get stuck in some pretty scary places. They run into wolves and other predators who do them harm. Ultimately, the safety of the sheep is not in the sheep’s hands, or hooves. Ultimately, the cohesion and salvation of God’s flock does not lie in its ability to listen or keep up. The safety of the flock is up to the shepherd, and the shepherd who calls you and calls me, the Good Shepherd who has claimed you and has claimed me in Holy Baptism has laid down his life for us. The salvation of any one of us is not dependent on how close we draw to the shepherd, but how close he draws to us. We know this because he is the only shepherd who has gone to stand on one particularly dark hill in the distance called Golgotha. There he calls on our behalf to the Father that loves him with a voice that punctures the darkest valley, the deadliest death.

The other evening a bunch of us were gathered for Wednesday night ministries. It had been raining pretty hard all afternoon, but then, in the middle of dinner, the sun came out. Knowing what often happens when it is raining and the sun is shining at the same time, some folks went out to see what they could see. Pretty soon there was a whole yard of children rejoicing in the sight of not one, not two, but three clear rainbows arching over the church. By the time I got out there, some of the spectacle had already faded, but there was still one portion left.

One end of the bow seemed to end right in the place in the sky that was over our big cross outside. The other end disappeared into the horizon right where our columbarium is. Behind it loomed a dark, foreboding cloud. It had been vanquished and was receding into the east. On the green, wet pasture of grass beneath were a whole bunch of kids and parents. We’ll call them a flock. Their voices laughing, shouting, marveling, like cups overflowing. Little sheep that they were, they had smacked that button and they were responding, I believe, at this huge reminder above them. It was a gracious reminder that their Good Shepherd calls us all, his promises leading from that cross of Golgotha where the rod and the staff yet comfort us to the place where we rest in his eternal embrace. As I watched them taking photos and jumping up and down, the words of the shepherd came to my mind:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow them all the days of their life.

And they shall dwell in the house of the Lord their whole life long.


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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.