Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ the King [Year A] - November 23, 2014 (Matthew 25:31-46)


A very peculiar but well-timed story popped up in my newsfeed this week, especially considering I’m not a gamer and don’t really know much at all about video games. The bottom line, as best as I can understand it, is that some video game company just announced an exciting new expansion to one of its really popular games that will feature warfare action between—get this!—goats and sheep. The game itself is called (wait for it) Goat Simulator.

Now, I’ve heard of a flight simulator and a race car simulator, but never a goat simulator! As best I can tell, when you play it, your character on the screen is actually an unruly goat and your objective is to run around and try to head-butt things and cause trouble. I don’t know how the sheep factor in, but…it’s warfare! It’s got to be cool, right? Maybe the sheep just go around trying to fix the things that the goats mess up, or maybe the two actually fight each other! I might have to get into gaming just to find out!

Apparently the conflict between goats and sheep has been going on for millennia, which is why I decided this peculiar piece of news was well-timed. I knew what was coming up as the gospel lesson this Sunday. When Jesus decides to tell a parable to prepare his disciples for what the final judgment will be like, he uses goats and sheep, too.

But it’s not warfare. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite, because in the parable it looks like the sheep and goats intermingle quite well. That was the way people took care of their livestock back in ancient Israel. Sheep and goats typically got a long fine together. They had different grazing habits, and so goatherds and shepherds let their flocks freely roam on the fields and hills together during the day. In the evening, however, they were put into separate stocks and kept that way until morning. The goats were gathered together for milking. The sheep were left alone.

My guess is that this was a scene which Jesus’ disciples and the others who listened to him saw repeated, day in and day out, in the countryside and in the farming towns where they had lived. Jesus grabs hold of this common scenario in order to illustrate for them several aspects of what discipleship in his name is like. Jesus finds this everyday sheep-versus-goat situation—both the part when they saunter among the hillsides and pastures and the part when they get separated at the end of the day helpful in explaining what life in God’s kingdom entails.

This part about the life is under the reign of Christ is especially important because, as the disciples will begin to understand—and as we are reminded each and every day—Christ’s kingdom is not fully here among us yet. Pretty soon that will be their frustration, and it is ours too. We glimpse it and experience the presence of God’s kingdom from time to time when instances of humility and self-sacrifice triumph over pride and self-centeredness or when forgiveness is practiced, when systems of aggression and dominance give way momentarily to peacefulness and equality. We trust the news about Jesus’ triumph over those ways of aggression and death and the life of the new world to come, but there is still much about the world—and, quite frankly, about ourselves—that isn’t fully reflecting God’s righteousness. And so the whole world mingles and grazes like the sheep and the goats, going about our business like usual.

The mixing and grazing that the world does, this mix of good and evil, is the easier part of the parable for us to get our heads around. It’s that separation that looms at the end of the day, though, that catches our attention, especially because the unruly goats meet a rather gruesome end. Maybe the Goat Simulator game is more based in reality than I realize!

A woman in my home congregation always fretted whenever this parable came up in worship because she was so afraid she’d be a goat. She couldn’t get that out of her mind. I think that’s an honest reaction to this lesson, one that Jesus might want to provoke in his listeners. However, if all we do when we hear Jesus’ words here is worry about our ultimate fate and whether, at the end of the long day, we’re going to end up simulating goats or simulating sheep…we’re letting the law rule our life and our faith. If all we do is concentrate on those labels then it is fear and anxiety that will dictate our discipleship, and we’ll end up missing the best part of what Jesus is trying to teach.

The best part—the most important part—of Jesus’ lesson is not that one day the righteous sheep will be rid of these unruly goats but that we get to see our Lord’s face in the meantime. As we wait for that time when all creation will recognize the authority and the love of the Risen Jesus, his living presence is still among us.

The proper posture of one of his disciples, then, is not one that continually looks inward, asking “Am I a sheep or am I a goat?” but one that looks outward, wondering “Where will I get to see my Lord’s face today?”

And the answer to that isn’t so easy to forget. The Lord who has claimed us forever as his own as he gives himself up on the cross is still present among those who are suffering. If we want to see him, serve him, have his grace imparted to us, then we can go find him among the “least of these.”

Amidst all the political and even religious grandstanding about immigration this week, amidst the xenophobia and the racism that still poisons our country’s debates when it comes to that issue, amidst the confusing arguments about things like deportation and undocumented migrants and what care for our neighbor means appeared this story out of a southern California:

The Valley Springs Manor is an assisted living facility that shut down last fall. Once they stopped getting paid for their work, the staff all left except for two—the cook and the janitor. “There was about 16 residents left behind,” said the cook Maurice, “and we had a conversation in the kitchen, ‘What are we going to do?’” Realizing the residents wouldn’t have anyone to care for them, they transformed their roles very quickly. Both men, Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez, ages 34 and 35, started taking care of the sixteen residents, many of whom suffered from dementia, around the clock. They doled out the medications, fixed their food, changed their clothes and bedding for several days by themselves until the fire department and sheriff took over.

“I couldn’t see myself going home,” Rowland said, “next thing you know they’re in the kitchen trying to cook their food and they burn the place down.” He went on to say, “Even though they wasn’t our family, they were kind of like our family for this short period of time.”

“Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty? When did we see you as a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you as a resident of an assisted living facility?”
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Living under the righteous reign of the risen Jesus, you begin to see family where you didn’t think there was any. Living under the promise of the gospel—that Jesus has suffered and died out of God’s great love for you—empowers us to greet his face each and every day. The least of these among us are, as it turns out, playing Jesus simulator, and we grow in faith and hope when we jump in their game and begin to serve, clothe, feed, and love. When we let that gospel rule in our hearts, we see the kingdom of his righteousness begins breaking in all around us.

Recently I was performing pre-marriage counseling with a young couple who recently got married, a process I always enjoy. As we were winding our session up one day our conversation drifted from the discussions about the nitty-gritty of sharing a common life, combining checking accounts and negotiating conflict, to some of the joys of having a spouse.  They got a little glint in their eye as they talked about how they had already begun to enjoy, as they described it, doing “grown-up things together.” I was a little curious to know what exactly they meant by that, because they clearly had something particular in their mind. When I asked them, they coyly looked at each other for a second and then said, “Well, last week we shopping together for items for the food pantry, and last Sunday we brought them in…together, like our parents used to do when we were little. Doing that on our own made us feel so ‘grown up.’”

Lord Jesus, hasten the day when we all define maturity that way, in terms of giving, in terms of feeding the hungry.

Humble Savior, hasten the day when your grace fully dissolves my tendency to live and serve others solely from a sense of fear that I might be a goat.

Christ our King, hasten that great day when you gather us all before your throne and there are no more border patrol and immigration disputes because there are no more borders, when there will be no more assisted living facilities because you will be our only assistance, the day when there will be no more food pantry shopping because there will be no more hunger. Hasten that great day and remind us—you Gracious Gamer, you—that you were present with us all along.


Thanks be to God!





The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 27A] - November 9, 2014 (Matthew 25:1-13 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)


The grandmother carries her cellphone everywhere she goes. Overall, members of her generation might not be labelled the most technologically-savvy, but she has learned how to make calls on it and how to text. She has figured out how to read the number of bars that signal receptivity and knows how to keep the battery with ample charge. Most importantly, however, she never turns the phone off and she never, ever, puts the ringer on silent or even on low. If that means it might ring out loudly in the middle of something else—in the middle of a meal, in the middle of a worship service, in the middle of night—it doesn’t matter. People will have to understand, and they will understand once they know why that cell phone is so important, once they know what it helps her be ready for. She is awaiting a call. It is not just any call, mind you, but rather the call that an organ donor has been found for her granddaughter who is suffering from a life-threatening health problem. 

And as those things tend to go, the call could come anytime. Their wait has already lasted nine months, seven months longer than her family had initially anticipated. Everything is in place: the surgeons, the daily rounds of physical therapy, the tens of thousands of dollars it will take to perform the surgery…and now it is a waiting game.

The picture of faithful anticipation, that grandmother is a member of this congregation. She is an inspiration to me, and those who know her know that every fiber of her being is poised for that day to come, so that she may to respond and arrive at bedside. That phone call means life. And so, you see, it would be foolish to turn the ringer off.

It would be foolish to turn the ringer off. It would be foolish to do anything—or to fail to do something—that could cut yourself off from a future of life, that could exclude you from a time of celebration and hope, from the chance to be included in a bright new day. On the other hand, it would be wise to wait with all of your resources of mind and body focused on preparedness of that day as if it could arrive—as if the phone could ring—at any given moment.

That is the point of the parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids that Jesus tells his disciples not too long before his final days in Jerusalem. As Jewish people who were anticipating the arrival of an apocalyptic figure called the Son of Man, they might have started to wonder just when Jesus’ own exciting kingdom of the future was going to explode fully onto the scene. It was also the message taken to heart by early Christians, like the Thessalonians, for example, who could have sworn that Jesus, once resurrected and ascended to heaven, would be back very soon. And yet he appeared to be lingering.

That time of lingering brought about anxiety in some, and fatigue in others. The wise bridesmaids, in this parable, are like that patient but pragmatic grandmother who travels everywhere with her cell phone ringer on. They know what to do with that anxiety and fatigue, and have come prepared with extra oil for their lamps in the event that the wait for the bridegroom goes on longer than anticipated.
And that, as it turned out, was something that could very well happen. In first-century weddings, all the financial and legal negotiations of two houses’ fortunes coming together had to take place before any celebration or consummation was involved. As the attendants for the couple waited outside at the Dominion Club or the Jefferson Hotel Ballroom the bridegroom and the bride’s family could have easily gotten tied up elsewhere, trying to iron out the details of the wedding contract.

Every wedding back then, as it turns out, involved a bit of a waiting game. As a guest, you would not want to be caught unprepared when the bridegroom finally showed up. That is, if you wanted to join in the grand celebration, you needed to do whatever you could to prepare for that moment to start. After all, if the bridegroom finally shows up in the night, he might slip by without notice. Therefore, it would be helpful to bring lamp-like torches. And some extra oil in case you run out. Keep the cell phone ringer on, as a loud as you possibly can.

For those who hear this parable, especially those who have heard Jesus even refer to himself as the bridegroom on a number of occasions, at least two things would have made an impression. First, Christ might seem to be delayed, detained by some obligations or commitments we don’t yet understand. Followers could expect a lull between his first earthly appearance and the time in the future when he promises they would see him again. Moreover, they cannot predict when that lull would end, although many people will try to. It might last for ages, inexplicably dragging on through the night—or through centuries of nights—long past a time we think would be opportune.

Second, this time of waiting comes with certain obligations for the people who long to be reunited with him. A spiritual wakefulness is entailed. Just as the bridesmaids stand at the door of the banquet hall, right there at the edge where they can probably hear the party musicians warming up and smell the food that is being laid out on the tables, those who follow Jesus wait with a sense that the new kingdom is just about to dawn, that they already have in mind what they’ll do and how they’ll live once the kingdom of mercy comes in full. When the door finally opens to that bright new day, they’ll be right there in the midst of it.

In our time as we await the return of our Lord I think that we can fall prey to foolishness just as easily as those five bridesmaids. Some of us, for example, will be convinced by the false theology that some type of so-called rapture will occur, that Jesus’ sudden arrival means that a select number of people will be sucked up from daily life into the heavens to be with him. While some Scriptures, including Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, seem to suggest that possibility, no one gave them that unbiblical interpretation until a minority sect the 1830s gained popularity. Thoughts of the rapture make for great science fiction books and movies, but it fully denies the fact that Jesus himself repeatedly talks about his kingdom’s full arrival as something that happens on earth when he joins us. It also suggests that God is somewhat vindictive and despising of the world he has created and redeemed.

All too often, however, I think our foolishness can lean in the other direction—that is, we think the world really never will be different, that the doors to a bright new future in this life or the next will never open, that we just inch along with no real hope in sight. To be honest, apathy is a far greater temptation than anxiety. Complacency is what cuts us off from a future of life and hope.

Interestingly enough, an inspirational quote on a bag I received when I dropped by a local restaurant this week for lunch took a noble stab at eliminating that complacency. It was noon, and we all kind of inched along methodically in this dimly-lit eating establishment through our burritos’ assembly line, numbed, perhaps, by another instance of the daily grind—but there the cheery bag waited for us at the end. It read, “We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naïve to work toward a better one.”

While I can appreciate its attitude of optimism—and while I certainly want more people to do things that make the world better—I’m not sure bridesmaids who wait for the bridegroom should sign on so quickly. After all, our Lord did not come and die in order to make the world better. He came to make it new. We do, in fact, hope for a perfect world, and we have that Jesus’ love will achieve it, just as we see the cross as a victory over evil. We do anticipate that, at some point, the doors will swing open and the eternal celebration of God’s victory in Christ will begin for us, just as we are confident it has already begun for those who have died.

No, it’s not romantic to perform works of justice and compassion, to practice peacemaking and care for the world’s poor, regardless of which political party you affiliate with. It’s not naïve to forgive others seventy-seven times, to share talents and time generously. It is not idealistic to worship in the assembly of Christians with regularity, to speak out for those who can’t speak for themselves.  It’s not romantic or naïve to do these things. It is wise to do so. It is wise to illumine the dark world with our mercy and our diligent longing for God’s presence. It’s wise because these things are like oil for our lamps that prepare us to greet him when he does arrive. These things are what we, led by the Spirit, naturally do as we stand with our ears to the door of that great future where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

As that faithful and fiercely-loving grandmother demonstrates, there is a good life in waiting, holding the torch-lamps up. We do what we can to make sure we don’t miss that call that means life. Strengthened by his presence now in the Word and mystically in the bread and the wine, we wait and we work and we watch for our Lord and his blessed, perfect world with our ringer…on.

To do otherwise would be foolish.


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Reformation Sunday - October 26, 2014 (Matthew 22:34-46)


 
Back to the basics. That is one way to view the Reformation movement that Martin Luther and his fellow reformers, including his wife, Katie, began in the early 1500s. Martin Luther looked at the church of his day—a church that seemed to be entrenched in all kinds of rules about how God’s grace works, a church with a structure and format so convoluted that the ordinary person had a difficult time relating to a loving God—and he decided it was time to get back to the basics, because it was important that people relate to God’s love.

Granted, the Reformation turned out to be more than just an event for the church. There were a whole bunch of social and political pressures in Rome's declining empire that played into the upheaval that the Reformation brought about. Nevertheless, Luther saw his time as an opportunity for the church to look again at some of the core principles of the faith and his position as a priest and professor and his educated background gave him the opportunity to know what people were struggling with. His own challenges as a person of faith trying to be assured of God’s favor also helped give him a good bit of insight into what needed reforming.

95 Theses is a lot of basics...but still
Some of those basics that Martin Luther used to reform the church are still well known today. The biggie, of course, is that we are justified by grace through faith alone, apart from works of the law. This was the main one Luther arrived at early on as he read the New Testament and drove home over and over again in his teaching and writing. Luther really felt this was the core of it all, the belief on which the church stood or fell, the belief which should have completely invalidated many church practices in his day: that is, God’s gracious love in Jesus Christ is nothing we could ever deserve or earn on our own. It is not possible purchase or work for real estate in the kingdom of heaven. Rather, it is a free gift to each and every one of God’s children, granted once and forever in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You can see how that’s a basic belief: if Christ’s death on the cross is ultimately not really necessary because God still expects us to do something on our own, then Christ’s sacrifice was in vain.

Another one of the basics that Luther brought up was the importance of Scripture’s authority. That may seem rather obvious to you and me nowadays, but in Luther’s time the Bible was rather removed from the practice of Christian faith most ordinary folks. For one, it wasn’t printed their language. In Latin, it was something only the priests and monks could read and understand. Luther changed that by translating the Bible into German. With that, along with Gutenberg’s printing press, everyday people soon had access to the Scriptures. Furthermore, it wasn’t always clear that things the church taught and drew a hard line on had any basis in Scripture. So, Luther did a lot of housecleaning, and the tool he used was the Word of God. Seven sacraments, for example, got narrowed down to the basic two the Protestant Church has today. Since Scripture was silent about papal infallibility, Luther saw no more use for believing the Pope in Rome had the final say on everything. There were a few other basics that Luther tried to bring the church back to, some of which proved to be more controversial than others. To some degree, these are still the main, basic issues that Lutherans attempt to hold the church to today.

Interestingly enough, Jesus had also sought to bring people back to the basics, too, in his time. We see a prime example of that effort in the gospel lesson this morning. In the face of the Pharisees questions of theology and belief, who are trying to find something to fault him for, Jesus gives a simple but straightforward answer: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

In other words, these two commandments are the basics. Everything that was contained in the Jewish law code and the words of the prophets through the ages were in some way dependent on or in support of those two commands about a disposition toward and actions of love toward God and neighbor. The Pharisees, you see, liked to use that law and those prophets’ words as weapons as they hurled them at their opponents or as walls against people who they viewed as unclean. Jesus very quickly reminds them that the foundation of their entire religious system was really about loving God with every fiber of your being and loving other people as you love yourself. That is, everything the people of God are about should really come down to these two related commandments about love. One of them involves a vertical dimension—from God to us—and the other a horizontal one that unites us with the people around us.

The Pharisees gather...
Interestingly enough, this is the final encounter Jesus has with the Pharisees and the scribes. The last little argument that Jesus has here involves his identity as the son of David and Messiah. The Pharisees had essentially denied that anyone could ever be greater than King David, their ancestor. Jesus, however, uses Scripture to prove that a Messiah would come that would be even more “anointed with the Spirit” than David was. Again, those were the basics: that a Messiah would arrive who was God’s own son and that that God was concerned about a relationship based on love more than anything else.

As it happens, love really becomes the centerpiece of Jesus’ life and witness, and not the kind of love that is based on emotions or dispositions toward others. It is a love that stoops to serve. It is a love that reaches out to the other. It is a love which risks alienation and death, a love that Jesus eventually demonstrates in his death on the cross, the perfect but painful intersection of a vertical dimension and a horizontal one. The basic of all basics the cross of Jesus. That is where we come to understand the depth of God’s great love for us and the kind of relationship God calls us to extend to our neighbor. That is where Pharisees and outcasts alike all come to terms with their sinfulness and their shortcomings but also God’s gracious forgiveness and desire to include everyone in his kingdom.

The church should really always be about the basics, if you think about it. In fact, when we start going too far past them and adding things on to the mission of Christ’s Church is when we start to get in trouble. When the church, for example, gets aligned too closely with certain political or social agendas as it did even in Luther’s day, then the church can become just a tool for certain powers. When the church becomes too mired in rules of religious purity, as if following Christ is only about ticking off boxes and chiefly avoiding certain behaviors then we risk becoming more like the self-righteous Pharisees.

When it comes right down to it, the church should be a place where these two commandments are at the center of everything we do and say, where an understanding of God’s love for us in Jesus leads us to a love for our neighbors, especially those who are different or distant from us. As I heard a pastor once say, the holiness of the church is not its perfection. The holiness of the church is its capacity to love. That is to say, what makes the church the church is not our ability to be morally perfect people, but rather our embodiment of the love Jesus has for people. And we can only learn how to love over and over again when we are constantly reflecting on who Jesus is and what he does.

That, in fact, is the focus of that second argument with the Pharisees in this morning’s text. The Pharisees struggle to explain Jesus’ relationship to King David and to God. I think many of us—church leaders, included—struggle to explain just who Jesus is to us and why we feel he has rescued us, and just what we feel he rescues us from. It has been said that Lutherans are great at demonstrating the gospel through their actions. We could probably, however, bone up on articulating that gospel in our words.

Some interesting research has come out recently from the Barna Group about faith of Millennials, those who were born between the years of 1984 and 2002. One extensive study discovered that of those in the Millennial generation who are still active in the Church today, a full 68% responded that “Jesus speaks to me in a personal and relevant way.” It was the single-highest response across the board. Of those who have dropped out of the church, only one-quarter claimed that. According to that study, then, developing that basic relationship with Christ was more important than anything else—more important than beliefs about the Bible, for example, or style of worship. Two of the other most important factors in the faith of Millennials still active in church? “Close relationships with an adult in the congregation or parish” and “an experience serving the poor.” It strikes me that right there in those three responses you see both dimensions of that love…vertical and horizontal.

A few months ago we were sitting down to eat supper and our older daughter, who is seven, asked to say the prayer. That is nothing out of the ordinary. They often take turns offering one of our usual rote table prayers, “God is great, God is good…” But that evening she folded her hands and offered up a completely original prayer, in her own words. I was flabbergasted by the beautiful pattern of it, and her boldness to say it. It was clear that she had learned to speak to God that way, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t from me. Someone in this congregation—a Sunday School teacher, a Cherub Choir director, someone—had taught my own daughter to speak to God with her own voice. Someone here is modeling how to love God with her heart, her soul, and her mind.

Now, I wouldn’t want to base all ministry on studies and surveys, but it is striking to me that some research points to what we, in some ways, already are doing and knowing. That is, well…the basics. Here we are, almost 1500 years into this Reformation movement, and you can still see the need for many of the Lutheran reformers’ main points. They are simply a re-telling of Jesus’ own lesson, that on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

In the middle of it all, of course, is that intersection of the two dimensions: developing that relationship with God through Christ so we may love with all our heart, and soul and mind, and strengthening our relationships of service and compassion with our neighbor. Therefore, in the Spirit of Luther’s reforms, let gather at that cross in the middle and recommit ourselves…to getting back to the basics.

 

 

Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24A] - October 19, 2014 (Matthew 22:15-22)


 
It’s that time of the year again when we human beings are going to engage in what must be one of the most peculiar and uniquely human of all behaviors. Many of us are going invest a good bit of time and energy and even some hard-earned money to locate and obtain a specific variety of squash that we think fits a certain criteria we have in mind. In fact, some of us are even going to ride a wagon or a tractor out into a field that we don’t even own with the sole purpose of choosing one of these perfect squashes. We are going to buy that specific variety of squash, called a pumpkin, and we are not going to eat it. We are going to hollow that thing out and we’re going to carve a face in it. And then we’re going to put a candle in it so that the face lights up at night.

Regardless of what you believe about the origins of this Halloween practice, you have to admit it’s quite a preposterous one. Personally, I have no problem with making jack-o-lanterns. I think it’s a lot of fun and, in fact, the youth group will be doing it today. However, as human practices go, from start to finish, it’s pretty eccentric! If you ever are tempted to believe that humans are really not that different the rest of the animal world, that we’re just another organism inhabiting the galaxy, think about all these hollow, grinning-wide squash.

In fact, you can branch out from there quite easily, because we humans like to put our image and leave our mark on a lot of things. From graffiti art on a subway car to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, from cave drawings thousands of years old to computer avatars today—in art, poetry, or the craftsmanship of a decent and honest job, in the wisdom we impart to our young—human beings have always felt drawn to imbue the things they create with their own image. It’s one of those features we share in common with God. It’s a way we take control of our surroundings, make order from chaos. This is the way that we place our mark on the world and leave a legacy. And it is also a way we claim things as our own, for ourselves…not simply a goofy pumpkin with the lopsided smile, but things with far greater importance: This cave corner that keeps me safe. This cathedral. This city skyline.

This is likely how coins and other forms of money had come to be formed with the images and trademarks of emperors and queens and other people in power. It was a way for them to it to consolidate their power and to control the people. Almost as extraordinary as putting human faces on pumpkins, Caesar, in Jesus’ time, had stamped his own face on the denarius coin. So, then, every time goods and services exchanged hands it was like Caesar was there, saying “This is mine.” Every time one of the empire’s taxes came up, Caesar was there, proclaiming, “This is mine, too.”

The people of religion loathed it. Currency, especially with a human face on it, was the stuff of idolatry. It was easy to see, for one, how people could start to worship it, to give it more value than anything else. In fact, in addition to Caesar’s likeness, each coin also bore an inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of divine Augustus.” So it was no wonder that the Jewish authorities would have despised them so much. Simply the use of the money was a constant reminder of the Roman occupation, and the yearly census tax made it even worse. Each time that tax was paid with one of those coins, it felt like worship to a false god.

This is precisely why the Jewish religious leaders find this to be the perfect way to trap Jesus. If Jesus agrees to the payment of Caesar’s yearly tax, then he will become immediately unpopular with the crowds of ordinary folk who are following him. They, too, feel that Caesar’s face is everywhere, oppressing their livelihood, and this yearly tax (I know it’s hard to imagine) was deeply unpopular. It was another form of tribute; that is, a system whereby they handed over a portion of their livelihood in return for protection and the right to live. By consenting to that system he will be seen as just another one of the spineless leaders in hock to the Roman army trying to maintain the status quo. However, if Jesus agrees it is unlawful to pay the tax then he becomes a normal revolutionary, an upstart warmonger who wants to overthrow Rome. It will be much easier for the authorities to encircle him and label him as trouble.

Jesus’ response about paying the tax is remarkable. He manages to wiggle out of the trap by reminding them of something that everyone finds so easy to forget, or worse, deny. What’s more extraordinary and ingenious than the face of Caesar on a coin? Well, the fact that each one of us—each pumpkin-carver among us, each cave-wall scribbler, each money-minter—bears a mark on his or her very life. What’s more astonishing than an entire system of currency containing the image of the emperor who made it? The truth that each one of us human beings is minted in the image of our Creator. From Jesus’ point of view, it is no big deal at all to pay Caesar’s tribute with the money in our pockets once we remembers that we pay tribute of thanksgiving and service to God the Father each and every day with our lives. The currency of Caesar is copper, stone, and sword. Those are powerful, insofar as you want to build a city or an army. But the currency of the Creator are things like flesh and blood, intellect and language, creativity and morality and kindness. And imagine what those things can build.

To be reminded that we are created in God’s image is no small thing. I wonder if the Pharisees and Herodians had forgotten it, caught up, as they were, in fretting about how Caesar was laying claim to everything. Come to think of it, I’m not sure we really know what it means anymore to be made in God’s image.  We hear so many competing definitions of what it means to be human nowadays that our divine qualities get glossed over or downplayed. The brain is just one giant computer, programmed from birth, some say. Others tell us all our features of human-ness can just be explained by cold-hard science, as long as we have the time. More likely, we don’t hear these things; we just feel them. So many of us get the impression that we are just cogs in a giant machine, working, day in and day out, to pay the bills and make ends meet, worrying if we’ll have enough for retirement, slaving to consume and purchase things that leave us unfulfilled. Millions of others of us scrape by in the filthy slums of the world’s poorest communities, living on little more than a denarius a day. We see, we hear, we sense deep in our bones that we are just pawns of whichever cruel empire we have, that we are massed-produced squishy computers that can just be controlled and manipulated.

The reality, we must remember, is different. The reality is that God has carefully picked out and chosen each person who has ever walked on this earth, male and female, and said, “This one. This one is mine.” The reality is that each victim of Ebola who seems destined to become just another statistic, destined to become just another contagion for us to fear in the attention-hungry news cycle, bears the image of God. It means that Hannah Graham bore God’s image, just as whoever abused her and left her to die, though we are so prone to call such a person a monster.

But bearing God’s image does not just mean that we are precious or worthy. It means that we have the capacity re-present God in our very thoughts and actions and interact with creation in the same manner that God can. It means that as much as we participate in a world that will always try to convince us otherwise, we have been designed to reflect these qualities back to someone else in a way that contributes to the good, to praise someone other than ourselves.

A recent edition of the magazine Intelligent Life ran an article where they asked six leaders in very intellectual fields to answer a question: what’s is the point? Noted novelist and atheist Philip Pullman weighed in, as did a philosopher, a poet, a psychoanalyst and a reporter. Their articulate responses were all fairly interesting to read, very auspicious-sounding, full of wisdom and observation. Most compelling, however, was the simple four-word response that came from the biographer and obituarist Ann Wroe. She was the person among that list whose career essentially involves scouring the sum total of people’s life stories and finding within them some pattern and meaning. Ms. Wroe responded curtly, “The point is love.”

Yes, love is ultimately what we and no one else are able to render to God and creation. It was placed there in the beginning and it remains there still, like a small tea light in the bottom of a hollowed-out pumpkin. And even when our godlike image is so tarnished and broken, so demolished by sin and our self-serving behavior that we are not sure we are even able to love, not able to recognize the healing powers of our speech, our intellect, our creativity, much less lift it to God…then we remember that God become one of us in that human image. And because of that, we can see that even in death, even in utter suffering, we still bear the image of the divine. Even as we breathe our last and the story of our life comes to a close there is still opportunity to reflect God’s glory. Caesar’s army and tax may be powerful, but imagine all the force of justice and righteousness if our redeemed lives were offered in tribute each and every day to the Lord of heaven and earth because the point is love.

That, I believe, is what Jesus envisions as I see him flipping that coin back into the hands of the Pharisees. He isn’t all that impressed with the power of cash or currency, but rather with the beauty of our very beings offered in grateful devotion, each one of us, like a beautiful jack-o-lantern, who learned from Christ that the point was love, our light glowing from the inside and shining that smile of existence right back in praise of the one who carved it.

And he envisions that Creator gazing right back, with them lined up on the front porch of his creation, saying, “These. These beauties are mine.

 


 

 

Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22A] - October 5, 2014 (Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46)


 
I had a rough go with my backyard garden this year. Granted, that little 8’ x 8’ plot, which is bordered by basic landscaping timbers and situated in barely six hours of daily sunshine, has never been all that lush and productive, but I was always proud of it. I was proud of the ways in which the soil I had worked received the seeds and seedlings and nurtured decent growth. I was proud of the juicy tomatoes that I sliced in early August. In fact, I might have been guilty in previous seasons of taking periodic photos of its growth throughout the spring and summer and posting them on Facebook so everyone could see the fruits of my labor.

This year, however, I was not proud of it, and there was absolutely nothing worth taking a photo of. The half-dozen or so cucumbers we got looked like something grown in Chernobyl. Have you ever heard of someone having to stake sunflowers? Well, now you have. Not one batch of pesto could be made from the skimpy basil plants that eked out a yellowish existence, and many folks consider basil the easiest plant to grow. The place where I planted leeks gave way to copious stands of crabgrass, and even that seemed to throw in the towel by late July. And out of nowhere one random volunteer cornstalk grew up in the middle of the tomato vines.

 All in all, it was a disaster. In the past I’ve been pretty meticulous with it, but somewhere along the line this year I suppose I assumed the garden could just take its own course. Somewhere along the line I suppose I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need to be that involved…that, on its own and without any work from me, the garden would naturally produce the results I wanted. The truth is I am ashamed of that conclusion, and now, because of my neglect, between now and next spring I will have to rip out the termite-infested landscape timbers and scoop out all the old, tired soil, and start all over.

On a much grander and more complicated scale, that is the gist of the situation between God and God’s people over the years and years of their unfruitfulness. As the prophet Isaiah explains, God has taken great pains in planting his people as a vintner tends a vineyard. He has chosen the spot carefully in an area where they will get plenty of sunshine. He has removed all the stones from the soil so the roots can become established. It’s got a watchtower to prevent thieves from climbing in and a vat right in the middle where the grapes can be pressed. He expects it to produce grapes so that he can make wine, but instead he gets a bunch of crabgrass grapes and a random volunteer cornstalk.

It proves to be nothing but an embarrassment and a disaster. The vintner has no choice but to let it take its course and go to waste, since that’s essentially what had already happened anyway. He removes the protective landscape timbers and lets the wild weeds take over. What was supposed to be a special area of beauty and productivity among the rough hillside is allowed to return to ugly barrenness.

For Isaiah and the people of ancient Israel, this love-song for the vineyard becomes a picture of their unfaithfulness and a prophecy of God’s judgment. It becomes a poem about their unrighteousness and bloodshed despite God’s desire that they be a special people of justice and beauty. Eventually they will read in this prophecy the story of their descent into weedy chaos once the armies of Babylon run them over and cart them into exile. They will read how their inability to be people of righteousness and peace had grieved God to God’s core.

It’s a peculiar thing to consider, isn’t it: that God the Creator of the universe can’t even determine what crops up in the hearts of his people? On one hand, it might raise questions about God’s omnipotence and effectiveness. On the other hand it makes one ponder the great amount of free will God has turned over to humankind, the depth of the relationship God actually wants to cultivate in his creatures…and the joy God must get when they do. We are far more complex than plants, which turn their leaves to the sun and start growing up. We can turn in to ourselves and not even realize it—which is one definition of sin—and assume all along we’re growing the way we’re supposed to. Left to take our own course, we’ll put forth maybe a misshapen cucumber or two, but for the most part we’ll struggle to do even that. It will take enormous effort and sacrifice and suffering on God’s part to break into our hearts and our communities to turn us to him.

And that, my friends, is the basis for this parable that Jesus tells the Pharisees and chief priests as he comes out of the Temple in Jerusalem. Borrowing this vineyard imagery from their prophet Isaiah, Jesus explains how those whom God had left to tend the vineyard, those whom God had put in charge of helping God’s people produce their trademark righteousness and justice had turned wicked. As Jesus re-tells it, the problem lies not just in the vineyard itself, with all its crabgrass grapes and random cornstalks, but with those who are supposed to steward it. They repeatedly reject the landowner’s attempts to get involved from a distance. Slave after slave is sent to help with the harvest, but slave after slave is slaughtered. Prophet after prophet had been sent to assist God’s people in their production of God’s justice among the nations, in their role as special place of beauty and righteousness among the otherwise barren hills.

Eventually the landowner takes the final step and sends his own son, which, you understand, is tantamount to going there himself. The son is the heir to the vineyard. What his father own he owns, too. And still the tenants refuse the care and leadership of the landowner! They have grown so in-on-themselves, they are so overrun with greed and spite and jealousy, they are so misled into thinking that the vineyard belongs to them and not to the landowner that they kill the son, too.

I looked in several sources at what this parable is called. In the version we used this morning it is titled, “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.” They certainly play a major role, and in Jesus’ first telling it was clearly directed at the leadership of in the Temple. They were meant to hear themselves as those tenants. Another version called this parable “The Parable of the Vineyard,” a title which certainly highlights the role of God’s people in the analogy, but quite frankly isn’t that descriptive. Vineyards are featured in about a half-dozen parables.

artist unknown
One version, however, called this parable “The Parable of the Passion.” That one interests me the most. It takes the focus away from those terrible tenants and even away from the beloved vineyard and focuses it on that son, that son that comes as not just a representative of the landowner, but as blood of the landowner himself. It focuses on the length to which that landowner plans to go in order to have his vineyard produce what he wants it to. The vineyard will not just run its course, and neither will the wicked tenants just run theirs. For that vineyard to produce anything the landowner’s son will have to suffer and die.

This is the harsh reality that our sinfulness will require from a God who loves so passionately. As much as we would like to think humans are just naturally good...as much as we like to believe that, given the right environment, the right upbringing, we’ll grow the way we’re created to, the truth is we grow wickedness. To paraphrase Martin Luther, we will never naturally, on our own accord, give ourselves over to the type of wholesale re-working that is needed to produce works of justice and compassion. God will need to get involved for that to happen. New life and new harvests will only come as a result of suffering. Bread will be broken. Blood will be shed. And a cross will need to be planted squarely on that barren hillside.

It has been quite the year for this congregation, this little vineyard. Within the span of nine months—to the day—we have had three congregational meetings. A senior pastor has been called, property has been purchased, and the call for another associate pastor has been considered. That’s just the ministry that has required congregational approval, according to the Constitution. Think of what else has gone on! Even as leadership has experienced major changes, the amount of ministry undertaken by our staff, our teams, our volunteers, our Council has hummed along with remarkable consistency.

Epiphany youth group at Shalom Farms, Oct 2013
As this congregation begins a new chapter, however, it will be imperative for us to remember one lesson from the Parable of the Passion. That is, fruitful ministry in a congregation or in an individual does not ultimately come from the people who are leading or even the people who are serving. Faithful ministry in a congregation or in an individual does not lie chiefly in the ingenuity or creativity of mission statements or the size of endowment contributions or the vitality of youth programs. All those may be nice, but fruitful ministry in any setting truly arises from the faith that God is deeply, deathly involved in what is going on here. Our life together is a result of someone loving us to death. God’s Son is the cornerstone. This Son is dying to forgive sins and mend relationships. This Son dying to plant in us the righteousness of his kingdom that we might share that with the world.

And—good news of good news, my friends of the vineyard—this Son is dying even to take our pitiful malformed cucumbers and random volunteer cornstalks and transform them through his passion into a tasty treat from the garden.

 


Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21A] - September 28, 2014 (Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13)


 
It was bound to happen at some point. Like a video game character who slowly and methodically encounters and then bests the competition in each level of a video game, Jesus has slowly worked his way through the opposition in the small synagogues and communities through Galilee and has finally arrived at the final stage. He is in Jerusalem now—the crowded, cosmopolitan, capital city, with its colossal Temple and hornet’s nest of religious activity. The challenges to his ministry that were thrown out by the priests, Pharisees, and scribes in all those small towns outside of Jerusalem had been, for the most part, easy for Jesus to handle. But the ones who congregated in and around the “big league” Temple up in Jerusalem were the best and the brightest. They were the chief priests. And if those guys weren’t exactly the best and the brightest, they were certainly the most influential religious leaders and the ones most concerned with maintaining the status quo. They helped control the levers of power that kept the Roman occupying government pacified and the local Jewish population calm and obedient.

Jesus cleanses the temple
Therefore, when Jesus enters Jerusalem and the local population waves palm branches before him and acclaims him as Son of David, King of Israel, the chief priests and scribes get more than a little irritated. And when Jesus makes a bee-line for the Temple and drives out all their money-changers’ tables and upsets the system of keeping religious order in place, they zero in on him immediately. There in the Temple they confront him like the big, fierce opponents that they are. It was bound to happen at some point: Jesus would get in trouble with the final authorities.

That is the scene we witness today, just so you have an idea of what the stakes are. I was never very good at video games, but I was always in awe of my cousins who could reach the final level on Super Mario Brothers and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. It involved knowing how to press the buttons on the game controller at just the right time and in just the right order. We can similarly be in awe of Jesus’ ability to silence them. He knows how to respond to their traps with just the right counter-questions so they don’t know how to respond.

Their main concern is over Jesus’ authority, itself. Where is he getting the authority to do the things that he’s doing? No one just walks into the Temple and starts teaching, much less flipping over tables, unless he can claim someone gave him the authority to do so. His response to them about where they stand on John the Baptist’s authority is not really straightforward. Jesus doesn’t come out and say, “God the Father gave me this authority,” but what he does say is very clever and manages to silence them.

He knows that, for one, the religious authorities are not genuinely curious about him. They are only confronting him in this manner because they are trying to trap him. If they catch him in a trap, if they catch him saying something that is outright blasphemous, they can do him in.

the chief priests question Jesus, still from Jesus of Nazareth
Secondly, Jesus answers in a less than straightforward manner because he is a little hesitant to put right out there all of the details about his identity as Son of God and where his authority comes from. To us, this may seem strange and a little shady. It may seem like he’s ducking and weaving, but, in fact, Jesus is always a little reluctant to declare too much about what and who he is. The reason is because if people reach any premature conclusions about his identity and the nature of his power before the final event of his crucifixion, their understanding will be entirely incomplete. Jesus is the Messiah, but he is the suffering Messiah. Jesus is powerful Lord of all, but he is chiefly going to display that power on the cross. In short, Jesus holds all of God’s authority, but he exercises that authority by laying it aside completely. No one will really understand that kind of authority—or know how to respond to it—until after he is hung on the cross in shame. That is, it’s bound to happen at some point: the people will eventually comprehend just what kind of Savior Jesus is, but it won’t be here in the Temple, and it won’t be this day.

Before the religious leaders slink off to conspire again,  Jesus follows up with this this short parable about the two sons who are asked by their father to go work in the vineyard. In Jesus’ day, rejecting a father’s authority in public by declining to do what he asked was a big no-no. It was seen as a direct challenge to the father’s status and power. The first son would have raised serious eyebrows. Even a polite “No, thank you, dad” would have been viewed like a temper tantrum. This son would have been shunned and ridiculed and treated in his society similar to the way that folks like the tax collectors and prostitutes were treated by the religious leaders.

The second son, by contrast, says, “Sure, I’ll go work,” thereby maintaining that level of public respect, but then never follows through on that promise. This second son certainly would have looked good, as someone who agrees to the right authority, but he never enjoys the full relationship of that authority. He certainly would have fit right in to the surrounding cultural mores, appearing dutiful and respectable, but never really joining his will to that of his father.

Meanwhile, it dawns on the first son that living under of the authority of his father is something good for him, and that the invitation to go work is still open. He changes his mind, even though he would have been written off by so many for publicly rejecting at first, and is welcomed under his father’s authority.

It is easy when hearing this parable to get stuck on the comparison between these two sons, trying to figure out which one we are more like…or, as is more often the case, trying to label other people in terms of the two sons. That was certainly one of Jesus’ points in telling it; that is, to cause reflection upon the ways in which the hearer does or doesn’t respond.

Jesus condemned (artist unknown)
However, what would have been most peculiar to the listeners in Jesus age, would have not have been the reactions of the two sons, but the reaction of the father. This father does nothing to scold or punish or reject the first son, the one who initially rejects him. This strange father does nothing to write him out of the will or shower praise on the second, publicly-obedient son. This father shows compassion and patience. He displays longsuffering and openness. His invitation to work in the vineyard doesn’t not immediately expire…as if it’s just one offer and then done. Rather, it seems to be open, waiting for as many of his sons and workers as possible to join in on the fun.

That father, you see, realizes what’s bound to happen at some point: the first son will realize it’s better to work in the vineyard, even if he insulted and defied that father in the first place. That father understands that eventually his children will realize that although his authority is firm and clear, it is exercised graciously and in a loving manner. That father understands that it will dawn on his children at some point that his power is made known in his compassion, that, to quote Jesus in an earlier scene, he desires mercy, not sacrifice.

As for the tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus tells the dutiful religious authorities (who have said “Yes,” to God’s authority so many times but then never follow through), they and the other sinners may have publicly chosen a life that rejects God’s desires, but they are changing their minds and responding to their Father’s invitation and guess what: they’re probably loving the chance to go back and work in the vineyard.

This peculiar father and the way he allows admittance to his vineyard is the very father Jesus has come to represent. This peculiar way of showing authority—by suffering with patience and dying to show compassion—is the very way our God demonstrates his love for us on the cross. Eventually we will understand, through faith, that his kingdom is open to us, and it’s not so much the issue that any of us has to live under his authority, but that we get to. We get to say, “That kingdom is really where I want to be—and because of Jesus, I may be there.”

For Scripture assures us, that’s bound to happen at some point too. One day every knee—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—shall bow and every tongue will confess his authority. We’ll reach that final level, so to speak, to find him there before us: he who submitted to the worst of our earthly authorities—our torture, our coercive ways, our despicable violence, the dubious nature of all our tendencies of human power—he will be the final authority. All of creation will answer to him and wrestle with his justice…and there will be no tricky responses that will enable us to wiggle our way out of it. At some point, it’s bound to happen. He will be ours to confess, no matter how many times we’ve denied it beforehand.

So, in the meantime, let’s give some thought to that vineyard. It’s better to be in there right now anyway, under the authority of a father who, for the time-being, is leaving the gate open for one and all.

 


 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist - September 21, 2014 (Matthew 9:9-13)


 
Heard any good news lately? I mean, really. It seems that all we get anymore is bad news. At a local level, if we’re not trying to stomach the sordid details in the trial of our former governor and his wife, we’re bracing ourselves for more terrible and ominous news from Charlottesville and the disappearance of UVA student Hannah Graham. At a national or global level, things aren’t any better. Take your pick—the cost of health care, the spread of Ebola, the bloody wars and hostage-crises in the Middle East—no matter where you look it’s just more bad news. And that’s not even including some of the football scores from yesterday!

In all seriousness, the steady diet of bad news we receive from our papers and podcasts and TV programs is probably due to the fact that reports of horrific crimes and salacious scandals sell the best advertising. Nevertheless, with all the turmoil and tragedy around us, you think we’d know a piece of good news if we came across it. You’d think we’d be able to seize upon one of those instances of the noble and decent and be able to share it with others just as instantaneously.

"The Calling of Matthew" Reymerswaile (1536)
In the New Testament, the law-loving Pharisees come across good news several times and they don’t…or they can’t. It happens right under their nose, and they don’t see it. Instead, they question it and criticize it. Like a Palestinian TMZ, they seize upon it as another scandal, another sensational affair that needs to be lampooned: Jesus, the upstart rabbi from Nazareth, the one who announces the kingdom of heaven is at hand, is—get this!—reclining at table with people who are anything but acceptable! That’s actually good news in action, right there. Fresh-off-the-presses, ink-still-wet good news. In fact, Jesus’ strange table fellowship that morning in Capernaum after he calls Matthew from the tax booth is the beginning of the most amazing kind of news possible, but the Pharisees are too caught up in their conventions of religion and piety to see it and understand what’s happening. They’re too stuck on the letter of the law to see that God’s kingdom is breaking in right in front of them.

You see, tax collectors were about the last possible people one could imagine being called into God’s service. First of all, they handled money—the emperor’s money. Not only did that technically make Matthew an agent of the occupying power, but the handling of money was also unclean. Second of all, tax collectors were seen as making a living off of other people’s hard work. Some scholars think that Matthew was actually a toll collector, which is more like a deputy tax collector, or a franchisee. He was employed by someone who had purchased from Caesar the rights to exact commerce fees from tradesmen in a certain geographical district. Anytime someone came into his little zone to peddle something, they would have had to report to Matthew’s booth to pay some tribute. Like a TSA or customs agent today, he’d rifle through their wares to assess the value and bully people into paying up. It was really rough work, hassling these merchants for Caesar’s cut, and it was widely thought that riff-raff like Matthew were toll collectors because they couldn’t really get another job.

"The Calling of St. Matthew" Terbrugghen (1616)
That Jesus would call someone like a tax collector to come and follow was ludicrous—like the kingdom of heaven was scraping the bottom of the barrel. And then for Jesus to go and eat around a table with Matthew and a whole assortment of riff-raff was downright detestable. Bad news. What a scoop of dirt on Jesus.

On the other hand, one can see how Matthew would jump at the opportunity to follow Jesus and listen to what he is talking about. In other words, Matthew knows good news when it hits him, and Jesus’ call to leave that infernal tax booth was the best news he’d ever received. Up until now, the riches of God’s mercy were off-limits to people like him because he just didn’t make the cut. Up until now, the joy of living in God’s kingdom was something he’d never get to experience because he was an outcast. But Jesus had changed all that. He came to call not the righteous—not the people who thought they had it all figured out, but those who were ever aware of their detestable-ness.

This is good news. It is good news that God wants to scrape the bottom of the barrel. It means that in Jesus God is opening up a new future for those whom the religious elites have written off long ago. It means God’s kingdom is now bringing in all types people who have had to resort to living up to whatever awful label the world has given them, or they’ve given themselves. It means that God’s kingdom is open to sinners and that furthermore that sinners can be changed, not through the applied force of God’s law and following rules, but through Jesus’ granting of unbounded mercy.

Naumberg Cathedral (c. 1250)
Matthew would want us to take note of an important distinction here: the good news of Jesus Christ is not that God has declared that being a ruthless tax collector is now acceptable, as if in God’s kingdom people get to go on being tax collectors and prostitutes or other things that degrade and diminish humanity. Could you imagine that? That wouldn’t be good news to a tax collector like Matthew at all, or to any sinner, for that matter. The tax collector wants out of his social quagmire, out from behind his booth.

Rather, the good news that Jesus brings is that the kingdom of heaven is now open to all people, because mercy is available to all people, especially those who know they don’t deserve it. Because of Christ, sinners like Matthew—and like you and me!—may envision and grasp a future where our sin does not always define us, even though it still may cling to us so tightly. Because of the life and death of Jesus, we now have hope that the demoralizing power of sin will not always have its way. It will be nailed to the cross and left to die. God’s mercy shown in Jesus wipes sin away and any time Jesus strolls into our midst—whether in his Word or around his very presence in this table for sinners here—the news is good because he has the power to turn us to life in him.

It’s almost never a quick turning, and Martin Luther understood it was something that happened daily, over and over again, not once in life time, not once you say a special prayer. With that in mind, any congregation of Christians must learn to see itself as a place where space can be made for the new people who are being called by that mercy, the new Matthews (and the old ones!) who are hearing and wanting to engage the person who has opened up a new future for them. One key to doing that is for those who are already at the table to remember that they’re all sinners, too. It is to remember that the very presence of this community is always good news, something to seize upon, for here the kingdom of heaven is breaking in.

The congregation I served in Pittsburgh held a brief Holy Communion liturgy every Wednesday evening. It was attended by the same five to ten diehards every week, and in the summer months, we’d bring our folding chairs and small altar table outside on the lawn with the hopes that people would see us and join our ranks, but to my knowledge few ever did. One early fall evening—in fact, I remember it was September 21, the festival of St. Matthew—we decided it was a little too cool and dark to be outside, so we just stayed in the sanctuary. We left the big red front doors to the church open, however, thinking that even if the sound of our piano didn’t echo out onto the busy street, at least we had made ourselves look welcoming.

We had just heard this same gospel lesson about Matthew and Jesus table for all sinners. I had offered a brief meditation, and that simple little wooden table we used as an altar was ready to go for Holy Communion. When the proper time came, the worshippers got up from their pews and, being so small in number, stood shoulder to shoulder to form one tight semicircle around the altar at the head of the main aisle, their backs to the front door far behind them.

Right as I was breaking the bread, something caught my eye in the evening sunlight. Lo and behold, walking down the aisle straight toward our communion table was a woman from off the street. She was shuffling along unevenly, laden with several bags from the Dollar Store, but clearly making a bee-line for communion. Although I didn’t know her name, I recognized her. She was one of the residents of our eclectic little borough who might not have been technically homeless, but seemed to spend her days wandering around almost shadowlike along the sidewalks, not really talking to anyone or doing anything. Something had summoned her off the street and to our table at that very moment, as if she were one of St. Matthew’s old friends, testing us, testing to see if we thought this was still good news. I was in the middle of a prayer, my hands occupied with the chalice and loaf, so I couldn’t really respond, but the worshippers caught sight this strange newcomer, heard the plastic bags brushing her body down the aisle, and instinctively opened up a break in the semicircle and let her stand right there among them, no longer in the shadows. She took the bread and the wine, and we spoke briefly with her after worship. We only saw her a few other times, but she brought friends with her, a few fellow sidewalk pacers who saw the open door.

In that strange, microcosmic moment I believe we were all reminded again that this is good news. We were shown again that this is how this particular gospel works, and how a congregation that is properly gathered around it is transformed to share it, to open up the semicircle just a little bit more for everyone. The kingdom came crashing in, once more. That any of us were there at all is due to the fact that God scrapes the bottom of the barrel.

Oh, that we would be so moved to announce the grace and make room so instinctively in every instance! Oh, that we not be Pharisees that overlook it. Mercy is the name of this God’s game, not sacrifice.  Tax collectors, sinners…all kinds of outsiders can now be in. Come to think of it, there really is no outside or “inside” anymore. The cross has opened the door to the street.

Come, now: in a steady stream of so much bad—I mean, really!—is this not the greatest news you’ve ever heard?

Matthew is often depicted with the gospel that bears his name.
                       

Thanks be to God!

 

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.