Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 1B] - July 19, 2015 (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56)


 
Last week at both worship services, just before the dismissal, we commissioned the members of our high school youth group and their adult leaders who are attending the ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit. Due to simple forgetfulness, one key person was left out of that commissioning. A member of our congregation, Dr. Kim Yucha, is also in Detroit with the ELCA Youth Gathering this week. But Dr. Yucha (as I know her, because she is my children’s pediatrician), is not in Detroit as a part of the Epiphany delegation, which is why she slipped my brain. Dr. Yucha is in Detroit as one of two physicians and two other trained medical personnel hired by the ELCA who are on-call the entire week, tending to the medical needs of the 30,000 gathering participants.

That’s right! Dr. Yucha has 30,000 patients this week, all of whom are running around and doing service projects with sharp implements in 90-degree weather on limited sleep. Come to think of it, Dr. Yucha didn’t need to be commissioned last week! She needed to have her head examined!

In all seriousness, if you know Kim, you know her intense love for children and youth and you know her desire to serve the Lord. For her, this week is a special opportunity to unite those two passions, and I don’t know if we’re supposed to feel honored about this or not, but I do: we attend one of only two congregations in the ELCA who has a doctor at the Gathering.

10,000 ELCA Youth departing for service projects from Hart Plaza in Detroit
as part of the Rise Up ELCA Youth Gathering in 2015
I called Dr. Yucha yesterday and asked her what it was like. She had just gotten through the afternoon de-briefing. She said her day begins at 7:00am when she reports to the launch sites where 10,000 youth are loaded onto busses for their service project. After several hours there, she reports to the First Aid desk at the Cobo Center where she deals with whatever is presented to her. So far they’ve had to deal with a diabetic seizure for a girl whose blood sugar got too low. She’s had to remove a twig that got jammed a few inches into a youth’s arm just above the elbow. There have been numerous strains and sprains, cases of poison ivy, allergic reactions, panic attacks, nosebleeds, and lots of abdominal pain from being constipated due to dehydration. But the worst thing she said she had to attend to was an adult leader who was walking by a volleyball game and got bonked on the head, fell backwards into a wall and sustained a concussion. “It’s just like a revolving door,” Kim told me, “you send one out and another one comes right in.”

Can’t you imagine that’s what it’s like for Jesus in this gospel lesson from today? A revolving door, in each city, town and farm he comes to. He comes to the marketplace, that open area at the center of each community where the business and commerce of each day occurred, and as soon as he sends one off, here comes another. Just think of all the stories of these nameless, faceless people, begging just to touch the edge of his sleeve or where the tunic trails along the ground. It’s so easy to lump them in all by the thousands, like Mark does as he tells it, perhaps because Mark doesn’t have the time or the stamina to do so or, in fact, he doesn’t know who they are, either. Or, if he did, he’s going to run out of papyrus to put them all down, but each of these people has a story, has suffering.

Here comes a young boy clutching his ear. It’s been throbbing for days, and he can tell he’s already begun to lose his hearing. Ruptured eardrum, maybe.

Just behind him is a woman who is staggering along because her left side has gone numb, including her face. Could it have been a stroke? She’s also staggering along because no one will help her, afraid to touch her because they think she’ll give them whatever it is she’s got.

Jesus reaches out for her, and just when he does, someone else’s arm spins him around from behind. Standing there is what looks like a family, and they’re dragging with them on a mat their aged patriarch—maybe he’s an uncle, or perhaps the grandfather—who just stares blankly into space, gasping for air with congestive heart failure. They honestly think he could go at any minute.

They go on and on like this, one after the other. And as soon as one is healed, it spurs another two or three standing on the sidelines with hope. They push themselves forward, too, to this mysteriously holy figure who doesn’t have any bodyguard of any kind.

Jesus can’t escape it. He had tried to get away with his buddies for a little while to re-charge, to regenerate—a little power-nap, at the very least—but they just keep coming. What has he gotten himself into? What has the Spirit commissioned him for? Perhaps even he begins thinking he needs his head examined.

We are not even half of the way into Mark’s story of Jesus and this is what ministry has become for him. What used to be isolated incidents of healing is now just one mass of humanity crushing in on him. He is no longer anonymous. We can assume everyone knows what he looks like, and even if they don’t, he’s unmistakable because there’s always a crowd with him. Or should we say there’s always a flock with him, for that is how he’s starting to see himself: a shepherd amongst a great sea of sheep who are wandering aimlessly.

What changes Jesus here from a teacher and healer who is here to announce the kingdom of God into a shepherd-leader who begins to gather and lead all the people is compassion. In fact, Jesus’ compassion takes center stage. It is the key tool at his disposal that steadily begins to deal with this revolving door of human pain.

Interestingly enough, for both the Hebrews and the Greeks, the word for “compassion” contains vivid connotations. We don’t have that aspect of the word in English. In fact, the word itself is rather blank of meaning, unless you know Latin. “Com” means “with” and “passion” is the word for “suffering,” so compassion means to suffer with someone, which I suppose is fairly evocative, but nothing like the Hebrew or Greek. In Hebrew it shares the root for uterus, and in Greek compassion shares the root for intestines. In either case, the ancients recognized and described it as a feeling that originates in the very center of your being, that which twists and turns with the very movement of life.  Compassion, then, is that panig in the stomach when identifying with someone in their situation, that nervous clinching you get when you see someone in trouble…the deepest part of you reaching out to the deepest part of someone else.

Compassion is what is driving Jesus here, not a desire to be right or to gain fame and fortune. So much of Christian theology talks about a Jesus who suffers on the cross for us, or in place of us, or on account of us, but here we get a powerful glimpse of a God who is suffering with us, alongside of us, who’s very innards are clinching up when he sees us. Here in Galilee we get a preview of a man who is going to shelve his own deep need to rest and relax in order to grasp the hands that keep pulling at him, the kind of hands that will later rise up in frustration and anger to nail him to the cross because compassion is disappointing when you want power, aggression. Compassion is a let-down when you are convinced that the only truly worthwhile change in the world is accomplished by intelligence or cleverness or wealth or violence. But Christlike compassion is what gathers the masses, heals the wounded soul, and eventually opens the tomb to new life.

At the beginning of the month the world saw the death at age 106 of Nicholas Winton, a British man who was rather average in terms of his schooling, career, and background. He never would have received the long list of honors and distinctions that he did, including being knighted by the British Empire if it weren’t for a giant opportunity for compassion that essentially fell in his lap when on vacation in Czechoslovakia. Dozens of starving, shivering children, most of them Jewish, and most of them orphans, began knocking on his hotel door at 6am, hoping he could somehow relocate them to safety before the Nazis would invade and send them to the camps.

Winton, who was a stockbroker by trade, began lining up homes for them in England, working inauspiciously from a desk in the lobby of the Hotel Europa. Over the next few months, just before the start of World War II, he managed to save 669 of them. He never said anything about this act of compassion to anyone until it was discovered fifty years after the fact when a scrapbook about it was unearthed in his attic. As he saw himself, he was born and raised as just one of the masses, had no great career, was no more prone to heroism than anyone else, but one act of compassion propelled him to the highest honors his country could offer and a his own humble monument that will stand forever in the Prague train station where all those kids left from, a simple bronze statue of him standing next to a suitcase, a young boy in one arm over his shoulder and a girl beside him.

Marines are shot dead by a disturbed extremist in Chattanooga. Thousands of children and youth huddle at the border in Texas, willing to risk their ten-year-old lives to escape gang violence in their Central American homes. High numbers of children in Richmond and Henrico County are in need of free and reduced meals at their schools. We don’t need to the experience of Nicholas Winton or Kim Yucha to experience the broken wandering of humanity. The suffering of the world is immense, but the good news is that God has provided the compassion in his Son to combat it.

And, brothers and sisters, each Sunday we are commissioned. We are commissioned by God’s own suffering Son to be a church that is recognizable out there because of its compassion. Weekly we stand or kneel at this altar and are called, sore and wounded though we are, to be apostles who go out into the world and view other people as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”[1] We are forgiven and healed, to be people who even set aside our agendas, our stereotypes, our instincts of self-preservation in order to let our very guts speak and show Christ’s compassion—so much so, in fact, that people may wonder from time to time if we need our heads examined.

 

Thanks be to God!

 

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

 



[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 10B] - July 12, 2015 (Amos 7:7-15 and Ephesians 1:3-14)


 
There is a shelf in my office where I keep some of my old children’s sermon props. My daughters like to come in and play with them from time to time. I have a small bottle of mustard seeds there, some large sea shells, a head lamp, and a wooden cross that fits easily in your hand. Far and away the object that produces the most curiosity is an old plumb bob attached to a long string. It’s a plumb line. It’s probably the most plain, simplistic item there, but for some reason the most irresistible to hold and play with. I bought the plumb bob years ago when I was in a small hardware store looking for something else. With all the conveniences that modern technology provides, I figured the plumb line was probably obsolete by now, given all the advances in technology, but there it was on one of the aisles. It ran me about $4, if I remember correctly.

The best part about this plumb line, though, was the message contained on its package, which had been written in three different languages. It read:  

SATISFACTION GUARANTEED. If for any reason you are not completely satisfied with the performance or results of this MasterMechanic product, it will be repaired or replaced free of charge. Simply provide proof of purchase and return the product and/or unused portion to your nearby place of purchase.”

For a plumb line?? I realize that this is probably just a pre-printed quality control message slapped on all of the MasterMechanic products, but it sounds really silly on a plumb line. It has no moving parts that can break. It doesn’t run on electricity. It runs, after all, on gravity…that’s it! As long as you’re using it on earth, it always works! In fact, if you use the plumb line and you’re not satisfied with the results, guess who’s malfunctioning?

That was the cold, hard truth that Israel was confronted with in the 8th century when the prophet Amos was speaking. They were having to come to terms with how their building process—that is, the building of a righteous and compassionate kingdom—was malfunctioning. God was going to set a plumb line in the midst of their society, in the midst of their temple religion, in the midst of their communities in order to show them just how crooked and out of whack they’d become. Amos’ words were that plumb line, words that revealed the truth of God’s righteousness and justice. And when they are held up to the whole structure of the kingdom of Israel’s being, their lack of integrity will be unmistakable.

And the chief priest Amaziah and King Jeroboam probably know that. They are the ones in power, and as is so often the case in human affairs, the ones who are in power usually benefit from its misuse. They have a lot to lose from listening to Amos’ message. The corruption of government and the empty, showy nothingness of the religion they lead will be clearly revealed if Amos is allowed to speak too much. His words will reveal how Israel had forgotten to take care of the poor, how they had turned their worship of God into a worship of material success. Their minds are filled with the dreams of what they want to be and become, instead of the compassionate people God had created and redeemed them to be.

"Amos the Prophet" (James Tissot)
And so what do Amaziah and Jeroboam do? They blame the plumb line! They actually try to take up the Master Mechanic product guarantee on its word and send it back, get a refund.  So they send Amos away. They do with this prophet what we are so often tempted to do with people who tell a truth we don’t like to hear. They tell Amos to take his message down to the southern kingdom of Judah and set it instead in the midst of them. See how your plumb line fares down there, ol’ Amos! They’re bad off!

Of course, crooked walls fall pretty quickly. Within just a few decades, Jeroboam’s kingdom of Israel would be so weakened by its corruption and injustice that it would quickly fall victim to the marauding armies of Assyria and they are wiped off the map for good.

The image of Amos’ plumb line only appears once more in Scripture,  I believe, but it has always been an effective tool for people who try to speak out against corruption, especially of the religious and political kind. The point that Amos drives home, perhaps more than any other prophet, is that when God applies God’s standards of justice with compassion to God’s people eventually God’s people should end up with a society that embodies that justice with compassion. Yet instead, because of greed and selfishness, God’s people so often end up with some warped, misshapen version of that justice and compassion, and it eventually effects everyone, from the poor on up. Amos, as it turns out, has it good. He just gets ignored and sent away. Look at what happens to John the Baptist when he tries to hold a plumb line up to Herod and his corruption!

While the people of God never see this precise vision of God’s plumb line again, God does eventually set in their midst a living plumb line, a living standard by which they may judge themselves. Jesus of Nazareth, the second person of the Holy Trinity, becomes flesh among us as a human plumb line, faithfully telling the truth about who God is and who we are and what we are to be. As the writer of Ephesians so eloquently describes it in our second lesson today, “with all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ.”

In Jesus God reveals for us the final and full measure of not only the mystery of God’s essence but also of God’s goal. And just as a plumb line works on gravity, Jesus works on grace. Just as a plumb line determines a building’s integrity, so does the cross of Christ reveal the integrity both our own and God’s own. On the one hand, it is judgment, exposing that things like racism and human trafficking and disregard for the poor live among us. But the cross of Christ is also grace because it reveals that God refuses to let his creatures live this way. God refuses to give us over to that completely. Because of the cross of Jesus, we know God stands among us with forgiveness, never-ending love, and bold humility so that we may be built right again.

I imagine that members of our youth group, in their journey to Detroit this week, will experience God standing in the midst of what many believe to be a city crumbling as a result of its own faulty construction. I remember in 2009 when the ELCA Youth Gathering was first held in New Orleans, four short years after it had been leveled by Hurricane Katrina, people wondered why in the world we were sending youth into such a tumble-down city. The result exceeded everyone’s imagination. We saw God’s standard of judgment and grace refashioning and rebuilding a city as it was happening, refashioning our own hearts in the process. That year our youth group was responsible for organizing and running a field day for an inner city children’s organization. Every single one of the 400 kids we played games with for five hours in the heat was from a different racial and economic group than our white, middle class suburban congregation. All kinds of stereotypes started colliding with each other to give way to a very peaceful and fun-filled day. Going into that neighborhood and hearing their stories planted a seed in our youth for the ways in which their own city and high schools right here might suffer from racial and economic inequalities.

At one former Youth Gathering I remember hearing from a speaker named Emanuel Yeboah from the African country of Ghana. Due to a birth defect, Emanuel had been born with only one leg. In Ghana, as in so many countries, including our own, people with any handicap or physical limitation are viewed much like the poor were in Amos’ day: inferior, cast aside and left to fend for themselves. Emanuel, knowing that was wrong, seeing that the walls of society looked very crooked in that regard, decided to learn to ride a bike. He practiced and got in shape and proceeded to bicycle across the entire nation of Ghana with his one leg. He explained that as he came through the villages, people flocked to him, bringing their sick and disabled people to see what a person like them could do. Most importantly, though, he showed the people who had two legs that people like Emanuel had value. God loves people like Emanuel no less than God loves anyone else. You could say that Emanuel became a plumb line in the manner of Christ, telling the truth, the unmistakable truth. Emanuel’s journey was a gift, laying waste to all the misconceptions about people who are different, lifting up the weak as instruments in this world.

It is wonderful to have the opportunity to travel to Detroit or New Orleans to have these experiences, but let us not forget that God applies his gracious standard to us here weekly, in this place. Let Dylan’s own story be an example of that. He came to our congregation through the invitation of some friends in our Lutheran Campus Ministry program at the University of Richmond. He had grown up relatively unchurched, but after a lot of wrestling with matters of faith during those college years, slowly began to open up to the way Christ was being revealed to him, that God was incorporating him into Jesus’ kingdom, especially in this place. And today that journey enters the waters of baptism, and Dylan is built anew.

Each time we gather at this table, or see someone come through these waters, each time someone reads from that lectern, we are given the opportunity to see the grace of that cross in our lives, and the opportunity to be build anew. Each time we worship God refashions us according to the standard God has set for us. And then we can turn around and build our relationships with others, in our communities, in our world…

And when it comes to our worth in God’s eyes and our sense of integrity as this kingdom is constructed in and around us, we never have to worry about the result. With Jesus on the cross, we know God’s satisfaction is…guaranteed.

 
Thanks be to God!

 
Commissioning the Epiphany Youth for the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 7B] - June 21, 2015 (Mark 4:35-41)


“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

I don’t know about you, but I feel as if that’s the cry of a lot of people around us lately. It comes from the lips of those who feel things are out of control, those who are weary of the suffering and the whirling, swirling unknown, and those who sense the reality of death is beating down on them. It is often, for example, the question that Stephen Ministers are trained to hear in the words of their care-receivers, people who long to be assured of God’s guidance, and we celebrate their service this morning.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

It’s been the cry, I would imagine, of those who are weathering the storm of a cancer diagnosis, and our congregation’s prayer list happens to be full of them at the moment. We are no doubt amazed and inspired by their faith and confidence in the face of it all, but as some point they must feel the pressure of the disease’s whirlwind. The carousel of doctor appointments, the rounds of chemo and radiation, the infernal waiting for the next scan’s results: it can all start to feel like waves that are beating into the boat. Patients and the ones who pray for them cry out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are persishing?”

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

My God, it must have been the cry of those in the Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, on Sunday night. Like they had done so many times before, they had simply gotten in a boat to cross the calm sea of Galilee in that church basement with the hopes of learning a little more from their Teacher. They welcomed in a stranger, a guest, into their boat—a young man who, unbeknownst to them, was carrying a gun. The participants in the Bible study warmly made room for him, just as Christ would have asked them to—just as we, in fact, often welcome newcomers into our Bible studies and Sunday School classes and worship services. They had no doubt opened their hearts, shared their faith, their hopes with him but then the guest, whose middle name of all things happens to be Storm, unleashed his anger and bullets.

"Mother" Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC
As it turns out, he had not come to study or share.  He had come to kill with waves of violence and racism and hatred that could not be contained. In their boat. As the attack concluded and the ambulances arrived, surely the question on the lips of the survivors was similar to the one that has been uttered by so many of us as we learn about it:“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

In many ways, that could be the cry of our whole nation right now, if we’re listening close enough. It’s not just in the anguished cries of this most recent incident where we hear it. It echoes in the violence of Ferguson and Baltimore, in the church in south Richmond that has had to employ an off-duty officer every Sunday since 2006 for fear of a racially-motivated attack. It is evident in every tension created by the prejudice and privilege that still stain our country and from which people like I benefit.

Our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said it very well this week in her letter about to the recent events, “[The Charleston shooting] is not an isolated event. Even if the shooter was unstable, the framework upon which he built his vision of race is not. Racism is a fact in American culture. Denial and avoidance of this fact are deadly.”

Yes, they are deadly waves that might just spill over and sink our boat, or at the very least slow it down permanently. Racism is just like waves on a storm-tossed sea. It doesn't just affect people of certain skin color or background. In the end, everyone gets wet. In the end, it diminishes all of us, and everyone is in danger of being thrown overboard by the unrest and injustice it creates. As the heated debates begin to rage about how we can solve problems like this either with more gun control or less gun control, by bringing down the Confederate flag or keeping it up, some of us are just left bailing water and wondering, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

In the ancient worldview that the disciples and the first followers of Christ would have lived with, the sea was a symbol for chaos and danger. Although it provided them food and some form of transportation, the ocean was ultimately something that could never really be explained, and certainly never, ever controlled. The only hope one had in dealing with the ocean (and total chaos) was a higher power. God alone had established command over the waters at creation to bring about order and beauty. God alone had saved the Israelites by subduing the waters of the Red Sea. God alone had navigated Jonah through the waters to the place he needed to go.

The Sea of Galilee, where Jesus begins his ministry, is but a small drop of water compared with the vast ocean, but it was still subject to the same unpredictability and peril.

Storms could blow up without warning, and if they did, there were no lifejackets or emergency flares. You went under and didn’t come back up.

And, so, when the disciples find themselves at the mercy of a sudden storm, they begin to panic. They turn to their Teacher only to find him sleeping. I could be wrong here, but I don’t think they turn to him with the hopes he can do something about it. As a mere human, he would be susceptible to the same dangers that they are. They turn to him because they’re stupefied: how in the world can someone remain that non-anxious as the situation is going down the tubes?

It is natural to wonder where God is when things are going down the tubes…to wonder if God is listening, is God is paying attention to the fact that our boat is sinking, that the bullets are flying. One of my seminary professors liked to use an acronym to help us think things through—this was a professor, coincidentally that Pastor Joseph also had, as did Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel AME Church who died this week in Charleston, since we all went to seminary around the same time. The acronym was WIGIAT, and it stood for “Where is God in all this?” We were encouraged to ask it in any situation, especially ones that distressed us and those we were serving.

I’ll be honest: I not sure I ever really got the hang of it. Nevertheless, I found WIGIAT—“Where is God in all this?”—to, at the very least, slow down my rush to worry or panic. Thankfully, I have found that some of you are incredibly gifted at asking this question and finding the answer amidst the storms of your lives. But WIGIAT or not, panic and fear still overwhelm us from time to time. And it’s typically even more counterproductive when people tell me I shouldn’t give in to the fright, that it only makes things worse, that it reveals my doubt and weakness. Panic doesn’t help us hear God’s voice, but sometimes there’s just nothing we can do about that.

Another thing we know doesn’t help when we’re wondering about God’s presence in difficult times is the offering of pat answers. Could you imagine how unhelpful it would have been if the disciples, scared to death of what was happening, helpless against the waves that battered their boat, had awakened the sleeping Jesus and he stood up and said, “Friends. Calm down. Everything happens for a reason.”

Or, better yet, if they had nudged Jesus to get off his cushion and he had stood up and said, “Boys, easy now. God never gives anyone more than they can handle”?

Panic, pat answers…they come so easily to feeble people like us, especially when the waves start to rise. Despite our better efforts, our response is often fear and empty words that do nothing but make the boat rock more. Perhaps the one thing, then, that we can take from this story…from the events in Charleston…from the events of our lives when we start to wonder where God is and whether God hears us…is that when Jesus first wakes up, he doesn’t bother speaking to the disciples.

Jesus speaks to the storm.

His first words are not for us, but for danger that threatens us. He begins by confronting the evil before he talks to us because that is what Jesus came to do. He came primarily to silence the evil.

"Christ on the cross" (Albrecht Duerer)
The one in the boat with us, as it turns out, happens to be the one who had navigated Jonah, the one who saved the Israelites, the one who tamed the primordial chaos. And he is the one who, on the cross, will throw himself into it all—the chaos, the evil, our panic, our doubt—in order to demonstrate his ultimate power over it. As we fret and worry only about us, Jesus is stilling the forces of destruction in ways we do not immediately perceive. Through his own death and resurrection, Jesus conquers evil with a humble method we are often too blinded by fear to see.

One thing that is coming to light about the events this week in Charleston is just how connected we all are in this boat of life, how one action of evil or grace can so profoundly reveal our commonalities. We know now that the shooter and his family were members of a Lutheran church in Columbia and at one point had even attended confirmation camp with his youth group. We also know that Clementa Pinckney was a graduate of the Lutheran seminary in South Carolina. What I’ve also learned is that Pastor Pinckney, while on duty as a state legislator in Columbia this past February, attended Ash Wednesday worship at the shooter’s congregation. The pastor of that congregation—that same pastor currently tending to Dylann’s family—shared on Facebook last night—that he remembers placing the ashen cross on Pinckney’s forehead that day.

The human experience, with all its frailness and fear, with its cancer and calamities, its ash and blood, is too much to bear at times, but we have a God who connects us all through the cross. We worship a Father who has given his own Son to suffer with us. And have a Teacher who is apparently already assisting his victims, amidst their pain to forgive and be reconciled. There's that power really defeats evil.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

When all is said and done, let us discover that his cross has been traced upon us, too, and that even the wind and sea, the hatred and the violence, the chaos of death and yes, the life—the blessed, blessed life—obey him.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 6B] - June 14, 2015 (Mark 4:26-34)


 
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?”

The kingdom of God is as if the parent would put the 5-year-old on the school bus one autumn for his first day of kindergarten, and would sleep and rise night and day, packing lunches each morning and helping with homework afternoon, and the kid would develop and grow, the parent does not know how. The pictures are even there on the refrigerator but the growth still seems like a mystery: the child produces of itself first the lost tooth in 1st grade school photo, then the piano recital in 4th grade, then the cotillion dance and confirmation at church, then somehow the last exam of senior year. But when the child is ready and done with grade school, the principal comes in with the diploma and the scholarship to college, the marching orders for the military, because graduation time has come. That’s what the kingdom of God is like.

And another parable: The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter a few dozen Lutherans at the far end of the dirt and gravel section of Monument Avenue in Richmond. At its start it is one of the smallest congregations around, with a budget and staff to match. They have no money for a sanctuary, and instead scrape by, cramming worship services, Sunday School classes, and the pastor’s residence into an old run-down farmhouse. People in the heart of Richmond repeatedly wonder aloud, “Who’s going to go worship way out there?”

But sixty-three years, seven pastors and one diaconal minister later, they are one of the largest of all Synod congregations. It puts forth many strong ministries which branch into the community and lives of its members. It supports two food pantries, regularly houses people who are homeless, and makes hundreds of quilts each year for an international relief organization. Children and youth and adults of all ages are able to find a church home in its shade. And the branches keep growing: the congregation appoints a long-range Planning Team to help them look into the future and wonder where else the small but powerful seed of God’s word needs to be planted. That’s what the kingdom of God is like.

And another one: the kingdom of God is like a small, struggling congregation that has voted to close its doors and worship as a community for one last time. They look back on their glory years with thankfulness but nostalgia. The memories of filled sanctuaries and vibrant ministries are sweet to recall, some of which include a young pastor from North Carolina, fresh out of seminary, who meets his wife and begins his family among them. But now they feel so small, lost, and they wonder what will become of their church building, their witness in the wider community but a flicker of what it once was. Yet, their faith still grows within each of them, nourished by God’s Word and the sacraments, and they miraculously move beyond their sadness and bitterness to join and become active members of other local congregations, where they share their gifts that had been honed all those years. Their new congregation homes flourish and thrive with this influx of new faces. New possibilities for ministries open up. Energy and fresh vision emerge that produce branches of gospel shelter that engage the neighborhoods around them. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, too.

With many such parables Jesus spoke—and still speaks—the word to his disciples, in order to illustrate the growth and character of God’s kingdom. With images and symbols that his disciples would experience in everyday life, Jesus teaches to explain that the kingdom of God operates and in ways that are usually in tension with the world and with our own selves.

You see, whereas in our kingdoms we would desire total command of things, God’s kingdom is up to forces beyond our control.

Whereas we prefer foreknowledge of what’s going to happen, a glimpse of the final product before it gets here, the kingdom Jesus leads is full of surprise.

Whereas we like to calculate and measure everything, if possible, the kingdom God runs amok with branches and nests and things that defy being counted.

And whereas we are impressed with grandiosity and extravagance, brute force and pizazz—“Hit ‘em with a brick! #MakeAStatement!—God’s reign likes to start small. And silent. And move kind of slow.

In Jesus’ time, the metaphors that worked best in describing this were agricultural ones that might be a little distant to us now. People back then knew what mustard seeds looked like and were familiar with the bushy plant it turned into. Likewise, no farmer really understood the complicated workings of cellular mitosis and photosynthesis. They just knew that they scattered the seeds in the ground and they just did what they were supposed to do without much effort from the farmer until the very end. These aspects helped his disciples understand that God’s kingdom in and around us involves a growth that is not always easy to perceive. And in the case of the mustard seed, in particular, the parable was a lesson that we should never judge the kingdom’s strength and effectiveness by what it looks like or feels like, especially at its outset, because its size and significance will not impress us.

But it goes farther: Jesus also means to show that the end results of God’s kingdom activity are not always what we think they’ll be. Think about it: a farmer usually plants mustard seeds in order to make mustard, and maybe get more seeds in the process, not in order to attract birds. (Well, some crazy people nowadays might plant mustard in order to attract birds, but probably not first century middle eastern farmers!). But that is part of the surprise element of God’s kingdom. What God is working toward with his kingdom and all of its occurrences along the way is not always what we would imagine.

But as foreign as these agricultural metaphors might be to us now, what I actually think we have the hardest time grasping these days is the concept of the kingdom of God itself. Because when we think kingdom, we often think place. We think boundaries. We think castle and armies and power. Maybe some of us think of clouds and some dimension we go after we die. But Jesus’ parables illustrate that God’s kingdom is not exactly any one of those. It is, rather, an occurrence, a happening, any time or any place where God’s love in Jesus reigns supreme.

And those times and places can be anywhere. God’s love has a secret power that can conquer any darkness, a hidden love that can triumph over any suffering. And typically it takes over slowly and without any grand power or force. Jesus will eventually move away from parables to explain it. He will show it himself on the cross. I think every one of us would be unimpressed with that tree and doubt the power that lies within it. Much like we would regard the small mustard seed, we would dismiss the cross of Jesus at the outset: a sign of weakness, a symbol of shame. But nevertheless we would be unaware of how wide its branches would become…branches wide enough for a dying Savior to stretch out his arms and provide shelter for every sinner on the planet. Through Jesus’ own death, God’s kingdom of mercy and peace will prosper in ways we could never imagine at the outset. First the stalk, then the head, then the full harvest of a faith that trusts in God’s eternal life.

At the Virginia Synod Assembly last weekend we heard the true story of one of our former Presiding Bishop’s trips abroad a few years ago. Mark Hanson had taken a group of people from our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to China in order to meet up with leaders of the Chinese church and learn about how we can accompany them. What they found everywhere they went was that the church was growing faster and becoming more vibrant than they ever imagined. In fact, our speaker last weekend explained in no uncertain terms that it is difficult for the ELCA to keep track of the growth of the church in China, even as the government remains suspicious of Christianity, knocking down crosses and churches on a periodic basis.

One story our speaker shared with us about that trip involved the ELCA contingent’s visit to a church that was being rededicated in the city of Luzho. The church had actually been founded decades before when western Christian missionaries first arrived in that province, but the congregation had been expelled during the Cultural Revolution and the building had been used as a prison. Now the prisoners had been released and removed and the congregation was moving back in. The service that day, we heard, was absolutely packed. In the pews on the floor, people were squeezed in like sardines, and many of the elderly who were worshiping that day had served time in that very building when it was a prison.

What made the biggest impression on the bishop, however, was the fact that the balcony of the church was also standing room only, made up almost entirely of youth from the city who were holding up their cell phones for the duration of the worship service. They had dialed their friends who hadn’t been able to make it into the church and were using their phones to broadcast the sermon and the hymns so that dozens of others could hear what was being preached and sung in that little church of God.  I’d say the branches of the mustard shrub grew quite a bit that day, and the bird nests looked like Samsung Galaxys and iPhone. So in our patch of God’s garden, at this end of the school year with another year of school behind us and summer church programs in front, let us look both within and without and find that small seed somewhere. Because it’s enough. And by the Holy Spirit’s power let us and trust its growth will come. And Let us also give thanks to the God that planted it and look forward to a day when all the world will be gathered in the shade of the mustard shrub cross.

 


 

Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Holy Trinity [Year B] - May 31, 2015 (Isaiah 1:1-8 and Romans 8:12-17 and John 3:1-17)


 
What kind of questions do you have about God?

Where do you go to ask them?

Sometimes I think that my family believes they have an ace in the pocket when it comes to this because they can just direct their questions at daddy. He’s the pastor. He’s got the theology degree, right? Therefore, often when I’m least expecting it—like last week when I was in the middle of pulling up weeds in the garden—two little girls round the corner out of nowhere with pressing questions like, “Who were God’s parents?” or “How did God get on earth?”

Granted, by virtue of some of my training there is a chance I might have pondered these questions a time or two before, but—and I hate to disappoint them—I certainly don’t think I have some kind of insider knowledge about God or what God is up to. My life and experiences aren’t any more or less touched by the divine than anyone else’s, and I’ve come to deeply appreciate hearing the questions and thoughts about God that you’ve shared with me. Quite frankly, I have right many questions of my own, and I’d like to think we’re asking them together.

Thinking about God can be overwhelming, and I think we can all agree that it’s helpful to have some kind of established guidelines as we do it. Like with so many other challenging tasks, it’s beneficial to have some form of received knowledge from other people who’ve asked the same kinds of questions through the ages so we don’t feel that we’re just shooting in the dark, which is kind of what Nicodemus is doing, coming to Jesus under cover of night. He’s shooting in the dark, trying to learn a little more about God from this rabbi who appears to have a theology degree a cut above the other rabbis.

"Nicodemus talking to Jesus" (Henry Ossawa Tanner)
Granted, it’s not clear whether this conversation with Jesus clears anything up for Nicodemus, but if he’s listening carefully, he might hear that Jesus does give him some of those guidelines. Jesus talks about God using three different terms that somehow all relate to each other as if they are one. In the span of one two-minute-or-so conversation, Jesus mentions God and Son and Spirit as if they all kind of have something to do with each other.

As it turns out, it’s one of the handful of Scripture passages where we hear these terms for God in close combination. These names and relationships are actually always there, like a mysterious hidden soil that lies beneath the whole story, nurturing it, giving it its life. However, we never get a clear, thought-out description of how it all works. In the earliest years of their life together, Jesus’ followers pored over Jesus’ own words, Paul’s letters, and in even the deep and complex stories of the Hebrew Bible, and they began to see this threefold pattern that they had already been using in their worship. What emerged were creeds and other important writings that became guidelines for understanding the God that is spoken of in the Bible. Soon this became known as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Words like doctrine and dogma get a bad rap these days, but they aren’t meant to be scary, intimidating formulas with which we beat people over the head and make them feel stupid. They’re tools for helping people who know they believe the same thing to say and teach the same thing about it.

So, on this day that the church celebrates this Holy Trinity, and on a day when I know any number of us have showed up wondering about God, I humbly offer up three points about God that arise out of our texts this morning with the hope they may help shed light on this most essential of guidelines.

 

  1. God is wholly other, which is just another way of saying that God is holy.


Whatever we are, God is entirely different from that. That is one foundation of Christian thought that is reiterated again and again by the people who had experiences with the divine. It is a sensation that sometimes some of us have when we’re looking into the night sky, studded as it is with millions of stars and planets, or when we behold the wonder of a newborn baby. There is something untouchable and unfathomable about the nature of this Creator-behind-all-of-this who performs wonders far beyond anything a human can do.

In our first Scripture passage this morning we see the prophet Isaiah entering into the courts of the Lord and how he is overtaken by awe at how completely holy and different the presence of God is. In fact, it is this passage that we borrow every Sunday just as we begin to approach God’s presence in Holy Communion:

“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts!
Heaven and earth are full of his glory.”

It underlines for us that in a world that so often makes idols out of things that humankind has made—money, status, power, family—the true God remains complete other, outside human categories and outside human control.

One problem with describing God’s total otherness, complete holiness, is that the only language we have is human language. Try as we may, our words will always fall somewhat short of describing what God is actually like and tend to make the high and lofty God in our image.

In Isaiah’s account he says that he sees the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty, with the hem of his garment filling the temple. That’s a very human image, but you can tell Isaiah’s grasping for the words to describe something inherently indescribable. In fact, the translators for one famous ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint were so uncomfortable with Isaiah’s description that they left that part about the garment out. To them it made God sound too human. God probably doesn’t really wear garments because God doesn’t really have a body, but what do we know? We know that God is wholly other.

 

  1. God touches unclean lips.


God does not let this supreme holiness become a barrier to God’s love. God may be unapproachable to us, but that doesn’t keep God from approaching us.

I ran across a website this week of an artist who takes scenes from famous works of art, typically religious in nature, and superimposes them upon ordinary and often crude scenes of modern-day life. The result is this striking juxtaposition of the sublime and the mundane.  In one painting there your see Mary, the mother of our Lord, looking positively angelic and holy, holding the baby Jesus, both of them surrounded by angels in flowing garments playing instruments—but they are all seated on a very shabby looking subway car. In a quirky way the painting underscores God’s desire to touch unclean lips and hold unclean lives, to nestle the divine self within human ordinariness, which is what Isaiah experiences in his own vision. Through an act of grace that God initiates, one of the attendants in God’s holy court picks up a coal and purifies Isaiah’s lips.

This how the high and lofty God deals with human sinfulness. God doesn’t ignore us because of it, like some aloof royal person who doesn’t want to associate with the lowly masses. Nor does God obliterate us because of it, like some mad dictator who doesn’t understand the value of human life. Rather, God lovingly, stoops to recognize us even in our state of being unclean, as Isaiah describes it, and ushers us into God’s presence to have a relationship with us.

It’s such a small action here in Isaiah’s story, but this action of grace will become a central, defining factor of God’s identity. God wants to reach out to humans even in their state of brokenness and redeem them from it. Nicodemus will hear it this way: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” When we speak of the Holy Trinity, one of the first things we are saying is that the God of the universe has at one point been so in love with this imperfect creation that God has entered it himself. On the cross of Jesus, we come to believe that God doesn’t just want to touch unclean lips but redeem unclean lives and make them pure again. Even ours. And it rescues us from death.

 

  1. To know God is to be sent.


When Isaiah enters the courts of the holy God and is transformed by God’s presence, he doesn’t stay there. He is given a message to proclaim to his people about God’s judgment and grace. When Nicodemus hears the message about God’s love through his Son, it is clear that the message is for the entire world. Nicodemus doesn’t immediately go forth, as Isaiah does, but in the end he emerges from the shadows and comes to share in Christ’s mission in his own way by helping remove the body from the cross.

"The Yellow Christ" (Gauguin)
Whether it is in the style of Isaiah or Nicodemus or somewhere in between, this is to say, there is something about the nature of God that automatically includes us in whatever God is doing. This relationship with God is not a one-way street where we approach the high and lofty altar and stay there, as if in isolation. The whole purpose of God sharing this love on the cross is to transform us in such a way that we go forth to share it with others.

You could say we end up getting caught up in this love that the Father has for his Son, which is what the apostle Paul is driving at in his letter to the Romans. When we cry, “ ‘Abba, Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then…joint heirs with Christ.”

There you have it. We’re drawn right in. This is the work of God’s Holy Spirit, a Spirit which was there even at creation, hovering over the waters and eventually creating a community of animals and plants and mountains and rivers. It is the work of the disciples as they behold the Risen Lord anew on Pentecost and this force of God sends them out to share the message that his holy God makes people’s lives clean.

And, come to think of it, it is the Spirit that is at work in your lives, as he’s gathered you today to open your hearts to questions about God. It’s the Spirit at work in the lives of all children of God, you and me alike, who round the corner with wide eyes and groping questions to approach their true Father who is weeding the bad stuff out of their messy garden. He loves their questions. He takes them all. And they find in this holy moment they encounter a God who is wholly other…a God who even touches their unclean lips…a God who gives them a message. They find Father, Son and Holy Spirit…the blessed Trinity.

 

 

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.                          

 

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.