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.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

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


 
Teeth and bones.

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

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

Teeth and bones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

           

Thanks be to God!


 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.