Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21C/Lectionary 26C] - September 25, 2016 (Luke 16:19-31 and Psalm 146)

Sometime about a year ago a house on my way to and home from church got painted pink. All the other houses along that street are plain-colored, ordinary-looking houses. That whole house, however, from the ground to the roof and every bit of siding and shudder in between, is a bright pink. It is so pink that even I, someone who suffers from red-green colorblindness, can tell it stands out. My wife says it is a Pepto-Bismol shade of pink, just to give you a mental image. We happen to like it. It’s just…different. Who knows? Maybe the person who lives there is a John Cougar Mellencamp fan.

The other day as I was driving that route I got to the next stoplight past that house and for some reason a question popped into my head: is that house still pink? And then I couldn’t believe I had even asked myself that question because, after all, I had just driven past it. It was clearly painted to be noticed, to turn heads, and yet, after going right past it about nine or ten times each week, I had somehow managed to stop seeing it altogether. It had become just a part of the scenery, I suppose, part of my way to work. I hadn’t necessarily chosen to ignore it, but my mind had moved on to other things. The really interesting thing is that later that day, on my way home, even after I had resolved to look at it, I passed the same house again and, once again, failed to notice if it had been re-painted or if it was still pink.

Lazarus and the Rich Man (Fedor Bronnikov, 1886)
The parable that Jesus tells the Pharisees this morning which has come to be known as the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, is about noticing things. It’s about not passing by, over and over again, that which really should stand out, that which should really disturb and distract. It’s kind of an extreme example, an embellished tale about two people and the drastic consequences that befall them after they die, but the message Jesus has for his listeners is there are certain pink houses smack in front of us and, believe it or not, it’s awfully easy to let our minds be lulled into ignoring them.

We begin with a rich man. He dresses in the finest clothes available and he eats whatever he wants and however much he wants every single day. We would say he’s in the 1%. In fact, he’s the top 1% of the 1%. Then there’s Lazarus, the bright pink house situated at the opening to his property. Right of the bat there is something noteworthy. No other character in any of Jesus’ stories has a name. Not even the rich man has a name. Lazarus happens to mean, of all things, “God helps.” He’s the bottom 1%.

Jesus really piles on the details with Lazarus, and it’s kind of gross. In the time before napkins, they say wealthy people used to use pieces of bread to wipe their mouths and then toss it to the floor. That’s what Lazarus wants to eat. He doesn’t get to, of course, but if he could just get one spit-covered piece of leftover bread with some half-chewed pieces of food on it he’d be satisfied.

And then there are the open wounds all over his skin. Every day, right there in front of the rich man’s house, right where Lazarus’ friends had laid him, the mangy street dogs come, almost like they expect him to die. The wounds on his skin are oozing with something they like to lick, and poor Lazarus is too weak and tired to shoo them away.

And that’s Lazarus’ day: lying at the rich man’s gate, dreaming about scraps of slobbery bread while dogs lick his wounds. It’s a really, really a sad sight. Except the rich man apparently doesn’t see it. And if he does see it, he doesn’t see it for what it is, or, I should say, he doesn’t see Lazarus for who he is. He is someone God helps. And therefore Lazarus is an opportunity to practice compassion.

Meister des Codex Aureus
Of course, the real interesting action takes place after the two men die. Lazarus is whisked away by the angels to rock in the bosom of Abraham and the rich man goes down to Hades where he suffers in extreme heat, where it’s, like, 95˚ with a heat index of 110˚, and he didn’t get to bring his water bottle. Suddenly, for the first time, he sees Lazarus! He notices Lazarus, even though now he is far away, because Lazarus has something that he wants. Abraham and the rich man go back and forth over this request for a water droplet until finally the rich man thinks of someone else…his brothers, who are probably just as well-off as he was. Jesus’ parable ends with an intriguing bit of foreshadowing. Those who are not able to notice through God’s Word through history that God helps the downtrodden, that God desires mercy for the neighbor, that God looks on the lowly, are probably not going to understand God’s essential character even should someone rise from the dead.

Jesus never intends for this parable to be a literal description of what happens to people when they die. And neither is Jesus trying to teach that only by doing good things can someone avoid Hades and get into heaven. Those are exaggerated, folklore-type features that Jesus has added in. They’re in every parable Jesus tells, over-the-top elements that surprise and sometimes warn. Here he’s added them so that the Pharisees and anyone else who is listening may understand that a great reversal is taking place. With Jesus, the entire system of the world will be upended, turned upside down, and it is high time to notice the kinds of people God has decided to help, the kind of situations God has chosen to get involved in.

It just so happens that wealth, possessions, material things can blind us to that great reversal. And it’s not just affluence that has that ability. Educational level, class, race, even technology can do the same. There was a piece in the Washington Post this week titled “Why Church Can Rescue Us from our Smartphones” which made excellent observations about how our constant desire to be connected through technology has actually, in many cases, “disconnected us from our sense of humanity and from one another.”[1] All of these things—money, education, technology—are gifts from God but, allowed to run amok, can have a power over us, reinforcing our innate selfishness and encasing us in a type of privilege that prevents us from understanding what it’s like from someone else’s perspective.

As for the Pharisees, those in Jesus’ day who are a bit infatuated with wealth, no one speaks with greater authority than Abraham. And Abraham reminds them that the whole gist of God’s law and order is to practice compassion, to take care of the unfortunate. That is, to open our eyes and see the things that God sees and God helps. God sees the orphans and the widows, as the psalm appointed for today reminds us. God sees the stranger, the one who doesn’t have a home, the one who doesn’t belong. God notices those who are oppressed. God never, ever, drives by and gets to the next stoplight and wonders, “You know, did I just pass someone who the world seems to have forgotten? That house, where that family just lost a loved one, is it still there? Or that house, where someone’s struggling with addiction and the shame it has brought them, is it still there?” In Jesus Christ of Nazareth, crucified for the world, God is driving around and stopping at all these Lazarus places—and making them his priority. It would be a shame for us to miss out on the great reversing, the first-shall-be-last-and-the-last-shall-be first-thing that is happening for real in his resurrection from the dead.

Speaking of people like orphans and widows and noticing them, of being in tune to Christ’s great reversal and jumping in to help, Matt Greenshields, our Council Secretary, received a special thank you note last month from Lutheran Family Services of Virginia. The email contained a link to a story about a 12-year-old boy named Jahem who had spent most of his life in the foster care system (and in hospitals) but who had recently been adopted by a family and given a forever home. The note, which Matt shared with me and Council, and we think needs to be shared with you, read,

“Dear Matt,

I wanted to send you a link to this story and share with you how we used some of the donation money received from Epiphany Lutheran Church.  This little boy has had multiple surgeries over the years for his medical needs and we finally found an adoptive family for him!  Several years ago, Epiphany also donated money for a special speaking device for this young man, as he is nonverbal.  We used a portion of the donation money to throw him a huge adoption party and to buy some nice gifts for the family – including a picture of a family tree with all of their names on it. We are so very thankful for the support Epiphany has provided us through the years.”

So, Jesus’ parable reminds us we are on a journey of grace to see the ones God sees, to help the ones God helps, the ones first in line for the great big turnaround his creation is longing for. As we open up our eyes, as we receive God’s Word, as we remember he has risen for us to have new life, we begin to see them, too. And when we have our eyes opened wide enough by the Lord of heaven and earth, we look around at the people in the news, the stories from around the world, the Jahems and Lazaruses and rich men and women who are right around the corner and we may even begin to realize, my goodness, (Grant us wisdsom! Grant us courage!) this parable isn’t such an exaggeration after all!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “Why Church Can Rescue us From our Smartphones.” WashPost. Russell Moore, Sept 21

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19C/Lectionary 24C] - September 11, 2016 (Luke 15:1-10)

Several years ago I was locking up the building one Sunday after worship and before I had a chance to leave I saw the car of one of our members pull up in the circular drive out front. The woman got out of her car and came and knocked on the front door of the church. I unlocked the door and let her in. She explained that she had gotten home from worship and quickly realized that one of the bracelets she had worn to church that day was no longer on her arm. It was a very special bracelet that her husband had given to her when they were courting over seventy years before. I could see that the bracelet like that meant a lot to her and would warrant getting back in the car and immediately driving back to church to find it. She didn’t know where it was, she said, but since she hadn’t really gone many places that morning, she figured there were only a few places it might be.

Of course, I offered to help her look for it. Even though I didn’t know what it looked like, I figured a bracelet can’t be that difficult to locate. It’s not like an earring or a ring or something like that. We went in the sanctuary and she showed me where she had sat during worship and I got down on the floor and looked all around. She checked the racks where the hymnals are kept. We then did the same kind of searching in the pews in front of and behind where she had sat, and all along the wall in case it had fallen off and someone had unknowingly kicked it. She attended the 11:00 service that day, so we figured it couldn’t have gone far. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn up in the sanctuary, and she was a little bummed because that was the only place she had really gone inside the church. So we went outside and retraced her steps in the parking lot between the front door and where she had parked.

Nothing turned up. There was no telling where that thing could be. And then she remembered one other place she had gone: the bathroom. So we went and looked in the back bathroom there together. I got down on the floor while she picked up things on the counter and looked under them. No bracelet. We looked through the waste paper basket. No bracelet.

The funny thing is now I can’t remember where her husband was during all of this. In my memory she had left him back at home, but, come to think of it, she may have left him in the passenger seat of the car with the motor running while the two of us ransacked the church. In any case, she left that afternoon without her bracelet, but I promised that if it turned up we’d call her immediately.

About two hours later I was at home and the phone rang, and it was her. She was laughing as she tried to explain to me that she had found the bracelet. She had gone to use the restroom and found the bracelet, of all places, in her underwear. Apparently it had fallen off her arm in the bathroom at church but her undergarments had caught it. That whole time we’d been walking around together she had still been wearing her bracelet, she just didn’t know it!

Lost sheep, lost coin, lost bracelet. In one real-life episode, that woman managed to tie together all the important aspects of the first two parables Jesus told about God’s determination to find those who are lost. In coming all the way back to church, leaving her husband who-knows-where by himself, she was like the shepherd who leaves the 99 perfectly-safe-and-sound sheep to go rescue the one who had gotten separated. In carefully retracing her steps at church and turning over every hymnal and pew cushion and stack of paper towels she could find in order to uncover the precious item that belonged to her, she was like the woman in the parable who loses the coin. And, in telephoning me in great joy in order to tell me she found it—no matter how embarrassing that discovery may have been—she was like both the shepherd and the woman, go the extravagant extra mile by inviting friends over and throwing a party simply to celebrate the finding. She was like the shepherd and the woman. And therefore she was like God, becoming a sermon for this religious authority as I was locking up the church on the wideness of his mercy.

That’s the point of those two over-the-top characters in the parables Jesus tells the Pharisees. Jesus has found that he needs to make an important point about the basic character of God. The Pharisees and the scribes, religious authorities of Jesus’ time, are watching Jesus eat with people they think are deplorable. The tax collectors and sinners were the folks who, by their actions and by the company they kept, seemed to show open disregard for the laws of God. Everyone knew they were in sore need of repentance. The Pharisees were used to shunning these people, looking down on them, drawing a line to make sure they weren’t included in God’s circle. But Jesus takes the opportunity to explain in very relatable, ordinary terms, that God doesn’t look down on anyone. God simply looks for them. God looks for us. Both the shepherd and the woman—two run-of-the-mill, everyday characters—are symbolic of God the Father, who, as it turns out, is obsessed by what has gotten separated from him, fanatical about who has been lost, fixated on who has gone astray. That’s the basic character of God.

But here’s the thing: for as ordinary and run-of-the-mill as these two characters may be, they both do something very extraordinary and peculiar that surprises us all. It’s one thing to look for something that you’ve lost—that is, to sweep the house up one side and down the other, to leave the ninety-nine to traipse off into the wilderness—but to throw a party when you’ve found it? That’s a bit extravagant. In both parables, they are so overcome with joy that they invite their friends and neighbors to take part in it. In the Greek “friends and neighbors” essentially meant anyone around you, the people in your close peer group as well as those who share the village with you.

This is an over-the-top reaction to finding what you’ve lost, and Jesus wants the religious folk to hear that. When even one person realizes how lost he or she is…when even one person faces up to how unsafe they really are in this world when left to their own measly powers…when even on person comes to terms with how susceptible they are to chasing after that which is invaluable, God is filled with joy. That’s why God doesn’t look down on the lost and the least. God, in Jesus, looks for them. Over and over. Nonstop. Knocking on the church door and searching the bathroom with the pastor, if he has to.

This is the lesson about God’s character that Jesus wants the Pharisees to hear, as they look down on that crowd, and it’s a good one for us to reflect on again and again. I can’t presume to know what “being lost from God” looks like or feels like for anyone else. I imagine it feels different for everyone here. But I do know this: Repentance, however you like to define it—the changing of the mind or and turning around to realize the treasure of God’s presence—is something always open to us, and even more easy to undertake now that we know we have Jesus looking for us, now that we have a shepherd who wants to put us on his shoulders and carry us home when he’s found us.

I think most of us are aware that today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  I find a lot of conversations regarding that event still begin with questions like, “Where were you when you found out about the Towers?” and “What was that day like for you?” And yet I’m kind of shocked to realize that the 9th graders who will start confirmation with me this week have absolutely no memory of that day or its immediate aftermath. They were born after (or right before) it happened. It’s a historical event to them and to all the children younger than they are. There is a lot about the world now that seems to have just picked up and moved on. The feelings of camaraderie and compassion that flowed out of the response to 9/11 is basically gone. The spike in church attendance we experienced even here at Epiphany in the two years following the attacks as subsided. There have been additional terrorist attacks in other countries, there are wars still being fought today as a result of that event, and tens of thousands of people have died as the world starts to reshape itself in response to these acts of terror. With so many competing understandings out there regarding what God is like, let us be clear about our witness of God’s basic character. We need to proclaim more than ever that the shepherd is still looking for lost sheep, that this woman is still sweeping the floor for that coin because every single person is a child of God in need of a relationship with their Creator.

When I recall 9/11 I’m most moved by the stories of all those first responders who sacrificed their lives to go into the tower to search for people who were stuck in danger, people who were lost. Maybe that’s the best parable we can find today, For, as it turns out, Jesus doesn’t just look and look and sweep and sweep to find whatever belonds to God. He dies and suffers in order to have them, to bring them back, to save them from forever being separated from the God who loves them. He offers his own body on the cross to search out and rescue from the darkest corridors of life all those who belong in God’s care.

And he throws a party! Bread and wine are passed around, people share of themselves and rejoice in the love of the shepherd. Pharisees and scribes, sinners and tax collectors—we’re all going to be gathered in the feast of friends and neighbors.

And that leads me to the other way that woman here reminded me of God that day. God sweeps us up into his search-and-rescue efforts. We’re not just the sought-after. We’re also the seekers, his helpers, pressed into action, down on our hands and knees, searching high and low to invite, to welcome, to offer another blessed word of hope that God is still running into the dark to seek and to save. And that this good news is a reason to join the Rally, the party, the phone call to friends and neighbors. What was lost has been found.

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18C/Lectionary 23C] - September 4, 2016 (Luke 14:25-33)

Like so many of you, my wife, Melinda, and I have spent a lot of time and energy over the past week getting our children ready for a new year of school. We are always both flabbergasted by the amount of school supplies, even though we both agree it all makes sense. I’ve learned that there’s a whole ritual to it—we get the list of things the teachers are requesting, we go out and purchase what’s needed, and then on school orientation day we cram everything into paper bags and head over to the elementary school along with all the other students and their parents. We schlepp our bags of school supplies into the classrooms, locate our daughters’ desks, which are labeled carefully by the teacher with a nametag bearing the neatest handwriting you’ve ever seen, and then follow the instructions for unloading and unpacking everything in those paper bags for a new school year:

Colored pencils and five erasers—count them—go in the green pencil box that stays in the desk. Ziploc baggies and boxes of Kleenex are deposited in the appropriate bin on the table on the other side of the room. Pencil sharpeners go here, markers go here, tennis balls get sliced and put on the feet of the chairs right here. Armed with a clipboard and organizational skills that could single-handedly run a space program, the teachers make their way in the midst of this crowd, putting names to faces, allaying fears, pumping the enthusiasm.

That’s the ritual. Here’s what it has taught me: What teacher, preparing her students for a year of learning, doesn’t first calculate how many glue sticks they’ll need, how many bottles of hand sanitizer they’ll go through? What teacher, encouraging her class to seek new horizons, doesn’t remind them of what they’re getting into? The adventure of education seems so exciting and refreshing each year, but the teacher knows more than anyone else: there are costs involved, sacrifices to be made, preparations to be considered.

The crowds are swarming around that other Teacher, too. We think we’re ready. We claim to be excited. We sign up for the Bible study, the Sunday School class, the baptism preparation sessions. We say “I’ll serve,” or “I’ll believe,” and we rush in closer to where the enthusiasm is being pumped, and then we’re handed the disciples’ list of supplies.

As it turns out, it doesn’t involve items we need to accumulate, but rather mindsets we need to adopt. This Teacher’s list doesn’t mention anything about things we need to pull together, but about what we need to give up. Interestingly enough, this Teacher’s idea of being prepared doesn’t involve saying “Yes” to a new year or a new experience as much as it will involve saying “No”—“no” to cumbersome relationships, “no” to a sense of entitlement, “no” to unhealthy relationships with possessions. This Teacher, like any good teacher, wants his followers to know as much as they can right up front what they’re getting themselves into, that sacrifices will be made. What kind of preparations have you taken as you’ve walked with Jesus? Is there anything you wish you had known about before you responded in faith?

The part of Jesus’ little discipleship pep talk that raises the most eyebrows is the line about hating your family members and even life itself in order to follow Jesus. That sounds harsh to us, especially because there are so many other times when Jesus is telling us to love others. And there are times when Jesus and other biblical voices embrace the joys of this life. Jesus’ use of the word “hate,” might just be an example of exaggerated speech which was common—and still is common—in the middle east. That is, he doesn’t literally mean despise your family and wish them dead.

No matter what, he is getting us to acknowledge that following Christ takes priority over other commitments. He is hoping we understand that a disciple’s identity in Christ is paramount to any other identity we have, even the one we receive from our family. In Jesus’ time, the loyalty to family and clan outweighed all other bonds. It determined just about everything about who you were and what you could do and who you could associate with. When Jesus says disciples must hate their family and even life itself he is not saying they must turn their backs on those they love, but he is saying from now on his followers will not make all decisions based on what is best for themselves or their family or even their country but on which option forward best embodies the love of Christ.

It’s been interesting to watch San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick struggle  with allegiances to different ideals and movements this week as he takes heat for refusing to stand for the national anthem. Despite what any of us may think about his thinking and decision, whether we support Kaepernick or disagree with him, that kind of resolve is precisely what Jesus is looking for in a disciple.

Another mindset change that Jesus issues to his would-be followers involves the carrying of a cross. Jesus wants the crowd to know that self-promotion and self-assertion have no part of his mission. He is about self-denial and self-sacrifice. Carrying a cross doesn’t mean to suffer for any ol’ reason, which is how we often twist it when we don’t like the choices we’ve been given. It means to be a part of the kinds of activities and the ways of living that involve a giving over of self, even when it’s painful, choosing the more difficult path in a given situation because there will eventually be greater good.

Third on the list of school supplies Jesus hands out is the handing over of possessions. Those who are on a journey of faith are really learning to value things that cannot be bought or sold or even held. They are seeking things like hope and love and justice and peace. They are staking out a place in a kingdom that has no boundaries, no weapons, no money. To live there, then, one must learn to release things that get in the way of travel in that direction. Material things aren’t bad, but they will eventually weigh the disciple down.

This weekend Pope Francis in Rome declared Teresa of Calcutta a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Some have criticized her work, but she founded an organization that runs nineteen relief hospitals and homes for what some consider the world’s poorest in the slums of 160 cities, helping in regions where no other company or government has been able to make a similar difference. The only possessions to her name when she died in 1997 were a bucket at two saris.

“No” to competing loyalties, “no” to and attitude of entitlement and “no” to cumbersome possessions: that is the Teacher’s list of supplies. But with so many “nos” it would be awfully easy to forget what a disciple is saying “yes” to. With such stark instructions for what it means to follow, it would be easy to forget the element of surprise and mystery that accompanies a walk with Christ. We may be able to count the costs, but we still don’t know what is going to be in store for us.

I know a friend who hesitated quite a bit before saying “yes” to a year as a young adult in global mission, the same program our Emily Dietrick just left on. She knew it meant leaving behind for a while the security of life in the States, saying goodbye to close friends, and going directly into a teaching job. But then once she did, she was introduced in her new country to a community of different Christian denominations, which ignited an interest to enroll in seminary. She then said “yes” to a her supervising committee’s urging that she pursue a Master’s Degree, which led to a “yes” to ordination. She now serves a Lutheran congregation in South Carolina that also hosts an Episcopal congregation.

There is also the story of a man in the congregation of one of my colleagues who said “yes” to marrying his wife, who then talked him into flying lessons, which then led to a job in small craft airlines where he flies planes for CEOs. Because most of the planes are small enough, he finds time to talk to his passengers, when the opportunity arises, about God and his faith.

There’s stories from within our own congregation Ask the people involved with the HHOPE pantry at some point, who’ve reluctantly said “yes” to organizing this feeding ministry. They’ll talk about how they initially thought about how they’d be sacrificing some Friday nights and some Saturday mornings to sort food and set up the donation tables. But then they never thought about the weekly hugs they’d receive from the community members who depend on the bags of food, or the relationships they’ve build with people who live right around our church. How do you calculate the benefits of those things?

Jesus knows those things really can’t be calculated. Jesus knows grace can’t be figured out beforehand, like you can when you put the colored pencils in the supply box and the eighteen glue sticks in the Ziploc bag. The irony of Jesus’ list, of course, is that when the Lord of life is involved, none of us really knows what we’re getting ourselves into. We walk the journey, making each decision with the help of the Holy Spirit, confident in God’s mercy if we get things wrong. We walk the journey with this gracious Teacher, certain that we do have a God who has counted the cost for us. We have a God who is exactly like the person who builds a good foundation and knows what it will take to complete it. We do have a King who understands the price of doing battle, who knows the terrible nature of what he’s up against, and still goes in for the fight so that, on the cross, all may win victory.

With faith in that, we can agree to this list of “nos” knowing that many new “yeses” await us, too. As Samuel Wells, vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, says about the church he serves, “We haven’t arrived, but the journey’s great. We’re not sure exactly where we’re going, but it’s getting better all the time. We’ve had wonderful experiences, but the best is yet to come.”[1]

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “Seven Possibilities for church.” The Christian Century, June 22, 2016. P 29

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 16C/Lectionary 21C] - August 21, 2016 (Luke 13:10-17)

One popular understanding of Jesus out there is that he was a rule-breaker, some kind of rebel-figure who liked to go around flippantly thumbing his nose at restrictions and regulations. This imagines Jesus as somewhat of a maverick who doesn’t really follow anyone’s laws, who does his own thing and blazes his own path often just for the sake of being contrary, or for the sake of showing people that rules are stupid. I think that the story Luke tells us this morning contributes to that understanding of rule-breaker Jesus. He really sticks it to the religious authorities, doesn’t he? Good! Someone needs to. It is the Sabbath day, the day reserved for refraining from labor, and they have very particular rules about what constitutes as “work.” Instead of playing into their concept of Sabbath rest that the priests and the rabbis have obviously created, it appears that Jesus ignores it all and does his own thing, healing when he’s not supposed to.

To some degree, this image of rule-breaker Jesus fits. He does often cross boundaries and commit taboos, but in this particular scene that might not be the case. Rather than ignoring the Sabbath rules, Jesus actually applies them more robustly and wholesomely than the religious leaders do. The Sabbath, you see, was not the brainchild of humans but one of the commandments of God. And when Jesus decides to heal a crippled woman on the Sabbath day, he is not breaking rules of the Sabbath, but following the intent of God’s holy day more precisely. He is not throwing out a time-worn system that seems arbitrary, but lifting it up and renewing its meaning.

The Sabbath day was, by the time of Jesus, still one of the defining marks of the Jewish faith. No other culture or religious group in the near East before Jesus’ time and during it had anything like the Sabbath, a weekly day of rest. It appears other societies and civilizations had calendars with special days, but all of them followed lunar or solar events and they seemed to have different purposes. The Hebrews’ holy day, by contrast, came every seventh day, regardless of what the sun or moon were doing, and it was set aside purely for delight and rejoicing. It was a time when people were to refrain from the toil and tedium that consumed their lives to open up a day they might reflect on all that God does for them behind-the-scenes. The commandment to rest for one whole day at the end of the week came directly from their understanding of how God brought creation into being and how creation functions with God as its sovereign. Intentional time for pause was built into its very system; even the planet and its creatures are given to a rhythm of work and relaxation, expansion and contraction. Humans, too, were designed to take a step back on occasion, and this step back was so important that it was a law, a mandatory weekly event.

The issue that we glimpse in this account this morning is that by the time of Jesus the Jewish religion had developed all sorts of formal ideas about what constituted an appropriate “step back.” There were all sorts of rules to help people figure out just when they’d crossed a line from rest to work. For those in power in the synagogue, healing someone, no matter how dire the case, qualified as work. Because, could you imagine the crowd of sick people that might show up if that rule wasn’t followed? For Jesus, however, this bent-over woman’s condition becomes a perfect situation for displaying what the Sabbath was intended for.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Sabbath was not to give humans a break from the mundane and tedious existence of life but in order to re-establish their identity. Its purpose was to remind Israel who and whose they really were, about grounding their everyday comings and goings not in their work or in what the world would say about them but in God’s grace.

Over the course of just one day people accumulate all kinds of labels and roles. It’s unavoidable.  It happens to us when we’re going through life. One study conducted about ten years ago—and that was before social media had the influence it does now—suggested that the average American is bombarded with around 3000 messages a day. And if you couple that with the content of many of those messages, whether they come through news or advertising media or elsewhere telling us to buy or to be something in particular, it’s easy to see how a person can come to any number of conclusions about the worth or meaning of their life.

In confirmation class when we study the Sabbath, we liken it to wearing headphones all the time. Going about life is often like listening to any number of definitions of what it means to be us even ones we give to ourselves. And the problem is these labels and messages and these things give us a false perception of our humanity. They can puff us up, make us narcissistic, give us an inflated importance to our work and our influence on the world. Or, alternatively, the cumulative effect of all these labels, all our daily tasks and requirements, is to bend us over, to bend us right into ourselves, like this woman who comes into the synagogue that morning. We feel broken and beat down by life and by others expectations. In both cases, honoring the Sabbath, that is, gathering to worship with our community, reading Scripture intentionally, singing hymns, has the effect of removing those headphones so we can hear what God says about us.

Martin Luther, in his explanation to the third commandment in the Small Catechism, says we are to “so fear and love God that we do not neglect his Word and the preaching of it, but regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it.” Hearing God’s Word does a lot for us but perhaps the greatest thing it does, like that Sabbath, is to remind us who and whose we really are. We are not our own. We do not belong to any other person or idea or program or platform. Just as the Sabbath day would periodically break up the Israelites’ monotonous and often back-breaking existence to give them a chance to praise God and rest, so does our repeated hearing of God’s Word remind us that we are God’s. We are not the sum total of our days and what we do with them. We are the sum of what the Lord did with this day. Our life is not ultimately decided by how we use or spend our days, but how Jesus spent that day.

When this woman comes into the synagogue that day she ends up encountering the Word of God, the very person who, more than anyone else, can remind her of what her life really is. Jesus takes the headphones off of her, and she stands upright for the first time in almost twenty years. If the Sabbath Day was originally designed for praising God and relaxing, there can perhaps be no clearer image of that for all those religious leaders to see than a woman who literally hasn’t been able to lift her face to the Lord for eighteen years suddenly have the ability to do so. Notice that the first thing she does is to praise God.

In Jesus’ challenge to the religious leaders is a challenge for us as the people of God who have occasionally had our headphones removed. How can we continue to find ways to lift up those in our midst who’ve been bent over by life’s struggles? How can we help remind others who and whose they really are, that they’ve been loved with a death-defying love? How can we make sure that making others well, that re-establishing someone’s relationship with their Creator, will never be considered “work, but rather our new life of freedom in the Spirit? How can our life as a congregation embody Jesus’ compassion, that the act of freeing people from bondage to sin is not something from which even God rests, even on the Sabbath. In fact, it is the reason for the Sabbath. A religion with restrictions and guidelines surrounding these things, even in our hearts, needs Jesus to show up on Sunday and bust through.

This is one of the reasons that “Worship the Christ” lies at the middle of our proposed Mission Statement for the congregation. On the journey of faith, worshipping the Lord of the Sabbath is central. We come to have the headphones removed, to have our curves and bends straightened out, to have our sin forgiven. And yet time is so rushed these days for so many people. Even these summer weeks, which are originally designed as a break from the rat-race of the rest of the year, become hectic and over-scheduled. Worship can even seem like just another thing to cram into the calendar. And for others, worship can seem boring or uneventful. In some ways, your worship planners welcome this. We need time for boredom, for reflection, time to unplug and just sit. It’s one reason why I do not take issue with people falling asleep during the sermon. This is called a day of rest, and if people need to take five or ten minutes while I’m talking, then let it happen!

But whether we’re bored or invigorated by our time together here, or challenged and made uncomfortable by the ways God’s Word is embodied in our ministry, one thing is sure: here we can encounter the One who gives us our best name, our most valuable self. We come face to face in the bread and the wine with the One who does break the dumb rules and shows us the heart of the good ones. We receive in the Word the One who does a new thing and blazes his own path…a path right to the cross where he empties himself.
It’s the One who cuts through the 3000 messages to say again, “You…you’re worth something. I’ve died for you. I’ve given you a kingdom that can’t be shaken. Stand up straight. Look the world in the eye.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 13C/Lectionary 18C] - July 31, 2016 (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 and Luke 12:13-21)

It is summer, and so it is wedding season in my world, and I find that I’ve been spending a good bit of time with couples in pre-marital conversations. A lot of these conversations are designed around establishing some good patterns for life together, to talk about things like conflict resolution and healthy communication practices, and to work out who’s going to do the dishes and who’s going to take out the trash, you know…the kinds of things that make the conflict resolution part so important. One of the areas we typically touch on involves the nature of their spiritual life. The workbook we use walks us through some of the questions related to that—questions about which holidays are important and what they mean, whether church involvement is important or expected, what is the reason for giving gifts, etc. The last question in the workbook is, simply, “What is the meaning of life?”

Now, if someone had asked me that question when I was in my twenties or early thirties I’d be scared to know what I’d say. Sometimes I’m not even sure nowadays how I’d answer that question. When we get to that question in pre-marital conversations it often provokes silence. It’s interesting to watch a couple suddenly shift gears from discussing the more mundane things of life like how much they’ll set aside for savings each month to the question of what life is all about in the first place. To their credit, most of the couples end up bouncing a few ideas off each other, and even agreeing that it’s not something they’ve been able to reach any conclusions about. I’m left wondering about my own marriage and close friendships: would those I’m spending my life with see eye to eye with me on this? Does it matter? It’s so much easier to focus on who’s supposed to do the dishes.

It may come as a surprise to hear this, but Scripture never gives a succinct answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” If you were to go to the Bible looking for a nice, packaged response to that question, you’d likely be very disappointed. What you would get is a long, beautiful, epic story of God’s relationship with God’s people. There is one writer in Scripture, however, who pondered the meaning of life. We don’t know what his name is, but whoever it was goes by the name “Teacher.” Teacher is wise and teacher is observant and insightful. He watches people, he scrutinizes human behavior, and he looks for patterns and themes in all of the business of humans under the sun, trying to deduce what the point of living is. He has authority beyond his peers and he writes down his thoughts on life and human activity in a book that we know as Ecclesiastes. He contemplates the struggles of daily life and, like all wisdom literature, offers some advice here and there.

As it turns out, Ecclesiastes sounds at times a lot like that country music song on the radio right now by Chris Jansen:

I ain’t rich, but I darn sure wanna be
Working like a dog all day, ain’t working for me
I wish I had a rich uncle that’d kick the bucket
And that I was sitting on a pile like Warren Buffett
I know everybody says
Money can’t buy happiness

But it could buy me a boat, it could buy me a truck to pull it
It could buy me a Yeti 110 iced down with some silver bullets
Yeah, and I know what they say,
Money can’t buy everything
Well, maybe so,
But it could buy me a boat

In all of this, Teacher struggles with what the meaning of life might be. Like the song, he sees so many people practically break their bodies just to get by and he watches others work and work to gather up riches only to watch all that wealth get used and enjoyed by others after they die. He has a word for this: Vanity. He begins and ends his teachings with that word: “All is vanity!” It basically means emptiness, pointless, meaningless. “Everything is meaningless!” Teacher says. Now, in all my years of pre-marital counseling, no couple has ever said that! If they did I might say, “Let’s just go back to the part about cleaning dishes and conflict resolution.”

With the book of Ecclesiastes and the wisdom of teacher in the back of your mind, picture Jesus traveling to Jerusalem with his disciples when he’s approached by a man in the crowd who comes forward and calls him “Teacher.” This person is appealing to Jesus’ wisdom and sense of fairness. As it turns out, he’s there for some conflict resolution, himself. He wants Jesus, as the wise Teacher with special insight about life and living, to negotiate an inheritance dispute.

At some point I believe we all approach Jesus in this way. We know him as a Teacher, as someone with special understanding about the road of life and how to travel it. We ask him our questions and seek his wisdom. When Jesus answers this particular man’s question, however, we get as close as we ever do to Jesus’ own definition for the meaning of life. He does not tell us what the meaning of life is, necessarily, but Jesus does say what it isn’t. It doesn’t consist in the abundance of possessions. It doesn’t involve the accumulation of wealth and things.

An icon of the Parable of the Rich Fool. On the left, the laborers hastily build
bigger barns. On the right the rich fool dies in his sleep.
In order to elaborate, he tells a parable about a man who does just that. This man is a landowner who, because he enjoys a few years of bumper crops, decides to tear down the barns he has and build bigger ones so he can store it all. But, just like the writer of Ecclesiastes says so often happens, before he can enjoy any of this excess, he dies. God doesn’t kill the rich man because of what he’s done. There is no element of punishment here, as if God despises wealthy people or penalizes people for how they use their possessions or not. It’s just that the length of the man’s life, like everyone else’s, is unpredictable and he just happens to die right after he’s surrounded himself with all that he has.

The story may sound extreme to us, but all parables are, aren’t they? Jesus the teacher is trying to drive home the point to this man who is only using Jesus to gain more wealth. If there is a meaning to life, Jesus believes it revolves somewhere around being rich toward God. It has something to do with being drawn deeper into relationship with the giver of all that we have, of hearing this ongoing story of God’s love for what God has made and knowing you have a place in it. We can see a clue to the rich man’s mistake in the way he speaks only to himself when he is contemplating how to handle his wealth. When the money starts rolling in, he thinks only to himself, and when he comes up with the idea for bigger barns, he actually consults his own soul, rather than seeking wisdom from someone else or from God. There is nothing wrong with eating, drinking, and being merry…or with buying a boat and a truck to pull it. That is actually a quote straight from the teacher of Ecclesiastes. But when someone has so surrounded themselves with possessions that they can’t even include the neighbor or God then it really is meaningless, vanity.

I’ve been moved by the life and witness of a man named Xavier Le Pichon, who is considered the founder of the modern understanding of plate tectonics, which the science of how the earth’s crust is structured and how it moves around and shifts over time. Le Pichon was born in what is now Vietnam when it was still a French colony. During World War II his family was rounded up and he spend a few years as a child in a Japanese concentration camp. Eventually he ended up in France where he became the world-famous scientist that he is now. He was the first person to explore the bottommost reaches of the ocean and was the one to figure out that Japan was getting closer to Hawaii by eight inches every year. He understands more about how the earth has been created and how it is evolving than probably anyone else on earth, and he is also a commited Christian who attends Catholic mass every day.

Le Pichon had in 1973 what he calls a crisis. He explains how he was so entrenched in his research and his successes that he felt isolated from the world’s suffering. He resigned all of his positions and went to Calcutta as a 36 year old to work with Mother Teresa for a while. And while he was there he had this experience where he had to feed a child who was dying of hunger. Le Pichon states, “this experience [revealed to me] the founding experience of humanity, which is discovering through empathy that you really are one with the man who is suffering. You identify yourself with this person, and this can be so strong. So I made, at the time, the promise to the small child that I will try, from now on, not to ever turn away my eyes from somebody who is suffering. And that was a turning point in my life.”[1]

Nowadays Le Pichon is still a scientist, but now his understanding of the way plate tectonics works—that is, how the fragile places in the earth’s structure give it new life and ultimately make it stronger—informs his faith and his own definition of the meaning of humanity. The point of life is to engage those who suffer so that God may be met. He and his family live in community he founded that provides retreat for families with people who are mentally disabled. Every day he is surrounded by people with great needs, the most fragile neighbors around. There is encounters people who deepen his own human experience and who can use the gifts and skills. He does this when he could otherwise store his great talents in bigger barns for himself.

As inspired as I am by Le Pichon, I’m not sure I have a nice answer for the meaning of life, although I have learned that it should inform how much I set aside for savings each month and who needs to do the dishes. Jesus never offers a succinct answer for the meaning of life, either. But he does keep walking. He keeps journeying towards Jerusalem, reaching out to the fragile and the suffering. He is more bent on giving meaning to our lives than he is philosophizing about it, offering his own fragile body up as a way to draw us into a life-giving relationship with God our maker.

He is a teacher, but he also a Savior, and his message is that our lives, too, are demanded of us, each and every moment. Each and every moment can present a crisis wherein we can either become more aware of the way he is present (and suffering) in those around us…or not.  When we only ever speak with our own souls, when we seek wisdom only from within and ignore out the needs of the world, when we are bent on being rich in relation to others or to our own benchmarks, life will become vanity.

But as we walk the journey with Christ, that vanity turns into beauty, our toil turns to being merry, and death turns into life in this long, beautiful epic story of God’s love for God’s people.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 12C/Lectionary 17C] - July 24, 2016 (Luke 11:1-13)

The French Cathedral, Berlin, will soon be outfitted with Wi-Fi
Coinciding with its country’s celebration in 2017 of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which officially began when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the Protestant Churches of Germany announced last month they would be providing free Wi-Fi in each of its churches beginning this summer. The plan is to start with 220 churches and then get on pace to outfit 3000 more church buildings with Wi-Fi by March of next near. While the church authorities are not intending the free Wi-Fi to be used as a recruitment tool, it does look like they are getting a jump on addressing a shortcoming in Germany’s technology. Most other European nations offer more public Wi-Fi than Germany does. The church’s Wi-Fi will be offered at no cost and will involve no passwords. People can enter the building, turn on their smart phone or lap top, and start websurfing and checking email, just like that. The church has decided to call these areas of Wi-Fi Godspots. And while it doesn’t appear these Godspots will enable a connection to God, strictly speaking, they may offer a way for people to connect with each other in cyberspace.

Meanwhile, in this country, hundreds of churches have figured out that they’ve been designated as Pokestops in the past week; that is, places where people can congregate with their smartphones and get more Pokeballs which is what one uses to catch Pokemons (pocket monsters). Apparently it’s a good thing to be a Pokestop. People of all different walks of life may end up gathering to get Pokeballs side-by-side. Some churches have tried to take advantage of their Pokestop status by offering water and places to charge phones to people playing the game. One church even put up a sign: “Come inside for Pokeballs. Stay for Jesus.”

The theme here is connectivity. The church perceives itself—and is often perceived by others—as a place to connect, as a place to send and receive information. As it happens,  our own congregation just spent several thousand dollars from its Endowment Fund disbursement to upgrade our outdated network system. Council last week got a brief explanation about what Cat-6 cable is and what its benefits are.

This morning we see that Jesus’ own disciples sought connectivity in their time. They’ve observed Jesus and how he occasionally withdraws to connect with God, and they’ve watched John the Baptist outfit his disciples with Cat-6 cable, and they reach the conclusion that Jesus must be a Godspot. There is something about how Jesus sends and receives information with God, that intrigues them. And so they come to him and ask him to teach them how he does it.

What’s interesting about Jesus’ response is that it is so specific. He could have just answered that there is no right or wrong way to pray, or he could have responded by saying, “Do your own thing,” or “Just enter the mystery of God and the words will come to you.” Some people may have found those types of response helpful, and in some sense they are also true, but Jesus actually gives his disciples a clear and definite pattern for prayer, for the language we use to connect with God. We can even assume it was the language Jesus himself was using in his own prayers. Nowadays, given the way they teach songs at VBS, we might assume he’d give each line hand motions, too.

The Lord’s Prayer, as it has come to be known, is a comprehensive prayer that in a very simple but very thoughtful way helps frame our most basic needs in terms of God’s grace.

One writer has noted that when the disciples ask Jesus about prayer, he responds by teaching them about the type of God they have. It begins by recognizing that God is a divine parent, a heavenly Father, who can be addressed not with fancy, flowery language like you would a king or queen, but with the very words you would use to talk to your closest friend.

In fact, the very first word Jesus uses to address God and wants his followers to address God is best translated as “Daddy.” To pray that this Daddy’s name be made holy does not mean that our words have some special effect on God’s nature but it acknowledges that while God is set apart from the ordinary, he also has the power to come into our ordinary lives and establish his reign. When God does this, his kingdom does come to us. And that kingdom is not necessarily a physical place with a castle or a wall, but any time and place when God’s sovereignty is realized, when God’s love and mercy is seen and known.

Adult and youth leaders this week provided the opportunity for over a hundred young children to experience the kingdom come during our Vacation Bible School. It is always interesting for me to watch the transformation from the time some of the children first walk in on Monday morning, many of them apprehensive and even frightened of the experience, to the end of the week when they don’t want to leave. Many of them cry when it begins and then cry when it has to end. They’ve felt, even if just for a while, the sense of community and joy that God’s kingdom will eventually bring to all of creation.

One young girl who is not a church member here sobbed in the hall on the first day, crying, “Daddy, daddy, daddy,” because her father had dropped her off and she felt lonely. I believe her heavenly Daddy must have heard that as a prayer because pretty quickly she came to know He was very much present with her. One of the youth group volunteers came up beside her, sat down with her and comforted her and slowly integrated her into the class. Imagine how that young girl now will perceive connecting with God in church. Imagine how any person entering a church or encountering a Christ-follower out in the world would perceive God’s kingdom coming if Jesus’ disciples were to come alongside the suffering with such parent-like tenderness.

Once Jesus tells his disciples to begin with God’s name and God’s kingdom, the Lord’s prayer focuses on the three basic needs that humans have. Daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance. Daily bread, as Martin Luther explains, is not just food, but anything we need each day for life. Like the manna that the ancient Israelites gathered every morning, Jesus instructs his disciples to concentrate on what is needed only for this day.

Forgiveness, as the prayer implies, is never something that happens in a vacuum. We often think of it this way, however…as if whatever happens between me and God stays that way. However, God’s forgiveness, even if it is held and announced privately in the heart of one person, is always something that affects the whole community. When God forgives us, we are made new. A change occurs in us that cannot help but be shared, then, with others around us, which is why Jesus, in this prayer, links God’s mercy to us with our mercy to others.

To pray for deliverance from evil or the time of trial is a realization that God is ultimately responsible for our salvation from the world’s brokenness, that at some point all our accomplishments and all our accolades will not be able to help us overcome death or estrangement from our Creator. That task will be up to God, and it is good news that the one who is teaching us this prayer is also the one who will go to the utter end and experience total estrangement on the cross on our behalf. He will place himself in the very time of trial for us. When it comes to connectivity and connection with God, you see, it is ultimately not our prayers or our words that do the trick, but God’s decision in Jesus to be with us in the hall when we’re crying, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” in the moment of need, at the point of loss and suffering.

Because I think all of us, at some point, have struggled with prayer. We’ve stumbled over how to put our feelings and thoughts into words that God would like and understand. We get intimidated by God’s holiness and purity—and the fanciness of church—especially when it’s matched up with our imperfect speech. We expect our prayers to be eloquent if God will hear them.

And while Jesus clearly gives us a pattern to follow and some words that will never get worn out, Jesus also assures his disciples that God hears and listens with our true needs in mind, just like a father will give what’s best for his child and a friend will come through in the middle of the night for a buddy in need. There are no special words you need to say when you knock on a neighbor’s door for a loaf of bread in the middle of the night when you’re trying to help someone else. It’s in the knocking itself when the petition occurs. The point is not necessarily the words, but the position we are in when we come before God…not as people crafting a list to Santa Claus or a person forming a To-Do list for a lackey but as a child who is in need…a child in need of love and guidance…a child who trusts and listens.

A year or so ago Melinda and I were having some friends over for dinner. One of the people coming over had been diagnosed with something serious and was preparing for some intense and risky treatment. Believe it or not I stressed for days about how I was going to offer a prayer that would appropriately call attention that situation but not get overwhelmingly emotional or make it too central. I tried to think about what exactly I was praying for and how to craft the right words. The moment finally came. We all circled up and joined hands for prayer. All my time for preparation and forethought had run out and I was going to have to open my mouth and pray something. I bowed my head and closed my eyes and then words began to flow…

But they weren’t my words. Nothing was coming out of my mouth. They were words from a familiar voice that surprised me. One of the children among us—an 8-year-old in this congregation—had seized the moment before I had, in front of all those people, like a child humbly asking for an egg or a fish. So natural, so pleading, so confident. “Now where in the world did she learn to do that?” I thought to myself. Who has modeled talking to God like God’s just a friend or a parent who needs no magic words but who listens and knows what we need? Ah-ha! People in her community of Jesus-followers must be teaching her prayer, must be helping to connect her to her heavenly Father.

Oh, that they could teach me again! And again! This place, I realized, must be some kind of Godspot, after all.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 12C/Proper 7C] - June 19, 2016 (Luke 8:26-39)

"The Gerasene Demoniac" Sebastian Boudon (1653)
I imagine a lot of people who are already a little skeptical about the reality of some of the stories in the Bible probably hear this one from Luke’s gospel about Jesus visiting the country of the Gerasenes and it puts them right over the edge (pun intended). It contains so many factors that stretch the limits of believability that many people just say, “No way. Someone made up this craziness. There’s no way this really happened or this world really existed.”

I know that even for me, any story that includes a demon possession automatically makes me scratch my head a bit. It seems to be more like the stuff of Hollywood horror flicks---grand but dark imaginations that stray far from the world of facts—than the telling of a true story. After all, we come from a time when very few people, or so we think, receive a diagnosis of demon-possession. Things like that have been explained in terms more acceptable to us now thanks to modern medicine, Freud, and pharmaceuticals. Not only that, but these are no ordinary demons, even by Bible standards. These demons talk out loud! They even have a name, which is weird, and they shout at Jesus when he comes near, as if they know exactly who he is and that he spells danger to them.

The weirdness doesn’t stop with the demons and their voices. There’s this part about the pigs running down the hill and plunging into the sea to their deaths. I mean, what did the pigs ever do? Where is PETA when we need them? It’s a genu-swine case of scape-pigging: the poor hogs don’t have anything at all to do with the demons, but they get tagged with all the ill effects and run out of town.

To make things even harder to believe, the man, of course, is healed instantly (when does that ever happen?!?), and we hear that in the span of one moment he goes from being a man bound by chains in public, living in the tombs, and driven into the margins of society to a man freed from torment, sitting placidly at the feet of Jesus the next. Yes, it is altogether reasonable that we, from our cool, rationalist and scientific perspective, would judge this story—this event, this world these people are telling us about—as totally crazy, unbelievable, and…if real…then a terrible place to be.

And yet, I wonder what a person from first-century Gerasene would say if they could look at just one or two weeks from the 21st-century America. They’d probably say, “Look! That’s a totally unrealistic world! Somebody’s making these stories up! It looks like they’ve got demons everywhere! Practically no one is in their right mind! For one thing, a few of them, every so often, will walk into churches, schools, bars, movie theaters, and shoot people. Then everyone else has this amazing, immediate ability through this strange power they call social media to let thousands of other people know what they’re thinking as they think it. They rush to judgment about each other and drive all kinds of people to the margins of society, except they don’t use chains and shackles anymore, but labels and unfair judgments and uninformed opinions. They scape-pig, or scapegoat, like it’s going out of style, blaming everything on everyone else, especially if they look or act different. Their religious leaders are often the worst at this! They all act like they’ve become experts in every matter, and although this ability to Tweet, post, and communicate digitally with each other should be bringing them together, it more often than not causes them to retreat into like-minded camps so that all they really listen to is those who already agree with them! And…look at all the bacon they eat! They’re concerned about this one herd, but look at the conditions they raise their livestock in to support their pork habit! There is no way a world like that could exist! And if it does, it sounds terrible!”

God’s creation is broken. Whether we view it through 1st century eyes or 21st century eyes, we can pretty quickly reach the conclusion that there is a whole lot of pain and heartache in the world, that things are not as they should be, that we are separated from each other by all kinds of anger and mistrust. Yes, there is good too, but sometimes the evil is just too overwhelming. Whether it is on a global scale, like the legions of atrocities of the so-called Islamic State, Boko Haram, or the gangs of central America…or whether it’s national, like the tragedies in Orlando and last year’s Charleston shooting…or local, like the tragic death Friday night of a beloved Godwin teacher and mentor, we are stunned by its presence and terrified by our vulnerability. Whether it raises its head in specific, violent events or whether it lurks like an undertow beneath the surface of everything in currents of racism and prejudice it still does immeasurable damage to us.

The issue with the land of the Gerasenes, which was a shadowy country of non-Jews lying somewhere across Lake Galilee from the region where Jesus and his disciples grew up, is that they seem to have gotten very accustomed to the presence of evil. It terrifies them, for sure. They try to shackle it and keep it under guard, even if it keeps breaking loose and causing trouble. People who are consumed by self-destructive impulses no one can control are so feared that they are allowed to live only at the margins. However, once such people are freed from their affliction, once Jesus makes this man whole and places him in his right mind, the people of Gerasene don’t rejoice or look for more healing. They become seized with great fear. They don’t know how to handle this sudden gift of freedom and peace. They don’t all suddenly draw nearer to Jesus, amazed by his power to overthrow the evil in their midst. That’s what usually happens. No, the Gerasenes ask Jesus to leave.

Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston
I was recently speaking with someone who was going through a tough time. She was talking about the tendency, whenever she was dealing with difficult challenges and loss, to look at what others were going through and momentarily wish she could trade places. The grass, I suppose, is always looks less brown in someone else’s yard. But whenever she’d complain this way as a kid, this person’s mother always used to tell her that if everyone were to toss all their troubles into one pile, people would still go through and pick theirs out.

That’s the Gerasenes, I suppose. They’ve gotten used to living with all the brokenness in their own way. They’ve made space for it, even if that space was at the edge of society and not entirely controllable. Some biblical historians say that the Gerasenes were more concerned with the economic loss from the lost pig herd than with the healing of the man. Others say that their rejection of Jesus shows that his mission is still, at least for the moment, primarily to the sons and daughters of Israel. Whatever the case, it’s pretty clear that the Gerasene people see Jesus and his ministry of restoring wholeness and placing people back into community with one another as some kind of a threat. They don’t want new struggles, even if they are positive. They like status quo. They’re quite content to keep things as they are, even if it means that some people have to bear the brunt of the world’s brokenness more than others.

And here Jesus does something we might think at first strange: he actually leaves. He turns immediately around, for he has just gotten off the boat, and goes back to Galilee. He doesn’t force himself and his viewpoints on the Gerasenes, he doesn’t tell them they’re wrong, he doesn’t talk smack about them. He shows true strength by letting go and true compassion by honoring their desires.

But he does not leave them unchanged. The man who is now in his right mind is denied the opportunity to come with Jesus and instead told to stay home. The Gerasenes may still be content to live with their status quo, but in their midst now is someone who has been set free, someone who has experienced the power of the gospel. He’s like the reverse of a scape-goat. In a scape-goat scenario you pin all the troubles to one person or one group and let them pay the price for everyone’s sin, running them out of the village or the country. Here, all the hope and joy of new life in Jesus is given to one man and he is sent back into the community with a mission to share it. He becomes an icon of hope in a land of fear, a storyteller in a land that doesn’t want to listen, a believer in a land of doubt, a lover in land of hate.

Sometimes I sense we are overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world today. It’s like everyone is dumping out all their troubles and the pile has gotten far too large. We know ours are in there, but they seem in some way connected to it all. No one seems to have any decent answers for which directions we’re supposed to take, which makes it all the easier to fall into the trap of wanting to go back to the way things were, whatever that means. But today I know I’m looking at dozens of storytellers, a hundred or so of icons of hope who have been set free by God’s grace. Today Jesus’ boat has landed once again on the shore of this strange land filled with demons and with his love and forgiveness he is putting us in our right mind. On the cross he is taking on the brokenness of the whole world, and running headlong off the cliff of despair into the abyss for us.

And now I suppose you could say we are all reverse scape goats, running off to wherever “home” may be with the task simply to talk about what God has done for us. No one can argue with that, even on Facebook! No one can argue with what you say God has done for you. We all run out into communities that are sorely divided, and talk about a Savior who gathers a community where divisions have no proper place, where folks are no longer slave or free, or Gerasene or Galilean, or male and female. It’s a place where the undertow of racism and class or gender distinctions are to be wiped away. We are sent out by Jesus into a 21st century crazy, unbelievable world that is susceptible just to make space for its legions of demons and point, insistently, but not coercively to the One who will overthrow them.

And soon and very soon we will be living in the kingdom—not of Gerasene, but the kingdom of God—belonging to Christ, heirs according to his promise. And all of creation will be like that hymn we sang, where every line and every life will end with the words, “May Jesus Christ be praised, may Jesus Christ be praised!”


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.