Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 17B/Lectionary 22] - August 30, 2015 (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)



I received contact this week from a former Epiphany member who moved away not long ago and is now attending a congregation with her family in her new town. She emailed me because she is trying to begin an acolyte ministry there and she wanted to know whether we had any kind of paperwork or documentation about an acolyte’s duties: when do the candles get lit and extinguished and in what order, when do you face the altar…things like that. We already knew that our Epiphany acolytes were pretty good, but what this says to me, of course, is that now we have the chance to set the standard for acolytes everywhere! Our routines will be copied, our middle school worship leaders will be famous. Pretty soon, people may be asking for their autographs! I can see it now…

In the end, I contacted our acolyte coordinator and trainer, and she sent me a brief one-page list of duties that I passed on, but it not before I had a chance to share what I had learned once as a young acolyte, myself. I remember Clarence Dixon drilling the rules and regulations into our heads: Never extinguish the candle on the left without first putting on the candle on the right. (They are symbolic of Christ’s divinity and humanity). Always step down off the altar stair before turning around to find your seat. There were a few more guidelines, too.

This was not our altar. It is a Google image. But still...could you imagine?
My buddy Adam and I thought we were acolyte experts. On festival Sundays we would acolyte together because there were so many candles and I promise you we made it look like synchronized diving. But on the Sundays where we worshiped in the pews, we were constantly grading the others, and if we noticed a deviation from the established laws of acolyting, well, we’d make sure ol’ Clarence Dixon would put them in their place. But ol’ Clarence Dixon was the nicest guy ever.  He wasn’t going to say anything to anyone.

The reality, of course, there are no real rules to acolyting, and there is no official theology behind the order of lighting the candles. Symbolism and guidelines may vary from church to church, and I made sure I explained that to the woman this week who emailed. But my own strict adherence to the “tradition of the elders,” back in the day is an example of what puts off so many people to religion, isn’t it? The fixation with following certain ways and certain rituals—many of which feel secret and unexplained—is so alienating and unfriendly to most people.

It seems there is plenty of this kind of stuff in the headlines nowadays, and about things far more serious than wearing robes and lighting candles. We’ve had a couple of high-profile individuals and groups who champion their faith as a strict set of rules and regulations that must be followed at all costs. In some cases, it turns out that the rules and regulations haven’t even fully been followed by the people who were championing them.

I’m no expert on religious groups, but the existence of organizations like Westboro Baptist Church, Al-Qaeda, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State reveal that there is something about rigid rule-following that resonates with human beings. I wonder what kind of impression these manifestations of religious tradition give people about faith and, by extension, God, especially in our society. While those in bleak, impoverished surroundings may be comforted by the structure provided by a set of traditions and rules, those who live in more diverse, affluent societies probably aren’t. I wonder if the disproportionate voice of these groups and other people like them—and I’m sure even us at times—is the reason for the rise in society of those who now claim “no religious affiliation.”

And yet, at the same time so many are claiming “no religious affiliation,” we look around and notice will be so doggedly religious about so many other things: what kinds of things we eat or won’t, how much we work out and train our bodies, the devotion and attention we give to sports teams and other hobbies, the way we craft our high school transcript or resumé. It would seem that people are, in fact, so less “religiously affiliated” than we always have been. We’re just starting to be religious about different things.

This kind of shift in religion—or perceived shift—is what Jesus is confronted with this morning when the Pharisees start asking him about the rules and religious values of his followers. You see, they notice that his disciples aren’t extinguishing the altar candles in the right order. More specifically, they aren’t following the ritual cleanliness laws that some Jewish groups had done for so long.

According to the Pharisees’ traditions, one was supposed to wash hands in a very visible, particularly thorough way before eating. This custom had little to do with disinfecting hands from germs; it had to do with a system of living that saw everything having a particular spot in the world. There was a strict hierarchy—from things that were unclean at the bottom to things that were holy at the very top—and ritual cleanliness laws were designed to keep things in those proper places. The act of washing hands in a certain way that most likely involved cupping the hands and letting the water rush all the way up to the elbows was enough, taught the law-following Pharisees, to return the dirt and dust of the world back to their proper place so that one may eat, which was a holy event. It was all designed to give order to a chaotic existence, which isn’t such a bad thing, perhaps, but over time the Pharisees had more or less turned their relationship with God into an elaborate system of these types of cleanliness laws.

Jesus the whole time has been steadily shifting the understanding of religion to something different, something that Isaiah and other prophets before him had also tried to do. Rather than being so focused on this outward order of the world, assigning things and objects like bronze kettles and market produce to certain categories of cleanliness, Jesus is concerned about what lies within each of us. Rather than giving so much attention to what might affect us from outside, Jesus repeatedly points out how we’re influenced by our hearts and desires. 

I don’t know if the disciples were put off by the Pharisees’ religious hypocrisy, since the Pharisees often decided which cleanliness laws they wanted to follow and which ones weren’t convenient in any given moment. I don’t know if Jesus’ followers were able to fully grasp this dramatic new teaching whereby he basically gets rid of basically all the purification rituals and old food restrictions that the Pharisees loved, but they certainly are drawn to Jesus’ new understanding of what makes a person unclean because they do stop washing their hands, even when it draws criticism.

How about us? Do we hear that Jesus has invited us into this renewed relationship with God where we become aware of the things that defile us not from the world, but from within? Are we aware that Christ has called us not into a life of rituals and rule-following (although sometimes rituals and rules will be a part of it), but into a living faith where God forgives us and renews us? Do we recognize that this forgiveness and renewal comes not through the washing of hands, the labeling and ordering of the outside world, or the order and style in which we do worship or light the candles, but through the word of grace in Jesus?

The other day I was playing a geography game with one of my daughters and a question about the Blarney Stone in Ireland came up.

my aunt kissing the Blarney Stone
“What’s the Blarney Stone?” she asked, intrigued. I explained how it was a big rock in a castle in Ireland that people kiss in order to receive good luck or the gift of gab.

I told her that her mother and her great aunt, among other people, had once kissed the Blarney Stone on a trip to Ireland.

Disgusted, she declared, “Well, if I were to kiss it, I’d wipe it with a Handi-wipe first.”

While that may good advice on some level, such a response illustrates the true danger that Jesus sees in the way that the Pharisees are living out their religion. He knows the world is searching for a people who love God and God’s commandments…but one who invites others into the life with Jesus without presenting it with a Handi-wipe first. The world is longing watching to see not how many times this people washes its hands, but how it deals honestly with the sin that lies within.

For, you see, the world—that is, those who perceive themselves to be outside this people—knows there is always a temptation among all people of faith to look upon the world with some level of contempt. That contempt can still get the best of us, and we reach for the Handi-wipe. We distrust the world, we blame it for all that we see that’s wrong and corrupting. We keep it at bay…we erect walls in our hearts to keep it out…we label it and organize it into good and bad. To be honest, some wariness of the world and caution through life is helpful and good, but if we’re not careful, wariness of the world will turn into hatred of the world, and Jesus, my friends, never hates the world. Jesus never condescendingly approaches the world. Jesus loves the world. Jesus eats with the sinners for the sake of the world. Jesus touches lepers in order to heal the world.

You know, he’s actually been on this religion-shifting kick for a while, patiently demonstrating for his disciples how to love God’s commandments for real. We should take our cues from him about how to engage the world. And let us also take from Jesus cues about that fact which we forget all-too-easily in our suspicion of everything else: that the unclean parts we really need to worry about are within us.

Jesus shifts the ground on that, too, and far beyond reforming or updating any system of purification and cleanliness, he chooses to go to the cross and die for our sins and make us clean. He chooses to identify himself with the most unclean, most distant from God in order to make us clean. This cleansed life—this life wiped-clean by the blood of his cross—is what he invites us to live. This cleansed life, we might say, is probably what Clarence Dixon was driving at, if I had been listening. It’s more about making sure that the light of Christ is shining for others to see than it is about making sure we have lit the candle in the proper way.

I ran across a hymn this week that had just been written for today’s lessons by Presbyterian pastor Carolyn Gillette who serves a congregation in Delaware. Sung to the tune of a well-known hymn melody, today I offer two of its last stanzas as a prayer:


Forgive us, Lord Jesus, for caring too much
For rules and traditions and standards and such.
For while they are useful and good in their place,
In keeping them, sometimes we overlook grace.

O Lord, may appearances match what’s inside.
Take all our hypocrisy, hatred and pride.
Lord, fill us with good things from heaven above,
Till old ways and new ways are bursting with love.
[1]



Amen!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.




[1] Carolyn Gillette, 2015, used with permission

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 14B/Lectionary 19] - August 9, 2015 (John 6:35, 41-51)


 
“Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus makes a lot of very bold claims about himself, but these promises about no longer hungering and no longer thirsting are some of the most impressive. No longer being hungry? Never again being thirsty? Really? It all sounds like a bit of an exaggeration, doesn’t it?

On the one hand, you and I can be pretty sure, I think, that he’s not talking about a physical hunger of the body or of a thirst that’s felt in the mouth, but I wonder how these bold words are heard, for example, for those who literally do not have enough food, for those who must travel miles to get clean water, for those who must send their children to bed most nights with grumbling stomachs? Do they feel that Jesus has satisfied some hunger within?

What about those who have some type of emotional hunger? What about, for example, people who thirst for another person on this planet to befriend them honestly and fully, those who hunger for companionship, or those who thirst for some type of closure to a pain or regret that still lingers. Are they supposed to feel as though Jesus satisfies that longing, too? Is the presence of Jesus somehow expected to fulfill those deep crevices of the heart?

Perhaps, then, we say, Jesus is talking about spiritual hunger. That is, the terms hunger and thirst here are metaphorical, not physical or psychological. Jesus, as the bread of life, satisfies a particular hunger and thirst of our spirit. Like bread to people in a first century, middle-eastern economy, Jesus is a staple intended for daily intake which we receive into our souls. In this sense, then, Jesus is enough, and will quench the spiritual longings we experience.

That sounds fine on many levels, but, then, what about that feeling some have—maybe even you—that there are things about Jesus that don’t compute, or that don’t answer all the questions they have about life, death, and the important things in life. We take Jesus, we say we know him, but deep within we still find ourselves at times grumbling and complaining like the Israelites in the wilderness, like the crowd of Jewish leaders who don’t understand what Jesus is talking about. We hear and worship Jesus, but sometimes we still feel an emptiness that one may describe as hunger.

There’s a line in one of U2’s most famous songs that voices this perfectly. The song itself is written almost like a creed. The singer states in simple form things he knows to be true about his life, things he’s achieved. And then, right at the end, he mentions his relationship with Jesus:

“You broke the bonds/
And you loosed the chains/
Carried the cross of my shame/
Oh my shame, you know I believe it.
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”


It’s been a magnificently popular song in large part because it gives voice to that spiritual hunger anyone might deal with, even those who are so sure of what Jesus has done for them. There is a sense that each of us may know and trust Jesus, but sometimes we still feel ourselves searching, wandering. All this is true, and yet Jesus’ words still hang out there in the air for us to deal with:“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.”

The people Jesus is talking with in this morning’s lesson, the Jewish leaders and the crowd of people who are tracking him down after his sign of multiplying the bread and the loaves, are familiar with the story of bread from their ancestors’ lives. They would have remembered the story about ancient Israel’s hunger in the wilderness and how God provided them bread from heaven, called manna. And when they thought about that bread they would have thought about something that could be collected, possessed, passed out. When the next day’s hunger came, they simply went about getting more manna, picking it up, claiming it as their own.

One of the differences that Jesus, the bread of life, wants them—and us—to see is that he is not something that can be picked up, collected, owned. Jesus doesn’t say, for example, “Whoever has me will never be hungry” or “Whoever possesses me,” or “Whoever has asked me into their heart” will never be thirsty. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me.”

In fact, what he says to those crowds is a perfect echo of the first words he ever speaks in John’s gospel. When the first disciples asks Jesus where he is staying, Jesus responds, “Come and see.” “Come” is a word of invitation, a word of ongoing relationship, a word of friendship. Jesus means to offer himself a little differently than God offered the manna. He has been given by the Father to draw people in. Faith in him is a process, then, not a moment or a single event. It is ongoing, not once and done. It involves coming to him, learning to believe, seeing over and over, sometimes more clearly than others, how we are made a part of his body, and if a part of his body, then an individual that will be raised to eternal life.

At some point we begin to understand that with Jesus, God has begun to address the main hunger we each deal with even though we may not admit it: It is the hunger caused by our mortality, our separation from God through death. It is the hunger caused by our fear that God is not with us in suffering, the thirst that our poor souls will cry and not be heard by the Lord. And on the cross, that hunger is truly satisfied. That thirst is fully quenched.

In the first congregation I served I spent a good bit of time eating with a small group of women who formed the last living core of what used to be a large WELCA circle. About once every three months I’d drive them in my car down to Mary Lux’s house, which was in a community about 45 minutes south of Pittsburgh. Sometimes we’d pick up Mary, age 92, and take her with us to a little Italian restaurant called Woody’s, but every once in a while, especially when the weather was nice, the women would actually make lunch ahead-of-time, pack it in porcelain and Tupperware containers, and take it to Mary’s and we’d eat a little picnic together on her back patio.

And as I sat there and listened to these 80 and 90-year-old women share food and talk, I began to notice that they usually prepared dishes that their late friends had been known for, recipes that had been shared by friends in their circle who were now deceased. Leah would pick up some dish on the table and, taking a spoonful, would ask, “Oh, is this the chicken salad that Martha used to make?”

“Yes,” Helen would answer. “That’s her recipe.”

At the table on Mary Lux's back patio, preparing for communion (c. 2005)
And if it wasn’t Martha’s chicken salad the next time we got together, maybe it was Betty’s cornbread, or Gladys’s lemon bars. I bet if they tasted it with their eyes closed it was almost as if Martha, or Betty, or Gladys were there, the sweet memories of decades of women’s luncheons and church picnics, baptism parties and funeral dinners flooding from the past into the present. And as they broke bread, as they ate, they found the friendship still nurturing them, the hunger and thirst of communion with their friends satisfied, at least until the next time they gathered and passed those dishes around. It took several of these visits to Mary’s before I realized that I was receiving a better lesson on Holy Communion than I’d ever received in seminary. On Mary’s simple backyard patio, we were being drawn each time to the presence of those blessed relationships, and food was filling far more than a physical hunger.

At the worship conference Kevin Barger and I attended last month in Atlanta, one of the presenters encouraged us to think about the ways in which our worship is or is not addressing the world’s hunger for community. It is a form of community that government can never offer.

It is not even the kind of community that family can offer. Does what we do here bring about an encounter with the God we trust so that that trust is strengthened? Those questions are good to ask, but just when my mind started to spin out into all kinds of thoughts about music styles and liturgy and preaching and reading the Bible, the presenter got very concrete: “It is to a table,” the presenter said, “that worship draws us.” Indeed, Jesus doesn’t say, “I am the good, helpful thoughts of life.” He says he is the bread of life. Mary, Helen and Leah demonstrated that. It is to a table, away from the distractions of the world, where God intends to assemble us and remind us that his grace is about a relationship, not possession.

It is around a table that we gather, sharing and praying with one another and for another, even as we complain about world and its ongoing suffering. It is around a table that God draws us extending that invitation to all people again and again: Come to me. Come and see.

And around this table we pass the bread and cup and remember that the body was given up for us and that the blood was poured out for us. We do these things and we remember, yes, that he’s broken the bond and loosed the chains, carried the cross of our shame. And, by the by, as we taste and see these things a hunger begins to fade away. We are drawn once more to a God that loves and forgives and feeds us forever.

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 13B] - August 2, 2015 (Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and John 6:24-35)


 
When you go on a trip, especially a long one, are you the type of person who packs snacks? Do you always have a little bag of goodies in the car or a stash of granola bars in your purse or pocket? I, for one, am terrible at remembering to pack snacks, so I’d like to travel with you.

I think it’s all because my parents never let us eat in the car when we were growing up. They didn’t like messes. If we got hungry on a long car trip, we felt our needs were essentially ignored. In fact, I have many vivid memories of being thirsty and begging my parents to stop for something to drink. “We have plenty of drinks at home,” they’d say, without even looking in the back seat. “We’ll be there in just four hours.”

Perhaps it was a good policy, in many ways. Saved lots of money…kept us healthier…strengthened our endurance. And, of course, it really caused us to focus on that destination.

Fortunately for me, I married someone whose family were master snack packers. When the Martin-mobile sets out nowadays we’re usually stocked to the gills: fruit, crackers and cheese, chips, cookies. One peep of complaint from the back seat or—as is more likely—the driver’s seat, and Melinda just tosses over something to nibble on.

"Jews gathering the manna in the desert" Poussin (1594-1665)
They are several weeks on their road-trip into the wilderness of Sinai and the people of God are starting to give out more than a peep of complaint. And the trip leaders, Moses and Aaron, look around and realize they haven’t packed any snacks. The destination is still several years—maybe decades—in the future. For a trip that began with such excitement and hope, things have started to get pretty bad pretty quickly.

Therefore, stuck out in the wilderness with no clear direction and nothing good to eat, unsure of what their destination is, they start doing what many folks do when the going gets tough: they start fantasizing about the past. It doesn’t matter that they were slaves back in Egypt. All they can remember is the food. It doesn’t matter that they ultimately had no future back in those days. All they can really focus on is the things that made them happy. They are paralyzed with preoccupations. What they end up saying with their complaining and idealizing of the past is that it would have been better to die with no future than to live with hope as God’s people.

Individuals and congregations, of course, never do anything like this, especially ones with long-range planning teams that have us focused on the future. We never get into a predicament on our journey of life or faith and begin to pine away for what we once had, the church we grew up in, or the way things used to be back in those years when the pews were full every Sunday. Pastors, too, caught up in the stress of parish life, never pine away for the fun times of earlier days, like seminary, for example, or internship, or those lovely days of being an associate pastor. Those things only happened with ancient Israel.

13th century
Regardless, this hungry moment in the road to the Promised Land turns out to be a critical moment for the people of God. It’s a critical moment because they end up receiving manna, this strange, flaky, bread-like substance that falls on the ground each morning and provides just what they need to get through. Apparently it’s nothing to write home about, and it’s not even clear what it really is, which is how it gets its name: Manna means “What is this?” in Hebrew. In other places we learn that it tastes a little like coriander seed.

It may not be the fleshpots of Egypt, but it suffices, and with the manna comes the instruction to collect only enough for one day. This focuses their attention on the present and how God is with them in that moment. It draws them into a new kind of relationship that is daily, portioned out.

The gift of manna also shines the spotlight on the journey itself, so they are not left idolizing the past, nor may they become too preoccupied with the dreamlike destination of the future, that point four hours down the road when they’ll finally get water.

Furthermore, the gathering of manna is a communal event. Typically, when humans get hungry or desperate, our sinful tendencies of rugged individualism set in. It’s each man or woman for him or herself. But the manna is to be collected as a whole. No one can take any more than they need for that day, and they each distribute it in their tents as people have need.

This also turns out to be a critical moment for God who is responsive to the needs of his people. God, in a way, changes tack from showing up for Israel as a powerful, dramatic mover of Red Sea water and deliverer of deadly plagues—a grand deity who moves in big, broad, violent strokes—to a carefully present and attentive God, one who is now even drawn down to the basic, mundane rituals of daily provisions. Israel’s hunger moment becomes a chance for God to rain down something as delicate and as ephemeral as a daily gift of bread. It becomes a chance for God to show that the signs of God’s presence are not always the big, bold, miracles of power. They can even be the ones we practically disregard as we look them over and think to ourselves, “What is this?

This critical moment from Israel’s past and God’s past is what Jesus uses to interpret his presence among the people after he feeds the crowd of 5000 and crosses to the other side of the sea. In a way, his sign with the five loaves and two fish is a throwback to the old days where God worked in flashes of grandeur. At least, that’s how the people see it. They are amazed at the work he has displayed and want more. When will the next miracle happen? When will the next bread come down from the sky, and with such force?

Their actions remind me of those lines from that Foo Fighters’ song:

“I’m looking for the sky to save me/
looking for a sign of life./
I’m looking for something to help me burn out bright.”

They, like God’s people then and now, want the sky to open up save them again, dramatically, if possible, and so they are drawn to the bold, dazzling, events of yesterday, the ones we point to from our past when we were so sure of God’s presence.

But, somewhat disappointingly, Jesus does not see himself as just a miracle-provider. Jesus does not see himself as a representative of a God who works chiefly by swooping down from the sky to save us and whisk us back to the fleshpots of Egypt. Jesus sees himself, rather, as the true bread from heaven, a gift from that second side of God, a morsel of daily sustenance that, when gathered and taken up in faith, provides enough for this day.

Indeed, Jesus is the kind of gift that, when received and consumed, really becomes enough. For you see, his forgiveness never runs out, never gets wormy, never goes stale, never loses its power. His compassionate love never tires, never takes a break, never directs itself inward. And these are what is offered each time we gather around the manna of his words and assemble at the table of his mercy.

And when we do—when we gather around Jesus and his meal—we start to see that, in our sinfulness, we often desire a god who will just move us from miracle to miracle, because we have an insatiable appetite for miracles. When we take his bread and cup, we realize we usually pining for a god who will hear our cry for hunger and immediately pull the car over and give us a feast…or at least point us back in the direction of Egypt.

But when we are graciously brought together to Jesus, and we taste his forgiveness, we are nurtured with his compassion, we begin to understand that the kind of god we often want will not stoop to be with us in our suffering. That kind of god would not eventually go to the cross. That kind of god would not choose the night his friends betray him, when he himself is feeling more than a little abandoned, to offer up his own body because that is not a god of the journey. That is not the God of Israel, the one who has remembered our hunger and who has thought to pack something that will keep us going. That god of our dream-sky is not the God whose blessed presence can be found in each day’s gifts, as insignificant and measly as they may seem,...even when we pick them up and sneer, “What is this?

And yet even when we want that false god of our desires, that god who will only dazzle and amaze, we still come forward, open our hands, and we get the loving, thoughtful one who says, “I am the bread of life.”  And bit by bit, mile by mile, daily bread by daily bread, we learn to put the past in proper perspective, regain hope for the future, and begin to see that this living bread, this gift from heaven—this Savior—is ultimately what gives life to the world.

 

Thanks be to God!


 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks be to God!

 

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

 



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

Sunday, July 12, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Thanks be to God!

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

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus speaks to the storm.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.