Sunday, November 22, 2015

Christ the King [Year B] - November 22, 2015 (John 18:33-37)

The first time they tried to catch him he was just a baby. They sent armies—men with swords and probably torches—in order to hunt him down, killing indiscriminately anyone who matched his description. His crime, if you could call it that, was simply that is birth was inconvenient to some. It’s hard to believe the armies would come after him before he could barely speak, but the word had already gotten out that he was some kind of a threat. In fact, he didn’t need to be able to say a word at all because he himself was the truth. But, being born into dark and risky times, the truth immediately had to flee.

Matthew tells us all about it, about how the father was warned in a dream to leave for Egypt in order to escape the slaughter. He does so, scurrying and hurrying his frightened family out of town while it was still night. They cross the border and, as far as we know, were welcomed in a foreign land for a number of years.

So, you see, the child who was born to give us refuge became first a refugee himself. The child who was born to rule over every land first knew the vulnerability of having no land. The one born to give freedom, began his life on earth captive to fear. That was the first time they tried to catch him, but he got away.

The next time that they tried to catch him he was preaching in the synagogue in his own hometown. There were no armies this time, but instead angry townspeople—probably some of the people who knew him best. There were no swords and torches, either, but a cliff at the edge of town they wanted to hurl him over like their ancestors had done to some of the prophets.

This time his crime (if you may call it that), was preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed. It was suggesting that God’s kingdom was breaking in. The people in the synagogue recognized those words from their Scriptures, but in their judgment he was speaking them dishonestly. He came speaking truth, but the people did not want to have it.

Jesus is in the synagogue at Nazareth
Luke tells us about this episode, how the people stand there, not believing their ears, and wanting him to perform some signs of wonder. If he really is who he implies that he is—that is, the one who brings God’s kingdom—they want to see examples of it right there in Nazareth. To their minds, the things he had done in Capernaum and in the other towns—the healings, the powerful teachings, for example—do not really mean anything until they are duplicated here.

But he does not humor them. Instead, he takes the opportunity to remind them that God’s kingdom does not have national boundaries, that God’s kingdom has always had a habit of occasionally breaking in among foreign people, that God’s truth and grace is often witnessed by people beyond the margins, by those who speak other tongues. And he gives them examples to underscore this truth, examples they would have known: “Remember how the prophet Elijah was sent to the widow way out at Zarephath, and how the Lord did a miracle there? And what about Naaman, the Syrian,” he says, “who was cleansed by the River Jordan at a time when there were plenty of lepers in Israel who could have used a good healing? None of them were our people, were they?”

It’s the truth, but all this does is make them enraged. They rise up against him and drive him to the edge of the cliff. No more of that truth! That was the second time they tried to catch him, but again, he somehow got away.

There were a few other times they tried to catch him. It is mainly John who tells us about those. For example, once a crowd tried to capture him in order to make him king because they were so happy with the way he multiplied bread. The other times, however, he was viewed as an outlaw because the religious authorities didn’t trust his take on the truth even though he told them knowing the truth would make them free. It was the truth about God’s love for the world and the truth about their sin. It was the truth that the Father of the universe was somehow present and active in the life of this one man. It seemed less and less possible that any of them would ever see that, and so they conspire to catch him, to lay their hands on him and do away with him.

"What is Truth. Christ and Pilate" (Nikolai Ge, 1890)
Eventually they succeed. The people capture him and bring him before the leading authorities, and he doesn’t get away. Thinking that swords and torches will be needed they come armed to the hilt, but little do they know that he will remain defenseless. He will remain completely defenseless except for one thing, that one thing he’d had from the beginning: the truth. He holds in his power the truth about God’s almighty love and forgiveness and the truth about their brokenness. As it turns out, that is all that he’ll need to respond to their false accusations and their fear of his agenda.

The representative of the occupying Roman power, Pontius Pilate, is left to question him in his headquarters in Jerusalem and there we see in stark relief just how different these two kingdoms are. The one that Pilate embodies—that is, the one that Pilate and all the Herods and Pharaohs and chief priests and Nazareth and townspeople are party to—is the one that uses swords and torches and violence and bombs and drones and boundaries to influence people and bring them under control. These kingdoms occasionally bring peace and justice, occasionally grant freedom to the captives and hope to the poor, but overall they operate in a world that is broken and afraid and doesn’t always know how to admit it, that they’re methods are incomplete.

The kingdom Jesus lifts up, the one he has represented since he was just a little child, operates according to God’s love. Like God’s mercy, it has no real boundaries, but is always fluctuating, always growing, albeit sometimes with painful slowness. Like God’s compassion, Jesus’ kingdom will always be reaching to pull more people in, rather than push people out.

And that basically sums it up. We could go on, but clearly time with Pilate is running out. The people want this whole episode over, just as they’ve wanted it over ever since Jesus began preaching about it. The truth is too much. They don’t like it. They don’t believe it, and so they do what they know always silences the truth. They nail this King of the Jews to a cross.

Except…it doesn’t silence it this time. This time God changes the course of history, raising up this man and making him victorious over all those attempts to push him out. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus returns, he speaks and preaches a little more to his disciples, and then sends them the Holy Spirit before returning to the place where he began at the foundation of the earth, robed in majesty, and girded with strength at the right hand of his Father.

We are told that we will see him again, in all his glory, and when that time comes, it will be his turn to capture us and all of God’s people. At that point it won’t be about us getting a hold of the truth, but about the truth finally getting a hold on us. The full splendor of God’s glory will spread over all of the universe, and things—all actions, all intentions—will be named for what they are.

In the meantime, the community which he has claimed for himself through the blood of his cross will feel the tension of living in these two kingdoms we see in opposition in Jerusalem—the one Pilate represents and the one brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the meantime, we get to participate in his Risen life which means we will have the opportunity to see him still among us, to remember him standing in weakness before Pilate. We will have the opportunity to remember him, for example, as a child refugee crossing borders in the night, to remember him graciously pronouncing God’s grace to the poor and the captive against the will of his home people.

In this meantime, as one kingdom slowly crumbles and the risen one takes over, we get to testify to the truth that we, too, follow a religious extremist—one who demonstrates love and peacefulness to the extreme, one whose love knows no boundaries, not even the boundary of our death.

In these mean times, let us then to testify to his truth with Word and Water, with morsel of bread and sip of wine, with service to our neighbor and peace to our enemies…the truth that despite the terrorism and despite the poverty, that despite the sorrow and despite our sin, that this Jesus the Crucified really is the King.

And that, because of his love, God will not ever let us get away.




Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 33B/Proper 28B] - November 15, 2015 (Mark 13:1-8)

The world as we know it is coming to an end!

That was the cry of many people across our region just earlier this month. The news was not altogether unexpected, and some had been reluctantly anticipating a change for years, but it was still hard to comprehend that such an illustrious era was in its final days. When it was officially made public, a mixture of shock and respectful thanksgiving flowed throughout the land, followed by substantial worry about what would lie ahead: Frank Beamer had announced his retirement.

The world as we know it is coming to an end! That, too, is the underlying subtext of the debate we are now treated to every November when the supposed “War on Christmas” heats up. Whether it involves the decorations on coffee cups or the political correctness of seasonal greetings, or the placement of nativity scenes on public property, the discussion about Christmas’s place in current culture is really about mourning the loss of privileged status. For decades the Church held a prominence in American culture that seemed to go uncontested. As people in society become less apt to identify with a particular religion, as many congregations continue decline in membership and vitality, those of Christian faith start to feel as if some kind of world is ending...and so we argue about Christmas. There is substantial worry about what lies ahead, for sure, and an anxiety as we shift and adjust to the demands of a new time.

The world as we know it is coming to an end! There were already plenty of examples in the news about how the world order is creaking and straining under the rise of religious extremism, but sadly at least two more were added (that we heard about) in the last three days. Deadly attacks in Beirut and Paris, carried out by the extremist group ISIS, have left hundreds dead and injured. Hundreds of thousands of refugees who are fleeing similar acts that happen every day in Syria and northern Iraq stand stranded at the borders of Europe and other countries. Millions more across the world, filled with anxiety about issues of security are wondering, if not exactly with these precise words, “Is the world as we know it coming to an end?”

A reconstructed model of the temple at the time of Jesus
It is helpful in times like these to pause for a moment and realize that these are not the first times this question has been wondered, and we are far from the first to ask it. Jesus himself gave warning to his disciples as they marveled at the structure and size of the Temple in Jerusalem that they, too, would live through times when it would feel the world was coming to an end. There would be wars and rumors of wars and a type of pandemonium would ensue. Even the Temple in Jerusalem would be torn down.

When Jesus says this to his disciples, they must have thought he was exaggerating. The Temple in Jerusalem was humongous. It was very likely the largest main-made structure his country-bumpkin disciples had ever seen. In fact, Herod’s newly-renovated and expanded masterpiece might well have been considered one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world. And the Temple did not just loom large physically. It was near and dear to the hearts of many. Because the Jewish people understood the Temple to be the place on earth where God actually dwelt, it was revered emotionally and spiritually. Although it had already fallen once, back in the days when the Babylonian army rolled through, to hear Jesus say that it would fall one day was still unimaginable. The stones, themselves, were too large to imagine as crumbled. If it happened, it would mean God would have nowhere left to dwell. And that could only mean that the world as they knew it was ending.

As Jesus’ words about the destruction of the Temple sink in, the group of disciples walks over to the Mount of Olives and we hear in their questions to Jesus some of the most commons human responses that arise from terror and anxiety and concern that our sense of security is under attack.  For example, Peter, James, John and Andrew immediately want to know when it will all occur. Being able to pinpoint an exact time and map out a precise schedule for how events will unfold does a lot to calm fears. Isn’t that true about everything—What’s the semester going to bring? When will I meet my future spouse? When will the doctors know the results of the latest scan? If Jesus himself is suggesting that the times will become turbulent, we can understand the disciples’ desire to have some details.

The Fall of the Jerusalem Temple (Francesco Hayez)
The second thing the disciples wonder as they sit back overlooking the Temple is what the specific signs will be. This is crucial, for if you aren’t able to know the specific time that things will change, then the second best is to know what to see in order to anticipate living differently. Or—as in the case of certain military groups that have an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world ideology—if you are privy to the precise signs, you can lead people astray and attempt to manipulate world events and cause terror in order to bring about the signs that supposedly indicate a change in your favor.

It’s all puzzling stuff, and I don’t know what you’ve noticed, but I’ve found, generally-speaking, that peoples and groups that have relative power don’t like to talk about these topics as much. Maybe they consider the “end-of-the-world” scenarios passé or too Hollywood-y. Then again, if the times at hand benefit their well-being, overall, it would stand to reason that they really wouldn’t look for things to change, or they’d pooh-pooh people who clamor for it. Apocalyptic literature generally arises out of communities that are suffering mass oppression, those who look around them and see no hope and realize God is going to have to take charge from outside the system.

What we should really find interesting here, however—at least I do—is that Jesus does not give them direct answers to either of their questions. His concern with the fall of the Temple and the vague mention of conflict is less with when and what precisely will happen and more about how faithful people should live. Because the truth of the matter is that the world as we know it has been coming to an end ever since that first Good Friday, when we saw the depth of God’s love for the world. The truth of the matter is that although the Temple would fall, God has already decided to take up residence elsewhere: in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And again through the work of God’s Holy Spirit in the lives of the faithful on earth. Because of the cross of Jesus, we live in God’s new age, and death, as terrifying as it can be, does not have the final word. It is a new age, and evil, as often as it rattles its weapons and straps on its bomb vests, will not ultimately triumph.

The only clear instructions Jesus gives his disciples as they wonder and worry about the new times at hand is this: “Do not be led astray” and “Do not be alarmed.” As God’s people, our focus should not be on attempting to figure out precisely what is going to happen in the years ahead and more with wondering how we can respond to whatever happens in a Christlike way. As followers of Crucified and Risen One, our energies are better spent by serving our neighbor and taking part in the suffering of the world that with interpreting events and signs in order to see if they fit in some broad symbolic pattern or code.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
For a few, this call to remain unafraid and to involve ourselves in the world’s struggles will involve high profile acts of courage and even martyrdom. One example people like to remember is that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in World War II. He spoke out against the Nazi regime and got involved in a plot to take down Hitler, but was caught and then imprisoned in a concentration camp. You can hear his strong confidence in the ultimate triumph of God’s goodness in the words of our Hymn of the Day today, which he wrote just months before he was executed.

For others this calm fearlessness looks like taking part in large demonstrations of peaceful solidarity in support of others, a powerful example of which we saw on Friday night after the attacks in Paris. In spite of their grief, large numbers of crowds poured onto the streets in the dark, holding up simply-worded signs that Jesus himself might have written, each letter illuminating the night: NOT AFRAID.

For most of us, though, I imagine heeding Jesus’ words to not be afraid in world where Jesus’ grace is on the advance will look like small but no less meaningful sacrifices of time and talent that benefit our neighbors. It will look, I believe, like some of our HHOPE pantry and Vacation Bible School volunteers this summer. After learning through their outreach efforts that our congregation is immediately surrounded by several immigrant and underserved families,  they developed a plan to invite them and then transport them to Vacation Bible School this past July. They translated our VBS promotional materials into Spanish and distributed them with the food. Then Cecil Baecher and one of our college youth drove the church van and picked up three neighborhood kids every day. At first the young children were apprehensive to join in, but by mid-week they were practically running out of their houses and jumping in the van.  That following Saturday, when VBS had ended, one family drove in to pick up food at the pantry. The child in the car was upset that they weren’t coming to Bible School, but when he saw Cecil standing out directing traffic he exclaimed to his mom, “Look! There’s my friend! See? He’s waiting for me to come inside!”

NOT AFRAID…neither driver nor child.

Not afraid to reach out and form new friendships.

Not afraid to live into a new age of hope and promise under the guidance of a Risen Savior.

The writer to the Hebrews offers some direction this morning, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The world as we know it is coming to an end, God dwells even now with God’s people, and will bring everything—ev-er-y-thing—to a glorious conclusion.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

All Saints Day [Year B] - November 1, 2015 (John 11:32-44)

Halloween should always be on Saturday night.

With the pressure of a school night off, and with an extra hour from the time change, our streets were crawling with more kinds of characters deeper into the evening than they usually are. I saw Ironman, Batman, Superman, and Spiderman. There were witches, too, but more zombies than I think I’ve ever seen. Darth Vader was out and about (no doubt in anticipation of his movie’s release), but far outnumbered was he by white plastic-clad Stormtroopers that lurked around every corner. At one point I saw Jake from the Neverland Pirates, a particularly cute bumblebee and about twenty-two Elsas from Disney’s Frozen.

Halloween should always be on Saturday night. It just gives us more time to soak in this age-old tradition of mocking death and all the things of the dark.

Pity, then, I saw no Lazaruses, last evening, even with all that creativity. For if anyone could mock death, it would be him, and maybe his sisters, too. If anyone could thumb his nose at the fear of the dark, the zomb-i-fied stench of the closed-in tomb, it would be Lazarus, brought back from decay by Jesus’ word. Four days in the grave!? A Lazarus could mock death, for sure. He could tell it to be gone, for he knows the power of the resurrection and the life.

"Raising of Lazarus" Giotto
Just look at the scene that surrounds his burial cave! The drama is as intense as any episode of the Walking Dead! When this scene, which is the last of seven major signs, or miracles, in John’s gospel, was depicted in ancient art and iconography illustrators tried so hard to make sure the whole range of action was conveyed in one still scene. Often it took up one whole wall of a church fresco. The women are weeping over to one side, along with some of their sympathetic friends. Mary kneels, of course, her eyes on Jesus as she pleads. The by-standers are there with their sleeves held up to their noses to mask the odor. Jesus, typically in the center of these paintings, has his hands raised as if he is calling…and then Lazarus, out of the dark, is emerging from the tomb, bands of cloth already beginning to unravel from his body and face in the hands of yet other by-standers behind him.

It was the early church’s best stab at Halloween, if you will. A grotesque mockery of that shadowy valley that claims us all. And a reminder that in Jesus of Nazareth, the resurrection and the life, that valley of shadows has met its match.

But death is not always something we mock, is it, which is why Halloween feels so safe. You see, we’ve been in the hospital waiting rooms, the bedside vigils, we’ve conferred with the hospice nurses and cancer specialists. We’ve stood, too, by the gaping hole in the earth, or the cold, granite cubicle in the columbarium as we’ve said goodbye. We know death is not all zombies and goblins and vampires. In fact, it’s worse. It feels like a long Saturday night with no ending.

"The Raising of Lazarus after Rembrandt" (Vincent Van Gogh, 1890)
And the grief that goes with it? It’s exhausting. Worse than any squadron of Stormtroopers that lurk behind any corner, it overcomes us and overwhelms us when we least expect it, and we don’t know what to do with it, but we can’t usually mock it.

Ina piece in the New Yorker last week, Matthew Malady poignantly describes his emotions when he comes across a photo of his deceased mother on Google Street View, of all places. He explains how he breaks the monotony of too many hours behind a computer screen at his job by periodically checking out scenes from his past on this technology, devised by tech giant Google, that gives people a three-dimensional view of just about every street in the world.

One night, after many hours of writing, he decides, just before bed time, to look up the street he lived on in his late teens and which his mother lived in up until her sudden death two years before. He starts at the top of the street, working his way down past new picket fences and trees that are now taller than he remembered. When he gets to his old house, there is his mother, carrying a grocery bag and walking on the path that leads from the sidewalk to the front door. The Google car that was taking the photos of that street must have happened by at the exact minute his mother was coming home from shopping.

Immediately upon seeing her in those black slacks and floral print blouse, Malady experiences what he calls a “confluence of emotions…there was joy, certainly (Mom! I found you! Can you believe it?) but also deep, deep sadness. Heartbreak and hurt, curiosity and wonder, and seemingly everything in between.”[1] He grabs screen shots of the scene, knowing that eventually the Google car will make additional rounds and update the street view, wiping his mother’s memory away forever. He doesn’t say it, but he feels mocked, and Malady concludes by wondering how technology—things like simple Facebook posts and email reminders for flowers on Mother’s Day might complicates our grieving nowadays and he leaves the reader wondering whether if he reaches any so-called closure.

I feel that a similar non-conclusion could be reached by any one of those in our midst who is grieving someone today, especially some of the families of those printed on our bulletin. Death has scored another victory, it seems, and the only words left bouncing around in our head are a version of Mary’s resentful cry: “If something along the way had gone just a little differently, my loved one would not have died.”

It precisely in this horror and sorrow and regret that God has chosen to meet us and share our pain with us. When Jesus shows up at the tomb of Lazarus, he does not react some superhero from the Justice League, some soulless wizard that comes to save the day. He arrives and weeps. In the Greek, he is agitated or greatly disturbed by what he sees. In other words, even Jesus doesn’t first mock anything or anyone. He has compassion. Or anger. Or a complex confluence of both. And since we are coming to understand that God is the one behind everything Jesus does, we glimpse for a moment that God himself is as bothered by death as much as we are.

And as the bandages start to fall away from Lazarus’ body, we see that death itself has started to unravel. It turns out that for suffering and loss and grief and anything else that would try to separate God from God’s people, Jesus is really bad news. It may take a while to sense it, but He has come to be the resurrection and the life. Anytime he shows up, death will eventually begin to lose its grip on creation. Anything Jesus calls to eventually comes to life. Anywhere Jesus arrives becomes a place to make all things new. Anyone Jesus encounters is ultimately changed by his love.

This is the hope all the baptized have in Christ, as those who have been claimed by Jesus, as those who have been encountered by Jesus, as those whose name has been called out by the one who is seated on the throne. God has spoken, and God’s words are trustworthy and true. And although our silly mockery of death and decay may come to an end even after an especially long Halloween Saturday, and although death’s cruel mockery of us never seems to end, let us remember we wake and gather today in the light of another Sunday morning.

It was another Sunday morning when the women went to another tomb and they did not have to call into the darkness because he had already left it. By that point he had already conquered it and had emerged and was waiting for them, to call out their name. The raising of Lazarus is but a foretaste, you see, of that great new day that is coming when God’s selfless love in Jesus triumphs over all the world’s darkness.

Irish rock band U2 sings in one of their earliest songs words which I’ve always thought would serve as as a perfect hymn for All Saints Sunday:                         

October and the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear.
What do I care?

October and kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on and on.

Yes, because of the cross of Jesus, God goes on and on. His love never ends, and those who have died believing in his name rest in that promise.

My friends, we may dry our tears and uncover our noses, for the kingdoms of grief and sorrow fall. All Hallow’s Eve is finally ended, and we gather in the light of the resurrection. And with those who’ve gone before us we may wait in confidence that he will one day call our names into the dark and make all things new again: Jim, Brenna, Brenda, Kitty, Barbara, Fred, Russell, Harriett, Ron, Dennis, Cora, and while we’re at it, add to that number Samuel Lang Bolick. He may be small, but is is wet, too, his life just unfolding. All the saints…a whole host of characters who we may really aspire to be, the living and the dead, joined in Christ the victorious, who goes on and on.



Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “The Ghosts in our Machines” by Matthew J. X. Malady in The New Yorker. October 22, 2015

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Reformation Sunday - October 25, 2015 (Mark 10:46-52)

“Every time a coin into the coffer rings,
Another soul from purgatory springs!”

That was the little jingle that a man named Johann Tetzel is reported to have showed up singing along the streets of northern Germany in the early 1500s. Johann Tetzel was the church official assigned by Pope Leo X to sell something called indulgences in the towns of the farthest reaches of the empire as Rome began a new capital campaign to upgrade the cathedral.

An indulgence was an official certificate that stated the Church had conveyed upon you an extra merit of goodness that Christ and the saints had “built up” in what was called the Treasury of Heaven. By receiving an indulgence (so taught certain factions of the church, including Tetzel), one could cut off the number of days one could spend in purgatory, the place where most people ended up after they died before their sins were totally repaid and they could enter heaven. It was a very complicated and convoluted theory that was easily abused. By the time the 1500’s rolled around, people had been led to believe they could purchase one of these slips of paper in order to guarantee their eternal salvation or that of their loved one’s in some way.

That’s where Johann Tetzel and his little rhyme came in. Not unlike a beggar, he was an aggressive figure, and he came into an economically impoverished northern Germany collecting money for indulgences among people who strongly suspected it was all going to finance the refurbishment of an opulent church they’d never see. And somehow this was supposed to make them feel closer to and more grateful for a God who loved them.

“Every time a coin into the coffer rings,
Another soul from purgatory springs.”

Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses (Gustav Freytag)
As you can imagine, this drove people crazy. In all actuality, the Roman Church did not know that Tetzel was going as far as he did, and he and his views about indulgences were roundly denounced by the Roman church not too long after he was doing this. Unfortunately, however, the damage was done. The people had had enough of Tetzel and his indulgences jar (or table), and their frustration found a voice in another upstart figure, a university professor named Martin Luther. He publicly challenged the whole idea of indulgences along with several other practices of the church and, before he really knew what was going on, a huge rift opened in the Christian church, all over what the nature of the gospel was. What did it mean to have faith in Jesus Christ? Like people throughout history, the people of northern Europe in the late Middle Ages wanted to be assured there was a God who graciously and generously loved them and Tetzel’s jar of coins wasn’t doing it for them.

To help us find that God, we really don’t need to look to Martin Luther, or any other church figure, for that matter. We can go to another beggar with a jar of coins who is on the streets not of northern Germany, but along the road outside Jericho. His name is Blind Bartimaeus, and he sits by the gate crying out with an entirely different “jingle” that goes like this: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimaeus, who drives people crazy with his constant begging and interrupting, who upsets the respectable people surrounding Jesus with his calling out, serves as the perfect example for what it means to trust in a God who generously and graciously loves his people and who trusts that that love can transform one’s life.

I know that here in Richmond we think the people who stand at the street corners and beg for money can be aggressive, but beggars in the Middle East are even more so. In fact, scenes like this one with Bartimaeus play out on a daily basis in cities throughout that region of the world. They sit at places of high traffic, day in and day out, typically with a cup in hand but sometimes collecting handouts in their robe stretched between their legs. Many times they are handicapped or disabled in some way. Bartimaeus has chosen “primary begging real estate” for his spot. The road up from Jericho to Jerusalem was a well-travelled commercial route. It would be like sitting to beg at the point where I-95 and I-64 come together in Richmond.

On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his huge entourage have to pass along that way. It’s a little unclear how Bartimaeus, being blind, knows that Jesus is passing by, but we may assume it’s because the crowds following Jesus at this point are just that large and noisy. It’s long been known that people who are deficient in one sense often have heightened sensitivity in others. Maybe Jesus is teaching as he walks and Bartimaeus hears him. Maybe he hears other people calling his name. Regardless, he wastes no time in singing out his jingle: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

"Christ gives sight to Bartimaeus" (William Blake)
And it drives people crazy. Frustrated and bothered, they quickly try to silence him, not unlike the way they had tried to prevent children from being brought to Jesus a few days earlier.

Yet Bartimaeus is undeterred, and he continues to shout louder and louder. Then here is another thing that’s unclear about the story: are Jesus’ followers trying to silence Bartimaeus because they view him as a distraction on the way to Jerusalem, another noisy detour for someone on the margins that they don’t have time for?

Or might they be so eager to distract him because of what he’s actually saying? You see, up until this point in Jesus’ journey, no one has called Jesus “Son of David” yet. Unbelievably, Bartimaeus is the first one to apply that label to Jesus, and it is a label that is loaded with meaning. “Son of David” carried with it all kinds of connotations about God’s coming kingdom. “Son of David” meant the people’s long-awaited king was finally here. Jesus’ entourage is following their wise teacher and powerful healer to Jerusalem, but it seems like the only person able to perceive just what Jesus has really come to do and be is this obnoxious blind person on the side of the road: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” That drives people crazy, because saying that out loud could cause all kinds of trouble for Jesus.

As it turns out, Jesus responds graciously to Bartimaeus—as graciously and generously as God always deals with God’s people. Bartimaeus springs up from the road. He throws off his cloak and coins likely go everywhere.  He recognizes his true riches are in his relationship with this Jesus, Son of David. Bartimaeus is saved by grace through faith. He gains his sight and—here’s the real miracle—he doesn’t go back like Jesus commands him. Instead, he follows his Lord, joining in the parade that will continue to Jerusalem and, as we now know, to the cross.

Reformation Day is kind of a strange thing. It’s a church festival that only Lutherans really commemorate anymore, and it actually is all about calling to mind a time of church division which is not really a thing to celebrate at all. If you are like me and don’t often know how the message of Protestant Reformation fits into these post-modern times, if you don’t know how it really affects your faith with the living Lord, a God who loves generously and graciously,  perhaps blind Bartimaeus can point us in the right direction.

In other words, Reformation Sunday is a good time to step back and consider which jar we, as people of faith, are rattling and which jingle we are singing. That is, does our witness sound more like Tetzels or Bartimaeus’s? Do people in the world hear us proclaiming what we believe with arrogance and insensitivity, calling others to an empty, sham faith that is like an exclusive club which loves to trumpet its good works? Or does the world hear us as sinners, blind and begging, calling out for mercy to a God of infinite love?

As it happens, blind Bartimaeus is an excellent role model for the church, a reminder that an encounter with Jesus is transformative, that a meeting with the Son of David takes us from the sidelines of darkness and brings us into the light. Bartimaeus reminds us that our relationship with God is not based in doing works of mercy, but in calling out to God for mercy. Our own Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, has warned us about assigning too much importance to all our charitable actions, as great as they may be. She said in recent article, “The church is not just a social service organization with sacraments.” Who are we then?  Today we could add that we are the people who primarily cry out to Jesus for mercy.

Bartimaeus also shows us that true faith—the kind of faith that saves us—does not come from having the right insight, but in trusting the One who gives sight. The church has always felt pressure to equate faith with believing certain matters of doctrine or, even worse, aligning itself with certain outside interests, be it an empire or political or social agendas. It is always helpful to remember that saving faith is not found in those things, but in the one who stops along the side of the road to address us and engage us in love. Faith is found not in believing the right things, but in trusting the Son of David who gives his life on the cross.

Finally, the people of God are at their best not when they are obsessed about making a difference, but instead, like Bartimaeus, when they realize that Jesus is all the difference. There is a lot of anxiety among people of faith these days about how relevant the church is in society, panic about the future of the church, and angst about the rise in those who claim no religious affiliation. What are we to do? If people of faith continue to cry out for mercy from the side of the road, from the margins where we find ourselves…if people of faith continue to live lives transformed by the mercy of Jesus…if those who have regained their sight continue to spring up and follow Jesus through suffering to the joy of the resurrection, then there will be no reason for anxiety. There will be no reason for worry or fear. Because it will drive the world crazy. We will drive the world crazy with our hymns of hope and prayers of peace and jingles of joy.
And we can do this all because we trust that there is a God who generously and graciously loves us in Jesus Christ, and he stops along his way help us see. 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 28B/Proper 23B] - October 11, 2015 (Mark 10:17-31)

“You lack one thing,” said Jesus to the rich man, the man who probably thought he had everything. “You lack one thing.” And without much effort at all, we can imagine the rich man’s thoughts as he hears Jesus’ answer:
One thing? One thing will be easy. Surely I can go get that one thing. And because I’m rich, I can even buy that thing if I have to—like the missing ingredient one needs from the grocery store, or the crucial tool for the DYI project from Lowe’s! One thing is no biggie, especially once you’ve mastered the Ten Commandments, right? Once you’ve figured out how to dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s. Acquiring the one thing I lack is going to be a piece of cake.

Yes, without much effort, we can imagine the rich man’s thoughts as he hears Jesus’ answer because it could so easily be us. It could so easily be us, relatively rich people that we are, running up to him on the road and wondering if we can join along with the other disciples as they prepare for their next adventure on the way to Jerusalem, this grand quest for eternal life. We, too, are accustomed to thinking of life and all of its opportunities in terms of what we’ll gain, what we can accomplish. And if we can make a list for it—one of those lists where we check off the things we’ve managed to do—well, then all the better. We feel secure, solid, set.

I know this is how the Martin family operates so much of the time. We make lists constantly, especially if we’re going on a trip somewhere. What I’ve noticed over time, however, is that my wife’s and my lists are very different. She lists things that benefit the whole family’s success and safety on the excursion. She makes a “Things to Get or Buy” list, a “Things to Do Before We Leave” list, and a “Things to Pack in the car” list. My list tends to be, “Bring my bird book, my music, my camera, my other bird book…” Regardless, we all like those lists and those goals. And if we’re ever told there is only one thing we lack, we’ll find a way to add it on.

So, just as we might be able to imagine the rich man’s thoughts, we can also imagine the rich man’s surprise to learn that the one thing he lacks is not something he can really add on at all. It’s not something that can be purchased or achieved or jotted down to a list somewhere. It is something he must give up. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,” Jesus replies. “Then come, follow me.”

In a gospel that doesn’t give us precious little detail about people’s emotions, we hear the rich man’s loud and clear: he goes away grieving, for he had many possessions. The whole scene must have been pretty shocking, the disciples and other interested townspeople standing around dumbfounded, wondering why Jesus wouldn’t jump at the opportunity, himself, to include such an influential and obviously well-connected benefactor in his band of followers.

In the ancient world, honor and public distinction was the currency most people valued. It gave a person power in relation to others, and power led to wealth. If Jesus could find a way to incorporate this rich man into his community, there is no doubt their prestige would continue to rise. Yet, instead of playing into those established, worldly ways of influence, Jesus demonstrates this reversal that his kingdom is all about. “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Jesus uses the opportunity to explain how the wealthy have a worse chance at a place in that kingdom than a camel does squeezing through the eye of a needle. Many a Bible scholar has tried to explain this saying of Jesus away, claiming that the “eye of a needle” was the colloquial name for one of the gates surrounding Jerusalem, but the truth is Jesus is speaking like a normal middle eastern male: truthfully, but with a little bit of hyperbole. The point is that attachment to worldly things, status and the acclaim of others, will be a barrier to experiencing the grace of God’s kingdom.

It’s not that wealth itself is evil or contrary to God’s purposes. But the power and influence and freedom that wealth often provides can easily become that which we worship. We can be swindled into believing that the only freedom worth having is the kind of freedom that money gives us. It can cause us to forget about that greater freedom—the freedom that Jesus Christ offers in his journey toward eternal life, the release from sin and shame, the freedom that comes from serving others. Like with so much else in a life of list-makers, it’s often easy to think of following Jesus and the journey of faith and focus on what we’re going to gain out of it, especially in our culture. But here Jesus reminds us that being a disciple will also involve losing something.

This is hard stuff for us to hear, and we grieve, too. Those who have the greatest ability to influence their reality and their future probably have the most to lose—at least initially—from a deeper relationship with Jesus. That is why atheism and agnosticism can take root among those in culture who have the most relative power. I don’t say this to make light of those points of view, or to belittle those who struggle, like I imagine many of us do, with doubts about God’s existence and goodness. But I find myself needing to be reminded that that in our times and in our culture, those who are, by and large, white, male, affluent, and educated will end up being the easiest to convince that they have no need of a God, especially if that God asks them to suffer, or at least indicates that persecution is a part of the deal. The truth is that the rich man wants a deeper relationship with Jesus, but that will involve overcoming that barrier of privilege and security.

In her autobiographical play, “A Little Girl of Privilege,” and more recently in her interview for the upcoming film Human, French Holocaust survivor Francine Christophe tells the moving story of her experience as a young child in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after being rounded up with her mother off the streets of France. She explains that as children prisoners of war, they were “privileged.” By that she meant they were allowed to bring one thing with them from France. Usually they could take along a bag with two or three small items. Some brought chocolate, some brought some sugar, others a handful or two of rice. Francine’s mother had packed two little pieces of chocolate. Her mother said, “We’ll keep this for a day when I see you’ve collapsed completely, and really need help. I’ll give you this chocolate and you’ll feel better.”

Francine goes on to explain that one of the women imprisoned with them was pregnant. The women was so skinny it was hardly noticeable, but the day came when she went into labor. Francine’s mother was barracks chief, and so she went into the camp hospital with the woman. Before her mother left, she looked at Francine and asked, “Remember that chocolate? How do you feel?”

Francine responded, “I’ll be OK, Mama.”

So her mom said, “I’d like to bring your chocolate to this lady. Giving birth here will be hard. She may die. If I give her the chocolate, it may help her.”

The woman did, in fact, give birth to the baby, and she did not die. Francine goes on to say that the baby was extremely weak and very small and never cried. Not once. Not until the camp was liberated by the Allies six months later. When they unwrapped the baby’s swaddling clothes, it finally screamed. That’s when it was born, Francine says. They took the baby, scrawny as it was, back to France with them and they parted ways.

One day a few years ago, Francine’s daughter asked her how much easier it might have been if the concentration camp survivors had had psychologists or psychiatrists upon their return to France in order to help them work through their trauma. It gave them an idea to host a lecture entitled, “If the concentration camp survivors had had counseling in 1945, what would have happened?” The lecture apparently drew a crowd—elderly survivors, historians, many psychologists, psychotherapists. Many ideas emerged from the conference and people got a lot out of it. Francine says that then a woman took the podium and said, “I live in Marseilles, where I am a psychiatrist. But before I deliver my talk, I have something for Francine Christophe.” Francine explains at that point the woman reached into her pocket and pulled out a piece of chocolate. She gave it to Francine and she said, “I am the baby.”

Jesus reminds his disciples, reminds you and me, that there are things to give up, even our privilege. But then he also explains this strange economy of God’s kingdom, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”

If even one piece of chocolate is what we’re asked to give—if it is just one morsel that separates us from a deeper life of service to others—we can trust it will still come back to us hundred-fold. You have experienced that phenomenon already, I’m positive, in some fashion, in your service to others in our ministry programs here or in your personal sacrifices to the kingdom in your lives outside of this building. Jesus says we’ll get fields once we follow him? Well, the youth group happens to be going to go work at Shalom Farm today, a huge field out in Goochland County that provides food for the undernourished of Richmond. It’s our field!

But in those moments we’re not sure we have it in us, when the selfishness rises within and our desire for security and privilege comes crashing in once more, let us remember this Savior is not asking us to do anything he’s not willing to do, himself. That’s not the kind of leader he is, asking, like some televangelist, to fork over some more while he builds the castles of power off camera. He looks at us, loves us, and asks us to give up and cast off things, ideals, agendas, power…but then let us remember he’s on the road to Jerusalem. He knows all about giving up things. He’s going to be giving up his life, after all, and the road to eternal life will go through the cross. And many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

It sounds absolutely ludicrous, monumentally foolish—a whole life of eternity hanging on just one thing?—utterly impossible! But for God, all things are possible.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 27B/Proper 22B] - October 4, 2015 (Mark 10:2-16 and Genesis 2:18-24)

I saw a cartoon recently that features two churches directly across the street from each other. Both churches have signs out front presumably announcing the message for the upcoming Sunday. The sign at the church on the left-hand side says, “Sermon series: What God Has Said,” and beside it stands the lonely pastor, waiting for the people to arrive, shooting a menacing glance to the pastor at the church on the right who stands, by contrast, surrounded by a crowd of interested people who are trying to enter his church. His sign, over which he gloats with a face of smugness, reads, “Sermon series: What You Would Rather Hear.”

I would imagine that’s how many of us feel about many Sundays, and don’t go thinking preachers feel any differently than you do, as smug as we may sometimes come across! On the one hand we’d like to think any of us would come to worship or Bible study to learn what God has said, to explore the meanings of Jesus’ teachings or the letters of the New Testament, but on the other hand we know that hearing things that make us feel good or that help us ignore and smooth over the more uncomfortable sides of our lives is a lot more easy to do.

This particular Sunday’s readings may take the cake, though, and those who have been affected by divorce, or who have been unfaithful to a spouse, may feel especially put on the spot. Indeed, those who find themselves in an abusive marriage, for example, might, because of Jesus’ words, feel forced to choose between continuing in a harmful relationship or seeking an end to the marriage, then re-marrying at the risk of being labelled an adulterer. We’re not used to Jesus giving us no good options.

It must be said: if you are feeling that any of these situations applies to you, take heart that you are not alone today. You need to know that you are surrounded here by people who no doubt have experienced divorce and infidelity and broken relationships in some way, whether as a child, a sibling, a parent, a friend, or another divorcee. And while the topic that Jesus is forced to address by the religious authorities’ question may initially seem to single out certain ones of us, the truth God has something to say to everyone this morning.

First of all, the specifics of marriage contracts and divorce agreements were much different in Jesus’ day, and that’s something to keep in mind. Marriages, in first century Israel, were largely contracts arranged between families and were used as a way to combine wealth and power between the families of the bride and groom. It goes without saying that in these arrangements, the woman was treated more or less as an object to be owned. She had few rights, as we would understand them nowadays, and, in fact, was not often permitted to write a letter of divorce to free herself from her husband if needed. Men would regularly abuse their power in this scenario, writing letters of divorce for their wives simply so they could take up another partner, and in many cases they had already secretly done so. That’s really what Jesus is addressing here.

In the law of Moses, Jesus reminds the Pharisees, God had certainly allowed for the possibility of divorce. It was not an option for which anyone should strive but the realities of sin would taint any aspect of the human experience, even marriage, and there would be times when that sacred bond between a man and a woman would need to be dissolved. However, the use of divorce as a cover for infidelity was clearly a misuse.

But besides all of that, there is a deeper level to Jesus’ words which were very groundbreaking, although he was not saying anything totally new. In answering the religious authorities’ self-serving question meant to trip him up, Jesus bypasses the laws of Moses which speaks to the contractual and property aspects of the marriage bond and hearkens instead all the way back to creation, and the original nature of marriage. Jesus explains that in both creation stories that Israel told, which are contained in Genesis, God places man and woman on equal footing.

"The Creation of Eve" (Michaelangelo Buonorroti)
In fact, in one of those stories, when God looks at man, who is alone, God declares that he needs to have an ‘ezer, which is typically translated as a helper or a partner. There is nothing subservient or secondary about the term ‘ezer, as if the fact that woman is created second she must be just a variation on a prototype. In fact, ‘ezer literally means “one who corresponds to him” and is, in fact, the same word used for God in several others places in the Old Testament. Created together as one humankind, then, male and female complement and correspond to each other, and marriage becomes the sacred union of the two, these two fleshly counterparts becoming one flesh, creating an intimacy so profound that it can only be described poetically or, better yet, lived.

Frederick Niedner, a professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, tells the story in a recent article about a couple in a parish he served at the beginning of his career, decades ago. By the time he arrived there, the couple had been married nearly 70 years. They had wed in 1902 at the ages of 16 and 18 and had “eked out a living, sometimes just barely,” he says, “on a small farm at the edge of the city.” They never had children, they had no pension and very little savings, so they continued to raise a few pigs to cover expenses into advanced years. One day, Niedner says, the wife didn’t wake up. Having outlived all their kinfolk and most of the few friends they’d made, only a scattering of people attended the funeral a few days later. When the moment came for the funeral director to close the open casket, Niedner writes, “the wiry little husband, dressed in an old suit he may well have worn at his wedding, jumped from his seat a few feet away and, before any of us could stop him, climbed into the casket and lay there clinging to his beloved. ‘Just bury me with her, please!’ he begged, over and over, between his sobs. In all the years since,” Niedner goes on to say, “I may have done something more difficult than helping to pull a weeping old man from his last embrace that day, but I don’t know what it might have been.”[1]

“What God has joined together, let no one separate,” Jesus says, as he shuts down the religious authorities with their pesky questions. Certainly even the most wholesome marriages are still influenced by sinfulness, but this union is something God has blessed, and the joining together of two equal ‘ezers is something to be respected and revered, not manipulated for personal gain or denigrated.

I’m not sure the Pharisees got all of what Jesus was trying to say. I’m not sure the disciples got much of it either, even after Jesus takes the time to explain the issue of divorce to them in private. To be quite honest, I’m not sure any of us ever really get it, even though we constantly come to God with our silly attempts to clarify and define God’s love for humankind merely as a series of cases and for-instances: Does God’s law apply here? And what about here? What would God say about this? And while verbal answers to our questions are fine now and then, while sermons about “what God has said” and how he wants us to live are helpful up to a point, they end up falling short of grace in the long run.

For Christ did not come to earth primarily to answer people’s questions and solve theological riddles about the law. In fact, Christ came not so much to say something for God but to do something. Christ came not to explain and illustrate God’s love for all people but to embody it. His kingdom is always about grace, always including sinners and the insignificant in spite of themselves. This is why is it so significant that in both gospels where this prickly issue about divorce and marriage comes up, Jesus immediately follows his answer by doing something that illustrates the powerful grace of God’s kingdom.

People (probably women) are bringing him small children (probably even ones that are sick), which is the kind of nonsense that a theological riddle-solver and Bible expert would never have time for. After all, children can’t understand the finer points of the law, right? They haven’t experienced enough, haven’t developed the life skills to know what’s good for them. Surely they don’t appreciate just who this is that they are being brought to. Surely the don’t understand what kind of gift, for example, is being offered at the communion rail even as they stick their little hands out in trust. With their screaming and crying, their weakness and recklessness, their diseases and disfigurements, they’re just bound to get in the way.

That’s when Jesus’ rebuke, “Let them come to me! Do not stop them!” reminds us again, that Jesus brings a kingdom that automatically seeks out the lost and little. If we must talk about not separating something that God has joined together, then don’t separate Jesus from the little children. It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. God has joined himself together with them. For, my sisters and brothers, the kingdom isn’t intended for those who’ve figured out the key to marriage, or who’ve managed a lawful divorce, and it’s not for those who know exactly which rules and laws apply in every case. It doesn’t belong to those who go to church for the “right” reasons, either, or preachers with their clever signs and clever sermons. The kingdom, rather, is for those who look at the cross and learn to trust a God who takes them in his arms and blesses them, no matter what. It is for those who look at a dying Son of God and don’t even know which clever question to ask because they’re so broken, as well as for those who never seem to have their questions answered. The kingdom is for those who look at the one who hangs there and see God who will jump right into the casket along with us because he loves us and nothing, nothing, nothing will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Now, I don’t know if that’s the kind of thing what we want to hear, but my guess is it’s what we need to.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “The Mystery of Marriage,” by Frederick Niedner in The Christian Century. July 8, 2015