Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving Day - November 24, 2016 (Philippians 4:4-9 and John 6:25-35)

Israelites gather manna in the desert (Nicholas Poussin)
Author and radio personality Garrison Keillor has said, “We live by a series of gifts, not by what we earn,” and if there is ever day to reflect on that, Thanksgiving Day would be it. We may make a living by what we earn—what our paychecks or social security disbursements provide—but our lives are actually built and then buoyed along by an unending string of outbursts of God’s grace, none of which we purchase and many of which we never even take note of. It is this grace that gets us through this life more than anything else: the phone call from a friend at the right time…the doctor who gives perfect counsel…the second chance at a job interview…the aging parent who winds up in the perfect nursing home facility because her son spent extra time researching it all…and yet it is so easy to chalk them all up to chance or karma. Really, they are gifts from the Giver.

And when we look at the stories contained in Scripture, this fact becomes even clearer. Our forebears’ lives are case after case of people being given just what they need in order to make it, often against insurmountable odds, and almost always in spite of the fact they don’t deserve it. That is, for example, the main point of the manna which God gives the Israelites as they trudge through the wilderness to the Promised Land. They receive just enough to sustain them each day, one day at a time. The stuff literally drops from the sky. They live by a series of gifts, not by what they earn.

Perhaps no one was more aware of God’s series of gifts than the apostle Paul, who lived so many of his days persecuted as a follower of Jesus. From city to city, from congregation to congregation he journeyed, running into trouble with local authorities who wanted to suppress his message and getting himself imprisoned on more than one occasion. And yet, rather than becoming bitter or downcast, Paul exudes joy throughout his life, thankful for the string of gifts that somehow get him from one day to the next.

This is especially evident in his letter to the Philippians. In prison and unable to be with his beloved congregation, he writes to them a heartfelt letter literally bubbling over with joyfulness. The Philippians, themselves, seem to be going through some kind of a rough time. It’s unclear exactly what their malfunction is, but Paul knows that having them concentrate on the series of gifts that are certainly around them—the morsels of manna God has mysteriously thrown around on the ground—is the antidote to their woes. No matter what is going on or how badly the main mission is faring, they can always find something for which they can be thankful. In fact, he lists them like a series of gifts, clues as to where to find this string of grace. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable…If there is any excellence…think on these things,” he reminds them.

And, so, for this Thanksgiving, I thought it might be fun to heed Paul’s advice. Perhaps it’s been a rougher year than usual for you. Perhaps the recent and ongoing political developments has you on edge, like so many others. Perhaps your faith in God has been challenged this year like never before for other reasons you’ve not really shared with anyone. Whatever the case, it is good to remember those pure and commendable series of gifts which are there, those things by which our journeys are sustained. Here I will offer just a few from within the life of this congregation.

“Whatever is true”: In this sense of the word, Paul means whatever is genuine, real, dependable, and when I think of those words, I think of the volunteers of this congregation. I think of how new people stepped up this year to fill positions where others had faithfully served for so long. I think of the dependable leaders of Vacation Bible School, CARITAS, and our new property team volunteers.  I think of the genuine conversations held by the Timothy Ministers in the youth group, the confirmation mentors who share their faith and are modeling prayer and thanksgiving. There has been plenty of true and genuine here over the past year, and we thank God for it all.

“Whatever is honorable”: It is hard to think of things more honorable serving one’s country in the armed forces. This congregation currently has four members in active duty military, one of whom will be soon serving overseas. At a time when it could be so easy for these young men to begin a life for themselves and follow their own paths they’ve chosen to serve and protect our nation. We are grateful that they have made this honorable decision, and we’re thankful that they come to worship with us so often when they’re home on leave.

“Whatever is just”: For the word “just,” think “righteous,” “upright,” and “honest.” I think of our volunteers through the Micah Initiative who are assisting the teachers and staff of Southhampton Elementary School be upright and honest role models in the lives of their students. One woman spends one day a week helping four-year-olds learn how to write their name, four-year-olds who don’t even know how draw a straight line yet or understand the word “trace,” but she sits their patiently, encouraging them to practice, over and over. I think of the honesty of the conversations between our Stephen Ministers and their care-receivers, who share very personal thoughts and concerns with each other and are careful to do so very confidentially.

volunteers for Micah Initiative
“Whatever is pure”: My mind goes to a member of this congregation who had to drop everything earlier in the year to rush out of state to be by her critically ill mother in ICU. As the week wore on, it looked like her mother might me rebounding. As she was checking out of the hotel where she had stayed for a week she got a call from the hospital informing her that her mother had just failed two breathing tests. She had taken a sudden turn for the worse. Exhausted and overcome with emotion, she began to break down right there at the counter, a line of people behind her. The clerk noticed what was happening, came out from behind the desk, and embraced her. She said a prayer for her right there in the lobby in front of everyone. It was a moment of pure, innocent grace that got her through the day.

I think of all the pure, loving care that our volunteers give at every funeral reception, the women who call and email asking for food to be made and dropped off, the people who keep the kitchen clean and functional. Care extended to the bereaved at the death of a loved one is perhaps the purest, most holy form of Christian care, and we have many people willing to serve in this capacity.

“Whatever is pleasing:” The music programs of this congregation have filled the year with pleasing sounds and expressions of faith.  A new baby grand piano, donated by a family in the congregation, and a new harpsichord broaden our ability to praise God and enhance congregational singing. Our choirs and handbell ensembles volunteer so much of their time to lead worship at multiple services, typically attending all three services on Easter morning. The Cherub Choir and singing saints light up many faces in the congregation, something I get to see from my vantage point. The talents of instrumentalists and soloists within our ranks is something to marvel at, whether it is oboists, or flutists, or people playing percussion. But many would find most pleasing the talents of our youngest musicians whom Kevin invites to play during preludes and postludes. A congregation that encourages such diverse levels of gifts is truly lovely for the praise of God.

“Whatever is commendable:” We have a young adult serving on a mission team in South Africa. Council has registered three people for seminary study. Members of the youth group planned their own service project on their own this past spring without any adult suggestion or guidance, but because they felt like it. We have three members serving on the boards of Synod institutions, and a few other members who serve on boards of local service organizations. Another member has developed a curriculum, complete with tools, that can be used to adapt confirmation instruction to a child with special needs.

The list could go on, but suffice it to say there is much among us that is worthy of praise. God’s grace has rained from the sky like manna, allowing this congregation to continue its witness. These things worthy of praise are occasions of the food that endures for eternal life. They are examples of Christ, the bread of life, present in and with us. Nurturing and sustaining us far beyond our physical needs, they are all reflections of the way our Father comes down from heaven         to give life to the world. For what is really true, what is deeply honorable, what is most just, pure, pleasing and commendable is the life that Christ leads for us as he takes his own body and blood and sheds them for the forgiveness of sins.

Thanksgiving is our response when our faith grasps this truth, just as the Israelites’ fingers grasped the manna God showered around, just as our own hands grasp the bread and the wine offered at his table of plenty. We live by a series of gifts, not by what we earn, and Jesus invites us, once again, to that table. We certainly didn’t deserve our seat there, but he knows our hunger is real. He understands the thirst that we sometimes try to deny we even have. Let us gather, lifting up today all that we have seen that is true, all that is honorable, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is pleasing, all that is excellent.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Christ the King [Year C] - November 20, 2016 (Luke 23:33-43)

"Crucifixion" (Peter Gertner)
The world around us is talking about presidents and prime ministers, but we—you and I—are going to hail a crucified king.

The world around us is going to hash out popularity votes and voter turnout, but you and I are going to talk a profound unpopularity that leads nowhere but a cross.

The world around us is going to say that the people have spoken, and their voice is loud and clear, but you are I are going to know that the people just stood by, watching.

The world around us is going to say, “To the victor goes the spoils!” but you and I are going to hear, “They cast lots for his clothing.”

The world around us is going to witness the uncorking of champagne, the sweet taste of victory, but you and are going to hear “they offered him sour wine.”

The world around us will discuss the Oval Office, and moving into the White House, but you and I will remember they came to a place called the Skull.

The world around us is watching to see which allies will be selected for cabinet positions, who will sit at the leader’s right and at his left, but you and I will realize that he hangs between two criminals—one on his right and one on his left.

The world around us will wonder about campaign promises made and not kept, but you and I will hear, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Sisters and brothers, the world around us will sell us on the virtues of claiming what is ours, that screams, “Save yourself!” but we will meet a Savior who offers himself to claim others.

Christ is King. We’ve gone through another cycle of a church year, and that is the message we end on.

Christ is King. We’ve had another chance to reflect intentionally and methodically on the life and times of this man from Nazareth, and that is the statement of faith at which we arrive. The United States may have a new President, England may be working with a new Prime Minister, “Dancing with the Stars” may have awarded a new mirror ball, but when it comes to all of creation, Christ is King.

We know that Christ is many things for us: he is shepherd, taking care of his flock with unparalleled care. He is teacher, showing us the way of mercy and love for our neighbor. And he is healer, binding up our wounds, external and internal, and making us whole again. But ultimately it is his kingship that we must come to terms with, for it is a kingdom that he comes to bring. It is the first words on his lips when he shows up in Galilee preaching and teaching and gathering disciples, and it is one of the last things he speaks about as he dies on the cross. His loving reign over us and over all that is and all that ever has been and all that ever will be is what we need to consider and remember. His authority is what we must hold in tension with the all dominions and authorities of this earth we live under now. But his particular authority is radically different from other authorities we deal with, and this kingdom operates on a different philosophy.

It goes without saying that all good rulers are seeking to expand their boundaries, to establish a greater sphere of influence. We see political maps where certain states are labelled blue, red…or battleground. We talk about fundraising. We talk about ground games and air time. We see military campaigns fight for control over key Middle Eastern cities like Mosul or Aleppo. I know that in my own kingdom (if I could even call it that) if I want to establish any authority here lately it’s going to need to involve bribery and Halloween candy.

All of these different rulers of the earth use strategic plans to gain more power, but they’re all essentially aggressive, clandestine. Jesus’ kingdom, by contrast, uses mercy and kindness, and often beginning with the scattered-most remnants, those who’ve been looked over. That’s how it advances and gains ground. Jesus empties himself, disarms himself. We see this right up unto the end. He has been mocked and flogged by the very people he has come to save. The Roman authorities have offered to free him for the Passover, but the people chosen to crucify him instead of a convicted murderer, Barabbas. He has every reason to pursue revenge, to spite, to choose vindictiveness, but instead he lets himself be humiliated.

"Crucifixion" (Vernonese, 1580)
The kingdom of God advances with mercy and kindness. Look at how Jesus uses his last few breaths! Even as he is mocked by one of the criminals hanging next to him, Jesus manages to look to the criminal on the other side and offer him pardon and freedom. Crucifixions in the first century were always public events, and the Romans were known for nailing several people to crosses at the same time in order to maximize the gore factor and establish a rule of law.

Not much is known at all about the two criminals who were executed alongside Jesus, but we do know that one of them experienced the release of God’s forgiveness right at the end. “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus says to him. Paradise is a term that Jewish folks would have associated with the Garden of Eden, that time in creation when all things were in perfect relationship with God and with each other. Jesus is promising in that very dying moment this this man will know full restoration. In spite of his sin, in spite of his crime, the kingdom of God will come to him because Jesus advances his reign through mercy and forgiveness.

Even as he is hoisted on the cross above the crowd, Jesus offers forgiveness because they know not what they do. The “they” in that sentence has long perplexed scholars. Is he talking about the people doing the nailing? The jeering? The standing-by-not-speaking? It is believed that the “they” is intentionally ambiguous So that it can encompass everyone involved in any way in his death…from then until now. All these are forgiven, even though they don’t grasp what they’re doing to him.

God knows that nothing we experience can equal the power that forgiveness offers. That is the constitution of his kingdom: the forgiveness of the enemy. And when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, for example, for his kingdom to come, that is the authority we’re appealing to. Martin Luther says, “In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own, without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” Through his blood on the cross, Jesus has advanced his kingdom right up to our hearts. And we, as those who have been freed by its power, have the command to follow the example of our king and help proclaim the freedom of others, to let them taste Paradise even today.

When we study God’s kingdom in confirmation, we discuss the powerful example of Mary Johnson, a woman in Minneapolis who lost her only son, Laramiun, in a shooting. When he was only 20 years old, he got into a fight at a party one evening and another young man, Oshea Israel, pulled out a gun and shot him. Israel was eventually convicted and spend more than a decade in prison. Now Ms. Johnson lives next door to Israel in the same apartment building. She has helped him get back on his feet and readjust to life after prison.

It’s a powerful story of forgiveness—these two people, living side to side, like Jesus next to the criminal on the cross. Their lives are joined by one horrible, deadly event, but then restored by an unlikely advance of Jesus’ kingdom. Ms. Johnson talks openly and honestly about hard it was to grapple with the evil that took her son, how hard it was to visit the prison and look into the face of her son’s murderer. But she also speaks beautifully and articulately about how unbelievably freeing has been to live in this new relationship of mercy with her son’s killer. She treats him as a son. Even today, in their own way, Ms. Johnson and Israel live with Jesus in Paradise.

In the end, when everything is said and done, when you and I have gone from this earth and creation reaches the end that has been prepared for it, we have hope that all will be restored through the blood of the cross. All wrongdoing will be accounted for and all brokenness will be healed. We will be able to look into the faces of those who have wronged us and those we have wronged and have all hurt and sorrow taken away. The scene that takes place on the Skull where Jesus forgives without will extend its healing rays all over the universe, over and over again. It is through mercy and forgiveness that this restoration will happen and no other way. No force will do it, no secret strategy, no clever manipulation.

Until that time, we keep advancing his kingdom in a ground game of compassion and kindness. We expand his boundaries, one act of selfless love at a time. So, when the world around us will be plotting revenge, retribution, but you and I will be thinking mercy. And when the world around is is saying, "We have only gotten what we deserve," we will practice grace.

And when the world around us is in arms about the republic, the state, the neighborhood, the universe…you and I will point to kingdom without end, because the One who was crucified now is risen and rules forever and ever.

We will point to the King, the King who frees.

Christ the King


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24C/Lectionary 29C] - November 13, 2016 (Luke 21:5-19 and Malachi 4:1-2a)

The end of things! That’s the message the prophet Malachi wants to get across to God’s people. They’re going down the wrong path and so he reminds them there will be an end of things, a day of reckoning, if you will. Malachi calls it the day of the Lord—a concept, an anticipated event of the future that other prophets before him often mentioned. It will be the day when God’s patience with evil and with his people’s ways will finally run out and everything—all the good and all the bad and the alluring gray in between—would be sorted out once and for all. The truth will be told and the truth will no longer be resistible. Who knows exactly when it will come? It may catch many off-guard, but life as they know it will change, and all of God’s holy and fearsome glory will be revealed.

For some, Malachi says, the heat and light of that day and that truth will feel like a burning, scalding oven. It will reduce them to stubble, just like my clay sculpture project in 8th grade art class did in the pottery kiln when I didn’t pay attention to how I was forming it beforehand. She warned us not to form our sculptures with any air pockets in the middle of them, for air expands at high temperatures and your art projects will explode, she said. “What idiot would make that mistake?” I thought as I formed the coolest, raddest wizard sculpture you’d ever seen. Then “Boom!” went Phillip’s beautiful project on the day of the kiln, reducing almost the whole class’ sculptures to rubble, too. All that was returned to me was the head. A little wizard head that couldn’t stand on its own.

But, Malachi said, that same heat and the light on the day of the Lord will be like warm spring sun to the righteous. The new future opens up with healing in its wings, and they are formed into something beautiful, lasting. It’s the same day, same exact ending day, but it’s experienced very differently by different folks.

It occurs to me that for many in this country and indeed in this world, Tuesday this past week felt like a day of the Lord, an end of things. Time ran out and some kind of truth got registered at the ballot box by millions of people. It caught many off guard. Same day, but vastly different experiences. Some people feel very frightened, very sad, very angry, their beautiful possibilities of life and safety seeming to explode in the heat of its reality.

Others, and almost as many, feel relief, thankful, hopeful, glad for healing they’ve long anticipated. It’s the end of things, some people are saying. No, it’s the beginning of new things, others are shouting louder. It is important that we listen to both sets of voices at a time like this, with the intent to understand and not to respond. And when we step back we realize every Presidential election is cast in the same apocalyptic terms, as if America will be changed irrevocably if so-and-so is elected. There are differences, of course, and for those who are most shocked and stunned by the day of election it seems there may be no way to pick up the shards of clay and piece things back to the way they were.

Picking up pieces. The end of things. As old-fashioned and superstitious as scientifically-modern people may find that particular topic, Jesus spoke about the end of things, too, as he walked around the Temple in Jerusalem. The edifice is huge and imposing, with stones that weigh several tons stacked upon each other. Many archaeologists consider the Temple in Jerusalem to have been one of the most impressive buildings in antiquity. But Jesus predicts that time will run out and that it will all one day be thrown down, boulders going everywhere, like a big piece of pottery with an air pocket in it. No one could have imagined it, standing there looking at that structure. It was too gigantic, too formidable, too permanent. Jerusalem robbed of its Temple would have been far more cataclysmic to God’s people than the outcome of any US Presidential election.

The loss of the Temple and Jerusalem’s protection would and eventually did involve great suffering and persecution of those who were Jewish but especially those who followed Christ as Savior. And yet Jesus promises a way through the aftermath. Jesus promises endurance. Jesus gives them hope.

My sense is that many of us don’t like talking about the end of all things, that day when the Creator will sit as judge and everything gets straightened out. Maybe those are just my issues, but we often have a difficult time visualizing or believing about that point in time in the way that Scripture and the creeds talks about it. And yet we know the timelines of our lives are very real and they are certainly punctuated by many cataclysmic endings here and there, times of woe and change when we can’t imagine how things will go forward—the death of a spouse or a child, a divorce, the loss of a source of income or our own health. It stands to reason, then, that the time we are all living in will someday reach its end. I’m no astrophysicist, but it seems to me there may be some evidence to bear that theory out.

Be that as it mays, Jesus says first and foremost, when it comes to any fearsome dramatic ending between now and then to avoid prognostications and silly predictions. In the aftermath of a tumultuous event, in the aftermath of a day of the Lord, everyone has theories. Everyone seems to have a prognosis and know what went wrong and who to blame and how to fix it. So-called experts pop up everywhere, like pundits on a cable news network, promising a clever way forward, enticing people with false security. Some will even claim to speak for God. Jesus says to beware of this tendency to be led astray by these false saviors. What is the way forward then? Jesus offers himself as that, in ways of self-giving and courageous compassion.

Secondly, Jesus says not to grow worried when the Temples start to crumble, as the terrible end looms in sight. And this is more than just hunkering down and having faith that everything will work out OK. That attitude is alright, for sure, but Jesus is going for something a little more definite. It has to do with understanding that the most significant ending that any of us or the world has ever faced, for that matter, has already occurred in the cross. In his own death and self-sacrifice, Jesus has already conquered anything which would ultimately try to separate us from God. The clouds of doom have already gathered for him, the temple of his body has already been torn down, and he has risen with healing in his wings for all creation. Not a hair of our heads will perish. We do not ever need to worry about the end of things because Jesus has made us part of God’s great new beginning, and eventually that will be all that universe knows.

Lastly, Jesus warns us to prepare for suffering and persecution on account of our faith. As it turns out, the disciples would, after Jesus’ resurrection, enter a time of intense discrimination and oppression. Many would be rejected by their associations, jailed by the authorities, killed. Jesus knows that it is often difficult to stand for what he believes in, to spread the gospel when the world seems to be so against it all the time. Yet, in doing so we gain our souls. That is to say there is something about sharing and living our faith, especially in the face of hardship, that allows us to grow in ways we otherwise might not. It allows our eyes to be opened to the ways God does actually does provide and protect us that we most likely miss when everything is, by contrast, hunky-dory.

Within the last several weeks some of the Christians who had to flee the Iraqi city of Mosul and its surrounding villages because of ISIS have been able to return. It’s been more than two years since they encountered their own fearsome ending amidst the destruction of Islamic terrorism. The Iraqi forces, which, it needs to be noted, are largely Muslim, have liberated these villages, and the Christians are coming back to find their churches in ruins, the crosses adorning the walls riddled with bullet holes. And yet they return with great joy, with an unmistakable optimism that Christ will make things new.

One priest in the ancient village of Bartella returned with his wife just a few weeks ago. Bartella was a village where people of different faiths had coexisted peacefully for millennia. A camera crew followed them as the priest made his way in. Soldiers, many still bearing arms but with them slung back over their shoulders as if they no longer need them, dance and sing for joy, making a new song for God has done marvelous things. The church around them looks like it exploded in a pottery kiln. The footage shows several of them sifting through the rubble, picking out what books and other artifacts they can salvage. At one point you see this soldier with his assault rifle hanging slack across his chest, gently carrying, as carefully as he can…as if it is a human body he has discovered among the boulders…as if it is the very symbol of what will be the way forward out of this carnage…a perfectly-preserved, framed picture of the Last Supper.

“For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

In the face of despair and in picking up the pieces, when everyone offers a prognosis, a prediction, we will offer Jesus.

In the face of endings, when the world starts to worry, we will witness, and witness with joy.

And when it comes to suffering—when the world gives us terrorism—we will lift up his bread and cup, his body, broken once more, ended once more, for the healing of our souls. We know we will find a precious new creation somewhere within the rubble of the days before because that is precisely where God sets his table and places his cross.

As this congregation continues its shift from the end of one era to the beginning of another, may we be so bold to walk the journey—the journey of faith and hope—to worship the Christ—the One risen with healing in his wings—and to witness with joy—joy for a world forgiven and restored.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Reformation Sunday [Proper 26C/Lectionary 31C] - October 30, 2016 (Luke 19:1-10)

When you’re traveling from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem in the south, as Jesus has been doing for several weeks, maybe months, the last town you come to before you go up the hill to the holy city is Jericho, and Jesus passes through there. For that whole journey, up until this point, Jesus’ ministry has sought out the poor and the sick, foreigners and social outcasts. And Luke, of all the gospel writers, highlights this perspective on Jesus’ mission the most. It’s the people at the margins—be they women, or children, or lepers, or non-Jews, who are lifted up as centerpieces of God’s kingdom. God’s mercy in Christ Jesus comes first to those who have been excluded, to those who have little relative power.

Then, suddenly, here in Jericho, when the crowd that is following him is at its largest, right before he enters the city that will claim him as king, his final encounter is with Zaccheus.

And Zaccheus is anything but powerless and poor. He is a chief tax collector, so he likely knows most everyone in the town and has some kind of influence over their financial well-being.

Zaccheus is wealthy. If he is like most tax collectors of his time, he has found a way to enriching himself somehow from what he has collected from the people. Along the way he has clearly been promoted, so he has probably earned favor from the Roman government and gotten kickbacks as a result of it. If you’re looking for the type of person that Jesus would reach out to based on the shape his ministry has taken so far, Zaccheus would probably not fit that bill. He is a person of great means and, in addition to that, many of Jesus’ more direct and unsettling teachings have been about the dangers of money.

Funny enough, the main thing that Zaccheus is known for is his size. He’s a “wee little man,” which was a character trait looked down on by people of that time (pun intended). Unfair though it was, one’s stature was thought to be a reflection on one’s personality. Right or wrong, I have always imagined Zaccheus to be like that short little guy Vizzini in The Princess Bride. He’s the guy who says, “In-con-ceivable!” If you’ve watched the movie, you know Vizzini’s got influence out of proportion to his size. He has some wealth, and he has some power, but no one really seems to like him. He’s not the type of guy, for example, that people are going to give up their front row seat for when a famous guy comes through town.

So, of all the people Jesus could have chosen that day to speak with, to make a point of extending God’s mercy to, Zaccheus would not have been the most obvious. It would have been…(wait for it)…in-con-ceivable! But Jesus is never going to be contained by our definitions and expectations. How often do we try to decide who Jesus is and is not going to approach and befriend, or direct what Jesus is going to do?

Based on their reaction, that is clearly what the crowd following Jesus is doing. This doesn’t fit their picture of what Jesus is. Up until this point he has tended to befriend the poor and the downtrodden and now, at the last, he is freely associating with this wealthy person, someone they see as a scoundrel. And Jesus doesn’t just approach and address this chief tax collector, he invites himself into his home, a very uncommon thing to do! By announcing he will come to Zaccheus’ house, he is essentially putting himself in Zaccheus’ debt. To be a guest in someone’s home meant sharing table fellowship with that person, which was the most intimate kind of public relationship you could have.

Zaccheus’ reaction to this gracious news is astounding. Because of this interaction with Jesus, becoming his friend, we hear of his generosity to the poor and his honesty in his business dealings. He gives half of his possessions to the poor and repays those he has cheated. “Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus says, reminding us that God’s eternal grace and redemption is not something that only happens once we die. God’s kingdom is something that finds us even now, in this life.

It is not clear whether the two of them ever make it to Zaccheus’ house, but we may assume that they do, that Jesus and Zaccheus have a meal together. The joy and rich life that Jesus brings us is not something we must wait for. It comes to us now as Jesus meets us and transforms us with God’s mercy and forgiveness. We turn and serve our neighbor, for we meet the face of Jesus in her or him.

With Zaccheus, in this last stop before Jerusalem, we get the clearest, most direct description of what Jesus is all about. He says he has come to seek and save the lost. And the lost, as it turns out, can be anywhere. They can be along the side of the road of Jericho, down in a ditch, beaten and left to die. They can be at the top of a sycamore tree. We know this: there is nothing anyone needs to “be” in order to receive God’s mercy other than lost. You don’t need to be poor. You don’t need to be rich. You don’t need to be churched, fluent in the Bible. You don’t need to be unchurched. All you need to be is lost, distant, endangered. and the lost, distant, and endangered can be anywhere. In fact, they are us!

And as he continues up that hill out of Jericho into Jerusalem, Jesus will increasingly feel lost, himself. He will become abandoned by the crowd that currently loves him and the disciples that he has called to help him. Eventually Jesus will even feel abandoned and lost from God, his Father. To the top of another kind of tree Jesus himself will climb, rejected and ostracized by the people. He becomes all of our lost-ness, all of our estrangement from God. All of that gets nailed on the tree of the cross so that God can transform us all into his found people.

"Jesus receives Zaccheus" Church of the Good Shepherd,
“To seek out and save the lost.” It strikes me that this is the core message of the Reformation, the banner that Martin Luther held high as he tried to re-direct the church back to its gospel center almost 500 years ago. He thought that the church of Christ had adopted some practices and beliefs that sent the message that people were not saved by God’s grace alone. People had to pay a certain price or go through certain rituals not found in scripture in order to be assured of God’s love and redemption. And Luther knew this flew in the face of what Jesus does in the gospels, especially with people like Zaccheus. Jesus says, “Come down, Zaccheus. I know your find it inconceivable that you could host me in your house, around your table, but that’s where I want to be.”

Five hundred years after Luther’s efforts at reforming the church, Christians, at least in the West, find themselves in very interesting times. Tomorrow, to kick off the 500th year since the Protestant Reformation, Pope Francis will be participating in a worship service with Lutherans in Lund, Sweden. It is the first time in history that a Pope will mark this event in such a way. People are calling it ground-breaking, saying that it may open up new ways for Lutherans and Roman Catholics to be people of faith together. Already, in the last twenty years, all the condemnations and accusations that these two religious groups formally hurled at each other have been repented of and repealed. Significant progress is being made for our two church bodies to one day come together in some way. And that will have major positive implications for all of Christianity and the world.

We are also in interesting times because our societies are becoming more and more fragmented, socially, politically, and economically. There is a whole host of reasons for that, but suffice it to say we all feel that in some way. The church as an institution may not be powerful or influential in the same ways that it used to be. Some of us may lament that, wishing for the good old days, but we must remember that in any day the church always has the gospel. Into our fractured and pluralistic societies and world we get to announce what Zaccheus hears: “Come down. I’m coming to your house today.” Jesus is still traveling, walking, calling people together from the bottom and the top of the world to unite around a table where he is the holy guest, where he gives his body precisely because we don’t deserve it.

There was this story earlier this week about a mom and dad with a son in the Washington, D.C., public schools who found out that one of his friends often came to school hungry. The parents told their son to invite him home for dinner and to sleep there, if he needed it. As it turns out, that kid knew someone else who didn’t have a stable home life, and he, too, started to show up at the Frantis’ house for supper each night. Pretty soon they started hosting sometimes up to 20 kids from the area, most of whom were dealing with homelessness, poverty, and the wounds of abuse or assault. In a word, they all feel lost, and they find around the Frantis’ humble table a warm meal, a loving community, and a place they feel found, where they belong.[1]

What an image for the church—an always reforming church—as we enter these exciting and interesting times! A church that is constantly being renewed by God’s word, is a church that concentrates on seeking out the lost, that is not doing something for its own members but widening the circle to bring down even the people from the sycamore trees, giving them a place to gather and be fed. Grounded in Scripture, encountering a crucified and risen Lord, we are all the lost whom Jesus has found. Whether we’re Lutheran, or Roman Catholic or Presbyterian or  we’re-not-sure-yet, may Zaccheus teach us that Jesus comes to our house today. May we learn that God’s grace is beyond our understanding, defies human boundaries and borders. It claims all of us, in spite of our sinfulness.

May we learn from all our church leaders, Luther and Zaccheus, and mostly from Jesus on the cross, that God’s grace is, quite literally …in-con-ceivable!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “The Power of a Dinner Table,” David Brooks, New York Times, October 18, 2016

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24C/Lectionary 29C] - October 16, 2016 (Luke 18:1-8 and Psalm 121)

“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

I tell you, it’s hard not to lose heart when I read through the Post-It Notes that the HHOPE ministry volunteers place in my office box each Saturday after one of their distributions. The Post-It Notes contain the prayer requests, in their own handwriting with a ball-point pen, of the HHOPE guests, those people who are receiving food from our own church narthex. From its beginning, that ministry has sought to listen to and pray for the specific prayers of the people it helps, not just hand out food. On one of their tables is a stack of Post-It Notes and those who have prayer requests write their concern down and hand it to the volunteers, who then include those prayer requests when they hold hands and circle for prayer at the end of each distribution. Afterwards, one of the HHOPE volunteers then traditionally deposits them in my box, and I have to say it is moving to come into the office on Sunday and read through prayers of these people in our community, although, I have to say after reading them for almost three or four years now, I’m still seeing the same desperate appeals.

That’s where it’s hard not to lose heart. Some of the requests are vague and general, but some are very specific, and it makes me wonder: when will relief come for the woman who prays for her child with special needs? When will resolution come for the person who conscientiously scribbles down her request month after month for settling a dispute with a landlord? The persistent, relentless faith of these individuals is inspiring, even as I, their eavesdropper, wonder if I would ever have the nerve to enlist my own prayers so fervently.

The heart for trying, the heart for believing: Jesus knows his disciples run the risk of losing just that—of getting discouraged with the tasks of faith and witness. They are about to be sent out into a world that will not readily receive them where they will often feel vulnerable and unwelcome. They are about to be sent out as ambassadors of a kingdom that is often not visible. It won’t have borders or boundaries or strong castles to defend it. It will occur right in among them in a moments of love and forgiveness, where the cruel ways of the world are momentarily turned back and God’s grace reigns. That is the particular kingdom they offer their lives for, they seek and strive for, and the cruel ways of the world will often roll right over them.

Jesus knows they will feel a lot like the ancient Israelites did as they made their way up to the holy city of Jerusalem for pilgrimages, having to pass through the hills and mountains of the surrounding countryside. Those hills and mountains were the territory of the pagan enemies who off and on threatened them with war. Those foreign peoples would build their shrines to unknown earth gods on the peaks of those distant hills and the Israelites would sing and wonder aloud as they trekked to the Temple of the one Lord, coming up out of the shadowy valleys where it is always easy to lose heart, “I lift my eyes up to these mountains which loom over me, threatening my journey…from where will my help come? And the Israelite faithful would answer themselves, “My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth, the maker of even those looming mountains.”

"Pilgrimage to Jerusalem" (Roberts & Hauge)
Yes, Jesus knows they could lose heart and so he gives them a remedy, a bulwark as they traverse their valley: pray always. It will be taking a ball-point pen and ripping off yet another Post-It Note and placing it in the hands of caring people who will pray with you. It will be repeating, in various and creative ways, sometimes even only to themselves, that the LORD is more powerful than the mountains that tower over us from time to time.

And to give them an example of what he means Jesus tells them a parable of a people engaged in a kind of dialogue, except for it is a very one-sided dialogue. It is the unjust judge versus a widow. It is the person who occupies a privileged place within the community, tasked with using his voice to create new realities for people versus the person who has no place at all, and who has no voice, since that’s the Hebrew root word for “widow”: silenced.

The judge, we find out, is a downright shameless character, concerned neither with how his behavior affects those around him nor how his decrees ignore or damage the community. The widow is seeking some sort of justice. Perhaps it’s a landlord issue, too. Whatever the case, it must be related to be the one small shred of legal standing she has. She persistently calls on him, stands outside his office every single day. She is on first-name basis with his receptionist, and when the people in the office see her coming each day they start to roll her eyes, shuffling their papers to look busy. Over and over she does things to get his attention, but he won’t listen, sends her straight to voice mail.

(Eugene Burnand)
Finally the judge caves, but not because he cares about her, but because he’s worried that she may end up making him look bad. He says he’s concerned she’ll “wear him out,” which is a Greek boxing term which, directly translated, means, “give me a black eye.” The judge only listens to her because of what it might mean for him if he doesn’t. That is, he’s never really willing to be engaged in what she’s going through. He stays outside of it, even as he grants her request.

Don’t worry, says Jesus, once he finishes with the story, you’ve got a God who comes to this dialogue of prayer as a partner. You’ve got a Father in heaven who cares, who doesn’t stay outside of it, who wants to be involved somehow. You’ve got a God who ultimately will get a black eye—and in fact, far more than that in order to grant justice and bring about his kingdom.

It is tempting to think of prayer as something like writing Christmas wish lists to God. We think that since God is listening and has all the power of the universe at hand, we can just lob our requests out there into the air and see what happens. And I know even as I say this that I’ve spoken with people who have lost their faith in God because they’ve prayed and prayed and what they felt they wanted didn’t come true. So I speak with great caution here, but we can forget that prayer is a dialogue, even a whole-body affair at times. We can forget that the models we have of people who engage with God are like this widow, who does far more than just go through the motions. She gets up and tries again, maybe shifting her tactics slightly, rephrasing the request. They are models like Jacob by the Jabbok, who, tormented by his past and fearing his future, grapples with his Creator mysteriously almost as an equal and is forever changed as a result of it. He comes away very different than he started.

In his novel, Jayber Crow, author and poet and farmer Wendell Berry wonders at one point, “Perhaps all the good that ever has come here has come because people prayed it into the world…Prayer is like lying awake at night, afraid, with your head under the cover, hearing only the beating of your own heart. It is like a bird that has blundered down the flue and is caught indoors and flutters at the windowpanes. It is like standing a long time on a cold day, knocking at the door.”

We don’t always know where our praying will take us, but one question Jesus’ parable asks of us is where are we ultimately looking for vindication? The mountains around us, the temples of those gods who stand aloof, like the capricious ones who supposedly affect the outcome of football games? Or perhaps within our fickle selves? Do we only look there for the answers? Techniques offered by self-help programs and achieving inner peace may work for some things, but at the end of the day issues that have to do with justice, that have to do with the needs of the widows in our midst, of establishing that real reign of peace and joy of Christ will come only from God, of standing sometimes a long time and knocking at the door. At the end of the day,  being an ambassador and witness to that kingdom will come only from looking to Christ.

It is looking to the model of all model, the example of all examples, who once prays so hard we are told his sweat turns to blood. He is the one who reminds us more than anything else that God engages us in our striving and in our losing heart to the point that he comes down to lose heart with us, who prays, on the cross, “Where have you been, Lord? Can you even hear me?”                 

Ultimately, you see, prayer should change us, too, and not because we give up or grow frustrated but because, in engaging the One on the cross, we come to see how God can still be at work even when the tides of injustice roll right over us. We come to see the world outside ourselves, the places where God is showing up to establish justice. We receive what God knows we really need: Suffering that gives way to growing. Dying that gives way to living. A Lord that preserves us from all evil and keeps our life, who watches over our going out and coming in from this time forth forevermore.

A funny little story about the going out and coming in, about praying always and not losing heart and being changed: Each night before bed we pray the same stock prayer with our daughters. We’ve done it for years. It was the same one I prayed as a child. It goes, “Now I lay me down to sleep/ I pray the Lord my soul to keep./ In the morning when I wake,/ I pray the path of love to take.”

Not too long ago we listened closely one evening as one daughter was praying along with us And, interestingly enough, we discovered she had changed the words ever-so-slightly and made it her own. “In the morning when I wake,” went her fervent plea, “I pray the path I love to take.” And, let me tell you, if you know our daughters—our beautiful, strong-willed, independent-minded daughters—you know God has been listening. And answering!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23C/Lectionary 28C] - October 9, 2016 (2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c and Luke 17:11-19)

Cleansing of Naaman

I can imagine that ancient Israel absolutely loved to tell and re-tell this story about Naaman, the commander from the army in Aram. During those long years when Israel was in exile in Babylon, far away from their homeland, far away from their River Jordan, I can just imagine that this story, peculiar though it may be, brought them great relief, made them proud.

I remember that when I first lived in Pittsburgh and the Steelers were still coming off of their long exile from the postseason any time the subject of football was brought up (and it’s brought up a lot in Pittsburgh) I would inevitably hear about the Immaculate Reception. I would hear every detail—every stirring detail—about the crazy, accidental play that saved their divisional title in December 1972 when they were trailing to the Raiders with 30 seconds to go in the game. A pass from quarterback Terry Bradshaw was intended for one receiver but it seemed to get tipped by the Raiders’ defensive player. The ball ricocheted to the feet of Steelers fullback Franco Harris who scooped it up—from his shoe or off the ground, no one really knows—and ran it in for the game-winning touchdown.

If you’ve never heard a Pittsburgh native who was alive in the 1970s tell you the story of the Immaculate Reception, you’re missing out. Fathers tell it to their daughters, mothers tell it to their sons. That crazy event brought—and still brings—any Pittsburgh Steelers fan so much pride. The play was like this proof that the Steelers had magic, had destiny, that they occupied some special status in pro football.

I imagine that’s kind of how the ancient Israelites told this story about Naaman coming to Israel’s River Jordan to get healed. There are so many intricate details in it, signs that oral tradition was really doing its duty as father passed down the story to daughter and mother to son. They were not going to forget anything about how it happened. It probably reminded them that they had a certain destiny, special status in God’s grand plan.

In this story you have Naaman, the distinguished commander in the army of the King of Aram, a foreign military power. Naaman is a bigwig, has lots of power, but unfortunately he has a skin disease, which at that time, was basically a kiss of death. Back then all skin disorders were lumped under the term “leprosy,” and they were a one-way ticket to outsider status. He had probably been searching for a cure for this skin disease for a while. He ends up finding out that there may be a prophet down in this small, inferior kingdom to the south who could do something about it.

So a letter is written to arrange some type of meeting but the king of that small, inferior kingdom, known as Israel, immediately thinks he’s being set up. At that point the prophet, named Elisha, decides to step in and follow through on Naaman’s request. For whatever reason, Naaman rolls into town with all of his war cabinet and his chariots and horses. It would be like if Vladimir Putin came to get something from our HHOPE pantry here one day and he came up Monument Avenue with some of his tanks and officers. Elisha gives the word that all he needs to do is bathe in the River Jordan and he’ll be made clean.

After some initial reluctance and a temper tantrum, Naaman eventually goes through with it and, lo and behold, after dipping in the river seven times, he’s cured. Then before he rolls his huge entourage back up to Aram in the north, Naaman, overcome with thankfulness, journeys back to Elisha and proclaims praise to God’s name. Then, in the next part of the story, Naaman orders two mule-loads of Israel’s dirt to be brought back to Aram so that he could continue to worship the God of Israel.

That’s the story that ancient Israel probably loved to tell and re-tell. Here are some of the things that story was supposed to teach them: First of all, it was a reminder that the greatest faith is more often found in the lowliest faces. Notice throughout the story how the rich and powerful are the ones who have the least confidence in God’s ability to heal and save. Whether it is Naaman, who is dissatisfied with the proposed cure and wants to go back home, or the king of Israel, who freaks out at the chance to showcase God’s power, neither of those in the story with strong relative power are initially examples of faithfulness.

By contrast, it’s the unnamed folks at the edges that display faith in the Lord. The whole story gets started, after all, by this servant girl who merely mentions the abilities of the prophet living in Israel. And when Naaman almost backs out and gets ready to take his chariots back to Aram, it’s his servants who come through and convince him to trust the prophet’s words. It was an important lesson for Israel to ponder, especially as they constantly seemed to be seeking worldly status and power. Great faith so often resides in those the world overlooks or ignores or enslaves or devalues. Notice Jesus’ own shock when he sees the one thankful leper turns out to be a foreigner, not a regular Israelite. God loves those people, draws near to them, desires to help them. And it is those who have relative power and privilege who, somewhat ironically, are the easiest to convince they have no need of a God to redeem and heal them. Lesson one: great faith is found in the lowest faces.

Another thing the healing of Naaman was supposed to teach the Israelites was that healing comes in the most unexpected places. The kingdom of Aram was on a roll. They had an army that could conquer anyone; they had talented military personnel. But to give Naaman the healing he needed, he was going to have to visit lowly old kingdom of Israel, almost a vassal state. The Rivers of Damascus, Abana and Pharpar, were beautiful, big and fresh compared to the dinky, dirty Jordan. He travelled all the way down here for a simple bath in that water? Naaman was expecting some big show of power and drama, some mystical secret weapon of healing (after all, he is a weapons guy). But God’s word is not chained, as the apostle Paul would say, and God often prefers the simple and unassuming to bring about wholeness, in spite of our desire for the masterful.

Because of where our church is located, every once in a while we have someone off the street drop by looking for assistance. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred they claim they need financial assistance, but one day several years ago a woman showed up who said she wanted to talk with a pastor. Pastor Price must have been out at the time, so I ended up setting down what I was doing and speaking with her. The conversation lasted for quite a while, and my memory is hazy now, but I remember that she was really agitated and worried about the health of her husband, who had just finished a round of cancer treatment with no results. I kept waiting for her to get to the point where she would tell me she needed something—like a hotel room or money for food, but as the story went on, it appeared she wanted me to tell her what she was supposed to do now. There were some family conflict, too, and she felt overwhelmed. It was a bizarre conversation and I remember feeling absolutely helpless. She never wanted to tell me her name, even though I asked her for it so I could pray for her. Like Naaman, I expected of myself some magical, dramatic words or gesture that would reassure her, calm her down, give her hope. But nothing came. When she finally left, I felt like it was fifty minutes down the drain. I wanted to do something difficult, something impressive. She seemed every bit as disoriented and upset as when she arrived.

Then, about a week later, an unmarked envelope came to the church through the mail. All that was in it was a $50 bill wrapped in a piece of paper that said, “Thanks for listening to me. Signed, your stranger last week.” Why she felt compelled to respond in that way, I don’t know, but I have a feeling I was being taught Naaman’s again. Faith comes in the lowliest faces. Healing comes in the most unexpected places.

We cannot predict how God is going to work among us, and because we’re typically infatuated with the showy and spectacular, the giant and the grandiose, we’re apt to miss the profound healing that can come through the humble and humdrum. We can often overlook Jesus, that is, and the places where Jesus walks among us, in steady gentleness and kindness, calling out to us that we are clean. We can often overlook the point of the cross—that face, that place where God’s grace is poured out in a crucified man so that we may be cleansed of our sin and made well.

Cleansing of the Ten lepers (Codex Aureus)
God is not going to require us to perform some magnificent ritual or deed of glory to prove our worth. God is going to take us as we are, unclean and broken, and love us back to life in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God is going to meet us in the ordinary, in the Godforsaken path we’re taking, to give us his healing. And like Israel and the disciples of Jesus learned, it often takes an encounter with another person—a stranger, a foreigner healed of leprosy, a nameless visitor in the office, a person who has experienced that new life for us to see its power, ourselves.

That brings me to the last thing the story of Naaman should have taught the Israelites, and which still teaches us: We show thankfulness for God’s graces. A clean Naaman could have gone straight home from the River Jordan. Ten clean former lepers started running off to the priest that day. The visitor in my office could have gone about her business, clean from her worry. But there is something about expressing thankfulness that makes us well. There is something about the thanksgiving that completes the relationship, which seals the deal. We are created for God’s glory and joy, and as much delight as it must give God to have us clean and whole, imagine how delighted God is to hear or see our thanks. Imagine how much it does for us when we respond in that relationship with our gratefulness.

Living our faith in the world, living out the grace of our baptism is like carrying back those two mule-loads of holy soil. That is, wherever we walk becomes holy ground, an opportunity where we express our thankfulness for what God has done. Each person with whom we talk becomes an opportunity to show our faith in God. And as this happens, through God’s strange but humble power, we are face of faith for someone who needs it. We are an unexpected place of healing. And, if I may be so bold as to say, an immaculate inception—a moment where the crucified and risen Lord may find an opening.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.