Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday - February 10, 2016 (Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)

 
 
When my sister and I were little, there was a book in the toy bin at our grandparents’ house in Winston-Salem that my sister loved to have read to her. It was a little Golden book in the Rocky and Bullwinkle series called something like Rocky and Friends. It was only about twenty pages long, and, being a children’s book, its very simple storyline was driven more by big, colorful pictures than by sentences with words. But my sister loved the story, and whenever we were over at their house, she would inevitably end up on granddaddy’s lap at some point and he’d read it to her, over and over and over.

I was never involved in the listening or telling of Rocky and Friends—I would always be occupied with something else that I thought was less baby-ish—but the plot had something to do with a camping trip in the woods which seemed to be going wrong. One by one, Rocky’s friends would leave the tent where they were all sleeping and disappear into the dark night, never to return. Every time a new person left the tent, the words would go, “One second, two seconds, three seconds went by.” For most little kids, that kind of stuff is suspenseful. My sister ate it up. As for me, I would get so put off by repetition of that middle part, the way it droned on and on, that about halfway thought I’d tune it all out. Bored by the monotony and frustrated with the tension, I never actually listened to the end to hear what happened to Rocky and his friends in the woods. I must have heard granddaddy read that book to Katherine a hundred times. I can hear his kind voice and see her legs dangling under the edge of the book. I never paid attention to how it ended.

Today is about paying attention to the end. That’s what the ashes soon to be placed on our foreheads are all about. Our lives are a story that can be, especially in the long middle stretches, boring and monotonous, tedious and filled with tension. We can get caught up in the repetition of certain aspects or distracted by things that don’t really matter. And even if we are successful at tuning it out for a while as we worship the idol of youth or burnishing the impact of our legacy, we ultimately won’t be able to ignore where it all winds up for us. We are dust, and to dust we will return.

Today, tonight, throughout the world, friends and strangers gather in worship to be reminded in stark fashion that we will disappear back into the woods at some point. It’s unavoidable. It happens whether there is suspense in our lives or not. It happens whether we are surrounded by worldly success or not. God formed each of us from the same raw materials of his universe, and that is the direction our bodies eventually take. Ash Wednesday is considered by many to be the most jarring, the most solemn time of worship of the entire year. It reminds us that we are not in total control of what is happening to us and that we have inherited a human story that ends in death. Pope Francis has said, “Lent comes providentially to reawaken us, to shake us from our lethargy.” Indeed, call it the lull of “one second, two seconds, three seconds going by.” We need to be shaken to pay attention to the end of our story.

That appears to be one of the motivations for the people of God during the time of the prophet Joel. They too, are confronted with a great darkness on the horizon that promises to wipe all of them out. They see the day of clouds and blackness approaching, which we think may have been a swarm of crop-devouring locusts, and they contemplate their end. It could mean massive famine, disease, war between those who have and those who have not. No matter what, it is their end, and in contemplating it through the acts of repenting and praying, even mourning for their impending demise, they remember that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Because just as they become aware of their story of sinfulness and decay, they are also aware of God’s story. It is a holy story that began with their very creation out of dust and continues through the mighty acts of that loving Creator, each time pulling them out of the monotony and tedium, sorrow and boredom of their human story and making them aware of another end that God has in store for them.

And that, we remember, is a story of salvation, not of ultimately clouds and thick darkness. It is a real history of God working among God’s people to love them and restore them to blessing. This God had once called their patriarchs and matriarchs like Abraham and Sarah, in order to become a holy people that would be a blessing to the earth. God’s story continued as God heard the cries of suffering of the slaves in Egypt, the offspring of those matriarchs and patriarchs, now stranded in a strange land. God brought them out, delivering them through a great Exodus into freedom that would renew their covenant with God and allow them to shine once again as God’s treasured people.

As God’s story for them continues, they plead for a leader who would be able to unite their bickering tribes and help them maintain their treasured status among so many other diverse peoples. And God renews his covenant once again, and makes of them a real city on hill. Unbelievably, God would come to reside with them in that city, taking up residence in a holy temple. But unlike other holy shrines elsewhere, God’s temple would not contain God goodness and glory in one place. Rather, God’s light would stream out from there to be embodied in the relationships of the people in the kingdom where grace and love for the neighbor would rule over all else. 

The Flight of the Prisoners (Tissot)
When their efforts at that began to burn once more into ashes, God would draw near, this time forming them through a period of great hardship and sorrow. In foreign Babylon they would become like slaves again, scattered from their holy city and the temple that inspired them so. Into exile and then back, they’d yet come to realize God was still with them, honing them to be people who lived according to his Word, no matter where they were.

Then, to fully link the human story of death and sin to God’s holy story of life and freedom, God gave his Son, Jesus of Nazareth. His birth, life, and death among us unites our story as mortal creatures with God’s story of salvation and life eternal. This is the story, the great history of hope, that we have inherited through our faith in Christ. When a person receives the water of baptism, the pastor stands at the font and sometimes says, “We are born children of a fallen humanity; by water and the Holy Spirit we are reborn children of God and made members of the body of Christ.” Though our human story is broken by sin and ends with the ashes of death, we are now also united to God’s story in Christ who is risen from the dead.

The traditional disciplines of Lent are designed to awaken us and help us pay attention to that story, to that hope. Fasting, the giving of alms, and prayer all, in different ways, jolt us out of the humdrum of a normal, self-centered existence and help us re-learn and receive this new ending in Christ’s life. We become living and breathing—and even dying—reminders that our story of decay and sin has now overlapped with God’s great salvation. Devoted to God and to neighbor, we can bear God’s image, answer the call to be God’s people, enjoy deliverance from sin, build God’s kingdom in our presence, and be molded by God’s judgment of slow anger and steadfast love. The life of faith helps us remember that everything—everything—comes to an end except for the love, grace, and peace of Jesus Christ.

My own grandfather reached the end of his earthly story last October at the age of 93. As we sat gathered with close family in his final days, the subject of that old Rocky and Bullwinkle book came up. As an act of remembering him and honoring that time together, my sister hunted and hunted for a copy of it somewhere. It’s out of print, of course, so it wasn’t on any of the major booksellers on-line, but eventually she got it from an obscure Etsy seller for a whopping $3. It arrived the week or so after he died.

I was curious about the end, and as it turns out there’s a little surprise. Rocky’s friends disappear one by one in the forest not to meet some terrible demise, but because they’re throwing him a secret surprise birthday party. After so much worry, or boredom, or tedium, or suspense, the story ends in a celebration of life and thankfulness.

Huh. A story with a surprise end of joy and thanksgiving. Well, now how to you like that?

Granddaddy (Bob) and my sister (Katherine)


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [Lectionary 4C] - January 31, 2016 (1 Corinthians 13:1-13 and Luke 4:21-30)


 
The Apostle Paul often catches a lot of flak for being very long-winded and wordy. And rightly so. Even though the things he writes are important, and sometimes really profound, in reality his New Testament letters are chock-full of complicated, convoluted sentences that go on and on and on. As a result, many people find his writing hard to untangle and follow, kind of like...sermons. As someone once said, there is a fine line between a long sermon and a hostage situation. But that’s how Paul writes so much of the time!

"Paul Writing his Epistles" Valentin du Boulogne (17th c.)
That’s what many people feel like as they read the Apostle Paul—like they’re hostage to horrible writing—until they get to the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he waxes poetic. He trims his sentences down. He follows a clear pattern. Choppy, awkward phrases disappear and flowing, lyrical lines take their place. And the result may not be any easier to grasp, but at least it’s pretty to listen to. The thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is considered by many people to be the most beautiful piece of prose in all of Scripture. Couples often choose it to be read at their weddings simply because it sounds so nice, even though it doesn’t really have anything directly to do with weddings. This short chapter and then the book of Ruth from the Old Testament were the only examples from the Bible that made it into my 10th grade world literature class textbook. I have to think, though, that it’s not simply Paul’s graceful language that adds to the beauty and charm of this beloved chapter. It also probably has a lot to do with the fact he’s talking about one of everyone’s favorite subjects: love.

Ahh, yes, love. Now, I know some of you are probably rolling your eyes and wondering to yourself those words of another famous Paul. You think that people would have had enough of silly love songs, that the world is full of them. But even though we might get the point that the Apostle Paul and Sir Paul might approach the same subject a little differently, they both agree on one main point: love isn’t silly. It isn’t silly, it isn’t silly at all.

It isn’t silly because, at least for the Apostle Paul, love is the gift, the tool, which becomes the key for using all other gifts in the Christian community. Without love, Paul says, nothing else works. It is the mortar which helps bricks form a building. It is the musical staff which allows the notes to be arranged in a meaningful melody. It is the heat that turns the batter into a delicious cake. Without the application of love, any one of these things would just turn into a mess, no matter how strong the bricks are, or how original the notes are, or how high-quality the ingredients are.

This lesson on love was particularly important for the Corinthians to understand because, as it happens, they’d been arguing over who among them were the “best ingredients,” which individuals in their community had the best gifts. There were several gifts that they were particularly enamored with, like speaking in tongues and displaying great wisdom and prophecy. Congregations may not exactly argue over particular gifts anymore, but every community tends to rank certain attributes and skills on a scale, consciously or not. Paul wants his congregation in Corinth to know that the strength or depth of each skill is not nearly as important as the love with which that skill is applied, because love, as he says elsewhere, builds up.

I’ve been told that one of this congregation’s former associate pastors, Mark England, had a question he would often get people to ask themselves in order to gauge the effectiveness of an idea or activity for ministry. He would ask, “How does this idea or activity we’re doing build up the kingdom of God or the body of Christ?” If that question was too difficult to answer, then they would hold off or change the idea. That is the question that love asks. Paul would have liked that question a lot, because he goes on to talk about love not just as a thing, but more like a person who has feelings and thoughts and abilities. It’s helpful to know that love is critical to community life, but only if you know what love is like. And so Paul anthropomorphizes love, using a style of writing that was typically used in the ancient world for praising people. It’s been translated differently through the years. Here’s how Eugene Peterson puts it in his contemporary language version of Scripture, The Message:

“Love never gives up.
Love cares for others more than self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
doesn’t have a swelled head,
doesn’t force itself on others,
isn’t always, ‘me first.’”
[1]

As the Corinthians continue to rank themselves according to the level of gifts they’ve received, Paul wants the church members to understand that love always involves the other. Brilliant prophecy may be nice, wisdom and knowledge may get you far, inspiring displays of faith are wonderful at times, but only love can really bear all things and endure all things. It hopes and believes all things, too, which doesn’t mean love turns a blind eye to abuse or manipulation, but that it always has an eye out for God’s future, confident that justice and mercy will ultimately rule.

Many people find this to be the really poetic part of an already poetic chapter, but interestingly enough, the particular kind of love that Paul is talking about, the kind of love that does the building up and bringing together, is often anything but poetic or lyrical when it’s acted out. The kind of love that never gives up, that cares for others more than self, that doesn’t keep score of others’ wrongs is most often painful and unpopular and even ugly when it’s demonstrated.

Ina recent opinion piece on the website Medium discussing the extreme polarization of our public discourse on political and social topics, writer Sean Blanda talks about the necessity of being humble enough to lay down our opinions on any given contentious issue so that we can accurately phrase and understand the viewpoint of someone who is on what we’ve often labeled the “Other Side.” This lack of arrogance and boastfulness is essential to growth and maturity, he says.  “We won’t truly progress as individuals,” he writes, “until we make an honest effort to understand those who are not like us.” He issues a dare for the next time we’re in a discussion with someone we disagree with.  “Don’t try to ‘win,’” he says. “Don’t try to convince anyone of your viewpoint. Instead, try to ‘lose.’ Hear them out. Ask them to convince you and mean it.”

What he is encouraging is a practice of painful, unpopular love, which Paul reminds us, isn’t rude and doesn’t insist on its own way. And it’s not just good for the progress of individuals. It helps the whole community. And eventually it grows outward, not just inward, which is important: the quality of the church’s internal life together is almost always its greatest tool for reaching new people.

That, in fact, appears to be the problem with the Nazareth crowd’s reaction when Jesus attempts to bring them God’s Word and demonstrate how God’s love works. Initially, the message Jesus brings them sounds good, but immediately, Jesus recognizes, they think of themselves first and insist on their own way. They want to keep score, wondering why Jesus won’t perform for them the same wonders the other towns in Galilee got. But the love that Jesus comes to bring, the love at the center of his Father’s very being, is never given to self-preservation. It is directed outward, even towards those on the margins, those with the gifts, Paul would say, that everyone looks down on. And after he gives the Nazareth synagogue a few real-life examples of how God’s kingdom is often built up from the edges, bringing outsiders in, they rise up to silence him by throwing him off a cliff.

But they forget that love endures all things, that this love of God never ends. It’s not pretty and it’s definitely not silly when this love eventually goes to the cross and does die. It’s not poetic and it’s not aesthetic when love stretches out its arms and breathes its last, reminding us all that this kind of self-giving love lies at the center of everything God is.

That is why Paul can say this love is the greatest…even greater than faith and hope. Love is the thing that God does. God doesn’t believe things or need hope, as important as they are for us. God loves…and there will come a day, you see, when we will see that this love is completely victorious over all, when we reside in nothing but God’s eternal presence. There will be no need for belief in things we can’t see or for hoping in good things that haven’t happened yet because we will finally see them and they will be happening! Love will be all in all, and all will somehow be built up in Christ, and all will somehow, in God’s grace, be brought together. Full-grown in Christ, we will have learned the true value of listening to one another and trying to “lose” to them so much so that we realize there really isn’t an Other. There won’t be “them” and “us,” people with awesome knowledge and people who can’t speak in tongues. There won’t be folks from the hometown and folks from the other side of the tracks…there won’t be anger about widows from distant Zarephath who get the special attention or frustration with Syrian outsiders. There won’t even be a need for our different wonderful gifts anymore, because the kingdom they are to be used for building up will be fully built up. We will know everything about him, just as God has already, all along, known everything about us—and still loved us and claimed us—since the time we were formed in the womb.

Now that’s truly beautiful, my friends, no matter how you put it. That’s truly beautiful. Love never ends…especially when a silly love sermon really needs to.

 

 

Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.




[1] The Message//Remix, NavPress 2003 p 1683ff

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Baptism of Our Lord [Year C] - January 10, 2016 (Luke 3:15-17, 21-23)


 
 
I could be wrong, but I’m almost 100% positive that the people who determine the schedule for the National Football League never consult the church calendar when they set up the playoff schedule. Every year, the Baptism of our Lord falls on Wild Card weekend. It’s a perfect match, if you ask me, because whether you sit in a church sanctuary or whether sit in front of the gridiron, lots of folks are thinking about expectations.

Some of those here today are full of expectations that a season will culminate in a Super Bowl appearance. They can barely contain their excitement or their anxiety. Trust me: I live with one of these people. I lived it last night in my family room, in fact. Every excruciating second. It’s almost like the long regular season behind us doesn’t really matter anymore. All the focus is on the future and, for better or worse, hopes of glory and dreams of honor are pinned on a particular player or coach. People are questioning in their hearts: is destiny calling for Kirk Cousins this year? Are the Packers washed out, or might they be the ones? These Wild Card games, you see, involve borderline candidates, teams who didn’t exactly dominate this season but who now have been given the chance to claim victory. In thirty years, only 6 of them have gone on to win the whole thing, but, oh, the expectations! With liturgical devotion, somewhere around 30 million people will be watching each game this weekend with them in mind.

And so the Baptism of Jesus is an uncanny backdrop for this tension in our popular culture. When Luke tells his version of this important event, he makes sure we know that there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of people are watching with pulsing expectation at another set of wild cards who appear by the River Jordan: John the Baptist and Jesus. They’ve assembled there because John has been preaching and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He’s kind of wild about it, too, calling people out for their sinful behavior and warning them of the wrath to come. He’s a long shot, perhaps, but the people wonder and question in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah. They’ve been waiting for centuries for the right person. The hopes and dreams of all of Israel, the people of God, are searching and waiting to rest on the right person. Is destiny calling him?

"Baptism of Jesus" (Joachim Patinir)
Messiah is a Hebrew word that means “anointed.” The Greek translation of Messiah is a word we use all the time but probably think of it as Jesus’ last name: Christ. Finding the Messiah was a big deal for God’s people because it meant that God’s kingdom was breaking in. It meant that God’s Spirit has selected a specific, special person who would inaugurate God’s reign of justice and peace. After centuries of oppression and dealing with foreign powers, after a long series of corrupt kings and priests, the people of Israel desperately wanted this to happen. They wanted The Anointed to show up. It’s all about those expectations.

John’s answer to those expectations might have been a bit of a let-down, but you can’t blame him for being clear. John is not the Anointed One, but, as he says, that person is coming. That person will be truly great, truly powerful. This Messiah they await will have the task of sifting through everything like a wheat farmer sifts through the harvest on the threshing room floor. He will lead in such a way that all of the chaff in our lives and in our world, the empty husks of meaninglessness, will be done away with. He will lead in a way that purifies people, much in the way that fire and powerful wind do away with things that are weak and impure.

John is pretty clear, though, he is not this leader, and unfortunately for John, Herod the ruler is even clearer. Luke tells us that pretty soon John the Baptist is arrested and locked in prison. Tough spot for any potential Messiah to be. However, apparently in the midst of those people John was preaching to out by the Jordan, the true Messiah had been baptized. Almost like a flashback in a movie, we find out that Jesus had, in fact, been anointed through this powerful experience where the heavens opened up. It’s not even clear from this story whether or not John the Baptist was there when all of this happened.

"Baptism of Jesus" (Rosalind Hore)
What is clear is that God is present. In the form of that dove that descends upon him, and in the sound of a voice from the sky, God’s Spirit and God’s presence make known that the people’s expectations are finally being fulfilled.

Historically-speaking, the baptism of Jesus is when the church year really begins. For centuries, this event kicked off the cycle that helped the church talk about and celebrate Jesus’ life and ministry. Things like Christmas and Advent were added later. The baptism, Jesus’ anointing was the primary focus. It is the first event in Jesus’ life that is attested in some way by all four gospel writers and is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus’ appearance in Judea in those waters of the River Jordan does something, means something, to God’s creation on a level that nothing beforehand had. In Jesus, God has found the leader that will assemble the people of God and purify the hearts of humankind. In Jesus, God has selected God’s very representative on earth. In fact, it is not just any representative, but God’s own Son, one whom God loves and with whom God is pleased. It is God’s way of saying that it is time to really pay attention to what this Jesus is going to do because God himself is present in him, revealing what God is like.

The funny thing is, I’m not sure Jesus always fulfills our expectations in this regard. We often want one thing from Jesus the Messiah and we get another. As a matter of fact, some of John the Baptist’s own expectations seem a little off-base when it comes to Jesus. He talks about the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Messiah like it’s a consuming, powerful fire, but when it actually shows up, it’s a gentle dove. And any expectations we might have that God’s selection of Jesus will preserve and safeguard him or raise him up on a mighty pedestal come crashing down once we start to watch how his ministry plays out.

Jesus is claimed in his baptism, but not claimed and then set away like a king in a castle for a life apart from everyone else, protected from the dangers of the world. Jesus is chosen in his baptism, but not chosen for elite political or military service, surrounded by a well-connected entourage. Jesus is selected, but he is selected so that he may serve and suffer, to seek out the lost, and to save. These are typically not the expectations we always come to Anointed, Hoped-for leaders with, which is why the cross is always such a tragic shock.

It turns out John is right-on about one thing. Jesus will purify and cleanse, for sure, but it will do it because he is called “Beloved” and he has a fiery passion to love us all. A Messiah, a Savior, who dies for the very people who turn their back on him is precisely, however, the kind of Messiah we need.

Coptic Orthodox baptism
That we have been so claimed and chosen and loved by God in our baptisms and then given over to follow Jesus into the world is always demonstrated very vividly by this congregation’s longstanding tradition of walking newly baptized children and babies down the aisle after they’ve been anointed with the oil by the altar. At first it struck me that this little stroll was just a fun and practical way to show off a cute baby in a gown, like we’re at a baptismal fashion show and the aisle is a catwalk where we do our little turn. But I’ve come to realize the practice is more profound than that. When that baby is taken from the parents arms and walked down the aisle, we are witnessing and demonstrating what baptism does to all of us.

Our baptism, like Christ’s own, pushes us into the world. It places our lives, which are certainly claimed by grace, into service and mission. Each of us, with the blessing of the Spirit and all its gifts, brought through the waters by a God who has died for us, is sent right out into the expectations of a desperate, anxious world. Of course, we hand the child back to the parents at the end, but always with the hope that they, as primary caregivers to that child, model that this is the life of faith: God says “You are Mine. You will always be mine. But you belong in the world.”

Two weeks ago we baptized a three-year-old, Abbie. As we had discussed beforehand, we decided I would not carry her, but that she would hold me hand and walk side-by-side. When we finished and climbed the stairs to the chancel, we turned around to face the congregation and, of all things, she waved. She waved to the congregation! Speaking of expectations, that was something that caught us all off-guard!

When we leave this place each week, we encounter a world that is longing for the hope we’ve spoken of here. Wouldn’t it be powerful if the church, at the very least, waved back, as if the water were still dripping from our heads, confident that Jesus, the Messiah, the Hoped-for, is walking with us?

Come to think of it, don’t you show us, Epiphany, how to keep on walking? Haven’t you shown me, Epiphany, the church named for making Christ known, how you gather and feast here, grow here, babble in the pews here? Don’t you model so well—lost and found, desperate wild cards that you are—how to keep on walking right out there, held tightly the arms of the one who loves you?


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
                                 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Second Sunday of Christmas - January 3, 2016 (Jeremiah 31:7-14 and John 1:10-18)


 
Covering some ground.

I suspect that for a lot us, that sums up how many of us feel, one way or the other, about a change in the calendar. Some of look back on 2015 and think: I covered some ground that year. Others may look into the future, into the new year that is already upon us and we’ve resolved to cover some ground. There’s something very satisfying about covering ground, going the distance, “bringing things home.”

Jewish captives returning from exile
God who likes to cover some ground. That’s one of the things we learn over and over about God through God’s history with the people of ancient Israel. God likes to cover ground, go the distance. The prophet Jeremiah, who is normally a doom and gloom kind of guy, explains this in one of his prophecies to God’s people. He says that their time exile would eventually end, that the great distance they feel from God would one day be over. God would accomplish this by helping them cover some ground…and I mean literal ground. After years of being dispersed on account of their faithlessness to what felt like the far reaches of creation God was going to bring them back to the place they belonged. This was the hope of a shattered and scattered Israel: that no matter where they had been flung to by the invading armies, no matter how distant God had let them get through their punishment of exile, God would, in fact, remember who and whose they were and gather them back together.

And so the word goes out, as Jeremiah says, from coast to coast. It covers ground! The word is declared in distant islands, to the edges of the known world. From the farthest parts of the earth God would gather them, and not just the young and healthy, either. The most vulnerable among them—the lame and the blind, the pregnant and those even in labor—would all make this journey, walking together. And upon their return there would be great rejoicing. The young women will dance and the old men and young will throw huge parties. The land will be like a watered garden.  Grain, oil and wine everywhere. The future was going to be great. It would be a time of grace upon grace…all because God likes to cover some ground.

This also is the God we come to see in Jesus, the Word made flesh, as John’s gospel calls him. God wants his word to go to the distant islands and coastlands, except this time it will not just be announced there and declared there to bring people back to God. This time the Word itself will go there. This time the Word will become human and, out of God’s great love for us, cover some serious ground. That is the miracle of what people of Christian faith call the incarnation, a heavy-duty theological word that intimidates us, really just means to be embodied in the flesh. It is God is going to be covering some ground for us, but not really in terms of geography, traipsing off to the lands of the north and the distant islands in order to perform a rescue. It means God is going to travel the length of the human experience, as broken and lost as it can get.

This is a fundamental understanding of Christian faith: that the very essence of God, the very substance of whatever God is, chooses to descend into our midst and live as one of us. And that one person, Jesus of Nazareth, will come to God’s own people and, in a sense, bring them back to where they belong. Those who receive him by faith he will give the power to become children of God.

And this is how this incarnate Word will cover ground: He will go from appearing at his birth, which other gospel writers will tell us about, and living among God’s people, showing his glory through some pretty terrific signs. He will call some followers to assist in this ministry of rescue, of bringing the word to the people. Eventually, however, he will travel the same route that all human flesh must travel: the path to death. However, in his case it will be a death of great humility, one where he goes as far away from God’s presence as one might imagine: hung on a cross as a common criminal. This is what the real “distant islands” and the farthest reaches of humankind looks like: the darkness of sin and death, the despair of hopelessness and abandonment. Just as ancient Israel was redeemed and brought home, so to will this Word made flesh redeem the children of the earth by suffering and dying and then, miraculously, rising again.

One of the things that the incarnation of God’s Word in Jesus teaches us is that no distance is greater than the length it takes to humble oneself to learn what another is experiencing. There are fewer paths in life for us longer than the path it takes to empty ourselves, like the Word did, and somehow take on the experience of another, to learn what another’s life might be like, to meet them where they are, to understand them as another human for whom Jesus has covered this ground. In an opinion piece that ran in the New York Times on Christmas Day, Peter Wehner wrote that “The incarnation…reveals that the divine principle governing the universe is a radical commitment to the dignity and worth of every person, since we are created in the divine image.” Wehner goes on to quote a secular humanist (someone who isn’t even a person of faith) who credits Christianity with introducing the notion for the first time in history that “humanity was fundamentally identical.”

When people who follow Christ cover ground in Jesus’ name, it does not matter how far we travel geographically to spread his word. Sometimes the greatest ground we must cover is sharing the experience of the person who is sitting right next to us, the family living down the street from us, the neighbor we are at odds with, the friend who is going through a rough time. And it can be difficult and involve suffering on our part. We end up having to empty ourselves, or lower ourselves, like Jesus did, in order to make that connection. Covering that ground—choosing to meet us in our experience—is how God interacts with the world. It should be the way those who have become children of God choose to interact with the world.

One of the most vivid lessons I received on this was on a Foursquare court. It was with the Epiphany Youth group three summers ago when we travelled to the farthest reaches of Appalachia, to one of the little towns that are still struggling with the aftermath of a played-out coal industry. One of our group’s tasks was to work with the youth in the town of Logan through a summer enrichment program. Without going into detail, we could say these kids were growing up in very, very different circumstances than our youth. Those differences made forming meaningful relationships very challenging.

Thankfully, there was a Foursquare court in the middle of the camp area and whenever there was some down time action drifted pretty quickly to some games of Foursquare. One of the local kids would pick up a ball and start playing. Now, anyone can play Foursquare. It draws people together. It’s played in P.E. classes across the country and its rules are pretty much the same everywhere. The Epiphany kids would line up and join in to play too, except they never got to win. No matter what, the local kids, whose court we were on, would find a way to get the Epiphany kids out every time. We were pretty sure they were just making up rules as they went in order to ensure that our youth would never advance in the game. And our youth took a beating. It was demoralizing and frustrating for them. It felt like the Logan youth were just taunting us. I couldn’t believe our youth wanted to keep playing, but the Epiphany youth realized that’s how they were going to get to know these local kids. They were going to have to stick with it. Our kids were playing on their court and they realized the point wasn’t winning the game, but winning those friendships. They had to cover some ground that week, humble themselves, and they succeeded.

Learning to play our crazed game…covering some ground…humbling himself from manger to cross…from life to death and back again. In each and every year. It was what God is all about, God’s very essence. It is the nonstop motion of the Word made flesh. When God’s people, those who have received him and been made children of the Father, learn to cover ground like this, there will be no stopping the gospel. When those who have been gathered by a gracious God become people of the incarnation, fed at the table and washed in the Word, travelling the great distance between another person’s story and their own, still more will be gathered from all kinds of distant coastlines.

Declaring the Word.  Indeed, living the Word…the Word made flesh that has lived among us. We will see God’s glory. From this fullness—this great distance— we will all receive grace upon grace. No matter what ground you've resolved to cover for the new year that is already upon us, may it be grounded in the promise that God, in the Word made flesh, has already brought you home.

 

 

Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Nativity of our Lord, Christmas Eve - December 24, 2015 (Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-20)


 
Tonight is a night of contrasts. It’s a night about things being put together that are total opposites, or that don’t really seem to match at all. They’re all over the place.

For example, everyone wants and almost needs tonight to be the same tonight as it is every year—the same old carols we sing in worship, the same old candles we light, the customary family recipes we’ve consumed before we got here. And yet we all also harbor an irrepressible sense that something unexpected is going to happen in the midst of it all, that there will be surprises beneath the tree tomorrow, new toys to play with, new toys to put together.

Tonight is all about contrasts. I’m talking about the fact that it is the dead of winter, we’ve been dreaming about a white Christmas for weeks now (or at least singing along with the radio about it). We’ll drink our Peppermint Lattes and our warm egg nogs, and yet here we are running the air conditioning and I’m wearing shorts under this robe. (OK…I’m kidding about the shorts).

Stark contrasts! You realize there are others, too, once you start thinking about it: like the fact that Christmas is touted over and over as the most wonderful time of the year, yet for many among us it is the loneliest, a time filled with sorrow and painful memories. Some of us claim we wish this night, this feeling, this spirit, could last a little longer, while others just want to get through it and hope it goes quickly.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds (Daniel Bonnell)
Tonight, though, all of those people are all in the same room together tonight to hear the same message. And it, too, is a message of contrasts, powerful, glaring contrasts. “The people who walked in darkness,” says the prophet Isaiah, “have seen a great light.” An Emperor takes an orderly census of his far-flung, mighty empire based in his thriving metropolis of Rome, and yet there is hardly room to squeeze in one more baby here on the fringes, in an old royal city that is now little more than a backwater. Shepherds, brown-collar workers ion one of the lowliest trades of the ancient era, quietly biding their night shift on the edge of town, suddenly find themselves surrounded by a huge choir of bright angels. A random field of sheep becomes the epicenter of the announcement that there will be peace on earth. And, of course, there is the greatest contrast of all: that the Lord of all, the Messiah, the King of Kings is nestled in a feedbox. It is a night of contrasts, and I’m not sure we can fully make sense of it. We are gathered here simply to marvel at it, worship it, and, like Mary, ponder them in our hearts.

It makes me ponder a particular contrast that caught my eye just the other day as I set up my sterling silver home communion set just inches away from a Chromebook laptop on a dresser top in the apartment room of one of our homebound members. What an altar to the Lord!  Granted, pastors are accustomed to these makeshift worship spaces when we make our visits, but the juxtaposition of these items really made me stop and think. We had just finished scrolling through photos on the Epiphany Facebook page she hadn’t seen before. I wasn’t sure what she’d think of them, but with each click her face would light up as if she were looking through a family photo album. On each photo she found one, two, sometimes three people she recognized.

“There’s Ken Reckenbeil…oh, and there’s Georgianna!...Is that really Taylor Williamson? She’s grown up so!”

“Yeah, she teaches Sunday School now,” I said.

After a few minutes of communing with the saints through digital media, she politely shut the computer down and asked for Communion of the sacramental kind. And seeming more like an angel to me, she then leaned in toward her stereo, which had been playing this whole time in the background, and turned up the volume. “For unto us a child is born. Unto us a Son is given…” I think we had reached one of her favorite parts of Handel’s Messiah, and soon the sounds of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and choir started to drown out the noisy dialogue and comings and goings of the people in the hall outside her room. She, the angel, and I, just a shepherd being visited…it occurred to me that beside this laptop and on top of this ordinary dresser is a perfectly suitable place to receive the Lord’s presence.

God apparently loves to work with contrasts. God is at home here, in our humble dwellings and our humble hearts, just has God was this night so long ago, gathering shepherds and angels, kings and mangers in one room. Things that we would never put together, especially in relationship with the divine, God is quite comfortable with.

However, the true message of this evening—the more important news of Christmas—is not that God simply likes contrasts or that God engineers these paradoxes all over the place. God goes one step further, beginning with this birth. God is going to switch places with these opposites. God isn’t just going to partner for a while with the lowly and the common. God is going to use them, infuse them, become them, be them, so that they may become like God.

The message of this night is that a great exchange is going to happen between the one who Created us and those he has created. Even though we are broken, even though we have taken what God has given and squandered it, even though we have misused our own lives and each other’s, God still decides to dwell among us and live alongside us. In Christ Jesus, God decides that humankind, in all its messiness, in all its tendencies to betray each other in all of it its fascination with other gods and other promises is worth saving and redeeming.

And to do so, God exchanges what we are for what God always is. “For to us a child is born,” Isaiah proclaims, “unto us a Son is given.” Not leant. Not just to look at. Not just to project our ideal selves upon, our dreams and hopes for the future. But, rather, given. Exchanged. Because God loves us. And in the end, the contrast of this exchange will humble us completely. For we will give him death. But in return he will give us life.

Maybe one of the best depictions of this Great Exchange, this great combining of contrasts, appears in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which turns 50 this year. The second-longest-running Christmas special of all-time, Charles Schutz’s Peanuts characters’ grappling with the commercialization of Christmas and the holiday’s true meaning broke barriers in 1965 just as it does today. Of course, a lot of attention gets placed on Linus’ famous speech where he boldly recites from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, something unheard of on mainstream TV.

However, the scene that most vividly portrays the Christmas message, the length to which God will go to overcome the contrast between heaven and earth, comes right before the final credits roll. After the pageant ends, of course, Charlie Brown brings his little pathetic Christmas tree outside to decorate it, but stops in his tracks when he notices that Snoopy’s over-the-top, garish doghouse decorations have already claimed first place in a contest. Disgusted and defeated, Charlie Brown skulks away, leaving the tree standing cold in the snow. The contrast couldn’t be more obvious. Then the pageant gang appears and, in a surprise move, takes all the decorations from Snoopy’s house and places them on the small tree. It’s grand and glorious at that point, and Snoopy’s house stands in the background, stripped bare, reminding us somewhat of Calvary.

When Isaiah says that the Son is given to us, he means that we receive him and all that he is—his forgiveness, his mercy, his love—and that we give him our brokenness, our rudeness, our failures. It means God looks at us as the bare, scrawny trees that we are and yet still bestows first prize of heaven upon us, cloaking us with glory, all because of Jesus.

Tonight is all about contrasts, isn’t it, then? Communion with the holy in the surroundings of the ordinary. Shepherds and angels. “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.” Highest heaven and lowest earth. God is quite at ease here, in our land of scrawny trees. Perhaps, then, we can learn to be so, too: at ease because God is with us. I suppose then we can announce to one and to all, to those who seem like us and those with whom we always seem to contrast, to those who have stirrings of great joy and those who are in great grief, those who get a white Christmas, and those who have to settle for a wet one: “Glory to God in the highest heaven AND on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

 
The Annunciation to the Shepherds (Nicoleas Berchem)
                                              

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year C] - December 20, 2015 (Luke 1:39-55)


 
Where would we be without the faith of Mary and Elizabeth?

It’s hard to say.  I’m sure that God would have found another way for the good news to break into human history to bring about his kingdom, but God didn’t have to: Mary and Elizabeth come through. Mary and Elizabeth, in a day and age that so much of the time overlooked women become the people through whom the Lord of grace makes his entrance. In a day and age when women were often given little voice, Mary and Elizabeth shout and sing and become examples of the power in believing…in believing that God might be up to something new…in believing that the miraculous might happen.


fresco at the Church of St. George
in Kurbinovo, Macedonia
Where would we be without the faith of Mary and Elizabeth? To begin with, look at Mary! She takes off to see Elizabeth up in the Judean hill country all by herself. Who does she think she is? Most historians tell us that people didn’t just up and travel unless they had some compelling cultural reason. And women would almost never do something so bold, especially while carrying a child! By going onto something like secluded bedrest for five months, Elizabeth had done the more socially and medically expected thing. Clearly Mary believes she must be blessed, that the baby she carries in her womb can ward off danger on the road.

And then look at Elizabeth! Immediately upon seeing Mary, she shouts out in joy. The child in her own womb kicks right when Mary enters in the house. Elizabeth overflows in her blessing of Mary. We can just see them, can’t we, throwing their arms up in the air and hugging each other over and over, happy to see each other, happy for new beginnings. Elizabeth becomes the first person in the story of Luke to call Jesus “Lord,” which is, interestingly enough, what Jesus will mainly be called after his resurrection. Here, right at the beginning, just as he does after his resurrection, Jesus is already bringing signs of new life. And Elizabeth is the first to notice it.

And then there was Mary’s big “yes” to the angel Gabriel in the first place. That’s the truly astounding part of this, what gets the whole ball rolling. What would we do without it? In contrast to Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah, Mary believes the messenger’s news and consents to the miracle of Jesus’ birth.


a painting of the Visitation at the church of El Sitio
in Suchitoto, El Salvador
Martin Luther had a very interesting take on the annunciation to Mary. He said there were really three miracles present here. First, there is the miracle that God and humankind would be joined in a child in the first place. That’s pretty amazing. Second, there is the miracle that Mary should conceive before she is married. However, neither of those miracles, Luther said, were a big deal for God. The Creator is able to bring about whatever the Creator wants to bring about. The third miracle is that Mary ever consented to this plan, and that’s the one with which Luther was most impressed. “Most amazing of all,” he says, “is that this maiden should credit the announcement that she, rather than some other virgin, had been chosen as the mother of God.”[1]
The faith of Mary and Elizabeth is where it all begins for all of us. The angels will eventually sing about peace for the whole Earth, but only because these two women display peace with God. God’s kingdom will eventually take up residence within every nation on earth, but only because this lowly, vulnerable soul decides not to let the duty fall to “some other virgin” and first lets God take up residence in her body.

And in spite of the danger this whole condition might put her in, we see more of Mary’s faith and foresight in the song she sings after Elizabeth blesses her. It’s clear that she is beginning to understand how far-reaching her decision will be: down the road all generations, not just Elizabeth, will call her blessed, which is something I’m doing this morning.

She sees a world where God has put everything to rights, where the people who are proud and who have everything and who cling to power are removed from everyone’s list of role models and those who are humble, weak, and lowly are lifted up as the examples to follow. She sings of a world where the hungry and the needy are satisfied with more than leftovers and where those who have a lot finally learn to live with less. We don’t typically think of it as a Christmas carol, but in many ways is the first one, and maybe the most essential. And it all begins with her recognition that even her little lowly, easily forgotten, first-century Jewish female soul can magnify the Lord.

Earlier this week I was visiting one of our homebound members with Holy Communion and I had chosen this lesson for us to speak together like the verses of a song. This particular woman suffers from macular degeneration, making it difficult for her to see, and before she could participate, she had her husband fetch her magnifying glass so she could read it. There before me was this kind, older woman—maybe like an Elizabeth, warmly welcoming me into her home—too feeble to join in worshipping with the congregation she so loves. She was reading Mary’s song with a magnifying glass, and it drove the point home for me in a fresh new way. That is, when Mary says that her soul can magnify the Lord, it’s like she’s saying that the almighty Creator of the universe will use Mary as a magnifying glass so that the whole world can read and understand the gospel.

Where would we be without Mary? Where would any of us be without any of God’s little magnifying glasses all around—those who have shined with the power of faith in spite of the odds, those who have borne Christ to us and enabled us to read how much God loves us. More often than we’d probably care to admit, it is the faith and belief of the lowly and the humble—the ones we’d least expect, the ordinary, the unspectacular, the rough that surrounds the diamonds—that pops up out of nowhere and bowls us over with grace.

It may sound corny, but I’ve noticed that the truth of Mary’s faith and the echoes of her song show up even in almost all of the secular stories and movies of our culture at this time of year. In one after the other, power is spoken and transmitted through the weak and overlooked characters rather than the super-talented or the super-human. None of our favorite Christmas movies never feature people like Superman or Batman or even (dare I say it?) Luke Skywalker. No, it’s the likes of Tiny Tim, Cindy-Lou Who, Rudolph, George Bailey from “It’s A Wonderful Life," Buddy the Elf...even Macaulay Culkin's character in Home Alone...who save the day. All of them are just variations of Mary, examples of how in God’s plan, it is the meek and marginalized who, despite the odds, become the entry point for grace…who become the voices to help restore justice…who become the unlikely people who speak a new reality into existence. Where would our culture’s Christmas be without these little versions of Mary, the magnifier?

Where would the world be without Mary and Elizabeth? Eventually Mary’s faith and Elizabeth’s blessing draw a straight line to the cross, for this new world where the mighty are brought low and the lowly are lifted up will not fully be brought about until Jesus shows us just how low the Almighty God will go in order to bring us new life. There we witness the most amazing miracle of all: that God’s own Son will grow up and then offer himself up for us to remember the promise of mercy.

Where would any of us be without the faith of others who have borne God’s presence for us, who have, through humility and surprise, through calm words or persistent pestering built up our own trust in God and presented us with the joy in believing? Who has helped you remember the power in faith? Who has been that magnifying glass who’s been fetched from the side of the room that person, who has approached you through the treacherous hill country of Judea, who has unexpectedly allowed you to understand and experience God’s grace in Jesus? Because those folks around us even now, more often than we probably care to admit. They were here at Jim Anderson’s funeral yesterday, for sure, milling around in Price Hall, offering words of grace, giving hope to his family and congregational family.

And they’re around us now, these echoes of Mary, giving delivering the Lord once again, telling us that, in spite of all we see, God’s exciting new day is here and that you—even little you—can proclaim it.

 
Visitation (Fra Angelico, 1434)

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
                  




[1] Roland H. Bainton, ed., Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, Augsburg, MN, 1948 pp14-15