Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A] - Matthew 4:12-23 and 1 Corinthians 1:10-18)

I don’t know if you caught it or not as I was reading the gospel lesson, but there is an awful lot of leaving involved in Jesus’ ministry, especially here at the beginning. As it turns out, there must be something about the kingdom of God that causes people to break with their past, and even move them around.

It’s Jesus that this happens to first. He gets word that his cousin and fellow preacher, John, is thrown in jail, and something about that news—it’s unclear exactly what that is—causes Jesus to leave the area around Jerusalem in the south where he has just been baptized and where he’s been hanging out in the wilderness, and head back up north to Galilee where he was raised. He goes back to Nazareth, his hometown, but then doesn’t stay there very long, either. Maybe he drops in to say hello to mom and dad, to do some laundry, pack a duffelbag, get a bit to eat, because then he hits the road again to a bustling fishing village known as Capernaum. As far as we know, Jesus never goes back to his childhood home. When he leaves, and leaves for good.

Once Jesus is in Capernaum, we see that there’s even more leaving. Jesus calls his first followers, and immediately upon hearing meeting Jesus and hearing him, they get up and leave their jobs as fishermen. The second set of brothers he calls, James and John, even leave their father in the boat in order to become one of Jesus’ disciples.

St. Andrew's Basilica, Ravenna
To be selected or called into the fellowship of a rabbi, or teacher of the law, was a very high honor for young men of Jesus’ day. Some historians note that typically what happened is that young men, once they finished their schooling in the scriptures, would apply to rabbis with the hope they’d be selected as a student. The fact that Jesus reverses that system by walking up and directly calling followers, even ones who haven’t “applied,” may explain why they are so quick to leave.

I realize my own launch into the world as a young man probably matches others in my generation and those after it. It had fits and starts where I’d head out on one adventure or another, only to have to come back to mom’s and dad’s for a while. It was very humbling and eye-opening, however, to hear many of the older men in the congregation this week share that their abrupt departure from home came with a draft notice. They left home to serve their country, never to return home again, having to fit their own life dreams and goals into and behind the command handed down from a higher authority.

One gentleman explained how the army bounced him around a bit at first, interfering with his plans to marry his fiancée. As soon as he finally arrived at his permanent post, he promptly reported to his commanding officer and boldly asked for leave in order to travel to Florida and have a wedding. Somewhat perturbed, the commanding officer eventually gave in, but under one condition: that he actually show him he had one ticket for the trip down to Florida and two for the trip back!

What about following Jesus, though? Leaving is somehow always involved, isn’t it? It doesn’t need to involve a geographical or physical shift, putting one or two tickets in our hand, but there is always some sort of departure coming our way. There is always some kind of dropping of the nets and stepping away from the old boat. Jesus comes to draw us into a new way of life that will affect our current relationships with other people, with the world, and even with ourselves. And on some level that requires a letting go.

Last Sunday at the second service we held a baptism for a sweet little girl who is just past her second birthday. Her parents had dutifully prepared her for what was going to happen, but when the time came for the water to be poured on her head she got scared and would not let go of her mom. She clung as tightly as she could to her mom’s neck so that she wouldn’t have to go through with it. There were a few milliseconds in there when I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but eventually we got her baptized and it all worked out just fine, but I think her reluctance kind of caught everyone off guard, including her parents. After the church service was over, I told the parents I happen to love that kind of baptism every once in a while. What may have been a temporarily awkward moment for them ended up being a perfect model for everyone of how most of us actually respond to the call to follow Jesus. It the call that involves letting go of some of our old ways of thinking, our old ways of dealing with people, our old values and priorities. Jesus offers us a place at his side and instead of willingly, blindly submitting, we balk. We waver. We get in that moment and suddenly remember maybe we don’t really want this whole new life all that badly and start realizing the former ways are more comfortable.

And, truth be told, they probably are more comfortable. The thing is, Jesus is rarely into offering us something more comfortable. But he is into offering us something new. He is into giving us the kingdom. You see, the call to follow Jesus, the Lord of life, the opportunity to respond to his kingdom, is not always about some career decision, or some big, momentous life choice or even the moment of baptism, which is how we often make it out to be. We hear these stories of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and one danger is to think we’re given this one chance, that our faith has to be traced back to one singular moment where it all made sense and when we held that draft notice in our hand. For some people, that may be the case. But for everyone, those already walking in confidence behind him and those still clinging to mama’s neck, Jesus walks onto the ordinary seashore of our lives in and every day, each and ever hour, really, offering us the chance to respond in each situation of our lives the way a redeemed child of God would.

The call to follow him comes when you wake up in the morning and get the chance to begin a new day. The call to follow him comes whether you’re out on your own or whether you wake up every morning in your parents’ house. The call to follow him comes when you’re trying to figure out how to make money and when you are trying to figure out how to spend the money you just got. The call to follow him comes when you are thrust into a new situation at work or at school and you can’t immediately figure out a way forward. The call to follow him comes when you realize someone has wronged you and you have to figure out how to respond. The call to follow him comes when you realize you’ve wronged someone and you have to figure out how to respond.

The call to follow and learn about God’s ways in Christ is always there, never really rescinded, at least for now, and is ready for new recruits, or old recruits. And it always involves leaving our comfortable sinful selves behind and grabbing onto something new. Because the call that Jesus issues to be a disciple is based on grace, which means Jesus is going to lay claim on you and all your gifts that you don’t even think you have before you even get a chance to apply and have a Teacher.

My guess is that if you’ve been watching the news this week, you’ve seen lots of photos of crowds. Maybe you’ve even been in one of those crowds, or wished you had been in one of those crowds. They are scenes of people who have left the comfort of home to be drawn into something larger than themselves. There’s also been lots of talk about sizes of crowds and the conclusions we’re supposed to draw when we are asked to compare those crowds.

Whether they were related to the inauguration of a new president or gathering in streets to march for other ideals related to women’s rights these crowds can give us a sense that movements are afoot. They give us the sense that we can be a part of something, or that we are a part of something that is happening—a march, an action, a change. And as exciting and empowering as any of those moments and movements are to some people, there are still a great many who stand on the sidelines, not knowing where they fit, or where there concerns are being voiced. And there is also the undeniable feeling that we’re being divided, not too unlike the folks in Paul’s congregation at Corinth, who started to make too big of a deal about which leader had baptized them, which leader they most resembled in stature and wisdom, among other things.

No one needs to make light of any movement these days, but the truth is, if you have heard the call of Jesus, if you have passed through these waters, if you have looked at the cross and contemplated its significance, you are already part of the greatest movement that creation has seen. You are part of a movement that draws people in, inexplicably, to get behind a man who dies in order that others might live, who denies his own so-called rights in order that we may live rightly. You are part of a movement that draws people like light attracts people who’ve sat a long time in darkness waiting for mercy.

You are part of a movement, to cite one example, that collected and spent over $43 million in agricultural, medical, and educational aid in 36 countries over the last year just through one of its charity organizations, Lutheran World Relief.

And you are a part of a movement that, to cite another, got 20 teenagers making quilts and clearing up a neglected East End cemetery this past Monday, on a day off from school. This is your movement…our movement…His movement…That fishes for people. I can’t explain how it works, but it does. It’s the Holy Spirit’s presence.

And whether we were baptized at 2 or 92, or baptized by Paul, or Apollos, or Pastor Joseph, whether we tiptoe in tentatively or can show our commanding officer we’ve got two tickets already, whether we march for the President or march against him, let us all be reminded today, at this table of mercy, we are part of a movement that is proclaiming the kingdom of God—a kingdom that began, of all places, on the streets of little a dusty ordinary fishing village with four ordinary guys who said. “We’ve got a Teacher. Let’s leave!”



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Baptism of Our Lord [Year A] - January 8, 2017 (Matthew 3:13-17)

Well, it’s “Go Time.” For eight pro football teams that either faced or are facing play off games on this Wild Card weekend, it is what they call “Go Time.” Sadly for the Raiders and the Lions Go Time has become “Gone Time,” for they lost their games yesterday, but any other team that still finds itself in this do-or-die postseason, knows it is now “Go Time.” What “Go Time” usually means is that things have started for real. Anything that came before this point doesn’t really count for much. It was all important, on some level, but from here on out things really matter and there is no room for messing up, no chance for starting over. Each team, each player, each coach, will need to step up to the line and show everyone what they’re really made of. They’ll need to keep their eyes on what’s ahead, because the stakes are higher.

In addition to all that, when people typically say it’s “Go Time,” they mean that time for talking and deliberating is over. That is, it’s time for action. It’s time to go through with the plan and see how it turns out.

"Theophany" (St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church, Emmaus, PA)
The baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan is “Go Time,” in every sense of that term. Anything that happened before this point may be important, but none of it is as important and consequential as what happens from this point and beyond. It’s interesting: two of the four gospel writers, Mark and John, don’t even tell us anything about Jesus before his baptism. They don’t mention his birth or the prophecies leading up to it. For them, the baptism begins it all. And the two gospel writers that do mention Jesus’ earliest years—Matthew and Luke—don’t really include much about his infancy or youth. It’s as if all of that part of Jesus’ life was like the NFL regular season, or, better yet, pre-season. Those early years are, at best, just points on the road that lead up to this sky-shattering moment when Jesus steps into the particular river that formed the historic boundary between the wilderness and the Promised Land and is publicly identified as God’s Son, the Beloved. And now that he is baptized, now that he bears this awesome title, creation really must sit up and pay attention because things are going to start to matter like never before. The things he does after this point—the things he says, the things that happen to him and how he reacts—are going to bear a new kind of weight. We’re going to hear a lot more of what his life is like because it is “Go Time.”

There’s a line in a beloved Christmas carol which is actually sung to Bethlehem, the place of Jesus’ birth, that goes:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Truth be told, the same words could be sung about the water in that Jordan River. The hopes and fears of all the years of human existence—the long wait for an anointed king and savior, the anxiety people have about their distance from God, the dangers of their own sins—are finally being dealt with—are finally being met—in this man in a muddy little string of water in Israel.

That’s what all of this dramatic heavenly fanfare is all about. In order to emphasize just how significant this moment is in Jesus’ life and ministry, the heavens tear apart the Spirit of God descends like dove upon Jesus and there is a booming voice from overhead. These mysterious, almost difficult-to-describe events converge upon each other as if to say, “This is The One.”

Several weeks ago the children of the congregation received the chrismon that had been made for them by our chrismon ministry team. This year’s chrismon was a descending dove delicately fashioned from pearl beads and gold wire. During the point of the children’s sermon when the adult leader was explaining how the descending dove appeared at Jesus’ baptism, one child interrupted and asked if he could hold the dove for a moment. The woman giving the children sermon was a little caught off guard by the request and graciously agreed to let him hold it. He immediately took it and, pretending it was a dive-bombing airplane, he shoved it into the carpet making the sound of a dive-bombing plane and crash explosion.

It was the kind of unscripted moment that children’s sermons can live (and die) on. I’m not sure how many people actually saw what happened, but it occurred to me at the time that we often want a huge, spectacular sign that God is present and active. The dove at the baptism might seem light and airy, but Jesus’ life is going to be an unmistakable crash of love and forgiveness, God’s love descending to us in spectacular but tragic form.

And that’s really the point of this short conversation we hear between John the Baptist and Jesus this morning. John has some clue as to who Jesus is, that Jesus is the superior one, but is surprised to see how Jesus is going to handle that superiority. At the time, John is baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins, giving people a chance to start over. Jesus doesn’t really need to have any sins forgiven, but he does want to demonstrate as clearly as possible, right at the beginning, that he has come to crash his life right into the mess of humankind. Rather than staying aloof from what humans experience in a broken creation, Jesus is going to jump right in.

Jesus has authority, as John notices, but Jesus’ authority over us is going to be grounded in uniting himself with the human experience, not remaining removed from it. He will submit to John’s baptism to fulfill all righteousness, and he will eventually submit to Pontius Pilate, and the chief priests and scribes, and the people who mock him and nail him to the cross. At the Jordan River it is “Go Time,” and in Jesus God is going to dare to go right where we’d never imagine a holy God to go in order to love us completely. Jesus is going to head right where we’d never imagine a God to go in order to accomplish his plan.

I imagine that is the understanding of Jesus’ authority that is inspiring the ministry of the Reverend Eric Manning, the new pastor of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, as he sits with members of his congregation through the trial of Dylan Roof this week. In the courtroom he clutches nothing but his Bible, calmly listening to every word that each of his parishioners’ families has to hear. Appointed to lead the grieving church back in June, Pastor Manning has begun his ministry by intentionally reminding them that he is with them through it all, because they follow a God who has submitted to every bit of pain and sorrow they’re going through. In an interview this week, he speaks about the steady stream of visitors that now come to the church, some to worship, some out of a “macabre sense of curiosity” regarding the shooting there in 2015 that took the lives of nine Bible study participants.[1] Whichever reason brings them there, those visitors find a loving community that is living face to face with some of the darkest ills of human existence and, by God’s grace, moving forward. They know that Jesus leads through this because he has submitted to what evil can do and come out a conqueror.

Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC (Google Street View)
This understanding of Jesus’ authority as coming from his desire to submit to human suffering in order that God may make things right with the universe is what should ground every congregation’s ministry, every Christians’ witness. Therefore our purpose has less to with sitting back and letting people to come to us, than it does with going out and engaging them where they are. Our witness is built less on expecting people to listen to us and our stories and more on being willing to listen to the stories and concerns of others. People will experience our love and our ministries as legitimate the more we model the spirit of Jesus’s baptism in our ministries—that is, the more we realize God helps us shed our pretentions to serve and care for the world God made in all its brokenness. This will be especially critical for those who feel like a bruised reed or a dimly-burning wick at this point, those who feel the world is about to snuff them out, for whatever reason.

We will be able to see ourselves in this type of ministry because we will have faith that our own baptisms have united us to this person who has conquered even death. Our own baptisms have washed away our complacent, egocentric selves and joined them to the man who knows that the hopes and fears of all the years have crashed upon him there in the waters of Jordan and again in the cross of Calvary. He has the authority because he comes to serve. We will be inspired together by the fact that in this very baptismal water (or a font like it) our lives have been joined forever and ever to the man who always knows what time it is. It’s Go Time for God.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Name of Jesus - January 1, 2017 (Luke 2:15-21 and Numbers 6:22-27)

One thing people often like to do when they reach the beginning of a new year is look back on the one that has just ended and take stock. That’s actually what January means. This month is named after the Roman god Janus, who had two faces, one facing forward and another facing back. And at this transition time many people replay the high points and low points of what happened and make a judgment about it. Maybe they lost a loved one in the past year, or went through a tough transition of some kind, or they’ll reflect on major world or cultural events and they’ll say, “2016 was a bad year.” Or maybe 2016 was a good year, a game-changer, because they achieved certain goals or the year brought them a new relationship or new opportunities. It’s as if each year tells a story—that it has its own unique theme and plot—and when each January 1 rolls around, we feel one story has come to an end and a new story begins again. And like Janus with his two faces we all wait to see what the story will be for us and for the world.

In the ancient world, calendars often got switched up almost every time a new ruler assumed the throne, and so individual years didn’t have that same story-telling character, but you know what did? People’s names. Nowadays we choose names mainly because we like the way they sound or they were names used by people in our family, but for much of human history and certainly for people in Jesus’ time, someone’s name typically said something about their story, about their life, their character. Their name wasn’t just their “handle” that moved them down the highway, à la Jim Croce. Their name also told something about their identity, about who they were.

There are still examples of this today, of course, usually in other cultures. I remember one time I was worshipping years ago in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Geneva, Switzerland, a congregation that had an English-speaking pastor but which served the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural population of the city. Every Sunday there were probably no fewer than fifteen different nationalities represented in the pews. This one particular Sunday the pastor was mentioning the name of an Kenyan orphan who had been found on a bench as a baby and taken to an orphanage. They knew nothing about his origin or who had left him there. He had no papers or anything. They named him “Mwenda,” which in Swahili means “One who is Found,” which obviously told people something about his story.

Several years went by and this young boy was adopted by a forever family and the family had his name legally changed to “Mpwenda.” And at that point in the sermon the pastor pointed to this teenage African boy sitting at the edge of the balcony with his family and said, “And in Swahili, ‘Mpwenda’ means ‘One who is loved.’” And the atmosphere in the congregation was electric at that point. It was like we were thinking, “The One who is Loved is in the room with us right now!”

Now, just imagine if you went through life with a name that mean “One who is loved.” Every time you signed up for something, every time you were in the doctor’s office filling out form after form, every time you bubbled in the answer sheet on a standardized test you wrote, “One who is loved.” It’s always a bit more than a name; it would remind you of a core aspect of your identity, the crucial narrative that shapes your whole life. Let me tell you: every time I fill out a form, I’m just thinking “Phillip,” and nothing more. I do not think “lover of horses.”

Receiving a story, an identity, is what the ritual of circumcision was to the Jewish tradition. On one level, the boy was made a part of his people’s story, the story that had begun with Abraham and Sarah and had continued down through Moses and Aaron, and then the kings and prophets of Israel. He received the story that came with the covenants God had made with God’s people through all those years, a covenant that promised God would be with them and that they bore a holy responsibility to live in a right relationship with God and each other. He also received what would be his own personal story, his name, as circumcision was a naming ceremony.

Observant Jews performed this ceremony eight days after birth, as the law stipulated, and that’s what happens to Mary and Joseph’s son. We may assume they make the proper arrangements for this procedure right there in Bethlehem somehow and he receives the name Jesus. Typically the son would receive the name that the father had selected, but in Jesus’ case, at least according to Luke, the name had already been revealed to Mary. He is given the name “Jesus,” which means “he saves,” or “to save.”

I can’t imagine what it would be like to step into that kind of identity. That’s a very serious story to live into. Probably every time he introduced himself or filled out his name on a form somewhere people would think to themselves, “Well, well. Savior! Just who does he think he is??” And there are times where things similar to that happened. In a time when the Jewish people were especially hopeful for someone who could ride in and re-establish their kingdom and their glory as a people, that name must have brought with it all kinds of complicated cargo.

And as we watch Jesus live out this identity, we might think he has forgotten it altogether. He does nothing that outwardly seems to be particularly saving. His story involves a lot of teaching about the law and healing people with various illnesses and then getting into arguments with the religious authorities about the nature of God’s kingdom. Then, at the end of his life, which comes all too quickly, he hands over his life to those who want to mock him and kill him rather than speaking out for himself, or, more importantly, doing anything that would save himself. It appears as though he is a total failure at his identity.

But then three days after his body is taken down from the cross and left in the tomb the strangest thing happens. Some of his followers, who are already beginning to be persecuted as well, begin making claims that he is alive again. They eat with him, relive some of the stories with him, and come to realize that if this is really him—if Jesus is really raised from the dead—then all of reality, all of creation, is now completely different. God really has made good on God’s covenant to restore and re-establish the kingdom. The story is far better than they ever imagined. Everything is being made new, even in the face of death. All of creation is, in a word, saved. It is saved from its own decay, from its own ridiculous tendency towards self-absorption, from its habit of thinking just a few new resolutions, a handful attempts at self-improvement will make everything better.

This way in which Jesus lives—by giving himself over to others totally, by loving and serving those he comes to save—really is the way God moves his purposes forward. In that sense, we see that Jesus really is the savior and is the name above all names, his story filled with more truth than any other story, the identity he gives us is more important than all our many identities.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a little book called Life Together, says it like this:

“It is not in our life that God’s help and presence must be proved, but rather God’s presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ…The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important that the fact that I shall die, and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, shall be raised on the Last Day.”[1]

Because Jesus comes to save us no matter what our name is and no matter what our life’s story is, and because we are washed in this water of new birth, we have faith that that hope has been given to us. We are ones who are found, and we are ones who are loved. The one who can put all time and history together for us has been born and has now been named…he has been named for you. Today we may commemorate the fact we’ve revolved one more time around the sun, but we can even more give thanks that our lives revolve around the Son.

As the ancient Israelites made their way through the wilderness, preparing to take up residence in the Promised Land, they needed some assurance that God would bless their journey. So God instructed Aaron to pronounce the following blessing upon them:

“The LORD bless you and keep you.
The LORD make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you.
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

They are the words we say as a blessing, or benediction, at the end of many worship services as we go forth into the world. We use it because in Jesus we come to know we have a God who doesn’t have a face looking backward or forward, like Janus. We have a God whose face is always upon us, whose countenance is lifted up on us, on our neighbor—ever outward into new dark and dangerous and exciting and hopeful places where we will go.

And so as you venture into 2017, whether it be a good story or a bad one, know that the Lord’s blesses you and keeps you. Know that the Lord’s face is upon you and that you bear Jesus’ name.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, HarperSanFrancisco, 1954. pg 54

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve - December 24, 2016 (Luke 2:1-20)

A very peculiar thing happened this year in the Martin household as we decorated for Christmas. The boxes were down from the attic and we were all set to take the family out to pick out a Christmas tree, when we realized we had no idea where we were going to put it. The birth of a third child this year has crowded things a bit in our living spaces. Lots of stuff comes with babies and children. We tuck them in the corner, we shift things under the ottoman to accommodate it all. So there we were scratching our heads there that day, wondering how we’d solve this problem, wondering if there were maybe another room in the house that could become Christmas central this year until we finally realized we had only one real option: dismantling the baby’s Pack ‘N Play to so that we’d have a place for the tree. If we needed somewhere safe and secure in which to lay him in the month of December…well, sorry kid.

And there, you’ve heard it: we removed a manger because there was no room for Christmas.

Don’t worry! It’ll come back, of course, once the tree is taken to the dump and all vestiges of the holidays are cleaned away, but the irony of what we were doing was profound. One of the main messages of this night—the beginning point of our Savior’s story—is that although things were crowded, a place was found to lay the baby. In all the rearranging that must have been going on—the shuffling around, the last minute cleaning up, the pressure to make sure Mary was doing OK—the priority was finding somewhere the child could sleep and not be trampled on.

Rearranging. Finding a place. The world seems to be particularly full of it these days, and it’s not just Christmas trees and trying to fabricate an authentically festive holiday, whatever that is. A recent election in this country promises us that the government is going to be rearranged. Some are hopeful, others are not. Outside of our country, the world is seeing record numbers of refugees get rearranged due to wars and ethnic conflict. This creates anxiety for many, not the least of which are the ones with small children who are caught between the bombs in their own family rooms and the borders that say, “Nope. No room for you here.” The rising threat of global terrorism causes uncomfortable rearranging, too. “Things don’t seem as safe as they used to be,” we muse as we hustle through airport security, rearranging the boxes on the conveyor belt, and as we reorganize the ways we assemble in public.

When we step back we find that so much of life is about rearranging and finding space, often at the last minute: The massive downsizing to make living in the memory care facility more manageable. The moving around of a week’s events you thought were set in stone in order to make room for a funeral service and burial. The ways we end up having to shelve our joy and relaxation in order to make space for grief or recovery.

Earlier this fall a member of our congregation had to drop everything, take a leave of absence from work, and tend to her mother who had fallen gravely ill. She rushed to the town out of state only to find that every room in every hotel was occupied due to a local university football game. She managed to find the one vacant room available. It was the handicapped room in a 2-star hotel, and things had to be rearranged for it to work for her and her adult children. Her mom managed to cling on, and so this woman had to keep adding on days, but the overworked and probably underpaid hotel staff bent over backwards to make sure she was comfortable. Fresh towels, clean sheets before they even asked for it—and then one afternoon a personal note from one of the housekeepers, left on the nightstand: “I heard about your mother. You’re in my prayers.” A few weeks later, reflecting on those long days and nights in that inn out of town she said to me, “Such a simple place it was. Not fancy. But everything we needed was somehow provided for us. And more. It was like being born in a stable.”

God apparently doesn’t need detailed daily planners and careful clockwork to make an entrance. God didn’t then, and God doesn’t now. We may rearrange, reschedule, reposition, delay and dismantle, but grace won’t. It finds room. It makes itself welcome.

a first-century Pack 'N Play
The traditional understanding of Jesus’ birth story has Joseph and a pregnant Mary going from place to place looking for a room, coming across an inn—maybe 2-star hotel—and learning that there’s a home football game census taking place and they’re going to have to use the barn out back. It’s a fine understanding, and it certainly might have happened that way, but in reality it could just as easily have been that Joseph and Mary were already in a family room somewhere in someone’s house, maybe even a relative’s. The meaning of the word for “inn” in this passage is actually very ambiguous, very unclear. It is not the same word used for “inns” in other parts of the gospels, like, for example, the inn that the Good Samaritan uses when he helps the man he has found beaten along the side of the road.

In fact, this place where Jesus is born may have just been a regular first-century Middle Eastern house. Families lived—that is, slept, ate, worked, raised children—in one big room connected by the same roof to the area where the livestock were kept. The manger was a stone feed trough that marked the separation between where the humans lived and where the animals rested.

layout of a typical first-century house
So, Mary begins to deliver. Things are crowded. There’s not a Christmas tree, of course, but other items are temporarily cluttering the living area because family from Nazareth and other little villages are here. Things are crammed under the ottoman. More towels and bedding and laundry than usual. As it turns out, it’s not that there is no room in the inn, (Mary and Joseph being turned away by cold-hearted innkeepers), but rather little available space left in the living area where they’re overnighting, and the baby needs to be laid somewhere safe and secure. Viola! In all the rearranging, God finds a way in and lies down in the manger.

Of course, we don’t know exactly how it all went down, or what the real meaning of that ambiguous Greek word for “inn” is, but what we do know is that in Luke’s story of Jesus that particular word appears one more time. Years later, Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem and he tells them to go looking for a place where they can celebrate the Passover. Jesus instructs them:

10 “Listen, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ 12 He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there” (Luke 22:10-12)

More rearranging, more last minute readying, and what do you know? The type of place that is too crowded at Jesus’ birth is the same type of place where Jesus’ has his last supper. As it turns out, from birth to death, our God’s life among us is framed by borrowed space, by last-minute rearranging. And that includes our preoccupied lives.

So tonight, as we hear the message from the shepherds and the angels, as we imagine the young couple looking for a Pack ‘N Play, here is what we’re beginning to learn: God is going to find a way. He’s ready to make an entrance. He’s comfortable here, in a world that is constantly shifting around, in lives ever in need of rearranging, ever being reminded of how temporary things are. The One who never changes, will be fine for now amid our ceaseless changing. The One who gives life without end is fine to let his life end.

"Nativity," Master of Hohenfurth (1350-70)
God will find a way, and we discover this will lead to him borrowing one more space that won’t belong to him. It’s on a spot of ground just outside of Jerusalem, in the area where sin gets paid for. As the Christmas carol so bluntly puts it,

“Nails, spear, shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you.”

The part about the inn or the living area, the manger, the Upper Room, well, it’s all prologue to the big rearranging that God has in mind: He comes and finds a way so that we will know the Way.

And so this day and every day, in this room and in all your rooms, in every bit of rearranging you find yourself doing, happy or sad, be prepared for the God of the manger and the God of the cross to leave a note, to set a table, to make a place for you and find a way for faith to be born again.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year A] - December 18, 2016 (Matthew 1:18-25)

‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the city

Everybody was stirring to make sure things looked pretty.

Stockings were hung and Christmas trees trimmed.

Candlelight brightened while daylight’s glow dimmed.

Wreathes on the doors, inflatable Santas on the lawn

Proclaimed the news that the special day would soon dawn.

The frenzy to get out and string up some lights

Gave purpose and urgency to December nights.

While some decked the halls in understated ways

Others gave new meaning to the term “Tacky Light displays.”

Blinking and flashing, from treetops festooned

And, of course, synchronized, and to a radio tuned.

With garland and tinsel, greenery real or plastic.

The point was to make ordinary things look fantastic.

Amid the bleak gray of the winter atmosphere

Stood colonies of snowmen and moveable reindeer.

The shopping malls, too, were a sight to remember—

Nevermind that the decorations had been up since September—

Their glitzy and glamorous holiday fashion

Was a mood-setting trick so you’d spend with a passion.

For those who preferred displays of a more religious kind

Noticed that nativity scenes were not hard to find.

Drivers on Horsepen enjoyed the decoration

Set up by one particular Lutheran congregation.

Their display was more subdued.  But not to be outdone,

They used life-size figures that could be moved one-by-one.

And almost as mysteriously as the Word became flesh

The shepherds and wise men crept their way to the crèche.

With clothes of brown burlap, polyesters blue and orange,

It was the church that pioneered the Mannequin Challenge.

Yes, from Southside to Ashland, from Churchill to Glen Allen:

Christmas by the bushel.  Yuletide cheer by the gallon.

The brightness and gaiety of the outside décor

Was matched by attention to detail indoor.

With ribbons and garland they set all their tables

With as much precision as they strew lights on their gables.

Brown paper packages tied up with strings?

Try bright-colored wrapping paper and glittery things!

Gingerbread houses and mistletoe sprigs,

Poinsettia plants and Frasier fir twigs.

Decorations both outside and in went to show

The holidays were about making everything just-so.

Tradition and custom dictated the season

Every bauble had a story; every ritual a reason.

Whether the style was Clark Griswold or Currier and Ives

The conventions of Christmas consumed many folks’ lives.

But in that congregation with that moveable nativity

The worshippers shuffled in for their weekly activity.

With Kevin playing organ and Pastor Joseph leading

They had just settled down for one last Advent reading.

The lessons they heard spoke of hope and salvation

From Isaiah’s pronouncements to Paul’s Rome salutation

But the Scripture that sparked the most imagination

Was the story of a man in a sticky situation.

Like their own custom-dictated Christmas condition

This fellow lived in times that were bound by tradition.

People knew that God’s statutes were part of God’s call,

And what was lawful and righteous should be followed by all.

Like boundaries and rules to a game that is played

God’s law for his people could never be swayed.

To say nothing at all of sin’s power to ensnare 

The law was their assurance of God’s constant care.

Ever since those long days of wilderness wandering—

When they’d had plenty time to do some good pondering—

God’s people had known that his covenants contained

The discipline and wisdom for life to be sustained.

From the mouths of the prophets and announced from each steeple

The law was God’s way of dwelling in the lives of his people.

And this Joseph knew, as a humble young man.

He obeyed the commandments, trusted God had a plan.

Matthew calls him righteous—a high honor, indeed—

Which was a way of saying he let God take the lead.

We can trust, for example, he had his ducks in a row:

First betrothal, then marriage, then children in tow.
The contract had been signed, both families were ready

To support and provide them a life that was steady.

So imagine, then, friends, what he first must surmise

At the discovery of his fiancée’s pregnant surprise.

The law was clear in what justice dictated:

An adulteress would be stoned; the contract negated.

Life would go on.  Joseph’s family would recover,

And no one would ever know Mary’s mysterious lover.

There was one more option: to call it off neatly.

A judge could be found to annul the marriage discreetly.

A righteous man would bend backwards to prevent a big show,

And Mary’s transgression would be kept on the down-low.

So Joseph went to bed with the firm resolution

That a private dismissal was the most respectable solution.

But that night he had dreams as he tossed in his bed

Not of visions of sugar-plums—but of an angel instead.

A messenger from God gave him news of a birth

That would bring hope and salvation to all of the earth.

This child was the one on whom history had waited

To initiate the promise they’d anticipated

From that day when Satan had first conquered and won

Influence and power over everyone.

His name would be Jesus, which had rich connotations

For in his native Hebrew that meant “Savior of Nations.”

From sin’s dark corruption he’d set them all free.

And, redeemed by his love, God’s people they’d be.

So all this good news came to Joseph by dream

From an angel who’d been sent by the one God supreme.

But the biggest shock to Joseph’s ears—we can assume—

Was that this child was the babe in his fiancée’s womb!

She’d not been with a man, as it had been perceived,

But the Holy Spirit was the one who new life had conceived!

Mary, it turned out, had not been an unfaithful mate;

Rather God had chosen her, and this was her fate.

And thus the angel’s message as Joseph tossed in his bedding:

“Righteous one, do not fear.  Go ahead with the wedding.”

So Joseph woke up with a whole different view.

What before was no option was now the right thing to do:

To marry a woman who would soon bear a child

And shelter her, guard her and keep her undefiled.

And the son to be born would be in Joseph’s protection.

He’d care for him too, and give him direction.

Though that child, as God’s Son, would be Savior of Nations

And belong, like no other, to the whole of creation,

Joseph would be the one who’d teach the child how to grow,

How to talk, how to work, and other things he should know.

The result of that dream was a whole future changed

Joseph’s own hopes now altered, his life rearranged.

As Joseph had learned when he had his decision resolved,

One can have things just-so…and then God gets involved.

And that was the message to those Lutherans that morning:

God can surprise with his grace and change your plans without warning.

For, you see, Joseph’s challenge was to adjust to God’s word

Receive it, believe it, and trust what he heard:

That God had now chosen with his people to dwell

Not as law, nor as temple, but as Emmanuel.

And by that we mean human—not a statue of stone—

But flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.

As true God and true man Christ invades this dark sphere

And announces God’s kingdom to folks far and near.

In Jesus God ventures forth into dangerous new lands:

To risk to being born and putting his life in our hands.

With a true Son on earth, God meets us face to face:

A divine participation with the whole human race.

Now God is with us, not remote or removed,

But in life and in death, as the cross has now proved.

Now God is with us.  From this the believer derives

That in Jesus Christ God takes up space in our lives.

You see, Joseph was not making room for a concept,

For a doctrine about God, or some religious precept.

Joseph’s life was rearranged on account of a person,

And no amount of reasoning or wishing or cursin’

Could alter the fact that God’s grace would come down

And grow up and live as a man in his town.

That, my dear friends, is the real Christmas scandal,

On which, try as we may, we never get a handle.

For the thrust of so many of our holiday preparations

Is just about conjuring vague contemplations

Of beauty and love and the virtues of giving

Or the charity of others that make life worth living,

When really, like Joseph, we should concentrate on receiving

And guarding the Savior of Mary’s conceiving.

And instead of making sure everything is just-so,

We should hasten to his table, his mercy to know.

God’s presence among us is not some dreamlike notion,

Or well-intended habits of religious devotion,

But in a particular person in a particular place

With a particular story and a particular grace.

So whether inside by the hearth or out where others can see it,

(And if Tacky Light displays are your thing, then so be it…)

Guard your traditions and customs, the holiday things that you do,

But most of all, guard this babe and see what he grows up to do.

He’ll appear in the neighbor in search of a friend

His hand in your hand when you kindness extend.

From the West End’s safe havens to Aleppo’s bombed alleys

From mountaintop high points to deaths darkest valleys,

In times that reflect his way of self-giving

God finds chance after chance to grant life that’s worth living.

And when Christmas often seems like a foregone conclusion

“God with us” becomes a quite welcome intrusion.

When, what in our wandering lives should appear,

But a God who in mercy and compassion draws near.

His name is Lord Jesus, as Joseph was told,

And in his living and dying God’s love we behold.

Where two or three are gathered, we are promised he’s there.

And we’re equipped as his Body his message to share.

We live peace on earth, good will to all women and men.

Thanks be to God! Merry Christmas!  Amen!

© 2016  The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Holy Family with Bird (Murillo)