Sunday, October 4, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 25B/Proper 20B] - September 20, 2015 (Mark 9:30-37)

If you asked them, most pastors would probably confess to hearing more positive comments about their children’s sermons than their pulpit sermons. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard (never in this congregation, of course!) something along the lines of “the children’s sermon always makes so much more sense to me.”

And, truth be told, I get it. I really do. Sermons from the pulpit end up being a little too in-depth and complicated, often biting off more than they can chew, at least in my case. Children’s sermons are typically more focused on one particular object or point. I do not like using the term “dumbed down” in this sense. A better way to say it, perhaps, is that they are just more distilled, made appropriate for a certain audience’s attention-span, which, I suppose, is just another way of saying that pulpit sermons are often too long.

But, let’s be honest: children’s sermons are also often comical. It is quite renegade to put a bunch of young children essentially on stage each Sunday for an impromptu lesson. And in a liturgical, traditional worship format, it is the only part that really feels out of our control, unleashed. An extemporaneous dialogue between a nervous adult and fifteen or twenty talkative, restless, curious children in front of a whole congregation? What could go wrong?!  In fact, do you know what music I hear playing in the back of my head each time I invite the children to come forward to the children’s sermon? The theme from Jaws. I think to myself: I’m gonna need a bigger boat.

In all seriousness, there is great truth and blessing to the children’s sermon and how we all receive them. There is a lot to be said for the spontaneous gospel interaction that happens here on the chancel each week. One of my colleagues says that if people really are getting more out of sermons we direct towards children, then maybe our pulpit sermons should start to look like them. Maybe things like props and guided dialogue help in getting a point across.

All this is to say, Jesus was in the same boat, too. Even he had to resort to a children’s sermon every once in a while. At least, that’s what seems to be happening on the road through Galilee in the gospel lesson this morning. Jesus has been traveling with his disciples for some time now, giving plenty of quality pulpit material, but they are still not comprehending it. He’s taught, for example, using parables to illustrate his kingdom—parables that use imagery familiar and accessible to them—and it’s still going over their heads. On several occasions he’s even explicitly laid out the parables’ meaning, carefully explaining the symbolism and allegory.

Most recently, of course, he has openly talked about the suffering and death that will stand at the fulcrum of his reign. For the second time in probably in probably the same number of days, he has mentioned in straightforward fashion that his power will be marked not by domination but by service, but it is clearly not sinking in. They are still caught up in old, earthly definitions of power and glory. Even after all of Jesus’ lessons about mustard seeds and five loaves being enough, they are thinking about Jesus’ kingdom in grand, worldly terms. And so Jesus distills it. He goes for the children’s sermon.

Interestingly enough, his children’s sermon involves a child. That’s because the disciples are debating their greatness, and Jesus needs to find the littlest, weakest thing he can to get his point across. The disciples are very likely arguing over who will be at Jesus’ right arm and left arm when he comes into his kingdom—symbols of power and authority—and Jesus grabs a child and literally puts those arms around it.

"Jesus and the Children" (Carl Bloch)
The rebuke of their pretentiousness would have been profound. Did you know that children are the only things we are told that Jesus takes into his arms in the gospels? On the one hand, a small child might be the only thing small enough to be held in a grown man’s arms, but in another way it is very significant. For if Jesus needs an object to illustrate weakness and lack of power, he could find nothing better than a child. In ancient times, children were considered to be little disease factories. Vulnerable and unvaccinated, children were susceptible to many sicknesses, and adults were often wary of them. They were also a drain on the family resources. Although their lives were in some sense valued, it was mainly it was thought that one day, if they made it to adulthood (and often 30%-40% of them did not), they would be able to contribute to the family well-being and income.

So here, in the middle of his most serious part of his most serious lesson to date, Jesus reaches and grabs a little contagious, annoying, likely snotty-nosed little child and pulls it to his bosom. It’s like he looks at this child, hears (as does everyone else) the Jaws music playing in the back of his head, and welcomes the child without fear. He leaves himself vulnerable to this most vulnerable of beings. He embraces the very kind of person that most would push far away.

If you are looking for a distilled message about Jesus’ kingdom, it would be difficult to find a better one. If you are looking for a nugget-like episode of what God’s kingdom is like, this is one to hone in on. Where can we expect the loving arms of God’s kingdom to show up but in the hospitality extended to those who are viewed as “less than”? When can we expect Jesus to find us at our most embraceable than when we’re cranky, sickly, feeling vulnerable and useless? Jesus’ welcome of this child is the perfect illustration for the cross. Because there Jesus opens himself up to true pain and mortal danger. There Jesus humbles himself, moves past all the theological teaching about service to others, and gathers all broken, hurting people to God’s bosom. God’s kingdom fully arrives when we, the children, so proud that we can think and act like grown-ups most of the time realize that our intellect or our ability to be quiet and respectful will never get us into God’s grace. It just comes.

And, as it happens, Jesus’ children’s sermon with the child gets me thinking about several things. For one, it gets me thinking about Epiphany’s long witness of receiving children, especially the reception of children through adoption and foster care. It is impossible for me to think of this congregation or understand its character without those examples of grace, those families who have opened themselves up to some of the most vulnerable children of the world. And gift of such life those children have nurtured among us!

It also makes me think about our own hospitality of children in worship, how as a congregation we don’t just love the children’s sermon, but also don’t get too bothered by the presence of children in worship. It makes me think about the possible connection between something we are so proud of—the way our youth share their faith—to the fact that many of these children and youth have been brought into worship for their whole lives. It makes me think about how each Sunday, while a preacher is up here yammering away about God’s kingdom on some high-falutin’ adult level, real-life instances of God’s kingdom are happening in the pews out there whenever a child gets restless or fussy and a parent or grandparent graciously takes that child into her arms.

There is absolutely nothing wrong about a parent’s choice to use the nursery on a Sunday morning. My wife often did, and I know she had to scramble to rush one of our two out of the pew and into the hall when things got past the point of no return. However, the presence of a child, even when it cries or fusses, can be a good reminder to me that no one really deserves to be in here, after all. And it is also a good reminder that worship is not entertainment where people need to hush up and be quiet so we can enjoy the show, but a work that we all are participating in, together. Just when we begin to think that worship is really only for those who can digest the food of the pulpit sermon, for those who are on our supposedly high level, then perhaps we need to have a child scream out and remind us that we’re embraceable, too. When Jesus sends us out into the world to behold and take part in a kingdom that happens in the reception of difficult and outcast, it helps when we’ve already started experiencing it and practicing it here in our worship.

Two or so years ago when we began asking people of the congregation to provide the bulletin artwork, children jumped at the chance. It’s still difficult to get adults to draw something, which probably says something about our uncomfortableness with our own vulnerability, but we have people—mostly small kids—lined up all the way through half of 2016. Last year, one child drew a picture of a cross and a crown for the front of the bulletin. It was not ornate or complicated. It was done free-hand. Things were a little lop-sided and the lines were crooked. It was probably not a piece of artwork that particular child’s parent would take note of, and I know I’ve certainly seen more elaborate crosses in clip art.

However, when that family showed up the next Sunday for worship, an retired gentleman who carves wood as a hobby presented that little child with a real 3-D replica of her drawing, complete with a small crown cut out of metal and glued to it, just like in the drawing. You should have seen the child’s face. Because once again, the kingdom had arrived. And the humble embrace of the cross had been right in the middle of it.

When Jesus sends us into the world to behold and take part in this kingdom, to put ourselves last, to humble ourselves in service to the least, it helps when we’ve already started practicing it here in our worship. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” Jesus says, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 22B/Proper 19B] - September 13, 2015 (Mark 8:27-38)

I had the honor of sharing lunch this week with one of our youth who graduated high school this past June and who is enlisting in the United States Marine Corps. In fact, he’ll be getting on the bus for boot camp today, right after worship! I think he knows the congregation is rightfully proud of him, and I wanted to snag a chance to let him know that before he went, and to assure him of our support. As we talked about his goals and his future, he shared with me his excitement about what lies ahead. He seems to be very realistic about his future, and at one point he made a comment that stuck with me. He said that what has drawn him to this particular decision for the time-being is the opportunity to have “discipline redefined.”
For whatever reason, this appeals to him—a chance to reprogram some concepts of self-control, perhaps, or a reorientation of values where honor and service to country are instilled afresh. In any case, I suspect within the next 24 hours discipline will begin to be redefined in all kinds of ways for him.
For all of us—that young man, included—Jesus redefined discipline during the gospel reading just a few minutes ago. Discipleship will go, for example, from being about tasks that gain one fame and popularity to a way of life that involves suffering and humiliation. Life as one of his disciples will go from asserting yourself, gaining more and more attention and higher and higher status, from working your way farther up the ladder, to being about humbling yourself and getting rid of your self-importance. Enlisting with Jesus will go from looking for ways to dominate to looking for ways to serve:
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them,‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’”
It’s difficult to tell sometimes because of the chopped-up way we read the Bible in worship, but we have reached a critical point in Mark’s story about Jesus. Up until this point, Jesus has been gaining more and more followers primarily through the amazing miracles of healing and feeding he has performed. Especially at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus shows his power over the forces of darkness and evil by rebuking demons and physical illnesses. He shows his power over the often chaotic forces of nature by walking on water and feeding thousands of people at one time. He’s a rock star. People demand more. He can’t go anywhere without folks showing up and asking him questions.
But now, suddenly, we find ourselves in that part of the movie where the music has started to change in the background. Suddenly the disciples get the sneaking suspicion that they might have signed up for something a little different than they thought. Before, you see, Jesus was all about rebuking the dark forces and storms. Now he’s rebuking Peter. It’s all a part of Jesus’ plan to redefine exactly what following him entails.
Get Thee Behind Me, Satan!   (James Tissot)
And in order to do that, of course, he needs to redefine himself and how he will be a Savior. This is why he’s brought them to Caesarea Philippi, a gleaming new city built to glorify Caesar’s empire. It’s almost like he’s taken them away for discipleship boot camp, bringing them out of their comfort zone in the heart of Galilee to this distant outpost of the region. As it happens, there’s a lot of symbolism there that he can use to set himself against.
Caesarea Philippi, you see, was set upon the ruins of another ancient city near a huge rock face that was a temple to Pan, the ancient god of victory in war. The local ruler, Philip II, who was a puppet for the emperor in Rome, had recently made vast improvements to the city, erecting all kinds of statues bearing his likeness and constructing new buildings with his name emblazoned on them. Philip’s image had been placed on a coin that had been minted right about the time Jesus would have been there. The point, therefore, at Caesarea Philippi was that Caesar was lord, the empire was unshakable, and that greatness came if not by military victory, then certainly by asserting yourself and stamping your pompous style and fingerprint on everything around you.
part of the modern-day site of Caesarea Philippi
With that as a backdrop, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And when Peter finally answers that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of the people, Jesus quickly sets the record straight about what that will mean: Undergoing great suffering, being rejected by the popular people in power, getting killed, and then, at long last, having his life put back together again. He says all of this quite openly, which is a line in this story that might seem kind of pointless to us but it’s actually a big deal. He’s clearly redefining Messiah-ship, because up until this point whenever Jesus does something big he tries to either do it in secret or he tells people to hush up about it.
And here, so openly, in a city with so many bold and imposing monuments to Caesar and Philipp, Jesus begins to point to the monument his life will end with. “Monument” is probably not even the right word for it, because it is an instrument for execution, and it’s not like he designs it for himself. But in his effort to re-define life for us, he must confront death. In his mission to re-define what it means to be the one who provides God’s victory, he must hand himself over in humility.
So every time we look at this monument of his we will remember that sacrifice of self stands in the middle of our salvation. Every time it is lifted in our midst, we will realize, once again, we must die to ourselves to gain any kind of real life. The core of our Savior’s identity is not in some flashy way he preserves those who love him, but in the way he chooses to suffer, die, and rise even for those who turn his back on him. It is such a powerful re-defining of everything that giving up our life results in finally gaining it—setting aside our pet agendas, our sacred cows, our enlightened opinions is often where we find God’s grace will pick us up and make us new.              
In her recent article called, “Why I Go to Church Even When I Don’t Feel Like It,” blogger Trudy Smith shares a brief sketch of her own life story of falling in and out and eventually back in belief in God and her back and forth relationship with the community of Christ’s disciples. At some point in her journey she discovered that church “was not a place to go because everyone had their act together. It was more like a refuge where all sorts of people could gather to remind each other of the story we were all in…It was more like a school for conversation where we were all stumbling through basic lessons on how to love.”[1]
Indeed, Jesus has assembled a school for conversation: “Who do you say that I am?” God gathers a refuge for remembering this core story of the cross that stands at the middle of our faith. And through this school, this refuge, this re-defined Savior re-defines us. At the font, at the table, in our repentance and forgiveness, and God is constantly re-defining us with his grace. God receives our brokenness, our shortcomings, our idolatries of self so that he can hand us himself. And bearing his cross does not always occur in grand, epic occasions for faith-sharing, but more often in the small, quiet daily opportunities to suffer for the cause of righteousness, to lift a gesture of self-denial for the sake of someone else.
There’s a lot of disappointment in and with the community of Christ’s followers these days. But—news flash!—there always has been.  Look at Peter on his first step! Jesus is always going to have to work to shove our delusions of perfection into the background. Even on this Rally Day, we know many of our grand new objectives for the year, personally or corporately, won’t exactly pan out like we hope. Nevertheless, my friends, a re-defined Savior will still be here re-defining us with his love. A re-defined, suffering Savior will still be here, reminding us it’s not about us, it’s not ever about us. It’s always about him…the one who goes to the cross.
So, from these Sunday School classrooms…from these discussions in youth group about being disciples in middle and high school…from these relationships forged over handbells, canned food donations and confirmation conversations Jesus will be forming a new type of followers. And to that point, I’d like to add another re-definition of the church to Ms. Smith’s school and refuge. The church is also a boot camp. A boot camp for losers. A bunch of losers who eventually, because of Jesus, gain it all!

Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Carolyn Gillette, 2015, used with permission

Sunday, August 9, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.