Sunday, December 27, 2009
One of the most popular gifts opened this Christmas at our house was a doll that my parents gave to Laura, our 19-month old. It blinks, drinks a bottle, laughs, and even snores. Clare, our 3-year-old has latched onto it rather quickly, even though it is her sister’s gift. It is Laura’s baby, but she will need to share it with her sister, who cradles it and loves it and takes very good care of it.
Here we are, three short days after Christmas—three short days after our own “oohing and ahhing” over the baby in the manger—and we’re presented with another manifestation of our Lord and God most of us rarely consider: the Pre-Teen Jesus. It is perhaps a little strange to ponder a pre-teenage Jesus, one who is clearly no longer a defenseless, cooing infant, wrapped in swaddling clothes, but who is also not yet the charismatic and critical adult Jesus. He’s there, in-between, still under the guardianship of his earthly mother and father, but, by the by, becoming aware of his special relationship to his Heavenly Father, as well. True, Jesus is given to us, but as he grows we’ll need to learn to share him with his Father, too.
Of all the gospels, only Luke provides any information about pre-teen Jesus in this short account of his family’s yearly trek to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover when he is twelve years old. It becomes the only bridge we have between the early Nazareth days of his youth and the more well-known years where he wanders around Galilee and Jerusalem, challenging people with the good news of God’s kingdom.
If we are a bit unfamiliar with the pre-teen Jesus and don’t know what to do with him, we are plenty familiar with some of what we see in this story: a young man testing his parents’ boundaries and causing them considerable anxiety. A precocious youth displaying a mind and will of his own. A young scholar in the making, thirsty for the knowledge of the elders. A thoughtful boy who shows obedience to his parents. And while this flimsy eleven-verse bridge is all we have linking the two Jesuses we know much better, it does offer some stability and comfort to learn that the Lord Jesus did live there, for awhile, in those often-painful, but very exciting in-between years. Isn’t it somewhat fascinating to consider the God of Heaven and Earth making his way not only through the manger and then the high courts of Pilate and Caiaphas, but also through the obscure, undocumented days of a boy growing up in some border town? It makes you wonder how God might be working even now in the obscure, undocumented days of children everywhere.
That is essentially the topic addressed by the watershed book, Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, researched and written by two sociologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and published in 2005. In it, the researchers develop the first and most comprehensive study of the current religious and spiritual trends and practices of teenagers. They do so by conducting hundreds of in-depth, one-on-one interviews and thousands of written surveys with teenagers all across the United States, covering as many socio-economic and religious backgrounds as possible.
The book mainly breaks down their findings into statistics and observations that can be rather tedious to wade through, but occasionally they work in an anecdote from one of their interviews. We meet “Joy,” a 15-year-old who drinks and does drugs under the nose of her parents who barely know her or her 23-year-old boyfriend. “Joy’s” take on God is vague, at best, perceiving him as a distant, nondescript figure who doesn’t really do much. Then there’s “Kristen,” whose way to a remarkably strong faith comes about after her father’s tragic suicide and her mother’s struggle to keep the family afloat. The stories are compelling, but the researchers’ two main findings are less so. Namely, they present that the great majority of teenagers in America are frustratingly inarticulate about what they believe about God and that the average American teenager follows whatever religious practices her parents have introduced her to and has not thought too deeply about them. As a teen, myself, I figure I would have been in the same category.
This does not appear to be the case with Jesus, who is discovered in the temple as a twelve-year-old, wowing the elders with his answers. This also does not seem to be the case among our own youth at Epiphany, at least from my perspective. Our youth readily participate in all kinds of youth activities, service projects, Bible studies, and worship roles, often boldly praying aloud before their peers. Nevertheless, the book does paint what I suspect is a fairly accurate, albeit worrisome, picture of religious and spiritual trends in our youth today. I am also confident that the God who is the Father of Jesus is, indeed, present and active in the lives of teenagers everywhere—just as he is present and active in everyone’s lives—whether or not they know how to look for him or whether or not they can articulate it. It’s a question about learning where to find him.
That, I believe, is the mistake that Mary and Joseph make in this morning’s story. Their mistake is not in their failure to keep track of him, but in not understanding where he might be found. The whole scene is quite easy to imagine, especially considering how extended Middle Eastern families often operate. The whole family clan had likely gone up to Jerusalem for the Passover, a big caravan of uncles and aunts and cousins, more distant relatives, and probably a couple of unrelated Nazareth townspeople, to boot. Children of all ages would have tagged along, too, fulfilling the ancient decree. Most likely they would have wandered back and forth between relatives and friends, the adults caring lovingly for whichever children happen to be near them at the time. Last Sunday something similar happened here at Epiphany when Laura, our nineteen-month-old, headed right out an open door, making her way for the parking lot. Before we even realized she was out of sight, a loving adult scooped her up on the sidewalk and brought her back inside to us.
For several hours, it’s no big deal that Mary and Joseph haven’t laid eyes on their son, but after a full day goes by with no sign of him, they start to wonder which relative or friend might have him. They search through the whole caravan to no avail before deciding to back-track to Jerusalem, taking another day in the process. “Where could he be?” they worry and wonder. Luke does not tell us each and every place they search, but apparently they take another whole day scouring the city before they happen upon him at the Temple, of all places, holding forth with the learned elders who reside there. Mary and Joseph are astonished and a bit annoyed with his behavior. “Why have you treated us like this?” they ask. If Jesus had a middle name, they probably used it at this point: “Jesus of Nazareth, don’t you know we were searching for you with great anxiety?!?”
It’s Jesus’ reply that makes me wonder whether Mary and Joseph shouldn’t have first considered the Temple, whether Mary and Joseph should not have approached this whole scenario with a bit more faith, deeper understanding that their son is also the Son of God and therefore they are sharing him. He is taking time to strengthen that relationship. “Why were you looking for me?” he simply asks them. “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I would be here, in my Father’s house?”
Jesus, you see, is never really lost, in the sense that he doesn’t know where he is. Jesus never gets himself lost, not here at the age of twelve, nor as an adult when he’s hanging out with ordinary fishermen and tax-collectors. Jesus, to be sure, always knows exactly where he is and our mistake, in our spiritual and religious lives, is thinking that we can always find him when in reality, he has been given to do precisely the opposite: to find us.
It boils down to what the ancient Christians called “the scandal of the particular”: that a universal, all-knowing and all-powerful God who sits at the helm of the universe and all eternity would somehow unite himself with a particular individual and with all the baggage that accompanies that. Just as it may be difficult for us to imagine Jesus as an adolescent, at that stage where they still need the hugs and authority of human parents but can’t always admit it, it is difficult for the world to understand that God has identified himself with this particular, first-century Jewish individual. It is a stumbling block for quite a few that the divine and eternal would choose to tangle itself up with the human and the mortal. As a result, the world will offer up dozens upon dozens of tantalizing option for encountering God never considering that God would stoop this low to encounter us.
And yet, that is what God is doing in Jesus of Nazareth. That is what God is doing in this precocious boy from a small border town. That is precisely what God is doing in the temple with this kid named Jesus.
So, if search we must—and we will certainly feel that urge—let us not do it half-heartedly. One early church theologian, commenting on this passage, said that “the search for Jesus must be neither careless nor indifferent, for those who seek in this manner will never find him” (Origen of Alexandria, On Luke's Gospel 18, 2-4: GCS 9, 112-113). Let us do it with great anxiety, as if our whole life depended on it, as if our hopes and dreams of what is to be was linked to being found in his embrace.
But let us do it in places where we know he frequents. Where might you suggest we start? In the manger? Well, I think we’ve got that one down pat. In the temple of worship, with God’s people? In the words of a Scripture that is ancient, yet somehow also new? In a frugal meal of bread and wine? What about the cross? Could we find him there, seeking us out in death? Seeking us out to forgive? And then, after three long days…when we’ve grown weary with our anxiety, weary with the trials of life, what about looking for him, at long last…in the…tomb?
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
image: "The Dispute in the Temple" Simon Bening, 1525-30
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Getting ready for Christmas makes a house feel like a home. That’s what I’ve learned over these first weeks of Advent. Pull out a stocking or two, string up some garland, and—presto-change-o!—the place is yours.
As many of you may know, my family moved to our new house in Glen Allen just before Halloween. Once the trucks dropped off our stuff, we began frantically moving and arranging furniture and unpacking boxes and storing away household items so that we could be ready to host our families at Thanksgiving. Things had been coming together nicely, but it really didn’t start to feel like “home” until we took out those boxes labeled “Christmas decorations” that we had packed away in Pittsburgh last year and began strewing their contents all over our house. And it was funny: almost instantly, we felt more settled. When, in the midst of it all, we decided the house needed still a little more Christmas—“right that very minute”—we simply made a quick trip out to Target or Home Depot for more lights or an extra extension cord…I mean, a green extension cord…I mean, a longer green extension cord…a longer green extension cord for outside use.
Decorating. Many would say it is an indispensable part of this Advent season. We don’t just decorate our homes, but our churches, our places of work, our classrooms, even our cars. I had a friend in high school who used to wire a living wreath to the grill of her car. Whatever it is, it seems we can’t properly experience the holiday without it. That is the essence of John the Baptist’s preaching this morning, but it’s not decorating he’s talking about. His message is repentance, and it appears we can’t properly experience Jesus’ arrival without it. It is indispensable.
Repentance is, simply put, a change of direction. Derived from the two Greek words for “change” and “mind,” repentance implies a turning around, a shifting in mindset. John’s appearance in the wilderness is not simply another sign that Jesus is right around the corner, like a another figure we add to the nativity scene as the big day approaches. Rather, John comes preaching a specific message that teaches us how to receive the Lord. When Jesus comes, it appears that things will shake up a bit. Jesus’ kingdom will kind of turn things as we know them upside down, make the world look somewhat different, and John’s message of repentance, if heeded, will involve changing some things about ourselves so we are aligned with that new world.
In order to make his point, John goes a little overboard on the imagery, if you ask me. He’s got an ax and some trees, stones, a winnowing fork, water, fire—a big hodge-podge of rather intimidating farm tools, all employed with John’s trademark fire-and-brimstone gusto. A winnowing fork was this broom-shaped tool that a thresher used in order to separate the grain of wheat from the chaff, those bits and pieces of the plant that could not be eaten. The winnowing fork would toss the wheat into the air, and the grain would fall to the ground, while the chaff would get caught by the wind and blow away. If collected, chaff made great tinder.
Whether it’s that image or the ax at the root of the tree that works better for you, John’s point is still the same: Jesus’ arrival and his reign among us herald a change. We stand to be prepared for this change, not in a way that suggests Jesus will only love us if we repent, but in such a way that our lives comes to reflect the magnificent turnaround Jesus is going to bring. In other words, it’s time to get out the decorations and make this place look like his home.
And what for decorations? What is this garland and stockings with which we deck the halls once we’ve heard the good news that he is on his way? The crowds actually ask John this, point-blank. His response is, “Take your extra coats, clothes, food, and give them to those who have none.” At least try to even things out a bit. Let loose of greed and gluttony. And there’s even better news for those who, up until now, thought they were all but excluded from the kingdom: tax-collectors and soldiers, corrupt and prone to collude and cohabitate with the occupying military power. As it turns out, Jesus’ arms will be open for them, too. This is a gracious kingdom, where even sinners will have a place.
So, instead of unpacking our Christmas boxes and stringing lights around our homes, a more appropriate way to embody repentance would involve handing over our extra boxes to those in need. Getting ready for the gift of Christ and stoking the holiday spirit might not, after all, entail a quick trip to Target for more tinsel, but rather making an extra stop in the Target parking lot to drop some more change in the bell-ringer’s red bowl.
In light of that, consider the amount of “decorating” that has gone on at Epiphany over the last couple of weeks. Cots are set up for our CARITAS guests in the fellowship hall where they will receive shelter for a week. The sign-up sheets for the duties have filled up rather quickly. Shopping lists have also been made—checked twice—for the giving tree in the Commons, which will dispense gifts to those in our area in need. Over the past few weeks, the women’s circles of the congregation have collected household items for St. Joseph’s Villa. And one of our members has asked for pairs of old shoes to send to a young man down in the South side named Juma Semakula.
Juma has a dream to fill up an entire cargo container of old shoes to send to his native Uganda where millions of poverty-stricken children and adults go shoeless. He got the idea after coming to live in America and occasionally seeing old shoes tossed out in peoples’ trash cans. Thinking that any shoes are better than no shoes for those with bare feet, Juma decided to send as many as he can back to his homeland. He estimates it will take 30,000 shoes to fill up one. Our congregation alone donated just around 200 to his cause. That’s as if everyone at this service gave one pair of shoes to folks half a world away. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John says, and I suppose he would have considered a cargo container full of shoes to be one of those fruits. Maybe he would have considered all of our Advent decorating for what it is: outwards signs of an internal mind-shift that takes place in us, a realization that when Jesus comes to reside here, a holy change takes place. The lame walk, the blind see, and all sinners come to have a place at the table.
But it’s very important to realize that we show forth these signs of repentance chiefly not out of a sense of fear, although John’s frightening farm implements might arouse that emotion in us. The winnowing fork and the ax at the tree may serve their purpose, but I take to heart the words of Paul and the prophet Zephaniah this morning, too. Ultimately, you see, we begin embodying this change of the kingdom, we undertake the words and actions that prepare this place for Jesus out of a sense of joy.
We are joyful for the hope he brings. We are joyful because he comes and makes room in his kingdom for even for us. God is not obligated to do so, but he chooses to have us there. That is the point about these stones in John’s sermon. If God wanted, God could make his kingdom out of the stones on the ground, raising them up, instead of us, to be his children. Rocks could take our place! It could be a rock standing here wearing the fancy Egyptian Advent stole! Yet God, in spite of our hard-headedness, in spite of our stubbornness against bearing fruit, still opens the kingdom to us, still hands us his body and blood, still dies on the cross to release us from sin. And this, my friends, is a joyful thing.
I remember a conversation I had with a close friend a few years ago about his conversion to Christianity. He was a fellow worker with me in a refugee relief program, and I had come to know him as a very thoughtful and committed person of faith, but apparently he had not always been so. He had grown up in a home that did not adhere to a particular faith. He would probably have categorized his religion as “agnostic,” but, he said, his family had never really given much thought to church or religious matters, especially after the tragic death of his father when he was young. One day I finally got the courage to ask him what it was—or what combination of things it was—that caused him to accept the Lord Christ. Why he had changed his own mind about what he believed? Had someone sat him down and explained the story of Jesus? Had he been intellectually convinced of the truth-claims of our faith? Had he, like Paul, “seen the light” in some dramatic, life-changing fashion? His answer was none of those. He said that during his years at the university, he had come to know a group of Christians who met together to worship and pray on campus. As he observed them, he came to realize they had joy in their lives. He said to me, quite plainly, “I wanted that. I wanted that joy in my life, and I eventually came to the conclusion that Jesus was ground in which their joy was rooted.”
Yes, Jesus is near. In fact, he is making the rounds here this morning…at the table, in the words of Scripture, in the forgiveness proclaimed embodied. So, spread the joy. Haul out the holly, especially in Juma’s fashion, 30,000-shoes-strong. Haul out the holly…in CARITAS-style. Instead of exchanging fruitcakes, how about exchanging fruits of repentance? And, as you decorate in the manner of John the Baptist, hear the words “Given for you,” and—Lord have mercy—be ready for a turnaround. Presto-changeo, the place will be his!
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
“Today’s trouble is enough for today,” Jesus says.
Well, it would certainly seem so! Thanksgiving, as days go, can be a stress-fest: How many people will we have this year around our Thanksgiving table? Will the house be ready in time? Will Uncle Joe and Aunt Lucy’s flight be delayed, like last year? Will everyone get along, or will family tensions dominate the thanksgiving scene? What will it be like without the loved one who just died this past year? Can we afford this feast we feel we must prepare? Will there be enough food? Will there be too much? Will it be done in time? Will the turkey be too dry? Will the turkey still be frozen?
A member of our congregation who works for a local manufacturer volunteers at the phone desk at the Reynolds Kitchen Turkey hotline each Thanksgiving. Overly-stressed or maybe just confused about turkey preparation, people call in with their worries and troubles to get quick, efficient answers. This hotline volunteer explained to me that each year, as the day of Thanksgiving gets nearer, the phones light up with more and more frantic callers. He once coached a person through a crisis that had arisen when her turkey hadn’t thawed out in time. This person wanted to know if, instead of filling a bathtub and changing out the water every thirty minutes, it would be possible just to put the frozen turkey in the commode and continually flush the water over it. I’m not sure how the caller rectified that Thanksgiving predicament, but our steady-minded volunteer strongly advised her or him against that method. Yes, in spite of all the festivities, there is plenty of trouble and worry on our national day of Thanksgiving.
Indeed, there is plenty of trouble everyday, and tomorrow will bring trouble all of its own, especially with the demands of embodying Christ’s kingdom. That’s what at the heart of Jesus’ little pep talk to his disciples about the lilies and the sparrows. He is not preparing them for setting a table and stuffing a turkey, but rather for carrying out God’s vision of a world redeemed. This is his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ inaugural address, as it were, for the kingdom of God.
For quite some time, Jesus makes the kingdom of God sound like a place with a lot of responsibility on their part. His sermon is full of all kinds of moral and ethical expectations that the kingdom will bring. He discusses anger, adultery, and the necessity of non-violence and making peace with your neighbor. There are instructions on the ins and outs of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, loving the enemy. He even includes a warning about the perils of serving two masters, God and wealth. All of this, of course, is based in the hard-to-believe, difficult-to-imagine, upside-down world of the Beatitudes, where the poor in spirit are blessed, and the meek—not the mighty—inherit the earth. The disciples’ heads are likely spinning as they try to conceive of a life this counter-cultural. This will produce anxiety, no doubt. Our heads are spinning…as we try, by God’s grace alone, to live out Jesus’ words.
And, on top of that: to forge ahead amidst times that provoke such worry: risk of a double-dip recession, a stubbornly-high unemployment rate, two wars raging on, budget cuts, and the spread of H1N1. Don’t worry about what you will eat or drink or wear? Give me the trouble of a frozen turkey anyday! And a hotline sure would be nice, in the meantime—something to coach us through a life that puts us at such odds with the world around us, a world that repetitiously trumpets its own version of success, a world that teaches us to fight and hoard and over-consume.
The origins of the national holiday we celebrate today are shrouded in myth and mystery, but regardless of that fact, I suppose there are some glaring dissimilarities between the Thanksgiving most of us celebrate now in America and the Thanksgiving meal that purportedly began this tradition almost three centuries ago. This is not to suggest that we are not as truly thankful for our blessings today as our pilgrim forefathers and foremothers were, but I do believe that the ancestors who first gathered in 1621 to celebrate a bountiful harvest might have been little more aware of the fragility of human life, a little more cognizant of the ephemeral nature of lilies and small birds. During the first year of their settlement in Massachusetts, we are told, almost half of the original 102 settlers perished from starvation, disease, and the hardship of eking out a life in a harsh, new environment. The decimated population that remained was dependent on the whims of weather and the generosity of the local population in a way that most likely pushed them to acknowledge even further their utter reliance on God’s providence.
They were probably a lot like the pilgrims who first sang the words of our psalm today, Psalm 126, as they made their yearly trek to Jerusalem for harvest prayers:
“May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
The ancient Hebrews associated sowing and planting with weeping because those actions caused them to throw into the soil that which could be eaten. In order to have grain for another year, grain had to be given up, and one must trust that a harvest would come, and that shouts of joy could then be offered. It was a precarious existence—weeping, sowing, reaping, rejoicing—one that never allowed the illusion that humans were in control.
I doubt the original American pilgrims, whoever they were and whatever they did those first hardscrabble years, were under that illusion either. There was little doubt that God was the giver, and as they built a society based on their version of Puritan values and beliefs, Jesus’ words about not worrying over clothing and food likely hit home in a way that seems quaint and trite nowadays.
Sometimes I think our worry and our trouble grows out of a misunderstanding or a forgetfulness of our real fragility. At least in this country, so many of us can control so much about our surroundings and how those surroundings effect our lives. We are under the impression that we can control our security, or what we think is our security. Myriad choices are placed before us, and we can decide what we want for breakfast, what we want for supper, what we want for retirement. We want to be in control of family finances, of our loved one’s reactions to what we say and do, of the journey through cancer. The basic concept of weeping as we toil, all the while trusting that God will tend the seed of whatever it is we do, is all but lost. And thus our great amounts of worry—because we think it will ultimately all be up to us. We Americans, with our exceptional government, our privileged history, so many abundant resources—we can still be under the impression that our future, our life, is all up to us.
I can’t help at this point but think of yet another group of pilgrims gathered for a meal in an Upper Room, poised at the edge of a daunting future. They have seen their own ranks decimated over the past several days as the once-hopeful crowds turn to thoughts of sacrifice. But for now, these unwitting settlers of a new world gather. They gather, and they worry. They worry as the cup of blessing is passed around and the bread is broken. They wonder and worry, as words of grace are spoken and, once again, not fully understood. There will be a sense of doom and denial that lingers in the air as they are caught and questioned about their associations with Him.
And there is weeping, for sure, as the journey is made up the hill, and the cross is planted into the ground and God teaches, once again, that is isn’t ultimately up to us.
This, my friends, is the kingdom for which we strive—a time and place where God is acknowledged as the source of all gifts, and that nothing—not even our death—will prevent God from bestowing them. This is the kingdom for which we strive—a strange but marvelous system where we can hope that the merciful and the mourning are blessed and those who make peace are called children of God. This is the kingdom which we seek, for it is the kingdom which Christ sought in its fullest sense, handing over every bit of himself, every desire for control, in order that compassion and forgiveness may take over in their fullest measure.
And this pilgrim meal they would come to call thanksgiving—the Great Thanksgiving—“Great” not because of its cornucopia variety, or the offerings we share, but “great” because of what is given. It is a Thanksgiving where we approach with little more than empty, outstretched hands to receive enough for today. Enough for forever. A meal where we learn—often very, very slowly—not to worry, not to fret, as our delusions of perfect control eventually do thaw out, because the best future for which we could ever hope—or for which we could ever be thankful—has been secured for us through Christ.
Yes, in a way, you could say this is our hotline, and the steady voice on the other end is always there, always and ever again proclaiming our value to him.
And I? I…I’m going to go home and take the turkey out of the toilet.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
painting: "A Bountiful Harvest," by Gregory Frank Harris
Sunday, November 8, 2009
Biblical scholars and historians tell us that the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was a bustling place of business and politics, as much as it was of religion or faith. Mark alludes to this quite frequently in the last chapters of his gospel as Jesus comes into Jerusalem during his final days. Almost everywhere he goes, Jesus is confronted with the oppressive and hypocritical expressions which faith in his Father’s name are taking. Whether it is the Pharisees and their strict, draconian interpretation of cleanliness codes, or the chief priests and their collusions with the Roman authorities, most religious authorities in Jerusalem were not, in Jesus’ view, upholding a true, living, life-giving faith in God. They were, rather, upholding a system of domination and control that often exploited the weakest in society.
That’s what at the heart of this morning’s criticism of the scribes, perhaps Jesus’ harshest yet. As he tours the heart of the capital with his disciples, they observe the powerful scribes hanging out in the marketplaces and in the places of honor in the synagogues. They are recognizable because of their long, flowing robes, and it is clear that they are using their influence as educated, religious clerics to gain status and wealth. They drop names and say long, showy prayers that can give the impression of closeness to God. They stand in the doorways and shake hands with as many as they can. Hmmm…long, flowing robes…showy prayers…shaking many hands…I’m going to have to take a closer look at this text!
Then, as Jesus and the disciples take a ring-side view of the Temple treasury, they watch as the people walk by to drop their alms into the long, trumpet-shaped, bronze collection box. Coins clattered and jingled noisily down its neck, a contraption which was designed, archeaologists tell us, precisely to announce how much each person was giving. Like those change machines in the grocery store which convert your coins to green cash—for a small fee—the collection boxes in the Temple Treasury made donating to God’s cause both a visual and auditory experience…for everyone! How fun!
This is why Jesus and his disciples can discern the amounts different people are giving as they make their donations. Large sums make a large clatter. Two small coins clink pathetically down into the box. Jesus’ final words in the temple are surprisingly not directed at the wealthy contributors or the scribes who maintain the collection, but instead they have to do with the seemingly insignificant contribution of the seemingly insignificant widow. In the new math of Jesus’ kingdom, two coins from a woman with no financial status, little legal status and no social status equal more than all the loud, clattering donations given by all the others.
These are comforting words to hear in this time of recession, of increasing unemployment and decreasing 401k’s, when the concept of wealth and abundance seems to change at every “ding” of the stock market bell. These are comforting words, perhaps, to kick-off a congregation’s Stewardship campaign, a nice instance of timing when the lectionary readings line up with budget realities. Comforting words—and true, no doubt—that God recognizes the wealth in each person’s contribution, regardless of the size of the dollar sign attached to it.
Yet, a closer look at this teaching moment at the Temple treasury might suggest more is going on here than we realize. The widow’s two-coin contribution turns out not to be so much a lesson about how much Jesus wants us to contribute to his ministry as it is an illustration of trust in God. And the widow’s sacrifice is not so much some kind of stewardship sermon from Jesus’ lips as it is an example of where the Church’s true treasure is found.
It would be impossible to prove, but it is highly likely that the two coins that the widow plunks into the Temple treasury were likely the leftover amount of the sum she that she had been given by the Temple treasury to live on. They were not, in any modern sense, her savings, but part of the paltry allotment the Treasury had dispensed to her so she could buy food. In Jesus’ time, that is what the Temple Treasury was intended for: to tend to the welfare and champion the cause of groups like widows and orphans, people who were, in those days, vulnerable and unvalued. Although the scribes denounced by Jesus often helped to maintain a corrupt system that devoured widow’s estates and kept them poor, one of the main purposes of the treasury was still to support them, for God’s law was their defender.
Therefore, we see in the widow not simply someone who is generous with what she has been given, but someone who is wholly dependent upon God’s grace and generosity, and knows it. Two coins in the coffer? She might as well be throwing her whole self in, for that is what she lives. She lives a life utterly dependent on a God who saves, or, as it says in our psalm appointed for today, a God who “watches over the strangers, who upholds the orphans and the widow” (Psalm 146:9). She knows her life is in God’s hands.
Lowell Almen, former Secretary for the ELCA, tells the story of going to sub-Saharan Africa on an official tour to see how the Church was doing in several countries there. Of course, he found congregations that were growing by leaps and bounds and seminaries that were struggling to find enough professors to keep up with burgeoning enrollment. A good portion of the finances that help fund those ministries come from the coffers of congregations in more affluent, western countries. But out of all this that he saw, Almen relates that he was most impressed with the work the ELCA was doing to cope with the ever-prevalent AIDS epidemic. He talks of church workers who go each morning into the villages and bring back more orphans to a children’s home that has been built and is run by the Lutheran Church. Each night, more parents in the city die of the disease. Each morning, more orphans rescued from the streets. Each year, another class of students for the school. Each life given hope and future—a whole community of children literally raised and defended by the Church, Almen reflected—because there is a God who upholds the orphans and the widows, whose hand embraces his true treasure.
As we look at a budget for the coming year, as we consider new leaders and our apportionment to the wider church body—as the affairs of business and perhaps even politics once and ever again enter the picture of religion—the challenge is to see the church’s true treasure with the eyes of Lowell Almen, and not as the scribes. As we seek to re-energize our congregation’s long-range planning and re-consecrate ourselves to the tasks of the gospel, the challenge is to let the widow’s dedication frame our mission. That is, to see we’ve been given gifts, too, and the church’s mission is somewhat compromised when we hold ourselves back.
So often congregations urge involvement from their members only by trying to convince them that participating in church is “worth it,” that taking part in Christ’s ministry can make a difference in their lives—which indeed it does. Congregations focus their message solely on the spiritual experience or sense of belonging that a congregation can offer the individual. Sometimes I wonder if the church shouldn’t couple that message with one modeled on the call to hold nothing back. The church should remember to say to God’s people, “You—each of you—are part of the church’s treasure.” In fact, each of us has a certain constellation of Spirit-given gifts that no one in the history of the world has ever had. Who are we to withhold those gifts from the life of this community and its ongoing work of restoring the world to Christ? Who are we to think that our participation doesn’t really matter, that someone else can just take our place? Who do we think we are? Unvalued?
On second thought, now that I hear it out loud, I suppose that approach sounds a little hard-edged, a little pushy. A little too pushy…in the way that Elijah pushily demands the widow at Zarephath to give him a piece of bread from her last meal. But, you see, she does trust to give it and not hold it back. She miraculously trusts God’s word will suffice when it says it will suffice, and she opens up the jar and the jug. And she sees it miraculously become a fountain of blessing that sustains the community for days.
I imagine that you could testify to this about your own lives—just like the poor, exploited widow Jesus glimpses in the Temple Treasury, just like the unwitting AIDS orphans that overflow Almen’s schools from the streets of Nairobi and Arusha, like each of us baptized treasurers that we are—we each become an opportunity for God’s grace to flow and flow and flow.
And our call is to realize, in the midst of our calculations of copper coins, that we have been claimed by a God who, himself, has held nothing back on the cross, who places his own life in the hand of the Father so that mercy and forgiveness flow inexplicably without end. To us. Through us. Clank, clank, clatter clatter clatter…Body of Christ, given for you, Body of Christ, given for you…loudly and mightily proclaiming there is a God who upholds the widow and the orphan, the stranger, the sinner…there is a God whose true treasure is his people.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
It is the season of the attack ad. Granted, this year isn’t as bad as last year, but in this race for the governorship of Virginia, battleground state that we are, the attack ads are blossoming and blooming all around us. I am counting the days until I can watch television or listen to the radio or answer the telephone without having to suffer through one of them. I heard them as early as last spring, and they will get even more frequent as we run up to the election a week from Tuesday. The experts say that attack ads, those political messages that rail against some aspect of their opponent’s record are actually effective in swaying voters, which is why we can’t seem to have an election without them. Rather than speaking directly to their own strengths, the Republicans attack the Democrats and the Democrats attack the Republicans, and cheap-shot-makers like me attack them both. Somewhere along the way, the truth of the message gets muddied a little.
It occurs to me that Reformation Sunday often becomes little more than an attack ad. We stand up each year on the last Sunday in October and remember that we’re Protestant—that, by golly, we’re Lutheran—and we lob attack ads against the abuses of Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago. We stand up and sing several rounds of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and give thanks that Martin Luther—political mastermind that he was—had the guts back in the sixteenth century to nail his original 95 “Attack Ads” on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. We often do this, and we do it proudly, but somewhere along the way, the truth of our message gets muddied a little.
If celebrating the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which effectively began on October 31, 1517, is about anything, it is about staying on-message. It is about telling the truth and making that truth as clear as possible. More like a positive, upbeat political ad that doesn’t attack another but instead touts the strengths and virtues of its own candidate, calling to mind the Protestant Reformation should help us tell the truth about the gospel, the truth about the church, and, tying it all together, the truth about God and God’s faithfulness. That was always Martin Luther’s original intent: to tell the truth about the gospel. Although he made some pretty inflammatory remarks about the Pope, and a few other church practices at the time at the core his was a message about staying on-message. He was simply pointing out that with which the Church catholic—including each and every one of its little congregations—had always, to some degree, struggled. Namely, it is too easy for the church to get its own proclamation muddled.
And what is the truth about the gospel? That is the crux of the discussion that Jesus is having with this group of people in this morning’s gospel text. This group of people is “the Jews who had believed in him.” These are people who were interested in listening to what Jesus had to say and were possibly even contemplating becoming his followers, but whose understanding was that their relationship with God was based on their history, their ancestry. They assumed they enjoyed certain status with God because they were people of God’s covenant. They pointed to people in their past like Abraham, noting that God had chosen their ancestors long ago and made them free. (They also claim that they’ve never been slaves to anyone, but I guess they’re conveniently forgetting that time in Egypt). They are confused, in any case, that Jesus is saying that in order to become free they would need to continue in his word and thereby become his disciples.
One of the truths that Jesus is trying to explain to them is that everyone is a sinner. The brokenness of sin is something that affects everyone equally. No person or group of people—not even the descendants of Abraham—has escaped the power of sinfulness. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” That means everyone in creation—regardless of whether they have dutifully tried to follow the commandments, regardless of whether they have a covenant with God—has become captive to sin. Sin has been described in many ways. Luther described sin as “humankind being curved in on itself,” convinced of the idea that we can be separate from God and go our own way, set like stone into the pursuit of our own needs. One particularly deceptive and hurtful quality of sinfulness is the habit of thinking we can, in some way, earn our way into God’s favor. We fall into the trap of thinking we can do enough good deeds or pray enough or go to church enough to make God smile on us. And this is the type of false information that Jesus comes to abolish. Jesus tells the truth: there is no “enough” of anything on our part. Ever. All of us still fall short.
But the other part of the truth, which is the one Martin Luther said that the church must really get right, is that Jesus, alone, is “enough.” “If the Son makes you free,” Jesus tells those who had believed in him, “then you will be free indeed.” The truth that makes us free is that God has decided to do something about the world’s brokenness even when we cannot. Jesus, God’s Son, has been given to reconcile creation to God, to straighten out humankind’s inward curvature, to suffer the full brunt of what evil can do and still only respond in love. It is something we could never do. It is something we could never deserve. But yet in Jesus, out of God’s pure grace, the bonds of that evil are broken once and for all. When we look at Jesus, when we look at the cross, we realize God truly loves us and has claimed us. Not when we look at ourselves. As Karl Barth said, a Swiss theologian who stood up to the Nazi regime in Germany, “God does not love us because we are lovable. God loves us because God is love” (Church Dogmatics, IV/2).
This is the truth that sets us free because it releases us from the lie that we are lovable for any other reason, be that our good deeds or, as in the case of the people talking with Jesus, a certain historical line we’ve been born into. This is the truth that sets us free because it breaks us from the bonds of stubborn self-will and self-determination—as freeing as those pathways may sometimes seem—and sets us back on the track of the self-giving ways Jesus lays down before us.
By far the favorite game in the Martin household right now is called, “I-I-I’m Gonna Getcha.” Laura, our 17-month old, is especially fanatic about it. The way the game works is she starts walking either away from us into another room or towards something she’s not supposed to play with, like electrical cords or the top of the stairs. As soon as she starts away, I come up behind her and say, ‘I-I-I’m gonna getcha!” and then pick her up underneath her arms and set her back down in a safe direction. She actually thinks it’s hilarious and starts to giggle. So she immediately does it again: she turns around and starts off in the wrong, unsafe direction. So I chase after her and repeat, “I-I-I’m gonna getcha!” and pick her up again. This will go on and on until I’ve finally had enough and I just pick her up and hold her for awhile and let her know the game is over. I suppose when I do this I’m hoping that at some point she’ll realize that it’s pointless to crawl away because there’s nowhere I’m not willing to follow her to. I’m always going to go het her and turn her back around, and in doing so, I’m actually setting her free. Sure, she has the free will to wander where she wants, into danger, but the point where she is truly most free is when she’s living and growing and walking in the ways her parents hope to set out for her.
So it is with God’s relationship to us through Christ. There is no place we can wander where he will not follow, and, through his gracious forgiveness, attempt to set us back on the path that is truly freeing. And this is the truth that the church must always be very careful in proclaiming. It is the truth that should be the basis for any reform in the church, and it was the motive behind Martin Luther’s attempts at reformation in the sixteenth century.
If, for example, we become a community of faith that feels more like a clique, we won’t stay on message about that truth. We will feel more like a social club that excludes people. If we become lax in our practice and embodiment of confession and forgiveness, it will, again, be difficult to stay on-message about the truth. Instead we would send the message that God doesn’t really care about our brokenness, or that the health of human community isn’t that important. If we are tempted to make the church just another type of volunteer organization that does service projects for the community, then we could forget that we are, in fact, primarily a community of sinners who have been chased down by Jesus and put back on the right track. For if the Church—Lutheran or otherwise—does not stay on-message with this truth, who will?
Way down in the holler behind the congregation I served in Pittsburgh, along a road prone to flooding during rainstorms, stood a ramshackle building that called itself the Bellevue Chapel. I never met anyone who attended there, and I never saw much happening there when I passed by. One week, however, I noticed they had hung a huge sign across the top of the door. It stayed there for awhile. In big, bold, red letters it said, “Sinners only.”
That, in a nutshell, is the message of the Reformation, the message of a church that always should be reforming. On this day and every day, let us not send out the Lutheran attack ads, pointing a finger of condemnation to others around us. Instead, in the pattern of Martin Luther, let us remember the truth: this place is for sinners. Sinners only, prone to floods of grace. And it is here—at the font, at the altar, in the words of Scripture—where God says “I-I-I’m gonna getcha!” us and sets us free.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Introducing Jesus’ new program this morning: No Disciple Left Behind. It’s a comprehensive new plan to make sure everyone inherits eternal life. No Disciple Left Behind: just a series of tests for which we need to prepare, some rules to memorize, then squeeze through the eye of a needle like a camel and you’re good to go! No Disciple Left Behind! Its concept sounds quite ingenious, but of course, it’s not without controversy. No one really knows yet if it will accomplish its goals. The results of its implementation aren’t yet in, but it hasn’t stopped some from studying diligently just for the exams, like a batch of high school juniors who invest, like I once did, in books on how to ace the SAT.
Take, for example, this rich young man in Mark’s lesson this morning. He’s pretty sure he’s got it covered. He approaches Jesus, the instructor, with fresh apple in hand in order to make the best impression. “What must I do, Good Teacher, to inherit eternal life?” the rich man asks as he bows himself into the dusty ground in a overdone gesture of obedience and respect. This is a bottom-line question; no partial credit. What are the basic requirements? The man is clearly successful, given his material wealth, so he is likely accustomed to figuring out exactly what he needs to know to accomplish his goals. A perfect pupil for No Disciple Left Behind, in fact.
Jesus does not seem initially impressed, but checks the man’s homework nonetheless, rattling off the Ten Commandments one-by-one. Discovering that the man has been following them like a good student since essentially what are his kindergarten days, Jesus then does something interesting. He looks the young man straight in the eye, and, in an act of sincere affection and approval, grabs him by both shoulders and informs him he may progress to the next level of the program. In fact, it is the last element and test of No Disciple Left Behind: “Sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, and begin to follow me.” Eternal life, after all, involves following the Lord of life, and for Jesus’ disciples, that will involve cutting ties to all that would hold one back from moving from place to place to spread the news.
Shocked and dejected, the young man returns to his seat in utter grief. This he cannot imagine. Remember, I had mentioned it is a controversial program. Many reach this point in discipleship and have a similar reaction.
I remember a comic strip that my ethics professor had posted to his office door at seminary. In the first frame, a man stood waist-deep in a pool of water, facing a preacher who was about to immerse him. The preacher says to him, “Now Mr. Jones, when I baptize you, everything that goes under the water becomes the Lord’s.” In the next frame, Mr. Jones is completely underwater for his baptism…except for one hand that clutches his wallet in the air.
However, before anyone has time to process this encounter between Jesus and the young man, before anyone sees a chance to run after the young man to say, “No wait! Don’t go away! Jesus might just have been speaking metaphorically here! Maybe he doesn’t mean you really have to renounce your earthly possessions!” Jesus explains the significance of the young man’s sorrowful response. The man went away dejected because he knew he would be giving up a lot.
As it turns out, in No Disciple Left Behind, each disciple must leave much behind. Each disciple must leave house and home, family and fields, wealth and well-being in order to follow. Each disciple will grapple with poverty in the face of plenty, lack in the face of luxury. Inheriting eternal life will be no cupcake class. And for those who happen to cling too tightly, it may prove to be a no-can-do. It’s like a camel going through the eye of a needle. And the teacher does not mean that metaphorically. He’s being serious.
One of the problems for the disciples here, which accounts for their befuddlement, is that in the first-century religious mindset, wealth was a sign of God’s favor, of being the Good Teacher’s pet, if you will. Poverty, by contrast, was not seen as something to be chosen but rather as an affliction for not having learned enough or not having acted lawful enough. The disciples likely see this young man approach Jesus and think, here’s finally an example of someone who has it made! He knows the law, he’s respectful of Jesus, he’s got evidence of earthly blessing—proof that he can succeed in the dog-eat-dog world of first-century Israel. God has blessed him!
However, when they hear Jesus explain that riches and possessions can make it more difficult for one to enter God’s kingdom, they have to completely reorganize the way God is working in their midst. “Who then can be saved?” they ask, bewildered, disoriented, as if all the answers to the exam have suddenly been changed at the last minute. And, forgetting their most recent lesson in which Jesus explained the kingdom is given to children—those who can’t do anything for themselves—the disciples ask “Who then can do the things to inherit eternal life?” All of them, like us, so focused on the doing, attaining, holding on, squeezing through…never really aware of the losing, the letting go, the receiving.
I think everyone who follows Jesus realizes some sacrifices are involved somewhere along the line. We consider our yearly pledges to the church, figuring out how much of our “hard-earned money” we should sacrifice for the work of the Lord. Our personal and family schedules, especially at this time of the year, blossom and grow with so many commitments, and occasionally we decide to cancel a commitment made to sports or entertainment in favor of attending a meeting at church or volunteering at a charity or sitting with a friend in need. We consider the sacrifices of reputation and popularity we sometimes make when we take a stand to speak for justice and truth in the name of the gospel.
But, if you’re like me, you realize there are many more instances where we shrink back from the sacrifices involved in following Jesus. We, like the young man, walk away, pondering what we would be giving up rather than thinking about what we could be gaining. We, like the man in the comic strip, try to hold much more of ourselves above the surface of the water.
Wealth—in money or possessions—is particularly dangerous in this regard, and Jesus knows it. It’s not that wealth or possessions, in and of themselves, are bad, but they can make it difficult for people who have them to receive and appreciate God’s rule. Those who are wealthy are not vulnerable in the way that poor folk are. Those who are wealthy have the means to control their surroundings and their earthly destinies in ways that underprivileged folk can’t, and, ironically, can be more out of touch with how much of this blessed life is determined by God’s grace. Furthermore, wealth can also blind us to our true needs of human community, based in love and forgiveness. And, because of its power to corrupt the administration of justice, wealth can make us blind and unfeeling to the basic needs of others’.
I heard the wife of a missionary once talk about the time she and her husband were getting ready to go overseas for the first time to serve in Tanzania. They were only allowed to take a certain amount of poundage with them, and so before she even saw where they were going, she had to pare down their worldly goods, not only because the shipping costs were so great, but because they would be serving people who didn’t have much, and being rich in possessions could alienate them from those they served. When she was finished packing, she said everything they had ever owned in their 25 years of marriage was condensed down to 20 small cardboard boxes. She told how she stood there and stared at them on her lawn and just cried—20 cardboard boxes after 25 years and 4 children—shocked that this particular call of Jesus would cause her family to sacrifice so many things that they loved.
Yet, in No Disciple Left Behind, it’s not just the Tanzanian missionaries and those who consider themselves rich who must let loose and pack light. The call is made upon all of us, to every disciple, wealthy and poor alike, It’s for those who’ve studied for the tests since kindergarten, and those who are just getting started. It is for the thoroughly committed disciple and the one who stands at the edge, reluctant. It is a call to relinquish our grip on those things which would hold us back from freely following Jesus.
In letting loose and leaving behind we may eventually learn that we’re gaining much more. We may just come to see that being submerged in God’s kingdom is about far more than what we’re giving up, and that it includes a blessed variety of receiving and winning.
Though the hardship of such a life will surely come, disciples learn they receive in the communion of Jesus a new wealth. Following Jesus grants a new kind of wealth where disciples are freed to share what they have with each other for the good of the world, where they no longer view things as “mine” and “yours” but rather as “ours” or as “God’s.” They see the possibilities that are opened to the whole world through a life shared in Christ Jesus where all our gifts are brought together to help establish his kingdom on earth. It is a new kind of family where those who have been claimed in baptism may see each other as real brother and sister.
And, to get us there, Christ lays hold of us in deep affection, looking deep into our eyes, he bids us to follow by leaving everything behind. All of it. As 20th-century theologian C.S. Lewis puts it, “[Jesus says] Not just a branch here or a branch there. I will have the whole tree down. [And in it’s place,] I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you myself” (Mere Christianity, HarperCollins 2001, pg 196).
It’s all a part of No Disciple Left Behind, this comprehensive new idea to make sure everyone inherits eternal life. Yes, it is highly controversial. Will it succeed? That’s the question. For mortals—like for the camel squeezing himself through the needles’ eye—the chances aren’t looking so good. If it were up to us, we’d fail, exam after exam. But for God, who is its author and architect, all things are possible. For God, whose Son is the great High Priest who passes through the heavens for us, all things are possible. For God, especially experienced here in the light of Easter morning, all things are possible. No Disciple Left Behind!
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr
Sunday, September 27, 2009
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21B] - September 27, 2009 (Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Mark 9:38-50)
God’s kingdom will come, by hook or by crook! By hook or by crook will the justice and peace in Jesus come on earth and rule throughout eternity. By hook or by crook will God overturn the systems of sin and death that plague us now and usher his creation into eternal life.
First, the crooks, which are played so well by Eldad and Medad this morning in our delightful text from Numbers: Eldad and Medad—maybe not exactly crooks in the strict sense of the term, but certainly two unsuspecting ordinaries with no claim to authority, get hit with the Spirit of God out of all those hundreds of Israelites. All the usual suspects for Spirit-driven leadership, the certified and recognized elders and leaders, are in a confab with Moses to figure out a solution for everyone’s complaining. The Israelites are complaining about the food on this journey, remembering the delicacies of their former slavery, and Moses is complaining about the Israelites, and is one step closer to giving it all up. This huddle of the certified and recognized leaders and elders is God’s attempt to get things back on track, to bring his people into the Holy Land in one piece. But, back in the leadership vacuum at camp, Eldad and Medad get zapped with what is apparently some extra Holy Spirit and they begin to prophesy.
What exactly happens when these crooks start prophesying is not recorded in Scripture. The term “prophesy” could have meant many different things, from giving orders and commands to discerning the proper direction for the whole group. Up until this point, the gift of prophecy through the Spirit had been reserved for Moses as God guided them through the wilderness. Whatever Eldad and Medad do gets Joshua all worked up. And like a panicky and eager-to-please associate pastor, Joshua runs off to the tent to let Moses know of their shenanigans. Yet Moses’ surprising response shows that God chooses to work through the unlikely uncertified ordinaries from time to time. "Would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!” For Moses knows that God’s kingdom will come, by hook and especially by crook. Even though they’re unknown and uncertified, Eldad and Medad are simply animated by God’s Spirit, prophesying in the way they are led to do. Unconcerned with safeguarding his own sphere of influence, and unassuming in his role as leader, Moses shows an awareness that all the peoples’ Spirit-given gifts have a role to play in God’s kingdom.
There is a similar scene with crooks in the gospel text, when the anxious and eager-to-please disciples come running to Jesus complaining of the shenanigans of some other person who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name that they didn’t know. “Let him be,” comes Jesus’ surprising response, “for his gifts are not working against us.” Jesus, too, knows that the works of God’s justice and grace will be embraced and performed by people even he won’t know. In fact, Jesus points out, anyone who does so much as gives them a cup of water because they bear Christ’s name, is participating in the in-breaking of the kingdom. God’s kingdom will come, yes, even by crook.
It is an important message for the disciples as well as for the church of today, when unlikely crooks like you and me are baptized and sent out to spread the word. It is an important message for a church of today which often finds itself drawn into competition and conflict with itself and with denominations and congregations all over the world. Modern-day Christian missionary expert Lesslie Newbigin phrases Jesus’ and Moses’ admonishment for the Church in his book The Open Secret in this way: “If we love the light and walk in the light, we will also rejoice in the light wherever we find it—even the smallest gleams of it in the surrounding darkness” (Eerdmans, 1995).
I remember that look of rejoicing on the face of an elderly woman who sat with us one sunny day in a plain brick church with open-air windows in the far interior of China. I was with a group of seminarians on a trip with Luther Seminary to China and Hong Kong, fulfilling our academic requirement for a cross-cultural experience. We had been flown into some of the most remote regions of inner Yunnan province, an area near the border with Myanmar. The villages we were visiting were comprised of impoverished ethnic groups who had been converted to Christianity over a century before. Our guide had informed us that we were likely the first westerners since those missionary days to cross the threshold of their villages. The woman I remember was probably in her seventies or eighties. She was sitting in the church with us as our host, along with a dozen or more of her companion villagers who had been selected to share their experience of being Christian during years of isolation and oppression by the government.
We had been told plenty about our hosts before we showed up, but I’m not quite sure what had been told to them about us because when it became apparent that we were, in fact, fellow Christians visiting from America, this woman’s face lit up with joy, and a bit of puzzlement. She immediately began to shout out at us, looking back and forth between her church leader, the interpreter, and us. “She is utterly amazed…and overjoyed” the interpreter explained, striving hard to convey her surprise and shock. “All these years she has lived in this village, faithfully following her Lord Jesus. She has heard many stories about America and how great it is, but only now has she learned that there are baptized people in America, too…just like her!”
What faith! What surprise! Not one, but two sets of crooks in this remote backwater, gathering in the name of the same beloved Light. "Would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”
For all these years, God’s Spirit has been pouring onto people all over the place, from poor Eldad and Medad to the inner wilds of China. An important part of our task as disciples, is not to stifle the unmistakable evidence of Christ’s light in others, but to rejoice when we see God’s acts of mercy and sacrifice being done in Christ’s name.
But then, at that point, Jesus’ admonishments to his disciples take a macabre turn. God’s kingdom will also come by hook—like the hook of a pirate who has slashed off his hand, or the patch that covers a gouged-out eye. Or the hook that appears to remove a terrible performance from the stage. Sounding somewhat negative, Jesus further emphasizes the seriousness of their own gospel ministry with a series of rather violent commands. Hanging millstones around their necks for drowning. Cutting off limbs when they sin too much. Tearing out eyes. Being thrown into the pit of hell, “where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.” Come to think of it, these high-price demands are probably the kind of stuff Joshua had in mind for crooks like Eldad and Medad on account of their shenanigans, not as a warning for the elite, religious, certified few of Jesus or Moses.
While, on the one hand, Jesus wants his disciples in every day and age to be aware of the Spirit-led works in his name both within and without one’s immediate gospel community, Jesus is also clear about the unity and sanctity of the disciples’ own message. God’s kingdom will come by hook, and if there is someone or some faction within the disciples’ community that is engaged in something that is directly contrary to the gospel message, it must be addressed. The methods mentioned here may sound a little drastic, but the point is we bear a responsibility in paying attention to our message, of being clear about who Jesus is, for example, what his death and resurrection mean, and what the nature of repentance and salvation is.
The arrival of God’s kingdom—which comes in Christ to redeem a broken creation—is not exactly dependant on us, but yet we do play an important part in it by not setting stumbling blocks for others to believe. It is Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the tomb that leads to the complete up-ending and re-making of a sinful world, but the community that follows him becomes the primary vessel for that world’s new beginning. As such, we are to have salt in ourselves, and be at peace with one another. Our community’s life together is important.
Here Jesus mentions salt not so much for the way it brings flavor, but for its preservation qualities (Virginia ham, anyone?). Part of what the community of the baptized is to do—through its diversity and its giftedness, as well as through its quarrels and missteps, is to help preserve the gospel message and the peace it offers. And we do this not principally for our own sake or our own blessed life together, but for the sake of the world. For the sake of the little ones who will see evidence in us of God’s grace. We maintain our gospel-saltiness for the sake of those who have not heard about Jesus yet, but whom God fully intends to have in his kingdom.
And so, even Jesus seems to realize that separating people or even groups from the community may at some times be necessary, even at great cost to the whole community. I should think those times would be few and far between, and undertaken with great forethought and concern, for the community is never the same after it happens. I do think it is worth noting, especially in these particularly tricky times for our denomination, when many people are talking of splitting or transferring membership or lopping off benevolence for mission support to the wider church that, in Jesus’ lesson, the state of the body that goes on to enter the kingdom is not whole and sound. The part that is preserved is still maimed and lame and partially blinded. Everyone suffers the pain that ensues when a member is severed from the body, and the part that survives no doubt bleeds. So often we’re prone to think our moral purity is what comprises our saltiness, when in reality, the ways in which we treat each other in our disagreements can cause us become a bigger stumbling block for those yet to believe.
In all of this, the message stands: by hook or by crook God’s kingdom will come, because it is God’s kingdom. Ultimately God loves the world far too much to let our sin or our stubbornness obstruct the path. By hook or by crook, God decides, will every last child hear of his forgiveness and will his people reach the Promised Land. “It is by hook or by crook”, God must think, as he then watches his own Son’s body, tormented by crooks, be beaten and pierced on the cross. “By hook or by crook,” God declares, as his body is passed around and his blood is poured to the very ones who should be fitted for a millstone. By hook or by crook, God pronounces—with every last Eldad and every last Medad and every last bickering Joshua and every last woman in the dark of China boldly bearing gifts of the Spirit in God’s glorious plan to take over the world in love.
Thanks be to God!
(photo: ethnic Tai group in traditional garb welcoming a missionary delegation, 2000)
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
If there is one thing I have learned about living in my new city, Richmond, it is that crossing the James River is a big deal. Nevermind that the River has been traversable since the Mayo Bridge on 14th street was completed in the late 1700’s, or that both sides of the city are virtually the same in just about every way. Nevermind that the beloved Ukrops can be found both north and south of the River. To lifelong Richmonders and newcomers alike, such a big deal is made about going to the other side it is as if they are venturing into Indian territory, the untamed wastes of the land “over yonder.”
Conveniently, this attitude is familiar to me, for Pittsburgh, the city from which we relocated, is divided by three rivers, forming three regions that are, in many ways, psychologically cut off from one another. When Melinda tried to order our wedding cake from her favorite bakery in our little borough of Pittsburgh, the baker immediately ripped up the order in front of her once Melinda told her that it would be delivered to the reception site downtown. “Ma’am, I’m sorry to say that Mr. Barkus, the bakery owner, doesn’t let his cakes cross rivers,” the bakery attendant announced matter-of-factly, and then shrugged. No reason was given, and, rather disappointed, Melinda left the store to look for a bakery on the other side of the rivers.
Oh, we laugh, but we are very good at drawing boundaries, aren’t we? It’s one thing when we joke about people on the other side of the river in our own town but really stops being funny when we think people should stay there, on the “other side of the tracks,” or in that below-standard school district, or behind that concrete and barbwire fence. Our playful ribbing about people from another neck of the woods can turn hurtful quickly, and the river—or the language barrier, or the social boundary—becomes a border we’ll never cross.
Well, if there’s one thing we learn about Jesus in the gospel lesson this morning, it’s that he’s not afraid to cross the river! Jesus has left his familiar territory in Galilee and ventured out to the untamed wastes of Gentile territory. Being extraordinarily specific, Mark, the gospel writer, places him in the region of Tyre, Sidon and the Decapolis. Normally, to the modern reader, such geographical descriptions might seem like superfluous detail, but for the ancient reader, this was newsworthy. If you try to map out Jesus’ route in the seventh chapter of Mark, you will notice two things. First of all, Jesus is not in Israel anymore. He is delivering his cake far beyond any region that has ever been Israel, or even marginally so.
Secondly, Jesus’ itinerary really doesn’t make much sense. To return from Tyre “by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis” hardly makes any geographical sense. It’s like saying you’ll return from Norfolk by way of the Outer Banks towards the Chesapeake Bay in the region of the Valley. I mean, I suppose it could be done, but it sure wouldn’t be a direct route. Scholars have long argued that Mark got something wrong, that he was altogether unfamiliar with the topography of ancient Israel and its neighbors. But I think the point doesn’t matter, and the peculiar, meandering nature of Jesus’ travels proves Mark’s point: Jesus has crossed the river. He has left his comfort zone. Or, to put it differently, he is showing us that his comfort zone is larger than we think it is.
That’s the deeper story of what’s going on here in these texts, both in his testy exchange with the Syrophoenician woman, and with the deaf-mute in the Decapolis. Neither of them is from Jesus’ Jewish homeland—the woman is explicitly named as a “Gentile,” and it is entirely likely that the deaf-mute and the deaf-mute’s companions are not Jewish, as well. In both cases, we see example of people who would have little reason to look to Jesus for healing become exemplars of faith. In fact, some translations of this text have the Syrophoenician woman address Jesus as “Lord,” rather than as “sir,” something that would have clearly sounded strange to the ears of Jesus’ fellow travelers who are probably just thrilled that he started delivering his cakes to the unclean folk on the other side of the river. After ignoring Jesus’ initial rebuke of her, she responds with faith and humility, confident that he is the Savior in whom she may trust.
Perhaps even more surprising than this conversation between Jesus and the Gentile woman is the miracle of the healing of the deaf-mute. As can be heard from our prophet Isaiah this morning, the arrival of God’s kingdom will be marked by the “eyes of the blind being opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, and “the tongue of the speechless singing for joy.” The people of ancient Israel had long been looking for these specific signs to mark the arrival of God’s kingdom: the granting of sight to the blind and, especially, the granting of speech to the dumb. It was the ultimate turnaround, you see: those who could not otherwise be understood by anyone could finally respond in praise to the Creator, the highest form of speech around. Therefore, in the healing of the deaf-mute, we have the most profound illustration of God’s in-breaking kingdom to date occurring outside of God’s earthly kingdom of Israel.
And the crowd goes crazy. Even against Jesus’ commands, the Decapolis by-standers are overly impressed: “He has done everything well. He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak!” Can you hear their sense of awe? “He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” Even here, on the other side of the river. Even here, demons are cast out, tongues are loosed, and Jesus’ lordship is proclaimed to the nations.
The news from Jesus and the news about Jesus are things around which boundaries cannot be drawn. Everyone will hear about it. Everyone will be able to speak about it, even those we may not now understand. And what Jesus sighs to the deaf-mute is what God in Jesus is saying to the whole world: “Ephphatha! Be opened! You, with all your boundaries…be opened!” Be opened to what you can see and learn in Tyre and the Decapolis and from the people at the margins, from people you think are unworthy and unimportant. Be opened to the power of God’s kingdom to transform and renew us in spite of our shortcomings and dumb sinfulness. Be opened to the great life of baptism—where we are made one by Jesus’greatest miracle and where the last great terrifying barrier is crossed for good. Maybe that is what this venture into Tyre and Sidon is—a foreshadowing of Jesus’ journey on the cross, a prophecy, of sorts, that with Jesus as Lord, no part of our existence will be too distant for God’s grace to reign there.
As you’ve heard by now, next Sunday is Rally Day. We will kick off another year of Sunday School and youth ministry and music programs at Epiphany Lutheran Church. Those of you who haven’t taken the chance to see what happens at our Sunday School, both in the adult classes and the children’s classes, are missing the chance to “be opened” to the wideness of God’s reign, because that is what Christy Huffman and Kevin Barger and the dozens of Sunday School teachers and youth group advisors and musicians are doing every Sunday. They, and others, are working hard to “open us up” to the love and healing relationships in Jesus’ name. “Ephphatha,” they say each week, as they open up the Bibles and open up their craft boxes, and open up their instrument cases as they open up our hearts to the surprising ways God works and moves in our world.
When I was in Sunday School as a kid, our classes were grouped according to age (which I suppose is another boundary, but it helps when it comes to teaching). Because we were grouped according to age, however, we had Sophia in our class. Sophia was, technically-speaking, two weeks older than I was, but Sophia was severely mentally retarded, and had been since birth. She actually had the mental ability of a two-or-three year old, and could not speak intelligibly to us, but she was in our class and we learned alongside of each other. Her behavior was erratic and jerky, and we often interpreted her actions as aggressive, although they probably were not meant that way. Our Sunday School teachers consistently helped to mold us, as Jesus would have done, into one class. I often felt very uncomfortable with Sophia, especially in my younger teenage years because, truth be told, I was insecure, and she just seemed too different.
It wasn’t until I was much older when I realized how profoundly formative and rare that experience was. In every other aspect of society, people like Sophia were separated and sequestered from me. My middle school, for example, had separate classes for handicapped and mentally-challenged people, as they called them. They ate at the far tables of the lunchroom—over there in Decapolis and Tyre—so as not to disturb the rest of us. Sophia actually went to that middle school with me. Occasionally I would pass her in the hall, and I doubt she even recognized me. But in church, in Sunday School, we were in the same class. In worship, we ate at the same table, took crumbs from the same hand. In the world, we were often on opposite sides of the river. But in the church, we were together. Jesus himself had grouped us that way in baptism and had given us a Sunday School teacher who was with tender mercy constantly saying, in many and various ways, “Ephphatha! Be opened. “Be opened to the gifts of one another.”
That is what she said…and that is what we hear. And that is what the community of Jesus is supposed to do: proclaiming his power and traipsing wherever he’ll take us in his mission to open the world up…we, the community that crosses rivers.
Thanks be to God!
(image: ruins of Mayo covered Bridge, Richmond, VA )
Sunday, August 16, 2009
© Peter Menzel www.menzelphoto.com from the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats
After four consecutive weeks of readings from the sixth chapter of John and being reminded that Jesus is the Bread of Life, I feel as though we are never going to get the chance to digest anything else. At this point it just seems like bread, bread, and more bread.
It reminds me of my astonishment years ago at my young cousin, Amanda, when she was barely 18 months old, and we went to visit her family in Germany. In restaurant after restaurant, meal after meal, Amanda used her infant grasp of vocabulary to order the same thing, over and over: bread and butter. Occasionally she would branch out and try something small from someone’s plate, but for the majority of that trip she seemed to subsist on nothing but bread—mind you it was good, hearty, fresh-baked European bread—but bread nonetheless. Bread, bread and more bread. I had never seen anything like it, and wondered whether her health would be the worse for it.
And yet, to our unpleasant surprise, we find out that this is how so much of the world survives. As a Christmas gift this past year I received a large coffee-table cookbook entitled Hungry Planet: How the World Eats, which is the result of a huge project by a husband and wife team of photojournalists who wanted to create a culinary atlas of the world at a time when the world’s food habits are changing dramatically. To do this, the authors ate dinners with 30 families in 24 different countries and then documented it. Each family in the book is photographed in their kitchen (or whatever room or fire-pit that happens to function as their kitchen) surrounded by all the food they would typically consume in one week. Each family also shares one of their typical family recipes. I introduce to you the Aboubakar family of the Breidjing refugee camp in Chad, population 30,000: In a typical week, over 90% of the Aboubakar’s diet by weight comes from grains and other starchy foods that are rationed out by various aid organizations. Here is the recipe that the mother, D’jimia offers for us to cook in our own homes. Aiysh, it is called; “bread” in Arabic.
• Approximately one pound of millet flour
• 2 quarts of water
• A dab of vegetable oil
Bring water to boil in a pot.
Add millet flour in small amounts until it begins to thicken and bubble.
Stir constantly, pulling mixture toward you in the pot until it holds together in a gelatinous mass.
Press mixture into an oiled bowl to make round shape. Invert onto plate or tray.
Maybe I’ll cook it for you some time if you come over, since I have the recipe.
The Aboubakars eat aiysh two times a day, most of the time by itself. They, like the thousands of others in refugee camps and food-poor areas across this hungry planet, subsist on something like aiysh not because it’s the only thing on the menu they like, but because there simply is nothing else to eat. And one must only look at the rounded bellies and sunken eyes of malnutrition to know that bread isn’t really enough. Funny thing, then, that aiysh is also an Arabic word for “life.”
So, you can imagine my wonderment when I hear Jesus say over and over again that he is the bread of life who is come down from heaven. Images of pots of bubbling, gelatinous aiysh and a rosy-cheeked infant clutching buttery toast in each hand pop into my head as Jesus makes the further outlandish claims that his flesh—no less—is true bread and his blood is true drink.
And that he gives this bread for the life of the world.
And that the one who eats it will never be hungry.
And that the one who eats it will live forever.
Like the disciples and the Jewish leaders who have followed him to hear more about the bread that was multiplied for the thousands, I am drawn in to dispute: Surely Jesus does not mean his body? How can he be bread and drink? Will he suffice? Are we missing something in the translation?
And yet it seems we do understand him correctly, for the church’s practice from the very beginning included at the center of its own life this exact practice of eating and drinking elements which give eternal life. Justin Martyr, a Christian leader writes in the second century something about Holy Communion that we all could recognize, explaining that those who worship God in Christ “do not receive these things as common bread and common drink, but as Jesus Christ our Savior who became incarnate by God’s word and took flesh and blood for our salvation" (1 Apology, 65).
Just as bread is an essential menu item for most of the world, Jesus’ own body and blood is a staple for the community of the baptized. A photograph of them around their supper table with their rations for one week would depict them with nothing but a small plate of what looks like pita bread and a cup of what looks to be wine. They eat it and are rejuvenated. They experience the joyous rebirth of their baptism once again. No malnutrition to speak of here. It is suffices.
For the incredulous religious leaders who argue with Jesus, the only workable comparison they have is manna, the flaky stuff that fell from heaven to feed their ancestors in the wilderness as they made their way to the Promised Land. They remember it as the unlikeliest type of sustenance, appearing mysteriously before the Israelites each morning and only lasting long enough to be consumed on the day it was gathered. Jesus relates that he, too, has been mysteriously granted by God from heaven above, his own body and blood as life for the world to gather and eat and drink.
But, as Jesus points out, there is one big point where the comparison to manna breaks down: they ate it and eventually they died. The manna sustained them for their life on earth, but no further. On the other hand, Jesus’ body and blood—the true food and true drink—offers eternal life. Those who eat of it, he says, live forever. It is an exciting proposition, to live forever. And, if we take the Bread of Life at his word, it is here—on our supper table—for the taking.
There was a provocative movie that came out in the mid-1980’s called “Cocoon.” Directed by Ron Howard, it was a science-fiction film that tells the story of a group of senior citizens who happen accidentally upon a swimming pool that magically restores them to youthful vigor. As it turns out, the pool is storing the cocoons of some aliens who are about to be transported back to their home planet. When the aging senior citizens swim in it, the life-force from the alien cocoons makes them feel young and healthy again. In fact, it even reverses the effects of one man’s cancer. At the end of the movie, the aliens end up offering the extra places on their space ship to whomever wants to come. If they go, the humans will climb aboard, never to return to earth, but also never to face death or disease because they will live forever.
The suspense of the movie hangs not on what happens with the alien cocoons in the swimming pool or whether they return safely, but how many—if any—humans beings will be on that spaceship when it flies away that final night. The promise of eternal life is hard to turn down, even when there are sacrifices.
Yet, the eternal life promised in eating Jesus’ own body is not that storybook kind of eternal life that forestalls death or that takes us to a special place where our bodies are returned to youthful vitality. Rather, this eternal life takes us beyond death, to that last day when he rules all in all. When we eat of this meal, we are taking part in the one flesh in the history of creation that has already succumbed to the power of death and the, by the power of love, lives beyond it. It may, at times, sound a little science-fictionlike, but here’s the deal: at Holy Communion, our very bodies become united on a cell-by-cell level with that life that has conquered death. His flesh and his blood are already eternal, because he has already been raised.
Yes, he has been raised, and the eternal life to which that points is free from sin, filled with forgiveness, and replete with love that surrounds us forever. And as we partake of him, we partake in the very source of the Divine, since, as Jesus reminds us, he himself has come from the Father. This is not simply a ritual of eating and drinking, but it is a simple act of partaking in that which assures something vitally important: that our faith is not something that just rumbles around in our heads, confined to the ways we think about people or feel about the world, but becomes rather a real, physical life that we live, a connection to the One whose body really hung on the cross for us.
Just as the family of D’jimia Aboubakar grab for her plate of aiysh to get them through another day in the camp, Christ’s body and blood strengthen our bodies and blood for another day of participating in the physical acts of forgiveness and compassion in the world. In the form of bread and wine, the Holy Spirit grants us the ability to live that eternal life now, living out the healing and reconciliation he has brought. We are, it turns out, exactly what we eat, and we go from our family table here to embody his love even in the face of our own death.
Perhaps, then, at this point we are not much more than a kind of refugee on this hungry planet, or an infant eating bread from the hand of our parent. Weary and worn, yet by God’s good grace hungry enough and simple enough to step up to Wisdom’s table. Hungry enough and simple enough not to board some spaceship, but rather to take that which looks like highly a unlikely sustenance, but which, from our Father’s good hand, is the true bread and true drink that helps us truly live.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
As you are no doubt aware by now, a group of our youth will travel this week to the city of New Orleans in order to attend the ELCA Youth Gathering, an event so large that it can only be held every three years. This year an estimated 37,000 Lutheran youth and adult volunteers will stream into this humid, flood-damaged, but beautiful city in order to worship together, learn together, and serve together. During the Gathering, every youth group from across the nation will be volunteering in New Orleans in some way through a community-building environmental program. Some will be helping to rebuild from Hurricane Katrina.
No matter what we all will be doing, I’m sure that coordinating service projects for 37,000 youth volunteers within the span of three days must be an enormously complicated undertaking. In fact, although it would be difficult to verify this, it is highly probable that the 2009 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans will be the largest service community in the history of the United States, and maybe the world. Some are suggesting, that is, that never before have that many people come together at one time for the express purpose of doing volunteer service work. We will be a mob with a mission.
There is a mob with a mission in today’s gospel text: get to Jesus at all costs. He gathers with his disciples; the mob finds him, ignoring even their hunger. The disciples whisk him away to the other side of the lake; the mob sees where they’re going and beats him there. They are relentless in their pursuit. Later, once Jesus crosses the lake again and lands at Gennesaret, the crowd recognizes him at once and rush at him and press in on him wherever they get wind of his presence. In village, town, or marketplaces, Jesus is the target. It’s a little bit like celebrity-status for him, and I imagine that if the camera had already been invented back then, some paparazzi would have been involved, their mopeds buzzing around and flashbulbs flashing. Overwhelmingly, though, this mob wants to get to Jesus because he can heal, he can feed. He can give hope. He can make a difference. “If we just get close enough to touch the fringe of his cloak,” some even think, “we’ll get a piece of the action.”
And this is how it continues for awhile. Their presence has been growing steadily for quite some time, but now it’s out of control, and the adoring mob will continue to grow, essentially pushing him up to and through the gates of Jerusalem.
One of the issues with this crowd in Mark’s gospel is that there is really nothing organize them or coordinate them in their mission. They are one giant, disorganized multitude. Mark describes them as “sheep without a shepherd,” an image which would have resonated strongly with Mark’s early readers. Here are likely thousands of people wandering around in the hills and towns of northern Israel, a place not only home to hundreds of flocks of real sheep, but also the historic home to God’s own flock of people. Many of these folks are, in fact, God’s chosen, and yet they are vulnerable and strewn about all over the place, haphazardly brought together by nothing but their own feverish desires. They had suffered at the hands of too many abusive and unfaithful shepherd-kings throughout their history, and here they are again, coarsing over the hills and through the streets to get to someone who can lead and guide and love.
And yet, for all its impressive size and energy, there is still something pitiful in this scene, something all-too descriptive of our own circumstances. The image of mad crowds straining and falling all over themselves to get to Jesus is reminiscent of our own desperate searches for meaning and healing. We may not understand ourselves as a part of a definable crowd with a mission, but there is something hectic and frantic and disorganized about so much of the human existence. So often, like sheep without a shepherd, we wander about aimlessly, following the flock in a loose-like fashion, drinking from any number of water sources and grazing in any type of pasture until something threatening scatters us apart from each other. And even in our more passionate moments we throw ourselves wantonly at whatever new-fangled remedy promises us fulfillment, happiness. Oh, at times, to have a mission! To sense that we have a life purpose or a goal that would never fail and then to have the stamina to follow it! Yes, this crowd that Mark describes with such vividness is really us. And we are altogether pitiful, pathetic, in our need for togetherness, in our need for guidance and loving care. Altogether pitiful, and it’s almost gut-wrenching.
In fact, that is exactly what our predicament is: gut-wrenching. Our clear need for rescue from all our isolating circumstances turns out to be truly gut-wrenching for Jesus. He stands there, looking out over this sea of humanity and instinctively feels compassion for us. In both the Greek and Hebrew understanding of the human body, compassion was rooted in the gut, in the innermost part of the body. In fact, the Greek words for “compassion” and “intestines” are almost the same. So often we attempt to stifle or deny those unpredictable deep feelings of compassion and empathy, but Jesus doesn’t. Like our hymn says, “his heart has never known recoil” ("Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life," words by Frank North) His response when he continually meets this crowd that presses in on him at every twist and turn is to reach out in teaching and in healing, to stand up as their shepherd as selflessly as possible.
And just as we may understand compassion as being rooted in the gut, in the dark center of the human body, we realize that Jesus, himself, is placed in the the dark center of the whole human experience. He is there, pressed in among the sick and downtrodden, offering healing and wholeness. He is there, pressed alongside the sorrowful and guilt-laden, offering hope and forgiveness. And he is there, pressed up against the cross, offering love and salvation with all those who trod the ways of death and abandonment. As Jesus responds to the crowd that has gathered, we see that his compassion may be his most defining characteristic, the emotion that guides him away from solitude and further into the people he loves.
This is how he will respond to us: knowing what we need even before we do, his gut-reaction is to love us and teach us and guide us in the midst of the dark valley of the shadow of death. That is true compassion, my friends, and we learn it only by pressing in among him as often as we can.
The crowd we had at church this week wasn’t quite of the same character as the crowd in today’s gospel lesson, but Vacation Bible School can come close to it at points. Amidst all the merriment, there are hurt feelings, skinned knees, snotty noses, and several cases of homesickness. Even as early as Wednesday, there are adult volunteers who are starting to show signs of exhaustion, who begin to understand why, as fun as it is, Vacation Bible School is only attempted once a year. It is always amazing to me how much gets undertaken in a week of VBS: the elaborate set designs, the music, the incessant hand-motions that go with the songs, the games, the Bible storytelling, the snacks, the coordinated outfits, the skits.
Yet I would venture to say, from experience, that the main thing the children take away from this experience is not a particular song or a specific craft or even a favorite Bible story. It is, rather, the compassion and attention of the volunteers they receive. They will remember the youth group members, pressed in among the kids, who selflessly allowed themselves to become human bean bags and jungle gyms for the week. They will be formed by the adult who, pressing themselves down to floor level, gave them extra attention as they struggled with the science lesson. They will, on some subconscious level if nowhere else, never forget the loving way they were brought into line after breaking the rules. These, more than anything else, are the things that they will take with them from this week. A congregation who knows that Christ has pressed himself into the center encourages these types of compassionate interactions, not only with children, but with all of God’s people. His compassion for us leads us to display the same urgent compassion for others, right up close.
I used to hear a song on the radio years ago called, “God is Watching us from a Distance.” The intention of that song, I believe, was to preach peace, to speak out against conflict and war and have us recognize our common humanity. Those are noble objectives, I suppose, but, as a friend of mine once pointed out, I’m not sure that telling us God is at a distance will ever achieve those aims, for a shepherding God could never lead from a distance. The God I have come to know—the God you have taught me more about—is the one who looks upon the scary, swarming mass of humanity and yet presses himself in among them, nonetheless. It is the God who continues to press in among his needy, hungry people in the form of bread and wine. God is watching us from a distance? Someone tell that to the children this week who learned about Jesus. Someone tell that to the people sitting in the hospital room, waiting for treatment. Someone tell that to the mob of 37,000 who will be led into the streets of New Orleans later this week. A God who dies on a cross is not a distant God.
Each time I used to hear that song come on the radio, I wanted someone to replace it with a recording of the 23rd Psalm, because I have come to understand that our God is in the crowd, close-up and with compassion. Tired, worn, and weary, but still reaching out and leading us to salvation. He’s holding high a rod and staff, pouring your cup so that it is running over. Goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of our life, and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.