Monday, December 27, 2010

St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr - December 26, 2010 (Acts 68--7:2a, 51-60)

“Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen...”

That lesser-known Christmas carol about a Czech king from the tenth century is most likely how most of us have heard of St. Stephen, (and, for that matter, King Wenceslas). Coincidentally, the next line of the song goes like this:
“When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.”

It seems to be a common occurrence—even in Virginia—to have snow lying round about on the feast of Stephen, which is the day after western Christmas. People might find it a bit perplexing, if not jarring, that on December 26th, one blessed day after the celebration of Jesus’ birth—when we are presumably still glowing with joy and peace from hearing the story of what happened in Bethlehem—we commemorate the death of St. Stephen, one of the church’s first deacons and the very first recorded martyr of the church.

It does seem a little odd, I suppose. Stephen was stoned to death out in public, quite a contrast from the serenity of the manger birth. Stoning was a horrible way to die. People picked up rocks and pelted someone with them until he or she died, usually of internal injuries. While they did this, they typically shouted insults. This is the image with which we are presented one blessed day after Jesus was softly laid by his mother in the hay and the angels and shepherds gathered around in adoration. It’s not that we have anything against Stephen or that he died for the faith, for that matter, but maybe we need a little down-time after Christmas before we dive into all that heavy stuff.

Stoning of Stephen, Saint-Etienne-du-Mont

But whether you are fazed by the juxtaposition of these two seemingly contrasting commemorations or not, one point needs to be clarified: St. Stephen’s Day is not placed after Christmas. Rather, it is the other way around: the celebration of Christ’s birth has been placed on the day before the day to remember St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr. You see, no one knows exactly when Jesus was born. Christmas did not officially end up on December 25th until the beginning of the second century, and even then that was only in churches of the western traditions, of which we are a part. Eastern strands of Christianity retained their Christmas celebrations on January 6th or 7th, the original date of Christmas, and still do to this day. The commemoration of St. Stephen, on the other hand, appears on some of the earliest Christian calendars on either the 26th or 27th of December, which leads some historians to believe that December 26th or 27th or some date around here may actually be the date Stephen was martyred. So, with that in mind, we end up with the strange and perhaps startling conclusion that before Christians were celebrating the birth of Christ, they were commemorating the deaths of their saints!

It is in the deaths of the baptized—whether they were martyred or whether they died peacefully from natural causes (but especially if they are martyred)—where we find the pinnacle of their witness to Christ. At the point when this life ends, one’s faith can cling to nothing else but God. At that moment, the hopes and fears of all their years are thrust into God’s hands in the hope that Christ, the one person who has triumphed over death and the grave, will call them to eternal life. For those in the early church, this was extremely important. Birthdays were rarely mentioned or cared about. It was one’s date of death that spurred those still living to look to heaven. Stephen’s last words in this morning’s lesson from Acts, as the stones come raining down, testify to this: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Not only does he cling to Jesus as he dies, but he also sees it as a chance to testify.

The word “martyr,” in fact, actually means “witness.” Someone who is killed on account of their faith gives the utmost witness to that faith’s hope. Stephen’s martyrdom was the first recorded martyrdom in Christianity. He was the first person to die because of Jesus’ resurrection. If I were an early Christian, or even if I had been hurling those stones, you’d better believe that would make an impression on me—watching someone refuse to back down from this assertion that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. In fact, that should have an effect on any Christian living today. One of my colleagues once called this “St. Reality” day. Perhaps so: confessing faith can lead to hard times, even death in some cases. And so we continue to commemorate St. Stephen as one way of reminding us of this reality.

The Stoning of Stephen, Annibale Carracci (1603-04)
Other than being the church’s first martyr, Stephen was also one of the church’s first deacons. What was a deacon? Well, we learn from Acts, chapter 6, that a conflict was arising in the early church over the distribution of alms and food to widows in the church. The widows of Greek descent were complaining that the widows of Jewish descent were getting a greater proportion of food and financial assistance. Therefore, the disciples gathered the believers together and hammered out a way to deal with the problem. They decided to appoint seven people and entrust them with the task of keeping the church books accurate and making sure that the money that was being collected for the needy was being distributed fairly. Those seven were called deacons, a Greek word that means, literally, to “wait on tables,” or “to serve.” Stephen was one of those original seven deacons, which essentially makes Stephen one of the first people to get pressed into serving on Church council. For that alone we should remember him and say, “God rest his soul!”

Stephen was active in the early church and helped it spread and grow. He is described repeatedly as a man full of grace and power and filled with the Holy Spirit, doing great wonders for the people. However, almost as soon as Stephen is chosen as deacon, he is arrested and brought before the council of the synagogue because of what he is saying about Jesus and about God. He is asked by the high priest about what he is preaching, and Stephen responds with a long sermon which basically recites all of the history of Israel, from Abraham all the way through Moses and the prophets, giving testimony of how God had been calling them to faithfulness. God has a long legacy of loving the people of earth. In fact, God’s is the longest legacy in the universe of loving humankind, yet his people continually have a hard time recognizing and responding to that love, instead choosing to worship other false gods and going their own way. The people get enraged at what Stephen says to them (he calls them stiff-necked, which is what Moses had also called them) to the point that they throw council procedure out the window and drag him out of the city right there and kill him.

There is a lot we may observe and remember from the account of Stephen’s martyrdom, but one of the most critical things worth noting is how sin and evil must resort to lying in order to make gains in this world. It is not by accident that the first question that used to be asked at a person’s baptism was, “Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises?” They’ve changed the wording a little bit in the new hymnal, but for years that was the question put to a person who was being baptized. It was way of acknowledging that the only way the devil can advance his agenda is to make empty promises and spread deceit about God and what God has done for creation. The truth is that God has the longest and best legacy of love and justice in the history of the universe. Stephen speaks the truth as he knows it, that Jesus is the lone Righteous One who answers God’s call of complete and utter faithfulness without fault, even to death, on behalf of all people. Yet each time Stephen speaks, this truth is confronted with profound lies and falsity.

When he first starts to preach and do wonders of the truth in verse 11, this truth about God kicks up some protest. They stand up and argue with him. Then, as the scene continues, more lies. His accusers secretly instigate—that is, the start rumors—that Stephen is blaspheming. Then a little later we learn false witnesses are set up to bring charges against him before the council, even though when they look at him they see the face of an angel. Eventually, after his long, truth-filled speech, the accusers actually cover their ears in order to keep the truth out. Sin must lie and attempt to cover our ears in order to deny the reality that God loves the world and calls it to faithfulness. Sin must resort to lying and diverting attention and covering ears in order to drown out the truth of yesterday, that the word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.

Cologne Cathedral
And we, even we who consider ourselves so faithful—we who love to reminisce about the birth of this Jesus—even we can and will forget this wonderful reality from time to time. We can just as easily hold the stones in our hands that will listen to the lies and try to silence and stifle the love God has for creation. C.S. Lewis, the British writer who converted to Christianity in adulthood, once said, “A true Christian’s nostril is to be continually attentive to inner cesspool.” By hearing both the story of Christ’s birth as well as the stories of the saints who lived and died telling of that truthful love we can keep our hearts open to God’s power to cleanse our inner cesspools. It helps us remember that, like it or not, this is where our Lord’s birth leads us: to public witness of his love. The biggest lie that sin will tell us is that we are to keep it private, an inner cesspool of still, silent devotion. 

Therefore, let us know what deacon Stephen knew and exuded from his personality, full of grace and power: that Christ, the baby born in Bethehem is faithful for us, even through death. Just as we may still be imagining Mary and Joseph gathering up their helpless son and cradling him in safety, Jesus gathers us up and pulls us from the lies and deceit of the world—and of ourselves—and holds us to him like a mother hen holds her baby chicks. Just as Stephen looked up to see the glory of God, with Jesus standing at God’s right hand, we are promised that one day we will see him thus.

For now, see this truth in the wood of the cross, and taste it in the bread and the wine. Feel this truth in the water splashed on your head at baptism. Sing this legacy of love in the hymns of the church, and pray this truth with the might of Stephen, deacon and martyr.

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace,
Hail the sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glories by,
Born that we no more may die.
Born to raise each child of earth
Born to give us second birth!
Hark! The Herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Merry Christmas!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year A] - December 19, 2010 (Matthew 1:18-25)

‘Twas the sixth day before Christmas, and all through the city
Everybody was stirring to make sure things looked pretty.
Stockings were hung and Christmas trees trimmed.
Candlelight brightened while daylight’s glow dimmed.
Wreathes on the doors and inflatable Santas on the lawn
Proclaimed the news that the special day would soon dawn.
The frenzy to get out and string up some lights
Gave purpose and urgency to December nights
While some folks decked the halls in more subtle ways
Others gave new meaning to the term “Tacky Light displays.”
Blinking and flashing, from treetops festooned
And, of course, synchronized, and to a radio tuned.
With garland and tinsel, greenery real or plastic.
The point was to make ordinary things look fantastic.
Amid the bleak gray of winter atmosphere
Stood colonies of snowmen and moveable reindeer.
The shopping malls, too, were a sight to remember—
Nevermind that the decorations had been up since September—
Their glitzy and glamorous holiday fashion
Was a mood-setting trick so you’d spend with a passion.
For those who preferred displays of a more religious kind
Noticed that nativity scenes were not hard to find.
Drivers on Horsepen enjoyed the decoration
Set up by one particular Lutheran congregation.
Their display was more subdued. But not to be outdone,
They used life-size figures that could be moved one-by-one.
And almost as mysteriously as the Word became flesh
The shepherds and wise men crept their way to the crèche.
Yes, from Southside to Ashland, from Churchill to Glen Allen:
Christmas by the bushel. Yuletide cheer by the gallon.

The brightness and gaiety of the outside décor
Was matched by attention to detail indoor.
With ribbons and garland they carefully set their tables
With as much precision as they strew lights on their gables.
Brown paper packages tied up with strings?
Try bright-colored wrapping paper and glittery things!
Gingerbread houses and mistletoe sprigs,
Poinsettia plants and frasier fir twigs.
Decorations both outside and in went to show
The holidays were about making everything just-so.
Tradition and custom dictated the season
Every bauble had a story; every ritual a reason.
Whether the model was Clark Griswold or Currier and Ives
The conventions of Christmas consumed many folks’ lives.

But in that congregation with that moveable nativity
The worshippers shuffled in for their weekly activity.
With Kevin playing organ and Pastor Chris leading
They had just settled down for one last Advent reading.
The lessons they heard spoke of hope and salvation
From Isaiah’s pronouncements to Paul’s Rome salutation
But the Scripture that ignited the most imagination
Was the story of a man in a sticky situation.
Like their own custom-dictated Christmas condition
This fellow lived in times that were bound by tradition.
People knew that God’s statutes were part of God’s call,
And what was lawful and righteous should be followed by all.
Like boundaries and rules to a game that is played
God’s law for his people could never be swayed.
To say nothing at all of sin’s power to ensnare
The law was their assurance of God’s constant care.
Ever since those long days of wilderness wandering—
When they’d had plenty time to do some good pondering—
God’s people had known that his covenants contained
The discipline and wisdom for their life to be sustained.
From the mouths of the prophets and announced from each steeple
It was God’s way of dwelling in the lives of his people.

And this Joseph knew, as a humble young man.
He obeyed the commandments, trusted God had a plan.
Matthew calls him righteous—a high honor, indeed—
Which was a way of saying he let God take the lead.
We can trust, for example, he had his ducks in a row:
First betrothal, then marriage, then children in tow.
The contract had been signed, both families were ready
To support and provide them a life that was steady.
So imagine, then, friends, what he first must surmise
At the discovery of his fiancée’s pregnant surprise.
The law was clear in what justice dictated:
An adulteress would be stoned; the contract negated.
Life would go on. Joseph’s family would recover,
And no one would ever know Mary’s mysterious lover.
There was one more option: to call it off neatly.
A judge could be found to annul the marriage discretely.
A righteous man would bend backwards to prevent a big show,
And Mary’s transgression would be kept on the down-low.

So Joseph went to bed with the firm resolution
That a private dismissal was the most respectable solution.
But that night he had dreams as he tossed in his bed
Not of visions of sugar-plums—but of an angel instead.
A messenger from God gave him news of a birth
That would bring hope and salvation to all of the earth.
This child was the one on whom history had waited
To initiate the promise they’d anticipated
From that day when Satan had first conquered and won
Influence and power over everyone.
His name would be Jesus, which had rich connotations
For in his native Hebrew that meant “Savior of Nations.”
From sin’s dark corruption he’d set them all free.
And, redeemed by his love, God’s people they’d be.
So all this good news came to Joseph by dream
From an angel who’d been sent by the one God supreme.
But the biggest shock to Joseph’s ears—we can assume—
Was that this child was the babe in his fiancée’s womb!
She’d not been with a man, as it had been perceived,
But the Holy Spirit was the one who new life had conceived!
Mary, it turned out, had not been an unfaithful mate;
Rather God had chosen her, and this was her fate.
And thus the angel’s message as Joseph tossed in his bedding:
“Righteous one, do not fear. Go ahead with the wedding.”

"The Dream of St. Joseph," Rembrandt (1650-55)

So Joseph woke up with a whole different view.
What before was no option was now the right thing to do:
To marry a woman who would soon bear a child
And shelter her, guard her and keep her undefiled.
And the son to be born would be in Joseph’s protection.
He’d care for him too, and give him direction.
Though that child, as God’s Son, would be Savior of Nations
And belong, like no other, to the whole of creation,
Joseph would be the one who’d teach the child how to grow,
How to talk, how to work, and other things he should know.
The result of that dream was a whole future changed
Joseph’s own hopes now altered, his life rearranged.
As Joseph had learned when he had his decision resolved,
One can have things just-so…and then God gets involved.

And that was the message to those Lutherans that morning:
God can surprise with his grace and change your plans without warning.
For, you see, Joseph’s challenge was to adjust to God’s word
Receive it, believe it, and trust what he heard:
That God had now chosen with his people to dwell
Not as law, nor as temple, but as Emmanuel.
And by that we mean human—not a statue of stone—
But flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.
As true God and true man Christ invades this dark sphere
And announces God’s kingdom to folks far and near.
In Jesus God ventures forth into dangerous new lands:
To risk to being born and putting his life in our hands.
With a true Son on earth, God meets us face to face:
A divine participation with the whole human race.
God is with us, not remote or removed,
But in life and in death, as the cross has now proved.
God is with us. From this the believer derives
That in Jesus Christ God takes up space in our lives.
You see, Joseph was not making room for a concept,
For a doctrine about God, or some religious precept.
Joseph’s life was rearranged on account of a person,
And no amount of reasoning or wishing or cursin’
Could alter the fact that God’s grace would come down
And grow up and live as a man in his town.

That, my dear friends, is the real Christmas scandal,
On which, try as we may, we never get a handle.
For the thrust of so many of our holiday preparations
Is just about conjuring vague contemplations
Of beauty and love and the virtues of giving
Or the charity of others that make life worth living,
When really, like Joseph, we should concentrate on receiving
And guarding the Savior of Mary’s conceiving.
And instead of making sure everything is just-so,
We should hasten to his table, his mercy to know.
God’s presence among us is not some ethereal notion,
Or well-intended habits of religious devotion,
But in a particular person in a particular place
With particular parents and a particular face.

So both inside by the hearth or out where others can see it,
And if Tacky Light displays are your thing, then so be it…
Guard your traditions and customs, and the holiday things that you do
But most of all, guard this babe and see what he grows up to do.
And when Christmas often seems like a foregone conclusion
The news “God is with us” becomes a welcome intrusion.
When, what in our wandering lives should appear,
But a God who in mercy and compassion draws near!
His name is Lord Jesus, as Joseph was told,
And in his living and dying God’s love we behold.
Where two or three are gathered, we are promised he’s there.
And we’re equipped as his Body his message to share.
We live peace on earth, show good will to all men.
Thanks be to God! Merry Christmas! Amen!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving Day - November 25, 2010 (Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and John 6:25-35)

A few years ago, self-described agnostic and humorist A.J. Jacobs spent a year trying to take the Bible literally and then wrote a book about it. Jacobs, the editor-at-large for Esquire magazine and author of three New York Times bestsellers, grew up in a Jewish household that was only nominally religious. He claims that he had always been drawn to his culture’s Holy Scriptures, and wondered if taking it word-for-word could help him reach some of his own conclusions about religion and maybe even his own faith. The following is a portion from his entry on Day 84, where Jacobs explains his attempts to keep Deuteronomy 8:10, an injunction in the Hebrew Bible to give thanks.

Jacobs writes:

“In Deuteronomy, the Bible says that we should thank the Lord when we’ve eaten our fill—grace after meals, it’s called. Christians moved the grace to the beginning of the meal, pre-appetizer.

To be safe, I’m praying both before and after.

Today, before taking my lunch of hummus and pita bread, I stand up from my seat at the kitchen table, close my eyes, and say in a hushed tone: ‘I’d like to thank God for the land he provided so that this food might be grown.’

Technically, that’s enough. That fulfills the Bible’s commandment. But while in thanksgiving mode, I decide to spread the gratitude around: ‘I’d like to thank the famer who grew the chick-peas for this hummus. And the workers who picked the chick-peas. And the truckers who drove them to the store. And the old Italian lady who sold the hummus to me at Zingone’s deli and told me ‘Lots of love.’ Thank you.’

Now that I type it, it sounds like an overly earnest Oscar speech for best supporting Middle Eastern spread. But saying it feels good. Here’s the thing: I’m still having trouble conceptualizing an infinite being, so I’m working on the questionable theory that a large quantity is at least closer to infinity. Hence the overabundance of ‘thank yous.’ Sometimes I get on a roll, thanking people for a couple of minutes straight—the people who designed the packaging and the guys who loaded the cartons onto the conveyor belt. My wife, Julie, has usually started in on her food by this point.

The prayers are helpful. They remind me that the food didn’t spontaneously generate in my fridge. They make me feel more connected, more grateful, more grounded, more aware of my place in this complicated hummus cycle. They remind me to taste the hummus instead of shoveling into my maw like it’s a nutrition pill. And they remind me that I’m lucky to have food at all. Basically, they help me get outside of my self-obsessed cranium” Jacobs, A.J., “By the Book: An Experiment in Biblical Living” in The Christian Century.  Vol 124, no. 21, October 16, 2007  pp26).

Getting us out of our self-obsessed cranium: words of thanksgiving wisdom from a person who isn’t even convinced there is a God. It is a simple concept, really—opening ourselves up to “spread the gratitude around”—but one that is somehow difficult to remember and do. Perhaps that’s one reason why God essentially commanded his people Israel to perform acts of thanksgiving: so they would be reminded that they didn’t just spontaneously generate in the Sinai desert. In fact, they were once slaves whom God delivered to a life of freedom. In fact, they were once slaves who longed for a taste of plenty.

Our Old Testament reading for this national day of Thanksgiving is from that same book of Deuteronomy. We hear how God directs his people upon their arrival in that land of freedom and plenty to take some of the first fruits of the harvest from that land and put it in baskets and offer it to the priests for a group celebration. That is, before they partake of any of their hard-earned harvests themselves, and before they store up for any lean years that may lie in the future, the Israelites are told to set aside those precious first fruits—those cucumbers and those melons and those sheaves of wheat that have sounded so delicious after 40 years of manna—not for individual consumption, but as an offering to the Lord and to each other, together with the foreigners in their midst. What they are to say to the priests who receive their offering of first-fruits is key to this whole ritual of thanksgiving. God gives them the words; they don’t even have to worry about making up their prayers pre-appetizer.

And what exactly do they say at this annual Feast of Weeks, as it came to be called? Put simply, they recite their story. They say—and I paraphrase—‘God, we finally made it to this great place, here to the freedom and the plenty. We did not get here on our own strength. You brought us out of Egypt with your own deeds of power. And you have been the guide of this great journey and the giver of this great land. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ One may think that a pre-scripted “thank you” is not genuine, but as Jacobs and the Israelites were sure to learn, a “thank-you,” no matter how it comes, intends to get us out of our own self-obsessed craniums and connect us, not simply to the world around us, but to the One who surrounds us with plenty.

It is a fitting model for us on a national day of thanksgiving. A disproportionate share of the world’s resources pour into the United States each year. And our country continues to receive and resettle a large portion of the world’s refugees and immigrants.

America is not the Land of Canaan, and our system of government does not rely on divine mandates, but as people of faith within this country, we can frame our thanksgivings in the pattern of those forefathers and foremothers in faith. We can remember that our God is a God of abundance, who connects us through his providence in ways that we don’t often recognize when we’re just shoving this plenty into our maws.

Furthermore, we have received our blessings not merely because of our ingenuity and resourcefulness, but on account of the blessings God has given to the entire world to share and steward. As people who learn to spread the gratitude around, we can be challenged to give to God our first fruits of time, talent, and treasure, knowing that God has provided for us this far and certainly intends to take care of us hereafter. We are people who open up our mouths to give thanks and our hands to give back and share so that the world may know that gifts of God are not scarce.

That is what is so revolutionary about this command from Deuteronomy: that is, the giving of first fruits, not what is leftover in the granary and orchard floor. Together with the re-telling of their story, this ritual was not just a thanksgiving for the past, but also a pledge to look into the future and see it as hopeful, continually blessed. The act of taking that first batch of crops which finally came up from the soil, after long weeks of planting and farming, and dedicating it to God for the good of the community suggested a confidence that God would surely provide additional batches which could be enjoyed and consumed and saved. By remembering and thanking in this manner, we, as members of the overall most affluent country, can help transform the world to think this way. With even the foreigners and strangers in our midst, as well as the families whose ancestors may date back to the Pilgrims, we give thanks to a Creator who does want us not only to be able to acknowledge our inherent connectedness, but also to know his guidance of us through the years.

But lest we forget that there really is enough to around, and lest we forget that all land is really intended for the good of everyone…

And lest we forget that God looks upon us as redeemed people of one skin and blood…

And lest our fighting and our quarrelling and our hoarding consume us and drown out the voices of praise and thanksgiving...

Then may God then remind us again that He has gone one step even farther than we’d imagine and given humankind the greatest gift yet—the life of his own Son. God has not left himself out of this cycle of giving and receiving nor withheld himself from the grinding dead-end of hoarding and wasting. On the cross, God has lived our forgetfulness, himself, and in Jesus Christ suffers the full portion of our greed and selfishness, and yet still provides us with forgiveness and love.

Before the priests, the ancient Israelites offered their first fruits of grain and grape in the hope that God’s future they would never go hungry. At our table of sacrifice, we receive the bread of life and cup of salvation, with the promise that we will never go hungry and never thirst for that which we truly need. He has been our help in ages past and will our hope for years to come.

We receive this life from our great Giver—the first fruits of the resurrection—and we remember our story, which leads from our sin…to the table…to the cross…to eternal life. We remember our story as beloved children of the Most High—“it is he who has made us, and we are his” (Psalm 100:3) —and let loose with our overabundance of “thank you’s!”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 28C] - November 14, 2010 (Luke 21:5-19)

I confess I still have not changed the digital clock in my car to Eastern Standard Time. Each time I get in and glance at the dashboard I do a little double-take, but I’m usually too much in a hurry to root through my glove compartment, find the owner’s manual, and figure out the correct instructions for pressing the specific radio buttons that will move the time forwards or backwards. I suppose I’ve become somewhat spoiled in this twice-yearly time-toggle because almost all my other timepieces update themselves. The clock on my computer, for example, and the clock on my cell phone—the two places I check the time most regularly—are synched to some satellite up in the heavens that sends a signal without my knowing. The one beside my bed is easy to change—and I must change it—for it contains my alarm, but the car clock is stuck in Eastern Daylight for no other reasons than laziness and forgetfulness.

However, I have noticed this week that looking at those misleading dashboard digits makes me pay a little more attention to time and to its passage—even if it is for just a few seconds—before my mind wanders elsewhere. I am a little perplexed, for example, that we are still calling this “Standard” time, even though it is accounts for less than five months of the year. I wonder if I’m actually getting done in each day now that the extra hour of sunlight has shifted to the morning, or has my productivity changed at all? While I clearly don’t need the car clock to give me the correct time, I admit that I don’t exactly ignore what it tells me, either.

Time and its passage are no doubt on the minds of Jesus and his disciples, too, as they wander through the crowds on the streets of Jerusalem—crowds that are a little larger than usual due to the upcoming Passover festival. Things, in fact, are getting tense, down to the wire. Groups like the Sadducees, the elders, and the chief priests, who all vie for control within the Jewish religious establishment, have been stepping up their challenges to Jesus and his disciples. The Roman army’s presence is felt more keenly here in the capital city, and the ritual surrounding the temple has become corrupt. In Jerusalem, home of the mighty temple, the disciples encounter a confusing compilation of politics and religion and power and money that no doubt lead them to question the times. Jesus has just been hailed as the new king. What is about to happen? For what has Jesus led us here? When exactly will God bring his kingdom to fulfillment?

Their questions in this morning’s gospel passage come as a result of Jesus’ comments about the temple. He claims it will be thrown down: "Not a stone will be left upon another.” Such a thought would have been difficult to fathom, I’m sure. The temple that Herod the Great had constructed and renovated was enormous and fantastically ornate. Wealthy people and nobles had decorated and furnished it with all types of liturgical trappings dedicated to the glory of God…new hymnal dedications, altar supplies, Christmas poinsettias…it was magnificent. The temple embodied, in the mindset of many, the epitome of God’s splendor, as well as humankind’s dedication to that splendor. It was constructed to look permanent and to be permanent, just as God’s presence and power was permanent.

And so, for Jesus to assert that it would fall and soon be indistinguishable from a pile of rubble was quite a statement. It suggested that God had other plans far beyond this building of stone, that God had designs elsewhere…but where? Such an assertion also meant that the world as the disciples knew it then, in all of its complexity and certainty, was not to remain. Somehow this temple was not going to represent God’s finest hour, or even the finest hour of God’s people. And so, then, the natural worries about when it all will happen: “How do we switch our clocks, Lord Jesus, to this new Standard Time?”

If only the answer to such a question were located in our glove compartment, buried, as it were, in the pages of the owner’s manual! For centuries Jesus’ words about the next epoch in God’s reign have confounded the faithful. Certain Christian groups have for years studied on these chapters and others like them in order to divine the end of the world and when it will occur. They’ve even instigated certain world events (the Crusades come to mind) in an attempt to tip God’s hand.

Yet, as Jesus reminds his disciples—as Jesus reminds his disciples twenty-one centuries later—God’s time, kairos, does not work like that. God’s time is not like chronos, the type measured minute-by-minute, chronologically, by some satellite in the heavens or the watch on your wrist. Kairos is altogether different and is more like the kind of time that guides two people who are falling in love to know the right moment at which to say“I love you” for the first time. You cannot and should not try to predict God’s kairos, God’s perfect timing. You cannot and should not pin it down, measure it, or pour it into an hourglass. God’s time is not like clock time, and although in the coming days many will try to convince us, Jesus says, with fancy calculations that they have figured out the precise hour when God will bring all things to their conclusion, those people will be wrong. The flow of time and the consummation of history are ultimately in God’s hands, never ours.

Even if this fact doesn’t require us to change our clocks, so to speak, it does call for a certain change in mindset. For one, we are not to have fear. Nations will rise against nation, and there will be volcano eruptions during the president’s visit to Indonesia, and there will be earthquakes in Haiti followed by plagues of cholera, and it will seem at times like the earth is shaking on its very foundations, but don’t be led into terror, Jesus says.

But even more fearsome than cataclysmic world events will be the suffering that lies ahead for Jesus’ followers. As people of faith attempt to live out his words in a world that is hurting, misunderstanding and persecution will ensue. Some folks may even be hauled in front of tribunals and courts and thrown in prison. Some will be rejected by family members, but none of this, Jesus implores, should be a cause for anxiety. Rather, it is a cause for giving testimony. Such events will give the faithful a chance to point to God as the real source of security. Times of suffering and persecution provide the opportunity to become not a wall of resistance or a door to be locked but a window to God’s grace.

That is the change in mindset: that when the world starts to hate, the Christian sees the chance to speak love. When the world frets and threatens, the follower of Jesus practices courage and compassion. In moments of anguish and conflict, Jesus will provide you with what you’ll need to say, if anything at all. “Not a hair on your head will perish,” he says (a comment which carries more meaning for some people than others!) “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” That is, we will learn that the life lived in Christ is the life that cannot ever be taken away.

Some of these apocalyptic words of Jesus may strike us as too foreign, too “chicken little.” I suspect many modern minds don’t really know what to make of them. Yet, at the same time, I think we all can recognize the conflict or tension at the heart of the Christian faith to which they allude; that is, followers of Christ learn to be and interact with one another in a way somehow different from the rest of the world. We have been claimed by grace and we live by the Holy Spirit. We know by faith that God’s new beginning began at the cross of Jesus and that our lives point to a time beyond us…that kairos time beyond the destruction not just of the temple, but of all vain things human construct.

Followers of Jesus know that they living within this tension where we know God is victorious, and we know death has been conquered, and we know that loves wins in the end, but that it is not always evident by what we see and what we experience. There will always be, therefore, a temptation to withdraw from the world, or to predict the day all the evil will burn, or to threaten with violent words and actions those who don’t seem to be on our side. However, the mindset we are to take within this tension will take its lead from Jesus who did not withdraw from others, but who engaged the world in love. It will be an opportunity to testify, to be a part of the wondrous effort that changes the world to live on God’s good time.

That kind of stuff is so easy for a pastor to say, though. Obscenely easy. It’s comfortable and cozy here from up in this pulpit as I coach you to be calm in the face of trial and loving in the threat of danger, to view your persecutions out there your workplaces, in your schools, in our mission field, as an opportunity to testify. The students who attended Middle School Bible study this week reminded me of that. Our topic was cheating in class. We got into a pretty lively discussion about it, and I dare say that I would never want to face one of them in a debate tournament! They’re extremely bright and quick on their feet.

After a while, however, the discussion took a very serious turn when we began to talk about what it would take to change the culture of cheating that they confront in school today. The students in the Bible study informed us in no uncertain terms that in taking a stand for personal integrity, for example, they’d be up against the whole social scene at school, a scene that favors certain in-groups with power and status. I heard their fear of being hauled before a tribunal of their peers, laughed at, mocked, shunned for following rules. And yet, I know that they can handle it. I know that they already take on injustice and dishonesty—I know that they have learned the language to name them and confront them—I know that they are honing those responses of love and faith in the midst of suffering because I see glimpses of it in our life together here.

I find comfort in thinking that’s how Jesus speaks to us in this passage. He speaks to us, you see, from far beyond the trials of youth and adolescence, far beyond the trials of betrayal and denial by friends. He speaks to us from beyond the hospital bed, beyond the tears of sorrow and grief. Jesus speaks to us from beyond the cross. He speaks to us from the promise of an empty grave, that time when, once and for all, the whole of creation will be synched up to God’s great timing in the heavens—great glory, hallelujah!—and for that we wait and we testify in hope.

The incorrect time on my car clock is slowly getting annoying, but I must say it has at least one helpful effect. Even if only for a second or two, it makes me think that it’s later than it really is. As a result, I press on to my destination even quicker. There is a slight spring in my step, an urgency to my mission. I press on, a bit more firmly, my eye set on a time in the future.

That’s good practice, I suppose for these last days, when it is probably later than we realize. We keep pressing on. We keep on keeping on. And by our endurance we will gain our souls.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reformation Day - October 31, 2010 [Romans 3:19-28]

Apparently the thing to do nowadays is to hold a rally. Specifically, if you want to whip up enthusiasm for your cause and restore something to the center of the political or social landscape, just reserve some large public space and rally people. Yesterday, for example, in our nation’s capital, comedians John Stewart and Stephen Colbert held their Rally to Restore Sanity and/or March to Keep Fear Alive. Authorities will likely dispute the number of people who showed up to take part in an event that was both silly mockery of current political discourse as well as serious statement on certain political positions, but suffice it to say the National Mall was crawling with people who were there to rally.  Stewart’s and Colbert’s rally was, of course, a response to the Tea Party’s Rally to Restore Honor—held in late August—which likewise attracted untold thousands to Washington, D.C.

So, if rallies are the thing to have, today, Lutherans the world over—more than 70 million of us!—will hold their Rally to Restore their Lutheran Identity. In Wittenberg, Germany, where the Protestant Reformation unwittingly got kicked-off 493 years ago to this day, townspeople will dress up like Martin Luther and his wife, Katie, and hand out shrink-wrapped copies of his Small Catechism on every street corner. You’d better believe that in Lutheran congregations across the globe, the rousing strains of “A Mighty Fortress is our God” will be belted out, just as you can believe that worshipers will mutter under their breath about how they liked the version in the old red hymnal better.

photo by Meredith Sizemore
And at our congregation’s outpost here in the middle of Baptist country, you—yes, you!—can rally at our very own Reformation Fest after the service. Enjoy German food and root beer (since we can’t serve the real stuff), and try your hand at the “95 Theses Relay,” where competitors will race against each other in an attempt to nail copies of that epoch-turning document to a door that the property team has set up in the yard. Here we stand: it’s a real rally, folks—an annual event in the midst of a world that seems to know less and less what “Lutheran” is about. It’s all an effort to Restore our Lutheran Identity…a statement to ourselves, if no one else (sigh), that lutefisk-eaters and potluck dinner providers are alive and kicking in the 21st century.

However, when the last chords of the pipe organ fade away today, and the Lutheran-red blouses and vests are hung back in the closet to be worn another time, maybe Pentecost, we still might have failed to grasp the true meaning of this day and the movement of which it reminds us. For this is most certainly true: any celebration of the Reformation or commemoration of Martin Luther’s criticisms of the Roman church in the early 1500’s is really a rally to restore the church. The Protestant Reformation did not occur to establish a particular group’s identity, or to declare theological supremacy, or even to found a denomination named “Lutheran” or “Reformed.” The Reformation happened as a result of an attempt by several church men and women to reiterate a message of God’s grace. They preached it from church pulpits, they discussed it over their family meal tables with their children, they stood in front of fearsome Councils and Diets to defend it, and yes, they even nailed it to church doors, as was common practice in those days for starting a university debate or posting a public notice.

The point of the Reformation was not so much about human identity as it was about the very nature of God and the crux of the news about his Son. As the apostle Paul puts it in his letter to the church in Rome, written roughly fifteen centuries earlier: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” That was it, in a teeny-tiny nutshell. Essentially it is very church-y, theo-speak that means this: no more working or buying or reasoning or even praying your way to God’s good favor. God gives it to us on his own accord. In fact, God heaps it upon us, undeserved, like a helping of German potato salad. In the loving arms of Jesus Christ, God accepts us freely and transforms us graciously to be his people and nothing this world can throw at us can ever change that. “For there is no distinction,” the apostle also says, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they [who have sinned] are now justified by his grace”—that is, made right, set free from sin, forgiven—“as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” A reiteration of grace.

These words of Paul can send chills of gratitude and wonder down our spines, but for Martin Luther, they struck across the page and straight into his soul like the bolt of real lightning that had initially sent him from law school to the monastery. Besieged for his whole life by the idea that he would never be able to satisfy a righteous God, and influenced by a religious system that had obscured the message of grace with all kinds of pietistic hoop-jumping and money-making evangelism strategies, Luther had convinced himself that God would never think he was good enough. Yet Luther realized after reading and re-reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, a central message that appeared again and again throughout Scripture: that through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God had indeed found Luther and declared him good. Christ’s faithfulness to the covenant, even to the point of death, had secured for all people the mercy of God.

Hugo Vogel, 19th c.
Although not at all a new concept, it was revolutionary. You could say it rallied the church, especially when the Pope’s representatives showed up in the towns of northern Germany in the early 1500’s selling indulgences to raise funds for a new cathedral in Rome. Luther and his colleagues didn’t have to work too hard to rally a reform of some of the church’s practices. And just as the Lutheran reformers’ efforts sought to restore God’s grace in Jesus to the center of the church’s life and message, the Reformation also underscored the importance of God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures, for faith. As the sole means by which people could come to meet and understand this Christ who died for all, the Bible served as the foundation for church reform. It became a Constitution, of sorts, for those who wanted to judge church doctrine and practice.

Much has been written about the socio-economic and geopolitical forces that enabled Luther’s reforms to go viral and, in the process, transform the western world, but we cannot forget that one of the main reasons that the message of the reformers spread so well and so fast was because one of the dominant questions people more or less seemed to be asking was “How do I find a gracious God?” It was certainly the main question on Luther’s mind, the monkey on his back, so to speak, that led him to those passages of grace: “How do I find a gracious God?” The answer came back, and resounds to us even now—in the Word; in the water of baptism; in the bread and the wine; and in what Luther called the “mutual conversation and consolation among the brethren and sistren”: in Jesus Christ, Our Lord.

I’m not so sure that is the dominant question that people, even fairly religious ones, ask these days. In a culture where more and more people describe themselves as un-churched or even agnostic, where denominational identity even among believers is on its last legs, and, most of all, where rugged individualism rules the day, I’m not so sure that many people ask “How do I find a gracious God?” I hesitate to speak for an entire cultural ethos (especially when I don’t dare speak for my family without first consulting with my wife), but I would venture to say that the dominant question people are asking today concerning faith is, “How is this relevant?” “How does this apply to me and what I’m experiencing?”

As I listen to the voices of both criticism and praise in faith and culture, and as I peruse Bible study curriculum for youth and young adults, that question appears to be the one that is forefront in people’s minds—articulated or not. I would venture to say that most people can find a gracious God, and maybe even recognize there is one to be met in Jesus Christ. But the prevailing sentiment is, “So what?” Like Sally, who upbraids Linus for enticing her out into the pumpkin patch to await the Great Pumpkin, folks these days are wondering “what’s the point?” I know that I, myself, am often bound to pose the same questions and wonder if it’s really worth missing the Hallowe’en party at Violet’s house to be drawn into the life of faith.

To make it worse, basic foundations to Christian faith can often come across like antiquated, superstitious, empty tradition. Bedrocks like the holy sacraments, regular Sunday worship and even the Holy Scriptures become more and more distant to a culture that upgrades and uploads to a faster, flashier, mode of communication every three months. It is so easy, in such a technology-saturated culture, to fall into thinking that the present is superior to everything that came before us, just as we expect, in so many ways, that the next-version-of-whatever will be more advanced than what came out last week. In many ways, it becomes difficult to adhere to the authority of ancient Scripture, despite the fact that it is a living Word.

That, I would suggest, is where our rallying comes in. As those who know they have been claimed by a gracious God, we rally to spread the news that the life of faith is really what keeps us alive. We rally to restore the church—not so much as placing it at the center of world influence but holding it accountable to the gospel. Yearly, weekly, and minute-by-minute this rally will continue as we reach into God’s Word and gather as his people for worship. Will Willimon, former dean of the chapel at Duke Divinity School says that the church “is never-ending training in learning to trust the Bible, learning to take ourselves a little less seriously and the Bible a little more so.” (William H. Willimon, Pastor: the Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry.  Abingdon Press, 2002. pg 125)

As we do that, as we strengthen our trust in the Bible, the body of Christ will need you to reach into your own story to find those theses—those points of meaning where grace has slapped you upside the head—and nail them to the front door of your life, for all to see.

And you will be relevant, if relevance is what the world wants so badly. Rest assured that we will be relevant because we will be introducing them to Jesus. We won’t be introducing them to a program, or an ideology, or even a wonderful congregation. We will be introducing them to Jesus, who is relevant—who dies to be relevant—and always will be in ways in which our sinfulness will often blind us.
“God’s Word forever shall abide, no thanks to foes, who fear it.

For God himself fights by our side, with weapons of the Spirit.”

Sounds like a rally cry, doesn’t it?
“Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse…

Though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day.

The kingdom’s ours. For…ev…ER.”

OMG! Forever.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23C] - October 10, 2010 (Luke 17:11-19)

You see, they were accustomed to shouting out. Declared by ritual Jewish law to be unclean, lepers—and all those stricken with any incurable skin disease—were not only to live alone and outside the city walls away from people, they were also to walk around shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” at the top of their lungs wherever they went to warn people of their presence. It was a humiliating chore, to say the least. As if it weren’t bad enough to be burdened with such a debilitating, disfiguring condition, a leper also had to bear the responsibility of reminding others how contagious they could be, what an outcast they were. When all they probably wanted was to fit in, to be one of the crowd, to be, at the very least, ignored and passed by—the leper was charged with constantly calling attention to his or her status as an ugly outsider. “Unclean! I’m a mess! I’m a reject!” they would essentially walk around saying. As much as anyone could get accustomed to such a thing, lepers were accustomed to shouting out.

So it would not have been that strange to be walking along the road in first-century Israel and happen upon lepers who were shouting at people. However, on this occasion, as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem, the lepers do not cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” Ten of them, in fact, clumping together at a distance like a pack of mangy, stray dogs in a borderland village between Samaria and Galilee, glimpse Jesus and his disciples and cry out for mercy. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Recognizing Jesus for who he is (the only non-disciples to ascribe this name to Jesus), these ten lepers heave their desire for mercy upon him. It is not clear from the passage whether their expectation was that they would be healed, or if they simply saw him as a source of alms. Nevertheless, Jesus tells them to go present themselves to the priests.
The priests in those days were like the gatekeepers of the community. According to Jewish code, priests could declare people clean and restore them to dignity and to human community. Still stricken with leprosy—and probably still shouting out to people on their path—the ten turn to go check in with the priests and on their way, mysteriously, they are cleansed, much like Naaman the Syrian who had dipped seven times in the River Jordan to cure him of his leprosy. Both Naaman and the ten lepers were asked to do something that didn’t quite seem effective in order to realize their healing. Go to the priests. “OK,” they shrug. On their way, they are healed.

And then they fall silent…finally! No longer infectious, no longer contagious, they have no need to shout out anymore. No need to cry out on the road, no need to remind everyone of their condition. No more shouting…except for one…one leper who returns, still shouting, still crying out, still yelling at the time of his lungs—yet this time contagious with praise and thanksgiving.

Each week either Chris or I stand in front of you as we prepare the table for Holy Communion and we have a little dialogue. “The Lord be with you,” we say.  And you respond, “And also with you,” as if there is something about Jesus that is catching, something that can be shared. Perhaps we should shout it?

Then we continue: “Lift up your hearts,” to which you reply, “We lift them to the Lord.”

Then we suggest, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” and you oblige: “It is right to give our thanks and praise.”

At that point either Chris or I, directing our attention to the one who has called us here, to the one who has given us new life, to the one who has healed us of sin time and time again, says, “It is indeed right, our duty and our joy, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks and praise to you, almighty and merciful God, through our Savior Jesus Christ.”  The green hymnal used the word “salutary” at this point, which I thought was helpful. “Salutary,” a seldom-used word these days, means, well, “helpful.” Beneficial. Good for us.

Well, whether or not we say “salutary” every Sunday in our worship we still participate in the very actions that single Samaritan leper demonstrated on that road to Jerusalem. Getting ready to share the bread of life and the cup of salvation, you and I have, in some sense, heard his shouting and contracted his infectious joy and thanksgiving. Down through the ages it has been passed along, from one cleansed sinner to another. He has declared us clean in the waters of baptism and set us free. We find ourselves responding to Jesus’ great mercy for us by shouting praise and giving our thanks. In fact, the words in Greek for this leper’s actions are doxazon and eucharistein, two words which may sound foreign to our ears, until when we think of the words doxology and Eucharist. Enthralled by Jesus’ mercy and thrilled to be healed, the leper forgets the priests and instead runs back to the feet of the one who healed him, shouting doxology and making eucharist as he goes. Praise and thanksgiving: yes, these things are right, they are a joy…and they are good for us.

One of our professors at seminary had a practice of carrying his hymnal with him as he left his pew to get in line to receive Holy Communion. Whereas most people, when it came time to stand up and follow the usher’s lead, stop singing the communion hymns, and lay their hymnal down to assume a more quiet stance in line, this professor would keep on singing, stopping only for the few seconds it took him to hold out his hand and take the bread. I liked the image: so filled with joy and thankfulness on the way to receive and give thanks to Jesus that his words of praise cannot be silenced. I have noticed, with happiness, that several of you sing at the communion rail as you kneel. It is an infectious action. That one professor, with such a simple gesture, spurred several other worshippers to think again about their attitude toward Jesus’ merciful presence.

Indeed, the experience of the one leper reminds us that not only is praise and thanksgiving really the first and best response to our Lord’s grace, but that before we can be sent out into the world with the news about Jesus, we must return to him in worship. Jesus’ shock at the ingratitude of the other nine does not mean their healing is revoked. After all, they did exactly what he commanded. But the one leper reveals the truest life of the sinner who has been redeemed: through this return in praise and thanksgiving we realize in our heart of hearts that, in the end, the only place we really can go to encounter God’s mercy is in the person of Jesus Christ, the one who hangs on the cross.

Christian writer Don Miller writes in his best-selling book, Blue Like Jazz, that “the most important thing that happens within Christian spirituality is when a person falls in love with Jesus.” He goes on to say, “I know our culture will sometimes understand a love for Jesus as weakness. There is this lie floating around that says I am supposed to be able to do life along, without any help, without stopping to worship something bigger than myself. But I actually believe there is something bigger than me,” Miller continues, “and I need for there to be something bigger than me. I need someone to put awe inside me; I need to come second to someone who has everything figured out.” (Thomas Nelson, 2003. p 237). Salutary.

And that all makes sense to me—the need to fall down and worship something bigger and more awe-inspiring than myself, the carrying my hymnal to Communion so I can sing my praise, the salutary effect this all has on my soul, but often it’s still as if only about a tenth of me, if that, actually succeeds in responding. I estimate that only about a tenth of my heart, my mind, my soul—a tenth, at the most—that sings with joy and praise when I know I can run to him on the road. For all the times I’ve been drawn into the wonder of praise and thanksgiving at the foot of Jesus, there are nine more parts of me that go elsewhere.  There are nine more parts of me that fall in love with something other than Jesus. But thanks to the actions of this one leper, I’d like to think Jesus is pleased with that one faithful part.

Earlier this summer a stray cat started hanging out on our porch. We thought he was a little sketchy both in appearance and behavior, so we kept clear of him. We made sure our daughters knew he was an unclean cat. But eventually he wore us down, and we finally fed him one morning. One bowl. That was all. He disappeared later that day and night, but the next morning, about the same time, that cat came back. And, of course, we did it again. We gave him more food. And again. And now every morning. Our girls, ages two and three, get so excited each morning when they discover he’s returned.
It never gets old for them, even here on day forty-three. It’s like they can’t believe it. You should see their faces. They are so happy that he has come back for more, as if he’s expressing his thanks.

I’d like to think that’s something like the look on Jesus’ face each times he sees us rounding the bend, bowled over as we are by his mercy, the hymnals of our hearts open wide, growing more and more accustomed to shouting out our cries for mercy or our songs of thanksgiving.

The Lord be with you!!!

And also with you.

Got it! Thanks. And thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21C] - September 26, 2010 (Luke 16:19-31)

Mark Zuckerberg has been in the news quite a bit this week. For those who might not recognize that name right off the bat, Mark Zuckerberg is the founder and CEO of Facebook, the online social networking site that now boasts 500 million users worldwide. Thanks to the overwhelming popularity of his internet creation, which allows people to share all kinds of personal information like photos and favorite news stories and imaginary farm equipment with the click of a computer key, Zuckerberg became the world’s youngest billionaire ever when he was only 23 years old. Computer genius, he is only 26 years old now and his net worth is $6.9 billion.

Zuckerberg made the headlines once this week because a quasi-biographical film of Zuckerberg and the genesis of Facebook, called, The Social Network, will hit the theatres nationwide on Friday. I’ve not seen the film, but it chronicles his rise to internet icon status as an undergraduate at Harvard. The subtitle for The Social Network is “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” It is a play on words that, unfortunately, only the Facebook in-crowd will fully appreciate, but the essential meaning is still there for everyone: those who are ambitious in obtaining status and wealth must often trample human relationships in the process. The film apparently does not portray Zuckerberg in a flattering light.

Be that as it may, Zuckerberg also made headlines this week as he announced a grant of $100 million to the impoverished school system of Newark, New Jersey. Citing his desire to see that all children get afforded the same type of education to which he had access as a child, Zuckerberg chose to shower his generosity on the Lazarus of today’s educational system: Newark’s schools have a 50% graduation rate and were declared a “failure” by the state government in 1995. That the same country could produce both a person like Zuckerberg and a school system like Newark’s is a reminder of the disparity of wealth and opportunity that beset all human communities.

No, we do not need Jesus’ lessons to remind us of the world’s haves and have-nots, but we get them anyway, especially in Luke’s gospel. Hardly a chapter goes by where Jesus doesn’t highlight the needs of the poor and oppressed and also draw attention to the excesses of the rich. The song that Mary sings in Luke’s first chapter should tip us off to this theme of poor versus rich. Reflecting on God’s incredible decision to use a young, unmarried virgin as the way for Jesus to come into the world, Mary rejoices, “God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” But of all the talk about the fate of the rich and the poor and where they fit into God’s kingdom, this parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke’s 16th chapter makes the point most vividly.

The Pharisees, who are the target audience for this parable, have endured Jesus’ teachings about money for awhile. Described by Luke as people who loved money, the Pharisees begin to mock and ridicule Jesus because he claims that one cannot serve God and wealth. Finally, Jesus resorts to telling a story. Where lessons and rhetoric often fail, simple stories with imaginative characters and dramatic plots often succeed.

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus
workshop of Domenico Fetti (1618/28)
This rich man was filthy rich. He is often named “Dives” (DYE-veeze) because dives is the Latin word for rich, and therefore the word used in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible for centuries. Dives dressed, for example, only in the best. “Purple and fine linen,” we are told, but we know the names—Oscar de Laurenta, Armani, Hollister. He ate everyday like it was Christmas or Thanksgiving. With the best cooks in the land at his service, no doubt, he never ate leftovers, even though he had them. Some might say that Dives “had it all,” but that would be wrong. That, in fact, was his problem: he felt he didn’t have it all. Once he had some, he realized there was always more, and so his life was built on this vicious circle of acquiring and acquiring…there was, in his view, always more to be had. Clothes, food, influence, Facebook friends…Dives could always use more.

Meanwhile, right out at the entrance to his neighborhood, where he’d practically have to trip over him each day, lay a beggar named Lazarus. If Dives was filthy rich, Lazarus was filthy poor…and I mean filthy. Not only did he have no food or money, but he was stricken with some awful skin disease and had no access to adequate health care, unless you count the dogs who would come and lick his open sores. He would have loved to eat those leftovers from Dives’ five refrigerators, but—alas!—Lazarus was invisible. No one really paid him attention as he sat there in utter anguish. Two people, living together in the same world—sharing the same property, even—but having completely different experiences with life. One is successful, living the high life, and the other is a low-life. Then they both die.

As Jesus tells the story, Lazarus doesn’t even get the luxury of a burial. Nevertheless, angels swoop down to carry him away and lay him comfortably in the bosom of Abraham, where most people would hope to spend eternity in that day and age. Dives gets a burial, but then finds himself in Hades where he gets tormented forever. Ever the opportunist, Dives looks up and says to Abraham (even in death choosing not to address the poor man directly), “Hey, Abe, this place stinks. Why don’t you send ole Lazzy-boy to get me something to drink?” Abraham informs him of the rules: there is a huge, unbridgeable gap between where Lazarus is and where Dives is in Hades and that’s that. No crossing. For any reason. Kind of like the short distance between the mansion and the gate which Dives chose never to cross in his life on earth, right? Abraham goes on to inform him of the reversal of fortune that Jesus has been mentioning throughout his ministry: the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty.

But that doesn’t stop Dives. He continues to bargain with Abraham, maybe for the first time thinking of someone other than himself. His brothers! Maybe if Lazarus were to go to them from the dead—again, he refuses to dignify Lazarus with a direct request—then his brothers would be warned against the perils of self-indulgence. And that’s where Abraham reminds Dives of what Jesus has been saying the whole time: this business of taking care of the poor and sharing wealthy with others is not a new concept. It has been a central message of God’s word through the prophets since the beginning of Israel’s history. Abraham’s final message to the rich man: even if someone were to rise from the dead, people will still be drawn to money and wealth and power more than they will be drawn to God’s Word. Even if someone were to rise from the dead, people will still be tempted to avert their eyes and their generosity from the Lazaruses who lie in their path.

Earlier this week I was driving out of a Wal-Mart parking lot and got stopped at a red light. There, beside me, on the median, sat what looked to be a homeless man holding up a sign asking for help. He looked dirty and unshaven, some words on his sign were misspelled, and he seemed to be nodding off to sleep, even though it was about lunchtime. I thought to myself, I could give him something now, but all I have is a little cash and he might not use it wisely.

As I pondered what his life might be and its juxtaposition to so many shoppers leaving a mall, I wondered at my own awkwardness at being so close to him. Why my mistrust? Why my shame? Why my judgment? I’m sure it had something to do with sin, but before I could rationalize anything, a car turning into the parking lot just on the other side of him stopped, bringing all traffic behind it to a halt. Down rolled a window and out popped the hand of a driver bearing a fast food bag. He called the homeless man over and handed him what I supposed was a hot meal. At that point the light turned green and I had to drive on, but not before I thanked the driver of the car (in my head, of course) for reminding me, yet again, that someone has risen from the dead.

It’s very easy, even in this country, to think that if someone is poor it somehow their own fault and the resources are there for them to remove themselves from their condition. It’s the stereotypical and unhelpful thought pattern that “God helps those who help themselves.” And this attitude exists not only in our time. Just as disparities of wealth have always existed, so have possible theories for those disparities, no matter how incorrect they may be. In Jesus’ day it was very common to think that if you were poor it was because God had punished you somehow, and that if you were rich, it was because you had done right and God had blessed you.

Yet before we turn these parables of Lazarus and Dives strictly into a lesson on social justice, a lesson on the economics of God’s kingdom, we must remember that Jesus tells this parable primarily to the Pharisees, who are lovers of money. It is Jesus’ sternest warning against the dangers of trying to serve two masters. The desire to have more and more quarantine us from the ability to help others and bring them joy in this life. We do not open our hearts and our gates and our car windows because we earn points with God that way, or because we want the comfort of Abraham’s bosom. We open our hearts and our gates and our car windows and give of our wealth—whatever that may be—because that’s how the world looks now that Jesus is risen Lord.

Maybe the world has always been a tale of the imbalance between the Zuckerbergs and the Newarks, but it mustn’t always be that way now that someone has risen from the dead. People of faith don’t have to fall into the trap of thinking that “this is just the way the world works out,” because we know it isn’t true. It never was, which is what Moses and the prophets were trying to make clear. But it’s especially not true anymore. Jesus has triumphed over all the powers of greed and selfishness, showing us that opening our lives to the Spirit of God makes us truly richer than any amount of money. The story of Lazarus and the rich man isn’t about the ultimate fate of the poor or the rich. If we get stuck on that aspect of the parable we are liable to miss the point. The point has more to do with the world that Jesus’ ministry has come to create, a world where the rich and poor alike are transformed by the gospel and, by the bye, realize their interconnectedness and rejoice in their responsibilities to each other.

This, then, is why Mary calls it good news that the rich and the satisfied, in God’s kingdom, will be sent away empty. This is why the gospel is good for both poor as well as the rich…because under Jesus’ reign even the money-lovers will learn what Lazarus and the rest of the poor already know: that God is our only help. In the end it will not be money, or fame, or a good education, or the right upbringing, or computer ingenuity that gives us the life that really is life. God alone is where we’ll find our hope, and for his vision of a world restored in Jesus we work and pray.

And that, as it turns out, happens to be the meaning of Lazarus’ name. The name Dives might mean “rich man,” but Lazarus, in fact, means, “God is my help” in the language of Jesus’ time. It is an ironic play on words that would not have been lost on the Pharisee audience. Isn’t that a clever piece to the story? The poor man’s name actually means “God helps me.”

As we look out in despair and confusion at the disparities in our world, and as we ponder our own place in it, may we not simply see Lazarus, but perhaps be him, too. In the wondrous light of the resurrection, may the risen Lord Jesus name us “Lazarus”: God is our help.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18C] - September 5, 2010 (Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Luke 14:25-33)


That’s the sound I believe you would hear if you were to hold this portion of Luke’s gospel up to your ear. It’s the sound of screeching tires from brakes being applied rather suddenly and forcefully, as when the road you are travelling takes a turn off to the side in another direction without warning.


It’s the sound of hundreds, perhaps thousands—no, make that millions of would-be disciples—stopping in their tracks to get their bearings and possibly re-calculate their route in Jesus’ footsteps. Like listening for the sound of the ocean inside a conch shell, if you hold this particular page of the New Testament—this specific admonition from Jesus--up to your ear, that’s the sound you can make out.

At least, I know I can hear myself hitting the brakes pretty hard when I hear these words about true discipleship. I don’t know about you, but I find myself almost instinctively backpedalling, my hand groping for some spiritual GPS device with which I could investigate possibilities for circumnavigating these unhappy obstacles.

It’s been a wild and interesting ride thus far. The demands of discipleship haven’t been too taxing, yet the rewards have been fairly attractive: the promise of a kingdom fulfilled, good news for the poor, the vision of a world released from captivity to sin! Discipleship has, for the most part, seemed relatively doable. That is, until now…until this point when our leader wheels around mid-step and seemingly lays it all on the line: following will mean, in fact, loving him above all else, carrying a cross, and—gasp!—giving up our possessions. Now it appears more might be asked of us than we originally thought, and if we are to re-prioritize and re-calibrate, it would be best to apply the brakes and think this through.

On the whole, we can’t blame Jesus’ for not letting his followers know what their in for. We can’t claim that this is a bait-and-switch approach to discipleship, and it’s good that honesty is the policy here. Yet, at the same time, doesn’t Jesus know that you attract more flies with honey than you do with vinegar? I mean, what kind of church growth campaign would this be, anyway? We hear stories about the decline of so many mainline churches in America, the dwindling membership numbers of our own denomination, and the rising statistics of those who say they’re unchurched. Wouldn’t it be better to highlight the fun aspects of following the Lord, if Jesus were to wheel around and remind us of the upcoming potluck dinners and the youth group Synod events? Does he really think being so blunt about the costs will make people sign up and follow?

Could you imagine, for instance, if this is how we introduced Henry Waller this morning to the waters of baptism? “Hal and Ally, do you realize what you’re getting Henry into? Do you know you’re signing him up for a good bit of suffering, introducing him to a way of thinking and living that will often have him at odds with the world? Are you prepared for him to learn to love Jesus even more than he will come to love you?? Happy baptism, everybody!”

Yes, perhaps better to downplay these aspects, Jesus, for fear we’ll all apply the brakes, and then never rev the engine up again! Like the Israelites in this morning’s passage from Deuteronomy who stand at the threshold of the Promised Land, looking over the Jordan, hopeful and yet chastened after forty years of wandering, the followers of Jesus face something like a decision at this point: Eeeerrrk! Life…or death. Prosperity…or adversity. Continue to Jerusalem with Jesus…or go back to whatever we were doing before.

Lutherans have long had something of an allergic reaction to anything that smacks of “decision theology”; that is, any understanding of Christian faith which suggests, in any way, that our salvation is dependent on our decision for God. Lutherans have typically chosen to proclaim all this the other way around: that salvation is ultimately based on God’s decision for us, that God never gives up on us, and his love is a free gift offered in the life and death of Jesus Christ who came to suffer and die so that sinners could be reconciled to God. In baptism, we have these promises, never to be revoked, and Christian life is about fashioning an authentic response to those promises. Yes, if there is a decision involved in securing our redemption, we would always choose to stress God’s decision for us so that the message of grace is loud and clear.

And yet, there is a sense in which some type of decision is expected from us at not one but at perhaps several points along the way. There is some need for an acknowledgement on our part, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we will join our meager forces with this kingdom coming. We will, in fact, commence to building that tower that Jesus mentions in his mini-parable. We will commit our armies to the battle. We will submit, that is, to the suffering that comes when standing up for justice and peace, and we’ll strive to view the world and our relationships with Christ at the center.

That’s what Jesus is driving at in his short but direct speech here on the road to Jerusalem. Without mincing his words, Jesus urges anyone who has an interest in being a disciple to weigh first what that means. This discipleship endeavor is not, as it sometimes appears, just another social service organization that goes about doing good here and there. This movement is not, as it often comes across, a club for fellowship and networking, or a historical society that propagates a certain heritage. The community of Jesus’ followers isn’t even about a certain kind of worship, a gathering of people who like to do little religious things together. Rather, Jesus calls real people to a real journey that has real demands.

Incidentally, a book on this particular subject has recently been published which is causing quite a stir in certain Christian circles. A review of it was even run on CNN this week. Entitled Almost Christian, the book is researched and written by Princeton Theological Seminary professor Kenda Creasy Dean. In it she posits, rather controversially, that many of the youth in Christian churches these days are not really Christian, having instead developed a “watered-down faith that portrays God as a ‘divine therapist’ whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.” Furthermore, Dean argues that many “parents and pastors are unwittingly passing on this self-serving strain of Christianity.”

To draw her conclusions, Professor Dean undertook hundreds of interviews of active church youth across the country and asked them about their faith, their lives, and what was important to them. She discovered that while they could talk with considerable nuance about subjects like money, sex, and their family relationships, they were surprisingly incoherent when asked to talk about their beliefs. Interestingly, Dean hypothesizes that this watered-down version of Christian faith that youth are receiving and hearing from pastors and parents is largely why youth are drifting away from the mainline churches. They recognize, on some level, that no demand is really made on them, that no challenge is really offered from this type of distant god, just as such a god steers clear of teenagers’ tough questions about life.

I can’t say that I have experienced her findings to be true about the youth I’ve worked with at Epiphany. After all, one of our youth members freely donated the cash gifts she received from her sixteenth birthday party to fund part of the youth group’s servant trip to South Carolina last month. Another one spent the last week of her summer running a day camp for inner city children in her own backyard, without compensation. What I found most interesting about Dean’s conclusions is her answer for teaching about the God we encounter in the gospel today, the God who sends his Son to suffer for our sake. She says that parents “who perform one act of radical faith in front of their children convey more than a multitude of sermons and mission trips.” Such an act might include, for example, turning down a more lucrative job offer to stay at a struggling church or spending a summer abroad working on an agricultural renewal project and then verbally connecting that type of radical decision to the life of faith. ("Author: More teens becoming ‘fake’ Christians.” John Blake on CNN.) In other words, it involves taking to heart the words about the rigors of discipleship, and deciding to head forward, deciding to embark, time and again, on that path of grace that God lays out before us in Jesus.

And somewhere along the line, I would say, we learn that it is actually quite worthwhile to follow…that even after we’ve hit the brakes over and over again, we discover that the fun we might be looking for really is found in sharing all that we have with others, in dedicating all our worldly possessions—indeed, our very lives—to the cause of something far greater that our pastime or our own personal glory. Somewhere along the way—and as a Lutheran I would say at innumerable points along the way—we do decide that crossing over Jordan, for all its scariness and all its sacrifices, is still the only path worth taking, the only land worth occupying, for through it we truly enjoy the life God desires for us, a kingdom that is eternal.

And also along the way we discover, to our shock, that it isn’t vinegar Jesus has used to invite us into the life of discipleship. No, my friends, it isn’t vinegar at all, but its far sweeter cousin, wine. With bread and wine, placed out upon a table surrounded by the very fellows who slammed on the brakes in betrayal and denial, Jesus offers his own self and God’s own forgiveness as his eternal pledge of help and salvation. And this gift has been given, it turns out, as a part of a growth campaign: your growth…your growth into a life that is prosperity, a life of radical growth around every bend in the road. It has been given for you, Henry…and for all of us.

One question for us to ponder, as we sit there with our foot on the brake pedal: will we take it?

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.