Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C] - January 24, 2010 (Luke 4:14-21)

A story is told of a married couple one Sunday morning. The alarm goes off to get ready for church, but only the wife gets out of bed and begins to get ready. After she comes into the bedroom from washing up and dressing, she sees her husband still lying in the covers, trying to go back to sleep. Worried that they’ll be late, she shakes him and says, “Honey. Wake up. We’re going to church, remember?”

He rolls over and with sleepy eyes and says, “Aw, I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to sleep in instead.”

Disgusted, she tries again: “Honey, we have got to go to church. Now get out of bed and get dressed. There’s no sleeping in.”  Again, her husband shows no signs of getting out of bed.

He says, “No, sweetie, I just don’t feel like going to church today. I don’t like the service, the sermons are boring, and, what’s more, I don’t like the people. I can’t stand being around those people.”

His wife looks at him and says with much determination, “Now get out of bed!  You are the preacher and that whole congregation is expecting you to be there this morning!! And I don’t want to hear any more of it!”

What exactly do you expect when you come to worship? In fact, why are you here this morning? What type of experience are you hoping to have, or are you hoping to have one? What words are you expecting to hear? Are you expecting the type of experience that the Israelites have in our first reading today, who weep with emotion as the priest Ezra reads God’s law to them? Suffice it to say, our answers to those questions might be as numerous as the people in this room. They might range from the most self-serving of reasons to the very altruistic.

Such questions are rumbling through my head this morning because I bet that the folks who showed up at that synagogue in Nazareth to hear the Word of God never in their wildest dreams expected to hear what they heard that morning when Jesus rose to read from the scroll. Never in their wildest dreams did they roll out of bed on that Sabbath to hear that that day’s reading of Scripture had been fulfilled. Never in their wildest dreams did they show up for worship with the expectation that God would be bringing his kingdom’s gracious climax to completion in their very synagogue. To be sure, faithful members of the house of Israel had long hoped for the Messiah, the one anointed by God to lead the people in glory, but I’m fairly confident none of them in Nazareth ever expected a local townsman to have the audacity announce it right then and there. Had they expected it, I surmise every last husband and wife—young and old, and everyone in between—might have set the alarm clock and found reason to be there that morning.

When first-century Jews gathered on the Sabbath, worship and prayer was centered on the readings of Scripture. The Hebrew Scriptures, at the time, already pretty much looked a lot like our Old Testament. They began with the Torah, or the Law, which were the first five books of the Bible There were books known as writings, which included some histories of ancient Israel as well as some wisdom literature like Ecclesiastes and Job. Their book of prayers, known as Psalms, was included. Then there was the collection of prophets’ writings, which included the writings of people like Jeremiah, Amos, and, of course, the great Isaiah. All of these Scriptures were recorded on giant scrolls, and each synagogue usually had its own set.

During worship, a scroll was removed from its housing and unrolled in front of the assembly. Different people took turns reading from an appointed portion. The readings were usually followed by periods of teaching and prayer. You can see that early Christian worship had its origins in Jewish worship practices. The doughnut-eating portion was added much later.

So, on that particular Sabbath day Jesus goes into the synagogue, like any other ordinary, faithful Jewish man. (Luke tells us it was his custom.) Jesus stands up to read—like any other ordinary, faithful Jewish man—and they hand him a scroll from Isaiah. It happens to be one of the most beloved parts of the scroll, the segment in the sixty-first chapter where Isaiah highlights what God’s kingdom will be all about. It is the part where the prophet lays out the best, most hoped-for visions of God’s deliverance of his people: good news to the poor and oppressed, release to the captives, sight to the blind and the year of the LORD’s favor. And this vision is furthermore so special and revered because its words are delivered on the lips of God’s anointed, the holy servant of the Lord who will see to it that these things are brought about.

This, incidentally, is the portion that Jesus gets to read, and he hands back the scroll when he’s finished and sits down. Apparently he reads it with such commanding authority because we’re told no one has drifted off into daydreaming. Or maybe their rapt attention is a sign of how tightly gripped they are by that particular Scripture. In either case, “the eyes of all in the synagogue are fixed on him.” They can’t take their eyes off him. Will they weep with emotion?

Then, the bombshell: “Today,” he says, “in your hearing, this Scripture has been fulfilled.” It’s not “Here ends the reading,” or even , “the word of the Lord: thanks be to God.” Jesus’ audacious conclusion to the reading announces, without a doubt, that the year of the Lord’s favor is now. Release is proclaimed to the captive now. The oppressed may go free now. And good news is brought to the poor now. No more waiting. No more wondering when and where God will act in this surprising and gracious way. Right then and there, in that backwater synagogue, what appears to be a plain, ordinary man is claiming that the hopes and dreams of entire generations of Messiah-waiters have been fulfilled as he reads that very Scripture. God’s holy kingdom is beginning. And the only logical conclusion to make, then, is that the plain, ordinary man who delivers such an announcement must be the one whom God himself has anointed to begin it.

A great danger in the Christian faith is to downplay this idea that something glorious and audacious is happening in the life of Jesus Christ. All too often, I find, we come to our places of worship with the sense that we will get something out of the experience, that this whole enterprise of prayer and singing hymns and reading words from the Bible is designed to solely to edify us in some way. I, too, slip into thinking that church, that gathering with the assembly of God’s people, is somehow about me and my needs. And, to an extent, it might be. God certainly provides an abundant life for God’s people, one where the poor are given good news and where the blind are given sight and the one captive to sin is released.

Yes, God is in the business of providing and giving, but participation in the worship and ministry of the community into which we were baptized is never really about us, but about what God is doing in Jesus Christ. As audacious as it sounds, it is from him and his life, alone, where we receive the forgiveness that sets us free, where the world gains the sight to cure its blindness, where the poor hear the news that they have not been forgotten. Even though they lay buried in the rubble of an earthquake, they have not been forgotten.

In his ingenius little book called Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes to a fledgling Christian community that is struggling to be faithful amidst the worsening cultural landscape of Nazi Germany. At one point he states,

“It is not in our life that God’s help and presence must still be proved, but rather God’s presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ. It is in fact more important for us to know what God did to Israel, to His Son Jesus Christ, than to seek what God intends for us today" (Life Together, HarperSanFrancisco, 1954, p54).

I imagine those words kind of fall a little harshly on a faith expression that is a little too self-centered. Nevertheless, the wide-eyed Nazareth townsfolk on that regular, ordinary Sabbath are presented fact that which we need to hear again and again: that the life of faith is not about wondering how God fits into my life but how does my life fit into God’s. It’s not as much about considering the ways Scripture applies to our busied lives, but, rather, about considering the ways in our busied lives might apply to God’s story. It’s not so much about figuring out how God is a part of what is going on in your life or my life or our life, but about praying how we might be a part of what God is doing in Jesus Christ for the sake of this world.

Some people may claim this is semantics, that I’m just playing with words, but I maintain there’s a big difference. Ben Larson, the twenty-five-year-old Lutheran seminarian who died last week in Haiti as he was serving in an orphanage, wasn’t trying to fit God into his life. I didn’t know Ben, but I have learned enough about him from his friends and from reading about his life in the last days to know that he was there, serving among the poorest of the poor, because he was learning to fit his life into what God was doing in the world. He was there, on a short trip before his final semester before he’d become a pastor, helping to set up the Lutheran church among the people of Haiti when the walls crumbled in on him, along with the hundred thousand others among whom God was and is striving to work. Although he, like many others, was taken too soon, Ben Larson serves as a witness--even in his death--of what it means to show the world that Jesus has announced the year of the Lord’s favor.

Come to think of it, this is what’s at the heart of this metaphor of the body in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. We are a part of a body. None of us is a body unto him or herself, as if a body could function all as an eye or entirely as a foot. We are a body, and Jesus is the head that moves us. This image runs roughshod over the idea that we are somehow the center of the world and God’s kingdom needs to edge its way in.

And, so, the guiding question becomes not “where does this all fit in with me?” but rather, “where do I fit in?” It’s not “What part does God play in my life?” but “What part am I to play?” It is the question that guides the life of that young, seemingly ordinary man who has the gall to stand up in his hometown and claim the Scripture pertains to him. “Where do I fit in?” It is essentially the question that eventually will take him to the cross, where he becomes most determined to live a life dedicated not to the will of his own self-interest, but to the will of a God who has promised to set the captive free, to give sight to the blind, to proclaim that this year is the year of the Lord’s favor.

“Where do I fit in? What part do I get to play?” These are the questions that confront the faithful at Epiphany Lutheran Church, because this morning they know God moves and works. This very morning they sense it—that even they are claimed in this ordinary man’s mission to begin God’s kingdom anew. They can sense it! They have a role to play with all God’s people, for on this morning, this very morning, in their hearing, the word has been fulfilled!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Second Sunday of Christmas [Year C] - January 3, 2010 (Jeremiah 31:7-14 and John 1:1-18)

My wife and I have a running joke between the two of us about an additional wedding vow she made me take. In addition to promising her my love and faithfulness as long as we both shall live, she also made me vow that wherever we lived, I would find a way for her to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers. Oh, you may laugh, but I’m not sure you’re aware how important the Steelers are to a person from western Pennsylvania. At least I wasn’t aware of it until I lived there. The tradition of gathering around the television set on Sunday afternoons to watch the men in black and gold is central to what it means to hail from that area. It has to do with the demise of the Steel industry and the sudden loss of thousands of jobs and a whole region having little but a successful football program to cling to. Melinda knew that, as she became the wife of a pastor, there would likely come a time when she no longer lived in her home territory of Pittsburgh. She would be a member of the Steeler Nation-in-exile. As much as a Steeler fan may love living somewhere else—as Melinda and I do Richmond—the sight of the men in black and gold swarming across Heinz Field can take them back to the place they will always consider home. And so part of my duty is to provide this bit of comfort and consolation. Little did I know that the Redskins’ market share in Richmond would make it so difficult for me to be a faithful husband in this regard.

A former boss of mine from North Carolina spent a good portion of her young adult life in Florida. Even though many people would consider Florida part of the south, she still found herself seeking comfort and consolation from the things of home. Every time her family came to visit, she required them to smuggle in case of North Carolina-brewed Cheerwine, which she then carefully rationed out until their next visit.

Exile is really no laughing matter, especially if you’re in it. The one thing that brings comfort and consolation more than anything else is the thought of going home, the vision of being reunited with that place you belong. Nobody could tell you that more than the prophet Jeremiah. He had seen God’s people, the Israelites, repeatedly turn away from the life of promise that God had laid out before them. He had seen them forsake a society of justice and compassion in order to be like the other corrupt, military powers around them. And he had watched them become ransacked and rampaged by the armies from Babylon that came streaming across the desert as God’s judgment on them. The Babylonians had pillaged their villages, looted the treasuries and desecrated the holy Temple. They had killed by the thousands. And those who were left over were rounded up and carted off to live in exile in Mesopotamia, thousands of miles away. They had no one to promise them access to the things they loved or smuggle in reminders of the land they left. They only have the words of prophets like Jeremiah to guide, chide, and offer instruction.

So, imagine, if you will, the comfort and consolation they hear in Jeremiah’s words from the thirty-first chapter:

“See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back…

For the LORD has ransomed Jacob,
And has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.”

The homecoming God promises them through Jeremiah’s words is bursting with such joy that young women break into dance and the men young and old make merry right there on the path home. They crack open the cans of Cheerwine and festoon themselves with Steelers gear. God has spoken, and the Word is good. He is bringing them home, and they shall be radiant over the Lord’s goodness, radiant over God’s generosity and grace towards them, radiant “over the grain, the wine, and the oil.”

Even though, in their case, the prophet Jeremiah concludes that it is their own waywardness that led God to scatter them into exile in the first place, their exuberance is not tempered one bit. In fact, this little fact perhaps amplifies it. God, who had first allowed the opportunity for Israel’s self-destructive behavior, is now going to reverse those ruinous effects. Where once they had been scattered by God’s hand, now God was showing them undeserved mercy and grace. Their life will be like a watered garden, and they will never languish again (v.12)

That this text from ancient Israel’s history is appropriate to the message of Christmas should be no surprise to us. In the person of Jesus Christ, God has brought us home. In the Word made flesh, God has brought us back to where we belong, and, as the prophet says, redeemed us from hands too strong for us. In the only Son begotten from the Father, God has gathered each human being from farthest parts of the earth, the darkest corners of sin and self-centeredness, and returned them to himself. It is a perfectly natural fit, as Jeremiah says, “proclaim this message to the coastlands,” because Jesus is our final and full deliverance from the exile. One early church theologian claimed that “the Incarnation is the most blessed and joyful thing that could have happened to the human race” (St. Isaac, in The Orthodox Way, Bishop Kallistos Ware, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, pg 70). God chooses, out of his love, to identify himself with his creation by becoming human and bringing us to the only true home we have: a life in reconciled communion with Him.

In a few days Melinda and I will begin packing up our Christmas decorations, part of which are a few nativity scenes. Like many of you, we like to bring out the nativity scenes at this time of year. I’ve been quite impressed with how the nativity scene out front here at Epiphany changes from week to week, the different characters slowly making their way to Bethlehem. I’m also quite impressed with how well they can withstand the wind. I came to church this week and huge gusts of wind had the wise men practically on their backs before the baby Jesus, like his glory was blowing them down.

But it has occurred to me that at Holy Week or Easter we never unpack and set up our nativity scenes. Or, we rarely see anything like Calvary scenes or Empty Tomb scenes, little depictions of Jesus’ death or resurrection. Can you imagine it? One could be made relatively easily: the cross, the two criminals on either side, Mary and John standing by with a few Roman soldiers. You could even have Joseph of Arimathea, the man who took Jesus’ body and buried it, standing off to the side. The disciples could be facing the other direction, so that the wind would blow them away from the cross, full of denial and fear. A Calvary scene would be easy to set up, yet we never see them, though, ultimately, that is what God’s incarnation means. Because the Word takes on flesh and lives among us, God opens God’s self up to the whole gamut of things that happen to human flesh. He is not just born and set aside Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. He also grows up, suffers pain and, in the end, his flesh dies and begins the decomposition process. Yet, miraculously, God raises his Son’s flesh from death three days later. God sees to it that his begotten Son will redeem us from all the hands that are too strong for us. God sees to it that his Son will go the length of all our self-imposed exiles, no matter where they lead, to bring us home.

What are the hands that are too strong for you? What is it that is holding you back from a life of true communion with God? Hear the word proclaimed to distant islands: God has redeemed you. In Christ, God brings you home to him, where you belong. Be radiant. Grace abounds from this God whose Word becomes flesh to live among us and save us.

Today, little one-year-old Ashley Grayson Mays sees the end of her own exile as she is united to Jesus, the Word made flesh in the waters of baptism. It has been a big day for her as she sits there in the first pew along with three other generations of her family, all of whom have been nurtured in this congregation’s family. Denise and Chris, her parents, are members of a Lutheran congregation in Ohio, but they chose Epiphany for their baptism because of the strong family connection here. Her great-grandparents are founding members. In that sense, you may say Ashley has been brought home. But in a larger sense, Ashley has been brought home to God today. As she is claimed by Christ and marked with his cross forever, she receives the promise of a life when God will always be with her. No matter which path her life takes, no matter how far away she wanders, no matter how distant she may end of feeling God is to her, she has the promised that Jesus has really ended her exile of sin. God has broken her free from all the hands that will be too strong for her.

This is the promise we all have in baptism. It is the promise God bestows on creation with the news of the birth of the baby in the manger. It is cause for great celebration! Be radiant over this good news, over the the lengths to which God goes in Christ to have us back, over the distance he travels to end our exile! The Word becomes flesh lives among us! Make yourselves radiant over this Table’s grain, over this wine, and this oil of anointing! He has brought us home! Young women, dance! Men, young and old, pass the Cheerwine around and make merry!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.