Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A] - February 27, 2011 (Matthew 6:24-34)

“Therefore, do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’…or ‘What will we wear?’”

I hear that line in today's gospel lesson, and part of me now thinks, “Well, easy for Jesus to say.  He never had to dress two little princesses.”  Generally I’m not too concerned with what kind of clothing I put on my own body, but whenever Melinda puts me in charge of dressing our two daughters, Clare (4) and Laura (2 ½), you can almost see my blood pressure begin to rise.  A terrible sense of which flowery outfits go with what, coupled with a mild case of colorblindness and an overall cluelessness as to what their wardrobe options are all have the combined effect of causing me a great deal of anxiety every time it’s my turn to put clothes on their bodies.

When they were just infants, it didn’t much seem to matter what they wore.  I could just slap on any ole onesie and get away with it.  But now that they’re actually having to present themselves in public more often, my lackadaisical approach to apparel is not cutting the mustard.  How many times have I heard, for example, “Phillip, has Clare been wearing her dress backwards all day?” Or, “Phillip, did you realize that the way you did Laura’s ponytail makes her head look like the top of a pineapple?”  And then there was the time I apparently got so flustered with figuring out which pair of pants—excu-u-use me, I meant capris—went with which which appropriately-patterned top that I completely forgot to put on Laura’s diaper.  Melinda only realized it later when her lap got mysteriously wet.  I’ll be honest: It’s not like I’m losing any sleep over it, but I can stand there in front of their dresser and break into a sweat.  Yes, Jesus, I worry about what they are to wear…and something tells me this won’t be the last time this dad will face that anxiety.

And while I’m on the subject, I’ll throw in a confession for my worry about what I’m going to eat and drink, too.  I always like knowing where my next meal is coming from (just ask the Timothy Ministers who keep track of my snack schedules on youth retreats).  And if daily bread, like Martin Luther explains, means more than what we put on our dinner plates, then I worry a good bit about that, too.  I am concerned about clothing, house, homestead, good government, good weather, good friends, trustworthy neighbors, health, and everything else Luther lumps in there.  Like anyone else, I want to receive these things—in fact, I want to possess them—and am on edge when I think they may not be provided.

Who here, in fact,  hasn’t wished for something like the convenience of that giant green arrow on the Fidelity commercials on television—the one that magically appears, turning here, veering there, to form a clear, safe path into a customer’s retirement?  Isn’t that somehow what we’d all like to have, but for all of life: a clear, distinguishable guide that will point our footsteps down the sidewalk of the days ahead, assuring us not just of wise investments for the future, but peace of mind in the present?  If you think about it, it seems like whole sectors of our economy are based on the worry each of us harbors for tomorrow and for today.  Long-range planning, appropriately-balanced retirement portfolios, 529 accounts for the kids so they can step into adulthood on the right foot!  Couple that with our industriousness, and pretty soon it seems that the sowing and the reaping and the gathering is all we’re about.

And that is precisely the point that Jesus is addressing here.  We’re not all about those things—the sowing, reaping, gathering—nor were we ever intended to be.  Life as a disciple, to be sure, is about being continuously aware of God’s providence.  What we are to be about is focusing on the goodness of the Giver and realizing the needlessness of anxiety in the face of that goodness.

Yet this isn’t simply an admonition about the futility of worry.  It is about the dangers of serving two masters.  Jesus’ remarkably tender Sermon on the Mount pep-talk here is set in the context of his own concern that we would learn to place our trust in other things, things that actually may come from the Giver himself.  For Jesus knows that at some point our concern over life’s many material necessities can actually become worship of those necessities.  Jesus is aware that at some point our main role as receivers of God’s grace—even through basic things like food and drink and clothing and shelter—can be overshadowed by our status as consumers and producers of stuff. 

You may snicker at my bouts of worry when it comes to clothing my girls—after all, I do want them to look good—but we all, in some form or another, fall into the trap of serving two masters.  We like the security that all that daily bread provides, so why not nail it all down for the future if we can, especially in a time of such stubbornly high unemployment rates and skyrocketing gas prices?  The reason is because it eventually becomes difficult then for us to live as one of God’s disciples.  So focused on storing up treasure and fretting about the future, we never quite figure out how to balance allegiances between ideas of our own success and self-esteem and the life of faithful obedience to God.  The lilies of the field?  They’re never bothered by this competition between two objects of trust: they just sit there, oblivious to gas prices, praising God 24-7 with their delicate, ephemeral beauty.

Yet this gentle admonition from Jesus about wealth and worry is not permission for disciples to live with frivolity, as if none of that daily bread mattered at all, or that we shouldn’t devote some of our energies to thoughtful stewardship of God’s gifts.  Jesus never denies that each day won’t bring some type of trouble, some concern or grievance that could make it a challenge.  God knows we have needs.

Rather, Jesus words here are a reminder to live with God’s coming kingdom and its righteousness at the center of our vision.  As we look for the wisdom to live through each passing day, we realize the green Fidelity arrow of God’s kingdom stretches out before us—turning here, veering there—to provide us with the strength and courage to embody the love of our Savior, Jesus.  We stand in each moment, looking first to the places and times where God’s grace is breaking in...where the needs of others rise up before us, where suffering is taking place, where love begs for a chance to heal some wounds...and focus there.  It means we stand at the threshold of every opportunity for worry and anxiety and remember the cross; that is, we remember the supreme example of God’s good providing—that in the very moment when we thought all was lost, when the trouble of the day (not to mention the day after that) had consumed us and all our hope, we still had no idea what God the Good Giver was to have up his sleeve that Sunday morning.

You don’t have to be a pastor or some other caregiver in the parish too long to figure out that you hear a good bit of peoples’ bad news.  It can sometimes get a little overwhelming, walking with people in their grief, in their fears, in their dashed hopes.  However, it is also refreshing to serve alongside people like many of you who are likewise so confident of God’s grace, who may actually have plenty to worry about—you know who you are—but who still choose in most instances to praise God for his faithfulness and display commitment to God’s in-breaking kingdom.  It is inspiring to be in a community with so many folks who know we can make God’s kingdom and its righteousness our priority only because God has already, through the cross of Jesus Christ, made us his priority.

It reminds me of a meeting with one of my colleagues in Pittsburgh one day.  We were in a group, discussing plans for an upcoming confirmation camp, and we had just finished business and were wrapping things up.  As is the custom, we all reached for our daily planners in order to schedule our next meeting.  As my colleague’s daily planner flopped open to the new month we were then in, we watched him stop and pull a small, dog-eared and faded Post-It Note from the month before and stick it randomly in the middle of the calendar.  “Can’t forget that,” he said loudly to himself, and he took the side of his fist and pressed the Note firmly as if it were in danger of coming unstuck.

“Can’t forget what, Greg?” someone asked him out of curiosity. 

Somewhat bashfully, my colleague peeled off the Post-It Note and showed us all that it contained the words, “Love you, Dad,” in sloppy handwriting, followed by a simple smiley face.  “When she was home over Christmas break a few years ago,” Greg went on to explain, “my daughter saw my daily planner open on the kitchen table and she wrote this silly note and stuck it between two pages to surprise me.  It reminds me of her every time I see it.  She probably just figured I’d see it and then throw it away, but I like to keep it in here.  It’s become a kind of tradition: every time I turn the page to a new month, the first thing I do is take that sticky note from the old month and put it on the current month.  No matter what the month brings, that little note is there,” he said as he put it back.

 A cutesy little gesture, perhaps, but for me it symbolized a life grounded in grace rather than worry, a calendar centered on the words of Jesus to his stressed-out disciples: “Don’t worry about next month.  Don’t even worry about tomorrow. The smiley-face is on today.  That’s enough.  And strive first for the kingdom of God.”  Greg’s Post-It was a tangible reminder that each day is anchored in the good news of Jesus’ love, the reality that, as the prophet Isaiah says, God has us “inscribed on the palms of his hands.”

Mike, I can give you no pointers on how to dress Sarah Stuart.  You can do what I do and hand it all over to your wife, Leigh.  But both of you should take heart that today you’re clothing her in the only garment she’ll ever really need.  You’re clothing her in Christ, her Savior, who, you may say, has her name inscribed on the palm of his own hands.  With nails.  Worry about her welfare will never completely leave you alone, but today you’re fitting her with the promise that, even though you may not be there to provide for her every day, God yet will.

God yet will, and he will love her and will lay before her her own path, like a big green arrow stretching out before her—turning there, veering there at times, but always pointing straight to her Master in heaven.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany - February 6, 2011 (Matthew 5:13-20)

Moving to Virginia has deepened my appreciation for a number of things.  The amount of history, for example, that took place in this state can’t be beat.  Pivotal events at our nation’s birth and in the War Between the States happened on practically every street corner.  Jamestown, Yorktown, Monticello, Appamattox, Busch Gardens…the list goes on and on.  But it is not Virginia’s unparalleled contributions to American history for which I have developed the greatest appreciation.

Eight U.S. presidents, and four of the first five, hail from this fine Commonwealth—more than any other state—making Virginia the “Birthplace of Presidents.”  But it is not Virginia’s preeminence in producing leaders that has attracted my greatest attention.

Virginia has wonderful mix of both the mountains and the coast.  The stunning beauty of, say, the Shenandoah Valley and the rugged hills of the Cumberland Gap are matched by the pristine beaches of the Eastern Shore.  And I know beauty when I see it, because I come from North Carolina—the vale of humility—the only state in the union that outdoes Virginia in this department.  But it is not the topographical charms of my new home state that has brought about such admiration from this newcomer.

It is, rather, the preponderance of personalized license plates here.  That was, to be sure, the first thing I noticed when I moved from Pennsylvania.  In fact, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, Virginia leads the nation in what they call “vanity plate penetration rate,” which is the percentage of motor vehicles that bear personalized license plates.  Slightly more than 16% of cars registered in Virginia—that’s one out of every six—have license plates that have been specifically worded by the driver.  The next highest is New Hampshire at a measly 14%.  When Melinda and I first reported to the DMV two years ago, the thought crossed our heads that perhaps we might need a personalized license plate to fit in here, but in the end a lack of creativity and a desire for anonymity held sway, and the vanity plate did not penetrate.  I opted instead for XRY-6266, the plate that just happened to be next on the desk clerk’s pile.

I like slipping through traffic and into parking spaces in my otherwise nameless titanium gray hatchback.  It’s just a car: there are plenty of us out there on the roads, and there’s nothing about my vehicle that will call attention to itself.  But in the intervening time, I’ve come to develop an admiration for those vanity plates.  In a way, they spice up the commute, make waiting at a stoplight a little more interesting.  It’s nice to show up at church and park next to a minivan named “D TRICK” and contemplate the meaning of the mysterious “NO MONET.”  Standing for something, they stand out.  They add, you may say, a little seasoning to the ordinary task of driving.

I imagine that Jesus would have liked his disciples to go about with personalized license plates.  In a way, he requested that they do, but not necessarily on their mode of transportation.  Jesus wanted their lives to be seasoning and preservation for the road of life.  His desire was that his followers would stand for something, standing out by the way that they lived.  “You are the salt of the earth,” he said, as he addressed the crowd of followers in the sermon on the Mount.  “You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill could not be hid.”  No nameless titanium gray hatchback here, no random number assigned from the desk clerk!  Jesus knew that his disciples should be known, far and wide.

salt harvest, Bolivia
Like salt, which added flavor and preservative qualities to the food it touched, Jesus’ followers bore the ability to bring out the best in the human race.  Their Christ-like peacemaking and humility would be able to transform those with which they came into contact.  Like a lamp, which would never be lit and then shoved under a bushel basket, those claimed by his kingdom would shine with a righteousness that exceeded that of the law-adoring Pharisees.  Like a city on a hill, their relationships with one another would be a beacon to travelers in the wilderness.  In fact, Jerusalem, with its temple, was a city on its hill.  Jesus knows his followers will be a new mount Zion, a living, breathing Jerusalem that will be home to God’s own Spirit, blessing the world with promise of salvation. Nope, no anonymity here, like salt that has become useless, flavorless granules, or a covered-up candle.  Jesus’ followers would spice up and light up the whole planet earth with good news and good works that would signal to everyone that a Father in heaven loves and extends mercy to all.

 At each baptism, we light a candle and hand it to the baptized or the baptized’s parents and repeat part of Jesus’ words to his followers. “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  It is a fitting way remind us all that those who have been claimed by Christ are to lead their lives in a way that reflects the grace of God’s kingdom.  That is, the word about Jesus’ death and resurrection has been spoken to us; we cling to that in faith and then show that in our words and actions.  It is a powerful message to convey at the beginning of a Christian’s baptismal journey.  But what has always struck me about this passage about salt and light is that it was originally addressed to a community, an assembly, not to an individual, which is how we often take it.  “You yourselves are the salt of the earth,” is closer to what Jesus said.  If he were from certain parts of Virginia, he might have said, "'Y’all' are the light of the world."

At this point, Jesus has just finished talking about those whom the world typically throws under the bus: the poor in spirit, the meek, those who practice mercy, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, of all things—and he has said, surprisingly, that, in God’s kingdom, those are the ones who are blessed.  Those who are pure in heart, those who practice peace, who are taunted and mocked and thrown in jail for the sake of God’s cause—those are the ones who most embody the righteousness God always had in mind for God’s people.  This was the essence of the entirety of God’s law and the words of the prophets.  What could not be accomplished by the countless efforts of Israel through the years was now going to be fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth and bestowed on this ramshackle group who follows him.  It is those people, gathered around him on that mountain that day, gathered in the various catacombs and underground worship places for fear of persecution, who hear, “You—you guys, y’all—you are going to embody these peculiar blessings of the kingdom—and that makes you, ramshackle following that you are, the light of the world.”

I wonder if the church still understands this about itself today?  We take it to heart as individuals, perhaps, but what about as a community?  Do we understand our light-giving qualities, our duty as earth-preservers?  Do we toil and give witness as a loose assortment of religious individuals, people who think about God and show up on Sunday mornings here and there to do it together, or do we nurture our collective witness more wholesomely, by practicing, let’s say, peace and humility among ourselves?  Do we lift up the importance of our life together, as Jesus so clearly does?

A major study in 2010 on religion in America conducted by The Barna Group, an organization considered to be the leading research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture in this country, reveals some interesting themes.  One of their overarching findings, in fact, was that the “influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.”   While, historically, the contributions of Christianity to society have been prevalent, people of faith in modern times seem to be unable to identify, even for themselves, the ways in which Christian faith makes a difference on the world.  The obstacles Christianity faces nowadays, the study suggested, had little to do with the content of Christian faith, or its styles of preaching or worship or public relations, but how Christians implement their faith in public and private.  The rushed, frenetic pace of the American life, the overpowering effect of busy schedules and sound-byte media have whittled to a minimum the type of reflection that faith’s integration requires.  “In a society in which choice is king, there are no absolutes, every individual is a free agent, we are taught to be self-reliant and independent and Christianity is no longer the automatic, default faith of young adults, new ways of…exposing the heart and soul of the Christian faith are required,” the study said.

The point of the study, I believe, was not to give people of faith more ammunition for railing against the prevailing culture, something that is all-too-easy for us to do.  Followers of Jesus do have the responsibility to call the world’s values into question from time to time, but the power of our witness is not in our ability to break apart and cut down or slash and burn.  It is in our capacity to shine—not just as lone rangers, but as a group, as a communion.  Jesus instigates us, in surroundings both harsh and inviting, to wear that personalized license plate and to touch the rest of the world with our life-saving selflessness.

St. Andrew's United Church of Cairo
I confess that I have not been able to concentrate fully this week on the witness of our community here like perhaps I should.  As the events of unrest and possible revolution unfold in Egypt, many of my thoughts and prayers have been with the people of Cairo and those in my internship congregation there, the tiny but fiercely salty St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo.  St. Andrew’s began in the late 1800’s as a Scottish church, but has been served by ELCA pastors and supported by our denomination’s offerings for most of the past  half-century.  It has survived every other major outbreak of upheaval in that country, steadily tending to its gospel tasks, and we have no reason to believe it will not survive whatever is happening now.  The ELCA staff in Egypt, including the pastor, have all been evacuated, leaving the small congregation and its vibrant outreach to Muslim and Christian refugees to fend for itself a while.  Unnamed perpetrators, armed with semi-automatic weapons entered the church compound this week and fired a round or two, demanding money from those who were there.  I have faith that, buoyed by prayer and the tenacity of a minority people who’ve learned to live in a rough and tumble city, they’ll be fine.

 I am thankful God showed me so much that year about the church’s role to be salt and light, to live by Christ’s righteousness alone.  It has helped me to be able to stand in this pulpit each week and look out at you not simply as individual flames of potential, flickering one-by one, but more as a glow, together, with the power to light up much more than an outdoor Christmas display.  For it’s not just your license plates that have won my appreciation, but your own unique saltiness in the ways you take care of and support one another and spur each other to bear the faith into a world that is different from Cairo, but no less oblivious to the message of peace you bear.

I fear that the studies and the researchers and the statisticians will continue to bring us what we will perceive as bad news.  We can hear the threat of decline and wring our hands, shuffle our feet, claim the world around us is going to hell in a bushel-basket.  We can drive around this place anonymously, as in a titanium gray hatchback, trying to slide in here and there without notice, going with the flow, all the time losing our saltiness and dimming our light.

Or we can shine.  We can shine, all of us—the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the meek, the mercy-needers as well as the mercy-givers—we can shine so brightly that others will see Christ’s great work in us and have no choice but to give glory to our Father in heaven.

Thanks be to God!                                                

 The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.