Sunday, November 25, 2012

Christ the King [Year B] - November 25, 2012 (John 18:33-37)

Note: November 25 is also the Commemoration of Isaac Watts, hymnwriter. Watts paved the way for non-biblical poetry to be used in English hymnody. "Joy to the World" is perhaps Watts' most well-known hymn.

One of the pastors at my home church when I was growing up was a big Elvis fan. I think I remember him even grabbing a guitar a time or two in front of youth group, curling up his lip, and crooning “Don’t Be Cruel” in a believable imitation of Elvis’ voice. This pastor even went so far as to tell people that it was his dream to start up a new Lutheran mission congregation in Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Mr. Presley. He had it all planned out. There was going to be a black velvet painting of Jesus on the cross hanging on the wall behind the altar, and the pastor’s vestments would be studded in a conspicuous amount of rhinestones. There would, of course, be a full-time gospel choir in the chancel. The best was his plan for the name of the congregation: “The King of Rock” Lutheran Church, or something borderline-sacrilegious like that.

Everyone always laughed along with him when he’d share this crazy plan, especially when he shared that name of the congregation, but we were never quite sure if he was serious or not. His funny obsession did point out one thing, for sure: Americans don’t really have many references for kings, do we? I think if you asked most people on the street, “Who’s the King?” they probably would answer, “Elvis Presley.” Other than that, most of our experiences with kings have been the cartoon ones in Disney movies. I know I live with two little girls who often dress up and act like princesses, but, let me tell you, that doesn’t make me a king. In my castle I usually feel more like the court-jester. No, we don’t know what to make of kings. As one of my colleagues put it this week, the last time Americans had an experience with a real king was over two hundred years ago and it wasn’t exactly positive.

King Hubert and King Stefan from Disney's "Sleeping Beauty"
So, as we close out one church year and get ready to begin another one, what are we saying, then, when we claim that Jesus, the Christ, is king? This is something we must deal with when we take Scripture seriously, for it appears throughout the entire Bible, and is even, at times, alluded to by Jesus himself. While sometimes we might wish for him to be presented with a title or form of authority that is a little more accessible to our particular day and age—say, Christ the President, or Christ the Secretary-General—we must still wrestle with the fact that the God of the entire universe chose to come to a particular group of people ages ago who happened to use kings and monarchies as their form of earthly power. Therefore, the language of Jesus’ ministry and his very life are bound up in talk about his royalty. But what kind of royalty, exactly? What really are we saying when we say that Jesus is king?

We are not the only ones who trip up on that concept. Pontius Pilate, as it turns out, does not really know what to make of it, either, when Jesus is presented to him by the Jewish religious authorities at the end of John’s gospel. As the prefect of that province where Jerusalem is located, Pilate is the local representative of the Emperor, Caesar. Pilate, you might say, is clear about where his authority comes from. He understands and knows how to operate within Caesar’s empire, or kingdom. Its military power, economic systems and definable geographic boundaries make sense to him. We know now that the ancient world in which Pilate governed was a veritable powder-keg of different nationalities and ethnicities constantly competing for control, but Caesar still managed to run quite a tight ship. Those who claimed rival authority needed to be investigated, questioned, tested, and the man standing before him—Jesus of Nazareth—seems to be referred to as another king.

The conversation that the two of them have is relatively short. Some people have described this as a trial scene, but there is no jury or judge here. There is no impartial presentation of the facts. This is a one-on-one conversation between two men with two drastically different views of what authority is and where it comes from; two men with two dramatically different understandings of power. One has the power to end life. The other has the power, unbeknownst to everyone, to grant it eternally.

And so, in their discussion they seem to talk past one another rather than directly to each other. They go back and forth with questions for each other, but never really seem to settle on any common ground. Jesus keeps saying that his kingdom is not of this world. “If it were from this world,” he says, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” This does not mean that Jesus’ kingdom is purely in heaven or that we cannot experience Jesus’ reign here and now. It means, in short, the kingdom that Jesus rules does not operate with the same parameters as our kingdoms. The kingdom that Jesus leads, unlike Caesar’s, does not resort to violence or force to advance its influence or even defend itself. Jesus does not use power to dominate his enemies, but relinquishes it fully that their cruelty and sin may be fully exposed. Jesus does not exercise his authority by issuing decrees and handing down judgments from headquarters, but by becoming a servant and addressing the needs of God’s people. Jesus does not reign with a love of strength, but with the strength of love.

This is the truth about why Jesus was born, the truth about how God draws us to himself, the truth he speaks to Pilate. And if you think it comes across as confusing and confounding in the headquarters of Pilate, wait until you see how this love works itself out on the cross. There it will reach its climax, and we behold a king who is innocently sacrificed out of love the people, who, as the writer of Revelation says, “loves us and frees us from our sins by his blood.” Through our King’s death and resurrection, we are freed…freed to live in this truth about God’s love for the world…freed to be God’s own people not just in the next life, but in this one, as well.

"Ecce homo" Antonio Ciseri (1880)
But for the moment, the issue becomes: what will Pilate say about Jesus? And, in a sense, that is the question put to all of us about Jesus. What will we say about him? When Jesus is on trial, so to speak, in our midst, what do we say about his authority? When Jesus is brought up for debate in our boardrooms, in our classrooms, how do we articulate the ways his peaceful, humble power holds sway over our lives? How do we make sense of this kingdom of his that apparently can pop up just about whenever it wants to, because it does not have definable geographical borders but comes into existence wherever we’re graciously given the opportunity to serve and love others as he does us?

Furthermore, how do we listen to his voice and respond to him as king, especially in the midst of a culture that more and more does not know what we’re talking about? A study released about a month and a half ago reports that now one-in-five adults in the U.S. claim no religious affiliation. It is easy, perhaps, to speak of Christ’s authority when you feel most around you would also acknowledge it, but what about when more and more people don’t really know what to make of him, if they even know him at all? For some, articulating that Jesus is the risen King essentially means fighting to have things like the Ten Commandments posted in public places, but even in locales where that method might be deemed legal, it would still be a poor substitute for the faithful witness by Jesus’ own subjects learning to speak in their own words and in their own actions what it means to hear the truth of Jesus’ voice.

It is no secret that Lutherans, for various reasons, have been typically quiet about personal faith. The keep internalized, at least in their speech,  that which they experience in the truth about God. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people refer to as “God’s Frozen Chosen.” In a recent article, Lutheran missions pastor David Luecke, from a congregation in Ohio, argues that the time has come for traditions like ours to cultivate a stronger tradition of sharing the ups and downs of our spiritual journeys, of learning how to put into words who we say Jesus is and what living in his kingdom is about. I believe this type of thing, on some level, does go on in our Bible studies and youth group meetings here at Epiphany and certainly at youth events. The participants at the three Men’s lunch groups often have very lively and open-hearted conversations centered around God’s activity in their lives. It is good to practice with one another in safe settings how we put words to our faith, a faith which in the Lutheran tradition has a long history, I might add, of being put into action through community service work to those less fortunate.

I’m coming to agree with Pastor Luecke, and I’m wondering how we might begin to develop the kind of familiarity with our faith that would help us put into words why we try, in spite of our sin, to keep allegiance to Christ, the King. We may not all end up being Isaac Watts, able to articulate our faith into the words of hundreds of hymns (dude wrote over 600 of them, ten of which are included in our current hymnal!), but we can all stand to grow in our ability to say something about Jesus that is true and meaningful. And I guarantee the world wants to hear it.

Because, at least to my way of thinking, there is no such thing as “no religious affiliation.” That is a false category. Everyone has a religion or a “religious affiliation”…even Pontius Pilate. Everyone is bound to worship something, if not several things. That’s what it means to be human, the innate tendency to build our lives around values and authorities, even if it is just the authority of science, or the authority of my own will and desires. When set in that framework, it becomes easier, at least for me, to develop a way of talking about Jesus as an authority that is worth obeying, a truth worth listening to…because he loves me far more than any of those other authorities ever could.

So, to start us thinking about this, let’s say you were a pastor who had a dream of beginning a new congregation in your ideal location…be it Tupelo, Mississippi, or even the congregation that gathers regularly around your kitchen table. What would it look like? What would its traditions be? How would your little dream mission outpost proclaim Christ and his peaceful, powerful kingdom in its own unique way? What, for example, would you name it? And why? Share it with me!

And beginning there, perhaps, we can begin—once again—to prepare ourselves to engage the world as subjects of Christ the King. And, by the by, also prepare ourselves for that great day when we will stand face to face with Him in his court and hear with our own ears about the eternal love he has given us.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Day of Thanksgiving [Year B] - November 22, 2012 (Matthew 6:25-33)

Jesus says, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” How ironic that all of us gather here this Thanksgiving morning to hear these words from our Lord—especially words about food—and then leave to gorge ourselves on vast quantities of it.

“Is life not more than food?” Well, maybe so, but for right now give me those piles of sweet potatoes, dishes of green beans, platters of stuffing, and perfect cylinders of congealed cranberry sauce with the indentions of the six lines from the can still visible. Give us the pumpkin pies, apple pies, and pecan pies that will be offered up for dessert. And don’t forget the turkey. Some sources estimate that Americans will consume somewhere around 46 million turkeys today. If you’re like my family, you’ve been cooking, shopping, and preparing the house for days. I bet some of you with fancy kitchen appliances that have timers have even left the food in the oven to cook itself this morning while you come here to worship and give thanks to God and hear Jesus say, “Is not life more than food? Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink.”

You see, Jesus knows something that his disciples will struggle to learn: anxiety impedes thanksgiving. Worry gets in the way of faithful living and genuine discipleship. It is distracting. It has a tendency to make us think about that which we do not have or which might happen, rather than what we’ve already been given, and which good has already happened. It can take your mind off that which it needs to be on, the task at hand.

And, at least in the case of the disciples, that task at hand was probably starting to sound more than they’d bargained for. It wasn’t the challenge of cooking a turkey or hosting a big meal for relatives that Jesus had in mind. It was the challenge of discipleship in his name. As it turned out, life with this particular rabbi was going to involve all kinds of counter-cultural, counterintuitive behavior that they were not prepared for. His first sermon had been long and filled with complicated teachings: lessons on how to pray, how properly to give alms, and how to control anger, as well as a stern reminder about the perils of serving two masters: God and wealth. That last one had perhaps been the most distressing, given that they’d all recently left behind their trades—their fishing boats and their tax booths—to follow Jesus.  Nevertheless, “Let your light so shine,” he had said, “that others may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven.”

All in all this discipleship in Jesus’ name will turn out to a very tall order, going out in the world as meek and merciful peacemakers, as people persecuted for righteousness’ sake. You could see how worry would be a natural reaction. Where would their livelihood come from? How would they eat? Would there be a hot, succulent turkey, so to speak, waiting for them when they got home? Where would home even be?

Galilee, with "lilies" in foreground
Jesus counters their anxiety by promising them God’s constant care and attention. Even when life becomes difficult, God still considers them more precious and more valuable than anything else in creation. God will provide for them more than God does for the birds of the air. And even though, just like the wildflowers in the field, they will not be toiling or spinning for their clothes, they will still have something to wear. Those things that seem to be so important and so central to living, those things after which so many other people spend so much time striving after, will be taken care of. They, as disciples of the Lord, will be striving after the kingdom of God. While others around them will be figuring out ways to get ahead, they will be figuring out ways to let their light shine. Anxiety about even some of life’s material essentials could draw their energy away from the life of being a disciple. Worrying about these things—and, what’s more, beginning to strive after them—could also indicate an underlying belief that their livelihood ultimately comes from themselves, rather than from the Giver.

Are these the same messages we send today with our worry and anxiety? We have just come through another divisive election season. Economic recovery seems tenuous, at best. The stock market seems to have lost its footing. No one yet knows or fully trusts the ways the global community seems to be connected. American troops fight a ten-year war on the other side of the world. Quite frankly, people are worrying about what to eat and what to wear, far beyond our 46 million turkeys. Food stamp participation has increased 70% in the last five years. Yet, in spite of all this, the task at hand is to be thankful, to focus our attention on God the giver and the source of all gifts rather than the supposed uncertainty of what is happening around us. The task at all times is to remember Jesus’ words that in spite of what we think about our circumstances, God is caring for us and has our best interests at heart because we are going to be a part of his kingdom.

I have found absolutely captivating this week the testimonies by the people interviewed in this documentary by Ken Burns about the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. The grainy black-and-white images and raw video footage of the storms are fascinating to see—the large, black clouds of dirt rolling over fields and towns like something out of a science fiction movie—and I find the narrator’s factual and historical information about those bleak years intriguing and almost incredible. However, I find nothing has drawn me in as much as the personal accounts given by the survivors he has tracked down. Of course, at this point in time, any survivors alive today with remaining memory were only in grade school or younger at the time of the Dust Bowl. Nevertheless, their recollections are vivid. In those days of drought and depression, they watched their parents’ property get repeatedly covered by dust,  the rich topsoil for farming blown away forever, their livelihoods as farmers and store-owners go down the drain. Many children died of dust pneumonia.

Yet in the face of such extreme hardship and ecological disaster these survivors spoke, of all things, of…hope. Hope that the next harvest would be better, hope that the next day would bring rain, hope that the next year wouldn’t be as dusty. There were some mentions of intense anxiety, but mostly from the narrator and historians. However, those who survived mentioned hope more than anything else as what got their families through. One elderly man in the documentary looks at the camera and says matter-of-factly,  “We couldn’t live without hoping. Hope is what we lived on.”

"Migrant Mother" (by Dorothea Lange)
Hope and thanksgiving, you see, are intimately tied, and both are easily strangled by worry. One provides an honest view into the past—that there is something for which to be thankful—no matter how ominously the dust clouds roll in. There is always something we can point to which God has given for our good. The other, hope, provides an honest view into the future—that in spite of the hard times, in spite of the lack of even the most basic needs, God is moving us into something better and brighter, and that the brightness can even be brought by our own single light.

This, I believe, is our task at hand today as we gather around our tables today: to be thankful, yes, but also to be hopeful. And even when anxiety still gets the best of us, even if we despair, then let us not forget the thanksgiving and hope offered around this table (of the Lord). For it is here where anxiety was finally not allowed to rule the day, where worry and doubt and despair met their demise. And as Jesus lifted up the loaf and the cup, a new, unending hope was lifted up, too. It was the hope that although the dust clouds would roll in on Good Friday, a bright Easter morning still awaited them. It was the hope that although they would still worry and deny and betray and desert, God would still forgive and restore them. It is the hope that although we still go out weeping, carrying the very seeds we could eat today, we will come home in joy, shouldering the sheaves. It is the hope that although we still squander our resources and scar the earth and hurt our loved ones God is still giving, God is still giving.

It is the hope of feast to come that is richer and much more satisfying than the foretaste we receive today—yeah verily, richer and more satisfying than even our turkeys and cranberries provide: It is the hope provided by the fact that even when we look around and see our lives are nothing but a dusty mess, God has still given Jesus for it, and Jesus is still risen, promising it life. This will be the hope we live on, the sacrifice for which we give thanks.

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,” he says so reassuringly.

“Take and eat. Take and drink. This is my body, given for you.” He says that, too.

 Happy Thanksgiving.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

All Saints Sunday [Year B] - November 4, 2012 (Isaiah 25:6-9 and John 11:32-44)

Throughout my studies at seminary, professors drilled into our heads that the key to being a good, effective, and faithful pastor lay in mastering the art of being a non-anxious presence. It got mentioned so often, in fact, that it almost began to sound that it didn’t matter how good you were at translating Greek or Hebrew, or how much Scripture you could quote, or how moving and informative your sermons were. None of that really seemed to matter if you couldn’t learn how to maintain a non-anxious presence, especially during a crisis. For some people, I suppose it comes naturally. Those are the ones who get the job to stand out at the end of a pier in a rain-jacket, drenched and shouting into a microphone while clinging to a lamppost for dear life as the hurricane comes roaring in. For most of us, however, it is a tough skill to come by.

I remember one scene during a television special this week that showed the destruction and aftermath of Hurricane Sandy where a reporter was interviewing a couple in New York City who had lost not only their home but their entire neighborhood. You could see the couple was obviously dumbstruck. Surveying what looked like a war zone, they kept reaffirming each other that they would be fine, they would rebuild, that at least no one had been harmed. It was very matter-of-fact, the reporter calmly and expertly able to get them to open up about something so sad and scary. But then suddenly, right in the middle of the reporter’s questions, another couple from the neighborhood walked by and interrupted the scene. The two couples had not seen each other since before the hurricane hit, and emotions poured out like a storm surge right on camera. It caught the reporter, too, by surprise and it was pretty quickly evident that she was not going to remain a non-anxious presence. She covered her mouth with her interview notes and began to sob along with them. By journalists’ standards, it was probably a no-no to become involved in such a way but a helpful reminder to me that I’m not the only one who struggles with this.

And we read in in John’s gospel that apparently Jesus struggles with it, too. For all our lessons in seminary about the importance of being a non-anxious presence, how puzzling to learn that Jesus, the Son of God, apparently doesn’t really “have it” either. Just look at him! He’s sobbing, emotional…unable to keep his disturbed feelings in check. It’s really quite phenomenal, especially considering that when he first learns about Lazarus’ illness, he doesn’t rush right there to see what was happening. He lingers two extra days before coming to Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters live. In other words, he wasn’t anxious to get there, but he certainly becomes anxious on arrival!

In the portion of this story that we read this morning there are two separate verses where this anxiety comes through, and they’ve gotten a lot of attention over the years. One of them, translated as, “Jesus wept,” is one of the shortest verses in the Bible, and it’s often one of people’s favorites. (Our version today translates it as “Jesus began to weep,” indicating ongoing action.) In verse 33 we see Jesus is also “deeply moved” and “greatly disturbed in spirit.” Other English words that have been used to translate the two Greek verbs that occur here include “very agitated” and “troubled” and even “angry” and “indignant.” Interestingly, compassion and sorrow do not seem to be directly associated with either of these emotions in the Greek—ones you might expect to occur if you realize Jesus has just lost a close friend. However, even if it’s true that our Lord becomes momentarily like that television reporter who, caught up in the emotion, breaks down at the sadness and loss around her, it is clear that Jesus does not retain that all-important non-anxious presence. Something about the scene at Lazarus’ tomb, with all its weeping and wailing and public mourning disturbs him and moves him to tears. We can almost glimpse him in the camera’s eye as he covers his mouth, sobbing, becoming a part of the scene rather than removed from it.

Jesus, as it turns out, is anxious in the face of death. Jesus is an anxious presence because, as God’s Son, he is anxious in the face of what death does to us—how it rips apart our families and lays waste to our dreams. Jesus is anxious about how death robs us of chances for reconciliation with those who need our forgiveness and how it ruins our plans for the future. He is anxious and deeply moved, for example, in the midst of Hurricane Sandy as families are torn apart by waves and washed away. He is anxious and overcome with emotion as he stands by the bed in hospice as a husband says good-bye to his wife for the final time. He is anxious and greatly disturbed in spirit as the next set of coffins from Afghanistan greets their loved ones on the tarmac.

Jesus, however, is mostly anxious because of what death does to our faith and our relationship with God, how it drives us to doubt and despair. Yes, Jesus looks around the scene at the tomb and realizes that here, of all places—at the home of some of his closest friends—he would hope to find total control, total confidence in God’s ability in Jesus to avert the disaster. Instead he finds emotions run amok and his friends somewhat angry with his own delayed arrival: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus still looks around at any scene of death and gets agitated with how it overwhelms us.

Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we can actually find great comfort in Jesus the Anxious Presence. It’s not simply a sign of his humanity—that he understands and can relate—but a clue that in him God is finally meeting death head-on. The last thing we need is a Savior who shows up at the tomb and says, stone-faced and with removed demeanor, “Now, there, there, Mary and Martha. Your brother has just passed on.” No, Jesus’ emotion here is an honest reaction to God’s last enemy. Jesus’ anxiety is a real expression of feeling from a God who has gotten real with us. Death is truly awful, and although there may be times when we pray for its quick arrival so as to hasten the end of suffering, death is never the destiny that God intends for his creation.

And so Jesus comes to the tomb of Lazarus not to prevent death, which is what he’s requested to do. He comes not to minimize it or “theorize” it away, which is what we often are tempted to do in our feeble attempts to avert the anguish we feel. He comes neither to endear death nor make it somehow palatable, as a natural part of the passing into another realm. No, at the tomb of Lazarus—and chiefly then on the cross—Jesus comes to conquer death. Jesus comes to be victorious over it. Jesus comes to step into death himself and experience its utter desolation—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—and then, resurrected, step out of the tomb himself for us and never stop walking.

One of the biggest challenges of faith is that at this point we still only have a foretaste of that great victory. The cross proves to us that death has been conquered—and in our baptism we have been joined to that triumph—but we have not yet reached that day when, as the prophet Isaiah says, “the LORD God will swallow up death forever, when he will wipe away the tears from all faces.” We’re still waiting for it, like that line in the new Mumford & Sons song that echoes, over and over, “I will wait, I will wait for you…I’ll be bold as well as strong…” For now we still live with the pain of death, which means we will slip into many moments of anxiety, much to the chagrin of my seminary professors. But we have a promise that we are held by the one who has come not to prevent this last enemy but who has conquered it.

Here at Epiphany this is beautifully exemplified by the design of our columbarium, the place where we lay our loved ones to rest. I’ve seen quite a few columbaria in my life—being as how I hang out at churches a bit—but I’ve never seen one designed so intentionally as a circle. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of the architecture, and then I stood in in the middle of it for the committal of one of our own blessed saints. As we read the spoke the words of the liturgy, I realized it felt like we were all standing within the embrace of God, the two sides of the circle forming two outstretched arms—brick-solid and unmoving—to shield us and our loved ones until that day.

I have no idea if it was designed with that with that idea or not (it probably was), but that’s how it strikes me. It evokes both love and the mighty triumph of the resurrection at the same time. And whether their remains lie there literally in that columbarium or somewhere else, between those arms is where the saints always rest. It is the place where all our blessed loved ones wait for Jesus to call them out of death and into life. We remember our saints there once again today: Ethel, Stephen, Pat, Brenda, Tommy…and Catherine and Bill. They, like all those who’ve been baptized find themselves in the wide embrace of the Risen one who gathers us for that great, eternal day.

And it will be said on that day, “Lo, this is our God—this one who resuscitated Lazarus, this one who raised Jesus—we have waited for him, so that he might save us. Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation!”
Photo by Meredith Sizemore photography



Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.