Sunday, December 30, 2012

The First Sunday of Christmas [Year C] - December 30, 2012 (Luke 2:41-52)

As someone who is regularly responsible for taking youth groups on trips to different places, I can totally identify with what’s happening in the gospel lesson this morning. In fact, it’s one of my worst nightmares—that is, accidentally leaving a youth behind somewhere either because we counted incorrectly when everyone got back on the van or because someone rushed off to say hello to a friend or buy a soft drink at the gas station just before the group moves on. The fact that just about every youth carries a cell phone nowadays makes me feel a little bit more secure, but there is always the lingering concern that in the transition from bathroom break to bus boarding, for example, someone for whom I’m responsible will get stranded.

I’ll never forget the one point where we briefly lost Haley Bergh at the ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans in 2009. Granted, we didn’t lose her for a whole day—it was a grand total of about ten minutes—but it was enough to make us panic a little bit. It happened as we were making our way into the Superdome with about 36,000 other people. We got stuck at a bottleneck and most of our youth got pushed through together, but Haley got held back and ended up in an entirely different section than we did. Through text messages, we figured out where she was: safe, but behind the security guards and with another youth group. From where we stood on the floor of the Dome, we could see her up in one of the sections above us, waving her arms and smiling broadly. To rescue her and bring her back with our group, I had to go all the way and plead my case to the chief of Superdome security. From then on, we decided to hold hands as a group when entering or leaving a large group of people. Like I said, it is those transitions that are tricky.

And probably something very similar happens with the young Jesus in the transition from Passover celebration to homeward journey. There are thousands of people around, and the Nazareth caravan chaperones thought they’d accounted for everyone, double-counting all the kids, and then they reach a bottleneck somewhere, things get a little confusing, and before they know it they are well on their way home when they realize Jesus isn’t with them. They eventually find him in the Temple, of all places, but not waving his arms and smiling broadly in hopes of being rescued. Instead, he is happily listening to the teachers in the Jerusalem Temple, oblivious to the brouhaha he is creating. While they were pressing on homeward, he was busy impressing the religious leaders. They had assumed he was lost…but Jesus is never lost.

What’s peculiar to me at this point is the surprise in their reaction, their lack of familiarity with his identity and mission. For three days they scour Jerusalem, checking every bazaar and vendor booth that they may have visited. but never considering the Temple. For three days they look high and low, but never in the building that is smack in the middle of things. When they do finally locate him, they’re at first astonished…and then turn angry. Rather than expecting him to be in the Temple, rather than expecting him to be wowing the teachers with wisdom beyond his years, they find it vexing, as if he’s played some impish prank on them. It seems to me that with all of the fanfare and prophecy surrounding Jesus’ birth—Gabriel’s visit, the shepherds, the angels in the field, and so forth—Mary and Joseph might have been a little quicker on the uptake about all this. After all, Mary had been pondering all these things in her heart, right?

One might say that this is another case of losing someone in a transition. In this case, it is the transition from child to adult, from youthfulness to maturity, from the days of willing obedience—which Jesus always displays, of course—to the years of taking one’s own initiative.

This story provides the one glimpse we have from Scripture of Jesus as an adolescent. In the two gospels which actually contain birth stories—Matthew and Luke—Jesus goes from being a baby to being a thirty-something adult within two chapters. I would imagine that in that long transition it might be easy to lose sight of who Jesus is and what he came for. That is, he is born to be more than a cute little infant, whose life is full of promise and hope. He is born also to be an adult, whose death will seal God’s promise and solidify hope of eternal life. Jesus is not only a sweet newborn to be cradled and nurtured, or even a precocious adolescent who can wow the Temple elders with his answers. He is also a man who is be mocked and spit upon and nailed to a cross, whose understanding of the law eventually runs afoul of all the religious authorities.

You see, Mary and Joseph will not only have to share their son with the members of their Passover caravan, other residents of their ancient Middle Eastern village. They will also have to share him with God, with Jesus’ own purpose. All parents know what it’s like to watch their child grow up and become independent, to make choices that maybe the parent doesn’t exactly approve. Here we see Jesus’ parents perhaps coming to grips with the choices Jesus’ is going to make as he walks the path one who, as Mary herself once sang, “brings down the mighty from their thrones…and sends the rich away empty.”

"Crucifixion" Giotto Assisi
It stands to reason then, that our faith, too, will need to make the healthy transition from Christmas to Easter, from counting the joys and blessings of the nativity and how wonderful it is for God to become flesh to the horror and emptiness of Good Friday and how terrible our sin really is. Our faith and understanding of God’s righteousness must move from simply cradling the baby Jesus, happy that he can do our bidding, content to call on him when we need him, to following Jesus and going where he calls us. Sometimes I wonder how much we try to cradle the grown Jesus, too, as if he were born just to make us happy.

And, so, on this morning in mid-Christmas, as we ponder the one Scriptural reference of Jesus’ transition from childhood to adulthood, as we pause before the transition to Lent, why don’t we also ponder our own transition of faith, as well? It, too, grows and changes over time, especially when we feed it and routinely expose it to questions and challenges. As our diaconal minister Christy Huffman could tell you, Christian faith formation is an ongoing thing. We often think of children’s Sunday School as the only time when real learning of faith goes on, but really it is a lifelong process, as clichĂ© as that sounds.

Unfortunately, many of us Jesus gets stuck—or, worse yet, lost—at one or more transition in that process. Several theologians and teachers of the church have broken down faith development into different stages. In one school of thought, outlined by Thomas Droege, one adolescent stage is characterized by a “teen’s interpretation of faith as taught by authority figures.”[1] The next stage typically occurs in young adulthood when they begin forming their own opinions about the ways in which God acts in the world, usually after they have left home.” We spoke in seminary a good bit about how Lutherans are often very good at everything up to that adolescent stage but drop the ball at the stages beyond it, mainly because confirmation comes and goes and, despite everyone’s best efforts, young people rarely find ways to be integrated into the life of the congregation and worship in their young adult years.

This is why this annoying pastor stresses to our high school graduates that it is important for them to find another congregation, if possible, and worship regularly while they are in college or starting out on their own. During those years their brains are being stretched and challenged by so many new thoughts and exciting possibilities, whether they are in classes or starting a career or going through the military. If they’re going to expose their growing minds to deeper analysis in areas of chemistry, social science, or psychology, to name a few, why wouldn’t they also challenge and expose their minds to deeper teachings and new relationships within the household of faith, as well, let those things have fair conversation with one another? If they’re going to sit at the feet of learned men and women in fields of academics or on the field of combat, why not also be found occasionally, as Jesus was, in the “house of the Lord,” at the feet of all the children of God who are learning to walk his way? I cherish the witness of our University of Richmond students in this regard, and how much they have brought to our congregation in terms of their witness in worship and their questions about Christian faith. I find I am also enriched by the conversations I have with adults who are preparing for baptism. I know and appreciate that our growing in the faith always ends up being a two-way street.

For in the long run, you see, it is not Jesus who ultimately gets lost in transition. He may seem to be, but, as we’ve noted, Jesus is never the one who’s lost.  Even on the cross, he is somehow always where he is supposed to be, responding every time in love and obedience to his Father. It is, rather, we who are lost, even if we’re in faith stage One Million. Sometimes we know it. Sometimes we are aware of our separation and we wave our hands wildly, smiling, broadly so that he may come through the barriers and have us back. At other times we ignorantly wander and meander, neglecting every attempt that is made to bring us to his embrace.

But, time and time again, Jesus continues to search, to teach, to lead, to nurture—and, yes, to die so that we may be named and claimed as his own—as his infants, as his adolescents, as his adults, and as his seniors…and, ever so faithfully, at every risky transition along the way.


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] David S. Luecke, “Speaking the Faith in a New Lutheran Church Culture.” Lutheran Forum. Fall 2012

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year C] - December 23, 2012 (Luke 1:39-55)

Visitation (Mariotto Albertinelli, 1503)
It is nearly the day of Jesus’ birth, and Mary has been visiting. That was customary in those days for women who were carrying a child. Women, especially relatives, would get together and visit. These visitations provided a safe place for women to engage in woman’s talk, to open up a little about things that couldn’t be discussed in public. There were no reference books available at Barnes & Noble on the matter back then—no nurse hotlines, either—that could impart information on such matters. Instead, this wisdom was passed through the generations, prenatal care administered sister to sister, mother to daughter, aunt to niece, neighbor to neighbor. And so Mary’s been visiting, because she has conceived.

The trip from Nazareth to see her relative Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea was a bit farther than most women would travel alone in those days, but, then again, her pregnancy was no ordinary one, and neither was Elizabeth’s, for that matter. Mary had not yet been with her fiancĂ©, and Elizabeth had conceived way past the years of childbearing. There would be much to discuss.

As Mary crosses the threshold of the home and calls out hello, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb literally begins kicking. It is Jesus’ first recorded effect on anyone, just the beginning of a long line of leaps of faith. And Elizabeth, overcome with the Spirit, overwhelmed with the idea that she is receiving the mother of God, offers a double blessing. And in response, Mary blurts out a song of her own, a profound hymn that ties together Mary’s humble circumstances with the mighty strength of God; a hymn that describes how the fulcrum of history lies right in her belly: where the balance, once and for all, will be tipped in favor of the lowly, the hungry, the ones who serve. Just whose soul, exactly, may magnify—may be able to praise—the Lord? Surely not a young Jewish girl from some no-name town!

** ** ** **

It is nearly the day of Jesus’ birth, and pastors have been visiting. It is customary in these days before the major feast days for the clergy to make rounds with the homebound and see how they are faring. Here at Epiphany, Pastor Price, Pastor Bosserman, and I divide up the list and travel to the hospital, the nursing home, the suburban residence with our handy-dandy Holy Communion kits. It is a time to engage in holy, if not small, talk, parishioner to pastor, child of God to child of God, and to open up a bit about what they’ve lately been going through and what’s been happening in the congregation. There’s the sharing of aches and pains, how the arthritis is a little worse this year, along with the perspectives gained by growing older.

At some point, the opportunity to share Holy Communion crosses the threshold of conversation, and eyes leap with the glimmer of anticipation. They bless my leather-bound, silver-plated communion kit with compliments. Some of them even remember from our previous visit that it was a gift at ordination by my grandmother’s Sunday School class. They typically recall the darker brown communion set that Pastor Chris brings, as well as the one that Pastor Tom uses, which was used by his father before him.

One homebound parishioner in the first congregation I served was always so reserved and reticent as I tried at lengths to carry on a conversation. Indeed, it was always rough going until, near the end, I pulled out that small communion set. There, on the faded plastic tablecloth that adorned her kitchen table, we’d share Holy Communion…and Gladys would really start talking. What was lowly was lifted up. She’d bless me with all kinds of wisdom and, at long last, laughter. You would think I might have learned to begin the visits to Gladys with Jesus’ body and blood, to put my foolish small talk aside let the word of Christ, present in humble bread and wine, become the fulcrum for our visit, but I never did. As with Gladys in those days, so do the pastors in many congregations go about having Christmas time visitations, unlikely occurrences of the humble and ordinary magnifying the Lord.

** ** ** **                                                    

It is nearly the day of Jesus’ birth, and you, my friends, have been visiting. Oh, yes, you have: special brunches, Christmas teas in the Star Lodge, holiday open houses, bowl game parties, and progressive dinners. It is customary in these last days of the year to visit and chat, to host friends and family, to travel to brightly decorated homes for food and fun. The youth group visited a retirement facility the other night to sing some carols. Holding a lit candle in one hand and fumbling with the lyrics with the other, they might have missed the glimmer of anticipation on the faces of the elderly who were assembled. They might have missed the residents saying, as their dinner was joyfully interrupted, “And why has this happened to us, that on a Friday night the youth of the city comes to us at Gayton Terrace?”

The Men’s Lunch groups visited this week, like they do every month, but this time suspending their regular Bible conversations to open up and share responses to the tragedy in Connecticut last week. These were holy conversations, too. In the private dining room of a local Greek restaurant, Christ was borne once again in the words of men who have family members that struggle with mental illness, about the pain and silent suffering that social stigmas create, about the challenges of violence in our society. Christ was borne once again in someone’s compassionately listening ear and gentle encouragement over matters that are not usually mentioned in public. And in the men’s group discussion, the fulcrum’s balance tipped once again in favor of those who need mercy: the proud were scattered in the thoughts of their hearts the lowly were lifted up, right there around those tables with simple, plastic tablecloths.

The Mom’s Bible Study group suspended their Bible study on Thursday, too, to visit over breakfast goodies and discuss, among other things, their pride in the Children’s Christmas program here last Sunday, their amazement at a production that so remarkably comes together right at the last minute. They also expressed their wonder at 4th and 5th graders stepping to a mic to belt out a solo in front of hundreds of people, mothers sharing their astonishment that the soul of such a small child could, once again, magnify the Lord.

** ** ** ** **

It is nearly the day of Jesus’ birth, and God has been visiting. Indeed, God is always the first one to visit, the first one to move in our direction, the first one to make the risky journey and be hosted by us. This, as it turns out, is customary of our God, this shunning of the great and powerful to visit instead with the small and insignificant. It is this God’s habit to pass by the avenues of the proud and wealthy and instead remember his covenant of mercy by appearing at the margins: first in the wandering tribe of former slaves, then to an unwed teenage mother in Judean hill country, then in Bethlehem, one of the littlest clans of Judah. Then, once there, in a manger. And, after that, in the borrowed Upper room…in the loaf and cup on a simple table with plain tablecloth…and a low-life’s cross on Calvary.

This week I saw a trailer for a feature-length documentary that will soon be released about a remarkable orchestra in a village in Paraguay that is built on a dump. The members of the orchestra are the children who live there. They were assembled by a music teacher and an orchestra director who wanted to provide an educational opportunity for the poor children. Soon they had more children than instruments. But then the children began scouring the garbage for materials they could use to make violins, violas, cellos, and the like. The orchestra is called the Landfill Harmonic, and the instruments they design from cans and wood scraps sound remarkably similar to the real thing.

It is nearly the day of Jesus’ birth, so let us remember how God visits: how he, too, comes to the this landfill earth and scours the surroundings for the lost and tossed aside, how he habitually selects the overlooked and underused, and lets their souls become instruments of beauty, combines their lives to become an unlikely orchestra that proclaims his greatness. Let us remember how the Son, the babe of the manger, crucified and risen, may be borne again in our words and actions to a weary world gathered around its simple plastic tablecloths, ready to leap in faith and joy.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.