Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Eve - December 24, 2013 (Luke 2:1-20)

One day late this past summer a young child who is a member of this congregation was entertaining his grandparents for a visit. The three of them were playing Wii together in the living room. At a seemingly random point in the middle of the game, this child looked up at his grandmother and asked, completely out of the blue, “Meemaw, remember on Christmas Eve when we were in church? You and Paw Paw were there, and so were Grandma and Grandpa from Lynchburg?”

“Yes,” she answered, pausing with the Wii controller in her hand.

“And my parents and my brother were there too?” he continued. “We were all of us there, sitting together in one pew? Do you remember that?” he asked.

“Yes, I remember that.” his grandmother answered again.

“I felt so safe,” he said, and looked back at the game on the television screen.

Bam! Just like that! Out of the blue on one summer afternoon, months after the fact—it was still with him. His two grandparents traded meaningful glances with each other, realizing immediately the significance of such an arbitrary statement from a child who had been adopted just a few years earlier out of relatively precarious circumstances in a foreign country. He had been left on the street at the age of ten weeks. But this night had made a lasting impression. He had felt safe. Here. With these people. Maybe that child is here again, tonight, nestled in a pew with his Meemaw and Pop-pop and the rest of his loved ones and feeling safe all over again.

That’s really the crux of all this, isn’t it? Feeling safe. Knowing security. Behind all the poinsettias, underneath all the candlelight, that’s the real essence of our gathering here, and singing these hymns, hearing these words: safety. Feeling somehow taken care of. Otherwise our circumstances may be precarious—maybe it’s been a rough year, or you expect a rough year to come, maybe we have no one with whom to share our pew or there’s someone missing from it for the first time this year—but tonight the message is safety. Tonight it is “Peace on earth.” Tonight it is “Do not be afraid.”

In fact, some biblical scholars count that as the most common commandment in the entire Bible: Do not fear. We might think it would be “Love God” or “Love your neighbor as yourself” or “Follow me.” But, in fact, God says “Do not be afraid. You’re safe…” more than anything else. On the first Christmas, years ago, God used angels to communicate the commandment, and tonight we repeat the sounding joy again. Things may be in turmoil all around, but tonight we trust the message once more: “Do not be afraid.” Christ is born. We feel safe.

Gaddi Taddeo (14th century)
It’s all a little ironic, because that first night began in fear. Maybe Bethlehem really was still and calm, as the hymns suggest, but I’m sure there was fear in the streets about the Emperor’s big census and what that meant for the occupied Jewish population. Maybe Mary and Joseph were as cool as two cucumbers as she went into labor, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some concern about their baby’s safety when the inn turned out to be full and they had birth him in something like a stable.

For sure the shepherds were afraid. We know that. That’s one thing Scripture is certain to point out. Yet they, of all people, were unlikely to experience much fear, if you think about it—watching over their flocks by night, guarding against thieves or wolves or any number of fearsome things—but this night they did. Most likely chosen for their profession for their hardiness, the shepherds were terrified when it all started to go down, “sore afraid” as the old King James Version puts it. First, the solo angel and the glory of the Lord surrounding them, and then a whole company of heavenly messengers, bending down to ensure they understood: this message is about safety. This news is good. In fact, it involves peace and great joy for all people. And the sign for them, since they’re likely going to need one? Something completely non-threatening: a baby in a manger. And so they go…they go and gather, cozying right up to the others in the stable’s pew. Do not be afraid. Christ is born. You are safe.

We would be “sore” mistaken, however, to think that the message of the angels means safety for everyone. In fact, safety will really not be feature of this baby’s life at all. Precariousness is all he will really know: born in a feedbox only to become a refugee, according to Matthew’s gospel, to flee King Herod’s wrath. As he grows up, he frequents the shifty towns along the shoreline of Lake Galilee, never really finding a place to call his own. He is a houseguest of Pharisees and tax-collectors alike, running into constant trouble with the Temple authorities, escaping angry mobs by the skin of his teeth. Eventually his life will come to a gruesome end, hung on a rough-hewn cross like any common criminal. Few people really stand up or speak up for him, and when it’s all said and done, his dead body is placed in a borrowed tomb.

"The Adoration of the Shepherds" Guido Reni (1600s)
n fact, when we stop and look back at how it all plays out, this whole peculiar story of suffering and healing, of his dying and rising, we can see that this good news of great joy isn’t going to be all that good for the main person involved. Yet God has intended whatever he does to be great for us. The angels are still on message. There is no need to be sore afraid: the length and depth of Jesus’ life is lived for you and me. The only reason why we can be safe tonight—and any night—is because Jesus comes to experience human danger. The only real foundation underneath any of our security is the news that God comes to dwell as one of us. The only basis we have for not being afraid in our lives is that the Almighty comes to be born in a very precarious situation and live a very vulnerable life and die a very humiliating death. Jesus comes to make himself remarkably unsafe beginning this very day in order that we may be saved through the length of ours.

Apparently things are still a little precarious for Jesus. I came across an article this week about congregations across the country who have gotten tired of people making off with their outdoor nativity scene characters. It’s even somewhat of a contest in some locations: teenagers compete to see how many baby Jesuses they can swipe in one night. In response, a security firm has begun providing free GPS trackers for churches to install in their baby Jesus figurines so they can track them down, like some new-aged Star of Bethlehem that magnetically draws him back to these miniature manger scenes all over the place. By the way, we may or may not have installed on in ours…in case anyone has any ideas.

The story caught my eye, however, not because of its novelty, but because, in some ways, I think that Jesus is supposed to be carried off into the world. Maybe not as stolen goods, per se, but that’s really why he came. Jesus is now supposed to be wandering about, getting his hands a little dirty, venturing into the scary corners of this earth, and it’s you and I who are to help get him there. It’s you and I who are supposed to go forth from here and spread the news of what we’ve heard and seen.

Let us fight the tendency, then, to keep this message of his safety and security to ourselves, to do nothing but crowd into our cozy pews and love up on each other for a night or two and then wait for another year to roll around. Let us resist the urge to draw the peace of Christ from wherever it goes back to within the walls of our churches or the confines of our hearts. Let us instead take a cue from the shepherds who begin the evening in fear and spend it in awe, but then end it in taking the news out there. Let’s try to carry the love of Jesus into so many places in this world that the Jesus-satellite tracking system gets downright overwhelmed and crashes to earth. “We bring good news of great joy for all the people.”

Because that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? Good news. Great joy. Now. And on a random day late next summer. We who have seen and felt it are now free to steal Jesus away and announce his Word for all people: Don’t be afraid. Christ is born. You are safe.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Third Sunday in Advent [Year A] - December 15, 2013 (Matthew 11:2-11)

Millions across the globe this week paused to consider the life and witness of one of the giants of the last century. Nelson Mandela, former revolutionary and anti-apartheid activist, died two weeks ago and was buried yesterday in his hometown, following a memorial service on Tuesday that drew so many people it had to be held in a soccer stadium. Regardless of where you stood on the man and his legacy and his one-time unwillingness to renounce violence to achieve his aims, Mandela was an will remain known as the person who symbolized his country’s struggle for justice and freedom. It was an amazing life that spanned the better part of ten decades and saw him rise from relative obscurity in a small village to become the first black president in a very racially divided South Africa and go on to share a part of the Nobel Peace Prize.

What I think most people find compelling about Mandela’s life is the twenty-seven years he spent in prison serving what was supposed to be a life sentence for speaking out against the oppression and injustices of the ruling elite. He suffered mightily for sharing his vision and speaking out for the cause of freedom. It’s somewhat of a miracle that during those long years in forced labor in the limestone quarries that his heart did not become as hard as the rock he was forced to dig. And while people are fascinated by that awe-inspiring graciousness—his ability eventually to forgive his captors—I’m sure for him the time in prison was excruciating. I’m sure that for him it was gut-wrenching to sit there behind those stone walls, behind those iron bars, and wonder what was going on out there in South African society. Was it truly changing? Were the steps of freedom and equality for all races still marching forward without him? Which new leaders were taking up the cause of justice, and, of course, would his own captivity ever end? While he sat in prison I’m sure these questions occupied his thoughts. Mandela ended up dying this month with much of his vision realized, although that country (and all countries, for that matter) still has a long way to go.


Today, millions of Christians gather to pause and consider the life and witness of one of the giants of the first century. John the Baptist, revolutionary prophet and agitator of the powerful elite, appears in our Scripture texts this morning very much like Nelson Mandela, in prison and awaiting execution. Regardless of where you stand on the man and his willingness to use shouting and other outlandish tactics to achieve his aims, John the Baptist remains known, among other things, as one of the people who symbolizes the Jewish people’s disgust with the Roman military regime. Enormously popular in his day, John gave voice to the people’s anger at the religious elites, and to the dissatisfaction with the apathy of all of God’s people when it came to living in hopeful expectation of God’s reign. He was ready for God’s kingdom to come and he was willing to speak out for it.

In the earliest days of his career, John the Baptist had been out in the wilderness, on the outskirts of society, preaching about the arrival of the Promised Messiah and baptizing people as they repented of their sins. He had also taken issue with the corruption of Herod Antipas and his family, speaking out against their injustices and indiscretions. They had him captured and thrown in prison…a reminder to all that there are often harsh consequences to standing up for God’s justice!

This morning we see that John, like Mandela many centuries later, is starting to wonder what is going on outside that prison’s stone walls and iron bars. John the Baptist is starting to wonder whether things in the world were truly changing. Was this new leader, Jesus the Messiah, taking up the cause of justice and ushering in God’s kingdom? Was Jesus the one they had all been waiting for in God’s revolution to overthrow the powers of evil or should they wait for another? I also bet John was wondering if his own captivity would ever end. After all, if the Messiah comes to give sight to the blind and set the prisoners free, then that would have some very positive outcomes for John. So with an urgency that we can only imagine, John sends his disciples to Jesus wanting to know what’s up. Is there hope for a new world? For God’s sake, when will it be here?


Millions of Jesus’ followers pause each and every day to reflect upon their own lives in this twenty-first century. Regardless of where we stand on our own accomplishments and achievements, we have to admit that our lives are important. They may not loom as large as Nelson Mandela’s or John the Baptist’s, but they do matter. Our lives, no matter how insignificant they seem, are avenues for God’s peace and mercy to break into the world.

And yet, we are imprisoned. They are not prisons of stone walls and iron bars, but they are prisons of doubt and fear and apathy. On the one hand, we know and trust that Jesus’ birth among us has brought us freedom. It has released us from sin’s slavery and we have tasted that new life. But on the other hand many of us still take offense to Jesus’ claims that God’s kingdom has come, or is coming. We look around and say, “OK, Jesus, I hear you…but what about Sandy Hook Elementary School? What about chemical weapons in Syria? What about the systems of racism and economics that still oppress so many people? If the kingdom you bring is so good, Jesus, when will we be released from these prisons, too? Are you the hope of God’s reign, or not?”

Understanding this tension—or at least acknowledging it—is a fundamental part of Christian faith. Even at times when our faith in God’s power is strong and vibrant, we still feel a frustration, like John did, that this revolution of love is not happening quickly enough. We are impatient with its progress. We grow tired of the fight. Disillusioned, we go to Scripture, to worship, to the leaders of the faith to be moved and motivated, to hear again about this redemption and receive some inspiration, but then get discouraged when vindication doesn’t arrive in the form we anticipate or in the manner we expect. This is what it means to take offense at Jesus and his kingdom, and based on Jesus’ own words this morning to John, it sounds that Jesus might expect this reaction from us from time to time. I think Jesus fully realizes we grow weary of living in this tension where one age of sin and death and violence is so slowly giving way to God’s reign of righteousness, where the kingdom of darkness is so gradually being overtaken by God’s kingdom of light. We long so desperately for the arrival of that kingdom, as the prophet Isaiah describes, where the blind receive their sight and the lame walk and the poor have good news brought to them.

When John’s disciples reach Jesus with his questions of impatience, Jesus responds by telling them to return to John with the news of what is happening, news of what Jesus has done. He sends them back with news of reassurance. As it turns out, some of the blind have regained their sight, not counting the thousands who’ve been given the new eyes of faith. The feeble knees have become strong. Those bowed down under the burdens of sin have been lifted up. Furthermore, the poor—both the literal poor and the poor in spirit—have had good news brought to them. They are like little dispatches from the front lines of the movement. In Jesus Christ, God’s kingdom is on its way.

In this time of hopeful expectation, we must remember we are not the only ones who feel torn by the tension and we are not the only ones who cry out from our prisons of fear and dread. Jesus, himself, feels the tearing of it more completely that anyone else. On the cross, Jesus’ own body is torn with this tension, crushed by the weight of our impatience and our discouragement. In so many ways we reject very vision of the hope he brings and how he brings it, and yet he still dies so that we might have it rather than withholding it from us. We must not forget that as we grow frustrated with this kingdom’s full arrival, we have one great message that John the Baptist never heard: Jesus is risen. The very one who is torn for us, who feels that awful tension of the revolution’s resistance—that one rises on the third day for you and me.

So, in this meantime, as this wait grows at times excruciatingly tense, let us find ourselves, at least every once in a while, in the role of those messengers that Jesus sends back to John. You know what that makes us? Chaplains! Chaplains are those who visit people in prison. Let us be chaplains, gathering again for in worship, at youth group, in Bible study, in private conversation to share with each other our little dispatches from the front lines to reassure ourselves that God’s kingdom coming. Let us renew each other’s faith in Jesus’ arrival among us with the good news we hear and know about now.

HHOPE pantry volunteers, Dec 14
I’ve got one such dispatch: yesterday our HHOPE pantry distributed food to thirty families, which is close to their all-time record. If you didn’t have the chance to stop by church yesterday, let me tell you that a long line of people in cars waited patiently for bags of groceries that you helped provide. The volunteers were joyful and ready to receive them, and the guests were grateful and polite. Impressed with the volunteers’ hospitality, one guest, in fact, asked our HHOPE team leader about the level of government assistance our pantry receives. “None,” our volunteer informed the guest. “All of this food is provided directly by the people of this congregation.” Apparently the woman almost broke into tears at news of such generosity.

That right there, my friends, is enough good news to this John the Baptist who from time to time needs to hear the revolution is still going strong. Come again this afternoon for the children’s program and you’ll hear the good news again proclaimed on the lips of our littlest chaplains: The lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. It is all but an echo of the best news of all: Jesus is Lord. He is risen!



Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Day - November 28, 2013 (Philippians 4:4-9)

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)
There is not a lot that we know for sure about the first Thanksgiving that the Massachusetts pilgrims celebrated in 1621. Historians are even kind of foggy on the date. One of the few things we do know is that they had come through a very rough year. After making landfall in late 1620, the population of the small colony had been cut in half thanks to disease and exposure to the elements. We can imagine a pall of death and a prevailing sense that they still might not make it probably hung in the air. However, that summer they had fared better, and the first harvest had apparently gone well. The crops had come in and there might be enough to eat as another winter set in. It was a very bright spot in an otherwise dim situation. So, as was their tradition, they organized a feast of thanksgiving, most likely based on some customs they had brought with them from the Old World.

I bet this is how most of us view thanksgiving, and not just the holiday with all the legends that have been tacked onto it, but about giving thanks in general. That is, we think of thanksgiving as the sensible and appropriate thing to do when things are looking up, when we finally come into good times, however insignificant or momentous they may be.

The other day our two daughters spied a discarded cardboard box we had chucked out on the back porch to break down for recycling once it stopped raining. Don’t ask me why, but there are few things that bring young children as much joy as a big cardboard box does. With timid excitement, they asked if I could bring it back inside so they could play with it. It was already a little soggy from the damp air, but I said, “Why not?” and dragged it back through the door to the den. Hilarity ensued. My seven-year-old, with sheer happiness in her eyes, looked at me, clasped her hands over her chest, and said with utmost sincerity, “Daddy, thank you for all you’ve ever given us!”

When things are great, when we happen upon the cardboard box of our dreams, it just seems right to express our thanks. It’s as if thanksgiving, then, is spurred by relief…relief that the crops come in well…relief that the job offer has been extended…relief that the surgeon says she managed to get all the cancer. That is all well and good, I suppose, but it’s not exactly how the apostle Paul tells us to give thanks in the letter he writes to the Philippians. At the climax of his letter, after he’s explained a few things about arrogance and how a community can get along better if they keep Christ’s humility at its center, Paul gives this command: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

For Paul, it seems as if relief or happiness is not necessarily the primary instigator for thanksgiving. “In everything,” he clearly says, “with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And it is not just thanksgiving which Paul thinks may be made in all things and at all times, but joy as well. Two times he stresses it, just to make the point: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice!” That could mean, therefore, in times of loss, or times of grief…times of hard winter and bad crops. Times, that is, when relief might be in terribly short supply.

It would be one thing to hear such a command from someone who had essentially always had it made, from someone whose life was filled with wonderful cardboard boxes, empty or not. But Paul was writing this letter from prison where he was most likely being held for execution. He is not speaking from a place of relief, but of great hardship, and yet the letter to the Philippians is by far Paul’s most cheery letter! From beginning to end he is upbeat and optimistic, even though his own life is probably wasting away and though, in a material sense, he has very little. If Paul can find reason to be thankful and joyful in his current dreadful circumstances, then surely he can implore the free Philippians to give thanks in their situation, whatever it is. How could this be?

Well, for Paul, the cross of Jesus had redefined what a good time is. For Paul, the death and resurrection of God’s own Son had completely turned the tables on what was valuable, what was worthy of praise and thanksgiving. If, as Paul believes, God himself has somehow entered the human experience and lost everything—and in the most humiliating way, at that—then everything that we have and experience and lose must be viewed in light of that fact. For Paul, this meant that all his accolades, all his worldly and even religious honors and distinctions for which he surely could have been extremely grateful, didn’t really amount to much in the end. Whatever gains he had, he says earlier to the Philippians, he has come to regard as a loss because of Christ. The power of suffering for Christ’s kingdom and the hope of eternal life could be lived in any circumstance—even prison—and that was far more valuable than anything the world could offer.

It goes yet further, of course. The word of Christ means, for example, that God has already “pilgrimmed” through the harshest Massachusetts winter, and is already victorious over our harsh winters now. It means God, in Christ, has already felt the humility of poverty and the label of unemployment. It means, too, that God, in Christ, has already received the devastating cancer diagnosis alongside of us, and stood by the grave of a loved one, wondering if God has forsaken us. And it means God has stood on the other side of that grave, victorious over it. The cross and all that it gains for us has redefined, reorganized, reprioritized all for which we would be thankful. This makes joy and gratitude possible—not necessarily always easy, but possible and appropriate—on Thanksgiving and in every human situation.

The late journalist and writer Dr. Fulton Oursler, who authored The Greatest Story Ever Told, and who, like Paul, was not always a believer, but converted to Christianity as an adult, used to tell of an old woman who took care of him when he was a child—a woman who not only expressed her thanks, but felt it. Anna was a former American slave who, after emancipation, was hired by the family for many years. He remembered her sitting at the kitchen table, her hands folded and her eyes gazing upward as she prayed, “Much obliged, Lord, for my vittles.” He asked her what vittles were and she replied that they were food and drink. He told her that she would get food and drink whether or not she gave thanks, and Anna said, “Yes, we’ll get our vittles, but it makes ‘em taste better when we’re thankful.”

She told him that an old preacher taught her, as a little girl, to always look for things to be grateful for. So, as soon as she awoke each morning, she asked herself, “What is the first thing I can be grateful for today?” Sometimes the smell of early-morning coffee perking in the kitchen found its way to her room. On those mornings, the aroma prompted her to say, “Much obliged, Lord, for the coffee. And much obliged, too, for the smell of it!”

Young Fulton grew up and left home. One day he received a message that Anna was dying. He returned home and found her in bed with her hands folded over her white sheets, just as he had seen them folded in prayer over her white apron at the kitchen table so many times before. He wondered what she could give thanks for at a time like this. As if reading his mind, she opened her eyes and gazed at the loving faces around her bed. Then, shutting her eyes again, she said quietly, “Much obliged, Lord, for such fine friends.”

So, on this cold Thanksgiving Day, when the weather suggests we may be in for another rough winter (at least for Richmond), may you remember Paul’s advice, Anna’s philosophy and look around you to find “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing…and think about those things.” They are there. Because of the cross, they are there, somewhere…be they fine friends. Or fine food. Or a warm place to eat it. Or, maybe you look into your life right now and find just an empty cardboard box. Whatever it is, let it stand for us in the shadow of the cross and the Lord’s table gifts from the God who empties himself--empties the tomb--that we might it all.



Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 28C] - November 17, 2013 (Luke 21:5-19)

An important conversation occurred in the Martin household yesterday morning. It involved a certain holiday that is coming up (which will remain unnamed for the purposes of this sermon, but it rhymes with Miss-muss), and the need to make room for any possible new items that might arrive because of said holiday. My wife, expert at breaking hard news and broaching difficult subjects with our two young girls, took the lead. More specifically, it had to do with dismantling and removing one particularly large, bulky toy that hasn’t been played with in quite some time. It is the toy kitchen they received several Miss-musses ago that is occupying a large part of one wall in the playroom. Fearful of some possible sentimental attachment they might have to it, Melinda tread lightly, choosing wisely to accentuate the virtues of giving away things you don’t need any more and the benefits of making room for something better. That’s the real hope, of course: that something better might come, that the old could give way for the new. She and I braced ourselves for negative reactions, but they took it in stride and moved right along to the next thing they wanted to do.

Now comes my part: dismantling the thing and finding a new home for it. Several ideas were tossed around, and I suppose, given the fast-approaching arrival of that-holiday-that-will-go-unnamed, I’ll have to get on it pretty soon. Maybe one day they’ll come home and it just won’t be there anymore. For now, however, I want to walk in there with the two of them tagging along behind me, and gesture at it widely with my arm in the same dramatic manner Jesus probably uses this morning as he points to the Jerusalem temple: “You see this kitchen play set, girls, with its adorable miniature kitchen utensils and where you made countless make-believe casseroles? The days will come when not one painted piece of chipboard will be fastened to another! All will be torn down.”

You’re probably thinking it’s a good thing Melinda takes care of these conversations.

stones at the Temple mount in modern-day Jerusalem
Jesus, however, being a Middle Eastern man of his time, was prone to a little exaggeration and dramatic effect. He, too, wanted to have an important conversation about something and he wanted to make sure they got the point. It goes without saying that he was not pointing to some small wooden replica of something. He was talking about the temple that stood at the heart of Jerusalem, the very symbol of the faith of the Jewish people. The stones he would have been referring to were gargantuan. The addition that King Herod added in 19 B.C. contained bricks—if you could call them that—that were 44 feet by 11 feet and weighed 628 tons. It would have been unfathomable to topple them! Furthermore, for the ancient Israelites, the Temple was the place where God was thought to dwell on earth, the place where heaven touched earth. It had been there, in some form, for about a thousand years. It was unfathomable for God’s people to be God’s people without it! Yet, there Jesus stands, with his disciples tagging along behind him, boldly announcing to them and to all the other people who are in awe of the mighty building that it will be torn down.

The Temple is not the only thing whose foundations will be shattered. In a short sermon that probably strikes most modern ears as a little bit fanciful, like something out of a doomsday movie, Jesus goes on to explain that the dismantling of the Temple will be accompanied by all kinds of turmoil and strife. Earthquakes, famines, maybe even typhoons in the Pacific Ocean…indeed, the fabric of human society will torn as wars and riots sweep the land.

an artist's depiction of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70
The scene that Jesus describes is utterly terrifying, and yet he tells them not to fear.  At the same time, it doesn’t sound like they, as disciples, will be able to withdraw from the world and escape the terror, either, which is something that God’s people often try to do. Another thing that doesn’t sound possible is any sort of rapture, a fashionable but false theory some have developed where true believers are supposedly taken right up into heaven at some point in the future to be spared trials and tribulation below.

In fact, in the times Jesus is describing here, it sounds like the followers of Jesus need to be prepared to be singled out for who they are. They will be dragged before tribunals and brought before people of authority and be expected to give some sort of testimony. Come to think of it, the words of Imagine Dragons’ recent radio hit are strangely fitting to this scenario that Jesus describes:  I’m breaking in, I’m shaping up, then checking out on the prison bus. This is it: the apocalypse…whoa!”

What Jesus’ listeners probably didn’t realize at the time is the very thing that we tried to tell our daughters about their kitchen: all of this—the Temple, the city, the human fabric of society as we know it—all of this will be torn down and something better will take its place. When the Temple would fall, about 30 years after this prediction, new life for God’s redeemed people would spring up in the form of a human community spread across the earth. They would be a new temple, of sorts, gathering in homes and villages. Raised up in the shadow of the cross, they would be a people enlivened by the power of God’s Spirit and empowered to testify to Jesus’ love.

"The Crucifixion" Max Ernst (1913)
Standing in the shadow of the glorious Jerusalem Temple that day, it would have been so hard to comprehend and appreciate that, but something better would come. On the other hand, in the midst of trial and testing, persecution and hardship, those promises sound better and more blessed by the minute. It’s what gives people hope to keep on moving, to keep on testifying, to keep on worshiping and praising God: all of this will be torn down and something better—something new, something truly permanent—will come take its place.

The same promise is echoed every time we gather as this temple of holy believers and take the bread and wine of the new covenant. There is forgiveness as we eat, and it is complete, but the meal we share is still but a foretaste of a better, more satisfying feast to come. It is the promise, most of all, that we glimpse as we look at the cross of Good Friday. We see him there, dragged before all the worldly authorities, mocked and persecuted by none other than you and me and our sinfulness, his very life dismantled like one bloody stone at a time. The clouds threaten and the skies grow dark. But something new and wonderful will come in its place, even though none of us expects it, none of us deserves it. In God’s good time, Easter morning will come.
There’s been a lot of devastation in the world this week. I’m thinking particularly of the apocalypse-level destruction in the Philippines as the people there sort through the aftermath of the most violent storm “in recorded history.” There’s been lots of devastation and loss, lots of questioning and anguish, but also a scenes of hope, images of old things giving way to new. One pastor made the rounds his morning blessing dead bodies wherever he could find them and gathering survivors for worship services amidst the rubble. Where they worshipped looked eerily like the scene Jesus promises in today’s reading: a gaping hole in the ceiling of the church let the rain fall through. The windows were blown out and winds snapped at the silver cross on top of the steeple, which was hanging upside down. “Despite what happened,” the pastor said, “we still believe in God. The church may have been destroyed, but our faith is intact…as believers, our faith has not been destroyed.”

And in other area of the battered city, a 21-year-old mother nurses a baby that was born just after the storm hit. As her family was swept out of their house by a wave of storm surge, she went into labor. The baby’s grandmother has still not been recovered, and neither the baby nor the mother is apparently quite out of the woods yet, but the baby has a name: Bea, named after the grandmother, a nod to the past, and Joy. Bea Joy. Joy amidst the rubble.

No one knows exactly when the world as we know it will come to an end, but it will. Not one piece of painted chipboard will remained fastened to another. Even astrophysicists tell us that despite its splendor, the universe is unsteady and unstable (like a giant Jerusalem Temple?) and will eventually collapse or expand or whatever it is universes do. Maybe one day we’ll come home and it just won’t be there anymore. Whatever God’s plan and timing is—whether that’s tomorrow or millennia from now—Jesus, the one who’s already been through hell, promises that we will be cared for. For today, our teachers for how to keep on despite the present turmoil are Filipino. The survivors of Typhoon Haiyan are an inspiration in never wearying to do what is right, even as calamity surrounds and threatens to overwhelm us. They are our inspiration to testify to God’s faithfulness and wait fervently for this new creation and to seek joy’s unlikely birth as we walk amidst our rubble.

Let us look to the cross, dangling there, with its savior barely hanging on, but still resounding with its hope. Let us think of the empty tomb, and remember to make way for something better. And let us give praise and thanksgiving and commit ourselves to performing the works of justice and peace of God’s coming kingdom…we, the new temple wherein God’s Spirit of life may dwell.

As we do this, maybe we can even begin singing along with Imagine Dragons but changing the words up just a little bit:

“We’re waking up, we feel it in our bones, enough to make our systems grow…
Welcome to the new age, to the new age…
welcome to God’s new age, to God’s new age…whooahhh…
God’s love is active, God’s love is active!”


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

All Saints Sunday [Year C] - November 3, 2013 (Luke 6:20-31)

"Last Judgment Mosaic: Saints in heaven." Torcello Cathedral (Venice)
No matter how many times I hear it, I'm always a bit surprised when I’m reminded that before the earliest Christians were gathering to worship and reflect upon certain life events of Jesus they were commemorating the lives—and deaths!—of the holy men and women they knew. From what we can tell, the church in its earliest days did not celebrate things like Easter or Maundy Thursday or the visit of the magi and certainly not Christmas. Those commemorations turned up, in various forms, later on. In its earliest days, however, we do know that the church was marking on the calendar the dates when certain noteworthy and distinguished men and women died.

Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Martyred in A.D. 155
There are several reasons why the church was doing this right at the start. One reason is because everyone thought Jesus was going to return within their lifetime. There was no reason to draw major attention to things like the date of his birth or the date of his crucifixion on a yearly basis because much of that was fresh on people’s minds (although maybe not in as much detail as we have now) and also because they were in this state of anticipation, focused more on Jesus’ future than on his past.

Another reason why the early Christians were remembering these ordinary women and men of faith was because they saw in their lives significant, tangible hope—hope that their faith had not been lived in vain, hope that the things they did and the message they preached mattered to God and God’s kingdom. There was a little anxiety about the fact these people had died before Christ’s return. Would they be lost from God’s plan? And yet, the gospel of Jesus had taught them that their lives—and, just as powerfully, their deaths—were not meaningless in the ultimate scheme of the universe. The lives of these people had offered living laboratories of God’s grace for them, stained glass windows, if you will, through which the light of Christ could shine, and when they died—or, as was more common the case early on, were killed—the church wanted to remember them.

Perpetua and Felicity. Martyred March, 203
The calendar pretty quickly got filled up with these commemorations: Stephen, Polycarp, and Perpetua, just to name three. Once the Twelve apostles died, of course, they were placed on the calendar, too, and as each of those days rolled around each year, the faithful gave thanks for those people’s lives and the way they demonstrated God’s love. They’d say, “Let’s look today at the life of so-and-so. He wasn’t perfect, but he knew God loved him anyway, and we saw signs of God’s coming kingdom in the way he lived his life.”

It didn’t take long for the calendar to get filled up. Every day people were celebrating the lives of multiple people. By the sixth century, and maybe even earlier, the church finally chose a date and called it all saints day. It was one day to reflect on the lives of all those men and women who had gone before us, especially those we had lost most recently.

I think that the closest thing to a calendar of saints we have now in our culture is the Google Doodles. Those of you who use Google’s search engine or visit the Google homepage on a regular basis know what I’m talking about. On many days when you access their main site, you’ll notice they’ve taken their logo and created some cool form of interactive artwork that seeks to recognize the work of some person who was born on that day years ago. Typically it’s someone I’ve never heard of. Maybe some nineteenth century Frenchman who revolutionized hat-making or something like that.

Now, I have nothing against Google or their clever doodles, but it’s interesting to note that a multi-billion Internet giant who gathers and sells information about all of us now has such a strong hand in determining who in our culture is worth commemorating. If only the church could come up with doodles! When I see a doodle, it’s a reminder to me that the people of God still need to be diligent about remembering its faithful departed. It’s a reminder that these people are still a part of us, that we are a communion of saints. Like the theologian G.K. Chesterton once quipped, if someone asks you how large your church is, be sure to count the tombstones, too. At Epiphany we could add the columbarium niches. The church needs to take the time to realized how we’ve been blessed by our heritage of holy men and women—all of them, the dead as well as the living—because their lives have something to teach about the hope of God’s kingdom. Their lives have something to say about the great reversal that God is bringing about.

It is precisely that great reversal, that turnaround of the world’s way of doing things, that Jesus begins talking and teaching about at the beginning of his gospels. Nowhere are the elements of this turnaround more starkly laid out than in the gospel of Luke. As it turns out the things that the world typically values and lifts up as blessings are not what will be blessed and valued in God’s coming kingdom. At one point, Jesus looks up at his disciples and says, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for your is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and exclude you...for that is what your ancestors did to the prophets.’

This kind of talk was earthshattering, and quite honestly didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Everyone was used to thinking that things like poverty and hunger and sorrow were occasions of God’s curses, not God’s blessings. But now Jesus is declaring that they are blessings now because in the coming kingdom those things will be exchanged for eternal abundance and happiness.

And, as if that wasn’t clear enough, Jesus adds four statements of woe. The things that we typically strive for now, things that we habitually cling to for hope—wealth, satisfaction of health and appetite, and giddy cheerfulness, fame and acclaim—these things will not last. They never do, and Jesus wants to make sure we understand that present security does not guarantee future comfort. The kingdom of God will not be based, for example, on earthly forms of wealth. Those who get too used to it now will have a great shock when it’s not there in eternity.

In fact, these three categories of things that Jesus attaches woe to are things that delude us into an evil individualism. When we have a lot of money and possessions, when we have wonderful health and a full belly, when we are just happy and satisfied all the time it is far easier to feel and become cut off from the needs of others.

Just look at the vision of discipleship that Jesus offers as he continues this sermon! There is a whole lot of sharing and interdependence and mutual love going on. If you have a possession, like a coat, and it is taken by another, you let go of it…and then toss in something extra to go with it. You pay attention to others who have needs, even giving to those who beg. You love enemies and do not be given to revenge. If these are descriptions of following Jesus now, then imagine what God’s eternal kingdom, when it arrives in full, will involve. It’s going to be an eternity which will involve a lot of dwelling together in true communion.

I read an article this week that suggested modern-day Christianity, especially in the United States, is marked by a pervasive sense of individualism, as if faith can be lived out between God and me, as if the local congregation is largely just a filling station where we tank up on spirituality for the week, and we just happen to be doing it at the same time with a bunch of other people. If contented individualism is our version of the faith, then Jesus might pronounce a “woe” on us, too. The saints remind us of our interconnectedness, that God, in the end, wants us together, and that that life may begin now. I certainly witnessed that spirit in this congregation recently as we suffered five deaths in the past four weeks. People came together consistently to help the families in their grieving and contributed resources for food. These were our saints.

A sense of togetherness and mutual support is not, however, the primary place to which that the poor and the hungry and the mourning point us. Ultimately Jesus knows these people are blessed because they are most prone to understand the blessing of the cross. Those who are down and out now, those who are painfully aware of their worldly shortcomings are far more apt to comprehend that God is their only hope. They are the ones who will run to the hope of the cross, that will see in it God’s vindication of the hungry, the beaten, the despised.

In the long run, then, the power of God’s kingdom will not be up to us and our ability to “pull it off.” The saints of God surely play a part in it, for sure. Aware of our sinfulness, you and I are transformed by God’s grace and begin to grow into that future, but, bottom line, it is not we who bring about this utter reversal of things. That is God’s doing, and even in the darkest, bleakest, most forlorn corners of this world God can bring blessing.

The Irish rock band, U2, has a lyric in one of their songs about democracy that says, “It’s a place that has to be believed to be seen.” It is a protest song, but, as it turns out, that line is a perfect description for this kingdom—this great reversal—that Jesus brings about on the cross and to which the saints point. To be seen, it must be believed, and to be believed, it must be yearned for. We yearn for a world where the poor are given good things and the rich and the greedy—even if that means us—learn to do with less. We hunger for a world where those who strive for peace are vindicated and the voices who speak honesty and truth are heard above all the others. We long for a time when every deed of hatred and hurt is returned with an even great deed of love and forgiveness. That place, that time, must be believed to be seen, and we all know people who sadly, have died, who by the grace of God, saw this place and attempted, with their lives, to communicate it to us. They knew it had arrived in Jesus…but was also yet quite here.

Come to think of it, these people of the church don’t really need Google doodles, because they’ve already managed to doodle all over our lives. They believed in that place of the great reversal and they saw it, and so they doodled all kinds of kindness and charity and love. And often those doodles became masterpieces as the Lord grabbed their hand and began to move the pen along with them. They doodled this beauty right on into eternity.

And so, from the beginning, the followership of Jesus has wanted to remember these important works scrawled across the millennia as they have waited for the full picture to appear. That’s what this day is called: all saints. All the doodlers. And that includes not just the dead, but the living.

So, then…pick up your pen! Look to your neighbor. Look to the world. And, for all you’re your worth, keep doodling. God will make it beautiful.




Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24C] - October 20, 2013 (Luke 18:1-8 and Psalm 121)

Many people have been rather moved this week by this story out of Florida about the fifteen-year-old foster child who went to church last Sunday to appeal for a family to adopt him. Davion Only was essentially orphaned at birth, the identity of his father never known and his mother in prison on drug charges. After he got word that she died a couple of years ago, Davion gave up on his hope that she’d ever come rescue him and raise him has her child. Yet even after years of being bounced around in the state foster care system he did not give up his hope that he’d be adopted by some family, somewhere, who would love him forever and make him feel like he mattered. He cleaned up his act, brought his grades up at school, dropped his weight. After hearing somewhere that God might be able to help, last Sunday, at Davion’s request, his case worker got him all dressed up and took him to a local church. After the sermon, the pastor handed him the microphone and Davion made his pitch. “I’ll take anyone,” he said, “old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple, I don’t care. I know God hasn’t given up on me. So I’m not giving up either.”

Apparently people heard his plea: the adoption agency handling his case received over 10,000 offers to adopt Davion this week. Indeed, it appears Davion has sparked an interest in adoption in general. And it also looks like there will be a happy ending for him, although he can’t give up praying and hoping just yet. Mandatory wait periods and red tape mean that even if a family match is made immediately, it’ll still be months before they actually receive him.

Davion’s story makes me think of all of those who come to church as often as they can mainly to ask God for something that they need. Some of you people are here, perhaps, today, silently but persistently praying for vindication in some form. Pray on. There is something especially compelling, I think, about the pleas of Davion, the orphan, that is echoed in the parable today about the widow and the unjust judge. Both are stories of small, vulnerable, easily exploited people with the odds against them, going up against a system that seems cold, unfeeling, unable or unwilling to handle their needs. Plea after plea goes unanswered. It would become very easy to give up hope.

In the parable of the widow, Jesus sets up a classic, if not extreme, David-versus-Goliath scenario here. In ancient middle-eastern Society, widows were about as low on the totem pole as you could go. They had few rights and even fewer people to speak or advocate for their needs. They were often left to fend for themselves, especially if none of their late husband’s brothers wanted to take them in marriage so they'd have a place to live. That’s actually what the local judges and magistrates were for—to make sure these people didn’t completely fall through the cracks—but in the parable Jesus tells, even the system isn’t going to work in her favor. This widow has a dud judge. He cares neither what God nor other people think about him!

Yet the widow comes constantly. Maybe even every day. Sits in the outer office and thumbs through all the same magazines, asks the lady behind the glass window to put her on his daily planner. She begs and pleads and cries for attention, and he keeps turning a deaf ear, asking his assistant to erase all his voice mails each day, shuffling the paperwork around on his desk. It’s the utter nobody against The Man, the powerless weakling versus the colossal overlord. In any other situation, she wouldn’t have stood a chance. However, remember that Jesus’ is telling this parable. And, in his version of the story what little tiny power she does have at her disposal gives her victory. The judge finally realizes that she has the power to embarrass him if he doesn’t do something about what she wants. And so he relents.

Lots of parables are illustrations of what God is like, but this one is an extreme example of what God is not like. Jesus wants his disciples to know that God is absolutely not like that unjust, unfeeling judge who only listens when he realizes he is being shamed into doing so, like prayer is a competition of mental strength. Our Father in heaven, by contrast, responds quickly to those who pray for justice because they are his chosen ones, his beloved. I think Davion gets this. In fact, many people who are powerless, at the bottom of society seem to get this naturally, that God is still looking out for them in spite of their circumstances. Such faith is inspiring.

Yes, it is inspiring, but Jesus is telling his disciples this parable not so much because he wants them to have the type of faith that will take all their private needs and desires to God in prayer. While God certainly hears and cares about the prayers of our hearts, the things that we privately struggle and wrestle with, this parable is more about our collective struggle as workers in God’s kingdom. This parable is about inspiring us to continue in our Jesus-led effort to embody his love in our relationships and to give witness to his power. Jesus wants to build up the disciples’ faith and assure them that God will ultimately be victorious over the evil in the world. Despite what they—and we—observe regarding the brokenness of creation, they should still have confidence that God’s power is devoted toward the triumph of right, that, as Dr. Martin Luther King once said to inspire those in his movement in this country, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

In fact, Jesus tells this parable immediately following a considerably blunt sermon about the approach of God’s kingdom and the Son of Man, the term Jesus uses to refer to himself in his second coming. He has a concern: will the opposition to his kingdom, though temporary, be too much for his disciples’ faith? Will the movement of compassion and righteousness he has begun keep going? Will its momentum stop because its opponents in the world—the opponents that lie even in our own hearts—are too fierce and worrisome?

Jesus’ concern has an edge to it: it causes me to ask whether my prayers and my immediate desires are really lined up with this long arc of justice that God has in mind or are they very immediate and personal just to me. God certainly hears both--and cares about both-- but the point about God’s utter faithfulness that is being made in this parable  is about those ultimate kingdom goals. God focuses us on the big picture…not just me and my small view on it.

The point when I finally began understanding the force of this parable—that edge where it asks me to pay mind to what I’m praying for within God’s big picture—was during my internship year in Cairo, Egypt. One of my duties at my internship parish there involved teaching music to the refugee children. The church I served ran the only school that was open to Sudanese and Somali refugee children in Egypt. Only native-born Egyptians are allowed to attend state schools in Egypt, so refugees have no formal way to educate their children.

I’m not much of a musician or a teacher, but I used old camp songs to teach and reinforce English-vocabulary with them. One of the songs I taught them was based on the psalm for today, Psalm 121

I lift my eyes up, up to the mountains
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from you, Maker of heaven, Creator of the earth.


One little girl, for example kept mispronouncing “Creator.” She’d say, “Cree-tor.” I would stop the song and explain what Creator meant and how to say it, how it was another word for our God. Well, a little farther into the song we eventually got to a line that contained the word “rescue”:


So I will wait for you
To come and rescue me
To come and give me life.


I thought: that might be kind of a hard word for this age, so I stopped and tried to explain the definition of rescue. The same little girl looked right back at me. “Oh, Pastor Phillip,” she said. “We know what ‘rescue’ means. We know rescue. We’re refugees. My people have been rescued from our country. We were rescued by this church.” Who was I to explain to them the meaning of rescue?

refugee children at St. Andrew's Church, Cairo, 2002
You see, the refugees I worked among were like the widow. They spent years relentlessly pounding on the gates of the United Nations, relentlessly pounding on the doors of all the American or Canadian embassies…all the powers-that-be who often refuse to recognize them as people with rights, who turn a deaf ear to their pleas and hopes for a better life. They know rescue. And although they’ve been turned down again and again and again, I don’t think I’ve ever met a group of people who, in spite of their circumstances, were more confident in the love and long-suffering care of their Creator and that that Creator’s kingdom was on its way. They had more faith in one little finger than I did in my whole body! The Spirit had given them the ability to distinguish their most basic personal and political needs tangled up, as they were, in a corrupt and broken system that worked against them from the kingdom of God that they knew was working for them.  While they pounded away at the doors of all kinds of dud judges, they never ceased in praying to God for vindication…and they were confident that ultimately they would persevere...that though things look very bleak on the afternoon of Good Friday, Easter morning will surely dawn.

It is in this same confidence that you undertake your own Easter efforts, hosting folks for CARITAS, serving the community through HHOPE, making meals for those in the congregation who are grieving, persisting in your personal efforts of peace and reconciliation in your relationships. Perhaps most significantly, in spite of your hurt and your worry you gather for worship with our brothers and sisters as often as you can, with a heart like that of Davion Only, crying out with each other in praise and thanksgiving that our Heavenly Father has not left us orphaned.

We worship and we wait and we cast our prayers to Him, in the end knowing that justice will be in our favor—that God will come through with 10,000 opportunities to love and serve and show our faith in the meantime.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.