Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Second Sunday in Lent [Year C] - February 24, 2013 (Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 and Luke 13:31-35)

At the beginning of his Large Catechism Martin Luther tackles the First Commandment by offering his definition of what a god is, or who God is. The First Commandment is, to remind you, “You shall have no other gods before me.” A god, Luther says, “is that from which we are to expect all good and to which we run in times of trouble.” I have always found that to be a very insightful and helpful description of a god, because so often “god” just gets defined as some transcendent higher power that people may or may not believe in. As in: you either believe in “big-G” God or you don’t…or maybe you claim to be agnostic about it. But Luther is very perceptive: everyone, he would say, has a god—or, in fact, many gods—whether they admit it or not. Everyone is bound to worship something, or many things. Everyone is bound to look for good in some source, or many sources. And, most critically, everyone is bound to run to some place or person or value system for shelter and refuge. For some, that may even be the sanctity of their own self. Whatever those things and places are, Luther writes, they are essentially idols. Actual belief has little to do with it. Instead, it’s more about trust: “Whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is your god.”[1]

"Abraham's journey from Ur to Canaan" (Jozsef Molnar, 1850)
The challenge of the God of Israel, the one Jesus calls, “Father,” is that this “big-G” God expects to be trusted and obeyed and loved over all of those other ones. Just as God commanded Abram to rise up from his homeland in Ur of the Chaldeans and leave behind all other allegiances in his search for a homeland, God calls each of his children to respond in faith to his covenant of love and everlasting life before all others. Just as God asked Abram to look up at the stars and believe in the promise of posterity and blessing, God asks you and me to look at his Son Jesus alone and believe in the promise of mercy and forgiveness. And just as God sent prophet after prophet into a vocation of rejection and sometimes death—Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Micah—to remind the lost and wandering tribes of Israel to repent and return, God sends his Son right smack into the midst of the human experience to heal and cure and cast out demons today and tomorrow with the hope that we will see that his mission alone is what gives the world hope. All good will come from this “big-G” God. To this God may we run for true refuge in times of trouble, whether we actually can articulate belief in him or not.

It is precisely in this light—as an agent of this God who calls people to himself—that we view Jesus this morning as he makes his decision to ignore the Pharisees’ false warning about Herod and continue with his ministry in Galilee. Jesus is a prophet, too, sent to remind the people—painfully remind the people—that they are running to the wrong things. It is a false warning from the Pharisees because they are trying to see if Jesus will save himself. If he heeds their warnings, playing it safe by getting out of Herod’s domain, he will expose himself as a fraud.

In the end he ends up ignoring their advice, keeping at the things that embody God’s goodness for God’s people despite the fact that he will meet resistance: healing, casting out demons, and preaching about the kingdom. For the time-being, he will remain in Herod’s territory, but eventually it will lead him to the same place that had meant a gruesome end for other prophets before him: Jerusalem. Anyone who came in the name of the Lord would, at some point, have to contend in Jerusalem—much like any serious NASCAR driver has to contend at Daytona, or any politician who wants to affect American politics has to contend in Washington. It was the seat of power, the location of the Temple, the pulsing heart of God’s people. Re-establishing his Father’s status as the one to whom people would run in times of trouble and to which they would look for good would mean venturing to that holy city. It would mean clucking around right there to the middle of the farmyard and spreading his wings for the chicks to gather underneath.

On Friday I was running errands with my 4-year-old and we stopped at Southern States for some things and discovered they had their spring chicks out for sale. Right in the middle of the store were four bins of cute, fuzzy little hatchlings. Laura was mesmerized and asked me to pick her up to get a closer look. Then she wanted to touch them, and who wouldn’t? To her frustration, however, when she reached her hand into the bin to pet them, they scattered. Sensing possible danger, they ran from her. Having no mother to which to run for protection, they looked and felt vulnerable and exposed. That is Jesus’ frustration as he looks at Jerusalem. It’s the only time Jesus compares himself to an animal. He longs to be that mother hen who senses her chicks’ danger and raises her wings for protection.

This maternal image of the mother hen gathering her chicks to her downy breast fits into this understanding of how we turn to God in faith because I really don’t think chicks actually “believe” in their mother hen. They trust her. They run to her because that is where they instinctively know to go for safety, for refuge. Any first century Middle Eastern man or woman would have been familiar with stories of mother hens even dying as they sheltered their babies. There should be something almost instinctive, something natural and loving about our turning to God. There should be…but often there isn’t. Our sin and our brokenness and our doubt and our pride prevent us from doing it. Rather, we scatter everywhere, running all over the place and often right into the jaws of other gods that will chew us up.

However, the thrust of this story of Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem and of this image of the mother hen and her peeps is not on our returning but rather on the wingspan of God. What I mean by that is even more natural and loving and more instinctive than the path of our return should be is God’s desire to stretch out his wings and save us from what harms. It is in this God’s very nature to love us even when we don’t deserve it, to reach out to us even when we resist him. So often the focus of Lent becomes our failings and our sinfulness. We think of our Lenten disciplines and our ability or inability to follow through on them. We ponder our confessions about our shortcomings so that we can concentrate on our growth in faith. Some of that is perfectly fine. We need the occasional reminder of our propensity to seek other gods, even ourselves. But perhaps the emphasis of Lent—indeed, the focus of any faith practice and discipline—should really be on God’s graciousness. The emphasis for growing faith—that instinctive but yet heartfelt impulse to trust—is best placed on Jesus’ desire to raise those wings in spite of what kind of danger it may present for him. Because Jesus wants us safe.  Jesus wants us home. Jesus wants us to learn to trust and run to the God who has called him to bring about the kingdom of mercy and healing and love.

That’s where the focus of this text and this Lent should be, to my mind, because the funny and tragic thing is, so often we don’t really learn to run to Jesus…and yet he still dies for us anyway. He still goes into Jerusalem and lifts up those strong, bloodied arms on the cross and dies anyway. God’s care for us will never be based on our ability or desire to respond to him. It will certainly not even be based on our correct beliefs about him. It will not even be based on our faith, our trust in him. Instead, God’s care is based on God’s own eternal promise made good in the call and death of mother hen Jesus. And one day, that will dawn on us fully. And we will run there. All of us.

Speaking of feeling exposed, my hunch is that we’ve all been feeling that way lately, like we’re a bunch of chicks in a Southern States bin whose first hen has decided to go announce his retirement and whose second must someday resign this call. That’s what I hear in your comments at men’s lunch groups, at youth group gatherings, in the Commons between worship services. Pastoral transitions are tricky times. Congregations feel exposed to all kinds of anxieties and dangers. Who will we run to? How much will we scatter? But as much as it tickles this bird-lover to be in some way compared even to a hen, or a chick, the reality remains: a pastor is not the Lord. The one who has always watched out for this congregation and every other hasn’t left and won’t ever leave.

St. Andrew's United Church of Cairo
As it happens, I’ve been thinking lately about the matriarch of my internship congregation in Cairo, Egypt, who was never known to mince words. A story was told of her at one leadership transition, when a well-loved pastor ended his term and returned stateside. The council at its next meeting began to panic, worried about their survival in such a precarious mission outpost. Becoming fed up with their anxiety, and reflecting on the years she had spent affiliated with that congregation, through the uncertainty of World War II, the regimes of Nasser and Sadat, Dr. Martha Roy stiffened her back in her chair, sat up as straight as her 84-year-old vertebrae could manage, and announced into the fray of comments: “God takes care of this church.”

I think she was talking about the “big-G” God, don’t you?

And so he does.

Cluck, cluck…in word and sacrament he rushes in at the moment when things get most scary, opens his wings, and becomes once again the One we can run to.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Martin Luther, Large Catechism.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C] - February 3, 2013 (Luke 4:21-30)

My wife, Melinda, and I are pretty much constantly engaged in vocabulary lessons these days. With a four-year-old and a six-year-old in the house, Melinda and I spend a good deal of time reading books, going over flashcards with new words, and explaining on a very elementary level what things mean (and usually failing), It can be a tedious task, but every once in a while, it can get a little humorous, too.

One evening just a few weeks ago, for example, I was helping our four-year-old, Laura, get ready for bed. We were in the bathroom brushing her teeth and I apparently did something that made her angry. I can’t remember precisely what it was, but I remember that she was fairly worked up over it. At one point she stiffened her whole little body in rage and stared at me with piercing eyes and shouted, “Daddy! You’re such a…genius!” She had no idea what “genius” meant, of course. I suppose she had heard it somewhere and thought it sounded like an insult. Normally we correct them when they misuse a word, but we just let that one slide.

Yet for all the times we all laugh at the improper use of language and words, in our house and elsewhere, we also find ourselves drawn into their power to move and inspire, to call whole worlds into being. I think about the title character in a book by Wendell Berry named Jayber Crow, which is about a boy who grows up as an orphan in rural Kentucky just before and then during the Great Depression. As a child from hardscrabble origins, little Jonah has almost no possessions to speak of except for a small tablet he carries around. Every time he comes across a word or a phrase he likes he gets out his tablet and writes it down. He keeps this list throughout his life and continues to add to it: not simply words that bring him comfort or delight, but words of things and names of people he wants to remember. Some of the words phrases are common and some are rare but together they are words that end up explaining who he is. If you were to keep a tablet of words you want to remember—words you like the sound of and that tell your story—what would be in it?

As it turns out, one of the first things that Luke tells us about Jesus is his use of words and the effect those words have on people. Luke explains how Jesus goes around the region of Galilee, preaching and teaching in their synagogues and drawing attention and praise everywhere he goes. We finally get to see this power in action when he gets to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. He stands up and reads from the prophet Isaiah words that are full of grace and hope. He declares release for those in captivity, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, good news for the poor. Then Jesus rolls up the scroll and says the most amazing thing: he announces that all those things are about to take place now that they have heard them from his lips. They think he’s a genius! They are amazed at the gracious words that come out of his mouth. They probably all want to get out their little tablets and scribble down everything he says.

In doing so, Jesus, you see, has named a new reality…. right there in those Galilean synagogues. Fading away is the old time of poverty and despair and captivity and darkness. With the speaking of a few powerful words, God’s new age of freedom and mercy and blessing has begun. That’s an indication of the power that words can have. He has named the new reality of redemption, and it gives them hope. He has named a new world of freedom and peace, where the captive goes free and the poor hear good news, and it moves them. And now that he has spoken this new kingdom into existence, he will go about living it. He will go about calling people to take part in it, to learn to speak it and bear its hope on their own lips. There is a new set of vocabulary to master and believe: one where God’s salvation is made real for each and every human being, one where creation’s brokenness and decay is truly named but also where it is finally rightly healed by grace and put back together.

But just as these new words begin to establish their power, there is immediate pushback, immediate doubt from the hometown crowd. As things sink in, they begin to ask themselves, “Isn’t this just Joseph’s boy? Where’d he learn to talk like that?” Just as quickly as they are amazed at his ability to announce the reign of God, they become suspicious of the things he says. They demand, in fact, that he back up those words of power with deeds or power. They don’t want simply to hear about the new reality be brings; they’re ready to see it, and if he truly is the prophet he makes himself out to be, then they’d like a piece of the action.

modern day Nazareth
Jesus’ response to their disbelief involves reminding them of two stories from the Hebrew Bible which seem a little foreign to you or me, but which would have been readily recognizable to them. Both stories, however, are illustrations of times in Israel’s history when deeds of power occurred outside their kingdom’s boundaries and to people who weren’t of the household of Israel. Story one: In Elijah’s day, famine swept all across Israel’s land, creating many a widow and orphan, but the only widow who received food miraculously was an outsider in Sidon. Story two: And during the prophet Elisha’s time, plenty of Israelites had skin diseases, but the one who got healed was a commander in the Syrian army.

The upshot of these stories is that the new reality that Jesus names and then brings about with his life, death, and resurrection is not just intended for one people, or one village, or one nation. When he announces freedom to the captives and sight to the blind, God intends that freedom and sight for all people. When Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor, God intends that favor for all folks on earth. And when Jesus breaks the bread of life and pours the cup of forgiveness with his disciples on the night before his death, God intends that life and that forgiveness to extend to everyone. And when Jesus is nailed to the cross, all the words he has ever uttered about God’s justice and God’s peace and God’s mercy will reach their clearest definition…for every person on earth. Sin keeps God’s people captive no more. Death’s darkness keeps us blind no longer.

That crowd in Nazareth has heard enough, however, and in their rage they run Jesus out of the synagogue and attempt to kill him. At least for them, and at least for that moment, the reality of Jesus’ words is too difficult to learn.

However, for the people who do hear and believe, who are transformed by Jesus’ self-giving life, speaking this new reality becomes possible. In fact, it becomes our duty. The Holy Spirit empowers us to be prophets in the manner that Jesus was the day he stood in that synagogue and preached the good news. Beginning with those who “think like a child, reason like a child, and speak like a child” right on up to the ones who speak with tongues of mortals and angels, this is the task: to keep learning a new language that reminds people that God loves them. Now that God has given us those words, they are never to be kept to ourselves. They are for all people.  They name a new reality of forgiveness and freedom that we all live into.  They become the words in a story that doesn’t just include us and our little tablet. God’s kingdom becomes the story of everyone.

A colleague of mine tells a story about a pastor who came to serve an urban church and quickly came to realize that while the neighborhood around the church was mostly low income and people of color, the congregation was almost exclusively upper middle class folks from the suburbs. So the pastor began some outreach ministries into the neighborhood. Before long there were many community members coming to the church and getting involved in things. Some weeks later, a woman who had been a member of the church for a long time made an appointment to come see the pastor. And she explained to the pastor, "Pastor, there are a lot of members of the congregation who are just not comfortable with all these people from the neighborhood being here in our church."

And the pastor said, "Well, I am doing this because I don't want these people to go to hell."

The woman said, "Now Pastor, don't say that! We know that God loves everybody, including the people in the neighborhood."

And the pastor replied, "No, you don't understand, I'm talking about the members of this church."

By virtue of your baptism you have been given a new vocabulary on which the life of the whole world depends. Open your mouths—for God’s sake!—and begin to speak. Name the reality that Jesus is risen. Death does not win and forgiveness abounds! Give shape to it with your words, your speech, and then live it in your actions.

Like the folks in Nazareth, some may look at this plan to take ordinary, broken people like you and me and enlist them as prophets, proclaimers of the word that changes the fate of the world. They’ll look at our propensity to screw it up and they’ll say that therefore God is foolish, that God’s wasting his time. That God’s starting in the wrong place with the wrong people.

But judging by the hope and release from captivity we can see lived among us, I’ve got just one word for it:



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.