Thursday, March 28, 2013

Maundy Thursday - March 28, 2013 (Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10] 11-14 and John 13:1-17, 31b-35)

They were familiar with slavery, although none of them had likely ever been called “slaves” before. They were familiar with it because it was part of their story. In fact, that is what this whole night was about: the fact that they used to be slaves, but now they weren’t anymore. At one point they had been Pharaoh’s slaves, down there in Egypt—down there in the brickyards of Egypt—but miraculously and magnificently they had been freed. Moses had stood up to Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s top-down regime of power and brutality and eventually won their release. It was an utterly implausible situation: that the slaves on the lowest rung of society had been set free from one of the most ruthless systems of dominance.

"Agnus Dei" Francisco de Zurbaran c. 1640
But they had managed it. Actually, God had managed it for them, and that, specifically, is what this night was about. It was about remembering that they had not won that release themselves. Passover was all about recalling that they had been slaves. Year after year it was about gathering for this solemn meal and remembering how God had heard their cries of despair and stooped to answer them. The sacrificed lamb, the blood on the doorposts which indicated slaves lived inside, the bread made without leaven so that it didn’t need to rise—it was a meal that in every way indicated God was on the move and their captivity was over. Participation in the Passover was a reminder that they lived a new life of freedom, a freedom marked not by doing whatever they pleased, but a freedom marked by praise and thanksgiving faithfulness to God’s commandments.

Yet now, in the midst of this meal, in the midst of this retelling of the story that meant freedom these disciples hear their rabbi call them slaves again. It must have been a little jarring, especially when he then gets up from the table and begins washing their feet, a task reserved for slaves, the lowest, the people on the bottom rung, where they once had been. “Very truly, I tell you,” he says, “slaves (or servants) are not greater than their master.” They knew they had been slaves, that it was once part of their identity, but they thought they had gotten beyond it, past it. Now he gives them an example to live by, but it smacks of being on the bottom rung again.

If it hasn’t sunk in already, here in the final hour we get a very clear demonstration: following Christ, being a friend of Christ, as it turns out, is about being received into new kind of slavery, a new kind of servanthood. Just as the journey from Egypt had freed the ancient Israelites for one type of life in the world—that is, a life of praise and thanksgiving in devotion to God their Father—the journey as a disciple gives people a new kind of freedom, a freedom only found in love of neighbor, in humble devotion to each other. For just as God had once heard the Israelites’ cries in Egypt and stooped to their rescue, their master this night had heard their cries of selfishness, their questions of doubt and confusion, and yes, their whispers of betrayal and had stooped once more.

This time, however, he stoops with towel and washbasin and becomes a model for service. Rescued the first time through the mighty waters of the Red Sea, now they are rescued through the waters of humility and servitude. It is a new way of being God’s people, freed into the world for service and love to neighbor. “By this,” he says, “everyone will know that you are my disciples.” To paraphrase one of the great theologians of the early Church, Maximus the Confessor, we don’t assign one form of love to God and another to our neighbor. “The activity and clear proof of perfect love towards God is a genuine disposition of voluntary goodwill towards one’s neighbor.”[1] Here the Master embodies that.

And don’t forget the eating of that meal. In fact, it would be his last one. Although firmly rooted in the Passover tradition and recalling the actions of that old covenant, this meal will embrace them with a new covenant. The bread they share will actually be his own body, again hastily offered up and broken and dispensed with: offered up through betrayal, broken by nails and whips, and dispensed in a tomb. The cup they share will actually be his own blood, shed for the lintel of their hearts.

Here’s what it comes to: at some point we recognize ourselves as slaves, too. At some point we realize this is not just those people back then. This is also about us. This is about all people who are slaves to sin, people who are slaves to the habits of egotism and selfishness and mistrust and hatred.  This meal, this moment, is about those living in 2013 who need to be washed clean from the dust of a dirty life, who need to be called children of God again, who, like Peter, may not always know it but who desperately need to be released.

Several years ago I was attending a Tenebrae service on Good Friday. Like all Tenebrae services, over the course of the worship we listened to readings of Jesus’ crucifixion and then, one-by-one, extinguished seven candles on the altar. It was already very dark outside that evening, and as we put out the candles, the lights were also dimmed in the sanctuary so that the whole place got progressively darker. It got down to the final candle, and it was so dark we could no longer read our bulletin or the hymnal. The acolyte eventually went up to the altar to snuff out that last little bit of light, and when she did, the place went black…except for one thing. There, over the door beside the altar, glowing brighter than ever, the big red emergency EXIT sign.

There was no way to turn it off, too, so that we could reflect in complete darkness, but perhaps it unwittingly proclaimed the gospel…like a brush of neon blood over the door frame.

This meal, this moment, this sacrifice, this death, these holy Three Days—this is our exit, our release, our passage from all that enslaves us, too. And here, again, is a God who stoops down not only to wash our feet, but who stoops even farther down—to the cross—and gives himself away. It is a God whose rescue will be so complete  that we will even be saved from that which eventually soils all of us, death.

So, we share this meal again. As children of this new covenant, we celebrate our miraculous release into a new way of living: stooping, ourselves, to the needs of each other. Forgiven and released from all that has held us captive, we rise to a new freedom that transforms the world and proclaims God is on the move. Starting at the bottom rung.

Yes, we may call ourselves slaves…or servants, if you must. But not servants who are bound by force that pulls us inward, or bound by guilt or powers of domination. We are now servants who are bound by love. This (+) love.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


[1] “Letter 2,” Maximus the Confessor: The Early Church Fathers. Andrew Louth. Routledge (London and New York) 1996. p. 90

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Fifth Sunday in Lent [Year C] - March 17, 2013 (John 12:1-8)

“The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

The gospel writers often don’t give us a whole lot of sensory data—what things looked like, for example, or how a particular scene was laid out, the sights and sounds of daily life. Then again, the gospel writers weren’t writing in order to paint vivid pictures of life in first century Palestine. Rather, they were writing with one objective alone: to tell us who Jesus was and why he matters. Instead of concentrating on the surroundings, they focus on things Jesus does and things Jesus says and the effects they have on the world around him. That’s why they’re called gospels: they focus on the good news about Jesus. Every word and sentence is carefully chosen to communicate that point.

Every once in a while, however, a very specific description creeps in. This brief story where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet is one of those occasions. Here, in the midst of a dinner party at the home of Lazarus, Mary breaks open a pound of perfume and John adds the little detail about how it makes the whole house smell good. Can you just picture it…or, better yet, breathe it? Every room is permeated with this thick, sweet scent, like when you walk into the Yankee Candle Company Store at the mall. In a story that is typically lacking in these kinds of extra details, it almost takes you off guard.

But after a deeper reading, maybe the detail isn’t so little, after all. One might remember, with a bit of prodding, that the last time this particular group of people was together, there was talk of another aroma. In fact, just prior to this chapter, Mary and Martha are at Lazarus’ tomb, weeping and wailing with devastating grief because death has taken him. Just after Jesus asks for the stone to be removed, Martha blurts out, “There’s already a stench. He’s been dead four days.” And so, you can see that this little detail about the aroma of Mary’s perfume filling the house actually proclaims something big about the power of Jesus and the life of thankful discipleship. The former odor of death has gone and is now replaced by a new, beautiful fragrance of luxuriant life.

That kind of imagery and symbolism is nice—the contrast between the death and life, that decay and this revival, that crying at the tomb and this merriment at the dinner party—but it’s probably not the main thing we’re supposed to take from this. John, you see, slips in another little detail: the perfume is expensive, and there is a whole pound of it. It’s not the smell of it that gets Judas worked up. It’s the cost. Some biblical historians have estimated that a pound of pure nard would have cost the equivalent of one full year of wages. A little bit probably would have gone a long way, but Mary uses it all.

icon of the raising of Lazarus
(note the person holding his nose) 
But…can we blame her? She has her brother back. Thanks to Jesus, this visitor in her house, Lazarus is alive again! Thanks to Jesus, the tomb and four days of decay did not swallow up her brother forever. Through the resuscitation of her brother, Mary has come to a deeper understanding of just how valuable Jesus is. What is a pound of nard compared to the presence of a man who can conquer death? What is a year’s worth of wages compared to the man who can call forth life from a tomb?

Last week at our youth group gathering, a panel of adults from our congregation who ranged in age from mid-40 to mid-70 was invited to talk a little bit about the ways they serve the congregation and how they find joy in serving. Among them we had a pair of council members, a former Sunday school teacher, the church gardener, a women’s circle member, community service team member, and the financial secretary. One question the panelists were asked in front of the youth was, “How is your service an expression of your faith?” I really hadn’t thought through how I’d respond to such a question, but one of our panelists, however, didn’t hesitate with her reply. She looked up and said with humility and honesty, “God has been so good to me and it is the way I say thanks,” before her voice broke with emotion and she passed the microphone on.

I think that’s the kind of connection is what’s going on with Mary here. God has been good to her. She is truly, deeply thankful for the presence of Jesus in her life, and she wants to respond by giving her best. The fact that Jesus won’t be around too much longer makes her act that much more sacred and meaningful. Ironically—because Mary doesn’t know yet—Jesus’ is about to become even more priceless. In the moment of his own death—when he himself pours out everything he has—God’s glory will finally be fully revealed.

All of this is lost on Judas, one of Jesus’ own disciples. The wonderful aroma wafting through the room, Mary’s moving act of devotion, the dinner celebrating Lazarus’ new lease on life—Judas essentially dismisses it all because of greed, cynicism, and fake concern for the poor. It makes us think about how close one can be to Jesus and still not fully get who he is. It makes us ponder how near one can be to the gift and still not value it—how one can see the things that Jesus does and not realize why he matters. Perhaps our own lives fluctuate between the examples of Mary and Judas. At times we are deeply devoted, spending the best of what we have (or at least wanting to), emptying all of what we are, as our guest panelist said, because God has been so good to us. Yet at other times we step back from our Lord maybe even rationalizing what is really a lack of faith in terms of how much good we do in the world, how "relevant" we think we’ve made the church to the world’s needs.

I’ve been fairly intrigued by some of the early remarks made this week by the newly-elected bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. As the first Jesuit Pope and the first from the global South, he is being hailed as a leader who might understand the reality of poverty, who believes the church should be “poor and of the poor.” It remains to be seen what kind of leader he will be, but for what it’s worth, he has already waived off the use of the papal limousine and carries his own luggage. In the homilyat his first mass in the Sistine Chapel, he said, "[We, the church] can walk all we want, we can build many things, but if we don't proclaim Jesus Christ, something is wrong. We would become a compassionate NGO [non-governmental organization] and not a Church.” To let this morning’s lessons put a spin on that: without primary attention to Christ, we would become an organization that lavishes attention on the world’s problems, but neglects the very One who has given all of us life. We would become a group of committed followers who idolize the thought of “making a difference,” but who somehow forget the Lord who has made all the difference for us.

Mary sacrifices her pound of nard to Jesus feet and participates in the sacrifice of Jesus life on the cross. In losing it all, she gains everything. How are you pouring out your life for the glory of God? How are your days devoted in thanksgiving toward the one who has rescued you from death? How are your riches, your heart, your talents, being given up at the foot of the cross so that, as the apostle Paul says, you “may be found in him.”

Saturday mornings, as I have come to know, are a valuable commodity in the life of a teenager. They may not equate with an entire pound of nard…but maybe a decent sliver of it. It’s the one day of the week to sleep in and rest up, eat a nice breakfast, veg out. Saturday mornings can also be cashed in for any number of sports activities, or even spent with the family. All of those are good uses of time, I suppose, in their proper amounts. Several Saturdays ago a group of Middle School- and High School-youth chose to pour out their precious Saturday morning here at Epiphany performing various service projects like volunteering through HHOPE pantry and with the quilters’ group. And they did all that on empty stomachs as they were fasting to raise awareness for world hunger.

One small group of youth ended up going off site and volunteering at a homeless shelter downtown. Their task involved throwing a birthday party for the residents of the shelter who were born in February. The youth baked cupcakes, blew up balloons, decorated the place, and then when the guests arrived, sat at the tables with them and helped them celebrate their special day. It wasn’t exactly strenuous labor, but at one point during the party, one of the guests, a middle-aged woman, leaned over to one of our high school boys and said, “No one has done anything for my birthday in twenty years.”

I believe that was the moment that youth realized he had broken open a jar of perfume and was bathing her feet in it, the feet of Christ. It was a party, too…and the fragrance of a sacrificed Saturday morning filled the room.

Maybe that’s our goal: to let our lives be like that fragrance that fills the air in every room, as if it’s the Yankee Candle Company store in every room we enter. In thanksgiving for all God has done, our actions and our words and our choices—and, yes, our care for the poor—are poured out, and we become breath of fresh, new life, an aroma which that proclaims death will not have the day. In Jesus Christ, we say, there is life to be had!

And that would be no little detail at all.


Thanks be to God!




The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Watermarks: Faith Conversations (John 4:1-14)

Today in our Lenten series we explore a third Watermark, a third basic faith practice that draws on the promises made by God in our baptisms that enrich our lives as children of God. The first week we focused on Bible study, and two weeks ago the Watermark we discussed was prayer and the ways it forms faith of a Christian. In one simplified view, we could say that Bible Study is like God’s conversation with us. Revealed in Scripture, the living God speaks to us through his Word that we may grow deeper in our understanding of his Son, Jesus. Prayer, by comparison, is our conversation with God. As we pray, our hearts and minds become open to express our thanksgiving, awe, and confession in words that are spoken by the power of the Holy Spirit. Today’s Watermark, faith conversations, focuses on the dialogues between us, the children of God. Faith in God becomes even fuller and stronger as we take the conversation that goes on between God and us and begin to share it with one another. But how does that happen? What does that look like, especially if you’re Lutheran and typically keep that kind of stuff to yourself?

About two years ago I had to travel to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to attend a training and orientation session for the servant trip our youth group was going to make there later that summer. The orientation was run by the mission organization that was setting up the service experiences for our youth—things like building handicap ramps and putting new roofs on small houses. At this orientation I was surrounded by youth groups and leaders from different denominations. In fact, I was the sole Lutheran, and Epiphany was the only Lutheran youth group signed up that summer. I learned that the organization itself, although it served all kinds of youth groups who wished to do mission projects, had deep Southern Baptist roots. I also learned that while Epiphany was going to be performing construction projects for our mission work, all of the other groups were registered for trips where they would be directly interacting with people on the beach or in strip malls and sharing the gospel through conversations. After we devoted a whopping 10 minutes to the particular details of our work duties, we then spent the rest of the orientation listening to presentations on how to finesse methods of approaching total strangers and begin having cold conversations about Jesus and faith.

Now, I don’t know how you would have reacted, but I sat there in that room, I thought, “Well, this is interesting, but…nope. I think I’d rather build ten handicap ramps than have to talk to someone about my faith.” It’s a stereotype, perhaps, but we Lutherans prefer to share our faith with our hands, not out mouths. For example, we make quilts or distribute food to the hungry, or clean up after a hurricane. We write checks, raise foster children, we build houses. To be sure, there is absolutely nothing wrong in such an approach to sharing one’s faith. These real, concrete expressions of God’s love in Jesus are the things we’re compelled to do because of what we know Jesus is alive and doing in the world. Yet, at the same time, we could all be challenged—not just our Baptist brothers and sisters—to finesse our ability in conversation and dialogue to draw attention in to the faith that helps us build those handicap ramps. The occasional voiced connection between belief and action is important both for deepening our own faith and passing it down to future generations.

Is your family, for example, diligent about recycling? Do you explain your practice because the world’s energy problems are leading to global warming and future generations will be doomed?  Or do ever mention something about God’s call to be good stewards of creation?

The mention of Jesus or God or church does not always need to be so explicit, so in-your-face, nor do Scripture verses need to be constantly quoted or referenced. However, it is probably easier than we realize to let a foundational understanding of God’s grace inform many of the conversations we have, to let a perspective of faith and hope in Christ shed light on many things we do and say. If not, we run the risk of sending the message that faith is purely private, something almost to be ashamed of, a light to be hid under a bushel.

Annibale Carracci "The Samaritan Woman at the Well" (16th c.)
Sometimes we just need the right entrée, the right setting for these kind of conversations to occur. One of the aspects of this scene between Jesus and the Samaritan woman that has always stood out to me is their location. In Jesus’ day, wells were not only public spaces, but gathering places where people—usually women—congregated to draw water for their families and livestock. People would rest at wells and spend time catching up on local news and share community concerns. While, as a Jewish male, Jesus’ approach of a foreign woman during the middle of the day would have crossed many social boundaries of the time—certainly a very eyebrow-raising entrée—the fact that he uses a well-known but welcoming public space to begin a conversation is significant. The well in this story, of course, becomes not just a location, but a metaphor for the living water that Jesus brings, but the point remains that in Jesus, God finds ordinary occasions to enter our lives. We don’t need to limit our faith conversations to places like the sanctuary or even the church parking lot. Home, work, and school include many different “well” occasions where Jesus can drop by, often incognito.

What are those “wells” in your life? Where might it be easy for you to strike up conversations with your loved ones or close friends—and maybe even strangers—that could deepen relationships and appreciations for each other’s perspectives? Just before bedtime? The weekly card game with your buddies? The gym?

As a child, I remember the car was one place where conversations happened. We were often taking trips every summer that involved long stretches on the highway. Sometimes we would read or listen to the radio. Once Walkmans became affordable, my sister and I would listen to tapes and CDs. However, every once in a while, books would be put down and the music would be turned off and we would just talk. This happens to be precisely why I discourage iPods and personal music listening devices on youth group trips. They significantly impede conversations and sharing.

I distinctly remember one occasion when we were in the car as a family returning from church. My parents were in the front seat and my sister and I were in the back. As we pulled out of the parking lot, I tuned into what my parents were saying and realized they were discussing the day’s sermon and what the pastor had said. I figure I was only eight or nine years old at the time, but I to this day I still remember exactly what they talked about and how they commented on the structure and content of the sermon. I hadn’t even listened to the sermon, but I eagerly eavesdropped on my parents’ discussion of it. It wasn’t an in-your-face faith conversation, per se, and they didn’t really get into a debate, as I remember, but it did make a mark on me—a Watermark, if you will—that my parents were listening and taking home something they’d heard. That day I realized Jesus could show up just as easily in my dad’s blue Buick as he could at the altar and pulpit in worship…or by a well in Samaria.

It goes without saying that faith conversations don’t need to be so overtly about faith. Relationships, identity, and character can be built and strengthened whenever meaningful conversations can occur, when people are allowed to scratch beneath the surface of superficial interactions. The point is to seize those opportunities when you can, especially when the pressures and schedules of life in this age make us feel as if we’re bouncing off once another, always moving in opposite directions. Family and youth ministry experts Paul Hill and David Anderson have uncovered research showing one of the few common denominators among National Merit Scholars is that they tended to come from families that ate dinner together.[1] I imagine learning the nuances of a faithful discipleship could be the same. The high school Sunday School class here at Epiphany regularly begins by going around the circle and giving each student the chance to rate their week. I know some families in the congregation find some point during the evening simply to share highs and lows. They may sound like simple, ordinary entrées, but isn’t that the type of place we should expect Jesus to show up? I can say from experience that you never know how deep some of those conversations might actually go. All these are all examples of what Martin Luther termed “the mutual conversation and consolation among the brethren [and sistren,]”[2] ways through which the power of the gospel heals and restores the soul and human relationship.

That day at the well in Samaria, Jesus reveals his identity incrementally. Only as their dialogue continues do they reach deeper levels of understanding and authenticity. By the end, she has rushed off to city to share with others in their traditional networks of communication and gossip what she has learned about the visitor at the well. Conversations about God’s love in Christ and his activity in our world may take many forms. But one thing is for certain: this faith that we’ve been given is something to be shared. You have drunk from his gracious well, and been claimed in the conversation between God and creation through the waters of baptism. A hammer and nail on a youth service trip, a needle, thread, and donated fabric pieces on quilt-making day…these things certainly leave a mark of God’s kingdom in the world. But so do the words of the faithful…so do the words of people just like you…maybe every once in a while wielded like a hammer at the appropriate moment, but also woven delicately like one of those quilt threads through the heart of any conversation.

Give us, Lord, the courage to do it.


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] David W. Anderson and Paul Hill. Frogs Without Legs Can’t Hear Augsburg Fortress, 2003. p 119.
[2] Martin Luther. The Book of Concord, “Smalcald Articles” Part III, Article IV