Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Fourth Sunday in Lent [Year A] - March 30, 2014 (John 9:1-41)

I was in a play once in high school where fifteen minutes before we were supposed to go on stage for the first performance, our director called us together for a brief meeting that we thought was going to be a pep talk. The play we were performing was a tough one with lots of characters and complicated entrances and exits. Instead of giving us a pep talk, though, he reassigned everyone’s roles, just like that. We had been practicing for weeks, struggling even to learn our own lines and stage directions, much less anyone else’s. Without any forewarning, he read off a list of the new cast breakdown. Everyone, except for the main character, was going to be playing a completely different role than they had originally thought. The people who had been in supporting roles had been promoted to key players. Those who had memorized the biggest parts of the dialogue were suddenly on the sidelines. There we all stood, in full costume and makeup, our jaws on the floor. He looked at us, unmoved by our protests, and said, “You’ve got fifteen minutes to change your clothes.”

That poor audience! It goes without saying that our first performance was much shorter than it was supposed to be and probably left all those who watched it even more confused than we were.

Something very similar is going on in this story about the healing of the man born blind and his cast of supporting actors. Jesus is the director, switching up roles and confusing characters all over the place. By the end, those who are supposed to be blind end up being able to see, but those who once could see are now blind. The ones who are supposed to be marked by sin are the ones who actually show God’s glory, and the ones who should be able to testify to God’s might end up as sinful. God bless the person or congregation who understands what they’re hearing! One often doesn’t know what to make of Jesus and of the change he brings about in people’s lives, the change he brings about in the great drama of life. If this morning’s story doesn’t illustrate that for us, I don’t know what will.

Healing of the Man Born Blind (El Greco, 1570)
When the story begins, we meet a man who is born blind, and right off the bat we get a glimpse into how people of Jesus’ day viewed illnesses and handicaps. They were evidence of retribution. As far as the disciples and the other by-standers were concerned, his blindness was a result of some kind of moral or religious failing—maybe even on the part of his parents’. Jesus’ quick answer, however, redirects our focus, especially when it comes to physical or mental limitations. The point is not why this man is blind; the point is, rather, how might he show forth God’s light.  The important thing about this man is not what happened in his past that got him to his current state but how God may bring about a new future for him. The question is not how did this man get this way, but how might God’s works be shown in him anyway?

That is the important question about any of us, isn’t it, really? How are God’s works being revealed in you, even though those areas of your life you would declare terribly broken? The understanding of our lives should be less focused on why we are the way we are and more on how can God’s works be revealed in us, even in those areas of our lives we know aren’t perfect. This does not mean that we do not take into consideration a person’s disabilities or struggles with life, but it does mean we are careful about how our approaches to their situation might label or limit them. In this story, Jesus sees the blind man not as a case for debating cause and effect, but instead views him as someone who can lead others to greater understanding of God. When Jesus is the director, our lives can cast greater vision than we can we can ever imagine.

As miraculous as this man’s healing is, however, Jesus is more intent on bringing about a deeper miracle. Which miracle? The miracle of faith, the wonder of trusting in God. The man’s new vision, we understand, is only a part of the equation, the narrative hook that gets us and everyone else interested in the plot that follows. The person who started out as a focus of pity or shame is now the hero, the one with the chance to see what no one else apparently can: that Jesus is the light of the world.

Icon of the healing of the man born blind
None of us needs to be a scholar in Greek to begin to figure out that seeing has something to do with knowing and understanding. As we hear the story we begin to grasp what the people of Jesus’ time thought about the sense of sight: that is, that that the eye was a window to the mind. In fact, the verb “to see” is the same word in Greek as “to perceive,” “to regard,” or “to discover.” Think of which form of communication you’d rather use to connect with a loved one: the telephone, or Facetime? Texting or Skype? There is something about being able to seeing someone that helps us know a little more about them.

So, as the man’s eyes are opened, his mind also begins to understand and discover just who Jesus is, and that is the more important transformation of the two. On the other hand, the religious officials end up truly blind, not because they can’t see, but because they can’t understand who this Jesus really is or what really has happened.

Looking at the transformation of the blind man, we notice something very interesting: while the blind man’s physical eyes are opened rapidly, the opening of his spiritual sight is a little more gradual. At first the man born blind refers to his healer simply as “the man called Jesus.” A little later he claims Jesus is a prophet. Still later, he admits that Jesus is “from God,” and only toward the end of the story, when Jesus is speaking directly with him, does the man confess belief in Jesus as the Son of God.

There are some folks for whom belief in Jesus is sudden and miraculous, like someone has thrown the switch and the light comes on in a flash, the night of doubt dissipating almost immediately. For many, however, the journey to faith is more similar to this man born blind: the light of knowing and understanding is gradual and incremental, more like a dimmer switch that can fluctuate back and forth. Regardless of which situation applies to you, the miracle is that in this world of darkness we can see at all and come to know that the one who has created us has also sent someone to love and redeem us, to bring light into a world dimmed by human sin. The miracle is that in spite of our selfishness, in spite of our timeworn ability to use what little vision we do have to stare only at our own reflections and our own needs, God still can bring about faith that opens us up to others. At some point, by God’s grace, we look up and find our creator and redeemer has been speaking with us the entire time.

Jesus himself explains that he came into the world in order to bring judgment, to re-assign those roles in the drama of human life. Those who think they can see human destiny so clearly without any influence from Jesus’ love are the ones who continue to live blind, while those who are aware of their need for God’s grace are actually the ones who get to play the big part of visionary. The good news is that God can always break into that blindness and transform even the gloomiest night. Ultimately Jesus is the light that no darkness can overcome.

The last thing that the man born blind does in the story is worship Jesus, and there we see the endpoint, the conclusion, the final act of this story. His faith in a God who can transform the world leads him finally to live for God’s glory, to point his life in the direction of heaven. It makes me think of a quote by writer Annie Dillard in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She says, “The question from agnosticism is, Who turned on the lights? The question from faith is, Whatever for?”

Whatever for has this God created us?

Whatever for…do blind people see?

Whatever for…do we see the darkest soul come to display the most brilliant light?

It is for…his glory that this loving God’s works may be revealed among us. So, whatever role we you were assigned at the beginning of this life or at the beginning of this day, whatever character you think you’re supposed to play, or whatever costume and mask you’re wearing now, may God grant you the faith to know you live for him, that even your life can display his glory, and that you live to worship and follow him.

No worry about learning any new lines, or even changing clothes with someone else. God will take care of the change…from the inside out.


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lenten Wednesday Sermon, March 26, 2014: "Elijah flees Jezebel: A Journey in Fear" [from series: Roadtrippin': Journeys in Faith] - 1 Kings 19

Have you ever had a price on your head? Have you ever had to run for your life? You see, that’s basically the situation I’m in right now. I’ve been running for days trying to escape the clutches of the evil Imperial forces. They’re ruthless, as wicked as they come. At first I ran to Beersheba, way down in the south, about as far away from the northern empire as you can get.

Oh, you people probably don’t understand. You may complain about the NSA spying on your cell phone calls and monitoring your internet activity, but until your life has actually been threatened by the people who are supposed to protect you and govern you, you have no idea. I’ll admit it: I’m afraid! I’m a holy man of God, a prophet of the Most High…and I’m scared to death.

Some back-story may help here. It all started when King Ahab, ruler of Israel, decided to marry Jezebel, a Sidonian. She was not a Hebrew, which is not bad in and of itself because plenty of important people in our history have not been Hebrew, but she…she had no interest in knowing or serving God. From the start she wanted to obliterate any sign of our God she could find, which meant she built a temple to the false god Baal and got Ahab to help her! Then she started slaughtering all of Israel’s priests and prophets and replaced them with hundreds of her own priests who served Baal, too. Hundreds! Jezebel wanted to turn Israel away from God and the way of good. Her forces quickly outnumbered us, and eventually only I was left. That was when things started to get really scary: to think that Israel would be left with no priests to worship God and give God glory!

Elijah and the sacrifices of the Priests of Baal (Lucas Cranach the Younger)
Anyway, eventually this conflict turned into a showdown between all of the priests of Baal and little old me. I challenged them to what was essentially a battle of sacrifices in order to prove that the God I serve—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—the God whose honor Ahab should have upheld—was the one true God and that Baal was just a worthless figment of everyone’s imagination. I’ll spare you the gory details, but our God came through with flying colors. Right there in front of all the people of Israel! It was pretty obvious that worshipping Baal looked pretty pointless. One little prophet, Elijah, had stood up to the army of false prophets. Needless to say I got a little carried away in my victory and the crowd of onlookers took to my side so quickly that we ended up killing all of the priests of Baal.

So I kind of thought it was done. God won. Baal lost. But rather than admit defeat, the empire struck back! With no other prophet left at whom she could direct her anger, Jezebel focused it all on me, and she vowed to slaughter me as we had done them.

That’s when the fear gripped me. I suppose I had been somewhat brave and confident before, but then—just like that—that trust and confidence left me. Does that ever happen to you?

Fear: it just shows up with no rhyme or reason. And takes over. One minute things are fine…and then the next minute you’re scared to death. And when fear does come, they say we have two main reactions: fight or flight. Well, in this instance, I chose flight…and I fled fast.

At first I took my servant and headed straight south to Beersheba, far away from the northern empire where they were. I left him there and went about a day out into the wilderness. There I found one lone broom tree. The sun was beating down. I was famished. That was the low point. I finally just looked up at God and just said it was better for me just to die now. No point in going on. Despair had gripped me to the core. You might have labelled me suicidal.

Part of fear is not being able to see a way out of or though the situation you’re in.

That’s how I felt at that time. There was no way forward and I couldn’t imagine how I could backtrack and undo what had occurred, and change the mind of Jezebel. Checking out here wasn’t a great ending, but I really figured that dying alone from starvation and exposure in the southern wilderness was better than being slain and used as a humiliating example before the whole kingdom.

But in the midst of that despair, God showed up.God didn’t show up in the way that my fear hoped he would, but God showed up nonetheless. It was in the form of a simple, basic meal, mysteriously placed by my head. My overarching needs of triumph over Jezebel and Ahab and a way back to civilization that worshipped and honored God were not met in that instant, but my most basic needs of that moment were satisfied. A cake baked on a hot stone. A jar of water. It’s like a casserole on the doorstep when the chemo treatments start to bear down.  Or an unexpected phone call from a friend when the semester at college is heading downhill fast. In the midst of despair, God will provide something, and although at the time it may seem small and puny and not an answer to your direct prayer—God knows it is enough. Looking back on it, that bread and water looks so insignificant. But it took my mind temporarily off my despair and gave me the strength to walk 40 more days until I got to Mount Horeb.

And that’s where I am now. Mount Horeb was the place my people had long had experiences with God and spoken with him. Most famously, perhaps, Moses struck the rock here and found water while the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. That little bread loaf and water jar allowed me to get here, and here I’ve been talking with God one-on-one. And it was hear that my fear has finally begun to subside.

Sometimes in fear you just need a refuge, as rudimentary as that refuge may be. Here it’s been a familiar mountainside. For you it might just be your bed, or your bedroom. Or an afternoon with your loved ones. And in this refuge the word of the Lord did come to me. The Lord asked me to stand in front of this cave and wait for him to pass by. Now, only Moses had ever really seen God pass by. This was something that didn’t happen to just anyone. So I did as the Lord said and stood in front of the cave. And waited.

That’s when the strangest thing happened: this wind started blowing...the fiercest wind I’d ever heard or felt. It started blowing from over the tops of the distant mountains and swirling into the valley beneath me. It kept getting stronger and stronger until it started to move boulders around me and dropping them to places below. It was like the wind was breaking mountains apart…and I waited, ready to hear what God would say in the wind…but there was nothing. Just wind. Just noise.

Then it got silent. I started to feel some confusion, but then the earth started to shake beneath my very feet. It was an earthquake. More rocks and boulders falling to the ground and breaking. It was loud and frightening, but I stood up and waited for the Lord like he said to. But no Lord in the earthquake! Again, I was disappointed…but just as I turned back to the cave, I smelt smoke. And then I started to hear the crackling of a fire. I felt heat on my face, and I knew that a fire was beginning somewhere…it was raging all around me and I got ready to listen because it was at Horeb, too, where Moses also saw the burning bush and heard God’s voice. And I waited, with the inferno raging below and around me in the valley…but no voice. Sometimes, when you’re afraid, the thing you fear most is that God will won’t speak.

Then, just as quickly as all of this had started, it all fell silent. Absolutely, totally silent. Nothing like an abrupt change in surroundings to get my mind off my fear! As it turned out, that’s precisely where the Lord would be: in the silence, in the stillness. And so I covered my face, knowing that would show my respect for the Lord, and God’s voice said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And I said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, God of hosts. The Israelites have forsaken your covenant, but I have not! The Israelites have thrown down your altars, but I have not! The Israelites have allowed the killing of your prophets! I alone am left, and they are trying to kill me, too.”

Then, slowly, in that silence, in that moment of total stillness, God began tearing down all the rocks of fear and boulders of despair that had surrounding me. He told me that I was not the only one left. I could return in safety and in the middle of Jezebel’s dark kingdom I would find some supporters. Most importantly, I would find another young Jedi prophet like myself, Elisha. I would anoint him to help me take on the forces of evil. And…here’s the surprising part: God would show me 7000 people in the land of Israel who had withstood Jezebel’s onslaughts and were still faithful to God’s kingdom! 7000! And I was convinced I was the only one!!

Amazing! That’s another thing about fear: it often distorts our ability to see the big picture and that God is in command of it. Fear can feel like a cave, giving us such a small window to the possibilities that God can create. All this I learned in my fear, and yet, an important thing needs to be said: having faith does not mean being without fear.

Faithfulness does not require bravery at all times. Too often we’ve distorted faith to mean just that: that somehow part of being a good follower of God means never feeling despair. But it just isn’t the case. In fact, sometimes the best faithfulness will lead you into the experiences where fear is common and expected.

Just look to Jesus, too see how this is the case. He exemplifies despair in the face of faithfulness more than anyone. In Gethsemane and again on the cross he cries out in anguish. He has his own cave of death and mockery and feeling terribly alone. You already know this about him, and you know how his story goes: he does die…the empire swallows him up completely, and he is fairly horrified at the end, crying out that God has forsaken him. Yet God still finds a way to provide his way through. Like I said, you know that story.  You know all about that journey of the cross and the risen life, for you gather so regularly around the simple meal he has mysteriously left for you.

As for me and my journey…I’m through this part of my fear. God has restored my hope and brought me out of the cave. It is time to be brave and return to return to life. It is time to show Jezebel what I know about the Force…the force of God’s grace and it’s ability to work through fear.

May that force be with you, my friends. May the force be with you.



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Third Sunday in Lent [Year A] - March 23, 2014 (John 4:5-42)

The day that Jesus travels through the region of Samaria and strikes up a conversation with a woman at the well is, for many people, one of the most engaging and fascinating examples of Jesus’ ministry in the whole New Testament. It’s a long story by most New Testament standards: it takes up almost the entire fourth chapter of John’s gospel, and unlike with so many other encounters that Jesus has with people, we don’t feel that we’re getting a quick summary of some event; we hear almost their entire discussion, line-by-line. This story is so engaging and fascinating…and yet, so much of what really makes it that way is in danger of being lost on us for two big, glaring reasons: one, by and large, we don’t get water at wells anymore, and, two, we don’t have Samaritans. So much of what occurs between Jesus and this woman is meaningful because of the place where this conversation occurs and the social and gender boundaries that Jesus is crossing in order to have it.

In the ancient world there was a rhythm to life involving the access to water that we can’t really appreciate nowadays. From our perspective, it was like people were constantly in “Survivor” mode, always concerned about the availability of a reliable source of water. We see evidence of this in the first lesson from Exodus when the Israelites get into the wilderness and quickly can’t find a water source. Things start to go downhill for Moses pretty quickly. By the time of Jesus, technology for accessing water has not advanced much. The people in this particular Samaritan village  are still using the same well that their ancestor Jacob did centuries before! Every day—or maybe every other day—people of that village and the surrounding area would have to make a trek to a well to fetch water to use for drinking, bathing, and cleaning. All kinds of folks would be around there at some point. The area around the well was a community melting pot because people understood that this space was vital for everyone. Although this is still a reality of life for many people across this planet, we in twenty-first century America aren’t concerned with that ritual. As a result, the effect of this story is a little lost on us.

The only comparison I can think of today to a well in Jesus’ time is the pharmacy counter at some drug store, especially for those who have daily meds that keep them alive or functioning. I suppose those cell phone charging stations in public areas like airports and train stations also come close. Oftentimes you have all sorts of different people from many walks of life all sitting relatively near each other, their devices plugged in next to each other. I had to chuckle: when we were making our way to and from New Orleans on the charter bus with the youth group in 2012, people would drain their batteries down pretty low. Whenever we’d stop to eat, youth and adults would all make a mad dash for the wall outlets in Wendy’s or Chik-Fil-A. Sometimes they’d end up sitting and eating wherever they plugged their phone in, even if it was a table with people not typically in their close group of friends. A fully-charged cell-phone battery is not nearly as vital as water, although some of us may act as though it is.

So there they are, Jesus and this woman, sitting at the same cell phone charging station, waiting in line at the pharmacy counter. It’s a common, community place where people routinely—almost ritually—return time and time again to get something important, something they need to live. And it is here where Jesus introduces himself to her by describing himself as the living water that gushes up to eternal life. This isn’t stagnant water, like the kind you’d draw from a deep well. It has motion to it. It is an ever-flowing stream that replenishes itself and never is tapped out.

How does Jesus give you life? Why do so many of us return here, week after week, month after month, to participate in worship or to volunteer in service projects? Why do so many of you read the Bible or daily devotions?  Is it because somewhere along the way someone told you that this is what you’re expected to do, that respectable West Enders go to church on Sunday mornings? Is it because there are all kinds of benefits to being active in a congregation? It’s a place to get married or have your kids married one day. It’s an excellent place to network and meet people. But, really, why are you plugged in and charging up here, as opposed to somewhere else this morning, like the gym, or the James River Park trail system, or the local coffee shop? Could it be because at some point you’ve happened upon that source that never dries out, you’ve drunk of the living water that never leaves you thirsty? Could it be because somewhere along the line you’ve found yourself introduced to the person who satisfies that deep spiritual need for mercy and love and joy that lies deep within you? Could it be because there is someone here on whose arrival you sense the whole world has been waiting?

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman (Njase Secondary School, Zambia)
This brings me to the second reason why the effect of this story is somewhat lost on us. The well where Jesus shows up is not just any old well. It is a well in a region known as Samaria, and the people of Samaria were long known to be hostile to Jesus’ people. The Jews and the Samaritans despised each other for historical and ethnic reasons that are far too detailed to go into here. John does allude to this at several places in the story…for example, when he tells us that Jews and Samaritans did not share things in common. Suffice it to say that Jews and Samaritans were perfectly content to let each other alone.

Nevertheless, Jesus shows up in Samaria and approaches this solitary woman at this well, and in doing so crosses all kinds of boundaries that you and I probably would have left alone. He doesn’t just charge his cell phone next to the person in class who everyone has labelled “off limits,” the person no one ever talks to, but he starts talking to him and wanting to get to know him. He doesn’t just stand in the pharmacy line with the Hispanic single mother on welfare, but he treats her with respect and honor, extending mercy and love to her and asking if there’s something she needs.

As it turns out, I was wrong about one assumption with this text: we do have Samaritans nowadays. We have plenty of them, more than we care to admit. Some of them may be sitting on our pew this morning, or in our family. In fact, each of us is someone else’s Samaritan, each of us is someone who feels beyond the conventional boundaries of love, each of us has things in our lives, in our past decisions, in our personalities that have estranged us from God, that make us feel unworthy. What great news, then, that the very Son of God—the one who can put back together these broken lives, this broken creation—loves so unconventionally! What incredibly amazing news, then, that the source of all life shows up to strike up a conversation with you and me.

Another aspect of this encounter that is so fascinating is the process by which this Samaritan woman gradually comes to realize just who Jesus is. It’s not an instantaneous event; she talks with Jesus, asks him direct questions—even doubts him!—all as a part of the process of coming to know him. She eventually leaves her jar by the well (the jar she had brought to fetch water), in order to return to her village and share the source of living water that was gushing up to life in her. This woman teaches us an important lesson: in order for Jesus to satisfy our thirst, we need to be willing to let Jesus engage us and hear what he says about us. We need to be willing to come to terms with our own brokenness, our own shortcomings—to admit our tendency to drink from so many other wells—before we can truly receive the living water that Jesus offers. Beginning and continuing a relationships with Jesus, the living water, involves laying bare our lives, too, but ultimately trusting that it is ultimately all held in his care.

Several years ago I was leading a children’s sermon and trying to teach them something about baptism and how in the water we become redeemed children of God. I explained that just as they were born by their mother in a hospital, they may consider the baptismal font another birthplace, the place where they were born of God. To make this a little more concrete for them—as we know, concrete object lessons are helpful (most of the time) for children’s sermons—I removed the bowl of water from the marble font and passed it around so they could see the water and touch it. One by one, they did as I asked them to: they reached their hands in the water and touching their wet hands to their head, until I got to one little three-year-old girl named Erica. Instead of placing her fingers in the water and tracing the cross on her forehead, Erica cupped her hand and scooped out some to drink. She drank the baptismal font water! Who knows how long it had been sitting in there!

Yet…what a brilliant idea, and what a timely reminder for this self-sure pastor: little Erica, tapping right in to that ancient rhythm of survival, reaching in, wanting more. What else should someone do with water, but drink it, especially when they’re thirsty? What else would we do with Jesus but let his words and presence satisfy our thirst and begin to put back together that which broken? What else would we do with this living water that gushes up to eternal life, this person on whom all of creation has been waiting, but pass around a bowl of it to everyone who shows up—Samaritan or otherwise—at the charging stations of life and hope that they, too, will scoop some of it up…and live.





The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

The First Sunday in Lent [Year A] - March 9, 2014 (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Romans 5:12-19 and Matthew 4:1-11)

Our girls, ages five and seven, have just recently reached that stage in their lives where they like to hear stories about what they were like when they were babies. To Melinda and me, of course, that seems like just yesterday. We blinked our eyes and they aged five years. To them, however, that was all “way back then,” before their memory really started. Both girls are coming to understand and appreciate that these stories we tell of their birth and earliest years are really part of their story, not just something we’ve made up. Of course, from their perspective, these stories can seem pretty fictitious---like the time one daughter, out of curiosity, grabbed an inedible a part of a table decoration at her uncle’s wedding rehearsal and swallowed it whole and then said “cheese” to the x-ray technician in the emergency room when they tried to find it…or the way the other daughter had acid reflux and cried almost non-stop through the first nine weeks of her life unless someone cradled her just right.

They can’t remember those things happening, of course, but they hear themselves in them. They’ll say, often as we’re sitting at the supper table, “Tell me again, Daddy, Mommy, about when I was a baby,” because they know their identity is somehow bound up in them, that we can all see little bits of their personality are peeking out. One of them, for example, will still eat just about anything you put in front of her, and the other one loves to be cuddled.

Adam and Eve (Mabuse, c.1510)
This is very similar to our relationship with the stories we hear in the beginning of the Bible, which were the same stories that the ancient Hebrews were told about their earliest years, and the same stories that the apostle Paul’s people surely heard and understood. The Scriptures, inspired by the Holy Spirit, have passed down through the ages the stories that tell us what happened “way back when,” long before any of us were born or could begin remembering. These stories seem strange and peculiar from our perspective nowadays, and probably even from Paul’s perspective almost 2000 years ago. After all, they involve special trees, eating fruit with strange powers, and a talking snake! However, people of faith read them and understand that, yes, this is our story. These are our people.

The facts might not always make sense to us, but there is great truth in what these stories communicate, and they explain with great accuracy why things are the way they are. We hear them and—although we were not there at the time, although it occurred long before any of us existed—we can still acknowledge that this struggle between the first humans and this force that works against God is part of our identity. That is, the decision made by our earliest ancestors to succumb to the temptation and swallow that off-limits table decoration has affected who I am and who we are on a very basic level. They weren’t satisfied with simply being made in the image of God. They wanted to put themselves in the place of God, and we’ve known that desire ever since.

Adam and Eve (Titian c.1550)
More than that, it has effected who I am and who we are in a negative and permanent way.  We were created to live in harmony with God and with creation, to worship God around that tree of the knowledge of good and evil—we can still sense that design now, even if we can’t fully behold it—but somehow, very early on, things within creation went awry and humans bear the guilt. Maybe it’s that sense of pride, maybe it’s some kind of rebellion, maybe it’s disordered desire, maybe it’s not heeding God’s Word…no matter what it was and when it happened, that original transgression has led to generations upon generations of wrong decisions and self-centered behavior. Its power grips us from within and taints everything we do. It’s like it is all we know, and although we are often ashamed of it, sewing little makeshift fig leaves to cover it up thinking no one will notice, we can’t seem to do anything about it. It lingers and lingers, infecting all of our relationships, even our relationship with ourselves. Yes, this is our story. We may quibble over the science of it all, but there is no mistaking that this is us.

Sometime later in human history something called the law came along. This, too, became part of our story, and it happened so long ago that, as far as any of us can tell, it’s always been there, too. The law was designed to help curb and contain some of this sinister force that had been unleashed. It was supposed to institute guidelines or guardrails between humans and other humans, and ultimately re-establish that healthy boundary between creature and Creator. Different cultures had different versions of the law, but one people, in particular, were entrusted with the holiest, most righteous law, the law that was supposed to eventually unite all the straying peoples under the sovereignty of one almighty and loving God.

This, too, went awry, because all the law ended up doing was show us just how bad we really were. Our sinfulness, as it turned out, had infected even what we were supposed to do with the law, and we ended up using to exploit or exclude others. The temptation to serve ourselves above all others could not—and still cannot—be curbed by something as good as a set of laws. This, too, is our story. Yes, it is depressing, but it’s the only one we’ve got.

Temptation of Christ (Rembrandt)
…Until, seemingly out of nowhere, comes a new story, an unprecedented plot twist. Few people were paying attention at the time, but a brand new day dawned in the wilderness outside of Judea during the middle years of the Roman Empire. A man—a flesh and blood man like that first man—went out into the same desert where so many of our ancestors had faced their demons and failed, the same desert where so many of our ancestors had misused and misapplied the law,  and he doesn’t give in to self. He doesn’t let the same-old, same-old conclusions of Adam’s familiar pitfalls have any power over him.

The opportunity to eat something tempting is presented, and this man doesn’t play God and satisfy himself. The opportunity to put himself in the place of God is offered, and he rejects it outright. The offer to possess all the things the Creator made is laid before him, and this man still chooses to worship the Creator himself, instead. All of the temptations which had infected God’s people from the very beginning are, in some way, placed before him and he turns it all down. Even when the devil, that voice of lying and selfishness and corruption, tries to use the law against this man by quoting Scripture, this man is able to see through the testing.

Temptation of Christ (Duccio)
The man will eventually leave the wilderness of temptation, but his testing will continue. In fact, it will only intensify from that point, culminating with his death on the cross. It is there where this man will show just how faithful he is to God by allowing himself to die rather than taste, once again, the rotten fruit of self-preservation. It is on the cross where we will finally see the extent to which that law was supposed to serve us by showing us love for one another. This new story—a new, true story—has a powerful, incredible ending in which God makes sure that the sin we feel so inclined to does not have the final say. When this man rises on the third day it becomes clear that death will not rule human destiny anymore. And because this man is Jesus of Nazareth, human born of a woman, it is now our story too.  His life is our life. It abounds for the many. His grace becomes our grace, just as much as Adam and Eve’s sin has become our sin.

When you think about it, Christian faith involves a lot. It can be very mind-boggling when you consider, for example, all the things the church does, the ministries undertaken daily by those who bear Christ’s name throughout the world. Our community, for example, is a place where quilts and pillowcase dresses are sewn for people in developing nations. We donate and grow food for distribution to people in our own neighborhood. Some of us play silly youth ministry games to help us build community and break down barriers. People read books together, study the Bible, make popsicle-stick crafts that somehow illustrate God’s love. We walk babies down the aisle, we marry couples, we bury our dead. Christian faith and ministry entails an awful lot, but at our core—the absolute essential basis of our identity and mission—is remembering and re-telling this new story God has given us in Christ Jesus. This is made real for each of us in the moment of our baptism.

And each week, behind all the work and ministry that goes on here or any other place of ministry, the most important thing that happens is this exchange of stories, this re-telling of what God has done with creation through his Son Jesus and to us in our baptism. Each time we gather for worship, no matter what else that we think is important, this is what’s really going on: we are having our awful, crooked, broken life story—the one where we think it’s all we know and all we can be—re-claimed and re-written by the new beautiful one God gives us, even though we’ve done nothing to deserve it.

That’s the main thing: that we gather around this book, around this bowl of water, and around this table…we gather with the rest of our beautiful but flawed family and we say, “Tell us again, daddy...tell us the story again of what it means to be your redeemed child.” And God says to us: “It means a lot of fearsome and wonderful things, but mostly it means you are to feed on the words that come from my mouth. And it also means that no matter what…no matter how selfish and cranky you become because of what that inner turmoil does to you…I will cradle you, always, in the embrace of the cross.

And we, with hearts now broken open, say, “That’s an amazing story. We’ll take it.”



Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday - March 5, 2014 (2 Corinthians 5:20--6:10)

Where are we headed?

After the fourth winter storm this year and the umpteenth snow day, that’s the question a lot of us have been asking lately, isn’t it? Poised for the Robocall from the school system that announces closings and delays…checking the Twitter feed every minute each evening…glancing back and forth between the icy roads outside and the squirmy, bored schoolchildren in our houses, that’s the question that owns the day: Where are we headed? Back to school? (Dear God, yes…please, back to school) Or just back to bed?

Where are we headed?

That is also the unwelcome question this congregation has been forced to ask itself fairly often over the past year. Transition Task Forces, interim pastorates, Call Committees and congregational surveys…they’ve all been undergirded with that persistent question: Where are we headed? Once we get that answered, it seems, then the rest of what we need to do might fall in line. The question, itself, acknowledges that a congregation is not a stationary club, that the people of God have movement, direction, and that they might even make a wrong turn.

Where are we headed?

It’s also the question that God poses to his people, time and time again, to get them to pause and reflect upon their lives’ ultimate goal. In the words of the prophets throughout their history, Israel hears the same question and is urged to think about their relationship to those covenants they had made, their relationships with each other, their relationship to the other nations for whom they were supposed to be a light. Throughout their existence, and especially when things get particularly hairy, God calls on them to stop whatever they’re doing, come together and ask themselves, “Where are we headed?”
As it turns out, even though there are plenty of ways to re-phrase it, that’s also the essential Ash Wednesday question. As much as it may have been driving you crazy during these past two months of snow or during this past year’s transition process, that is the question that forms the backdrop for all the personal reflection that we do this evening, too, the question that lies underneath the Scripture texts for this solemn experience.

Where are we headed?

Perhaps we’re accustomed to hearing it put in language that sounds a little more theological or philosophical, in words that sound more like a sermon and less like something you’d ask at a roadside gas station. For example, we might ask, “In what ways has sin estranged us from our Creator, and how do we get back?” While putting it like that might be helpful in some ways, in actuality the line of questioning we use to best prepare ourselves for receiving what God graciously gives isn’t any more or less complicated than what we ask Andy Jenks, the school systems’ spokesman, each time a snowflake falls: Where are we headed?”

burning last year's palms to make ashes
The answer, of course, as we reflect upon it today, will be rudely marked across our foreheads here in just a minute. With that ashen road-sign swiped upon our brows, Ash Wednesday is all about being honest about where we are headed. We are headed toward death. As children of a fallen humanity, as creatures in a world broken by sin, as people so prone to focus inwardly, we are headed toward death. Even the words that are said as the ashes are placed there imply motion, travel, direction: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

To dust is where we’re headed.

Let’s face it: this reminder of our true destination is uncomfortable. Some of us are faced with it everyday and we’d like to forget it. Others of us have slowly been lulled into thinking, thanks to all our daily and yearly goal-setting, our schedules and routines and efforts at staying productive—or, as is more often the case, staying afloat—that that particular end will never come. Like that popular book, Oh, the Places We’ll Go! by author Dr. Seuss, whose birthday many schoolchildren celebrate this week, in our imaginations we are encouraged only to end our lives on an “up” note,  reflecting only on all the wonderful directions our lives can take. To think we’re headed toward dust is nothing but a downer.

But, on the other hand, asking such a question can save our life. Taking the time, no matter the discomfort it causes, to reflect on our road toward death, can actually rescue us. For to God’s people, you see, “Where are you headed?” is not just a question that anchors some liturgical worship service. It is actually one of the most fundamental questions of faith. Only when we are finally come to terms with that question—“Where are we headed?”—can we really begin to look to God. We realize that all our worldly aspirations and our frantic efforts at productivity are framed by that ultimate destination we can open ourselves up to hearing about a different destination, one of life, one of hope, one of resurrection. That is where the journey of faith begins. Although we may use this expression from time to time, no one ever arrives at faith, as if faith is an ending point. One begins and then continues with faith, and God is the true goal.

So, tonight, as you ponder, “Where are we headed?” I invite you to think about how God has now given us an alternative answer to the ashes on your forehead. This Lent, as you ponder your life’s trajectory toward ashes, hear also how God has intervened to stop that movement and put you back on track to him. God’s intervention took the form of a man who also made a journey and came to know exactly how dusty and deadly the human experience is. Paul states it very clearly (but a tad theologically) this evening:“For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus Christ, his Son, is God’s way of getting humankind back on track toward life.

Jesus himself journeyed, quite literally, through the towns of first century Palestine, heading through fishing villages and along dusty roads on an itinerary that puts him eventually in conflict with the leaders in Jerusalem. If you visit Jerusalem today one of the most famous and holy places you can see is not even a single, solitary site but, rather, a path—the Via Dolorosa (“Way of Sorrows”)—he took from the trial to his crucifixion. The fundamental question of faith, therefore—the question that undergirds all the other things we say and ask about ourselves—actually doesn’t turn the focus on our destination, but on his: “Where is Christ headed?” From the moment of his birth, Christ is headed to the cross, and in faith we come to understand that he headed that way for us…he came to suffer for us…he headed here to defeat death and reconcile us to the way of God, which is to life eternal and right relationships with all these fellow sojourners around us.

Francisco de Zurburan, 17th c.
The apostle Paul makes sure he emphasizes this journey feature when he talks about this reconciliation by talking about it as a process: he says that because of Christ’s death we might become the righteousness of God.” It is not something we immediately are, but, rather a process, something we are becoming. To put it differently, the righteousness of God is a reality to which we are headed, not something we already—or always—are.

This Lent, may that overarching question guide your reflections as you intentionally think about your actions and your motivations, whether you’re taking on a discipline or not. Ask yourself: do certain things you do on a regular basis—the actions you take, the attitudes you present—suggest you are headed towards God and reconciliation with him, or do they further demonstrate and promote the way of estrangement from God?

And on Wednesdays during this Lent, to compliment your reflection, members of our staff and congregation will offer a series of meditations on journeys from Scripture. There is a journey of just about every kind in the Bible—journeys into the promises of God, journeys through doubt, journeys in fear and into forgiveness. Ultimately they all echo in some way the journey God wants us to make toward home. Ultimately they all call us from the dead end of estrangement and death, these places “where rust destroys and moths consume” to which our own paths will naturally take us, and instead to the journey of living a reconciled life with God.

Sure, just like our lives reveal, there will be “afflications, hardships, calamities, labors, sleepless nights, hunger...” Any worthwhile journey will have its share of those things. But in the midst of it all, God remains faithful to his people, again and again setting them back on the track so they eventually arrive in his grace.

Therefore, tonight, let that ashen road-sign on your forehead be an emblem of the way Christ heads for you. Do not sit in worry, waiting for the Robocall of life to give you direction. Do not languish in despair, as though you have no rescue. You may be treated as one who is dying, but in Christ you are alive! You may regard yourself as having nothing—not a chance, not a step—but in Christ you possess everything.

So, then, where are we headed, today, tomorrow? I think we should let good ol’ Mr. Jenks tell us if we should head to school.

But I know this: that cross says you’re headed to God.

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Transfiguration of our Lord [Year A] - March 2, 2014 (Matthew 17:1-9)

The Oscars are on tonight. As usual, there will be lots of famous people dressed up real fancy, lots of dramatic acceptance speeches cut off by music, and—let’s face it—lots of hoopla about movies many of us haven’t seen and probably won’t ever have time to see. Although I’m really not much of a movie buff, I confess I always feel a tinge of embarrassment that I’m not more current with this aspect of our culture. Hollywood still seems like a big deal these days, but I’m just not always very aware of what it’s saying. I suppose a large reason for this is because I’ve been so terribly disappointed by movies in the past. There are some good ones out there, but all too often I’ve sat in front of a screen and paid good money only to watch something that makes me wish I had that two hours of my life back.

Regardless, I will probably watch a few minutes of the show tonight with a bit of interest, and when I do, I’ll find myself hoping that none of what they do and say will spoil the various Best Picture nominees for me, or reveal too much of how the movies end up. I suppose there is some off-chance I might see one or two of them someday down the road and I’d want to be moved, surprised, caught off guard. I’d want to be swept along by the storyline…to be held in the palm of the director’s hand…learn or experience just what I’m supposed to from the story.

Therefore, no plot spoilers, please, during tonight’s festivities.

Good for us, however, that Jesus doesn’t really listen to that wish this morning, because his transfiguration is a pretty important glimpse of his final ending, a clue for those who will listen as to how this whole Son of Man thing is going to come together in the end. It’s a pretty extraordinary reveal, although it looks like its effect might be lost on everyone there. First of all, it’s not clear that Peter, James, and John realize the importance of what they’re glimpsing at the top of that mountain in southern Galilee. At first their reaction is one of wonder, but later they become afraid of what they’ve just experienced. They freeze in fear, but do they really grasp the fact they’ve just witnessed the most obvious revelation of Jesus’ identity since, perhaps, his baptism? It’s not entirely clear.

Secondly, Jesus’ transfiguration might not really be considered a plot spoiler because no one who witnesses it could have a clue just how drastically things are going to change as soon as they come down that mountain. I mean, talk about disappointing storylines! This one will take the cake. From dazzling light and visions of glory with Israel’s most famous prophets in front of a select audience of disciples, to a dark and humiliating journey in a valley of tears in front of hundreds of people crying for his blood—this plot is no blockbuster. It’s a disaster. It will be easy to see why none of the disciples seem to remember this shining moment once they get into the thick of things. And, even if they do happen to remember, even if they do fully grasp what they’ve just experienced on that mountaintop, Jesus has specifically ordered them not to spoil the plot for anyone else. “Don’t tell anyone about this,” he says, “until everyone has watched the whole thing through, Jerusalem and all, and the ending credits are rolling.”

The Transfiguration of Christ (Lorenzo Lotto, 1511)
The transfiguration itself is a very mysterious event that stretches the imagination of the modern mind. It’s hard for those of us to get a handle on what exactly is happening. Three of the four gospel writers all report this event and they all agree on the major details: Jesus and his closest disciples ascend a mountain probably somewhere in southern Galilee for an experience that is remarkably similar to what happened to Moses on Mount Sinai centuries earlier. While they’re on top of the mountain, Jesus’ physical appearance somehow changes, involving bright light and really white clothes and the arrival of Israel’s two greatest prophets. That a cloud then descends upon them is the most believable part of this whole experience (haven’t you ever been on top of a mountain when a cloud rolls in?) and then a voice booms through the fog to announce that Jesus is God’s beloved Son and deserves to be listened to. That’s when the disciples freak out. A cloud is scary enough, but the mysterious voice sends them over the edge, figuratively speaking. They cower in fear until Jesus comforts them with a touch of his hand, in the same way he’s healed so many others.

The transfiguration, this peek at the final revelation of Jesus’ glory, is strange to us. We’re far more comfortable with Jesus doing ordinary, everyday things like teaching and telling parables and hanging out with the outcasts. This is a little bit…well, it’s a little bit Hollywood. It’s a little bit science fiction shoved into the ancient hills of first century Palestine. Special effects and CGI technology have no place here.
So, as a result, it’s tempting to begrudge Jesus his transfiguration, saying that there’s no way something like this “actually happened,” that we’re supposed to interpret it allegorically or just crop it from the storyline altogether. We marvel at or even question Jesus’ transfiguration and what it might mean, and…yet don’t we clamor for our own transfigurations? We long to be changed, to experience a metamorphosis, most especially when we encounter God? We go on pilgrimages or mission trips, we sign up for summer camp. Just like the Indigo Girls once sang, “we go to the Bible, we go through the workout, we read up on revival, we stand up for the lookout.” How many of us showed up this morning, for example, with the hope of some brush with the divine? Later this afternoon, when the parents of the 5th and 6th graders who are attending the 7th Day Synod event at Eagle Eyrie greet their children in the parking lot, won’t they expect to see faces shining just like Jesus’ did? Sure, their eyes may be a little bloodshot from a lack of sleep, but don’t we expect them to have experienced something on that mountain this weekend, some deeper intimacy with the God who created them?

Yes, we all long to be transfigured along the way of life, to have communion with a God who draws close to his children, to be lifted, if however briefly, from life’s lowly valley. This is the crux of whatever is occurring with Jesus this morning, as fanciful as his experience sounds As Peter quickly learns, however, and as we all come to understand, this is not going to be all bright lights and famous people all the time, it’s not all “Hey, let’s build three huts and call it a life!” No, life with Jesus, for now, does not consist of one, long, uninterrupted at Eagle Eyrie Retreat Center, not matter how wonderful it is. Jesus knows there is more of the road to be explored. and that is why we and Jesus’ other disciples might need this vision of Jesus’ end at this moment in time.

For there is more of the plot to come, and it’s not going to be just some award-winning performance. It’s going to be awful reality. Remember? We’re going to see the trial and hear the shouts of “Crucify!” and we’re going to get terribly disappointed that the plot has gone this way. Messiahs and Sons of Man aren’t supposed to hang on a cross. People who consult with Moses and Elijah aren’t supposed to be rejected by the people. And the really disappointing news is that the three close disciples, the ones who get to glimpse this glory on Mount Tabor, the ones who should hold this experience closest, vanish when the whips and nails and wood are brought out. The really disappointing news is that the ones of us who often feel the highest spiritual highs, whether in congregational life or in private devotion, are the ones who bail when times get tough…or even just plainly ordinary.

The good news, though, is that God’s decision to reveal his glory to us never depends on our ability to stay faithful to the vision or the promise. Our salvation does not depend on our determination in going through the church workout, in reading up on revival or the amount of times we go to the Bible. When everything is said and done, God gets close to us not by asking us to approach to his light, but by climbing down into our dark world. As we look in disappointment at the Jesus of Good Friday’s disaster, and especially as we confront our own fear and our tendency to turn our backs on this Son of Man’s humility, as we trudge almost hopelessly through the dark valleys of our own life, let’s carry this vision of Jesus so we remember that Golgotha is not his final hill.

So, Jesus, now that you’re risen, we have a request. Forget what I said to Hollywood tonight. Go ahead and spoil this ending for us, Jesus. You still have us in the palm of your hand, after all. From the top of Mount Tabor remind us we can see the empty tomb. And in these valleys we trod, gather us again and feed us. Make our faces shine. Tell us, Jesus, that you will wear that white robe again, and then it will be worn forever. And on that day it won’t just be your robe, Jesus. It will be ours, too, for you will clothe us in it, too, because you love us. All that blood and violence and shame that we know now so well will be washed away. On that day we’ll build a few tents, or something like it, and you will let us stay there in your holy presence forever.

On second thought, there’s no spoiling the plot at all. Rather you’ve saving the plot, Jesus…just like you save and transfigure us all.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.