Sunday, August 24, 2014

St. Bartholomew, Apostle - August 24, 2014 (John 1:43-51 and Exodus 19:1-6)

It is safe to say that much of the world was somewhat caught off guard and deeply appalled this week by the news and the video coverage of the execution of American journalist James Foley at the hands of Islamic State militants. The footage shows him there with shaved head as he kneels before the camera next to an ominous, masked figure dressed totally in black, as he pleads for his life and asks, under duress, that the U.S. stop its air assault on the Islamic State’s forces. Seconds later, a knife is brandished and he is beheaded in chilling fashion. Even as our own heartland finds itself embroiled in race-related riots and violence for the second week in a row; even as we have endured years of similar stories from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the scene of Foley’s grotesque death seemed out-of-place. Indeed, our own President rebuked the Islamic State and its actions by saying such a group “has no place in the 21st century.”

As much as I or anyone else may want that statement to be true, and as much as I hope we could all work together to ensure the protection of innocent people and the respect of those we view as different from us, the president’s thoughtful comments on the matter did make me wonder, what century does such an act belong in? In what era would such a disgusting display of cowardice not be out of place?

"The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew" Jusepe de Ribera (1632)
One convenient answer for that would be Nathanael Bartholomew’s, the saint the church commemorates on August 24. There is no firm data on who Bartholomew was or how his life ended, but the paraments hang red this morning because the church has long suspected blood and violence were involved. Perhaps he was beheaded. Perhaps he was flayed alive, like the tradition claims. Regardless, Bartholomew (who likely went by the other name of Nathanael), is remembered as a martyr like most of the other apostles, recalled as someone who was killed by his captors because of his witness to Jesus as the risen Lord.

I’m not certain that the 1st century was overall any more violent or dangerous than the 21st century, but the truth is that for many of the earliest followers of Christ, a horrible, gruesome death was not too uncommon. Standing up for one’s allegiance to Christ was often a very risky affair, and the church has always, for good reason, treasured their witness. Their ability to tell the good news of Jesus even in the face of violence is inspiring and becomes for all believers a sobering reminder of what it often means to stand up and speak out for the cause of the gospel, a truth that is so profound it demands a person’s whole life in order to tell it.

However, it is worth noting that Bartholomew wasn’t always standing up or speaking out. His journey to being an apostle begins in cynicism and disbelief. When we meet him this morning by his other name, Nathanael, we find him under a fig tree, doubting whether anything good can come from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. To be fair, it is an honest question. Nazareth was a rather small Podunk town that could claim no A-listers. To believe that God would choose it as a hometown for the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, was a more than a little preposterous. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is the quote that Nathanael gets remembered for, and it is often adapted to express initial skepticism about a place or a people we have come to associate with mediocrity or even bad news. One can imagine people nowadays might mutter things under their breath like, “Can anything good come out of Baghdad?” or “Can anything good come out of Ferguson?”

Yes, Nathanael Bartholomew’s life as one of the twelve called disciples begins with this air of condescension and doubt, and yet Jesus praises him for his honesty, contrasting Nathanael with Nathanael’s ancient ancestor Jacob, the father of the entire nation, who was full of deceit and trickery. Even after Nathanael joins up with Philip to find out more about this Jesus figure, Nathanael is still a little bit suspicious, wondering how Jesus would know anything about him. Eventually, however, through this encounter, Jesus transforms Nathanael into a devoted disciple. He goes from fig tree to followership, from sitting in cynicism to standing and speaking the truth in a matter of minutes. Jesus promises him he will see even greater things than Jacob did, who once had a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. As a disciple, Nathanael will be stepping into a way of life where all of God’s promises will be ascending and descending in what Jesus is doing.

It’s like the message that God gives his people as they stand at the base of Mt. Sinai in this lesson from Exodus. God reminds them that they did not do anything in order to be brought into the heart of God’s presence. That was all God’s doing. God bore them on eagles’ wings. God brought them out of their slavery in Egypt, even in spite of their recalcitrance and doubt. There was no way they could revoke that love or go back to not being God’s people. Now, however, comes their response to God’s saving act. Keeping God’s commandments, living into God’s covenant is what they do in response to that.  They don’t earn God’s favor by keeping the commandments and the like, but by faithful response to God’s grace they become God’s treasured possession, the jewel in the crown that shines with the truest and brightest hue. That is, they become truth-tellers about God’s mercy and grace. They, too, become apostles, people sent to spread the message in word and deed about the kind of God they have. Nathanael Bartholomew will discover what Israel time and time again discovered, and what James Foley’s bravery demonstrated: the world does not always appreciate truth-tellers. It is surprisingly difficult to stand in the midst of things and speak the truth about God and live the truth of his love.

James Foley (photo: Globalpost/AP)
However, God doesn’t just leave the Nathanaels and the Israelites and you and me to stand up and speak on our own. As it turns out, we have no better example of God’s desire to tell the truth about our sin and the world’s darkness and the truth about God’s repeated sacrifices for us than the rabbi from Nazareth, himself. He is executed, too, in cruel fashion by captors who are trying to send a message to get him to stop with his compassion and humility. But God raises him from the dead, and in doing so sends his own message that the powers of good ultimately triumph over evil…that the truth about human cruelty and God’s love will eventually be heard by all people, whether they can accept it or not.

Sometimes I wonder if we start to believe that the price of following Jesus, the of telling the truth about God in a brutal world, just isn’t as costly as it used to be. We convince ourselves that less bravery is required nowadays because we think our century is less ruthless and violent than earlier ones. In some ways that may be true, but the Lord of grace is still beckoning people from underneath their fig trees of complacency to stand up and speak out and witness to the wondrous demonstrations of Jesus’ love and power in the world.  Let us not forget that the school cafeterias and the soccer practice fields we inhabit are, for many of us, still terribly difficult places to stand up and speak out. And yet Jesus shows up there, suffering and conquering alongside the weak.

Thankfully, the pictures of James Foley kneeling beside his executioner weren’t the only chilling images scrolling before us this week. We were also subjected to hundreds of renditions of the Ice Bucket Challenge, a social media phenomenon that has celebrities and regular folks alike pouring buckets of ice water over their heads and filming it in order to raise awareness and funds for the foundation that fights ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. At last count, the ALS foundation has received $48.1 million dollars as a result of the challenge, which is 20 times more money than the organization received at the same time last year. My Facebook newsfeed included several of you completing the challenge, and at least one staff member here has challenged me to do the same. It’s been a lot of fun to see this happen, a great diversion from all the ever-present, unrelenting negative stories.

To be honest, I’ve enjoyed watching all these people pour water on their heads but not as as much as I enjoy pouring baptismal water over people’s heads. It occurs to me that whether or not you’ve taken on the ALS Icebucket Challenge, every Sunday we essentially issue our own Icebucket challenge. Someone stands beside that basin right there and remind you that you are God’s chosen possession. The worship leader reminds you that God calls you and transforms you from fig tree complacency to faithful follower. And then the Spirit urges you to “take the challenge” of contributing your life to the cause of the gospel, in this crazy 21st century.

Bartholomew the Apostle took it. And, by the grace of God, you do too.


Thanks be to God! 



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15A] - August 17, 2014 (Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28)

After years of trying my hand at children’s sermons and chapel services for our nursery school, and still trying to get it right, I am slowly learning that usually the ones that go best are the ones where I use some kind of object as a lesson. Ms. Christy, our diaconal minister is especially adept at this…although I must say I was curious to see how she might incorporate an object lesson today to discuss “evil intentions, murder…and fornication!” Naturally, given the nature of the children’s sermon target audience, things can still go awry, but, generally-speaking, object lessons help focus everyone’s attention. They give people something concrete to concentrate on. They make topics that are usually pretty abstract, “out there”—like faith itself (which is pretty abstract)—and make them real and “down here,” which is doubly helpful since most adults are paying as much attention to the children sermon as the children are. In fact, one of my colleagues suggests that perhaps the sermons preachers deliver from the pulpit should contain an object lesson each week.

There may be something to that idea since Jesus, himself, is not above using an object lesson here or there to make a point about the surprising grace of God’s kingdom. He does it, for example, this in this morning’s gospel text when he goes from his lessons about the Pharisees’ rules regarding ritual defilement and food purity laws to this encounter with a desperate Canaanite woman in the region outside of his native Galilee. Although in real time these two instances—the teaching itself and then the teaching moment—probably spanned a few days because of travel, Matthew puts them right next to each other to make sure Jesus’ point is concrete.

Now, to be completely honest: it’s not altogether clear from what Matthew tells us whether Jesus initially intends for this encounter with the Canaanite woman to serve as an object lesson or if the opportunity just falls in his lap. Regardless, her presence and her request for her daughter’s healing present a wonderful occasion for Jesus to give a concrete, real-world explanation of his abstract lesson about the rules of religion. As Kentucky author and environmentalist Wendell Berry says, Jesus “seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.”[1]

It is that religion in the temples and synagogues which Jesus had been talking about. The religious leaders, such as Pharisees and scribes, had taken issue with Jesus’ disregard for the rules and restrictions they helped maintain and enforce, rules like the ritual washing of hands before eating and not sharing a table with people who were deemed “unclean,” rules like the avoidance of certain foods and how those foods were obtained. These rules and restrictions went far beyond being a hassle to follow; they had terrible power in Jesus’ day. They helped determine who was fully a member of the righteous community and who was left outside of it. They created strict boundaries around what was holy and therefore life-giving, and what was defiled and therefore essentially deadly.

Granted, the temple in Jerusalem was to remain a place of purity and holiness where worshippers’ faith could be renewed through an encounter with the divine presence, but the leaders of the religion had barnacled over a great deal of that relationship between God and human with their own numerous interpretations of the laws. As a result, they had claimed that power of determining who was in and who was out, who was clean and who was defiled. Safe to say, that was probably most people’s impression of religion in Jesus’ day: a habitual fascination with clean and unclean, following rules and ticking off boxes.          

"Eating with Unwashed Hands" Jan Luyken (2008)
All that really was, of course, was a desire to control. Borne of human sin, focused purely on self-preservation, a religion of rules and regulations is nothing but a longing for power—power to ensure that we can keep ourselves in God’s good graces, keep ourselves pure from the world and other people not like us, keep ourselves…alive. And Jesus sees right through it. The experience with God in the Temple was always supposed to be about relationship, not power and control. It is about faith, not following rules. It is about life in God flowing from of the hands of a few and out into the fields and sheep pastures, to the houses and tables of everyone in creation.

The disciples get to see exactly what this all means when the object lesson appears. It would be difficult to find someone more removed from the heart of rule-obsessed religion than a Canaanite woman in Gentile territory. She wasn’t part of the household of Israel and she was a woman—to the religious authorities that was two big strikes against her. Jesus then illustrates the ability of religious rules to demean people and harm that relationship with God by letting them take their course: first, Jesus ignores her. When she appeals to him a second time, he reminds her that she is not in the in-crowd, that she is an “other.” Eventually he even insults her verbally, using a common put-down of the day. In the end, it is her strong faith in Jesus as Lord that cuts through all that religious convention. It ultimately pays little attention to the rules and boundaries that humans use to divide and control and demean and exclude. It just looks at Jesus and says, “You alone can help me.”

"Christ on the Cross between the Two Thieves"
Peter Paul Rubens (1619-1620)
Of course, you are right to say this Canaanite woman is not an object at all. She’s a human, and that’s part of the point. Rules of religion, used without care, can dehumanize people, turning us all into objects that are labelled clean or unclean. But no amount of regulation-following and ritual-completing will eve make one clean in God’s eyes. No amount of church attendance or participation in service projects or money donated will secure that relationship of faith that God is reaching out to create in us. That, my friends, has been accomplished by the teacher who dies on the cross to rid the whole world of the sin that defiles from within, the man who suffers and becomes an outsider himself in order to make firm God’s relationship with us even through the barrier of death.

Yes, the sermons that go best are the ones that have some visible, tangible aspect to them often, and lo and behold it is a foreign woman well off the beaten path who becomes the perhaps the best example of faith in God through Jesus that the gospels offer. Thank goodness God is still teaching this way!

Two weeks ago members of the Epiphany high school youth group returned from a week of service projects on the Eastern Shore. Most of these projects were undertaken among regions there that might be compared with Jesus’ adventure into Tyre and Sidon. That is, we worked not among the posh tourist towns or even among the many different farms that spread out on either side of the peninsula’s main highway but rather down the unpaved roads well off the beaten path into places ironically named Dreamland 1, Dreamland 2 and Mirina, the neglected trailer parks that house the migrant workers who pick produce on those farms.

Some of us were given the task of putting a new layer of paint on their rusting and leaning single-wides. Others of us went into the trailer parks to pick up pre-school and elementary-school-aged children and shuttle them to a local Methodist Church where we ran something similar to Vacation Bible School. We’d pull our minivans and rental vans into the communities and the kids would come streaming out of the dark and empty-looking trailers, literally by the dozens, excited for a day of art and games.

On our last day there, we had the additional responsibility of organizing and then distributing donated school supplies to the children, of whom there were about a hundred. The whole affair got pretty chaotic pretty quickly, kids jumping into vans, our youth trying to count squirmy kids to make sure everyone got the school supplies they needed. In the midst of this, there was a language barrier, too. Unfortunately, there were not enough book-bags for each kid to receive one, and pretty soon we noticed an argument was brewing in the van I was driving over a particularly desirable book-bag. Two elementary school girls started to get a little testy about who would receive it, and, knowing how these things can go with my own two elementary-school-age daughters, I began to worry that we’d have to come up with some rule or regulation to decide who got it. Without any bright ideas of how to do that, one of our youth and I just looked at the two girls and stated the obvious, as if a plea for help: “Only one of you can have this.” Immediately, one of the girls pointed to her friend and said, “Then I want her to have it.”

Later that evening, Matthew, the youth, shared that’s where he had seen Christ that day. I fully agreed, and then it got me thinking: were those migrant worker children objects of our charity? Or were they human examples of faith and life in God? Had they been placed in our path to offer us an opportunity to serve and practice acts of Christlike kindness, to offer them the crumbs of donated school supplies? Or had we been brought into their path so we could experience little outbursts of Christlike humility?

What do you find to be the case in your lives, as you share your faith and practice your religion, as you come to conclusions about what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri, or Gaza? Are you the in-crowd or the outsider?

I’m not really sure where I am all the time in that dichotomy, but I am more and more thankful to have a God who is still teaching all of us wandering Canaanites wherever we are with the love and compassion of his Son…a Teacher who takes his religion out of the temples and into the fields and trailer parks and focuses our attention on all the people of God…a gracious Lord who cleanses even defiled religious leaders like me with crumbs that fall from his good table.


Thanks be to God!




The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Jayber Crow. Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA 2000. P121