Thursday, November 27, 2014

Day of Thanksgiving [Year A] - November 27, 2014 (Psalm 65

There's nothing like a having a day set aside for nationwide thanksgiving—a day which, perhaps more than any other, proclaims our unity as a people—preceded by two days of violent protests,  reminding us that not everyone experiences the blessings of this land the same or equally. Granted, the discrepancies between various components of American society are always there, especially when it comes to wealth and economic opportunity, but the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the “tumult of the peoples” in other cities and states have brought them into stark relief for us once again. The psalmist this morning says that “those who live at the earth’s farthest bounds are awed by [God’s] signs,” a sentiment which claims that God’s abundant goodness is so vast in its scope no one anywhere can deny it. Yet plenty have reason to, and we don’t have to go to earth’s farthest bounds to find them. They’re on our TV screens.

For many, Thanksgiving will be celebrated this year through the haze of tear gas and smoldering buildings, to say nothing of those whose lives and livelihoods have been so deeply affected by the shooting of Michael Brown in August. Indeed, emotions are running so high for so many people that it is even difficult to offer a simple observation about what is going on without raising the ire of someone, which only serves to prove the point that in so many ways we are a divided people.

Camille Pissarro "Women farming"
It is fitting, then, that before he begins listing the his descriptive examples of God’s bounty and generosity in things of the earth—the rivers that enrich it, the grain that feeds the people, the wagon tracks spilling over with the harvest---the writer of Psalm 65 begins with a reflection on God’s forgiveness. That is, before we sing of those wagon tracks that overflow, we confess that our sins overflow, and that God’s mercy overflows all the more. It is chiefly in pardon through the love of God’s Son on the cross where we begin to see God’s abundant giving.

Our eyes may then, in faith, be opened to the ways in which our whole lives are enriched by God’s presence, every dark and forsaken corner illuminated by Jesus’ mercy, and like the one Samaritan leper for whom that eye-opening happens, we can fall down in thanksgiving to praise God.

For the writer of Psalm 65, The thanksgiving for God’s mercy then develops into a realization that all human ingenuity and prosperity comes from God, that our blessings are not entirely of our own design, nor are they by accident. The psalmist’s images are agrarian in nature—the furrows and ridges of the grain fields, the flocks that blanket the hills—and may sound a bit foreign to us in the digital age.

"Grace" (Eric Enstrom, 1919)
A story is told of a farmer from the country was in the city to do some business. While there, he stopped at a diner to get a bite to eat. As was his custom, before he ate, he bowed his head to give a word of thanks to God. There were some other patrons in the restaurant who took notice of this bumpkin and his traditional, quaint ways. Once he was done praying they asked him in jest, “Does everybody where you come from pray before eating?”

The farmer looked up and said, “Nope. There are some who don’t. We call them pigs and they just dig in.” 

Yes, the connections between agriculture and God’s blessings in nature are often clear, but are we any less dependent on God’s goodness? The types of gifts that surround us today may not be immediately recognizable as coming from the earth that God so generously waters, but somewhere back at their source they still do. Those whose immediate prosperity is so closely tied to the annual harvest, are likely to be more aware of their vulnerability, especially if it were all to be taken away by bad weather or community strife. But in fact, we are all growing and succeeding as a result of God’s gift of a fertile earth, a cosmos that just happens to be perfectly tuned to harbor life, and the thoughtfulness of human hearts that are created to think of others.

Last week at one of the men’s lunch groups our discussion centered around people who we knew in high school who were especially gifted or talented at something and then what they did later in life. Did they manage to make much of themselves? Had they recognized their blessings and used them in such a way to bring success? As we were sharing our stories, one among us told a story about a kid in grade school who had nothing. His family was poor, and he showed up to school every day without any lunch. A particularly venerable teacher, named Ms. Loving, spent some of her own money every day to get the kid something to eat. Years later, long after he had graduated from school and settled across the country to make a name for himself in Hollywood that student, Forrest Tucker, sent a check to Ms. Loving for $1000.

Abbotts' Farm, Mt Lebanon, PA
Yet returning thanks as a follower of Christ means more than following through with our gratitude to the Great Giver. It also involves following through with the mindfulness of others’ needs. Our thanksgiving to God is fullest  when we receive the generous blessings of paid-for lunches, valleys bedecked with ample grain and remember that they are not for us alone. They are for sharing, collecting and distributing so that all may take part in the bounty.

“God is able,” the apostle Paul calmly explains to the wayward congregation in Corinth who is trying to go it alone, “to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” Yes, it is even those who live at the earth’s farthest bounds who will, through our thanksgiving, sense awe and wonder by God’s signs of generosity.

In our truest thanksgiving we come to understand not just God’s largess but also our interconnectedness. We pray that God give us our daily bread, not me my daily bread. We are inspired to see a universe that the psalmist envisions: where God’s desire to give and provide and especially forgive is always the root, the genesis of all good. And, furthermore, he whose actions toward us are even more loving than Ms. Loving: always bigger than our failure to follow through.

sorting donations of school supplies
This year’s celebration is as good a one as any to remember the importance of framing all of our thanks with a recognition that the only way we come before the Lord to say anything at all is by his great mercy, his great love. Therefore, before we launch in with our declarations on how good the past year may have been for us personally or even as a nation we start with an honest confession of human selfishness and our need for Jesus’ mercy. As we gather to partake of good food and cherished family memory-sharing, let our thoughts fall to those who still feel ostracized as well as those who struggle to keep us safe in this great land.

Likewise, before we become too obsessed with our differences and our divisions, before we become too glum about the things we argue about and the way some things never seem to change, let also remember that, as the psalmist also says, to God all flesh—black, white, illegal immigrant and permanent resident—shall one day, by the grace of Christ, come.

And, for that, give great thanks.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ the King [Year A] - November 23, 2014 (Matthew 25:31-46)

A very peculiar but well-timed story popped up in my newsfeed this week, especially considering I’m not a gamer and don’t really know much at all about video games. The bottom line, as best as I can understand it, is that some video game company just announced an exciting new expansion to one of its really popular games that will feature warfare action between—get this!—goats and sheep. The game itself is called (wait for it) Goat Simulator.

Now, I’ve heard of a flight simulator and a race car simulator, but never a goat simulator! As best I can tell, when you play it, your character on the screen is actually an unruly goat and your objective is to run around and try to head-butt things and cause trouble. I don’t know how the sheep factor in, but…it’s warfare! It’s got to be cool, right? Maybe the sheep just go around trying to fix the things that the goats mess up, or maybe the two actually fight each other! I might have to get into gaming just to find out!

Apparently the conflict between goats and sheep has been going on for millennia, which is why I decided this peculiar piece of news was well-timed. I knew what was coming up as the gospel lesson this Sunday. When Jesus decides to tell a parable to prepare his disciples for what the final judgment will be like, he uses goats and sheep, too.

But it’s not warfare. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite, because in the parable it looks like the sheep and goats intermingle quite well. That was the way people took care of their livestock back in ancient Israel. Sheep and goats typically got a long fine together. They had different grazing habits, and so goatherds and shepherds let their flocks freely roam on the fields and hills together during the day. In the evening, however, they were put into separate stocks and kept that way until morning. The goats were gathered together for milking. The sheep were left alone.

My guess is that this was a scene which Jesus’ disciples and the others who listened to him saw repeated, day in and day out, in the countryside and in the farming towns where they had lived. Jesus grabs hold of this common scenario in order to illustrate for them several aspects of what discipleship in his name is like. Jesus finds this everyday sheep-versus-goat situation—both the part when they saunter among the hillsides and pastures and the part when they get separated at the end of the day helpful in explaining what life in God’s kingdom entails.

This part about the life is under the reign of Christ is especially important because, as the disciples will begin to understand—and as we are reminded each and every day—Christ’s kingdom is not fully here among us yet. Pretty soon that will be their frustration, and it is ours too. We glimpse it and experience the presence of God’s kingdom from time to time when instances of humility and self-sacrifice triumph over pride and self-centeredness or when forgiveness is practiced, when systems of aggression and dominance give way momentarily to peacefulness and equality. We trust the news about Jesus’ triumph over those ways of aggression and death and the life of the new world to come, but there is still much about the world—and, quite frankly, about ourselves—that isn’t fully reflecting God’s righteousness. And so the whole world mingles and grazes like the sheep and the goats, going about our business like usual.

The mixing and grazing that the world does, this mix of good and evil, is the easier part of the parable for us to get our heads around. It’s that separation that looms at the end of the day, though, that catches our attention, especially because the unruly goats meet a rather gruesome end. Maybe the Goat Simulator game is more based in reality than I realize!

A woman in my home congregation always fretted whenever this parable came up in worship because she was so afraid she’d be a goat. She couldn’t get that out of her mind. I think that’s an honest reaction to this lesson, one that Jesus might want to provoke in his listeners. However, if all we do when we hear Jesus’ words here is worry about our ultimate fate and whether, at the end of the long day, we’re going to end up simulating goats or simulating sheep…we’re letting the law rule our life and our faith. If all we do is concentrate on those labels then it is fear and anxiety that will dictate our discipleship, and we’ll end up missing the best part of what Jesus is trying to teach.

The best part—the most important part—of Jesus’ lesson is not that one day the righteous sheep will be rid of these unruly goats but that we get to see our Lord’s face in the meantime. As we wait for that time when all creation will recognize the authority and the love of the Risen Jesus, his living presence is still among us.

The proper posture of one of his disciples, then, is not one that continually looks inward, asking “Am I a sheep or am I a goat?” but one that looks outward, wondering “Where will I get to see my Lord’s face today?”

And the answer to that isn’t so easy to forget. The Lord who has claimed us forever as his own as he gives himself up on the cross is still present among those who are suffering. If we want to see him, serve him, have his grace imparted to us, then we can go find him among the “least of these.”

Amidst all the political and even religious grandstanding about immigration this week, amidst the xenophobia and the racism that still poisons our country’s debates when it comes to that issue, amidst the confusing arguments about things like deportation and undocumented migrants and what care for our neighbor means appeared this story out of a southern California:

The Valley Springs Manor is an assisted living facility that shut down last fall. Once they stopped getting paid for their work, the staff all left except for two—the cook and the janitor. “There was about 16 residents left behind,” said the cook Maurice, “and we had a conversation in the kitchen, ‘What are we going to do?’” Realizing the residents wouldn’t have anyone to care for them, they transformed their roles very quickly. Both men, Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez, ages 34 and 35, started taking care of the sixteen residents, many of whom suffered from dementia, around the clock. They doled out the medications, fixed their food, changed their clothes and bedding for several days by themselves until the fire department and sheriff took over.

“I couldn’t see myself going home,” Rowland said, “next thing you know they’re in the kitchen trying to cook their food and they burn the place down.” He went on to say, “Even though they wasn’t our family, they were kind of like our family for this short period of time.”

“Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty? When did we see you as a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you as a resident of an assisted living facility?”
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Living under the righteous reign of the risen Jesus, you begin to see family where you didn’t think there was any. Living under the promise of the gospel—that Jesus has suffered and died out of God’s great love for you—empowers us to greet his face each and every day. The least of these among us are, as it turns out, playing Jesus simulator, and we grow in faith and hope when we jump in their game and begin to serve, clothe, feed, and love. When we let that gospel rule in our hearts, we see the kingdom of his righteousness begins breaking in all around us.

Recently I was performing pre-marriage counseling with a young couple who recently got married, a process I always enjoy. As we were winding our session up one day our conversation drifted from the discussions about the nitty-gritty of sharing a common life, combining checking accounts and negotiating conflict, to some of the joys of having a spouse.  They got a little glint in their eye as they talked about how they had already begun to enjoy, as they described it, doing “grown-up things together.” I was a little curious to know what exactly they meant by that, because they clearly had something particular in their mind. When I asked them, they coyly looked at each other for a second and then said, “Well, last week we shopping together for items for the food pantry, and last Sunday we brought them in…together, like our parents used to do when we were little. Doing that on our own made us feel so ‘grown up.’”

Lord Jesus, hasten the day when we all define maturity that way, in terms of giving, in terms of feeding the hungry.

Humble Savior, hasten the day when your grace fully dissolves my tendency to live and serve others solely from a sense of fear that I might be a goat.

Christ our King, hasten that great day when you gather us all before your throne and there are no more border patrol and immigration disputes because there are no more borders, when there will be no more assisted living facilities because you will be our only assistance, the day when there will be no more food pantry shopping because there will be no more hunger. Hasten that great day and remind us—you Gracious Gamer, you—that you were present with us all along.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 27A] - November 9, 2014 (Matthew 25:1-13 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

The grandmother carries her cellphone everywhere she goes. Overall, members of her generation might not be labelled the most technologically-savvy, but she has learned how to make calls on it and how to text. She has figured out how to read the number of bars that signal receptivity and knows how to keep the battery with ample charge. Most importantly, however, she never turns the phone off and she never, ever, puts the ringer on silent or even on low. If that means it might ring out loudly in the middle of something else—in the middle of a meal, in the middle of a worship service, in the middle of night—it doesn’t matter. People will have to understand, and they will understand once they know why that cell phone is so important, once they know what it helps her be ready for. She is awaiting a call. It is not just any call, mind you, but rather the call that an organ donor has been found for her granddaughter who is suffering from a life-threatening health problem. 

And as those things tend to go, the call could come anytime. Their wait has already lasted nine months, seven months longer than her family had initially anticipated. Everything is in place: the surgeons, the daily rounds of physical therapy, the tens of thousands of dollars it will take to perform the surgery…and now it is a waiting game.

The picture of faithful anticipation, that grandmother is a member of this congregation. She is an inspiration to me, and those who know her know that every fiber of her being is poised for that day to come, so that she may to respond and arrive at bedside. That phone call means life. And so, you see, it would be foolish to turn the ringer off.

It would be foolish to turn the ringer off. It would be foolish to do anything—or to fail to do something—that could cut yourself off from a future of life, that could exclude you from a time of celebration and hope, from the chance to be included in a bright new day. On the other hand, it would be wise to wait with all of your resources of mind and body focused on preparedness of that day as if it could arrive—as if the phone could ring—at any given moment.

That is the point of the parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids that Jesus tells his disciples not too long before his final days in Jerusalem. As Jewish people who were anticipating the arrival of an apocalyptic figure called the Son of Man, they might have started to wonder just when Jesus’ own exciting kingdom of the future was going to explode fully onto the scene. It was also the message taken to heart by early Christians, like the Thessalonians, for example, who could have sworn that Jesus, once resurrected and ascended to heaven, would be back very soon. And yet he appeared to be lingering.

That time of lingering brought about anxiety in some, and fatigue in others. The wise bridesmaids, in this parable, are like that patient but pragmatic grandmother who travels everywhere with her cell phone ringer on. They know what to do with that anxiety and fatigue, and have come prepared with extra oil for their lamps in the event that the wait for the bridegroom goes on longer than anticipated.
And that, as it turned out, was something that could very well happen. In first-century weddings, all the financial and legal negotiations of two houses’ fortunes coming together had to take place before any celebration or consummation was involved. As the attendants for the couple waited outside at the Dominion Club or the Jefferson Hotel Ballroom the bridegroom and the bride’s family could have easily gotten tied up elsewhere, trying to iron out the details of the wedding contract.

Every wedding back then, as it turns out, involved a bit of a waiting game. As a guest, you would not want to be caught unprepared when the bridegroom finally showed up. That is, if you wanted to join in the grand celebration, you needed to do whatever you could to prepare for that moment to start. After all, if the bridegroom finally shows up in the night, he might slip by without notice. Therefore, it would be helpful to bring lamp-like torches. And some extra oil in case you run out. Keep the cell phone ringer on, as a loud as you possibly can.

For those who hear this parable, especially those who have heard Jesus even refer to himself as the bridegroom on a number of occasions, at least two things would have made an impression. First, Christ might seem to be delayed, detained by some obligations or commitments we don’t yet understand. Followers could expect a lull between his first earthly appearance and the time in the future when he promises they would see him again. Moreover, they cannot predict when that lull would end, although many people will try to. It might last for ages, inexplicably dragging on through the night—or through centuries of nights—long past a time we think would be opportune.

Second, this time of waiting comes with certain obligations for the people who long to be reunited with him. A spiritual wakefulness is entailed. Just as the bridesmaids stand at the door of the banquet hall, right there at the edge where they can probably hear the party musicians warming up and smell the food that is being laid out on the tables, those who follow Jesus wait with a sense that the new kingdom is just about to dawn, that they already have in mind what they’ll do and how they’ll live once the kingdom of mercy comes in full. When the door finally opens to that bright new day, they’ll be right there in the midst of it.

In our time as we await the return of our Lord I think that we can fall prey to foolishness just as easily as those five bridesmaids. Some of us, for example, will be convinced by the false theology that some type of so-called rapture will occur, that Jesus’ sudden arrival means that a select number of people will be sucked up from daily life into the heavens to be with him. While some Scriptures, including Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, seem to suggest that possibility, no one gave them that unbiblical interpretation until a minority sect the 1830s gained popularity. Thoughts of the rapture make for great science fiction books and movies, but it fully denies the fact that Jesus himself repeatedly talks about his kingdom’s full arrival as something that happens on earth when he joins us. It also suggests that God is somewhat vindictive and despising of the world he has created and redeemed.

All too often, however, I think our foolishness can lean in the other direction—that is, we think the world really never will be different, that the doors to a bright new future in this life or the next will never open, that we just inch along with no real hope in sight. To be honest, apathy is a far greater temptation than anxiety. Complacency is what cuts us off from a future of life and hope.

Interestingly enough, an inspirational quote on a bag I received when I dropped by a local restaurant this week for lunch took a noble stab at eliminating that complacency. It was noon, and we all kind of inched along methodically in this dimly-lit eating establishment through our burritos’ assembly line, numbed, perhaps, by another instance of the daily grind—but there the cheery bag waited for us at the end. It read, “We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naïve to work toward a better one.”

While I can appreciate its attitude of optimism—and while I certainly want more people to do things that make the world better—I’m not sure bridesmaids who wait for the bridegroom should sign on so quickly. After all, our Lord did not come and die in order to make the world better. He came to make it new. We do, in fact, hope for a perfect world, and we have that Jesus’ love will achieve it, just as we see the cross as a victory over evil. We do anticipate that, at some point, the doors will swing open and the eternal celebration of God’s victory in Christ will begin for us, just as we are confident it has already begun for those who have died.

No, it’s not romantic to perform works of justice and compassion, to practice peacemaking and care for the world’s poor, regardless of which political party you affiliate with. It’s not naïve to forgive others seventy-seven times, to share talents and time generously. It is not idealistic to worship in the assembly of Christians with regularity, to speak out for those who can’t speak for themselves.  It’s not romantic or naïve to do these things. It is wise to do so. It is wise to illumine the dark world with our mercy and our diligent longing for God’s presence. It’s wise because these things are like oil for our lamps that prepare us to greet him when he does arrive. These things are what we, led by the Spirit, naturally do as we stand with our ears to the door of that great future where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

As that faithful and fiercely-loving grandmother demonstrates, there is a good life in waiting, holding the torch-lamps up. We do what we can to make sure we don’t miss that call that means life. Strengthened by his presence now in the Word and mystically in the bread and the wine, we wait and we work and we watch for our Lord and his blessed, perfect world with our ringer…on.

To do otherwise would be foolish.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.