Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - March 29, 2015 - "The Cry of the Whole Congregation"

Many churchgoers, especially Lutherans it seems, often poke fun at themselves about sitting in the same spot in the same pew over and over again. Of course, I suppose I can’t throw too many stones in this regard, considering I get the benefit of the same seat week after week. The fact yet remains: we can get a little set in our ways, and even a little territorial, and woe to the unwitting guest who “bumps” us out of our regular seat!

There was a legend in the first congregation I served about one woman in particular who liked to sit every week in the very back pew, in the seat right next to the aisle. When one former pastor supposedly tried to rope off the back third of the nave one particular poorly-attended Sunday so that everyone would sit closer together and closer to the front, this one woman simply got up and left. She wasn’t going to worship unless she could sit in her preferred seat. I ended up getting to know Florence pretty well and she was super nice, but I was too afraid to ever rope off her seat to see what she’d do. That’s an extreme case, perhaps, but we all know what I’m talking about. We can laugh about it because there’s an element of truth to it.

However, as much as no one person really belongs in any particular pew here, I have to admit I was touched this week when I heard one member her talk about her “pew buddies.” I had gone to visit her in the hospital. As we were talking she mentioned to me that the people who sat around her on Sunday mornings had known about the upcoming procedure She then named them—one by one, the people who sit around her each week—and the individual ways they offered care to her during her rehabilitation. Now, her place in that pew is not “hers” by some right, as if no one else could sit there, but it hers in the sense that it identifies her place within the community. It gives her a space, a roll, a part in the bigger scheme of things.

Two Italian photographers recently published a book of photos using a camera set up unobtrusively in front of the altar in several different congregations. It was meant to give people and idea of what worshippers look like as a body as they go through the motions of worship from the priest’s point of view. Most people never get to see that perspective, but, as you can see in the book, clearly each person has their place. The book is titled Go in Peace.

In a world that is shifting so quickly, that gropes for peace, there is a lot to be said for knowing our place, having a designated role, identifying where we belong,  understanding where we fit in relation to the larger community, and, for some of us, becoming attached to a particular pew on a Sunday morning is just one example of that. It certainly isn’t or shouldn’t be the case for everyone. Nevertheless, what about you? Do you feel like you have a place—a roll, a spot—in this community, or in any community, for that matter?

For the people of God, the reading and re-telling of Jesus’ suffering and death is ultimately about finding our spot. This is perhaps the principal reason why, every year—and on a much smaller scale, every week as the pastor lifts the bread and the cup in Christ’s holy meal—we gather in churches and cathedrals and worshiping communities around the globe and hear again the story of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem. We read and listen to hear again where it is we fit in, which role we might be playing in this great and tragic epic of God.

Pastor and writer Kazimierz Bem writes in a recent article about worship: “Some things are bigger than us. There needs to be a place where we are told uncomfortable truths about ourselves, our world and even about God—where we ask the questions our pop culture ignores or caricatures, and where we can look for answers. Where we pause — and reflect theologically.”[1]

In fact, one of the first acts of devotion that early Christians undertook was to retrace Jesus’ footsteps in Jerusalem leading up to his crucifixion. Just as the crowds once gathered to acclaim him as king and then later paraded him to the hill of crucifixion, early people of the faith gathered annually in Jerusalem to retrace his steps…but also theirs. They took palm branches and walked along the city streets. They gathered for special celebrations of the Lord’s Supper and kept vigil in darkened sanctuaries on Good Friday.

"The Denial of Peter" (Simon Bening, 1525)
But none of this was done purely for the drama. It was done out of a need to remember where they stood, where they sat, so to speak, as God’s wayward people, as these events unfolded. They grasped, as we do, that this story was not just something they listened to. It was something they participated in. It is not just a chain of events that make us imagine things about God and the world. It is a chain of events containing links that join us right to it.

So it is, we pause again today not simply in this sanctuary but in the midst of this story that is bigger than we are. We are confronted with uncomfortable truths and, whether we admit it, we find ourselves asking difficult questions, often prompted by different personal perspectives from the story itself. If they love him, why don’t Jesus’ followers do more to stop this from happening, like get him out of Jerusalem? Do I so quickly deny my relationship with the Lord the way Peter does? For what reasons is releasing convicted murderer Barabbas the better option? Deep down are we still more convinced of the power of violence over the hard way of peacefulness? Do I, like Pilate, feel pressure from society—from friends or culture in general—to take a stance about Jesus, but end up noncommittal? And then clincher: if Jesus really has the forces of God at his disposal, why on earth doesn’t he find a different way to bring about his kingdom? This whole ordeal with the cross and the nails is ridiculous, in the truest sense of the word. It’s like we find ourselves asking, along with the mockers, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God!”

Yes, before we know it, the story has done exactly what it set out to do: put us in our place, whether we like it or not. We know that when we hear it we have a place in this great and tragic—but ultimately triumphant—story of God.

"Crucifixion" (Guilio Carponi, 1648)
And, as it turns out, that’s the good news. Everyone, as it turns out, has a seat with their name on it. Everyone has a place in the story of God’s love, whether they are new to hearing it or deeply familiar with it. Everyone—even those people driving by our worship right now, headed to Martin’s or to the gym—everyone has a place in God’s love, because in Jesus, God has come to forgive and save. In Jesus, God has come to seek out the lost and the lonely, the cold and indifferent, to die for the ones who deny him and the ones who will betray. In Jesus, God has come to identify specifically with the person who feels they have no place at all, the one who feels the most hopeless, the least powerful. The point of Christ’ Passion is this: God has a place for each person in his kingdom, even though we gave him no place in ours.

So, today, I invite you to glance around at your “pew buddies,” your fellow members of a broken world, and speak up with boldness and claim a part. There’s a place for you in there somewhere. Maybe you’re like Florence and know exactly where you belong. But remember: just as we take in the despair of this part of the story, I assure you we will take part in the hope to which it leads, a permanent place at the table of mercy…from God’s view, one congregation, one people, faces all lifted up toward the risen Lord.


Thanks be to God!

Andate in Pace ("Go in Peace")

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Fourth Sunday in Lent [Year B] - March 15, 2015 (Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21)

Serpents in the wilderness. Everyone, it seems, has a story about a serpent in the wilderness…or at least the backyard.

As it happens, my most memorable story was from less than two years ago. On the way back from visiting the youth group while they were at the Kairos event at Roanoke College I stopped briefly at the Humpback Rocks parking lot to do some birding. I wandered off the path for a little bit over by the old homestead area, not realizing there were clear signs warning people to stay on it. As I was honing in on something in front of me I wanted to see close-up, paying no attention to my immediate vicinity, I began to hear a little whispering that sounded like a tiny baby’s rattle. I had never heard the sound of a real-live rattlesnake before, but it took my autonomic nervous system about 1.2 seconds to figure out that was what I was hearing. I froze in my tracks and looked down.

There, plain as can be, in the exact spot where I would have put my next step, was a 4-foot long Timber Rattler. And I was wearing sandals.

What likely saved me, I quickly discovered, was that it already had something in its mouth. A lifeless rodent of some sort was wedged in its jaws. However, as cool as my inner Steve Irwin might have thought it was, I didn’t want to tempt fate, so I very, very slowly and cautiously backed up from him and made my way back to the trail. What I noticed though, as I was doing this, was that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Literally—to look away, even for an instant, meant I could get seriously hurt and maybe die. The snake could change his mind in the blink of an eye, decide a protective strike against me was worth dropping his meal, and sink those venomous fangs in my foot before I knew it. I’m not sure I could have reacted fast enough if he had tried that, but I wasn’t going to look anywhere else. I kept staring at him like my life depended on it.

Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Esteban March)
The ancient Israelites had serpent-in-the-wilderness story. It wasn’t one of their more well-known stories, mind you, but it played out like a nightmare. They, too, had wandered off the path of gratefulness and devotion God had plainly laid out for them, so God sends deadly snakes into their wilderness. When the people are bitten, they aren’t told how to make an antivenin. They aren’t taught how to tie a tourniquet, or run away like crazy. Rather, they must stare at the bronze serpent statue that Moses makes like their life depends on it.

Indeed, their life does depend on it. According to the way that God has arranged this peculiar little lesson, that’s how they will live. They have to look straight at the very thing that is causing them to die. In order to be saved, they can’t take their eyes of the result of their sin, which are those awful snakes that God first sent as a judgment against their impatience.  Their salvation involves coming to terms with---looking in the eye of---the very problem in their midst.

That’s how I think this country feels now about the racism in its midst, and, quite honestly, about any number of problems that we fight and that fight us, biting us on our foolishly-sandaled feet. The videotape that emerged this week of some college students singing a racist chant on a bus on the way to a party was difficult to watch, especially if you’ve ever been or known a college student going to a party. The reports of more shootings of police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, are difficult to hear and see, especially if you’re one who has ever denounced those who serve in law enforcement.

Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Augustus John)
Yet in both of these scenarios, and plenty more like them, a way out of the wilderness will only come if these things are lifted up for us to confront. Rescue will arrive only if they are held before our faces in order to remind us there are deadly tendencies in our midst, slithering like snakes in the confines of our hearts, waiting to strike at any moment. Truly dealing with our sin and brokenness will never involve leaving examples of it in the dark. Salvation from the sin that infects us will involve bringing it out into the open, letting it sit in the light. That will be its judgment.

Theologian and church historian Leonard Sweet says, “What is wrong with humanity cannot be fixed simply by what is right with humanity.”  Oh, it’s so tempting to think it can be, to think that the goodness within ourselves will overcome the bad on its own, to believe that we’ll eventually drag our foolishness out into the light of judgment more times than not. But everyone has a story of serpents in the wilderness, and we know, deep-down, we aren’t able to outrun, outsmart, or out-serpent them. God is going to have to get involved. God is going to have to send the way of life that comes through looking at death.

As peculiar as we think the story about Moses and the bronze pole is, it turns out to be the perfect story for the lesson that Jesus is trying to teach Nicodemus. Nicodemus has come in the dark. He’s drawn to Jesus, interested in what he is teaching, but he’s afraid of what others may think of him for seeking out knowledge from him. He fears the judgment that would come by doing such a thing in the daylight. Jesus welcomes him, engages his question and his quest for knowledge. However, Jesus informs him, rescue for the world will not come from seeking more knowledge or gaining a more enlightened perspective, simply nurturing what is good about humanity. It will come only when the Son of Man is lifted up. Rescue for humankind will only come when the Son of Man is hoisted on a cross, for then we will see the full result of our sin. When Jesus dies that death, we will see that the endgame of all our inner and outer brokenness spells despair and death. We will remember that humans can be given the way out of slavery—right through to the Promised Land—and will still wander away, will still find cause to be ungrateful about it.  We will see the Son of Man dying and realize this is where all our paths in the wilderness will ultimately lead unless God gets involved.

Crucifixion (Bartolome Esteban Murillo)
But here’s the good news, for Nicodemus and for us. This isn’t solely about our judgment. The verse goes God so loves the world “that he sends his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him—“everyone who looks at him hoisted on the cross”—may not perish but may have eternal life.” The line that follows is perhaps even more important, “Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

You heard that right: God’s judgment of the world is to save it, to love it…not hate it or despise it, reject or abandon it. The cross of Jesus is at the same time God’s judgment of sin and also God’s victory over it. The cross of Jesus is at the same time God’s act of hauling out into the light all the things that are wrong with humanity that we need to see, and also God’s pronouncement of love for humanity anyway. God’s lifting up of his Son in death is God’s way of lifting us to eternal life.

One danger, of course, is interpreting this message as if it’s a once-and-done deal. It’s easy to fall into that trap. To this way of thinking, it’s like we get one chance: we either accept it or we don’t…we either respond or we reject. We either have faith…or we doubt. In this view, believe that Christ died on the cross for you and it’s like somewhere in heaven your name is moved over from the “condemned” column to the “saved” column. Then we are prone to turn this view on others: are they one of the saved or one of the condemned?

To take Jesus at his word here, however, this interpretation does not sound quite correct. If we must believe God is keeping columns or lists, it’s more proper to think that God has one column. That column is labelled “loved,” and you either realize you’re name is already in it, or you don’t. Your name is already in it because Jesus has been lifted up. Your name is already loved because God has sent his Son. That, my friends, is once-and-done. Looking to the cross to remember that love, to ponder it, and wonder it? That must and will happen over and over and over again. “The hour I first believed?” If we’re truly honest with ourselves, that hour comes again almost every single day.

Everyone has a story about a serpent in the wilderness, and if you don’t yet then pay attention, because it’s bound to happen at some point. They’re all around us! And when you do, here’s something to keep in mind: no matter how far you’ve wandered off the path, no matter how deep you find yourself in the wilderness with nothing but sandals on your feet, no matter how much of a nightmare life feels like, you may always look at the cross of Christ, lifted high, and remember you—you and this world of darkness that so often runs from the light— you are loved.

Don’t take your eyes off of it.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Third Sunday in Lent [Year B] - March 8, 2015 (Exodus 20:1-17 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 and John 2:13-22)

I can still remember the first days of early elementary school when the teacher took great pains to explain classroom rules and consequences. It was a big deal. The message had to get across. Before any real learning could begin, she had to explain how behavior in her classroom was going to look. There was one list on the wall of rules and another list of consequences. In those days, if you transgressed the rules, the consequences entailed having your name written on the chalkboard in front of class. If you transgressed again, the teacher would go and place a big check mark beside your name. That was bad. If that happened, a note would go home to your parents. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that if you had walked into one of the classrooms at South Fork Elementary on any given day you would have known if I was in there because “Phillip Martin” would have been engraved on the blackboard. But never a check mark! I learned pretty quickly, like several others of us, exactly how much I could do to get that one warning and then go no farther.

For my daughters, who are now in elementary school, the system has changed somewhat. Rather than simply punishing bad behavior these days, teachers are just as likely to reward good behavior, and they indicate this by moving a clothespin that has your name on it up or down on a rainbow in the room. Everyone starts on green, a nice benign color. Do something good, and you “clip up,” as they say, to yellow and orange. Break the rules, and you “clip down.” I had to laugh at what one of my daughters said last year when she was thinking about the following year of school. Very matter-of-factly she remarked, “In second grade, the teacher won’t give you a warning. If you do something wrong, you just ‘clip down.’” I thought to myself: I guess second grade is where it starts to get real.

Whether that’s true or not, it’s clear that the message has gotten across: this is how you are to live and learn in the classroom. It’s gotten across so well, in fact, that my girls have made their own version of the rainbow chart and hung it in their playroom. I’m not going to tell you where my clothespin is.

When the Israelites are delivered from their captivity in Egypt and they make their way, with God’s mighty help, through the waters of the Red Sea, Moses goes up Mt. Sinai to meet with the Lord. When Moses comes down, he doesn’t have a rainbow chart and clothespins. He has ten very powerful, life-giving words that will eventually get engraved in stone. And all the Hebrews learn that this is where it starts to get real.

Every aspect of Hebrew culture and faith will come to be built on these ten words of life, which come to be known as the Ten Commandments. These are the basics, given right here at the beginning of their life together. And God hopes the message gets across: that they are God’s chosen people. That they are freed from slavery and have been given freedom because God is a God of freedom and hears the cries of those who are oppressed.

From a structural standpoint, these ten words are laid out in genius fashion. They’re not just willy-nilly thrown out there—“don’t do this, don’t do that”—which is what I thought as a kid. They all flow very logically and lovingly from each other, starting from the very first one, which actually doesn’t even begin as a commandment, but as a statement of grace: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” It’s right there at the front of it all: before Israel is asked to do anything, God reminds them of all God has done, and whose they are. And then the rest of them flow from there: ones that focus on the relationship between God and God’s people and then to the ones that focus more on the relationships between God’s people.

That’s all well and good, but the problem is the message doesn’t really get across. Over time, God’s people begin to see them as nothing more than a list of rules. Rather than viewing them as they are intended, as a gracious gift that describes and defines the life of a free people, they start seeing them as some authoritarian blackboard name-writing system. God’s people become like that selfish, unruly little clever schoolkid who knows exactly how far he can go, and exactly how he can split hairs of interpretation, so as not to get the check beside his name. Or they become completely oblivious and disrespectful, racking up all kinds of checkmarks and not knowing (or really caring) what to do about it.

That right there is a nutshell history of God’s people. God sends prophet after prophet in order to call the people back to covenant faithfulness, but prophet after prophet essentially gets ignored. Some of those prophets end up getting downright angry. They pronounce all kinds of hellfire and brimstone in order to get that message across.  Eventually the people of Israel build a temple in Jerusalem in order to put in one place their worship and their devotion to God. While that seems to help somewhat, it isn’t too long before the same problems start to creep in again. God’s words of life and the wonderful relationship of grace that they are meant to form between God and God’s people get used and abused by human sin. When people come in to worship God and encounter the holy, they end up encountering this entire system of religion that’s been set up revolving around the rules of sacrifice.

And it becomes manipulative across the board. The religious leaders use the words of life and the system of sacrifices to manipulate the people. The people use the system of religion to try to manipulate God. People feel like God is manipulating them. And it’s hard to get past the feeling that faith—this initial trust in a God who has saved us and desires life for us—is nothing but just a phony rainbow chart. It looks like the message of God’s love isn’t ever going to get across.

Then along comes this new prophet who comes up to the temple during the big Passover festival and finds all those manipulative systems of religion and sacrifice. There are tables selling animals for sacrifice, along with booths where you can exchange your Roman coins for currency that Jewish scribes and Temple leaders would accept. The man gets angry. In a very vivid scene of chaos, he makes a whip out of cords, he starts overturning the tables and driving out the merchants. And this is how his message is going to get across: the message is going to get a cross.

"Christ Driving the Moneychangers from the Temple" (El Greco)
[in the upper left corner, on the temple wall, there is a depiction of
Adam and Eve being driven from the Garden of Eden.]
But if we listen closely, we notice that this scene in the temple isn’t about another message that someone’s trying to get across, whip of cords though he may use. It’s not a message about overturning a system of manipulative religion.  The message is Jesus, himself. Jesus doesn’t just come, like all the other prophets before him, bearing the message of God’s forgiveness of sin. Jesus will become the forgiveness of sin, himself. Hence the confusion about the temple’s destruction and rebuilding. He’s not talking about the stone temple. He’s talking about his very body. What we learn from Jesus, you see, is that God’s message is not going to get across until God’s message gets a cross. Because of the presence of human sin, the tendency to think we can control where we ultimately fall on God’s big rainbow chart of God’s love, hasn’t been getting across. So in Jesus, the message gets a cross. All of the things that stand in the way of a direct relationship with God, all those systems and rules and guilt and shame die forever on the cross of Jesus.

It is something that never really seems to make sense: that God would go to this length to redeem this relationship with us, that he would let his own Son become both the rules and the consequences for us. As the apostle Paul puts it, “for the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” For the message about the cross makes absolutely no sense at all to those who are still trying to keep their name off God’s blackboard. But for those who are aware they will always eventually and always move down the chart, the cross is salvation. It’s the teacher taking a chalkboard eraser and saying, “I love you anyway.”

"Christ on the Cross" (Sebastian Lopez de Arteaga)
One thing, then, I often think about is, “What message are we giving across here, in our little temple of the Lord, in our ministries in Jesus’ name?” Do we give off the impression that we’re all about a system of rules? Do we come across as people driven by some sense of game-playing religion, or as those who know that the cross of Jesus claims us as God’s children forever, period. Thanks to one of our Sunday School classes and some other conversations that people have been having in the congregation, the topic of a congregational mission statement has been a topic lately. When we think about messages that we get across, especially as it relates to our identity and our ministries, mission statements can be pretty important.

The congregation does currently have a mission statement, but it is not well-known, and that’s probably not that helpful. As a process moves forward to look at possibly re-forming a mission statement, I think we all know that it will be crucial to remember that central message that has claimed us and has given us life. At the end of the day the most important statement will be not the one that is printed on our bulletins or on our newsletter. Neither will it be the one any church erects in statue form in front of the local courthouse. In reality, all of those can and often do just come across looking and feeling like a list of rules rather than words of life.

No, the most important statement will be one reflected in our faith and trust of God. It will be a message clear to anyone by the faith Christ reflects in us—to the person who comes here weekly or the person who comes among God’s people for the first time seeking forgiveness and compassion or maybe even seeking just a sign that God does exist. When we’re at our mission best, brothers and sisters, is when we’ve realized that the message we’re trying to get across is the cross.

It almost doesn’t even make sense.

The foolishness of God.

Our names have been erased from the blackboard.

Now, my brothers and sisters, things are about to get real.


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.