Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Fourth Sunday of Easter [Year B] - April 26, 2015 (John 10:11-18 and Psalm 23)

One of the most popular television shows these days is “The Voice.” I have not watched it many times, but I’ve enjoyed it when I have. “The Voice” is a music competition that involves four stars from the music industry who serve as judges for people who are trying to start a singing career. The premise is that the judges begin by listening with their backs turned to the people performing on stage. When they hear a voice that they like—one that’s got talent, one that might be a winner—the music stars smack a button on their chair that makes it immediately swivel around so that they can face the singer and, at that point, see what the singer looks like.

The idea is that the judges and the coaches respond to and judge only to the voice of the singer, rather than their appearance or stage presence. It is the voice that grabs their attention. One of the best parts of the show is when all four judges realize they’re hearing a winner and they all smack their buttons right away. That’s when the magic starts to happen. The excitement builds as all four experts, the audience, and the millions of folks watching on their TVs across the country realize they may be hearing the next voice.

There is no music industry in Jerusalem, of course, and no one watches television either, but Jesus wants his disciples to know that he is the voice. He sings and speaks from the stage of a hectic and often dangerous life. His people hear him and respond to him, smacking those buttons and swiveling their chairs to face him no matter where they are because they know they’ve found a winner. “I know my own and my own know me,” he explains, and then he reaches for the most familiar and easy-to-understand image of the day. Hearing Jesus’ voice and following him will be like sheep who respond and follow the voice of their shepherd.

As it turns out, sheep are one of the few types of livestock that can actually be led. Cattle, for example, have to be driven, as if you’re forcing them to go where they need to go. Pigs are the same way. Could you imagine what Psalm 23 would sound like if this weren’t the case? “He drives me beside still waters (yee-haw!). He whips me until I walk in the right paths for his name’s sake.” It just doesn’t sounds quite the same, does it?

Sheep, by contrast, can be led. In fact, in Jesus’ time flocks of sheep spent considerable time mingling with other sheep at watering holes and wells. When the time came to graze for the day, the shepherd would go off to a hill that looked like it offered good grazing and would call out. The sheep that belonged to that shepherd would respond and join him wherever he was.

a shepherd in Afghanistan (Wikipedia)
This, Jesus explains, is what life in his Father’s love is like. This is how he will lead his disciples. He knows his own and his own knows him. We can trust, then, that Jesus is not going to force us or drive us to get us to follow him. He is never going to coerce us or scare us. The good shepherd does not work that way. Jesus loves the sheep and tends for them by leading with his voice.

However, disciples don’t just naturally follow that voice because it’s naturally so compelling or beautiful or true (which it is, by the way). They follow because, like sheep, they’ve been around the shepherd enough to know what his voice sounds like. They’ve associated that voice with protection in times of danger. They’ve learned to connect the voice of that shepherd with green pastures and safe pathways. What have you come to associate with the voice of Jesus? How have you spent time in relationship with the one who calls out and beckons you to follow? To be sure, this is something that happens over time when we become aware of the dangers that actually exist around us and how vulnerable we are. It takes relationship and patience to be able to recognize that voice of the shepherd.

This point about relationship ties in to a crucial concept to understanding what we’re praying for, for example, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. In his Large Catechism Martin Luther is sure to point out that humans need more than material things for existence. In a time where everyone tends to be so careful about the food they’re eating and the quality of the environment around them—good things, for sure!—it is easy to lose sight of this. Praying for daily bread covers those things—food and drink, house and property, work and income, a devoted family, etc.—but human existence is not just about things, even as you expand that definition of daily bread ever outward. Human beings also need love to survive. We need trust. We need comfort. We need to hear the voice of someone who says they love us so much they’ll die for us. The petition in the Lord’s Prayer that follows daily bread, the one about the forgiveness of sins, addresses these innermost needs of ours. Through its appeal for forgiveness, it acknowledges our community with other sheep and the fact that trust and love can be broken and needs to be mended.

a shepherd in Romania
Learning the ways of the Good Shepherd involves praying to the Father and learning more about him, but it also therefore involves remaining in contact with the other sheep, by recognizing that we are a species that flocks. The word congregation, in fact, comes from the Latin words “con,” or “com” which means together, and “gregare,” which means to gather into one. Jesus is reminding us this morning that there is something fundamentally group-oriented about following him. Remember? The magic happens when lots of people smack those buttons. That’s how God designs it.

And unlike the television show, we also can’t choose Jesus for our team and have him for ourselves. He’s chosen us for his, and part of our salvation, part of our deliverance in God’s kingdom, is the deliverance from loneliness and isolation. It’s not just that we learn to respond to a savior shepherd, but that we learn to respond to each other, and that we learn to respond along with each other. There are those who say they don’t need the church in order to lead a life of faith, but Jesus words about the flock seem to go against that. I know that many people tell me that when they feel alone in the valley of the shadow of death it is the nearby presence of other sheep who have embodied for them the presence of the shepherd.

In fact, it also sounds like Jesus isn’t finished calling his flock together. There are more that will join him. They aren’t in this flock at the moment—not in this congregation, not in this denomination, maybe not even in this faith—but they are out there. Jesus promises that there are others who will eventually, at some point realize how comforting this voice is, too, and turn to face him.

This is all well and good, of course—the growth of our flock, the green pastures, hearing the voice and staying nearby so we learn more about him and each other—but the real fact of the matter, even with such a large flock, is that sheep don’t always remain close. Sheep don’t always listen either, or know what’s good for them. They wander and they get stuck in some pretty scary places. They run into wolves and other predators who do them harm. Ultimately, the safety of the sheep is not in the sheep’s hands, or hooves. Ultimately, the cohesion and salvation of God’s flock does not lie in its ability to listen or keep up. The safety of the flock is up to the shepherd, and the shepherd who calls you and calls me, the Good Shepherd who has claimed you and has claimed me in Holy Baptism has laid down his life for us. The salvation of any one of us is not dependent on how close we draw to the shepherd, but how close he draws to us. We know this because he is the only shepherd who has gone to stand on one particularly dark hill in the distance called Golgotha. There he calls on our behalf to the Father that loves him with a voice that punctures the darkest valley, the deadliest death.

The other evening a bunch of us were gathered for Wednesday night ministries. It had been raining pretty hard all afternoon, but then, in the middle of dinner, the sun came out. Knowing what often happens when it is raining and the sun is shining at the same time, some folks went out to see what they could see. Pretty soon there was a whole yard of children rejoicing in the sight of not one, not two, but three clear rainbows arching over the church. By the time I got out there, some of the spectacle had already faded, but there was still one portion left.

One end of the bow seemed to end right in the place in the sky that was over our big cross outside. The other end disappeared into the horizon right where our columbarium is. Behind it loomed a dark, foreboding cloud. It had been vanquished and was receding into the east. On the green, wet pasture of grass beneath were a whole bunch of kids and parents. We’ll call them a flock. Their voices laughing, shouting, marveling, like cups overflowing. Little sheep that they were, they had smacked that button and they were responding, I believe, at this huge reminder above them. It was a gracious reminder that their Good Shepherd calls us all, his promises leading from that cross of Golgotha where the rod and the staff yet comfort us to the place where we rest in his eternal embrace. As I watched them taking photos and jumping up and down, the words of the shepherd came to my mind:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow them all the days of their life.

And they shall dwell in the house of the Lord their whole life long.


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Third Sunday of Easter [Year B] - April 19, 2015 (Luke 24:36-43)

Teeth and bones.

We took our daughters to Washington, D.C., for a short trip last week and of all the things they saw there, the teeth and bones probably fascinated them than anything else. The monuments, the Metro system, the marvelous dresses of the first ladies—it was hard to choose just one highlight, but I did notice a distinct spark of curiosity arise in both of the girls when we came to the mummy exhibit and the early human exhibit in the Museum of Natural History. They had a thousand questions. Fossils and replicas of the “cave people” captivated one of them, and the funeral practices of ancient Egypt was entranced the other. If it had not been for the glass of the display case, I guarantee you they would have picked up those old teeth and bones and held them in their hands. Instead they had to settle for a fragment of cow bone we came across the next day in the pasture behind their great-grandmother’s house.

I don’t think I could have predicted their fascination with these things, but it makes sense. Most things about living creatures eventually waste away and disappear but teeth and bones are like rocks. Solid and more permanent, they linger around to present us with mysterious truths about life in another era.

Teeth and bones.

In this morning’s gospel lesson Jesus is the exhibit, and there’s no glass display case to keep people from touching him. In fact, he invites it. “Touch and see,” he says, offering himself up like an old cow bone to be picked up and turned over in their own hands. This time, Jesus is full of mysterious truths about life in a new era, an era where death and suffering will not ultimately have power over God’s creation.

The wounds on his hands and feet are surely there, but Luke does not mention them. It appears Jesus’ aim here is to focus on the parts of him that prove he’s real, that he has substance. It’s for that same reason that he then asks for something to eat and he chews on some fish: his disciples are not convinced that what they’re seeing isn’t just a ghost. Typical Middle eastern dress for men was a long tunic that would have covered his whole body except his feet and hands, two body parts whose bony structure also happens to be clearly discernible. I suppose that if there are such things as ghosts, they could have wounds just as easily as not. But teeth and bones? Those belong to real people. Jesus wants them to be able to grasp him, to know that they can grab hold of him. The mysterious truth of this new era where death and suffering have been conquered is not just something in our heads or sense in our hearts. It takes real shape in our world in the form of people who have teeth and bones, themselves.

Does Jesus’ proof of existence work? To be quite honest, it’s not clear that it does. The disciples’ reactions certainly change, though. At first they are startled and terrified. Jesus mentions that they have doubts in their hearts. After a while they move to a sense of joy but they are still wondering, and even disbelieving. Even after he eats the broiled fish, no mention is made that he’s persuaded them. In fact, nowhere in this story is any mention is ever made of their faith, or that they change their minds about his substance and respond to him as their risen Lord.

"Appearance Behind Locked Doors" (Duccio de Buoninsegna, 1308)
No matter. Jesus just launches into his explanation about how the whole crucifixion and resurrection was part of God’s plan, that was revealed in the Scriptures. Then, in what is perhaps the biggest surprise of this whole interaction, he enlists them in the ministry of his mission.

Jesus suffered, died, and rose again so that forgiveness of sins may be announced and lived in the way of repentance; that is, in the repeated turning around, hearing about God’s mercy and having the opportunity to align our lives with it. “You are witnesses of these things,” he says. The bones, the teeth, the story of forgiveness, the empty grave…they are witnesses of these things.

Notice that Jesus coerces no one to believe, and neither does he exclude or belittle those who can’t or don’t. He simply presents himself again and again in a loving and unaggressive way that seeks to reassure. And despite what conclusions of faith they must reach about his presence before them, they are still witnesses of what they have seen and heard. Despite what they may eventually come to believe about those promises and prophecies revealed in Scripture, they can’t un-see the exhibit in front of them. They are witnesses.

Sisters and brothers, let me suggest that this is one of the best descriptions of the church’s ministry: to be witnesses to this story, to be people who testify to the apostles’ experience of eating with their real, human Lord, on the third day after his crucifixion. When all is said and done, that’s really what we are: wide-eyed children of God who’ve been led to the display case with the teeth and the bones. We can and will reach our own conclusions about the mysterious truth we’re beholding—that Jesus is risen—but we can’t un-see it, un-hear it. We are witnesses of these things. Likewise, we can and will feel any number of emotions about this table the Lord gathers us around and about the heavenly food we receive at it, but we can’t be un-gathered now, and we can’t be un-fed. We are witnesses of these things.

The principal task of our faith and life together is not, then, to be arguers for the existence of God (as much as I love to do that at times), especially people who coerce or belittle others into believing—and neither is it to be moral policemen and policewomen, lecturing others on what they should and shouldn’t be doing. Gently correcting others’ behavior and engaging in lively debate about God are both good things, given the right opportunity, and confident witnessing may, in fact, involve them, but the ministry of Jesus disciples is first and foremost to be witnesses, to say, “We have heard these things and let me tell you how I have experienced the Lord’s grace.”

Because just as the disciples needed an authentic Jesus that day, just as the disciples needed teeth and bones to help them move from terror to joy, the world is in need of an authentic witness to Christ, one that takes up space in the world, one that has a backbone and bites down on things like injustice and pain. After all, the psalmist reminds us this morning that “There are many who say, ‘O, that we might see some good!’” The church’s call is not just to be people who gather every now and then to think nice thoughts about God (as happy as they may be) but a communion whose presence and activity puts “flesh and bones” to the presence of Christ in the world.

Rollie Martinson, an authority in youth and family ministry who teaches at Luther Seminary gave some remarks at a youth mission conference I was following on Twitter this week. He was talking about the current religious landscape in American and how people in our culture have more options and obligations on Sunday morning than probably ever before. In one sense, this is good: that means there are more places for us to be the body of Christ. However, with such a consumerist culture, the idea and practice of church as a community—as a body—is easy to lose sight of. In his observation, young people, especially are being lost in this shift. One result of this change is that families tend to look for congregation to give their children morals rather than as a place to nurture the gift of faith. Said a little differently, the church’s challenge to be a body of “teeth and bones,” as a communion that takes up space in the world, embodying forgiveness, that nurtures its ability to be witnesses together with Word and sacrament is a little more difficult to keep track of—from my perspective as well as yours, I’m sure—if people view church as little more than time to tank up on spirituality, say, or religious entertainment, or even intellectual stimulation. Yet even when we do, the teeth and bones Jesus is liable to appear and pull us back in, give us new eyes.

A few weeks ago it was Maundy Thursday, the worship service where many of our fourth graders receive their First Holy Communion. As the worship service began, the acolyte, a fifth-grader, came to sit down next to me after lighting the candles. The first thing he did was pick up his bulletin and point to something on front cover where we had listed the names of those receiving the Lord’s Supper for the first time that evening. With unmistakable pride and wide-eyed wonder, he wasted no time telling me, his finger placed on one name, “Pastor, this guy’s my cousin!!

Now that’s someone who gets it, I thought. It’s easy for me to see those names sometimes and think of them as just another crop of 10-year-olds or however-year-olds going through the motions of religious piety, getting their morals. But I realize now I’ve seen that face before. That’s the face of someone whose eyes and hands are pressed against the glass display case, filled with excitement because he knows he grabbed hold of something at that table for the first time last year. That, my friends, the look of a child of the living God who wants to know more, wants to reach deeper, a disciple who is living in forgiveness. It’s the look of a young disciples who is convinced and is glad to view me and the others around the table with him as what we truly are: we are witnesses.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Resurrection of Our Lord [Year B] - April 5, 2015 (Mark 16:1-8)

“The women had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’”

Do you know people like this…people who are always thinking of what needs to be done? They’re the people who are constantly planning ahead, people one or two steps ahead of most of the rest of us? These are the folks who, despite being tasked with so many duties all the time, are constantly taking stock of the situation at hand and figuring out what needs to be done.

Thank God for these people! I’m married to one and work here with a bunch of others.

“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

Do you know people like this? If not, you do now, for it happens to be the question asked by the three women who are on their way in Jerusalem that morning to perform the ritual anointing of the dead. If they were like all the other women of that day and age—and we have no reason to believe they weren’t—they had plenty of other things to do to keep the village and its households running. This trip to the cemetery was no pleasure stroll, and although this act of devotion and grief was likely something they were honored to do, they couldn’t be wasting time. They planned ahead.

"Holy Women at the Tomb" (Bouguereau)
“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” Of the four accounts of Jesus’ resurrection that we have, Mark is the only one who includes this little snippet of dialogue. The other three gospel writers all rush us right to the tomb, eager to present to us the scene that the women will find, eager to get on with the news. My guess it’s because Mark and these women both are familiar with just how large these stones were. Archaeologists tell us just about every tomb in Jesus’ day had one. Wealthier folks had neatly rounded stones that rolled nicely back and forth. Middle class and lower class people had to settle for more roughly-hewn, square-ish stones that had to be pushed and did not move so easily. Weighing several hundred pounds apiece, and were designed to slow down grave-robbing, if not prevent it altogether. So it’s a question, then, asked by those who are good at planning and wonder how things are going to play out:“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

I’m thankful that Mark included this question of the journey instead of just taking us right to scene of wonder. In addition to the fact that it seems realistic, I also find it to be very honest, very applicable, because “Who will roll away the stone for us?” is essentially the question we ask so often on our various journeys of life. It’s what people ask, for example, when faced with sudden unemployment, and there is suddenly a big boulder of job-seeking to worry about. It’s what people tend to wonder when a cancer diagnosis is received, and suddenly a path to healing seems treacherous and filled with all kinds of looming obstacles. It’s the same question people ask who are seeking a way out of the cycles of violence and hatred of this world, cycles much like the unfair, bloody process that led to Jesus’s own death on the cross.

Without too much effort we can rephrase the women’s same question and put it on the lips of those living under the threat of ISIS’ advance, or on the lips of those parents in Kenya whose children will never come home from university, and on the lips of our own soldiers who come home with stress disorders and nightmares of warfare that won’t leave them alone: What’s the next step, Lord, and how on earth are we going to take it? We need that stone moved, Lord, but it is too large for us, the grief is too deep, the way forward too dark. Yes, we’re thankful for this question from the women that Mark is so careful to include because we know it, even if we’re not careful-planning type. We ask it because we’re broken humans in a broken world that is riddled with boulders.

Of course, we know how the story continues: the women eventually arrive at the tomb and all their worrying and planning is for naught. The stone is already rolled away and, oh, by the way, they won’t be needing those anointing spices anyway. The body they were supposed to anoint with them is no longer there. He is risen, and is ahead of them in Galilee. God, as it turns out, is already a step or two ahead of the people who are a step or two ahead. God is a mile ahead of the people who are a step or two ahead.

But if Mark’s gospel begins with this realistic question of planning and thoughtfulness, it ends with even more realistic abruptness. The women, even after they’re carefully instructed about what to do, flee the scene in silence and terror. The most miraculous event in history has occurred, the biggest stone—death—has been done away with—and suddenly they’re speechless, without questions and without plans.

In his poem, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” John Updike says,

The stone is rolled back, not paper-maché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

Yes, it is so tempting to take the message of Easter and turn it into something easier to swallow, something metaphorical or allegorical, as if the news of the empty tomb is simply that is something that imparts warm fuzzy hope on the inside but doesn’t change the boulder-ridden world we live in. The discovery of the rolled-away-stone message of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead isn’t just that God is somewhere ahead of us, like God is some sort of man waiting around the next corner with balloons and a birthday cake to cheer us up. The message of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is that the future is already here. The news of the empty tomb is that God has already begun a new creation, one where Christ is risen and reigning. Because that stone is moved and Christ is really freed from the grave, death no longer has the final word.

"Women at the tomb of Christ" (Carracci)
Again, the women—this time in their fear and haste—remind us that this reality is earth-shaking, and for those who like to use death as their tool to get their way, for those who think death will always eclipse life, the resurrection of Jesus is a frightening event. Death has lost its sting. Its methods aren’t effective anymore. This changes the world we live in, for a God of infinite love will actually have the final word. Therefore God’s people get to adjust their lives to reflect this reality. Easter faith is bolstered by the knowledge that behind all those stones of disease and violence, hopelessness, and despair, stands the rolled away stone at the entrance to Jesus’ tomb. We therefore can change our words so that they speak of hope and compassion, unafraid to speak light into the dark. The Spirit comes to help us reform our actions so they mirror God’s grace and justice and make us able to suffer alongside the suffering. The Spirit can transform our outlook so that we can remember that our dead rest in Christ and will one day rise, with us, victorious with him.

“Who will roll the stone away for us?” Do you know people like this? It was the question directed at me on one Sunday here just a few weeks ago on one snowy Sunday, by two different women in the congregation. One was in her 20s and the other in her 90s—but both were wondering the same thing: “Who is going to shovel the snow out of the columbarium?” I had been so proud of our efforts to get the sidewalks and parking lots cleared that week, I hadn’t even thought to take the shovel to the very place where our own blessed dead are resting. Both of these women questioned me that morning, but not in worry or hesitation about the “next step,” but rather in sure and confident hope of Christ’s resurrection. They had shown up that Sunday like they did every week, fully intending to spend a moment in prayer and thanksgiving with their loved one who was far from forgotten, alive to Christ.

“Who will roll that stone away for us?” I know people like this. Thank God for them! And I’m looking at dozens of them right now, people burdened by the boulders of life, the “vast rocks of materiality,” but confident that because of Jesus, the path has been shoveled. I’m looking at dozens of them right now, in fact—people whose faith and upturned faces suggest to me that from now on,  the columbarium should be the first thing we shovel.

And I know I’m likely looking at dozens of others, faces upturned in sorrow and worry who need to hear the news that those women discovered that day: the stone has already been rolled away. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed.

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.