Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 17B/Lectionary 22] - August 30, 2015 (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

I received contact this week from a former Epiphany member who moved away not long ago and is now attending a congregation with her family in her new town. She emailed me because she is trying to begin an acolyte ministry there and she wanted to know whether we had any kind of paperwork or documentation about an acolyte’s duties: when do the candles get lit and extinguished and in what order, when do you face the altar…things like that. We already knew that our Epiphany acolytes were pretty good, but what this says to me, of course, is that now we have the chance to set the standard for acolytes everywhere! Our routines will be copied, our middle school worship leaders will be famous. Pretty soon, people may be asking for their autographs! I can see it now…

In the end, I contacted our acolyte coordinator and trainer, and she sent me a brief one-page list of duties that I passed on, but it not before I had a chance to share what I had learned once as a young acolyte, myself. I remember Clarence Dixon drilling the rules and regulations into our heads: Never extinguish the candle on the left without first putting on the candle on the right. (They are symbolic of Christ’s divinity and humanity). Always step down off the altar stair before turning around to find your seat. There were a few more guidelines, too.

This was not our altar. It is a Google image. But still...could you imagine?
My buddy Adam and I thought we were acolyte experts. On festival Sundays we would acolyte together because there were so many candles and I promise you we made it look like synchronized diving. But on the Sundays where we worshiped in the pews, we were constantly grading the others, and if we noticed a deviation from the established laws of acolyting, well, we’d make sure ol’ Clarence Dixon would put them in their place. But ol’ Clarence Dixon was the nicest guy ever.  He wasn’t going to say anything to anyone.

The reality, of course, there are no real rules to acolyting, and there is no official theology behind the order of lighting the candles. Symbolism and guidelines may vary from church to church, and I made sure I explained that to the woman this week who emailed. But my own strict adherence to the “tradition of the elders,” back in the day is an example of what puts off so many people to religion, isn’t it? The fixation with following certain ways and certain rituals—many of which feel secret and unexplained—is so alienating and unfriendly to most people.

It seems there is plenty of this kind of stuff in the headlines nowadays, and about things far more serious than wearing robes and lighting candles. We’ve had a couple of high-profile individuals and groups who champion their faith as a strict set of rules and regulations that must be followed at all costs. In some cases, it turns out that the rules and regulations haven’t even fully been followed by the people who were championing them.

I’m no expert on religious groups, but the existence of organizations like Westboro Baptist Church, Al-Qaeda, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State reveal that there is something about rigid rule-following that resonates with human beings. I wonder what kind of impression these manifestations of religious tradition give people about faith and, by extension, God, especially in our society. While those in bleak, impoverished surroundings may be comforted by the structure provided by a set of traditions and rules, those who live in more diverse, affluent societies probably aren’t. I wonder if the disproportionate voice of these groups and other people like them—and I’m sure even us at times—is the reason for the rise in society of those who now claim “no religious affiliation.”

And yet, at the same time so many are claiming “no religious affiliation,” we look around and notice will be so doggedly religious about so many other things: what kinds of things we eat or won’t, how much we work out and train our bodies, the devotion and attention we give to sports teams and other hobbies, the way we craft our high school transcript or resumé. It would seem that people are, in fact, so less “religiously affiliated” than we always have been. We’re just starting to be religious about different things.

This kind of shift in religion—or perceived shift—is what Jesus is confronted with this morning when the Pharisees start asking him about the rules and religious values of his followers. You see, they notice that his disciples aren’t extinguishing the altar candles in the right order. More specifically, they aren’t following the ritual cleanliness laws that some Jewish groups had done for so long.

According to the Pharisees’ traditions, one was supposed to wash hands in a very visible, particularly thorough way before eating. This custom had little to do with disinfecting hands from germs; it had to do with a system of living that saw everything having a particular spot in the world. There was a strict hierarchy—from things that were unclean at the bottom to things that were holy at the very top—and ritual cleanliness laws were designed to keep things in those proper places. The act of washing hands in a certain way that most likely involved cupping the hands and letting the water rush all the way up to the elbows was enough, taught the law-following Pharisees, to return the dirt and dust of the world back to their proper place so that one may eat, which was a holy event. It was all designed to give order to a chaotic existence, which isn’t such a bad thing, perhaps, but over time the Pharisees had more or less turned their relationship with God into an elaborate system of these types of cleanliness laws.

Jesus the whole time has been steadily shifting the understanding of religion to something different, something that Isaiah and other prophets before him had also tried to do. Rather than being so focused on this outward order of the world, assigning things and objects like bronze kettles and market produce to certain categories of cleanliness, Jesus is concerned about what lies within each of us. Rather than giving so much attention to what might affect us from outside, Jesus repeatedly points out how we’re influenced by our hearts and desires. 

I don’t know if the disciples were put off by the Pharisees’ religious hypocrisy, since the Pharisees often decided which cleanliness laws they wanted to follow and which ones weren’t convenient in any given moment. I don’t know if Jesus’ followers were able to fully grasp this dramatic new teaching whereby he basically gets rid of basically all the purification rituals and old food restrictions that the Pharisees loved, but they certainly are drawn to Jesus’ new understanding of what makes a person unclean because they do stop washing their hands, even when it draws criticism.

How about us? Do we hear that Jesus has invited us into this renewed relationship with God where we become aware of the things that defile us not from the world, but from within? Are we aware that Christ has called us not into a life of rituals and rule-following (although sometimes rituals and rules will be a part of it), but into a living faith where God forgives us and renews us? Do we recognize that this forgiveness and renewal comes not through the washing of hands, the labeling and ordering of the outside world, or the order and style in which we do worship or light the candles, but through the word of grace in Jesus?

The other day I was playing a geography game with one of my daughters and a question about the Blarney Stone in Ireland came up.

my aunt kissing the Blarney Stone
“What’s the Blarney Stone?” she asked, intrigued. I explained how it was a big rock in a castle in Ireland that people kiss in order to receive good luck or the gift of gab.

I told her that her mother and her great aunt, among other people, had once kissed the Blarney Stone on a trip to Ireland.

Disgusted, she declared, “Well, if I were to kiss it, I’d wipe it with a Handi-wipe first.”

While that may good advice on some level, such a response illustrates the true danger that Jesus sees in the way that the Pharisees are living out their religion. He knows the world is searching for a people who love God and God’s commandments…but one who invites others into the life with Jesus without presenting it with a Handi-wipe first. The world is longing watching to see not how many times this people washes its hands, but how it deals honestly with the sin that lies within.

For, you see, the world—that is, those who perceive themselves to be outside this people—knows there is always a temptation among all people of faith to look upon the world with some level of contempt. That contempt can still get the best of us, and we reach for the Handi-wipe. We distrust the world, we blame it for all that we see that’s wrong and corrupting. We keep it at bay…we erect walls in our hearts to keep it out…we label it and organize it into good and bad. To be honest, some wariness of the world and caution through life is helpful and good, but if we’re not careful, wariness of the world will turn into hatred of the world, and Jesus, my friends, never hates the world. Jesus never condescendingly approaches the world. Jesus loves the world. Jesus eats with the sinners for the sake of the world. Jesus touches lepers in order to heal the world.

You know, he’s actually been on this religion-shifting kick for a while, patiently demonstrating for his disciples how to love God’s commandments for real. We should take our cues from him about how to engage the world. And let us also take from Jesus cues about that fact which we forget all-too-easily in our suspicion of everything else: that the unclean parts we really need to worry about are within us.

Jesus shifts the ground on that, too, and far beyond reforming or updating any system of purification and cleanliness, he chooses to go to the cross and die for our sins and make us clean. He chooses to identify himself with the most unclean, most distant from God in order to make us clean. This cleansed life—this life wiped-clean by the blood of his cross—is what he invites us to live. This cleansed life, we might say, is probably what Clarence Dixon was driving at, if I had been listening. It’s more about making sure that the light of Christ is shining for others to see than it is about making sure we have lit the candle in the proper way.

I ran across a hymn this week that had just been written for today’s lessons by Presbyterian pastor Carolyn Gillette who serves a congregation in Delaware. Sung to the tune of a well-known hymn melody, today I offer two of its last stanzas as a prayer:

Forgive us, Lord Jesus, for caring too much
For rules and traditions and standards and such.
For while they are useful and good in their place,
In keeping them, sometimes we overlook grace.

O Lord, may appearances match what’s inside.
Take all our hypocrisy, hatred and pride.
Lord, fill us with good things from heaven above,
Till old ways and new ways are bursting with love.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Carolyn Gillette, 2015, used with permission

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 14B/Lectionary 19] - August 9, 2015 (John 6:35, 41-51)

“Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus makes a lot of very bold claims about himself, but these promises about no longer hungering and no longer thirsting are some of the most impressive. No longer being hungry? Never again being thirsty? Really? It all sounds like a bit of an exaggeration, doesn’t it?

On the one hand, you and I can be pretty sure, I think, that he’s not talking about a physical hunger of the body or of a thirst that’s felt in the mouth, but I wonder how these bold words are heard, for example, for those who literally do not have enough food, for those who must travel miles to get clean water, for those who must send their children to bed most nights with grumbling stomachs? Do they feel that Jesus has satisfied some hunger within?

What about those who have some type of emotional hunger? What about, for example, people who thirst for another person on this planet to befriend them honestly and fully, those who hunger for companionship, or those who thirst for some type of closure to a pain or regret that still lingers. Are they supposed to feel as though Jesus satisfies that longing, too? Is the presence of Jesus somehow expected to fulfill those deep crevices of the heart?

Perhaps, then, we say, Jesus is talking about spiritual hunger. That is, the terms hunger and thirst here are metaphorical, not physical or psychological. Jesus, as the bread of life, satisfies a particular hunger and thirst of our spirit. Like bread to people in a first century, middle-eastern economy, Jesus is a staple intended for daily intake which we receive into our souls. In this sense, then, Jesus is enough, and will quench the spiritual longings we experience.

That sounds fine on many levels, but, then, what about that feeling some have—maybe even you—that there are things about Jesus that don’t compute, or that don’t answer all the questions they have about life, death, and the important things in life. We take Jesus, we say we know him, but deep within we still find ourselves at times grumbling and complaining like the Israelites in the wilderness, like the crowd of Jewish leaders who don’t understand what Jesus is talking about. We hear and worship Jesus, but sometimes we still feel an emptiness that one may describe as hunger.

There’s a line in one of U2’s most famous songs that voices this perfectly. The song itself is written almost like a creed. The singer states in simple form things he knows to be true about his life, things he’s achieved. And then, right at the end, he mentions his relationship with Jesus:

“You broke the bonds/
And you loosed the chains/
Carried the cross of my shame/
Oh my shame, you know I believe it.
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

It’s been a magnificently popular song in large part because it gives voice to that spiritual hunger anyone might deal with, even those who are so sure of what Jesus has done for them. There is a sense that each of us may know and trust Jesus, but sometimes we still feel ourselves searching, wandering. All this is true, and yet Jesus’ words still hang out there in the air for us to deal with:“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.”

The people Jesus is talking with in this morning’s lesson, the Jewish leaders and the crowd of people who are tracking him down after his sign of multiplying the bread and the loaves, are familiar with the story of bread from their ancestors’ lives. They would have remembered the story about ancient Israel’s hunger in the wilderness and how God provided them bread from heaven, called manna. And when they thought about that bread they would have thought about something that could be collected, possessed, passed out. When the next day’s hunger came, they simply went about getting more manna, picking it up, claiming it as their own.

One of the differences that Jesus, the bread of life, wants them—and us—to see is that he is not something that can be picked up, collected, owned. Jesus doesn’t say, for example, “Whoever has me will never be hungry” or “Whoever possesses me,” or “Whoever has asked me into their heart” will never be thirsty. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me.”

In fact, what he says to those crowds is a perfect echo of the first words he ever speaks in John’s gospel. When the first disciples asks Jesus where he is staying, Jesus responds, “Come and see.” “Come” is a word of invitation, a word of ongoing relationship, a word of friendship. Jesus means to offer himself a little differently than God offered the manna. He has been given by the Father to draw people in. Faith in him is a process, then, not a moment or a single event. It is ongoing, not once and done. It involves coming to him, learning to believe, seeing over and over, sometimes more clearly than others, how we are made a part of his body, and if a part of his body, then an individual that will be raised to eternal life.

At some point we begin to understand that with Jesus, God has begun to address the main hunger we each deal with even though we may not admit it: It is the hunger caused by our mortality, our separation from God through death. It is the hunger caused by our fear that God is not with us in suffering, the thirst that our poor souls will cry and not be heard by the Lord. And on the cross, that hunger is truly satisfied. That thirst is fully quenched.

In the first congregation I served I spent a good bit of time eating with a small group of women who formed the last living core of what used to be a large WELCA circle. About once every three months I’d drive them in my car down to Mary Lux’s house, which was in a community about 45 minutes south of Pittsburgh. Sometimes we’d pick up Mary, age 92, and take her with us to a little Italian restaurant called Woody’s, but every once in a while, especially when the weather was nice, the women would actually make lunch ahead-of-time, pack it in porcelain and Tupperware containers, and take it to Mary’s and we’d eat a little picnic together on her back patio.

And as I sat there and listened to these 80 and 90-year-old women share food and talk, I began to notice that they usually prepared dishes that their late friends had been known for, recipes that had been shared by friends in their circle who were now deceased. Leah would pick up some dish on the table and, taking a spoonful, would ask, “Oh, is this the chicken salad that Martha used to make?”

“Yes,” Helen would answer. “That’s her recipe.”

At the table on Mary Lux's back patio, preparing for communion (c. 2005)
And if it wasn’t Martha’s chicken salad the next time we got together, maybe it was Betty’s cornbread, or Gladys’s lemon bars. I bet if they tasted it with their eyes closed it was almost as if Martha, or Betty, or Gladys were there, the sweet memories of decades of women’s luncheons and church picnics, baptism parties and funeral dinners flooding from the past into the present. And as they broke bread, as they ate, they found the friendship still nurturing them, the hunger and thirst of communion with their friends satisfied, at least until the next time they gathered and passed those dishes around. It took several of these visits to Mary’s before I realized that I was receiving a better lesson on Holy Communion than I’d ever received in seminary. On Mary’s simple backyard patio, we were being drawn each time to the presence of those blessed relationships, and food was filling far more than a physical hunger.

At the worship conference Kevin Barger and I attended last month in Atlanta, one of the presenters encouraged us to think about the ways in which our worship is or is not addressing the world’s hunger for community. It is a form of community that government can never offer.

It is not even the kind of community that family can offer. Does what we do here bring about an encounter with the God we trust so that that trust is strengthened? Those questions are good to ask, but just when my mind started to spin out into all kinds of thoughts about music styles and liturgy and preaching and reading the Bible, the presenter got very concrete: “It is to a table,” the presenter said, “that worship draws us.” Indeed, Jesus doesn’t say, “I am the good, helpful thoughts of life.” He says he is the bread of life. Mary, Helen and Leah demonstrated that. It is to a table, away from the distractions of the world, where God intends to assemble us and remind us that his grace is about a relationship, not possession.

It is around a table that we gather, sharing and praying with one another and for another, even as we complain about world and its ongoing suffering. It is around a table that God draws us extending that invitation to all people again and again: Come to me. Come and see.

And around this table we pass the bread and cup and remember that the body was given up for us and that the blood was poured out for us. We do these things and we remember, yes, that he’s broken the bond and loosed the chains, carried the cross of our shame. And, by the by, as we taste and see these things a hunger begins to fade away. We are drawn once more to a God that loves and forgives and feeds us forever.


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 13B] - August 2, 2015 (Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and John 6:24-35)

When you go on a trip, especially a long one, are you the type of person who packs snacks? Do you always have a little bag of goodies in the car or a stash of granola bars in your purse or pocket? I, for one, am terrible at remembering to pack snacks, so I’d like to travel with you.

I think it’s all because my parents never let us eat in the car when we were growing up. They didn’t like messes. If we got hungry on a long car trip, we felt our needs were essentially ignored. In fact, I have many vivid memories of being thirsty and begging my parents to stop for something to drink. “We have plenty of drinks at home,” they’d say, without even looking in the back seat. “We’ll be there in just four hours.”

Perhaps it was a good policy, in many ways. Saved lots of money…kept us healthier…strengthened our endurance. And, of course, it really caused us to focus on that destination.

Fortunately for me, I married someone whose family were master snack packers. When the Martin-mobile sets out nowadays we’re usually stocked to the gills: fruit, crackers and cheese, chips, cookies. One peep of complaint from the back seat or—as is more likely—the driver’s seat, and Melinda just tosses over something to nibble on.

"Jews gathering the manna in the desert" Poussin (1594-1665)
They are several weeks on their road-trip into the wilderness of Sinai and the people of God are starting to give out more than a peep of complaint. And the trip leaders, Moses and Aaron, look around and realize they haven’t packed any snacks. The destination is still several years—maybe decades—in the future. For a trip that began with such excitement and hope, things have started to get pretty bad pretty quickly.

Therefore, stuck out in the wilderness with no clear direction and nothing good to eat, unsure of what their destination is, they start doing what many folks do when the going gets tough: they start fantasizing about the past. It doesn’t matter that they were slaves back in Egypt. All they can remember is the food. It doesn’t matter that they ultimately had no future back in those days. All they can really focus on is the things that made them happy. They are paralyzed with preoccupations. What they end up saying with their complaining and idealizing of the past is that it would have been better to die with no future than to live with hope as God’s people.

Individuals and congregations, of course, never do anything like this, especially ones with long-range planning teams that have us focused on the future. We never get into a predicament on our journey of life or faith and begin to pine away for what we once had, the church we grew up in, or the way things used to be back in those years when the pews were full every Sunday. Pastors, too, caught up in the stress of parish life, never pine away for the fun times of earlier days, like seminary, for example, or internship, or those lovely days of being an associate pastor. Those things only happened with ancient Israel.

13th century
Regardless, this hungry moment in the road to the Promised Land turns out to be a critical moment for the people of God. It’s a critical moment because they end up receiving manna, this strange, flaky, bread-like substance that falls on the ground each morning and provides just what they need to get through. Apparently it’s nothing to write home about, and it’s not even clear what it really is, which is how it gets its name: Manna means “What is this?” in Hebrew. In other places we learn that it tastes a little like coriander seed.

It may not be the fleshpots of Egypt, but it suffices, and with the manna comes the instruction to collect only enough for one day. This focuses their attention on the present and how God is with them in that moment. It draws them into a new kind of relationship that is daily, portioned out.

The gift of manna also shines the spotlight on the journey itself, so they are not left idolizing the past, nor may they become too preoccupied with the dreamlike destination of the future, that point four hours down the road when they’ll finally get water.

Furthermore, the gathering of manna is a communal event. Typically, when humans get hungry or desperate, our sinful tendencies of rugged individualism set in. It’s each man or woman for him or herself. But the manna is to be collected as a whole. No one can take any more than they need for that day, and they each distribute it in their tents as people have need.

This also turns out to be a critical moment for God who is responsive to the needs of his people. God, in a way, changes tack from showing up for Israel as a powerful, dramatic mover of Red Sea water and deliverer of deadly plagues—a grand deity who moves in big, broad, violent strokes—to a carefully present and attentive God, one who is now even drawn down to the basic, mundane rituals of daily provisions. Israel’s hunger moment becomes a chance for God to rain down something as delicate and as ephemeral as a daily gift of bread. It becomes a chance for God to show that the signs of God’s presence are not always the big, bold, miracles of power. They can even be the ones we practically disregard as we look them over and think to ourselves, “What is this?

This critical moment from Israel’s past and God’s past is what Jesus uses to interpret his presence among the people after he feeds the crowd of 5000 and crosses to the other side of the sea. In a way, his sign with the five loaves and two fish is a throwback to the old days where God worked in flashes of grandeur. At least, that’s how the people see it. They are amazed at the work he has displayed and want more. When will the next miracle happen? When will the next bread come down from the sky, and with such force?

Their actions remind me of those lines from that Foo Fighters’ song:

“I’m looking for the sky to save me/
looking for a sign of life./
I’m looking for something to help me burn out bright.”

They, like God’s people then and now, want the sky to open up save them again, dramatically, if possible, and so they are drawn to the bold, dazzling, events of yesterday, the ones we point to from our past when we were so sure of God’s presence.

But, somewhat disappointingly, Jesus does not see himself as just a miracle-provider. Jesus does not see himself as a representative of a God who works chiefly by swooping down from the sky to save us and whisk us back to the fleshpots of Egypt. Jesus sees himself, rather, as the true bread from heaven, a gift from that second side of God, a morsel of daily sustenance that, when gathered and taken up in faith, provides enough for this day.

Indeed, Jesus is the kind of gift that, when received and consumed, really becomes enough. For you see, his forgiveness never runs out, never gets wormy, never goes stale, never loses its power. His compassionate love never tires, never takes a break, never directs itself inward. And these are what is offered each time we gather around the manna of his words and assemble at the table of his mercy.

And when we do—when we gather around Jesus and his meal—we start to see that, in our sinfulness, we often desire a god who will just move us from miracle to miracle, because we have an insatiable appetite for miracles. When we take his bread and cup, we realize we usually pining for a god who will hear our cry for hunger and immediately pull the car over and give us a feast…or at least point us back in the direction of Egypt.

But when we are graciously brought together to Jesus, and we taste his forgiveness, we are nurtured with his compassion, we begin to understand that the kind of god we often want will not stoop to be with us in our suffering. That kind of god would not eventually go to the cross. That kind of god would not choose the night his friends betray him, when he himself is feeling more than a little abandoned, to offer up his own body because that is not a god of the journey. That is not the God of Israel, the one who has remembered our hunger and who has thought to pack something that will keep us going. That god of our dream-sky is not the God whose blessed presence can be found in each day’s gifts, as insignificant and measly as they may seem,...even when we pick them up and sneer, “What is this?

And yet even when we want that false god of our desires, that god who will only dazzle and amaze, we still come forward, open our hands, and we get the loving, thoughtful one who says, “I am the bread of life.”  And bit by bit, mile by mile, daily bread by daily bread, we learn to put the past in proper perspective, regain hope for the future, and begin to see that this living bread, this gift from heaven—this Savior—is ultimately what gives life to the world.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.