Sunday, October 30, 2016

Reformation Sunday [Proper 26C/Lectionary 31C] - October 30, 2016 (Luke 19:1-10)

When you’re traveling from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem in the south, as Jesus has been doing for several weeks, maybe months, the last town you come to before you go up the hill to the holy city is Jericho, and Jesus passes through there. For that whole journey, up until this point, Jesus’ ministry has sought out the poor and the sick, foreigners and social outcasts. And Luke, of all the gospel writers, highlights this perspective on Jesus’ mission the most. It’s the people at the margins—be they women, or children, or lepers, or non-Jews, who are lifted up as centerpieces of God’s kingdom. God’s mercy in Christ Jesus comes first to those who have been excluded, to those who have little relative power.

Then, suddenly, here in Jericho, when the crowd that is following him is at its largest, right before he enters the city that will claim him as king, his final encounter is with Zaccheus.

And Zaccheus is anything but powerless and poor. He is a chief tax collector, so he likely knows most everyone in the town and has some kind of influence over their financial well-being.

Zaccheus is wealthy. If he is like most tax collectors of his time, he has found a way to enriching himself somehow from what he has collected from the people. Along the way he has clearly been promoted, so he has probably earned favor from the Roman government and gotten kickbacks as a result of it. If you’re looking for the type of person that Jesus would reach out to based on the shape his ministry has taken so far, Zaccheus would probably not fit that bill. He is a person of great means and, in addition to that, many of Jesus’ more direct and unsettling teachings have been about the dangers of money.

Funny enough, the main thing that Zaccheus is known for is his size. He’s a “wee little man,” which was a character trait looked down on by people of that time (pun intended). Unfair though it was, one’s stature was thought to be a reflection on one’s personality. Right or wrong, I have always imagined Zaccheus to be like that short little guy Vizzini in The Princess Bride. He’s the guy who says, “In-con-ceivable!” If you’ve watched the movie, you know Vizzini’s got influence out of proportion to his size. He has some wealth, and he has some power, but no one really seems to like him. He’s not the type of guy, for example, that people are going to give up their front row seat for when a famous guy comes through town.

So, of all the people Jesus could have chosen that day to speak with, to make a point of extending God’s mercy to, Zaccheus would not have been the most obvious. It would have been…(wait for it)…in-con-ceivable! But Jesus is never going to be contained by our definitions and expectations. How often do we try to decide who Jesus is and is not going to approach and befriend, or direct what Jesus is going to do?

Based on their reaction, that is clearly what the crowd following Jesus is doing. This doesn’t fit their picture of what Jesus is. Up until this point he has tended to befriend the poor and the downtrodden and now, at the last, he is freely associating with this wealthy person, someone they see as a scoundrel. And Jesus doesn’t just approach and address this chief tax collector, he invites himself into his home, a very uncommon thing to do! By announcing he will come to Zaccheus’ house, he is essentially putting himself in Zaccheus’ debt. To be a guest in someone’s home meant sharing table fellowship with that person, which was the most intimate kind of public relationship you could have.

Zaccheus’ reaction to this gracious news is astounding. Because of this interaction with Jesus, becoming his friend, we hear of his generosity to the poor and his honesty in his business dealings. He gives half of his possessions to the poor and repays those he has cheated. “Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus says, reminding us that God’s eternal grace and redemption is not something that only happens once we die. God’s kingdom is something that finds us even now, in this life.

It is not clear whether the two of them ever make it to Zaccheus’ house, but we may assume that they do, that Jesus and Zaccheus have a meal together. The joy and rich life that Jesus brings us is not something we must wait for. It comes to us now as Jesus meets us and transforms us with God’s mercy and forgiveness. We turn and serve our neighbor, for we meet the face of Jesus in her or him.

With Zaccheus, in this last stop before Jerusalem, we get the clearest, most direct description of what Jesus is all about. He says he has come to seek and save the lost. And the lost, as it turns out, can be anywhere. They can be along the side of the road of Jericho, down in a ditch, beaten and left to die. They can be at the top of a sycamore tree. We know this: there is nothing anyone needs to “be” in order to receive God’s mercy other than lost. You don’t need to be poor. You don’t need to be rich. You don’t need to be churched, fluent in the Bible. You don’t need to be unchurched. All you need to be is lost, distant, endangered. and the lost, distant, and endangered can be anywhere. In fact, they are us!

And as he continues up that hill out of Jericho into Jerusalem, Jesus will increasingly feel lost, himself. He will become abandoned by the crowd that currently loves him and the disciples that he has called to help him. Eventually Jesus will even feel abandoned and lost from God, his Father. To the top of another kind of tree Jesus himself will climb, rejected and ostracized by the people. He becomes all of our lost-ness, all of our estrangement from God. All of that gets nailed on the tree of the cross so that God can transform us all into his found people.

"Jesus receives Zaccheus" Church of the Good Shepherd,
“To seek out and save the lost.” It strikes me that this is the core message of the Reformation, the banner that Martin Luther held high as he tried to re-direct the church back to its gospel center almost 500 years ago. He thought that the church of Christ had adopted some practices and beliefs that sent the message that people were not saved by God’s grace alone. People had to pay a certain price or go through certain rituals not found in scripture in order to be assured of God’s love and redemption. And Luther knew this flew in the face of what Jesus does in the gospels, especially with people like Zaccheus. Jesus says, “Come down, Zaccheus. I know your find it inconceivable that you could host me in your house, around your table, but that’s where I want to be.”

Five hundred years after Luther’s efforts at reforming the church, Christians, at least in the West, find themselves in very interesting times. Tomorrow, to kick off the 500th year since the Protestant Reformation, Pope Francis will be participating in a worship service with Lutherans in Lund, Sweden. It is the first time in history that a Pope will mark this event in such a way. People are calling it ground-breaking, saying that it may open up new ways for Lutherans and Roman Catholics to be people of faith together. Already, in the last twenty years, all the condemnations and accusations that these two religious groups formally hurled at each other have been repented of and repealed. Significant progress is being made for our two church bodies to one day come together in some way. And that will have major positive implications for all of Christianity and the world.

We are also in interesting times because our societies are becoming more and more fragmented, socially, politically, and economically. There is a whole host of reasons for that, but suffice it to say we all feel that in some way. The church as an institution may not be powerful or influential in the same ways that it used to be. Some of us may lament that, wishing for the good old days, but we must remember that in any day the church always has the gospel. Into our fractured and pluralistic societies and world we get to announce what Zaccheus hears: “Come down. I’m coming to your house today.” Jesus is still traveling, walking, calling people together from the bottom and the top of the world to unite around a table where he is the holy guest, where he gives his body precisely because we don’t deserve it.

There was this story earlier this week about a mom and dad with a son in the Washington, D.C., public schools who found out that one of his friends often came to school hungry. The parents told their son to invite him home for dinner and to sleep there, if he needed it. As it turns out, that kid knew someone else who didn’t have a stable home life, and he, too, started to show up at the Frantis’ house for supper each night. Pretty soon they started hosting sometimes up to 20 kids from the area, most of whom were dealing with homelessness, poverty, and the wounds of abuse or assault. In a word, they all feel lost, and they find around the Frantis’ humble table a warm meal, a loving community, and a place they feel found, where they belong.[1]

What an image for the church—an always reforming church—as we enter these exciting and interesting times! A church that is constantly being renewed by God’s word, is a church that concentrates on seeking out the lost, that is not doing something for its own members but widening the circle to bring down even the people from the sycamore trees, giving them a place to gather and be fed. Grounded in Scripture, encountering a crucified and risen Lord, we are all the lost whom Jesus has found. Whether we’re Lutheran, or Roman Catholic or Presbyterian or  we’re-not-sure-yet, may Zaccheus teach us that Jesus comes to our house today. May we learn that God’s grace is beyond our understanding, defies human boundaries and borders. It claims all of us, in spite of our sinfulness.

May we learn from all our church leaders, Luther and Zaccheus, and mostly from Jesus on the cross, that God’s grace is, quite literally …in-con-ceivable!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “The Power of a Dinner Table,” David Brooks, New York Times, October 18, 2016

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24C/Lectionary 29C] - October 16, 2016 (Luke 18:1-8 and Psalm 121)

“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

I tell you, it’s hard not to lose heart when I read through the Post-It Notes that the HHOPE ministry volunteers place in my office box each Saturday after one of their distributions. The Post-It Notes contain the prayer requests, in their own handwriting with a ball-point pen, of the HHOPE guests, those people who are receiving food from our own church narthex. From its beginning, that ministry has sought to listen to and pray for the specific prayers of the people it helps, not just hand out food. On one of their tables is a stack of Post-It Notes and those who have prayer requests write their concern down and hand it to the volunteers, who then include those prayer requests when they hold hands and circle for prayer at the end of each distribution. Afterwards, one of the HHOPE volunteers then traditionally deposits them in my box, and I have to say it is moving to come into the office on Sunday and read through prayers of these people in our community, although, I have to say after reading them for almost three or four years now, I’m still seeing the same desperate appeals.

That’s where it’s hard not to lose heart. Some of the requests are vague and general, but some are very specific, and it makes me wonder: when will relief come for the woman who prays for her child with special needs? When will resolution come for the person who conscientiously scribbles down her request month after month for settling a dispute with a landlord? The persistent, relentless faith of these individuals is inspiring, even as I, their eavesdropper, wonder if I would ever have the nerve to enlist my own prayers so fervently.

The heart for trying, the heart for believing: Jesus knows his disciples run the risk of losing just that—of getting discouraged with the tasks of faith and witness. They are about to be sent out into a world that will not readily receive them where they will often feel vulnerable and unwelcome. They are about to be sent out as ambassadors of a kingdom that is often not visible. It won’t have borders or boundaries or strong castles to defend it. It will occur right in among them in a moments of love and forgiveness, where the cruel ways of the world are momentarily turned back and God’s grace reigns. That is the particular kingdom they offer their lives for, they seek and strive for, and the cruel ways of the world will often roll right over them.

Jesus knows they will feel a lot like the ancient Israelites did as they made their way up to the holy city of Jerusalem for pilgrimages, having to pass through the hills and mountains of the surrounding countryside. Those hills and mountains were the territory of the pagan enemies who off and on threatened them with war. Those foreign peoples would build their shrines to unknown earth gods on the peaks of those distant hills and the Israelites would sing and wonder aloud as they trekked to the Temple of the one Lord, coming up out of the shadowy valleys where it is always easy to lose heart, “I lift my eyes up to these mountains which loom over me, threatening my journey…from where will my help come? And the Israelite faithful would answer themselves, “My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth, the maker of even those looming mountains.”

"Pilgrimage to Jerusalem" (Roberts & Hauge)
Yes, Jesus knows they could lose heart and so he gives them a remedy, a bulwark as they traverse their valley: pray always. It will be taking a ball-point pen and ripping off yet another Post-It Note and placing it in the hands of caring people who will pray with you. It will be repeating, in various and creative ways, sometimes even only to themselves, that the LORD is more powerful than the mountains that tower over us from time to time.

And to give them an example of what he means Jesus tells them a parable of a people engaged in a kind of dialogue, except for it is a very one-sided dialogue. It is the unjust judge versus a widow. It is the person who occupies a privileged place within the community, tasked with using his voice to create new realities for people versus the person who has no place at all, and who has no voice, since that’s the Hebrew root word for “widow”: silenced.

The judge, we find out, is a downright shameless character, concerned neither with how his behavior affects those around him nor how his decrees ignore or damage the community. The widow is seeking some sort of justice. Perhaps it’s a landlord issue, too. Whatever the case, it must be related to be the one small shred of legal standing she has. She persistently calls on him, stands outside his office every single day. She is on first-name basis with his receptionist, and when the people in the office see her coming each day they start to roll her eyes, shuffling their papers to look busy. Over and over she does things to get his attention, but he won’t listen, sends her straight to voice mail.

(Eugene Burnand)
Finally the judge caves, but not because he cares about her, but because he’s worried that she may end up making him look bad. He says he’s concerned she’ll “wear him out,” which is a Greek boxing term which, directly translated, means, “give me a black eye.” The judge only listens to her because of what it might mean for him if he doesn’t. That is, he’s never really willing to be engaged in what she’s going through. He stays outside of it, even as he grants her request.

Don’t worry, says Jesus, once he finishes with the story, you’ve got a God who comes to this dialogue of prayer as a partner. You’ve got a Father in heaven who cares, who doesn’t stay outside of it, who wants to be involved somehow. You’ve got a God who ultimately will get a black eye—and in fact, far more than that in order to grant justice and bring about his kingdom.

It is tempting to think of prayer as something like writing Christmas wish lists to God. We think that since God is listening and has all the power of the universe at hand, we can just lob our requests out there into the air and see what happens. And I know even as I say this that I’ve spoken with people who have lost their faith in God because they’ve prayed and prayed and what they felt they wanted didn’t come true. So I speak with great caution here, but we can forget that prayer is a dialogue, even a whole-body affair at times. We can forget that the models we have of people who engage with God are like this widow, who does far more than just go through the motions. She gets up and tries again, maybe shifting her tactics slightly, rephrasing the request. They are models like Jacob by the Jabbok, who, tormented by his past and fearing his future, grapples with his Creator mysteriously almost as an equal and is forever changed as a result of it. He comes away very different than he started.

In his novel, Jayber Crow, author and poet and farmer Wendell Berry wonders at one point, “Perhaps all the good that ever has come here has come because people prayed it into the world…Prayer is like lying awake at night, afraid, with your head under the cover, hearing only the beating of your own heart. It is like a bird that has blundered down the flue and is caught indoors and flutters at the windowpanes. It is like standing a long time on a cold day, knocking at the door.”

We don’t always know where our praying will take us, but one question Jesus’ parable asks of us is where are we ultimately looking for vindication? The mountains around us, the temples of those gods who stand aloof, like the capricious ones who supposedly affect the outcome of football games? Or perhaps within our fickle selves? Do we only look there for the answers? Techniques offered by self-help programs and achieving inner peace may work for some things, but at the end of the day issues that have to do with justice, that have to do with the needs of the widows in our midst, of establishing that real reign of peace and joy of Christ will come only from God, of standing sometimes a long time and knocking at the door. At the end of the day,  being an ambassador and witness to that kingdom will come only from looking to Christ.

It is looking to the model of all model, the example of all examples, who once prays so hard we are told his sweat turns to blood. He is the one who reminds us more than anything else that God engages us in our striving and in our losing heart to the point that he comes down to lose heart with us, who prays, on the cross, “Where have you been, Lord? Can you even hear me?”                 

Ultimately, you see, prayer should change us, too, and not because we give up or grow frustrated but because, in engaging the One on the cross, we come to see how God can still be at work even when the tides of injustice roll right over us. We come to see the world outside ourselves, the places where God is showing up to establish justice. We receive what God knows we really need: Suffering that gives way to growing. Dying that gives way to living. A Lord that preserves us from all evil and keeps our life, who watches over our going out and coming in from this time forth forevermore.

A funny little story about the going out and coming in, about praying always and not losing heart and being changed: Each night before bed we pray the same stock prayer with our daughters. We’ve done it for years. It was the same one I prayed as a child. It goes, “Now I lay me down to sleep/ I pray the Lord my soul to keep./ In the morning when I wake,/ I pray the path of love to take.”

Not too long ago we listened closely one evening as one daughter was praying along with us And, interestingly enough, we discovered she had changed the words ever-so-slightly and made it her own. “In the morning when I wake,” went her fervent plea, “I pray the path I love to take.” And, let me tell you, if you know our daughters—our beautiful, strong-willed, independent-minded daughters—you know God has been listening. And answering!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23C/Lectionary 28C] - October 9, 2016 (2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c and Luke 17:11-19)

Cleansing of Naaman

I can imagine that ancient Israel absolutely loved to tell and re-tell this story about Naaman, the commander from the army in Aram. During those long years when Israel was in exile in Babylon, far away from their homeland, far away from their River Jordan, I can just imagine that this story, peculiar though it may be, brought them great relief, made them proud.

I remember that when I first lived in Pittsburgh and the Steelers were still coming off of their long exile from the postseason any time the subject of football was brought up (and it’s brought up a lot in Pittsburgh) I would inevitably hear about the Immaculate Reception. I would hear every detail—every stirring detail—about the crazy, accidental play that saved their divisional title in December 1972 when they were trailing to the Raiders with 30 seconds to go in the game. A pass from quarterback Terry Bradshaw was intended for one receiver but it seemed to get tipped by the Raiders’ defensive player. The ball ricocheted to the feet of Steelers fullback Franco Harris who scooped it up—from his shoe or off the ground, no one really knows—and ran it in for the game-winning touchdown.

If you’ve never heard a Pittsburgh native who was alive in the 1970s tell you the story of the Immaculate Reception, you’re missing out. Fathers tell it to their daughters, mothers tell it to their sons. That crazy event brought—and still brings—any Pittsburgh Steelers fan so much pride. The play was like this proof that the Steelers had magic, had destiny, that they occupied some special status in pro football.

I imagine that’s kind of how the ancient Israelites told this story about Naaman coming to Israel’s River Jordan to get healed. There are so many intricate details in it, signs that oral tradition was really doing its duty as father passed down the story to daughter and mother to son. They were not going to forget anything about how it happened. It probably reminded them that they had a certain destiny, special status in God’s grand plan.

In this story you have Naaman, the distinguished commander in the army of the King of Aram, a foreign military power. Naaman is a bigwig, has lots of power, but unfortunately he has a skin disease, which at that time, was basically a kiss of death. Back then all skin disorders were lumped under the term “leprosy,” and they were a one-way ticket to outsider status. He had probably been searching for a cure for this skin disease for a while. He ends up finding out that there may be a prophet down in this small, inferior kingdom to the south who could do something about it.

So a letter is written to arrange some type of meeting but the king of that small, inferior kingdom, known as Israel, immediately thinks he’s being set up. At that point the prophet, named Elisha, decides to step in and follow through on Naaman’s request. For whatever reason, Naaman rolls into town with all of his war cabinet and his chariots and horses. It would be like if Vladimir Putin came to get something from our HHOPE pantry here one day and he came up Monument Avenue with some of his tanks and officers. Elisha gives the word that all he needs to do is bathe in the River Jordan and he’ll be made clean.

After some initial reluctance and a temper tantrum, Naaman eventually goes through with it and, lo and behold, after dipping in the river seven times, he’s cured. Then before he rolls his huge entourage back up to Aram in the north, Naaman, overcome with thankfulness, journeys back to Elisha and proclaims praise to God’s name. Then, in the next part of the story, Naaman orders two mule-loads of Israel’s dirt to be brought back to Aram so that he could continue to worship the God of Israel.

That’s the story that ancient Israel probably loved to tell and re-tell. Here are some of the things that story was supposed to teach them: First of all, it was a reminder that the greatest faith is more often found in the lowliest faces. Notice throughout the story how the rich and powerful are the ones who have the least confidence in God’s ability to heal and save. Whether it is Naaman, who is dissatisfied with the proposed cure and wants to go back home, or the king of Israel, who freaks out at the chance to showcase God’s power, neither of those in the story with strong relative power are initially examples of faithfulness.

By contrast, it’s the unnamed folks at the edges that display faith in the Lord. The whole story gets started, after all, by this servant girl who merely mentions the abilities of the prophet living in Israel. And when Naaman almost backs out and gets ready to take his chariots back to Aram, it’s his servants who come through and convince him to trust the prophet’s words. It was an important lesson for Israel to ponder, especially as they constantly seemed to be seeking worldly status and power. Great faith so often resides in those the world overlooks or ignores or enslaves or devalues. Notice Jesus’ own shock when he sees the one thankful leper turns out to be a foreigner, not a regular Israelite. God loves those people, draws near to them, desires to help them. And it is those who have relative power and privilege who, somewhat ironically, are the easiest to convince they have no need of a God to redeem and heal them. Lesson one: great faith is found in the lowest faces.

Another thing the healing of Naaman was supposed to teach the Israelites was that healing comes in the most unexpected places. The kingdom of Aram was on a roll. They had an army that could conquer anyone; they had talented military personnel. But to give Naaman the healing he needed, he was going to have to visit lowly old kingdom of Israel, almost a vassal state. The Rivers of Damascus, Abana and Pharpar, were beautiful, big and fresh compared to the dinky, dirty Jordan. He travelled all the way down here for a simple bath in that water? Naaman was expecting some big show of power and drama, some mystical secret weapon of healing (after all, he is a weapons guy). But God’s word is not chained, as the apostle Paul would say, and God often prefers the simple and unassuming to bring about wholeness, in spite of our desire for the masterful.

Because of where our church is located, every once in a while we have someone off the street drop by looking for assistance. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred they claim they need financial assistance, but one day several years ago a woman showed up who said she wanted to talk with a pastor. Pastor Price must have been out at the time, so I ended up setting down what I was doing and speaking with her. The conversation lasted for quite a while, and my memory is hazy now, but I remember that she was really agitated and worried about the health of her husband, who had just finished a round of cancer treatment with no results. I kept waiting for her to get to the point where she would tell me she needed something—like a hotel room or money for food, but as the story went on, it appeared she wanted me to tell her what she was supposed to do now. There were some family conflict, too, and she felt overwhelmed. It was a bizarre conversation and I remember feeling absolutely helpless. She never wanted to tell me her name, even though I asked her for it so I could pray for her. Like Naaman, I expected of myself some magical, dramatic words or gesture that would reassure her, calm her down, give her hope. But nothing came. When she finally left, I felt like it was fifty minutes down the drain. I wanted to do something difficult, something impressive. She seemed every bit as disoriented and upset as when she arrived.

Then, about a week later, an unmarked envelope came to the church through the mail. All that was in it was a $50 bill wrapped in a piece of paper that said, “Thanks for listening to me. Signed, your stranger last week.” Why she felt compelled to respond in that way, I don’t know, but I have a feeling I was being taught Naaman’s again. Faith comes in the lowliest faces. Healing comes in the most unexpected places.

We cannot predict how God is going to work among us, and because we’re typically infatuated with the showy and spectacular, the giant and the grandiose, we’re apt to miss the profound healing that can come through the humble and humdrum. We can often overlook Jesus, that is, and the places where Jesus walks among us, in steady gentleness and kindness, calling out to us that we are clean. We can often overlook the point of the cross—that face, that place where God’s grace is poured out in a crucified man so that we may be cleansed of our sin and made well.

Cleansing of the Ten lepers (Codex Aureus)
God is not going to require us to perform some magnificent ritual or deed of glory to prove our worth. God is going to take us as we are, unclean and broken, and love us back to life in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God is going to meet us in the ordinary, in the Godforsaken path we’re taking, to give us his healing. And like Israel and the disciples of Jesus learned, it often takes an encounter with another person—a stranger, a foreigner healed of leprosy, a nameless visitor in the office, a person who has experienced that new life for us to see its power, ourselves.

That brings me to the last thing the story of Naaman should have taught the Israelites, and which still teaches us: We show thankfulness for God’s graces. A clean Naaman could have gone straight home from the River Jordan. Ten clean former lepers started running off to the priest that day. The visitor in my office could have gone about her business, clean from her worry. But there is something about expressing thankfulness that makes us well. There is something about the thanksgiving that completes the relationship, which seals the deal. We are created for God’s glory and joy, and as much delight as it must give God to have us clean and whole, imagine how delighted God is to hear or see our thanks. Imagine how much it does for us when we respond in that relationship with our gratefulness.

Living our faith in the world, living out the grace of our baptism is like carrying back those two mule-loads of holy soil. That is, wherever we walk becomes holy ground, an opportunity where we express our thankfulness for what God has done. Each person with whom we talk becomes an opportunity to show our faith in God. And as this happens, through God’s strange but humble power, we are face of faith for someone who needs it. We are an unexpected place of healing. And, if I may be so bold as to say, an immaculate inception—a moment where the crucified and risen Lord may find an opening.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

125th Anniversary Celebration for Augsburg Lutheran Church - October 2, 2016 (2 Timothy 1:1-14)

When I first looked at the set of readings for this Sunday it was fun but challenging to consider what they would say to a congregation like this one on an occasion like this. The words from this Old Testament lesson, this rather obscure prophet Habakkuk, seem especially fitting for the situation of our world and nation at present but maybe not as uplifting or as pertinent to an anniversary celebration. And the lesson from Jesus in Luke’s gospel lesson…well…who doesn’t like to hear about faith the size of mustard seeds?! But in the end, I realize I had only one real option: that beautiful epistle lesson. And so today (unrolling the scroll) I offer you a special, newly-discovered reading from 2 Timothy. We’ll call it the 125th anniversary edition:

Phillip, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, to Augsburg Lutheran, my beloved home congregation: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—ancestors that sat in these very pews with me each week, ancestors that now reside on the other side of that wall, in the columbarium—ancestors that tried to show and teach me what worshiping with a clear conscience meant: letting the Word I heard on Sunday nourish my actions Monday through Saturday. Knowing this God claims and transforms all of me, not just the parts I want people to see.

I am grateful to God when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. I know that sounds redundant, but it’s the truth! There are some days I can still feel Ross Ritchie’s wet fingers on my forehead. I remember these pews as a child remembers the street he grows up on. To this day, whenever I have Pepsi in a paper cup, I am at the feet of Alma Hayworth and Billie Kirkman. And even now, when I log on to Facebook, which I do quite often, there you are!

So, yes…I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day!

Recalling your tears at baptisms, at funerals, at the Christmas Eve candlelight service when we sang “Silent Night,” I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first for me in pastors Ritchie and Riley, and then Glenham, Rinn and Winkle. But a faith that lived also in Fisher, Lutz, and Bumgarner and others before them, and Anderson and Harrison and Pugh thereafter. It is a faith that shaped and honed the calls of countless interns through the years—the faith of a congregation committed to the formation of servant leaders.

But the faith that lived in you was not modelled principally by the pastors, no offense to any who are here, but by the countless Eunices and Loises I know have lived among you: Ones like Mike (Inez) Holderman, whose large spherical earrings use to jiggle back and forth in rhythm as she played the piano for Saturday Night Fellowship while our parents served the food.

And ones like George Barkley, Sunday School teacher for more than 50 years,  who insisted even in the 1980s upon handing out Depression-era goodie bags of raisins and tangerines to each child as they finished their part in the Christmas pageant.

And others like Angie McHugh and Coty Nelson, my sister and brother in Christ with special needs, who were wisely not segregated out of our Sunday School class or worship, so that we could learn at an early age that we are one and that all God’s children have many gifts.

And the sincere faith of Colin, Neubert, Albritton and Eppert, who taught us how music is the church’s truest voice, who knew as Luther believed, “whoever sings, prays twice.” It is a faith that lived in Roediger, Kooken, Vinesett and Drawdy, and others who volunteered countless hours with the youth groups, who navigated us through turbulent adolescent years with patience and creativity and, much to our delight, a VHS video camcorder. It is a faith which, through all of these and more, outfitted me with a bedrock identity since you helped me see myself as God sees me: though a sinner, a redeemed one.

For this reason, on this 125th year of your life together, I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of all those hands. Rekindle, I say, and not revise, not refurbish, and definitely not re-invent. Rekindle, because like a fire you have an ember deep down there that you need to hold on to. There is no need for change, no wholesale re-production on order. Just a blow from the Holy Spirit and your flame will keep roaring. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-sacrifice.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord, but join me with Paul in suffering for the gospel. I don’t know about you, but I am always a little taken aback by that part. For, as beautiful as our worship may get as functional as our Family Life Centers may be, and as fun as our drama productions and service projects and choir trips to Ireland may be, I’m afraid suffering is what we’ve really signed up for. Some would so far as to say, in fact, it is the best barometer of the strength of our witness.

I’ll be honest: this is the part that is hardest for me to remember, and I’m afraid I’m not very good example to follow. Like so many others, I take for granted this country’s relative freedoms and openness towards religion and therefore worship so casually, so non-chalantly most of the time. Church is “safe,” and my faith doesn’t really make me stick out. But, you know, they say the number of religiously-unaffiliated is on the rise, and I believe them. Fewer people are being raised weekly, even monthly, in the context of faith communities like you. I guarantee that no one went jogging by a church on Sunday 125 years ago. Perhaps there will be one day when one might truly feel ashamed of this testimony of ours, when, in mixed company, admitting belief in a crucified Savior or contributing time and, not to mention, a portion of our income, to that Savior’s body might be laughed at.

This makes it all the more critical, then, that we rely on the power of God and not our own cleverness. For it is God who has saved us and called us with a holy calling. It is God who has laid his life down for us and made our lives sacred, not according to our own works of love or our own righteous agendas of social justice but according to his own purpose and grace.

This grace was given to us in Jesus Christ before the ages began—before Ron and Ross began their storied tenures, before the first group gathered at the original building on Fourth Street, even before Martin Luther did his thing with the church door—but it has been revealed through the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light.

This timeless grace is present even now, right here in this room, just as new as it ever has been—as fresh as a whiff of wine when a chalice is passed. This timeless grace of Jesus is yours for the taking, once again, yours for the listening, the eating, the drinking. There is not one thing you must do to receive it, to know it, to grow up, as I did, in it. It is yours. By the power of the cross and the blood of the Lamb, this love is yours.

For this gospel—this exact gospel—you helped appoint me in 2003 as a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and I’m here to remind you that you are still appointed, too. You are appointed as heralds and apostles and teachers in the heart of this city and, by gracious extension, in the workplaces and school rooms and dinner tables and athletic fields where you spend your days. Together you and I have come to know the one in whom we can put our trust, the one who claims us right here in this water, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day all that we have entrusted to him.

Hold to the standard sound teaching you have heard from your forebears, my brothers and sisters of Augsburg, for you have such a legacy of it. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you—the treasure, for example, of prime real estate in downtown Winston-Salem, near to the cool hangouts of the trend-setting, but truly prime because it is near the needs of the people who are homeless…the treasure of music programs of Cantor Olsen and youth ministries headed by Ms. Norris, which help articulate a distinctly Christ-centered worldview to a new generation of Loises and Eunices…the treasure of Sunday School classes for adults of every age (you have no idea how rare that is!) where people can come to learn and share life’s struggles and joys together.

But remember above everything else, congregations are not meant for glorifying the past, or celebrating what has been. They exist to uproot mulberry trees. They exist to nurture mustard seeds.Congregations, no matter how old they are, or how young they are, or whether they’re downtown or whether they’re in the country, they exist as a little outpost of servant labor in the name of Christ. They exist to teach people, all people—ha! well, now looky there, the obscure prophet Habakkuk!—to live by faith.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.