Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving Day - November 24, 2016 (Philippians 4:4-9 and John 6:25-35)

Israelites gather manna in the desert (Nicholas Poussin)
Author and radio personality Garrison Keillor has said, “We live by a series of gifts, not by what we earn,” and if there is ever day to reflect on that, Thanksgiving Day would be it. We may make a living by what we earn—what our paychecks or social security disbursements provide—but our lives are actually built and then buoyed along by an unending string of outbursts of God’s grace, none of which we purchase and many of which we never even take note of. It is this grace that gets us through this life more than anything else: the phone call from a friend at the right time…the doctor who gives perfect counsel…the second chance at a job interview…the aging parent who winds up in the perfect nursing home facility because her son spent extra time researching it all…and yet it is so easy to chalk them all up to chance or karma. Really, they are gifts from the Giver.

And when we look at the stories contained in Scripture, this fact becomes even clearer. Our forebears’ lives are case after case of people being given just what they need in order to make it, often against insurmountable odds, and almost always in spite of the fact they don’t deserve it. That is, for example, the main point of the manna which God gives the Israelites as they trudge through the wilderness to the Promised Land. They receive just enough to sustain them each day, one day at a time. The stuff literally drops from the sky. They live by a series of gifts, not by what they earn.

Perhaps no one was more aware of God’s series of gifts than the apostle Paul, who lived so many of his days persecuted as a follower of Jesus. From city to city, from congregation to congregation he journeyed, running into trouble with local authorities who wanted to suppress his message and getting himself imprisoned on more than one occasion. And yet, rather than becoming bitter or downcast, Paul exudes joy throughout his life, thankful for the string of gifts that somehow get him from one day to the next.

This is especially evident in his letter to the Philippians. In prison and unable to be with his beloved congregation, he writes to them a heartfelt letter literally bubbling over with joyfulness. The Philippians, themselves, seem to be going through some kind of a rough time. It’s unclear exactly what their malfunction is, but Paul knows that having them concentrate on the series of gifts that are certainly around them—the morsels of manna God has mysteriously thrown around on the ground—is the antidote to their woes. No matter what is going on or how badly the main mission is faring, they can always find something for which they can be thankful. In fact, he lists them like a series of gifts, clues as to where to find this string of grace. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable…If there is any excellence…think on these things,” he reminds them.

And, so, for this Thanksgiving, I thought it might be fun to heed Paul’s advice. Perhaps it’s been a rougher year than usual for you. Perhaps the recent and ongoing political developments has you on edge, like so many others. Perhaps your faith in God has been challenged this year like never before for other reasons you’ve not really shared with anyone. Whatever the case, it is good to remember those pure and commendable series of gifts which are there, those things by which our journeys are sustained. Here I will offer just a few from within the life of this congregation.

“Whatever is true”: In this sense of the word, Paul means whatever is genuine, real, dependable, and when I think of those words, I think of the volunteers of this congregation. I think of how new people stepped up this year to fill positions where others had faithfully served for so long. I think of the dependable leaders of Vacation Bible School, CARITAS, and our new property team volunteers.  I think of the genuine conversations held by the Timothy Ministers in the youth group, the confirmation mentors who share their faith and are modeling prayer and thanksgiving. There has been plenty of true and genuine here over the past year, and we thank God for it all.

“Whatever is honorable”: It is hard to think of things more honorable serving one’s country in the armed forces. This congregation currently has four members in active duty military, one of whom will be soon serving overseas. At a time when it could be so easy for these young men to begin a life for themselves and follow their own paths they’ve chosen to serve and protect our nation. We are grateful that they have made this honorable decision, and we’re thankful that they come to worship with us so often when they’re home on leave.

“Whatever is just”: For the word “just,” think “righteous,” “upright,” and “honest.” I think of our volunteers through the Micah Initiative who are assisting the teachers and staff of Southhampton Elementary School be upright and honest role models in the lives of their students. One woman spends one day a week helping four-year-olds learn how to write their name, four-year-olds who don’t even know how draw a straight line yet or understand the word “trace,” but she sits their patiently, encouraging them to practice, over and over. I think of the honesty of the conversations between our Stephen Ministers and their care-receivers, who share very personal thoughts and concerns with each other and are careful to do so very confidentially.

volunteers for Micah Initiative
“Whatever is pure”: My mind goes to a member of this congregation who had to drop everything earlier in the year to rush out of state to be by her critically ill mother in ICU. As the week wore on, it looked like her mother might me rebounding. As she was checking out of the hotel where she had stayed for a week she got a call from the hospital informing her that her mother had just failed two breathing tests. She had taken a sudden turn for the worse. Exhausted and overcome with emotion, she began to break down right there at the counter, a line of people behind her. The clerk noticed what was happening, came out from behind the desk, and embraced her. She said a prayer for her right there in the lobby in front of everyone. It was a moment of pure, innocent grace that got her through the day.

I think of all the pure, loving care that our volunteers give at every funeral reception, the women who call and email asking for food to be made and dropped off, the people who keep the kitchen clean and functional. Care extended to the bereaved at the death of a loved one is perhaps the purest, most holy form of Christian care, and we have many people willing to serve in this capacity.

“Whatever is pleasing:” The music programs of this congregation have filled the year with pleasing sounds and expressions of faith.  A new baby grand piano, donated by a family in the congregation, and a new harpsichord broaden our ability to praise God and enhance congregational singing. Our choirs and handbell ensembles volunteer so much of their time to lead worship at multiple services, typically attending all three services on Easter morning. The Cherub Choir and singing saints light up many faces in the congregation, something I get to see from my vantage point. The talents of instrumentalists and soloists within our ranks is something to marvel at, whether it is oboists, or flutists, or people playing percussion. But many would find most pleasing the talents of our youngest musicians whom Kevin invites to play during preludes and postludes. A congregation that encourages such diverse levels of gifts is truly lovely for the praise of God.

“Whatever is commendable:” We have a young adult serving on a mission team in South Africa. Council has registered three people for seminary study. Members of the youth group planned their own service project on their own this past spring without any adult suggestion or guidance, but because they felt like it. We have three members serving on the boards of Synod institutions, and a few other members who serve on boards of local service organizations. Another member has developed a curriculum, complete with tools, that can be used to adapt confirmation instruction to a child with special needs.

The list could go on, but suffice it to say there is much among us that is worthy of praise. God’s grace has rained from the sky like manna, allowing this congregation to continue its witness. These things worthy of praise are occasions of the food that endures for eternal life. They are examples of Christ, the bread of life, present in and with us. Nurturing and sustaining us far beyond our physical needs, they are all reflections of the way our Father comes down from heaven         to give life to the world. For what is really true, what is deeply honorable, what is most just, pure, pleasing and commendable is the life that Christ leads for us as he takes his own body and blood and sheds them for the forgiveness of sins.

Thanksgiving is our response when our faith grasps this truth, just as the Israelites’ fingers grasped the manna God showered around, just as our own hands grasp the bread and the wine offered at his table of plenty. We live by a series of gifts, not by what we earn, and Jesus invites us, once again, to that table. We certainly didn’t deserve our seat there, but he knows our hunger is real. He understands the thirst that we sometimes try to deny we even have. Let us gather, lifting up today all that we have seen that is true, all that is honorable, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is pleasing, all that is excellent.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Christ the King [Year C] - November 20, 2016 (Luke 23:33-43)

"Crucifixion" (Peter Gertner)
The world around us is talking about presidents and prime ministers, but we—you and I—are going to hail a crucified king.

The world around us is going to hash out popularity votes and voter turnout, but you and I are going to talk a profound unpopularity that leads nowhere but a cross.

The world around us is going to say that the people have spoken, and their voice is loud and clear, but you are I are going to know that the people just stood by, watching.

The world around us is going to say, “To the victor goes the spoils!” but you and I are going to hear, “They cast lots for his clothing.”

The world around us is going to witness the uncorking of champagne, the sweet taste of victory, but you and are going to hear “they offered him sour wine.”

The world around us will discuss the Oval Office, and moving into the White House, but you and I will remember they came to a place called the Skull.

The world around us is watching to see which allies will be selected for cabinet positions, who will sit at the leader’s right and at his left, but you and I will realize that he hangs between two criminals—one on his right and one on his left.

The world around us will wonder about campaign promises made and not kept, but you and I will hear, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Sisters and brothers, the world around us will sell us on the virtues of claiming what is ours, that screams, “Save yourself!” but we will meet a Savior who offers himself to claim others.

Christ is King. We’ve gone through another cycle of a church year, and that is the message we end on.

Christ is King. We’ve had another chance to reflect intentionally and methodically on the life and times of this man from Nazareth, and that is the statement of faith at which we arrive. The United States may have a new President, England may be working with a new Prime Minister, “Dancing with the Stars” may have awarded a new mirror ball, but when it comes to all of creation, Christ is King.

We know that Christ is many things for us: he is shepherd, taking care of his flock with unparalleled care. He is teacher, showing us the way of mercy and love for our neighbor. And he is healer, binding up our wounds, external and internal, and making us whole again. But ultimately it is his kingship that we must come to terms with, for it is a kingdom that he comes to bring. It is the first words on his lips when he shows up in Galilee preaching and teaching and gathering disciples, and it is one of the last things he speaks about as he dies on the cross. His loving reign over us and over all that is and all that ever has been and all that ever will be is what we need to consider and remember. His authority is what we must hold in tension with the all dominions and authorities of this earth we live under now. But his particular authority is radically different from other authorities we deal with, and this kingdom operates on a different philosophy.

It goes without saying that all good rulers are seeking to expand their boundaries, to establish a greater sphere of influence. We see political maps where certain states are labelled blue, red…or battleground. We talk about fundraising. We talk about ground games and air time. We see military campaigns fight for control over key Middle Eastern cities like Mosul or Aleppo. I know that in my own kingdom (if I could even call it that) if I want to establish any authority here lately it’s going to need to involve bribery and Halloween candy.

All of these different rulers of the earth use strategic plans to gain more power, but they’re all essentially aggressive, clandestine. Jesus’ kingdom, by contrast, uses mercy and kindness, and often beginning with the scattered-most remnants, those who’ve been looked over. That’s how it advances and gains ground. Jesus empties himself, disarms himself. We see this right up unto the end. He has been mocked and flogged by the very people he has come to save. The Roman authorities have offered to free him for the Passover, but the people chosen to crucify him instead of a convicted murderer, Barabbas. He has every reason to pursue revenge, to spite, to choose vindictiveness, but instead he lets himself be humiliated.

"Crucifixion" (Vernonese, 1580)
The kingdom of God advances with mercy and kindness. Look at how Jesus uses his last few breaths! Even as he is mocked by one of the criminals hanging next to him, Jesus manages to look to the criminal on the other side and offer him pardon and freedom. Crucifixions in the first century were always public events, and the Romans were known for nailing several people to crosses at the same time in order to maximize the gore factor and establish a rule of law.

Not much is known at all about the two criminals who were executed alongside Jesus, but we do know that one of them experienced the release of God’s forgiveness right at the end. “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus says to him. Paradise is a term that Jewish folks would have associated with the Garden of Eden, that time in creation when all things were in perfect relationship with God and with each other. Jesus is promising in that very dying moment this this man will know full restoration. In spite of his sin, in spite of his crime, the kingdom of God will come to him because Jesus advances his reign through mercy and forgiveness.

Even as he is hoisted on the cross above the crowd, Jesus offers forgiveness because they know not what they do. The “they” in that sentence has long perplexed scholars. Is he talking about the people doing the nailing? The jeering? The standing-by-not-speaking? It is believed that the “they” is intentionally ambiguous So that it can encompass everyone involved in any way in his death…from then until now. All these are forgiven, even though they don’t grasp what they’re doing to him.

God knows that nothing we experience can equal the power that forgiveness offers. That is the constitution of his kingdom: the forgiveness of the enemy. And when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, for example, for his kingdom to come, that is the authority we’re appealing to. Martin Luther says, “In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own, without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” Through his blood on the cross, Jesus has advanced his kingdom right up to our hearts. And we, as those who have been freed by its power, have the command to follow the example of our king and help proclaim the freedom of others, to let them taste Paradise even today.

When we study God’s kingdom in confirmation, we discuss the powerful example of Mary Johnson, a woman in Minneapolis who lost her only son, Laramiun, in a shooting. When he was only 20 years old, he got into a fight at a party one evening and another young man, Oshea Israel, pulled out a gun and shot him. Israel was eventually convicted and spend more than a decade in prison. Now Ms. Johnson lives next door to Israel in the same apartment building. She has helped him get back on his feet and readjust to life after prison.

It’s a powerful story of forgiveness—these two people, living side to side, like Jesus next to the criminal on the cross. Their lives are joined by one horrible, deadly event, but then restored by an unlikely advance of Jesus’ kingdom. Ms. Johnson talks openly and honestly about hard it was to grapple with the evil that took her son, how hard it was to visit the prison and look into the face of her son’s murderer. But she also speaks beautifully and articulately about how unbelievably freeing has been to live in this new relationship of mercy with her son’s killer. She treats him as a son. Even today, in their own way, Ms. Johnson and Israel live with Jesus in Paradise.

In the end, when everything is said and done, when you and I have gone from this earth and creation reaches the end that has been prepared for it, we have hope that all will be restored through the blood of the cross. All wrongdoing will be accounted for and all brokenness will be healed. We will be able to look into the faces of those who have wronged us and those we have wronged and have all hurt and sorrow taken away. The scene that takes place on the Skull where Jesus forgives without will extend its healing rays all over the universe, over and over again. It is through mercy and forgiveness that this restoration will happen and no other way. No force will do it, no secret strategy, no clever manipulation.

Until that time, we keep advancing his kingdom in a ground game of compassion and kindness. We expand his boundaries, one act of selfless love at a time. So, when the world around us will be plotting revenge, retribution, but you and I will be thinking mercy. And when the world around is is saying, "We have only gotten what we deserve," we will practice grace.

And when the world around us is in arms about the republic, the state, the neighborhood, the universe…you and I will point to kingdom without end, because the One who was crucified now is risen and rules forever and ever.

We will point to the King, the King who frees.

Christ the King


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24C/Lectionary 29C] - November 13, 2016 (Luke 21:5-19 and Malachi 4:1-2a)

The end of things! That’s the message the prophet Malachi wants to get across to God’s people. They’re going down the wrong path and so he reminds them there will be an end of things, a day of reckoning, if you will. Malachi calls it the day of the Lord—a concept, an anticipated event of the future that other prophets before him often mentioned. It will be the day when God’s patience with evil and with his people’s ways will finally run out and everything—all the good and all the bad and the alluring gray in between—would be sorted out once and for all. The truth will be told and the truth will no longer be resistible. Who knows exactly when it will come? It may catch many off-guard, but life as they know it will change, and all of God’s holy and fearsome glory will be revealed.

For some, Malachi says, the heat and light of that day and that truth will feel like a burning, scalding oven. It will reduce them to stubble, just like my clay sculpture project in 8th grade art class did in the pottery kiln when I didn’t pay attention to how I was forming it beforehand. She warned us not to form our sculptures with any air pockets in the middle of them, for air expands at high temperatures and your art projects will explode, she said. “What idiot would make that mistake?” I thought as I formed the coolest, raddest wizard sculpture you’d ever seen. Then “Boom!” went Phillip’s beautiful project on the day of the kiln, reducing almost the whole class’ sculptures to rubble, too. All that was returned to me was the head. A little wizard head that couldn’t stand on its own.

But, Malachi said, that same heat and the light on the day of the Lord will be like warm spring sun to the righteous. The new future opens up with healing in its wings, and they are formed into something beautiful, lasting. It’s the same day, same exact ending day, but it’s experienced very differently by different folks.

It occurs to me that for many in this country and indeed in this world, Tuesday this past week felt like a day of the Lord, an end of things. Time ran out and some kind of truth got registered at the ballot box by millions of people. It caught many off guard. Same day, but vastly different experiences. Some people feel very frightened, very sad, very angry, their beautiful possibilities of life and safety seeming to explode in the heat of its reality.

Others, and almost as many, feel relief, thankful, hopeful, glad for healing they’ve long anticipated. It’s the end of things, some people are saying. No, it’s the beginning of new things, others are shouting louder. It is important that we listen to both sets of voices at a time like this, with the intent to understand and not to respond. And when we step back we realize every Presidential election is cast in the same apocalyptic terms, as if America will be changed irrevocably if so-and-so is elected. There are differences, of course, and for those who are most shocked and stunned by the day of election it seems there may be no way to pick up the shards of clay and piece things back to the way they were.

Picking up pieces. The end of things. As old-fashioned and superstitious as scientifically-modern people may find that particular topic, Jesus spoke about the end of things, too, as he walked around the Temple in Jerusalem. The edifice is huge and imposing, with stones that weigh several tons stacked upon each other. Many archaeologists consider the Temple in Jerusalem to have been one of the most impressive buildings in antiquity. But Jesus predicts that time will run out and that it will all one day be thrown down, boulders going everywhere, like a big piece of pottery with an air pocket in it. No one could have imagined it, standing there looking at that structure. It was too gigantic, too formidable, too permanent. Jerusalem robbed of its Temple would have been far more cataclysmic to God’s people than the outcome of any US Presidential election.

The loss of the Temple and Jerusalem’s protection would and eventually did involve great suffering and persecution of those who were Jewish but especially those who followed Christ as Savior. And yet Jesus promises a way through the aftermath. Jesus promises endurance. Jesus gives them hope.

My sense is that many of us don’t like talking about the end of all things, that day when the Creator will sit as judge and everything gets straightened out. Maybe those are just my issues, but we often have a difficult time visualizing or believing about that point in time in the way that Scripture and the creeds talks about it. And yet we know the timelines of our lives are very real and they are certainly punctuated by many cataclysmic endings here and there, times of woe and change when we can’t imagine how things will go forward—the death of a spouse or a child, a divorce, the loss of a source of income or our own health. It stands to reason, then, that the time we are all living in will someday reach its end. I’m no astrophysicist, but it seems to me there may be some evidence to bear that theory out.

Be that as it mays, Jesus says first and foremost, when it comes to any fearsome dramatic ending between now and then to avoid prognostications and silly predictions. In the aftermath of a tumultuous event, in the aftermath of a day of the Lord, everyone has theories. Everyone seems to have a prognosis and know what went wrong and who to blame and how to fix it. So-called experts pop up everywhere, like pundits on a cable news network, promising a clever way forward, enticing people with false security. Some will even claim to speak for God. Jesus says to beware of this tendency to be led astray by these false saviors. What is the way forward then? Jesus offers himself as that, in ways of self-giving and courageous compassion.

Secondly, Jesus says not to grow worried when the Temples start to crumble, as the terrible end looms in sight. And this is more than just hunkering down and having faith that everything will work out OK. That attitude is alright, for sure, but Jesus is going for something a little more definite. It has to do with understanding that the most significant ending that any of us or the world has ever faced, for that matter, has already occurred in the cross. In his own death and self-sacrifice, Jesus has already conquered anything which would ultimately try to separate us from God. The clouds of doom have already gathered for him, the temple of his body has already been torn down, and he has risen with healing in his wings for all creation. Not a hair of our heads will perish. We do not ever need to worry about the end of things because Jesus has made us part of God’s great new beginning, and eventually that will be all that universe knows.

Lastly, Jesus warns us to prepare for suffering and persecution on account of our faith. As it turns out, the disciples would, after Jesus’ resurrection, enter a time of intense discrimination and oppression. Many would be rejected by their associations, jailed by the authorities, killed. Jesus knows that it is often difficult to stand for what he believes in, to spread the gospel when the world seems to be so against it all the time. Yet, in doing so we gain our souls. That is to say there is something about sharing and living our faith, especially in the face of hardship, that allows us to grow in ways we otherwise might not. It allows our eyes to be opened to the ways God does actually does provide and protect us that we most likely miss when everything is, by contrast, hunky-dory.

Within the last several weeks some of the Christians who had to flee the Iraqi city of Mosul and its surrounding villages because of ISIS have been able to return. It’s been more than two years since they encountered their own fearsome ending amidst the destruction of Islamic terrorism. The Iraqi forces, which, it needs to be noted, are largely Muslim, have liberated these villages, and the Christians are coming back to find their churches in ruins, the crosses adorning the walls riddled with bullet holes. And yet they return with great joy, with an unmistakable optimism that Christ will make things new.

One priest in the ancient village of Bartella returned with his wife just a few weeks ago. Bartella was a village where people of different faiths had coexisted peacefully for millennia. A camera crew followed them as the priest made his way in. Soldiers, many still bearing arms but with them slung back over their shoulders as if they no longer need them, dance and sing for joy, making a new song for God has done marvelous things. The church around them looks like it exploded in a pottery kiln. The footage shows several of them sifting through the rubble, picking out what books and other artifacts they can salvage. At one point you see this soldier with his assault rifle hanging slack across his chest, gently carrying, as carefully as he can…as if it is a human body he has discovered among the boulders…as if it is the very symbol of what will be the way forward out of this carnage…a perfectly-preserved, framed picture of the Last Supper.

“For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

In the face of despair and in picking up the pieces, when everyone offers a prognosis, a prediction, we will offer Jesus.

In the face of endings, when the world starts to worry, we will witness, and witness with joy.

And when it comes to suffering—when the world gives us terrorism—we will lift up his bread and cup, his body, broken once more, ended once more, for the healing of our souls. We know we will find a precious new creation somewhere within the rubble of the days before because that is precisely where God sets his table and places his cross.

As this congregation continues its shift from the end of one era to the beginning of another, may we be so bold to walk the journey—the journey of faith and hope—to worship the Christ—the One risen with healing in his wings—and to witness with joy—joy for a world forgiven and restored.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.