Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve - December 24, 2016 (Luke 2:1-20)

A very peculiar thing happened this year in the Martin household as we decorated for Christmas. The boxes were down from the attic and we were all set to take the family out to pick out a Christmas tree, when we realized we had no idea where we were going to put it. The birth of a third child this year has crowded things a bit in our living spaces. Lots of stuff comes with babies and children. We tuck them in the corner, we shift things under the ottoman to accommodate it all. So there we were scratching our heads there that day, wondering how we’d solve this problem, wondering if there were maybe another room in the house that could become Christmas central this year until we finally realized we had only one real option: dismantling the baby’s Pack ‘N Play to so that we’d have a place for the tree. If we needed somewhere safe and secure in which to lay him in the month of December…well, sorry kid.

And there, you’ve heard it: we removed a manger because there was no room for Christmas.

Don’t worry! It’ll come back, of course, once the tree is taken to the dump and all vestiges of the holidays are cleaned away, but the irony of what we were doing was profound. One of the main messages of this night—the beginning point of our Savior’s story—is that although things were crowded, a place was found to lay the baby. In all the rearranging that must have been going on—the shuffling around, the last minute cleaning up, the pressure to make sure Mary was doing OK—the priority was finding somewhere the child could sleep and not be trampled on.

Rearranging. Finding a place. The world seems to be particularly full of it these days, and it’s not just Christmas trees and trying to fabricate an authentically festive holiday, whatever that is. A recent election in this country promises us that the government is going to be rearranged. Some are hopeful, others are not. Outside of our country, the world is seeing record numbers of refugees get rearranged due to wars and ethnic conflict. This creates anxiety for many, not the least of which are the ones with small children who are caught between the bombs in their own family rooms and the borders that say, “Nope. No room for you here.” The rising threat of global terrorism causes uncomfortable rearranging, too. “Things don’t seem as safe as they used to be,” we muse as we hustle through airport security, rearranging the boxes on the conveyor belt, and as we reorganize the ways we assemble in public.

When we step back we find that so much of life is about rearranging and finding space, often at the last minute: The massive downsizing to make living in the memory care facility more manageable. The moving around of a week’s events you thought were set in stone in order to make room for a funeral service and burial. The ways we end up having to shelve our joy and relaxation in order to make space for grief or recovery.

Earlier this fall a member of our congregation had to drop everything, take a leave of absence from work, and tend to her mother who had fallen gravely ill. She rushed to the town out of state only to find that every room in every hotel was occupied due to a local university football game. She managed to find the one vacant room available. It was the handicapped room in a 2-star hotel, and things had to be rearranged for it to work for her and her adult children. Her mom managed to cling on, and so this woman had to keep adding on days, but the overworked and probably underpaid hotel staff bent over backwards to make sure she was comfortable. Fresh towels, clean sheets before they even asked for it—and then one afternoon a personal note from one of the housekeepers, left on the nightstand: “I heard about your mother. You’re in my prayers.” A few weeks later, reflecting on those long days and nights in that inn out of town she said to me, “Such a simple place it was. Not fancy. But everything we needed was somehow provided for us. And more. It was like being born in a stable.”

God apparently doesn’t need detailed daily planners and careful clockwork to make an entrance. God didn’t then, and God doesn’t now. We may rearrange, reschedule, reposition, delay and dismantle, but grace won’t. It finds room. It makes itself welcome.

a first-century Pack 'N Play
The traditional understanding of Jesus’ birth story has Joseph and a pregnant Mary going from place to place looking for a room, coming across an inn—maybe 2-star hotel—and learning that there’s a home football game census taking place and they’re going to have to use the barn out back. It’s a fine understanding, and it certainly might have happened that way, but in reality it could just as easily have been that Joseph and Mary were already in a family room somewhere in someone’s house, maybe even a relative’s. The meaning of the word for “inn” in this passage is actually very ambiguous, very unclear. It is not the same word used for “inns” in other parts of the gospels, like, for example, the inn that the Good Samaritan uses when he helps the man he has found beaten along the side of the road.

In fact, this place where Jesus is born may have just been a regular first-century Middle Eastern house. Families lived—that is, slept, ate, worked, raised children—in one big room connected by the same roof to the area where the livestock were kept. The manger was a stone feed trough that marked the separation between where the humans lived and where the animals rested.

layout of a typical first-century house
So, Mary begins to deliver. Things are crowded. There’s not a Christmas tree, of course, but other items are temporarily cluttering the living area because family from Nazareth and other little villages are here. Things are crammed under the ottoman. More towels and bedding and laundry than usual. As it turns out, it’s not that there is no room in the inn, (Mary and Joseph being turned away by cold-hearted innkeepers), but rather little available space left in the living area where they’re overnighting, and the baby needs to be laid somewhere safe and secure. Viola! In all the rearranging, God finds a way in and lies down in the manger.

Of course, we don’t know exactly how it all went down, or what the real meaning of that ambiguous Greek word for “inn” is, but what we do know is that in Luke’s story of Jesus that particular word appears one more time. Years later, Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem and he tells them to go looking for a place where they can celebrate the Passover. Jesus instructs them:

10 “Listen, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ 12 He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there” (Luke 22:10-12)

More rearranging, more last minute readying, and what do you know? The type of place that is too crowded at Jesus’ birth is the same type of place where Jesus’ has his last supper. As it turns out, from birth to death, our God’s life among us is framed by borrowed space, by last-minute rearranging. And that includes our preoccupied lives.

So tonight, as we hear the message from the shepherds and the angels, as we imagine the young couple looking for a Pack ‘N Play, here is what we’re beginning to learn: God is going to find a way. He’s ready to make an entrance. He’s comfortable here, in a world that is constantly shifting around, in lives ever in need of rearranging, ever being reminded of how temporary things are. The One who never changes, will be fine for now amid our ceaseless changing. The One who gives life without end is fine to let his life end.

"Nativity," Master of Hohenfurth (1350-70)
God will find a way, and we discover this will lead to him borrowing one more space that won’t belong to him. It’s on a spot of ground just outside of Jerusalem, in the area where sin gets paid for. As the Christmas carol so bluntly puts it,

“Nails, spear, shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you.”

The part about the inn or the living area, the manger, the Upper Room, well, it’s all prologue to the big rearranging that God has in mind: He comes and finds a way so that we will know the Way.

And so this day and every day, in this room and in all your rooms, in every bit of rearranging you find yourself doing, happy or sad, be prepared for the God of the manger and the God of the cross to leave a note, to set a table, to make a place for you and find a way for faith to be born again.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year A] - December 18, 2016 (Matthew 1:18-25)

‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the city

Everybody was stirring to make sure things looked pretty.

Stockings were hung and Christmas trees trimmed.

Candlelight brightened while daylight’s glow dimmed.

Wreathes on the doors, inflatable Santas on the lawn

Proclaimed the news that the special day would soon dawn.

The frenzy to get out and string up some lights

Gave purpose and urgency to December nights.

While some decked the halls in understated ways

Others gave new meaning to the term “Tacky Light displays.”

Blinking and flashing, from treetops festooned

And, of course, synchronized, and to a radio tuned.

With garland and tinsel, greenery real or plastic.

The point was to make ordinary things look fantastic.

Amid the bleak gray of the winter atmosphere

Stood colonies of snowmen and moveable reindeer.

The shopping malls, too, were a sight to remember—

Nevermind that the decorations had been up since September—

Their glitzy and glamorous holiday fashion

Was a mood-setting trick so you’d spend with a passion.

For those who preferred displays of a more religious kind

Noticed that nativity scenes were not hard to find.

Drivers on Horsepen enjoyed the decoration

Set up by one particular Lutheran congregation.

Their display was more subdued.  But not to be outdone,

They used life-size figures that could be moved one-by-one.

And almost as mysteriously as the Word became flesh

The shepherds and wise men crept their way to the crèche.

With clothes of brown burlap, polyesters blue and orange,

It was the church that pioneered the Mannequin Challenge.

Yes, from Southside to Ashland, from Churchill to Glen Allen:

Christmas by the bushel.  Yuletide cheer by the gallon.

The brightness and gaiety of the outside décor

Was matched by attention to detail indoor.

With ribbons and garland they set all their tables

With as much precision as they strew lights on their gables.

Brown paper packages tied up with strings?

Try bright-colored wrapping paper and glittery things!

Gingerbread houses and mistletoe sprigs,

Poinsettia plants and Frasier fir twigs.

Decorations both outside and in went to show

The holidays were about making everything just-so.

Tradition and custom dictated the season

Every bauble had a story; every ritual a reason.

Whether the style was Clark Griswold or Currier and Ives

The conventions of Christmas consumed many folks’ lives.

But in that congregation with that moveable nativity

The worshippers shuffled in for their weekly activity.

With Kevin playing organ and Pastor Joseph leading

They had just settled down for one last Advent reading.

The lessons they heard spoke of hope and salvation

From Isaiah’s pronouncements to Paul’s Rome salutation

But the Scripture that sparked the most imagination

Was the story of a man in a sticky situation.

Like their own custom-dictated Christmas condition

This fellow lived in times that were bound by tradition.

People knew that God’s statutes were part of God’s call,

And what was lawful and righteous should be followed by all.

Like boundaries and rules to a game that is played

God’s law for his people could never be swayed.

To say nothing at all of sin’s power to ensnare 

The law was their assurance of God’s constant care.

Ever since those long days of wilderness wandering—

When they’d had plenty time to do some good pondering—

God’s people had known that his covenants contained

The discipline and wisdom for life to be sustained.

From the mouths of the prophets and announced from each steeple

The law was God’s way of dwelling in the lives of his people.

And this Joseph knew, as a humble young man.

He obeyed the commandments, trusted God had a plan.

Matthew calls him righteous—a high honor, indeed—

Which was a way of saying he let God take the lead.

We can trust, for example, he had his ducks in a row:

First betrothal, then marriage, then children in tow.
The contract had been signed, both families were ready

To support and provide them a life that was steady.

So imagine, then, friends, what he first must surmise

At the discovery of his fiancée’s pregnant surprise.

The law was clear in what justice dictated:

An adulteress would be stoned; the contract negated.

Life would go on.  Joseph’s family would recover,

And no one would ever know Mary’s mysterious lover.

There was one more option: to call it off neatly.

A judge could be found to annul the marriage discreetly.

A righteous man would bend backwards to prevent a big show,

And Mary’s transgression would be kept on the down-low.

So Joseph went to bed with the firm resolution

That a private dismissal was the most respectable solution.

But that night he had dreams as he tossed in his bed

Not of visions of sugar-plums—but of an angel instead.

A messenger from God gave him news of a birth

That would bring hope and salvation to all of the earth.

This child was the one on whom history had waited

To initiate the promise they’d anticipated

From that day when Satan had first conquered and won

Influence and power over everyone.

His name would be Jesus, which had rich connotations

For in his native Hebrew that meant “Savior of Nations.”

From sin’s dark corruption he’d set them all free.

And, redeemed by his love, God’s people they’d be.

So all this good news came to Joseph by dream

From an angel who’d been sent by the one God supreme.

But the biggest shock to Joseph’s ears—we can assume—

Was that this child was the babe in his fiancée’s womb!

She’d not been with a man, as it had been perceived,

But the Holy Spirit was the one who new life had conceived!

Mary, it turned out, had not been an unfaithful mate;

Rather God had chosen her, and this was her fate.

And thus the angel’s message as Joseph tossed in his bedding:

“Righteous one, do not fear.  Go ahead with the wedding.”

So Joseph woke up with a whole different view.

What before was no option was now the right thing to do:

To marry a woman who would soon bear a child

And shelter her, guard her and keep her undefiled.

And the son to be born would be in Joseph’s protection.

He’d care for him too, and give him direction.

Though that child, as God’s Son, would be Savior of Nations

And belong, like no other, to the whole of creation,

Joseph would be the one who’d teach the child how to grow,

How to talk, how to work, and other things he should know.

The result of that dream was a whole future changed

Joseph’s own hopes now altered, his life rearranged.

As Joseph had learned when he had his decision resolved,

One can have things just-so…and then God gets involved.

And that was the message to those Lutherans that morning:

God can surprise with his grace and change your plans without warning.

For, you see, Joseph’s challenge was to adjust to God’s word

Receive it, believe it, and trust what he heard:

That God had now chosen with his people to dwell

Not as law, nor as temple, but as Emmanuel.

And by that we mean human—not a statue of stone—

But flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.

As true God and true man Christ invades this dark sphere

And announces God’s kingdom to folks far and near.

In Jesus God ventures forth into dangerous new lands:

To risk to being born and putting his life in our hands.

With a true Son on earth, God meets us face to face:

A divine participation with the whole human race.

Now God is with us, not remote or removed,

But in life and in death, as the cross has now proved.

Now God is with us.  From this the believer derives

That in Jesus Christ God takes up space in our lives.

You see, Joseph was not making room for a concept,

For a doctrine about God, or some religious precept.

Joseph’s life was rearranged on account of a person,

And no amount of reasoning or wishing or cursin’

Could alter the fact that God’s grace would come down

And grow up and live as a man in his town.

That, my dear friends, is the real Christmas scandal,

On which, try as we may, we never get a handle.

For the thrust of so many of our holiday preparations

Is just about conjuring vague contemplations

Of beauty and love and the virtues of giving

Or the charity of others that make life worth living,

When really, like Joseph, we should concentrate on receiving

And guarding the Savior of Mary’s conceiving.

And instead of making sure everything is just-so,

We should hasten to his table, his mercy to know.

God’s presence among us is not some dreamlike notion,

Or well-intended habits of religious devotion,

But in a particular person in a particular place

With a particular story and a particular grace.

So whether inside by the hearth or out where others can see it,

(And if Tacky Light displays are your thing, then so be it…)

Guard your traditions and customs, the holiday things that you do,

But most of all, guard this babe and see what he grows up to do.

He’ll appear in the neighbor in search of a friend

His hand in your hand when you kindness extend.

From the West End’s safe havens to Aleppo’s bombed alleys

From mountaintop high points to deaths darkest valleys,

In times that reflect his way of self-giving

God finds chance after chance to grant life that’s worth living.

And when Christmas often seems like a foregone conclusion

“God with us” becomes a quite welcome intrusion.

When, what in our wandering lives should appear,

But a God who in mercy and compassion draws near.

His name is Lord Jesus, as Joseph was told,

And in his living and dying God’s love we behold.

Where two or three are gathered, we are promised he’s there.

And we’re equipped as his Body his message to share.

We live peace on earth, good will to all women and men.

Thanks be to God! Merry Christmas!  Amen!

© 2016  The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Holy Family with Bird (Murillo)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Third Sunday of Advent [Year A] - December 11, 2016 (Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 3:2-11)

This morning our hymn should really read, “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist cried,” because John the Baptist, the person that old hymn is about, is no longer there. That’s where John began, of course, crying out on the banks of the River Jordan where he was baptizing people, but now John is in prison. His bold, throaty pronouncements about a kingdom coming, have now diminished to a tentative questioning. “Did we get the right guy?” he wonders about Jesus in the loneliness of his cell. Was he right in announcing Jesus as the one who brings the kingdom?

"The Preaching of St. John the Baptist" (Domenico Ghirlando, 1486) 
As a prophet, someone who speaks truth to power, John knows this matters. It matters because John had hoped that he was helping bring about God’s new kingdom, that he was preparing the way for the Lord. John had helped people get ready for this. He had gotten them stirred up and full of anticipation. “Repent!” he had told all those people. “Change your ways! Bear good fruit.” In fact, saying just that to the king and his entourage is essentially what got him in trouble. He had criticized some of Herod’s lifestyle choices, and it was not received well. As he lives out his sentence in confinement, he manages expectations. It’s starting to look to John like the great world-change he had foretold in Jesus may not be coming to pass. His characteristic boldness has changed into doubt.

On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist once cried.
But now he’s thinking he might have lied.
He sits in shackles, waiting still,
For God his righteous plan to fulfill.

Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever anticipated something, hoped for something—perhaps even touched the edges of its very reality—only to have it turn out to be different once it arrives? Have you ever felt set up for something—something you think will be just perfect—only to be disappointed or disillusioned when it comes to fruition?

It occurs to me that this time of year is ripe for that kind of thing to happen, what with Christmas wish lists and all. I have always been really interested in nature and science and I remember once as a young child I went through geology phase. Things like rocks and precious stones fascinated me. I learned that my birthstone was turquoise and I mentioned it would be really cool to have some turquoise someday. My grandmother heard me say that, and so she got me a turquoise ring. I still remember the profound awkwardness and disappointment I felt when I opened it up on Christmas morning. In my mind I had been thinking just a big chunk of turquoise (I had no idea what I’d do with such a thing, but that was what I was expecting) but she had gone through the trouble to find a ring. After all, birthstones are about jewelry, right? But as a fourth grade boy, I was never, ever, going to put on a ring.

That’s the message this third Sunday of Advent, with John the Baptist in prison. (Maybe he’s wearing a turquoise ring). We pause to reflect on the possible disconnects between the act of waiting and preparing and what we’re actually waiting and preparing for. We take the time, like John, to manage expectations a bit, to wonder if we’ll actually know it—and want it—if what we’re expecting finally gets here. Like the prayer as we lit the Advent wreath put it today: We allow our deeply-held hopes to be re-shaped by God’s promises.

Because it’s not just Advent and Christmastime that can fall prey to possible disillusionment. As we walk the whole journey of faith we find it’s a relatively common occurrence. We commit every so often to a certain new direction in life, or a certain faith community, or a certain ministry, only to find ourselves wondering once it’s underway if it’s really what we’re looking for and hoping for. Doesn’t quite pan out like we want. We may be quick to judge John for possibly jumping ship too soon, but when we’re honest with ourselves, especially when we’re stuck with bleak surroundings, when we look around and see little hope, John the Baptist’s questioning often becomes our questioning. What is God bringing us, anyway? What does he promise?

Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples is to point to the signs of what has been happening as Jesus has made his way through Galilee. The ministry of fierce judgment and dramatic overthrow of the religious authorities which John seems to have been expecting in the Messiah has not been happening, but signs of God’s coming kingdom are there. The blind are receiving their sight, the lame are walking, the lepers are being cleansed, the deaf are hearing, the dead are raised, and the poor are receiving good news.

John would have recognized that these were, in fact, hallmarks, clear signs of the kingdom of righteousness John wanted to arrive. The particular elements of judgment and condemnation that John was especially hoping for are taking more of a back seat, at least for the time being, to the intense joy and freedom that Jesus is about. As the prophet Isaiah says in the very part of scripture that Jesus quotes to John’s disciples, life can be a desert. At times it can feel like a wilderness and it is bleak and lonely, but it’s not a nuclear bomb that God needs to drop in order to start over, but a bunch of crocus bulbs. It’s not a bulldozer that Jesus is bringing to start the kingdom, or even an axe at the base of the tree, as John had once proclaimed, but springs of water that can feed new life. It’s not a mighty army that God plans to roll in, reminding all there will be hell to pay, but a simple message to strengthen the weak hands and feeble knees. Managing our expectations is a part of receiving God’s kingdom.

Earlier this week Pastor Joseph were down in a nearby city for a conference meeting and we found ourselves driving right through the middle of the downtown while we were there. I had never been through this town, and although I was aware from watching the news and reading the papers that it has fallen on hard times, it wasn’t really apparent to me what that meant until this week. It is a bleak desert. Storefront after storefront lies empty. At night crime rules the streets. Then at one point we noticed one side of a building, right near a main intersection, had been boarded over and then painted over. At the top were the large words, “Before I die I want to ______________.” And underneath were dozens of different answers to that question, scrawled out in different chalk handwriting:

“Before I die I want to see my children live their dreams.”
“Before I die I want to travel the world.”
“Before I die I want to be clean from drugs.”
“Before I die I want to grow some hair.”

It was a little like what some people call their bucket list, or their ideas of what they want to achieve before their life ends, but there was something a bit different about it. After some brief research after I got home, it appears that this project might be some sort of anti-gang endeavor, as that city has in recent years become infested with gangs and gang-based crime. The goal of the wall seems to be is to get gang members and other citizens of that bleak downtown to envision hope, to dream of joy. It is an ongoing reminder for people imprisoned in cycles of violence and decay to imagine that their desert can blossom, to manage expectations for how change could come. The wall looked a bit like a crocus bulb, a stream of water, right there in the midst of such wilderness. And the handwriting was that of a bunch of John the Baptists, hearing that new life is possible, that God is loose on the earth to rescue people that the blind were being given sight and the lame given new legs. It is good news to everyone, especially those whose life feels like it has no value that God loves them, that God is coming for them that God cherishes them and wants to transform their landscape from death to life.

For that is the promise of the truest crocus blossoming in the wilderness, for at some point we’re all living in an abandoned downtown. It is the cross of Jesus where God manages our expectations in a way that lets us know we are not perfect, but we are precious to him. It is the cross of Jesus where we see that someone has not just come to preach and heal, but that someone has come to offer his life for us. And with Jesus, “Before I die” becomes “Because he dies.”

Because he dies…our lives contain worlds of hope, of power, of glory. Because he dies the world is filled with all kinds of renewal: people building houses with Habitat for Humanity on Advent Saturdays when they could be shopping. Because he dies, some people apparently did go shopping, because twenty-five unclaimed stars on our Angel Tree got grabbed up within 24 hours once we put out an appeal on Facebook in the middle of the week. Because he dies, a family grieving the deaths of three family members within the past two years experience the warmth and care of a community of faith in ways they’d never imagined. Because he dies…we could go on and on with the outreach just of this congregation and our Synod, and organizations like Lutheran World Relief, not to mention all the crocus bombs of new life God is dropping in lives we haven’t even heard about yet.

We could go on and on telling these things to John in prison—and we need to—telling others with wavering faith, and telling ourselves and our own skewed expectations that God’s kingdom has come near. This is the kind of world we live in…where these beautiful, wonderful things are happening.

In Herod’s prison the Baptist cried
And longed for hope to be born inside
But God was there, amidst the gloom
Just wait! You'll see the kingdom bloom.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.