Monday, June 26, 2017

The Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 7A/Lectionary 12A] - June 25, 2017 (Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:1b-11)

Several months ago our conference pastors had our monthly meeting down at a Lutheran church just south of here—Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in Petersburg. After the meeting we wanted to see what the sanctuary looked like and so the pastor was happy to turn on the lights and take us in there. There above the altar was something I’d never seen before. A large cross was suspended from the ceiling, and affixed to the cross was a large sword. That was it. Nothing else. The sword, almost as large as the cross itself, was sharp and it was shiny and it looked real and it was pointing straight down, as if, like a sword of Damocles, it could let loose at any minute and impale the pastor right as he or she consecrated Holy Communion. Immediately it caught everyone’s attention. Joseph and I talked about how, if we had been little boys in that church, we’d have wanted to get our hands on that sword every Sunday and play with it.

Now, I’ve been around the church for a long time and I’ve seen a lot of Christian symbolism and art but that one was a new one to me. We could make several guesses about what it meant, but none of us really knew for sure. Maybe it’s symbolic of the sword of the Spirit, mentioned in Ephesians 6. Or perhaps it’s meant to call to mind Hebrews 4:12, which says the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit. Suffice it to say, not many people enter a church expected to see something like that, a weapon that is used to kill or maim.
And, truth be told, I don’t think many people encounter Jesus and expect him to speak like he does to us this morning. His entire message sounds sharp—like a sword, in fact. So often we run the risk of painting Jesus with one color paintbrush that favors some calm, mild-mannered pushover who is kind of accepting of all people no matter the circumstances and we miss these places where Jesus is hard-edged. And since a disciple is not above the teacher we also then run the risk of painting discipleship in Jesus’ name with the same kind of bland, pastel tones that don’t really stand for anything. Jesus does not really leave us that option this morning. It sounds like there are some things and people that Jesus does not want to accept. He says things like, “Whoever denies my before others, I also will deny before his Father,” and, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” and “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth…but a sword.”

14th cent. icon, Kosovo
A-ha!! Maybe that’s why that church in Petersburg has a sword over the altar! It’s a constant reminder of the cost of following Jesus. It’s a symbol of the real division that can occur when we respond to the call to be a disciple. If I had to stand under that sword every week it might help me remember that ministry in Jesus’ name is really about losing my life.

A few weeks ago I was able to catch a concert of one of my favorite music groups, a rock band called U2. U2 have been around since the very early ‘80s. They’re don’t enjoy quite the widespread popularity they once did, and their style has changed a bit through the years, but they’ve still won more Grammy’s than any other group ever. In the past twenty years or so they’ve become especially vocal about certain social causes, most notably the AIDS crisis in Africa, the war in Bosnia, and women’s rights. They’ve raised millions of dollars for various humanitarian organizations, and they’re concerts have increasingly become a platform for their stances on these issues.

At the concert I attended a couple of weeks ago, they came out for an encore and it was clear they were going to use the stage once again for a chance to bring these causes to our attention. Some people are really bothered by this, and I heard some heckling behind me. They just want rock stars to play music and stop moralizing. Even I was a bit concerned about how far they were going to go to preach to me about the plight of others in the world  who could use my charity (especially after I had spent money on a ticket). But the band has decided to follow Jesus’ call and take what they’ve heard Jesus whisper and proclaim it from the mountaintops. If I had a stage out in the public sphere, would I be so bold as to risk fans and followers for the sake of pronouncing my faith and who it compels me to help?

Jesus wants disciples, and he wants them to be aware of the risk of that sword. As he sends them out into what would have been hostile territory, he wants them to understand there will be hecklers. There will be people who want them to just shut up and play music instead. There will be situations that may even require them to hand over their lives. This has been called the “cost of discipleship” and plenty of people with way more guts than me know more about it. People like the Lutheran reformers who on this day—June 25—in 1530 stood up in front of a unreceptive emperor and presented the Augsburg Confession, an explanation of what they were preaching and teaching in their churches, full-well knowing that they were probably going to be excommunicated for doing so…and might even be executed. That Augsburg Confession is still the basis of what the Lutheran Church across the world preaches and teaches today, even though the stakes for doing so are not quite as severe. There are countless others who have stood up and proclaimed Jesus from mountaintops and have faced dire consequences for doing so. Maybe Libby Gonzales will be one of those people. Today we initiate her into this cost of discipleship, this life of the sword of Jesus hanging over her head, teaching her to speak boldly for the cause of Christ Jesus in the world. We can hope so.

In all honesty many of us will not find ourselves in such stark situations or have big rock stages to preach from, but we do have the opportunity to follow. And we need to understand that Jesus leaves no middle ground. It’s either him or it’s not. It’s either you represent him in your life, you worship him and follow whenever you have the chance, or you try to keep things covered up. And I think we don’t like that division. We want to go “halvesies” somehow.

The fact of the matter is that Jesus knows the truth about us, and that it’s that we all worship something. As the great American writer David Foster Wallace once said, there’s no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. People can choose not to come to church, or synagogue, or to the temple of some other transcendent god, but they’re still worshipping. They still are following something. They still have a god. That’s what all this stuff about mother and father is about. In Jesus’ day those were allegiances that really pulled at people. They were idols. It’s the truth: everybody worships, and we worship somethings without even realizing we’re doing it. The only choice we get, as Wallace and Jesus point out, is what to worship.[1]  Or, better put, who to worship.

Hard-edged, stern Jesus is just being very explicit it about that here, and it’s actually good for us. Here’s your chance, he says, to follow the Lord of life. Here’s your chance, he reminds us, again and again, to worship the one God who has conquered death. Here’s your chance, today, tomorrow, the day after that, to pick up the cross and follow me.

And there’s another thing he’s very clear about, too, and it’s that he’s got our backs. Big time. He’s 100% explicit that he loves us and that he has died for us and has therefore given us his very life no matter how many times we fail. We can have no fear of the heckling and the turning away and the losing of friends and status because we are of so much value to him. All of our hairs are counted. And I know that means more for some people than it does for others 😊, but the point is that God loves us and cares more than we can know about what is going to happen to us. This is the love that anchors us in our discipleship. This is the love that calls us forward to worship and to proclaim and to share message of Christ.

I saw an image of that love this week while I was away with Melinda at a camp in the mountains of North Carolina. We were Bible study leaders for a group of 3rd- 5th graders and part of that responsibility involved patrolling the cabins late one evening so the counselors and staff  could go worship together. Because the patrol was happening Thursday night and the kids would be dead-tired after a full week, we were told there wouldn’t be much to do…just make rounds every fifteen minutes and listen for activity. That’s what we did and, sure enough, it was dead silent. Until we got to the last cabin, where there was some noise. I’ll spare you the gory details, but the noise was from a little 9 year old boy would had just thrown up all over his bed. And by “all over his bed” I mean it we eventually had to remove everything from his corner of the cabin, including the mattress and some other kid’s pair of shoes.

This was not the easy patrol I was anticipating. The poor kid was miserable and just wanted his counselor, not some patrol people. As we assessed the needs standing there in the dark, we radioed the staff, and down the hill the area director came bounding. Without hesitation she walked right into the cabin and knelt down in front of him to see if he had a fever. Then, without any care for what she was wearing or her own well-being this college-aged young woman scooped him up in her arms and held him as they waited for the nurse to arrive. She comforted him and assured him he’d be OK. I was thinking, How brave!  He’s all pukey! Plus, he could blow again any moment! But she wanted him to understand that even the hairs on his head were counted. She wanted him to be assured of that truth even in his dark hour because that’s the kind of God who had sent her there.

This is the kind of love that Jesus with which loves us, the kind of love that compels us to get up and try again, the kind of love that we are entrusted to then share with the world. It’s the kind of immeasurable love that empowers us to stand underneath that heavy sword of division, to not be afraid, and proclaim what has been whispered here. In some form it is whispered and sung and prayed and lived here every week:“If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

He has died, but now he lives, and every hair on our heads will too!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Excerpt from a commencement address by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2008.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Day of Pentecost [Year A] - June 4, 2017 (Acts 2:1-12 and John 7:37-39)

For several years now, for whatever reason, our nursery school has attracted quite a large number of immigrant students. Families from different foreign countries have moved into the West End area for various kinds of jobs, usually in the technology sector, and the ones who have young children enroll them in a pre-school somewhere largely so they can work on their language skills. Word spreads within these immigrant communities, and more and more begin to come. A great number of these little children end up in the two-year-olds’ class which is taught by three Epiphany members, Kim Gardner, Jennie Schuetze, and my wife, Melinda. In the past few years, they’ve had two-year-olds from Turkey, Armenia, various ethnic groups from within India, China, Japan, and a central Asian country or two. And, of course, when the parents drop the kids off at the beginning of the year, the kids don’t know a lick of English. Not one word.

You want a picture of chaos? You walk into that classroom on the first week of the year. You’d think they were filled with new wine, which is probably what the teachers go home and have a glass of each night. Not only are those kids typically very apprehensive about the whole experience outside of the shadow of their cultural community, they are also unable to communicate verbally with their teachers. It’s left to Kim, Jennie, and Melinda to calm them down, ease their transition from mommy and daddy and also figure out what they want, when they need to use the bathroom, and what’s making them upset. And to do all of that on top of commandeering a whole class of two-year-olds who are still learning their own language skills and the rules of the class. It’s a testament to the Kim’s, Jennie’s, and Melinda’s love and patience that within a few weeks they have established some form of order and peace.

A few years ago they had a little Turkish boy who wouldn’t stop crying. All day long he cried, from the moment the parents dropped him off until the moment they picked him up. This went on for several weeks, even as he clung to Melinda throughout the day. What got him finally adjusted was sending home a headshot of Melinda, who he called “Minda.” They taped it above the fireplace so that he could see her face and learn to associate her with comfort in a place he knew well. They would point to her and say, “Who’s that?” And little David would smile and run over to it and say, “Minda.” Minda’s loving face was everywhere with him.

What goes on at the other end of our church building every fall in the two-year-olds’ class is like what happens at the initial Pentecost and, in fact, is what happens here every week. Order out of chaos. Unity from disarray. At the beginning of the church, the day God’s Spirit is first poured out upon the apostles gathered in Jerusalem, all these people from all over the earth—all who speak different languages and come from different cultures—come together and suddenly begin to understand one another. Even though on the surface they have almost nothing in common with each other, they are able to comprehend what the message of the apostles is. The presence of the Holy Spirit, which up to this point God had reserved for the work of specific people in specific times, begins to draw all people into Jesus’ embrace. Barriers begin to fall, and it’s really out of their control.

That’s main thing that the tongues of fire and the rushing sound of wind communicate, if nothing else. Both fire and wind are forces that no one can really control. They contain great energy and great ability to create and transform their surroundings, but you can’t really tell fire or wind what to do or where it needs to go. They have a life of their own, and that is who the Holy Spirit is, and is who is responsible for this incredible unity and momentum right at the beginning of the Jesus movement. A handful of witnesses to a man’s resurrection become the seed to a worldwide movement of faith within just a few decades, and in a time before any kind of mass communication. They go everywhere and to all people and point them to the face of Christ.

And every Sunday morning, every time people gather in Christ’s name, it is the Holy Spirit at work. Now, we here may not all speak different languages, and we might not all come from different cultures, but we all have very different stories and very, very different backgrounds, and yet, here we are together. We come from all kinds of different things that happened to us this week—different forces and factors that have shaped our lives, that have wounded us or built us up or broken us down or left us confused. We come from all kinds of different relationships that have influenced in any number of ways. We come from different careers and life journeys and different political leanings and yet we’re all still here! We’re even going to gather at a meal together. The Holy Spirit is still working to draw us out of chaos, out of difference, out of disarray to narrate a story of commonality, of unity, of togetherness.

But the Spirit’s goal is not just unity for unity’s sake. We’re all being drawn together to see the face of Christ hanging on our mantle, so to speak, above our table. We are being led by the Holy Spirit to understand that Christ has redeemed us, has given true value to our lives, and pulled us out of all that hopeless division.

This is absolutely crucial in this day and age because there are forces out there that are desperately trying to drive us and keep us apart. In places like London and in Manchester and in Syria and in Iraq those forces are actually using bombs and terror to blow people apart, to keep the world in as much disarray as possible. There are also forces in our own country attempting to label everyone by how they vote and where they stand on certain social or political issues. There are powerful forces of apathy and complacency at work against each of us (in the church!) when it comes to sharing and showing our faith.  And yet the fire and wind of the Holy Spirit cannot be controlled, and they are always working to show people the face of Christ, to show us he has the power to be anywhere in all of his creation.

What’s interesting is that when Jesus himself speaks of the Holy Spirit, he does not use the metaphors of wind or fire but water, which is another element that also has great power and is difficult to control. What’s interesting about water is that it doesn’t just have the ability to give life and flow and cause change, but that it provides continuity and consistency to everywhere it goes. It seeks other water and becomes one with it. It’s able to spread out, but it’s also pools together, part of a whole—be it a cloud, or a puddle, or the ocean—winding up in one place when it’s all said and done. When Jesus says that living water will flow right out of the believer’s heart, he means that each person who has once taken a drink from Jesus Christ, each person who has come through the waters of baptism, whether that was in a bit of water here in a metal bowl or centuries ago in the Jordan River, will be able to share this life-giving force with others. We’re all really connected, despite how many different languages we speak and how many different stories we embody.

Pentecost (El Greco, 1596)
Two weeks ago for Ascension Day Pastor Joseph and I hosted a series of meetings around the Richmond metro area. Around fifty people of all ages and stages met us for a meal or for coffee and shared conversations with each other. One of the questions we asked people to think about and share was when in your life have you been most certain of Jesus’ presence. We heard all kinds of answers, as diverse as the people who were around those tables with us. At one of our stops we had a woman in her nineties sitting next to a one-year-old—who, as it happened, shared the same birthday—and we all listened intently as the woman offered up that the day she was sure of Christ’s presence was the day her husband died. She related with great detail what that day felt like, even though it was decades before, and how still she felt amidst the grief because Jesus was with her. The Holy Spirit cannot be controlled. It is able to bring Christ’s face into any kind of situation, and has an uncanny knack for doing that in situations of sorrow and loss. Often enough the Holy Spirit is going to bring other people right with it, too.

There is a recent song by the Irish rock group U2 that is about identity and feeling distanced from everyone even within a crowd of people. The song’s title is “Invisible,” and I think that’s how many people often feel these days, especially with the forces of disunity and despair at work in the world. To some degree, invisibility is what the Holy Spirit is working against on Pentecost, making the work and faith of small group of believers suddenly visible to a whole world. And that small and growing group making Christ visible in the things they do and say. The song by U2 ends with the same words repeating over and over again:

There is no them. There’s only us.
There is no them. There’s only us.

I’ve come to think of that as the refrain of the Holy Spirit as it moves through creation like fire, or wind, or water. The Spirit’s goal is that all languages, all peoples, all stories should feel less like a “them” and more like an us…drawing us together as one, beyond our control…drawing us to see the face of Christ, hanging there upon the cross, for you and for me.

There is no them. There’s only us.

From chaos into order. That’s what happens wo people who see Jesus and hear his love for them, his forgiveness of their sins. We find out that despite all our many differences we’re in the same class and we’re learning his language, and that it’s the only real saving way to talk.

And here’s the best part: we start to speak it to the world.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.