Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Day - December 25, 2011 (Isaiah 52:7-10 and John 1:1-14)

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news!”

On the weeks leading up to Christmas we love the sound of the doorbell at our house. It doesn’t get rung too often during the rest of the year, but these days it’s more common, and the chime of the bell means one thing: the UPS delivery man has done it again. A messenger who brings good news: there is a package—or maybe more!—on our front step. No matter how quick we are to respond, the delivery man is usually already off the porch before we arrive at the door. We catch a glimpse of him scurrying back to his vehicle, bounding into the driver’s seat, on to the next stop, on to the next doorbell. In his wake, our excitement is just beginning. We bring them in, squirrel them away in secret, and wait for the proper time to wrap and then open them. The doorbell is kind of a fun by-product to on-line shopping.

And what a job: to deliver the presents, to deliver the news! Of course, if you are receiving a package from the Martin family this year, that doorbell will be ringing after Christmas since we were kind of behind the eight ball in that department lately. And with Christmas cards. But I digress. In any case, it will be a glad sound, and those are beautiful, parcel post feet.

The Epiphany Youth group spent some time this week as those “beautiful feet” on the front porches of several of our homebound members. The youth were not delivering any packages, per se, but they were delivering good news. They went, you see, to sing Christmas carols to them, and, so long as the Holy Spirit made it possible, to spread a bit of the cheer of that good news of Jesus’ birth. It was a wonderful evening. The weather cooperated nicely, and our caravan of about 10 vehicles managed to make it to three members’ homes before we had to come back here for supper. We learned, among other things, that not everyone knows all the words to “What Child is This?” by heart, but we managed to mutter through on the strength of a few clear voices. We also learned that they’d like us back more often. One gentleman, confined to his house by advanced Parkinsons’, stuck out a wavering arm and invited us to come again next week.

Singing Christmas carols to the homebound is actually something my own church youth group did when I was a kid. It was a yearly thing. We’d spend one night right before Christmas making the rounds, visiting different homes and assisted living facilities with our rusty-voiced Christmas cheer. Occasionally the person to whom we were caroling, although frail, would be able to make it to the door and join along in the singing. Sometimes, if it was too cold, they’d stand behind the window and peer out at us, our faces barely lit by the glow of the small candles we held in our hands. We never actually went in anyone’s house, however. It would have been too crowded, too much of an imposition.

One year, however, our pastor took us to sing at the home of Bob Snow, an elderly member who was in the final stages of cancer. And by “final” I mean the last few days. He was bedridden, already on a respirator or oxygen or some other apparatus to aid his breathing. An unused bedpan or two were stacked up on his nightstand. There was no other way to sing to Bob than by standing in his bed room. By his bed. Where he was dying. And so we all traipsed in there, well past the front porch, through the family room, and encircled his bed. The only lights in the room were provided by our candles.

The last we’d seen Mr. Snow in church was months before, and he looked much different now. He was wan and skeleton-like. His weak face, which was as white as his name, was already sunken in from the toll of the disease, and the whole scene made me, a middle-schooler, feel downright uncomfortable. I was barely at ease in my own skin in those days, and I didn’t know how to look at his. I remember elbowing my way back from the front row. “Why did his wife bring us in here?” I thought. “Surely he could have heard us from outside.” And there, in that room, as the breathing apparatus gurgled and hissed, we sang Christmas carols at death. We lifted up our candles, whose glimmer now reflected off the wet cheeks of his family members, and sang these happy songs—these songs of good news about someone’s birth—to some who was obviously dying.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing, glory to the newborn King!...Joy to the World! The Lord is come!...Silent Night!  Holy Night! All is calm, all is…bright?  Indeed, although maybe not in the way I could recognize.  “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger of those who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”

At that time, in those teenager days of robust health and raging hormones, it didn’t make much sense why we would do something like that, why we would make some of us so uncomfortable at such a joyous time of the year, why we would pull back the curtain that hid the dying from our light and think on such sad things. To sing songs of a birth while someone was dying? What kind of a cruel, insensitive endeavor is this?

But they—the wife, the sons, the pastor, and Mr. Snow, no doubt—were thinking about this: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The good news that we were announcing—the good news that we have brought to us this great morning—is not simply that Jesus is born, but that Jesus is born to die. And if, as the prophet Isaiah says, our God reigns at all, it is because God has reigned in places like Bob Snow’s bedroom the week before he died.  When we say that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, we mean that he lived the full extent of the human experience. He suffered what flesh suffers when it encounters the brokenness of creation. He endures what our flesh endures as it lives in a world prone to danger and disease. God has miraculously been wrapped in our skin, as wan and weak and pale as it can sometimes be. When we hear that God’s Word—God’s very essence and very happening—became flesh and lived among us, then we hear the length that God is willing to go bear his arm and make us his forever.  We hear of the lengths God will go to restore human dignity.  And that is precisely what Mr. Snow would need to hear.  As it turns out, maybe it is those lesser-known words of “What Child is This?” that say it best, and that bear being taken to heart:

“Nails, spear shall pierce him through

The cross be borne for me, for you.

Hail, hail the Word made flesh,

the babe, the Son of Mary.”

            Earlier this week, as my family sat down to eat our dinner, our five-year-old daughter requested to say the blessing. She said thanks for the food, but before she said “amen,” she inserted a final petition with the most serious inflection: “And God,” she said, “help us remember that we can’t open our presents until Christmas. Lord, Have mercy.  Hear our prayer.”

Well, it’s Christmas! No time for holding back! Ring the doorbell and rip open the gift, the gift of Jesus. Tell the good news…on the porch, at the table, at the bedside, in the tomb: Salvation has come. Our God reigns!

Orthodox icons of the Nativity of Jesus often depict his birthplace as a cave, evoking his place of burial.

Merry Christmas! 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B - December 18, 2011 (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 and Luke 1:26-38)

Melinda and I do not watch a whole lot of television, but if there is one show that can suck us both in like no other it is “Househunters International” on Home and Garden Television.  It only takes the opening five seconds of the program to get us hooked, and then we find we have to sit down and watch all thirty minutes, even if it keeps us up past our bedtime. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the program, the concept is very simple and can be explained in a matter of seconds.  Each episode features an individual, a couple, or a family who is in search of a new home in a new country.  A real estate agent takes stock of their purchasing price range and then shows them three potential properties.  As you can probably guess from its title, “Househunters International” tends to feature home searches of the cosmopolitan and well-to-do.  It may be a couple who made their living in London’s busy financial district who are now looking to retire to a farmhouse in the south of France.  Or maybe it’s a young urban professional who’s just been transferred from Seattle to Buenos Aires.  Whatever the case, the program begins with a discussion about the homebuyer’s wish list for their new property and ends with a build-up to the homebuyer’s final decision.  Along the way, the real estate agent showcases those three fascinating properties that contain any number of cool and unique characteristics.

What I think we find so compelling about this otherwise ordinary reality show is that each time the final decision manages to surprise us in some way.  The homebuyer always goes for the property we think they’d rate lowest, either because they discover new priorities along the journey, or because they become enchanted with some aspect of a house they hadn’t expected.  But, without fail, when the show is over, I feel I’ve wasted a valuable half-hour of my life, voyeuristically watching the deliberations of someone else’s luxury.

Despite that, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that this is not too different from what the people of God experience as they await their salvation from on high.  Will their God hunt a house among humankind?  If so, where might it be?  What, pray tell, is on that wish list?  And will this grand, sweeping episode of reality contain a surprise twist at the end?

detail, Michaelangelo's "David"
As you might imagine, the scope of Scripture’s witness contains many clues as to what God is looking for as God begins to imagine a home among mortals, and we are probably not surprised to learn that God is not in the market for a villa in the south of France or a flat in Buenos Aires, technically-speaking.  Then again, we wouldn’t exactly look first to the ancient kingdom of Israel, either—a wandering, hapless group of backwater tribes who had spent a great many years ranging around and attempting, with spotty success, to settle the land promised to their ancestors.  Yet there is God, hunting for his home among them, drifting from encampment to encampment in a temporary tabernacle that houses the Ark of the Covenant.  Before a simple shepherd named David rises to power as ancient Israel’s second king—which is sometime around a thousand years before Jesus is born—God’s people were nothing spectacular.  Often prone to internal fighting, they were not a military power.  With no merchant class or fertile regions for farming, they were not an economic power.  Lacking a major center of population or learning, they were not a cultural power.  They really had little going for them, but this David helps to change that.  Finding favor with God, he rises to the throne, unifies the people of Israel, and establishes a capital city by conquering the Jebusite stronghold of Jerusalem. 

This stronghold turns out to be as much of a curse as a blessing as history plays out, but for the time-being, the kingdom begins to flourish and expand.  Would God choose his home here?  While it may seem the most logical spot from our standpoint, it turns out that God has other priorities, other options to consider.  Even after David decides to bring Israel’s long days of wandering to an end by getting the ark out of the camps below and building it a permanent structure up in the city, God makes it clear that that’s not his vision. In a prophecy revealed to Nathan, David’s prophet, God explains that he was quite content going to and fro in that temporary tabernacle as Israel wandered in the wilderness: “Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel,” the word of the LORD says, “did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”  In fact, God hadn’t asked for that.  Turning the tables somewhat, God explains further what he is looking for: David will not make a home for God, but God will make God’s house from David.  David will not be laying a foundation for God to dwell in Jerusalem, but God will be laying a foundation in David to dwell with the people of the earth.  No fancy flat or sun-drenched villa just yet—God’s wish list is looking a little different!

David's Jerusalem (ca. 1000 B.C.)
To that end, the LORD makes it clear that his home in David will contain these virtues.  First, it will provide a great name.  Second, it will entail a place where they can be planted to receive protection and refuge from their enemies and other evildoers.  Lastly, it will ensure an eternal relationship with God, one that is firm and solid and established forever.  That is God’s idea of a home, and a deluxe cedar suite in Jerusalem will not provide it.  Somehow David and David’s family will be that home, at least for now. Through this particular king and his rather ill-fated line of descendants in this particularly disorganized group of tribes God will seek out a great name, a place of sanctuary and a steadfast relationship with God’s people.

Interestingly, the intensity of God’s search for a home seems to go cold for a while.  King Solomon, David’s successor, does end up building a temple in Jerusalem.  It is a bejeweled, awe-inspiring edifice.  Israel’s worship and religious devotion becomes centered there, off and on, for about a thousand years.  Prophets come and prophets go.  Commercial breaks interrupt the drama here and there.  At one point the Temple gets destroyed and then rebuilt and eventually added onto. 

It would seem that God had almost settled on that structure in that city, but one day in a very remote small town far outside Jerusalem, God finds favor with someone else.  An real estate angel named Gabriel drops by the home of a young girl engaged to a man named Joseph, who happened to be a long, lost descendant of that ancient David.  The town is Nazareth, a place hardly on anyone’s radar.  And Gabriel’s message is something no one ever could have expected, a surprise twist that we never saw coming.  God will hunt his house in her womb.  If she consents—and she does—God will move in through a miracle of the Holy Spirit and become a resident of creation in a way only possible to a God whose love knows no bounds.  God turns down a house of cedar and temple of stone to live in a house of human skin and bones.
Try as we may, we cannot predict where or how God the Creator of heaven and earth will choose to reside with us, his creatures, just as David was unable to build a structure to house the LORD.  Try as we may, we could never foresee that God would choose something this risky, this unprecedented, this common—to take up shop as the quickening flesh of a young Jewish maid, to knock on the door of someone so seemingly insignificant.  Martin Luther says, in a sermon on the Annunciation, that “Mary was possibly doing housework when the angel Gabriel came to her.”  Kings and queens would have died for this kind of opportunity—provided they could keep it from upending their system of authority—but it comes to a woman who is put in an unlikely predicament.  David made an offer of cedar timbers to make way for such an arrival, but God puts himself at the mercy of a young unwed woman’s faith. It may seem like the whim of a finicky homebuyer to us, but God will always choose to interact with the world on God’s own terms, not ours.

"The Annunciation," Paolo de Matteis, 1712
And that wish list, as it turns out, is still valid.  It ends up being completely fulfilled through the womb of this Mary, once and for all.  The great name will be Jesus.  In Hebrew: The Savior of the people.  He will plant a place, on a hill right outside Jerusalem, in fact, where people will finally find refuge from their greatest enemies, sin and death.  And his life and death will establish an eternal relationship based on love and forgiveness between God and God’s people from now until the end of time.  As should be expected from a God as gracious as this one, those wishes on that original wish list shared with King David were not really wishes for God, but wishes for his people!  All of them, wrapped up in human flesh and growing, right now, in the womb of Mary.

For when it comes to taking up residence with us, God will call the shots.  God will order the world the way God wants to and cut his deals on his own terms.  And when that happens, a great name is given to a nothing people.  The proud get scattered and the lowly are uplifted.  The hungry get filled and the rich are sent away empty. A holy place is planted in the most vulgar of surroundings.  And the most insignificant, vulnerable soul, as it turns out, can magnify the LORD.  This is what happens when God makes his home among us.

At this time of the year, as we approach what is arguably culture’s biggest holiday, there is a lot of talk (and sometimes whining, especially among Christians), about finding and upholding what this season is really all about.  We lament the over-the-top commercialism and crumble under the weight of the busy holiday schedule.  We debate the difference between saying “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas.”  All the while, we want to re-capture some elusive spirit or “true meaning of Christmas,” as if it’s something we can grasp with our hands.  Ironically, it is King David who inadvertently stumbles upon it one thousand years before the fact: that God’s grace it never something we can control or get a handle on.  It is not something we can conjure with any amount of doing good.  God’ grace just happens.  It hunts a home where we’d least expect it, entering at the corners, checking out property on the margins, turning down the fancy cedar gift in exchange for something more ordinary, more delicate…like human flesh.  Or bread and wine.  All it is looking for is that “Yes” so graciously modeled by Mary.  God’s is a rare grace that first hooks us and then promises a twist of surprise:  He is promised.  He is born.  His is crucified.  He is risen!

But be warned, you people of God, because this grace will suck you right in.  For thirty minutes…for thirty years…and if God finds favor, for the rest of your life.

Is it wasted time?  Nope.  It is nothing less than the beginning of it…
Mary, Theotokos (God-bearer)

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The First Sunday of Advent, Year B - November 27, 2011 (Isaiah 64:1-9, Matthew 13:24-37)

Let me tell you a story of failed expectations. It is a story of failed expectations on a grand scale, of monumental proportions—not small-claims disappointments like the Christmas wish list item that didn’t get fulfilled or the Thanksgiving turkey that got burned in the oven. These are failed expectations that affect every outlook on life and infect every possible view of the future.

The year is sometime in the 5th century, B.C., and it is the story of the people Israel’s return from two generations in exile to their Promised Land and their beloved holy city, Jerusalem. For approximately fifty years the people of Israel had been forced to live far outside of Jerusalem with its awesome and ornate Temple in the heathen city of Babylon. As they struggled, day by day and week by long week, to live there as a displaced people, with only their stories and what they could remember of their traditions to keep their faith and community alive, they longed for the day they might return. They hoped and prayed for the day when God would actually do something profound and unbelievable that would enable them to move back there, resettle their old olive groves and re-farm their old sheep pastures and, most of all, rebuild their old Temple in Jerusalem.

And just when it looked as if they would always be a people separated from that homeland, just when it looked like they might get assimilated into the great melting pot that was Babylon and forever disappear as a distinct people from the face of the earth, that profound and unbelievable thing happened! Cyrus, the King of Persia, and then his successor, Darius, conquered the Babylonian Empire and—unpredictably—practically pave the way for Israel’s people to return home. It was a miracle!

Yet, when the people of Israel finally get there—after crossing the wide wilderness—and start to re-settle those olive groves and, most importantly, re-build that Temple, disappointment settles in big-time. All kinds of factions form within their own people and begin to pull them apart. Families and houses quarrel with one another. Competing visions of the future of their people rise up amongst them, and no one can seem to agree on which direction their reborn nation should take. Selfishness and greed take over and, before they realize it, their hopes for a grand restoration are dashed to the ground. They are face-to-face with their utter inability to control their destiny, their incapacity to put back together what was broken, their powerlessness to form something beautiful—anything!—out of the wreck around them. These are failed expectations on a grand scale. Such high hopes had become such shocking loss and disorientation.

Israel's return from exile
And that utter frustration is precisely what gives voice to our Scripture from Isaiah this morning: Standing before their priest at the Temple they cry out to God above,“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, that the mountains would quake at your presence!” In the case of ancient Israel, mountains were a metaphor for everything that was beyond their control, everything ominous and oppressive and overbearing. Israel looks around and sees nothing but its own failures. They look at their neighbor and see little but his own ineffectiveness and stubbornness. What’s more, they look inside and see little but their own sinfulness: “We have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” The translation of the Hebrew there is perhaps a little too lenient. A better translation is “soiled underpants.”  “Our good deeds” the people of God realize, “are like poopy diapers.”

In other words, the mountains are everywhere—both within and without—and they have led to failed expectations. At this point, only looking above, to God Almighty, will bring any hope. The mountains will only quake now if God decides to do something. Their expectations of grand restoration—living as the people they had been created and redeemed to be—will only be fulfilled if God decides to take action, if God tears open the heavens and comes down to get directly involved.

We don’t have to look too hard to know that we still live in a world with plenty of failed expectations. We don’t need ancient Israel and its poopy diapers from 2500 years ago to remind us of the disappointment in our human condition. Whether it’s the European debt crisis and the potential break-up of the Euro currency, or the tents of the Occupy Wall Street movement, or the ongoing protests in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, or the hyper-partisanship of U.S. politics at the moment, one gets the sense that there is a palpable, if not increasing, level of frustration and disorientation with the way things are.

And, despite the voices of optimism about the humancondition that ring out every once in a while (especially at this time of year), we then realize the other facts of the state of our race: there are, for example, still something around 3 million children who die every year from issues related to hunger or food stress that we could prevent. There are still going to be 70,000 new AIDS orphans this year, added to the roughly 20 million that already eke out their sad living. While millions of people worldwide find themselves throwing elbows in order to have access to clean water, holidayshoppers here will throw elbows to get discounted electronic goods. Thumb through the newspapers, catch some of the news, listen to the cry of the victim and it’s there: heaps of failed expectations. Mountains of worry and disaster and sorrow.

Advent is, perhaps more than anything else, a time for blunt honesty. We often think of it primarily as a time to get ready for Christmas, when we’re asked in ways subtle and strong to reflect on the inherent goodness of humankind and the determination of the human spirit. But, really, like ancient Israel, we need to be brought face-to-face with our failed expectations, our utter inability to control our destiny, our incapacity to put back together what has been broken. We need to look both around and within and come to terms with the mountains that loom large on every horizon. It helps to join our voices with those that cried out so long ago: “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

Because when we do, we realize that if there is a way out of this mess it will not come from inside of us. We cannot even put our hope, as many often do, in the generation that comes after us. Despite the vigor and idealism we see in their eyes, their diapers will be just as poopy as ours are (trust me, I live with two of them in my house). In fact, the prayer of the day for this first Sunday of a new church year does manage to phrase it with appropriate Advent bluntness: “awaken us to the threatening dangers of our sins.” It is a plea that our eyes actually be opened to what we read in the newspapers, and what we hear on the nightly news, and what we understand from the cry of the victim, and to pay attention to what those things say about us—that we are creatures of failed expectations. It is a petition through which we acknowledge that things cannot continue on like this forever. This is not the way God wants the world—it is not how we want the world, either—and that we await a change.

Thankfully, however, we await the act of a God who is all too acquainted with failed expectations. We must not forget that our salvation from amongst all of these mountains comes from a God who has chosen to work already once before with the stuff of utter disappointment. As ancient Israel also had to admit: God is a potter, and therefore he works with mud.

For a brief moment yesterday I watched the Epiphany quilters piece together another quilt in the fellowship hall. They worked in silence—no Christmas music playing in the background for them—steadily piecing together the portions of cloth to form a piece both of beauty and function. On a day when they could have been getting good deals in the stores, they were working with scraps of cloth so that people on the other side of the world might have warmth or shelter. And the thought occurred to me: if God is a potter who forms things out of muddy people like you and me, then God is also a quilter who works with scraps and leftovers, the remnants who feel, quite honestly, destined for the garbage bin.

The beauty God comes to fashion is made, then, from the most tattered parts of the human experience. For the last time God opened the heavens and came down he was born into a cattle feedbox. In his ministry, he surrounded himself with relative disappointments, people who never could quite get it together, who deserted him in his hour of greatest need. The culmination of his ministry was not on a throne or in a palace or even valedictorian of his rabbinical class, but rather on a cross, arms spread open in agony and with parched lips breathing words of loneliness and rejection. And he entrusts this legacy to the hodge-podge likes of you and me. His Spirit enriches even us with gifts of every kind.  He nourishes us with a meal that, on the surface, does not look all that extravagant, but which changes us out of our poopy diapers each and every time. This is how God has opened the heavens once already and come to us. And we have his word that he will come again.

Michaelangelo, "The Last Judgment"
And so, just as our Advent began with blunt honesty about our human condition, it also begins with a promise of wonderful hope about God’s desire to do something about it. It begins not only with a story of our failed expectations, but of a story with great promise: Jesus says, “heaven and earth may fall apart altogether—but my words will never pass away.” As they stood there before the disappointing rubble of Jerusalem, its faded glory a mere reflection of what it once was, the ancient Israelites essentially wanted God to resort to his old ways of working. Some of them were so dumbstruck by their disappointment that they were unable to see the new way that God was calling them to be his people in the world, a people whose faith would not be centered completely in that Temple and its religion, but in the hearts and lives of God’s people everywhere.  As we wait for God to come down once more, as we wait for the return of our Lord, we should remember ancient Israel’s lesson: we are still God’s people, called to be that tapestry of warmth and shelter—salvation and resurrection—he is stitching in the world.  We have the Spirit's gifts.  We have been washed and fed.  We know the mountains loom, but God calls us to work through these failed expectations to trust more on him and that, because one day—rest assured—he will put that final stitch in this amazing quilt.

In the parable Jesus tells to his disciples and everyone else about his own promise to come again, the chief error of those slaves who are caught off-guard is not their lack of knowledge about the end times or when it will occur…or their incorrect doctrines about God…or even in their evildoing. Jesus warns them chiefly against falling asleep, against not using the gifts that have been given to them in the tasks that he had commanded.

At a time of the year when it is so easy to fall back into routine, when the Christmas Muzak heard in the background of every department store serves to lull us into the sentimentality of this holiday season and deafen us to our filthiness, let us not fall asleep on our job of being God’s people in the world, of God’s people amidst even these failed expectations. And let us neither stand dumbstruck at what we’ve become. Let us, instead, sobered by the threatening dangers of our sins, place our hope on him whose words will never pass away, on God the potter who works with mud—or a quilter who works with scraps—on the promise of a day and age coming soon when the scraps of all our lives will finally be knit together into a holy fabric that spans eternity…all according to God’s wonderful expectation.

Now that is a view of the future for which we can be hopeful.  Get to working!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Saints Sunday, Year A - November 6, 2011 (1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12)

Based on what we hear from this morning’s Scriptures, we may say that to be a saint in this world is largely to be misunderstood. To live the life of a saint—that is, to undertake the road of grace that God lays down freely for us in Jesus—is to live the life of someone who is, to some degree, at odds with the world. It is to be someone who is constantly going to have some explaining to do, always having to offer up, in both words and actions, a different view of things.

I liken this to knowing the proper lyrics to a song that is on the radio. In the days before Google, which allows you to simply check the Internet for the proper words to a song you liked, you were reduced to just listening to a song over and over again to try to figure out what the singer was saying. This has produced some hilarious misunderstandings. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was when I found out that the Steve Miller Band’s song, “Big Ol’ Jet Airliner” was not, in fact, actually a hymn to my home state, “Good Ol’ North Carolina.”  And my family still gives my father a hard time about the Christmas morning we found him unloading presents from the trunk of his car, merrily singing, “Feliz La-De-Dah.”  And our esteemed Director of Music, Kevin Barger, apparently thinks that the old favorite hymn, “Lead On, O King Eternal,” has always sounded more like, “Lead On, O Kinky Turtle.”  One musician, Seal, intentionally does not include the lyrics of his songs in his albums just so that people can come up with their own understanding of whatever he’s singing, blissfully ignorant of what the words really are. The words to songs and stories, unless explicitly laid out, are often easy to get wrong.

That is the essence of what is happening between John the evangelist and his community in a letter he writes just around the turn of the first century after Christ’s birth. He is trying to get the lyrics straight and clear up a growing misunderstanding. By this point, only a few decades have passed, perhaps, since Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, and yet there is already some disagreement among his closest followers as to what Jesus’ life on earth meant.

All Saints icon
The particular details of this controversy are not known to us anymore, but it apparently was so critical to the understanding of the Christian faith that John found he needed to make some things very clear. Bottom line was the factions of people who disagreed with John in the early church wanted to deny that Christ came in the flesh. That is, their understanding of God was such that they had no place for Jesus’ wanting to be involved in anything messy, like birth—or death, for that matter—and the daily ups and downs of human life.

And John was adamant: Jesus was real. His birth was real, his ministry among the sick and marginalized was real, and his death and resurrection—also extremely real—had really claimed God’s people from a life of sin death. This reclaiming that Jesus had done, made meaningful for each believer through the sacrament of Baptism, was so real one could say a new life had begun for believers on the other side of that water, right here and now. Claimed as God’s child by Jesus’ sacrifice, the believer’s life was now synched to a hope that was not fully tangible. Creatures made of flesh, themselves, they had been saved from a future of death and decay. With their lives and with their faith, they pointed forward to a new reality in the future that had not yet been revealed. Their eyes were set on the faithfulness of God even after their own death, and the promise of their own eventual purity, just as he is pure.

Those were the true lyrics of the faith, but they could be misunderstood. As God’s children, they would have some explaining to do on occasion. That is, they were going to need to be prepared to offer up, in both their words and actions, this real version of things—a view where God’s love in Jesus is turning things around. “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him,” John states, emphasizing the point that just as Jesus was and still is misunderstood, so can his followers expect to be misunderstood as they continue in his way. If some people in their community did not understand why John and his supporters behaved as though their lives—messy though they were—had been claimed for something better, it was no wonder. Jesus had been nailed to the cross for saying such things, too.

The British writer and theologian C.S. Lewis does an excellent job of portraying this aspect of Jesus’ nature and ministry in his series of children’s novels, The Chronicles of Narnia (which are really for adults, too). Those who are familiar with the fictitious kingdom of Narnia the characters who live there know that the Christ-figure in these stories is depicted as a giant lion named Aslan who is described as fierce and terrible but also beautiful and just. Aslan is often lurking in the shadows and mysteriously present just when someone is in need.

To us it may seem strange to depict Christ as a lion, but it was a very deliberate and genius choice on Lewis’ part. Lions are very fearsome. Everyone would identify them as both frightening and easy to misjudge because they have a mind of their own.  In the C.S. Lewis’ books, Aslan the lion is often misunderstood, especially by those who’ve never met him and gotten to know him. Those in the stories who live outside of Aslan’s domain cannot comprehend how a lion can be loving or gracious. They only hear stories about him. His enemies often twist those stories and perceive him to be a demon, or a dreadful beast who haunts his victims in terror and who must be subdued. Yet those who are befriended by Aslan quickly learn that, while strong and fierce and all-knowing, he is, at heart, a good and compassionate lion.

There is a sense in which Jesus is always perceived and received in a similar way by this world. Stories about him will be twisted.  The truth will be altered.  His fearless command over our lives will be resisted and doubted.  And so if those who believe in him that their faith and their actions are often misunderstood, that the way of life he lays before them often makes little sense, they only have to look his life to see why.

Gustave Dore, Jesus Preaching on the Mount (1860)
And although we certainly can, we need look no further than Jesus’ first recorded sermon where he rattling off a list of qualities and situations that no one in her right mind would call “blessed.” The poor in spirit. Those who mourn. The meek, the merciful, those who make peace. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, as well as those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Right there in the first words off his tongue, Jesus begins lifting up those who are often misunderstood, as if he is giving an example of what life in his kingdom will be like. Right off the bat, Jesus is taking those who are typically forced to reside at the edges of the world and its ideas of prosperity and happiness, and placing them at the center of his new kingdom. Things therefore are turned around from how we usually expect them and how the world often likes to keep them.

And there it is again: to live like this—to receive these particular blessings—will involve being misunderstood. It will involve responding to a call that not everyone else hears. It will entail living in a kingdom that, for some reason, not everyone else seems to acknowledge yet.

But here we must be careful, for there is but a short distance from being misunderstood to withdrawing from the world and rejecting it in hatred. It is a short trip from feeling constantly at odds with the world’s way of doing things and saying “to hell with it” altogether. And that is not the life of a saint. That is certainly not the life of Jesus. Jesus, you see, does not come, as John says in an earlier writing, to condemn the world, but to save it. Likewise, a saint learns to sees the world as an imperfect place, but nevertheless a place that God loves and a place that God has filled with surprising amounts of joy. A child of God, which what John calls saints, may become frustrated and even angered by the injustices and the mixed up priorities of the world, but a child of God finds ever new ways of loving and working to change the world, even if it is in the lives of just a few people around them.

Come to think of it, a saint sees the world almost like a large-scale version of themselves: full of sin, doubt, turmoil, disappointment, but nevertheless cleansed and claimed by a God who, as John would remind us, deals in messiness quite willingly. Yes, what John the evangelist was trying to make clear to his community two thousand years ago goes for us today: God likes messes. It seems so unnatural that a God who is so holy and perfect—a lion so fierce and fearsome—would choose for companions those who are so fundamentally flawed. It seems so preposterous that a God who is so powerful and wise would choose to make himself known to people who are so prone to weakness and doubt. But he does.  Those are the beautiful lyrics of grace.

Powaski Cemetery, Warsaw

On this All Saints Sunday, as we ponder especially the lives of those children of God who have died in the past year and how they may have been, at times, misunderstood for their faith, let us give thanks for the lives and faith of all saints that point us to the kingdom to come.  But, first and foremost, let us give thanks for a God who gladly deals with things when they get messy, a mighty God who revels in things like forgiveness and mercy and turning things around. Let us lift our voices and our lives in praise of a God who, in Christ, is real and really fond of reaching out to the sick and the suffering, really fond of turning over the gracious life of God even to the most hopeless of cases.

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” Those are the words to this eternal song, and those who have felt this grace, those who have been turned around and have been taught the right lyrics time and time again—in the water, at the table—can’t help but move in that new direction, and can’t but help trying to get the rest of the world to join in the song with them. 
Even when—Kevin, it’s “King Eternal”—it involves being misunderstood.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24A] - October 16, 2011 (Matthew 22:15-22)

It seems like everyone is thinking or talking about loopholes these days and how they supposedly make the nation’s tax codes unfair. What with the economy on shaky ground and would-be presidential candidates’ touting their alternate tax plans, people everywhere seem disgusted that loopholes exist, and they're demanding an end to them. They go against our idea of fairness—lurking deep in the tiny print, buried beneath all the red tape—those areas of bureaucratic ambiguity that allow the clever or the qualified to circumvent the law. We tend to be resentful of those who can find and exploit the loopholes, and yet, if we’re honest, we wouldn’t exactly pass up an opportunity to have them work in our favor, if you know what I mean.

There is no telling if the Pharisees and the Herodians had found loopholes in Caesar's tax code that demanded a yearly payment for each male above the age of fourteen and each woman between twelve and sixty-five. I’d bet they had, but I have no proof. Both groups were entrenched in the power structures of the day. The Herodians were a group that supported the reign of King Herod, the local puppet of Caesar. Not much is known of them, but they were likely well-connected with people up top—like a modern-day special interest group, maybe. They would have supported the payment of Caesar’s head tax because it helped prop up the system that kept Herod, their fave, in power, even if they had found a way to be exempt from it themselves.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, liked to pretend they weren’t that politically involved, but they certainly could play the game enough to keep themselves at the center of Jewish temple life. Although they never openly organized, let’s say, an “Occupy Temple Street” rally against Caesar’s policies, the Pharisees probably resented Caesar’s tax because—first of all—they knew it was a constant reminder to the Jewish people of their Roman oppression, and—second of all—dealing with the emperor’s printed and minted money raised all kinds of issues regarding false idols and graven images and disobeying the first commandment.

"Show me a coin."
So, both the Pharisees and the Herodians find the issue of paying taxes to the megalomaniacal leader of a foreign military power the perfect way to trap Jesus in his own logic. They consider it the question that will finally do him in. For if Jesus supports paying the tax outright, then he will reveal himself to be party to the Roman law and deeply unpopular with the people. But if he rejects the tax, the Herodians and other local leaders will be able to accuse him of treason or inciting a rebellion. In every commentary I checked, they labelled this the “horns of a dilemma.”  I’d love to know the origin of that expression.  It sounds pointy.  In any case, this is a situation where Jesus can’t win, a situation where Jesus has to choose between two equally bad alternatives, unless, of course, Jesus can find…a loophole. This is a time when we hope Jesus might find a way out of answering directly, of exploiting something in the system that will get him—and us, of course—off the hook.

Already by Jesus’ day emperors and other rulers were imprinting their images on coins to serve as currency for the empire. This system of monopolizing all commerce transactions by inscribing the ruling powers’ mottos and likeness on tokens of common exchange was one of the most effective methods for an empire to extend its authority into every aspect of human life. Soon people would no longer barter for goods and services in the market—(“two camels, say, for a hectare of wheat”)--but they would trade tokens and bills that could be backed by the emperors’ treasure. It’s not just that money made taxes easier to levy and collect; the emperor also essentially had a hand in every business deal that took place, investing, somehow, in every venture out there. I imagine that’s where the term “currency” came from: it was the circulation of money that could keep goods and services flowing, like a current.
Caesar's denarius coin
When the Pharisees present Jesus with one of the empire’s coins with which the tax was to be paid, Jesus shows them that it plainly has Caesar’s head on it. If it contains Caesar’s image, then it must be Caesar’s. In other words, Caesar has made this money and stamped his likeness on it, therefore, it belongs to Caesar and should be rendered to him. If this is how Caesar would like to run his empire—going around minting things of value so that he can eventually control and create wealth, then so be it—keep the system of denarii flowing back to him, Jesus says, corrupt though it may be. But then Jesus adds a phrase that is much more than just a loophole in that process. He throws the whole system on its head, so to speak: “And give to God the things that are God’s.”

The message? As it turns out, it is not just Caesar who has gone around and placed his image on certain things. As the Pharisees and maybe the Herodians surely would have known, each human being on earth bears God’s image. We have been created—male and female—in the image of God, fashioned, each in our own unique way, to reflect back to the Creator something of great value. We have each been formed and shaped with the idea that we are not just precious, but that we bear within us some of the very qualities of God. And, in Jesus’ economy, that also needs to flow back to the being who minted us, and, if the system works like it should, it will enrich the entire universe.

In Jesus’ statement to pay taxes to Caesar, we find the call to a life that is far more radical than anything we might otherwise be up to. It is more activitist than occupying Wall Street and more countercultural than forming a new political party. What Jesus means is that we are the currency through which God will deal change in the world. Created in his image, and redeemed from corruption through the cross of Christ, we are in circulation to God’s glory. And no matter how many other labels get attached to us, no matter how many other images are pounded into our brains, we will always, at our core, be forged in God’s own image.

And that means, with the Spirit’s power, we have the priviledge to interact with this world in much the same way as God does. It means we have the power to love and forgive as well as the power to hate and hold grudges. It means we have been granted the capacity to show compassion rather than indifference. It means we can choose generosity over greed, and selflessness over egocentrism. This is, in part, what it means to be created in God’s image, to bear his likeness. Sin causes us always to choose the latter options—the hate, the indifference, the greed, the selfishness—but in Jesus Christ, God still claims us for the good.

It also means that our lives don’t just matter to us and those with whom we share this planet, but that they matter, in fact, to God. It matters to God what we do with, for example, our money—all of it. It matters to God what we do with our bodies, our minds, our relationships, our sexuality, and our ability to create new life ourselves. And while we might not completely be set free yet from the emperor’s system of weights and balances and levying taxes, we can still begin direct to God’s purposes these things that are rightfully God’s.  We can still remember that, in Jesus Christ, God once more gives us lives that actually matter amidst so many world systems that assign worth and wealth rather arbitrarily, amidst a culture that says we must really only answer to ourselves, which is a total lie.

refugee with her identification card
I can’t help but think here of the Sudanese and Somali refugees I served in the streets of Cairo—a people who would risk almost everything for the chance to possess the blue refugee I.D. card issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The thing was only a little bigger than an index card, but for some reason, in the wacky way the world operates, it bestowed upon them some basic human rights and the chance to be resettled to a new home. It would often take them years to obtain it, and the majority of them would die or lose hope altogether before they’d get one. It was a sad system I didn’t understand (and one in which I somehow participated), but I did notice that in the meantime while they waited, they’d arrive in worship, week after week, tracing the cross in water on their forehead as they passed by the font, hearing once again the source and call of their true citizenship, reminding us privileged westerners that they knew they already had the only identity they card they’d ever need in the love of Jesus Christ.

Because, truth be told, at some point everything that we are will be handed over in death. At some point it won’t matter how many identity cards we’ve secured or how much extra wealth we’ve accrued. All that we’ve become will be given back, and all that we’ve kept will become someone else’s. And at that point, God will be the final recipient, that’s for sure, and there won’t be any loopholes that I know of.

I wonder, regarding my own life: on that day, will God finally get back something that was rightfully his, but had been withheld all the while in greed, selfishness, and spite? Or will he be receiving something that had been lovingly prepared for him out of a response to the generosity of his Son? I shudder to answer, for I think I know.

Yet regardless, in anticipation of that day, as we each answer that question for ourselves, perhaps we should organize a protest campaign. Occupy…let’s see…Monument Avenue!   At least the end of it here…every week. For that matter, every day!  Occupy Horsepen Road…and go ahead and occupy your cubicle at Reynolds packaging or Capital One. Occupy the nurse’s station at Bon Secours and Henrico Doctors. Occupy the locker at Godwin High School and your classroom at Short Pump Middle. Occupy your breakfast conversations each morning and the dinner table each evening Occupy all these places with the news of Jesus, just as God has so graciously occupied your hearts and maybe we can get a little of Jesus’ currency—the kind that makes all things new—circulating in the process.

Play along, if need be, with the world’s system of weights and measures, I.D. cards and head taxes, but all the while lifting hands and lives to the Lord above because “all that we have and all that we are all that we hope to be we give to God…

“We are an offering.  We are an offering.”

Thanks be to God!


 The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21A] - September 25, 2011 (Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13)

Authority is almost always a sticky issue, as in: who exactly has it?

Daily headlines and news stories tell us that this particular question and many like it are being fleshed out in many places these days with a frequency and an urgency that has not been seen for some time. Look, for example, at Libya and Egypt and other countries that have been affected by what is being called the Arab Spring. Who has the authority there now? Dictators have been overthrown, but the resulting chaos has left a power vacuum that no one seems to know how to fill. Imagine how frustrating it must be for those citizens to be free of an authoritarian regime only to have it replaced with an authority-less free-for-all.

Palestine’s bid for statehood this week in front of the United Nations only underscored our world’s own deficiencies and desperate hopes when it comes to determining who has proper authority. Is a gathering of most of the world’s recognized political leaders, some of whom have no direct relationship with each other, really capable of wielding any authority in a complicated conflict that has been raging for decades, if not centuries?

All of this makes me more thankful to live in a country where politicians and institutions may suffer times of disapproval but where there is nevertheless little question about who holds authority and from where that authority is derived. And it also makes me thankful to live in a nuclear family where the issue of who has real authority is equally unambiguous. One of our daughters will often ask a question about anything under the sun—“What time are we eating?” or “How much longer till we get there?” or “Is Cinderella friends with Snow White?”—and if I attempt to offer an answer, no matter how correct, I will get the clear response, “No, Daddy! I was asking mommy!”

Although I think that Melinda and I do a decent job of sharing responsibilities and decision-making, it is clear that our two daughters give her ultimate authority. That’s what the “Martin Spring” has established…and I’m quite OK with that.

As you can see from the exchange between Jesus and the chief priests in this morning’s Gospel text from Matthew, the issue of authority is sticky for the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, too. In fact, Jesus’ authority becomes a critical issue once he enters Jerusalem, which happens just prior to this encounter. Jerusalem was the capital. It was the seat of authority. The provincial government was based there, army divisions were headquartered there, and, most of all, the Temple was there. In the villages and countryside of Galilee and other outlying areas, Jesus was often perceived by many to be the Big Man on Campus. People there were, on average, less educated and less credentialed. They could be impressed with Jesus’ command of the Scriptures and his explanations of the law. But in Jerusalem he comes into contact with the head honchos and heavy hitters. The Temple is where they sit and posture themselves all day, preparing, among other things, Sunday school classes (like ones on the ways the Internet can influence and benefit faith formation which will begin next Sunday in the Chapel).

In the villages and countryside of Galilee, people also often experienced Jesus a fresh alternative to their rabbis and scribes. Jerusalem presents a hornets’ nest of these leaders, and pretty soon the issue of his authority is going to come up. A schooling in Nazareth and an apprenticeship in Capernaum isn’t exactly going to be enough to win over the authorities, and things are going to get even more difficult for Jesus in that department after he goes into the Temple the first time and overturns the tables, drives out the moneychangers, and begins healing and preaching there himself.

That’s when the chief priests and the elders confront him with their question of authority: What is the basis of his authority and how in God’s name did he get it? In fact, they are setting a trap for him, for there is really no way for Jesus to answer that question without igniting a firestorm. So, in typical rabbinical fashion, he counters their question with another of his own. It concerns the ministry and authority of his cousin and forerunner, John the Baptist. John had also been immensely popular with the crowds, maybe even more so than Jesus. By asking the chief priests about how they regard John’s legitimacy, he puts them in a bind. If they agree that John the Baptist had divine authority, then they’ll have to admit they goofed when they rejected him, and, ultimately, they’d have to accept Jesus, because John pointed the way to Jesus. But if the chief priests and elders say John did not somehow have divine authority, then the crowds will rise up against them, and that the authorities do not want. They’re afraid of an Arab Spring.

The parable that Jesus tells then as a follow-up serves to illustrate the bind the chief priests and religious authorities are now in with regards to Jesus’ authority and whether they will accept it. In that parable, the first son publicly humiliates his father with outright disobedience when he replies “No” to his father’s command to work in the vineyard. Even though he later changes his mind—repented—about this disobedience, that type of affront to the father in that culture was still considered very offensive.

The Parable of the Two Sons
The second son, by contrast, dutifully answers “Yes” but then never follows through with the intent in this response. He had read his father’s command—and at least verbally respected his father’s authority—correctly, but had misread how to fulfill it.

The same situation applies to those who are receiving Jesus’ authority and those who are not. Those who originally offended by essentially answering “No,” are now those who are repenting and choosing the labor of the vineyard over the directionless paths of self-seeking. People like tax-collectors and prostitutes in Jesus’ day were typical examples. These two groups often get special attention, especially in Matthew’s gospel. It is thought that Matthew might have once been a tax-collector, himself, so he knew personally the shame of that profession. However, this category could be expanded to include anyone who had excluded themselves—or who had been excluded—because of their disobedience to or transgression of the law. The chief priests and Pharisees had long ago written them off. Yet, in their repentance, in their change of mind, in their realization of their need of mercy and the promise of being called to work in the kingdom, they actually heed the will of the Father.

But the son who first answers “Yes,” who, for all we know, crossed all his religious “t’s” and dotted his spiritual “i’s,” but never actually ventured into the vineyard of grace are like those who saw John’s way of righteousness, those who knew the Scripture’s call to confession—could even teach Sunday School classes about it—but did not carry through with its promise. This is why the sinners are entering the kingdom ahead of them: it is the sinners who have come to understand their need for grace and, in Jesus, God’s overwhelming desire to give it.

I harbor a concern—it is probably ill-founded, though—that the central message of this parable can be radically misinterpreted in our churches and in our preaching. The point Jesus is making when he says that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God does not mean that, because of Jesus and his offer of grace and compassion, things like cheating and sexual immorality, for example, are suddenly OK with God and accepted in the kingdom of heaven, yet I fear that’s how it’s taken. If Jesus’ message is one of “inclusive love,” it must be a love so inclusive that it affects a change in the sinner. Jesus came to receive and love people like tax collectors and prostitutes because, at the time, no one else was. They had been excluded permanently—it was thought at the time—from any plan of God’s grace. But Jesus’ loves and receives them so that even they may repent. The good news is the kingdom is now open to them, and in that kingdom they are no longer things like tax collectors and prostitutes. They are, rather, sinners who have been redeemed, lost who have been found, offenders who have now done the will of the Father. For the fulcrum of the parable is that there is work to do in the kingdom of the Father—and by Jesus’ grace even we get to do it—not that kingdom calls us to an idleness that mirrors the world’s. The key is recognizing his authority and having the sense of mind to receive have that desire to get in that vineyard and start working because you realize you get to work for that Father.

But even more important than our sense of mind to receive Jesus’ authority and more important than our decisions, late or soon, to go work in the kingdom, is the way and manner in which Jesus displays that authority. And that’s the crux of the matter here. That’s the crux of the entire Christian message. Jesus, you see, gains and claims his authority in the strangest of ways, which is something utterly lost on the chief scribes and elders, and maybe even the tax collectors and prostitutes, too. Jesus gains his authority, paradoxically, by laying it aside altogether.

Jesus, we must remember, “had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion!”

Georges Rouault, "Crucifixion" 1920's
Those are words used by the apostle Paul, paraphrased by Eugene Peterson, spoken to a congregation years ago who happened to be struggling over—bingo!—the issue of authority. They were trying to learn what Jesus will eventually show the chief priests and elders himself: that he ultimately displays his authority not in crafty word games with the religious leaders, not in defiantly reaching out to the sinners and the oppressed, but in becoming oppressed himself. On the cross, just when his effectiveness is at its emptiest, his authority, in fact, reaches its highest point. We learn there is no distance too great for him to overcome, no territory too bleak for him to conquer. This is the good authority that will claim us all.

It is the type of authority that I see modeled, thank God, from time to time, by some of the youth in our congregation, who fight the urge to form cliques and, at gatherings, intentionally leave their friend groups in order to reach out to those hanging out on the margins.

It is the type of authority you experience as volunteers when you find that those you serve through our H.H.O.P.E. pantry or CARITAS homeless shelter end up teaching you more about God’s grace than you think you’re offering them.

It is the type of authority that surprises us in each moment of forgiveness when we discover that the offense that had been gripping us with feelings of revenge and anger is disarmed by one selfless act of apology.

We know this authority through Jesus, and yet, in so many ways, this authority becomes even more difficult to receive, because it looks like the giving up of authority. It looks to us like weakness. Yet in that moment of humility, on that day of darkness, when all the world rises up to drive spikes through the hands of love, a new spring is born. And it is not an Arab spring or an American spring, but an eternal spring for every person. It is a spring of hope that rises, never again to be vanquished, from the tomb. It is the spring that brings life everlasting to all who seek the Lord’s mercy, to all who ever wonder how to find a God of grace. It is the spring of that promise that one day we will all have that change of mind and we will all go and work in that vineyard.

And that vineyard will be fruitful and beautiful. It will produce that righteousness which God desires in each and every life. The issue of authority will be decided, once and for all… "and every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth”…and there will be one truly United Nation…and, for all we know, Cinderella and Snow White will be friends…"and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is the authority, to the glory of God the Father!”

Alleluia! Amen!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.