Sunday, December 30, 2012

The First Sunday of Christmas [Year C] - December 30, 2012 (Luke 2:41-52)

As someone who is regularly responsible for taking youth groups on trips to different places, I can totally identify with what’s happening in the gospel lesson this morning. In fact, it’s one of my worst nightmares—that is, accidentally leaving a youth behind somewhere either because we counted incorrectly when everyone got back on the van or because someone rushed off to say hello to a friend or buy a soft drink at the gas station just before the group moves on. The fact that just about every youth carries a cell phone nowadays makes me feel a little bit more secure, but there is always the lingering concern that in the transition from bathroom break to bus boarding, for example, someone for whom I’m responsible will get stranded.

I’ll never forget the one point where we briefly lost Haley Bergh at the ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans in 2009. Granted, we didn’t lose her for a whole day—it was a grand total of about ten minutes—but it was enough to make us panic a little bit. It happened as we were making our way into the Superdome with about 36,000 other people. We got stuck at a bottleneck and most of our youth got pushed through together, but Haley got held back and ended up in an entirely different section than we did. Through text messages, we figured out where she was: safe, but behind the security guards and with another youth group. From where we stood on the floor of the Dome, we could see her up in one of the sections above us, waving her arms and smiling broadly. To rescue her and bring her back with our group, I had to go all the way and plead my case to the chief of Superdome security. From then on, we decided to hold hands as a group when entering or leaving a large group of people. Like I said, it is those transitions that are tricky.

And probably something very similar happens with the young Jesus in the transition from Passover celebration to homeward journey. There are thousands of people around, and the Nazareth caravan chaperones thought they’d accounted for everyone, double-counting all the kids, and then they reach a bottleneck somewhere, things get a little confusing, and before they know it they are well on their way home when they realize Jesus isn’t with them. They eventually find him in the Temple, of all places, but not waving his arms and smiling broadly in hopes of being rescued. Instead, he is happily listening to the teachers in the Jerusalem Temple, oblivious to the brouhaha he is creating. While they were pressing on homeward, he was busy impressing the religious leaders. They had assumed he was lost…but Jesus is never lost.

What’s peculiar to me at this point is the surprise in their reaction, their lack of familiarity with his identity and mission. For three days they scour Jerusalem, checking every bazaar and vendor booth that they may have visited. but never considering the Temple. For three days they look high and low, but never in the building that is smack in the middle of things. When they do finally locate him, they’re at first astonished…and then turn angry. Rather than expecting him to be in the Temple, rather than expecting him to be wowing the teachers with wisdom beyond his years, they find it vexing, as if he’s played some impish prank on them. It seems to me that with all of the fanfare and prophecy surrounding Jesus’ birth—Gabriel’s visit, the shepherds, the angels in the field, and so forth—Mary and Joseph might have been a little quicker on the uptake about all this. After all, Mary had been pondering all these things in her heart, right?

One might say that this is another case of losing someone in a transition. In this case, it is the transition from child to adult, from youthfulness to maturity, from the days of willing obedience—which Jesus always displays, of course—to the years of taking one’s own initiative.

This story provides the one glimpse we have from Scripture of Jesus as an adolescent. In the two gospels which actually contain birth stories—Matthew and Luke—Jesus goes from being a baby to being a thirty-something adult within two chapters. I would imagine that in that long transition it might be easy to lose sight of who Jesus is and what he came for. That is, he is born to be more than a cute little infant, whose life is full of promise and hope. He is born also to be an adult, whose death will seal God’s promise and solidify hope of eternal life. Jesus is not only a sweet newborn to be cradled and nurtured, or even a precocious adolescent who can wow the Temple elders with his answers. He is also a man who is be mocked and spit upon and nailed to a cross, whose understanding of the law eventually runs afoul of all the religious authorities.

You see, Mary and Joseph will not only have to share their son with the members of their Passover caravan, other residents of their ancient Middle Eastern village. They will also have to share him with God, with Jesus’ own purpose. All parents know what it’s like to watch their child grow up and become independent, to make choices that maybe the parent doesn’t exactly approve. Here we see Jesus’ parents perhaps coming to grips with the choices Jesus’ is going to make as he walks the path one who, as Mary herself once sang, “brings down the mighty from their thrones…and sends the rich away empty.”

"Crucifixion" Giotto Assisi
It stands to reason then, that our faith, too, will need to make the healthy transition from Christmas to Easter, from counting the joys and blessings of the nativity and how wonderful it is for God to become flesh to the horror and emptiness of Good Friday and how terrible our sin really is. Our faith and understanding of God’s righteousness must move from simply cradling the baby Jesus, happy that he can do our bidding, content to call on him when we need him, to following Jesus and going where he calls us. Sometimes I wonder how much we try to cradle the grown Jesus, too, as if he were born just to make us happy.

And, so, on this morning in mid-Christmas, as we ponder the one Scriptural reference of Jesus’ transition from childhood to adulthood, as we pause before the transition to Lent, why don’t we also ponder our own transition of faith, as well? It, too, grows and changes over time, especially when we feed it and routinely expose it to questions and challenges. As our diaconal minister Christy Huffman could tell you, Christian faith formation is an ongoing thing. We often think of children’s Sunday School as the only time when real learning of faith goes on, but really it is a lifelong process, as clichĂ© as that sounds.

Unfortunately, many of us Jesus gets stuck—or, worse yet, lost—at one or more transition in that process. Several theologians and teachers of the church have broken down faith development into different stages. In one school of thought, outlined by Thomas Droege, one adolescent stage is characterized by a “teen’s interpretation of faith as taught by authority figures.”[1] The next stage typically occurs in young adulthood when they begin forming their own opinions about the ways in which God acts in the world, usually after they have left home.” We spoke in seminary a good bit about how Lutherans are often very good at everything up to that adolescent stage but drop the ball at the stages beyond it, mainly because confirmation comes and goes and, despite everyone’s best efforts, young people rarely find ways to be integrated into the life of the congregation and worship in their young adult years.

This is why this annoying pastor stresses to our high school graduates that it is important for them to find another congregation, if possible, and worship regularly while they are in college or starting out on their own. During those years their brains are being stretched and challenged by so many new thoughts and exciting possibilities, whether they are in classes or starting a career or going through the military. If they’re going to expose their growing minds to deeper analysis in areas of chemistry, social science, or psychology, to name a few, why wouldn’t they also challenge and expose their minds to deeper teachings and new relationships within the household of faith, as well, let those things have fair conversation with one another? If they’re going to sit at the feet of learned men and women in fields of academics or on the field of combat, why not also be found occasionally, as Jesus was, in the “house of the Lord,” at the feet of all the children of God who are learning to walk his way? I cherish the witness of our University of Richmond students in this regard, and how much they have brought to our congregation in terms of their witness in worship and their questions about Christian faith. I find I am also enriched by the conversations I have with adults who are preparing for baptism. I know and appreciate that our growing in the faith always ends up being a two-way street.

For in the long run, you see, it is not Jesus who ultimately gets lost in transition. He may seem to be, but, as we’ve noted, Jesus is never the one who’s lost.  Even on the cross, he is somehow always where he is supposed to be, responding every time in love and obedience to his Father. It is, rather, we who are lost, even if we’re in faith stage One Million. Sometimes we know it. Sometimes we are aware of our separation and we wave our hands wildly, smiling, broadly so that he may come through the barriers and have us back. At other times we ignorantly wander and meander, neglecting every attempt that is made to bring us to his embrace.

But, time and time again, Jesus continues to search, to teach, to lead, to nurture—and, yes, to die so that we may be named and claimed as his own—as his infants, as his adolescents, as his adults, and as his seniors…and, ever so faithfully, at every risky transition along the way.


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] David S. Luecke, “Speaking the Faith in a New Lutheran Church Culture.” Lutheran Forum. Fall 2012

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year C] - December 23, 2012 (Luke 1:39-55)

Visitation (Mariotto Albertinelli, 1503)
It is nearly the day of Jesus’ birth, and Mary has been visiting. That was customary in those days for women who were carrying a child. Women, especially relatives, would get together and visit. These visitations provided a safe place for women to engage in woman’s talk, to open up a little about things that couldn’t be discussed in public. There were no reference books available at Barnes & Noble on the matter back then—no nurse hotlines, either—that could impart information on such matters. Instead, this wisdom was passed through the generations, prenatal care administered sister to sister, mother to daughter, aunt to niece, neighbor to neighbor. And so Mary’s been visiting, because she has conceived.

The trip from Nazareth to see her relative Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea was a bit farther than most women would travel alone in those days, but, then again, her pregnancy was no ordinary one, and neither was Elizabeth’s, for that matter. Mary had not yet been with her fiancĂ©, and Elizabeth had conceived way past the years of childbearing. There would be much to discuss.

As Mary crosses the threshold of the home and calls out hello, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb literally begins kicking. It is Jesus’ first recorded effect on anyone, just the beginning of a long line of leaps of faith. And Elizabeth, overcome with the Spirit, overwhelmed with the idea that she is receiving the mother of God, offers a double blessing. And in response, Mary blurts out a song of her own, a profound hymn that ties together Mary’s humble circumstances with the mighty strength of God; a hymn that describes how the fulcrum of history lies right in her belly: where the balance, once and for all, will be tipped in favor of the lowly, the hungry, the ones who serve. Just whose soul, exactly, may magnify—may be able to praise—the Lord? Surely not a young Jewish girl from some no-name town!

** ** ** **

It is nearly the day of Jesus’ birth, and pastors have been visiting. It is customary in these days before the major feast days for the clergy to make rounds with the homebound and see how they are faring. Here at Epiphany, Pastor Price, Pastor Bosserman, and I divide up the list and travel to the hospital, the nursing home, the suburban residence with our handy-dandy Holy Communion kits. It is a time to engage in holy, if not small, talk, parishioner to pastor, child of God to child of God, and to open up a bit about what they’ve lately been going through and what’s been happening in the congregation. There’s the sharing of aches and pains, how the arthritis is a little worse this year, along with the perspectives gained by growing older.

At some point, the opportunity to share Holy Communion crosses the threshold of conversation, and eyes leap with the glimmer of anticipation. They bless my leather-bound, silver-plated communion kit with compliments. Some of them even remember from our previous visit that it was a gift at ordination by my grandmother’s Sunday School class. They typically recall the darker brown communion set that Pastor Chris brings, as well as the one that Pastor Tom uses, which was used by his father before him.

One homebound parishioner in the first congregation I served was always so reserved and reticent as I tried at lengths to carry on a conversation. Indeed, it was always rough going until, near the end, I pulled out that small communion set. There, on the faded plastic tablecloth that adorned her kitchen table, we’d share Holy Communion…and Gladys would really start talking. What was lowly was lifted up. She’d bless me with all kinds of wisdom and, at long last, laughter. You would think I might have learned to begin the visits to Gladys with Jesus’ body and blood, to put my foolish small talk aside let the word of Christ, present in humble bread and wine, become the fulcrum for our visit, but I never did. As with Gladys in those days, so do the pastors in many congregations go about having Christmas time visitations, unlikely occurrences of the humble and ordinary magnifying the Lord.

** ** ** **                                                    

It is nearly the day of Jesus’ birth, and you, my friends, have been visiting. Oh, yes, you have: special brunches, Christmas teas in the Star Lodge, holiday open houses, bowl game parties, and progressive dinners. It is customary in these last days of the year to visit and chat, to host friends and family, to travel to brightly decorated homes for food and fun. The youth group visited a retirement facility the other night to sing some carols. Holding a lit candle in one hand and fumbling with the lyrics with the other, they might have missed the glimmer of anticipation on the faces of the elderly who were assembled. They might have missed the residents saying, as their dinner was joyfully interrupted, “And why has this happened to us, that on a Friday night the youth of the city comes to us at Gayton Terrace?”

The Men’s Lunch groups visited this week, like they do every month, but this time suspending their regular Bible conversations to open up and share responses to the tragedy in Connecticut last week. These were holy conversations, too. In the private dining room of a local Greek restaurant, Christ was borne once again in the words of men who have family members that struggle with mental illness, about the pain and silent suffering that social stigmas create, about the challenges of violence in our society. Christ was borne once again in someone’s compassionately listening ear and gentle encouragement over matters that are not usually mentioned in public. And in the men’s group discussion, the fulcrum’s balance tipped once again in favor of those who need mercy: the proud were scattered in the thoughts of their hearts the lowly were lifted up, right there around those tables with simple, plastic tablecloths.

The Mom’s Bible Study group suspended their Bible study on Thursday, too, to visit over breakfast goodies and discuss, among other things, their pride in the Children’s Christmas program here last Sunday, their amazement at a production that so remarkably comes together right at the last minute. They also expressed their wonder at 4th and 5th graders stepping to a mic to belt out a solo in front of hundreds of people, mothers sharing their astonishment that the soul of such a small child could, once again, magnify the Lord.

** ** ** ** **

It is nearly the day of Jesus’ birth, and God has been visiting. Indeed, God is always the first one to visit, the first one to move in our direction, the first one to make the risky journey and be hosted by us. This, as it turns out, is customary of our God, this shunning of the great and powerful to visit instead with the small and insignificant. It is this God’s habit to pass by the avenues of the proud and wealthy and instead remember his covenant of mercy by appearing at the margins: first in the wandering tribe of former slaves, then to an unwed teenage mother in Judean hill country, then in Bethlehem, one of the littlest clans of Judah. Then, once there, in a manger. And, after that, in the borrowed Upper room…in the loaf and cup on a simple table with plain tablecloth…and a low-life’s cross on Calvary.

This week I saw a trailer for a feature-length documentary that will soon be released about a remarkable orchestra in a village in Paraguay that is built on a dump. The members of the orchestra are the children who live there. They were assembled by a music teacher and an orchestra director who wanted to provide an educational opportunity for the poor children. Soon they had more children than instruments. But then the children began scouring the garbage for materials they could use to make violins, violas, cellos, and the like. The orchestra is called the Landfill Harmonic, and the instruments they design from cans and wood scraps sound remarkably similar to the real thing.

It is nearly the day of Jesus’ birth, so let us remember how God visits: how he, too, comes to the this landfill earth and scours the surroundings for the lost and tossed aside, how he habitually selects the overlooked and underused, and lets their souls become instruments of beauty, combines their lives to become an unlikely orchestra that proclaims his greatness. Let us remember how the Son, the babe of the manger, crucified and risen, may be borne again in our words and actions to a weary world gathered around its simple plastic tablecloths, ready to leap in faith and joy.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.                          

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Christ the King [Year B] - November 25, 2012 (John 18:33-37)

Note: November 25 is also the Commemoration of Isaac Watts, hymnwriter. Watts paved the way for non-biblical poetry to be used in English hymnody. "Joy to the World" is perhaps Watts' most well-known hymn.

One of the pastors at my home church when I was growing up was a big Elvis fan. I think I remember him even grabbing a guitar a time or two in front of youth group, curling up his lip, and crooning “Don’t Be Cruel” in a believable imitation of Elvis’ voice. This pastor even went so far as to tell people that it was his dream to start up a new Lutheran mission congregation in Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Mr. Presley. He had it all planned out. There was going to be a black velvet painting of Jesus on the cross hanging on the wall behind the altar, and the pastor’s vestments would be studded in a conspicuous amount of rhinestones. There would, of course, be a full-time gospel choir in the chancel. The best was his plan for the name of the congregation: “The King of Rock” Lutheran Church, or something borderline-sacrilegious like that.

Everyone always laughed along with him when he’d share this crazy plan, especially when he shared that name of the congregation, but we were never quite sure if he was serious or not. His funny obsession did point out one thing, for sure: Americans don’t really have many references for kings, do we? I think if you asked most people on the street, “Who’s the King?” they probably would answer, “Elvis Presley.” Other than that, most of our experiences with kings have been the cartoon ones in Disney movies. I know I live with two little girls who often dress up and act like princesses, but, let me tell you, that doesn’t make me a king. In my castle I usually feel more like the court-jester. No, we don’t know what to make of kings. As one of my colleagues put it this week, the last time Americans had an experience with a real king was over two hundred years ago and it wasn’t exactly positive.

King Hubert and King Stefan from Disney's "Sleeping Beauty"
So, as we close out one church year and get ready to begin another one, what are we saying, then, when we claim that Jesus, the Christ, is king? This is something we must deal with when we take Scripture seriously, for it appears throughout the entire Bible, and is even, at times, alluded to by Jesus himself. While sometimes we might wish for him to be presented with a title or form of authority that is a little more accessible to our particular day and age—say, Christ the President, or Christ the Secretary-General—we must still wrestle with the fact that the God of the entire universe chose to come to a particular group of people ages ago who happened to use kings and monarchies as their form of earthly power. Therefore, the language of Jesus’ ministry and his very life are bound up in talk about his royalty. But what kind of royalty, exactly? What really are we saying when we say that Jesus is king?

We are not the only ones who trip up on that concept. Pontius Pilate, as it turns out, does not really know what to make of it, either, when Jesus is presented to him by the Jewish religious authorities at the end of John’s gospel. As the prefect of that province where Jerusalem is located, Pilate is the local representative of the Emperor, Caesar. Pilate, you might say, is clear about where his authority comes from. He understands and knows how to operate within Caesar’s empire, or kingdom. Its military power, economic systems and definable geographic boundaries make sense to him. We know now that the ancient world in which Pilate governed was a veritable powder-keg of different nationalities and ethnicities constantly competing for control, but Caesar still managed to run quite a tight ship. Those who claimed rival authority needed to be investigated, questioned, tested, and the man standing before him—Jesus of Nazareth—seems to be referred to as another king.

The conversation that the two of them have is relatively short. Some people have described this as a trial scene, but there is no jury or judge here. There is no impartial presentation of the facts. This is a one-on-one conversation between two men with two drastically different views of what authority is and where it comes from; two men with two dramatically different understandings of power. One has the power to end life. The other has the power, unbeknownst to everyone, to grant it eternally.

And so, in their discussion they seem to talk past one another rather than directly to each other. They go back and forth with questions for each other, but never really seem to settle on any common ground. Jesus keeps saying that his kingdom is not of this world. “If it were from this world,” he says, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” This does not mean that Jesus’ kingdom is purely in heaven or that we cannot experience Jesus’ reign here and now. It means, in short, the kingdom that Jesus rules does not operate with the same parameters as our kingdoms. The kingdom that Jesus leads, unlike Caesar’s, does not resort to violence or force to advance its influence or even defend itself. Jesus does not use power to dominate his enemies, but relinquishes it fully that their cruelty and sin may be fully exposed. Jesus does not exercise his authority by issuing decrees and handing down judgments from headquarters, but by becoming a servant and addressing the needs of God’s people. Jesus does not reign with a love of strength, but with the strength of love.

This is the truth about why Jesus was born, the truth about how God draws us to himself, the truth he speaks to Pilate. And if you think it comes across as confusing and confounding in the headquarters of Pilate, wait until you see how this love works itself out on the cross. There it will reach its climax, and we behold a king who is innocently sacrificed out of love the people, who, as the writer of Revelation says, “loves us and frees us from our sins by his blood.” Through our King’s death and resurrection, we are freed…freed to live in this truth about God’s love for the world…freed to be God’s own people not just in the next life, but in this one, as well.

"Ecce homo" Antonio Ciseri (1880)
But for the moment, the issue becomes: what will Pilate say about Jesus? And, in a sense, that is the question put to all of us about Jesus. What will we say about him? When Jesus is on trial, so to speak, in our midst, what do we say about his authority? When Jesus is brought up for debate in our boardrooms, in our classrooms, how do we articulate the ways his peaceful, humble power holds sway over our lives? How do we make sense of this kingdom of his that apparently can pop up just about whenever it wants to, because it does not have definable geographical borders but comes into existence wherever we’re graciously given the opportunity to serve and love others as he does us?

Furthermore, how do we listen to his voice and respond to him as king, especially in the midst of a culture that more and more does not know what we’re talking about? A study released about a month and a half ago reports that now one-in-five adults in the U.S. claim no religious affiliation. It is easy, perhaps, to speak of Christ’s authority when you feel most around you would also acknowledge it, but what about when more and more people don’t really know what to make of him, if they even know him at all? For some, articulating that Jesus is the risen King essentially means fighting to have things like the Ten Commandments posted in public places, but even in locales where that method might be deemed legal, it would still be a poor substitute for the faithful witness by Jesus’ own subjects learning to speak in their own words and in their own actions what it means to hear the truth of Jesus’ voice.

It is no secret that Lutherans, for various reasons, have been typically quiet about personal faith. The keep internalized, at least in their speech,  that which they experience in the truth about God. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people refer to as “God’s Frozen Chosen.” In a recent article, Lutheran missions pastor David Luecke, from a congregation in Ohio, argues that the time has come for traditions like ours to cultivate a stronger tradition of sharing the ups and downs of our spiritual journeys, of learning how to put into words who we say Jesus is and what living in his kingdom is about. I believe this type of thing, on some level, does go on in our Bible studies and youth group meetings here at Epiphany and certainly at youth events. The participants at the three Men’s lunch groups often have very lively and open-hearted conversations centered around God’s activity in their lives. It is good to practice with one another in safe settings how we put words to our faith, a faith which in the Lutheran tradition has a long history, I might add, of being put into action through community service work to those less fortunate.

I’m coming to agree with Pastor Luecke, and I’m wondering how we might begin to develop the kind of familiarity with our faith that would help us put into words why we try, in spite of our sin, to keep allegiance to Christ, the King. We may not all end up being Isaac Watts, able to articulate our faith into the words of hundreds of hymns (dude wrote over 600 of them, ten of which are included in our current hymnal!), but we can all stand to grow in our ability to say something about Jesus that is true and meaningful. And I guarantee the world wants to hear it.

Because, at least to my way of thinking, there is no such thing as “no religious affiliation.” That is a false category. Everyone has a religion or a “religious affiliation”…even Pontius Pilate. Everyone is bound to worship something, if not several things. That’s what it means to be human, the innate tendency to build our lives around values and authorities, even if it is just the authority of science, or the authority of my own will and desires. When set in that framework, it becomes easier, at least for me, to develop a way of talking about Jesus as an authority that is worth obeying, a truth worth listening to…because he loves me far more than any of those other authorities ever could.

So, to start us thinking about this, let’s say you were a pastor who had a dream of beginning a new congregation in your ideal location…be it Tupelo, Mississippi, or even the congregation that gathers regularly around your kitchen table. What would it look like? What would its traditions be? How would your little dream mission outpost proclaim Christ and his peaceful, powerful kingdom in its own unique way? What, for example, would you name it? And why? Share it with me!

And beginning there, perhaps, we can begin—once again—to prepare ourselves to engage the world as subjects of Christ the King. And, by the by, also prepare ourselves for that great day when we will stand face to face with Him in his court and hear with our own ears about the eternal love he has given us.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Day of Thanksgiving [Year B] - November 22, 2012 (Matthew 6:25-33)

Jesus says, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” How ironic that all of us gather here this Thanksgiving morning to hear these words from our Lord—especially words about food—and then leave to gorge ourselves on vast quantities of it.

“Is life not more than food?” Well, maybe so, but for right now give me those piles of sweet potatoes, dishes of green beans, platters of stuffing, and perfect cylinders of congealed cranberry sauce with the indentions of the six lines from the can still visible. Give us the pumpkin pies, apple pies, and pecan pies that will be offered up for dessert. And don’t forget the turkey. Some sources estimate that Americans will consume somewhere around 46 million turkeys today. If you’re like my family, you’ve been cooking, shopping, and preparing the house for days. I bet some of you with fancy kitchen appliances that have timers have even left the food in the oven to cook itself this morning while you come here to worship and give thanks to God and hear Jesus say, “Is not life more than food? Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink.”

You see, Jesus knows something that his disciples will struggle to learn: anxiety impedes thanksgiving. Worry gets in the way of faithful living and genuine discipleship. It is distracting. It has a tendency to make us think about that which we do not have or which might happen, rather than what we’ve already been given, and which good has already happened. It can take your mind off that which it needs to be on, the task at hand.

And, at least in the case of the disciples, that task at hand was probably starting to sound more than they’d bargained for. It wasn’t the challenge of cooking a turkey or hosting a big meal for relatives that Jesus had in mind. It was the challenge of discipleship in his name. As it turned out, life with this particular rabbi was going to involve all kinds of counter-cultural, counterintuitive behavior that they were not prepared for. His first sermon had been long and filled with complicated teachings: lessons on how to pray, how properly to give alms, and how to control anger, as well as a stern reminder about the perils of serving two masters: God and wealth. That last one had perhaps been the most distressing, given that they’d all recently left behind their trades—their fishing boats and their tax booths—to follow Jesus.  Nevertheless, “Let your light so shine,” he had said, “that others may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven.”

All in all this discipleship in Jesus’ name will turn out to a very tall order, going out in the world as meek and merciful peacemakers, as people persecuted for righteousness’ sake. You could see how worry would be a natural reaction. Where would their livelihood come from? How would they eat? Would there be a hot, succulent turkey, so to speak, waiting for them when they got home? Where would home even be?

Galilee, with "lilies" in foreground
Jesus counters their anxiety by promising them God’s constant care and attention. Even when life becomes difficult, God still considers them more precious and more valuable than anything else in creation. God will provide for them more than God does for the birds of the air. And even though, just like the wildflowers in the field, they will not be toiling or spinning for their clothes, they will still have something to wear. Those things that seem to be so important and so central to living, those things after which so many other people spend so much time striving after, will be taken care of. They, as disciples of the Lord, will be striving after the kingdom of God. While others around them will be figuring out ways to get ahead, they will be figuring out ways to let their light shine. Anxiety about even some of life’s material essentials could draw their energy away from the life of being a disciple. Worrying about these things—and, what’s more, beginning to strive after them—could also indicate an underlying belief that their livelihood ultimately comes from themselves, rather than from the Giver.

Are these the same messages we send today with our worry and anxiety? We have just come through another divisive election season. Economic recovery seems tenuous, at best. The stock market seems to have lost its footing. No one yet knows or fully trusts the ways the global community seems to be connected. American troops fight a ten-year war on the other side of the world. Quite frankly, people are worrying about what to eat and what to wear, far beyond our 46 million turkeys. Food stamp participation has increased 70% in the last five years. Yet, in spite of all this, the task at hand is to be thankful, to focus our attention on God the giver and the source of all gifts rather than the supposed uncertainty of what is happening around us. The task at all times is to remember Jesus’ words that in spite of what we think about our circumstances, God is caring for us and has our best interests at heart because we are going to be a part of his kingdom.

I have found absolutely captivating this week the testimonies by the people interviewed in this documentary by Ken Burns about the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. The grainy black-and-white images and raw video footage of the storms are fascinating to see—the large, black clouds of dirt rolling over fields and towns like something out of a science fiction movie—and I find the narrator’s factual and historical information about those bleak years intriguing and almost incredible. However, I find nothing has drawn me in as much as the personal accounts given by the survivors he has tracked down. Of course, at this point in time, any survivors alive today with remaining memory were only in grade school or younger at the time of the Dust Bowl. Nevertheless, their recollections are vivid. In those days of drought and depression, they watched their parents’ property get repeatedly covered by dust,  the rich topsoil for farming blown away forever, their livelihoods as farmers and store-owners go down the drain. Many children died of dust pneumonia.

Yet in the face of such extreme hardship and ecological disaster these survivors spoke, of all things, of…hope. Hope that the next harvest would be better, hope that the next day would bring rain, hope that the next year wouldn’t be as dusty. There were some mentions of intense anxiety, but mostly from the narrator and historians. However, those who survived mentioned hope more than anything else as what got their families through. One elderly man in the documentary looks at the camera and says matter-of-factly,  “We couldn’t live without hoping. Hope is what we lived on.”

"Migrant Mother" (by Dorothea Lange)
Hope and thanksgiving, you see, are intimately tied, and both are easily strangled by worry. One provides an honest view into the past—that there is something for which to be thankful—no matter how ominously the dust clouds roll in. There is always something we can point to which God has given for our good. The other, hope, provides an honest view into the future—that in spite of the hard times, in spite of the lack of even the most basic needs, God is moving us into something better and brighter, and that the brightness can even be brought by our own single light.

This, I believe, is our task at hand today as we gather around our tables today: to be thankful, yes, but also to be hopeful. And even when anxiety still gets the best of us, even if we despair, then let us not forget the thanksgiving and hope offered around this table (of the Lord). For it is here where anxiety was finally not allowed to rule the day, where worry and doubt and despair met their demise. And as Jesus lifted up the loaf and the cup, a new, unending hope was lifted up, too. It was the hope that although the dust clouds would roll in on Good Friday, a bright Easter morning still awaited them. It was the hope that although they would still worry and deny and betray and desert, God would still forgive and restore them. It is the hope that although we still go out weeping, carrying the very seeds we could eat today, we will come home in joy, shouldering the sheaves. It is the hope that although we still squander our resources and scar the earth and hurt our loved ones God is still giving, God is still giving.

It is the hope of feast to come that is richer and much more satisfying than the foretaste we receive today—yeah verily, richer and more satisfying than even our turkeys and cranberries provide: It is the hope provided by the fact that even when we look around and see our lives are nothing but a dusty mess, God has still given Jesus for it, and Jesus is still risen, promising it life. This will be the hope we live on, the sacrifice for which we give thanks.

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,” he says so reassuringly.

“Take and eat. Take and drink. This is my body, given for you.” He says that, too.

 Happy Thanksgiving.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

All Saints Sunday [Year B] - November 4, 2012 (Isaiah 25:6-9 and John 11:32-44)

Throughout my studies at seminary, professors drilled into our heads that the key to being a good, effective, and faithful pastor lay in mastering the art of being a non-anxious presence. It got mentioned so often, in fact, that it almost began to sound that it didn’t matter how good you were at translating Greek or Hebrew, or how much Scripture you could quote, or how moving and informative your sermons were. None of that really seemed to matter if you couldn’t learn how to maintain a non-anxious presence, especially during a crisis. For some people, I suppose it comes naturally. Those are the ones who get the job to stand out at the end of a pier in a rain-jacket, drenched and shouting into a microphone while clinging to a lamppost for dear life as the hurricane comes roaring in. For most of us, however, it is a tough skill to come by.

I remember one scene during a television special this week that showed the destruction and aftermath of Hurricane Sandy where a reporter was interviewing a couple in New York City who had lost not only their home but their entire neighborhood. You could see the couple was obviously dumbstruck. Surveying what looked like a war zone, they kept reaffirming each other that they would be fine, they would rebuild, that at least no one had been harmed. It was very matter-of-fact, the reporter calmly and expertly able to get them to open up about something so sad and scary. But then suddenly, right in the middle of the reporter’s questions, another couple from the neighborhood walked by and interrupted the scene. The two couples had not seen each other since before the hurricane hit, and emotions poured out like a storm surge right on camera. It caught the reporter, too, by surprise and it was pretty quickly evident that she was not going to remain a non-anxious presence. She covered her mouth with her interview notes and began to sob along with them. By journalists’ standards, it was probably a no-no to become involved in such a way but a helpful reminder to me that I’m not the only one who struggles with this.

And we read in in John’s gospel that apparently Jesus struggles with it, too. For all our lessons in seminary about the importance of being a non-anxious presence, how puzzling to learn that Jesus, the Son of God, apparently doesn’t really “have it” either. Just look at him! He’s sobbing, emotional…unable to keep his disturbed feelings in check. It’s really quite phenomenal, especially considering that when he first learns about Lazarus’ illness, he doesn’t rush right there to see what was happening. He lingers two extra days before coming to Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters live. In other words, he wasn’t anxious to get there, but he certainly becomes anxious on arrival!

In the portion of this story that we read this morning there are two separate verses where this anxiety comes through, and they’ve gotten a lot of attention over the years. One of them, translated as, “Jesus wept,” is one of the shortest verses in the Bible, and it’s often one of people’s favorites. (Our version today translates it as “Jesus began to weep,” indicating ongoing action.) In verse 33 we see Jesus is also “deeply moved” and “greatly disturbed in spirit.” Other English words that have been used to translate the two Greek verbs that occur here include “very agitated” and “troubled” and even “angry” and “indignant.” Interestingly, compassion and sorrow do not seem to be directly associated with either of these emotions in the Greek—ones you might expect to occur if you realize Jesus has just lost a close friend. However, even if it’s true that our Lord becomes momentarily like that television reporter who, caught up in the emotion, breaks down at the sadness and loss around her, it is clear that Jesus does not retain that all-important non-anxious presence. Something about the scene at Lazarus’ tomb, with all its weeping and wailing and public mourning disturbs him and moves him to tears. We can almost glimpse him in the camera’s eye as he covers his mouth, sobbing, becoming a part of the scene rather than removed from it.

Jesus, as it turns out, is anxious in the face of death. Jesus is an anxious presence because, as God’s Son, he is anxious in the face of what death does to us—how it rips apart our families and lays waste to our dreams. Jesus is anxious about how death robs us of chances for reconciliation with those who need our forgiveness and how it ruins our plans for the future. He is anxious and deeply moved, for example, in the midst of Hurricane Sandy as families are torn apart by waves and washed away. He is anxious and overcome with emotion as he stands by the bed in hospice as a husband says good-bye to his wife for the final time. He is anxious and greatly disturbed in spirit as the next set of coffins from Afghanistan greets their loved ones on the tarmac.

Jesus, however, is mostly anxious because of what death does to our faith and our relationship with God, how it drives us to doubt and despair. Yes, Jesus looks around the scene at the tomb and realizes that here, of all places—at the home of some of his closest friends—he would hope to find total control, total confidence in God’s ability in Jesus to avert the disaster. Instead he finds emotions run amok and his friends somewhat angry with his own delayed arrival: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus still looks around at any scene of death and gets agitated with how it overwhelms us.

Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we can actually find great comfort in Jesus the Anxious Presence. It’s not simply a sign of his humanity—that he understands and can relate—but a clue that in him God is finally meeting death head-on. The last thing we need is a Savior who shows up at the tomb and says, stone-faced and with removed demeanor, “Now, there, there, Mary and Martha. Your brother has just passed on.” No, Jesus’ emotion here is an honest reaction to God’s last enemy. Jesus’ anxiety is a real expression of feeling from a God who has gotten real with us. Death is truly awful, and although there may be times when we pray for its quick arrival so as to hasten the end of suffering, death is never the destiny that God intends for his creation.

And so Jesus comes to the tomb of Lazarus not to prevent death, which is what he’s requested to do. He comes not to minimize it or “theorize” it away, which is what we often are tempted to do in our feeble attempts to avert the anguish we feel. He comes neither to endear death nor make it somehow palatable, as a natural part of the passing into another realm. No, at the tomb of Lazarus—and chiefly then on the cross—Jesus comes to conquer death. Jesus comes to be victorious over it. Jesus comes to step into death himself and experience its utter desolation—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—and then, resurrected, step out of the tomb himself for us and never stop walking.

One of the biggest challenges of faith is that at this point we still only have a foretaste of that great victory. The cross proves to us that death has been conquered—and in our baptism we have been joined to that triumph—but we have not yet reached that day when, as the prophet Isaiah says, “the LORD God will swallow up death forever, when he will wipe away the tears from all faces.” We’re still waiting for it, like that line in the new Mumford & Sons song that echoes, over and over, “I will wait, I will wait for you…I’ll be bold as well as strong…” For now we still live with the pain of death, which means we will slip into many moments of anxiety, much to the chagrin of my seminary professors. But we have a promise that we are held by the one who has come not to prevent this last enemy but who has conquered it.

Here at Epiphany this is beautifully exemplified by the design of our columbarium, the place where we lay our loved ones to rest. I’ve seen quite a few columbaria in my life—being as how I hang out at churches a bit—but I’ve never seen one designed so intentionally as a circle. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of the architecture, and then I stood in in the middle of it for the committal of one of our own blessed saints. As we read the spoke the words of the liturgy, I realized it felt like we were all standing within the embrace of God, the two sides of the circle forming two outstretched arms—brick-solid and unmoving—to shield us and our loved ones until that day.

I have no idea if it was designed with that with that idea or not (it probably was), but that’s how it strikes me. It evokes both love and the mighty triumph of the resurrection at the same time. And whether their remains lie there literally in that columbarium or somewhere else, between those arms is where the saints always rest. It is the place where all our blessed loved ones wait for Jesus to call them out of death and into life. We remember our saints there once again today: Ethel, Stephen, Pat, Brenda, Tommy…and Catherine and Bill. They, like all those who’ve been baptized find themselves in the wide embrace of the Risen one who gathers us for that great, eternal day.

And it will be said on that day, “Lo, this is our God—this one who resuscitated Lazarus, this one who raised Jesus—we have waited for him, so that he might save us. Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation!”
Photo by Meredith Sizemore photography



Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24B] - October 21, 2012 (Mark 10:35-45)

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Come to think of it, haven’t we heard quite a bit of that kind of sentiment lately? However, in our case, it’s addressed in a slightly different way. It sounds more like this: “Presidential candidate, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

For example: “I am graduating from college in two years. I want you to ensure I have a job offer.”

“This economy stinks. I want you to do something to get it going again.”

“I am afraid Iran might get a nuclear bomb and terrorists will strike again and I want you to ensure the world’s safety…or at least mine.”

“I don’t think my tax rate is fair compared to what the other guy is paying and I want you to fix it.”

“Get rid of the BCS series and institute a real playoff system for college football.”

Written down on little index cards and spoken politely into the microphone, or fired off to campaign headquarters in a passionate email, or shouted out from the floor of a campaign rally our demands fill the air at this campaign season. We expect so much from our candidates and still they so constantly promise to deliver. There is such a slight difference between the word “voter” and “devotee.” We all have ideas and we’re all ready to follow, ready to pledge our support, ready to stand in line. And it’s not just open democracies like ours that exhibit this tendency of demanding from our leaders whatever we think we deserve. It takes a little more effort for dictators and despots to be responsive to change, but in all systems of human governance, those who think they’re closest to the seat of power—be they a big-bucks contributor or an all-powerful undecided voter chosen off the street—often feel they can ask a few favors.

The same type of thinking apparently creeps into the disciples’ minds as they continue getting closer to Jesus. At this point, it is becoming increasingly clear that they are getting closer and closer to the capital, Jerusalem. And although he has now three times predicted his suffering and death at the hands of the ruling class, the disciples still seem to assume he will be gaining some kind of power once they get there. And they want a piece of it. They want a piece of the prestige—a plum cabinet post, a place of honor at the head table—once Jesus comes into his glory. They want to be associated as closely as possible with God’s new regime of hope and change. In their vision of the future as God’s plan plays out, people will look to them and understand the nature of glory and authority.

Yet much to their chagrin, such requests are apparently not Jesus’ to dole out. “You don’t even know what you are asking,” Jesus responds as if to say, “You have no idea what I’m about to get myself into.”And although James and John, the Sons of Thunder, still claim that they are willing and able to follow him wherever he leads—drinking from whatever cup Jesus is given, taking on whatever experiences Jesus is getting ready to take on—the places of glory in God’s kingdom, as it turns out, are not so easily dispensed and dispersed. Despite all the power on display as he makes his way to Jerusalem, not even Jesus will have the authority to grant such requests.

So, at this point it is clear that none of what Jesus has been going over for the past several miles has sunk in. Jesus will not be going to Jerusalem to assume control at the standard levers of power. His most recent explanation to his followers of his impending fate—coming just prior to this episode with James and John—has been the most graphic: the Son of Man will be handed over to the people currently in power, then condemned to death, then mocked, spit upon and flogged. Then he will be killed. On the third day he will rise again. Jerusalem had been a capital city for centuries, a key strategic location to which kings and armies had laid siege and over which they had fought time and time again. It is entirely understandable that the disciples would have thought Jesus’ conquest of the place would have followed suit.

However, what was not yet as apparent was that in the death of Jesus, God would be completely re-writing the definition of power. Power will look eerily like weakness. In the suffering of the Son of Man, God would be re-defining the way things will really get done. Getting things done will look like serving, not as much delegating. And on the cross of Christ, God would be turning the notion of glory on its head. Glory will involve utter humility and handing over whatever you have. Could you imagine such responses from either of our candidates as they approach Washington, DC? “The hard times of this economy you will be baptized with, but a job after graduation or lower prices at the gas pump are not mine to grant.” The campaigns would be over before they began!

"Crucifixion," Jacopo Casentino
It is so easy to laugh and shake our heads at the disciples’ foolish request. After all, we have the benefit of standing on this side of Easter morning, on this side of the good news of Jesus’ victory over all that suffering. Yet, all the same, I wonder how often the old, former definitions of power and authority and glory often creep into our thinking about God, and even into our ministry? How often do we really expect God to show up at the margins of life, and be glorified in our moments of weakness? Or is more likely for congregations think things like, “If we could just have a bigger, more well-designed church building, our congregation would be set for the future.” Or, “If our youth programs could just be more attractive, more hip, we could have the most popular church on the block.” How often do congregations, for example, measure their growth and influence by the number of members in worship rather than the number of people in the community they’ve served or the number of new people they’ve reached with the gospel? Or maybe we still measure too many things to begin with, obsessed with the health of our ministry, our legacy, the effect of our sermons.

Yes, in many of our requests of God we often hide that old theology of glory rather than confidently display the new theology of the cross. We often still harbor the misguided notion that God only is present in the good times, that God is only able to work through the big and loud and prominent, often forgetting that greatness, if it must be measured, is measured through service, and influence through the relinquishment of authority. The cross of Jesus, however, once and again reminds us of that. The cross lays bare all our designs on glory and human claims to power. In going to die, Jesus exposes the futility of that way of thinking, as well as the futility of violence, the cruelty of lording it over each other…and thereby displaying the true power of humility.

I can’t help but think this week of the example of that 14-year-old girl in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, singled out and gunned down by the Taliban on her bus to school. In her humble, peaceful defiance to get an education, she had become a symbol for all those in that part of the world who long for basic human rights, especially girls and women. With no weapons or economic sanctions at her disposal to change the ways of those who oppressed her, Malala took to blogging about her desire to go to school and her belief that all should be able to receive an education. She also wished not to wear the burqa the religious authorities forced upon her because it made walking in a war zone more complicated and dangerous. Her only tool was a blog that she wrote. Yet, afraid of this humble form of power, the Taliban used their futile ones and put a bullet in her neck and another in her head. Miraculously, she survived. She’s up and talking now, I hear. The result may have temporarily stopped Malala from blogging and going to school, but her vulnerable witness—and her injury—has once again exposed the depths of their cruelty and barbarism…indeed, the cruel and barbaric potential of all of us.

In one poignant scene from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the elder Father Zossima lies dying, and all of the younger monks crowd around him hanging on his final words of wisdom before he breathes his last. Some of them will stay in the monastery and keep the brothers in line. Others will leave its cloisters, venturing out into a world that is unpredictable but exciting. Near the end, he utters his best wisdom for living wherever the Spirit takes them: “A loving humility is a terrible power,” he says, “the most powerful of all, nothing compares with it.”

Nothing compares with it. Father Zossima, Malala Yousafzai, the everyday servants of this and every congregation all echo that reality we come to know at the foot of the cross, and again at the humble meal of bread and wine, in the splash of water at the font. That is, in the end, the only power that truly transforms the world, the only authority that truly gets every knee bending and every voice singing, the only leader that receives the devotion and love from every subject is not the power that is elected to office in Washington, or Tehran, or Moscow. It is not the power that returns favors based on brilliance or even loyalty. It is the power, rather, of the one that drinks the cup of suffering and undergoes the baptism of death. It is the power of the one whose life is given as a ransom for many. It is the power of the one dies with people at his right and his left, but they are not his disciples. They are the criminals of Calvary. It is the power of the one—the only one—who has ever walked out of the tomb.

“Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.” Rise. Rise from the dead.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.



Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 20B] - September 23, 2012 (Mark 9:30-37)

Since the last time I climbed into this pulpit, I have put one of my own children into kindergarten. Our family’s sleeping and waking schedule has shifted quite a bit from what it used to be, and we’re still trying to figure out just exactly who in our household needs to get up at the crack of dawn and do exactly what to get her out the door on time, but by far the biggest wake up call for me is the length to which we’ve gone to help that school receive our daughter.

Mind you, these lengths are not just ours; they are all a part of a system that has been has developed and put in place in order to make all of us painfully aware of how valuable and important this step is. Like every parent of a kindergartner, we had a one-on-one orientation with her teacher so they could get acquainted with one another three weeks before school started (which is after the kindergarten screening we had back in April). Then we had open house where we got to meet some of the other kids in the class and their parents. Just this past week we experienced our first back-to-school night, where the teachers and administration of the elementary school put on a big show to make sure we understood how much everyone values and appreciates our children—from the principal in the office to the bus drivers outside.

And then there was the shopping list. At some point during this roller coaster ride, my wife, Melinda, approached me with a piece of paper that contained a rather extensive list of everything we needed to properly outfit Clare for school. Two different pencil boxes stocked with all the usual goodies. A towel for sleeping at naptime. An old t-shirt for painting at art time. Binders, boxes, broad point markers. Crayons for this box, a different set of crayons for use by that box over there, and crayons for home. At the bottom of the list was something I had truly not expected to see: tennis balls, four of them. Sure enough, the teacher had even thought about the legs of the chairs. The tennis balls were not for some fun game or activity, but for cutting open and placing on the four feet of the chairs so that they wouldn’t make noise scraping across the floor. Another father who had sent his child to kindergarten the previous year asked me one day, “So, did you cut your tennis balls open yet? Watch out. I almost sliced my hand open doing it.”

As I peeled open the Wilson jar and bent down to and jam them on the chair legs, it half occurred to me that the tennis balls were on the list as much to help the dads get involved in the process of welcoming that child to school as they were for cutting down on the noise level. No matter the reason, we have gotten the point: they’ve thought of everything. They are ready to receive our child.

Yet it has not always been that way with children. When Jesus takes a child and sets it among his disciples on the way to Capernaum, he does not start talking about the safest way to cut tennis balls open for the legs of its school chair. Welcoming a child in Jesus’ day and age meant far different things. In fact, not a whole lot of thought was given to it. Back then, children were huge liabilities, germ-carrying, resource-depleting moochers that often didn’t make it to adulthood. They were a drain on the family economy (I guess some things haven’t changed, after all) and very little worth was placed in their lives, unless they happened to make it to young adulthood, which very few of them did. It is estimated by some historians that infant mortality in those days could reach 30 percent. Another 30 percent of live births were dead by the age of six, and 60 percent were gone by the age of seventeen. There was little point in getting too attached even to your own children—not to mention someone else’s—since their chances of survival were so slim to begin with. It is safe to say that childhood was a terrifying time and people did not romanticize it or seek to prolong it nearly to the degree we do in our culture now.

This is all to say that when Jesus chooses a child to make his point about his kingdom he is identifying his kingdom not just with the most vulnerable among us, but with a social non-entity. Jesus is associating discipleship in his name with those who can do nothing for them in return. Jesus’ kingdom is not like a kindergarten classroom, with its whiz-bang Promethean boards and shiny new iPads. It is place where the scraps are tossed and where all kinds of germs are passed around. To identify service in Jesus’ kingdom with welcoming even a child in his name was to say that Jesus’ kingdom was about utter humility and self-sacrifice. It was about completely relinquishing yourself and your ideas of grandeur and instead opening yourself up to the possibility of loss and disappointment. It was a lesson that if God’s kingdom was going to be located somewhere, it was not going to be located more readily than among those who were outcast and on the margins. It was about thinking of others not chiefly in terms of what they could eventually do for you but rather in terms of how they might introduce you to Christ.

"Jesus teaching his disciples, and holding a child"
Thomas Stothard (1780)
For the disciples, Jesus’ teaching entails a huge shift in thinking. The Messiah was typically thought to usher in God’s appointed time of prosperity and power, where judgment against evil was issued with unmistakable power. And the Messiah’s kingdom was to be one of decisive riddance of everything that stands in the way of righteousness. But they are still thinking in human ways, and the stuff Jesus is talking about is so frightening to comprehend that they don’t even ask him about it. The shift, then, entails thinking about power in terms of service and humility, of stooping down to the least among us and welcoming God there.

I recently came across a news article about a well-known comic book illustrator, Karl Kesel, who, at the age of 53, adopted his first child, a baby who was born with a heroin addiction. In addition to the significant costs often associated with the adoption process, this one came with another set of staggering medical costs associated with neo-natal intensive care and detoxification from drugs. In order to help defray those expenses, Kesel has begun selling off his entire comic book collection, his back pages, the priceless originals of his own work he had been holding onto for over forty years. Worth over tens of thousands of dollars, they are being handed over for a new legacy to begin growing. “I don’t necessarily feel that I’m putting away childish things.” Kesel remarks. “I may be putting away my childish things. But I’m embracing Isaac’s.”

The article claims that the only way he and his wife can keep the child from shrieking as his tiny body reacts to withdrawal is to hold him in their arms constantly; that is, to set down the things of old importance and value and embrace the new. It is to get rid of the old definitions of worth and future and inheritance and start learning the new ones. It is to say goodbye to the old arguments about authority and power and begin making space for the powerless.

How might such a model mold us as we become frustrated with the baby who starts crying during the sermon, or the single parent who is trying her best to keep her kids quiet during worship? Or the newcomer who arrives just in time for church but is really looking for a handout? Or the new face at youth group who clearly needs a friend, but who would distract you from spending more time with your established group of friends? Or the food pantry guest or CARITAS guest who acts unappreciative of all your hard work? Because my guess is that no kindergarten teacher has made a list of how to receive those folks. They just show up, needing to be cradled, needing to be listened to, needing to be seen, needing to be fed. They can't really do many things for us. But be warned: when we welcome one of them in Jesus' name, we are, in fact, welcoming God.

This past week one of my colleagues in Pittsburgh told me that at last Sunday’s service they baptized a three-year-old. As they held him over the font, he screamed “NOOOOOO!” at the top of his lungs. This week, he underwent a five-hour-procedure at a hospital, followed by six hours of having to remain perfectly still. His nurse entered his room after recovery, asking the obligatory, “What’s your name?” Without hesitation, this three-year-old replied, “Nathan Johnson, child of God.”

May we be so confident in our identity…that, yes, that is who we are. That, in fact, is whose we are. And that is how we have been received--as children--by the Messiah who offers up his own priceless back pages to suffer, die, and rise again to cradle us and claim us as his own.


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.