Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Day - November 28, 2013 (Philippians 4:4-9)

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)
There is not a lot that we know for sure about the first Thanksgiving that the Massachusetts pilgrims celebrated in 1621. Historians are even kind of foggy on the date. One of the few things we do know is that they had come through a very rough year. After making landfall in late 1620, the population of the small colony had been cut in half thanks to disease and exposure to the elements. We can imagine a pall of death and a prevailing sense that they still might not make it probably hung in the air. However, that summer they had fared better, and the first harvest had apparently gone well. The crops had come in and there might be enough to eat as another winter set in. It was a very bright spot in an otherwise dim situation. So, as was their tradition, they organized a feast of thanksgiving, most likely based on some customs they had brought with them from the Old World.

I bet this is how most of us view thanksgiving, and not just the holiday with all the legends that have been tacked onto it, but about giving thanks in general. That is, we think of thanksgiving as the sensible and appropriate thing to do when things are looking up, when we finally come into good times, however insignificant or momentous they may be.

The other day our two daughters spied a discarded cardboard box we had chucked out on the back porch to break down for recycling once it stopped raining. Don’t ask me why, but there are few things that bring young children as much joy as a big cardboard box does. With timid excitement, they asked if I could bring it back inside so they could play with it. It was already a little soggy from the damp air, but I said, “Why not?” and dragged it back through the door to the den. Hilarity ensued. My seven-year-old, with sheer happiness in her eyes, looked at me, clasped her hands over her chest, and said with utmost sincerity, “Daddy, thank you for all you’ve ever given us!”

When things are great, when we happen upon the cardboard box of our dreams, it just seems right to express our thanks. It’s as if thanksgiving, then, is spurred by relief…relief that the crops come in well…relief that the job offer has been extended…relief that the surgeon says she managed to get all the cancer. That is all well and good, I suppose, but it’s not exactly how the apostle Paul tells us to give thanks in the letter he writes to the Philippians. At the climax of his letter, after he’s explained a few things about arrogance and how a community can get along better if they keep Christ’s humility at its center, Paul gives this command: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

For Paul, it seems as if relief or happiness is not necessarily the primary instigator for thanksgiving. “In everything,” he clearly says, “with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And it is not just thanksgiving which Paul thinks may be made in all things and at all times, but joy as well. Two times he stresses it, just to make the point: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice!” That could mean, therefore, in times of loss, or times of grief…times of hard winter and bad crops. Times, that is, when relief might be in terribly short supply.

It would be one thing to hear such a command from someone who had essentially always had it made, from someone whose life was filled with wonderful cardboard boxes, empty or not. But Paul was writing this letter from prison where he was most likely being held for execution. He is not speaking from a place of relief, but of great hardship, and yet the letter to the Philippians is by far Paul’s most cheery letter! From beginning to end he is upbeat and optimistic, even though his own life is probably wasting away and though, in a material sense, he has very little. If Paul can find reason to be thankful and joyful in his current dreadful circumstances, then surely he can implore the free Philippians to give thanks in their situation, whatever it is. How could this be?

Well, for Paul, the cross of Jesus had redefined what a good time is. For Paul, the death and resurrection of God’s own Son had completely turned the tables on what was valuable, what was worthy of praise and thanksgiving. If, as Paul believes, God himself has somehow entered the human experience and lost everything—and in the most humiliating way, at that—then everything that we have and experience and lose must be viewed in light of that fact. For Paul, this meant that all his accolades, all his worldly and even religious honors and distinctions for which he surely could have been extremely grateful, didn’t really amount to much in the end. Whatever gains he had, he says earlier to the Philippians, he has come to regard as a loss because of Christ. The power of suffering for Christ’s kingdom and the hope of eternal life could be lived in any circumstance—even prison—and that was far more valuable than anything the world could offer.

It goes yet further, of course. The word of Christ means, for example, that God has already “pilgrimmed” through the harshest Massachusetts winter, and is already victorious over our harsh winters now. It means God, in Christ, has already felt the humility of poverty and the label of unemployment. It means, too, that God, in Christ, has already received the devastating cancer diagnosis alongside of us, and stood by the grave of a loved one, wondering if God has forsaken us. And it means God has stood on the other side of that grave, victorious over it. The cross and all that it gains for us has redefined, reorganized, reprioritized all for which we would be thankful. This makes joy and gratitude possible—not necessarily always easy, but possible and appropriate—on Thanksgiving and in every human situation.

The late journalist and writer Dr. Fulton Oursler, who authored The Greatest Story Ever Told, and who, like Paul, was not always a believer, but converted to Christianity as an adult, used to tell of an old woman who took care of him when he was a child—a woman who not only expressed her thanks, but felt it. Anna was a former American slave who, after emancipation, was hired by the family for many years. He remembered her sitting at the kitchen table, her hands folded and her eyes gazing upward as she prayed, “Much obliged, Lord, for my vittles.” He asked her what vittles were and she replied that they were food and drink. He told her that she would get food and drink whether or not she gave thanks, and Anna said, “Yes, we’ll get our vittles, but it makes ‘em taste better when we’re thankful.”

She told him that an old preacher taught her, as a little girl, to always look for things to be grateful for. So, as soon as she awoke each morning, she asked herself, “What is the first thing I can be grateful for today?” Sometimes the smell of early-morning coffee perking in the kitchen found its way to her room. On those mornings, the aroma prompted her to say, “Much obliged, Lord, for the coffee. And much obliged, too, for the smell of it!”

Young Fulton grew up and left home. One day he received a message that Anna was dying. He returned home and found her in bed with her hands folded over her white sheets, just as he had seen them folded in prayer over her white apron at the kitchen table so many times before. He wondered what she could give thanks for at a time like this. As if reading his mind, she opened her eyes and gazed at the loving faces around her bed. Then, shutting her eyes again, she said quietly, “Much obliged, Lord, for such fine friends.”

So, on this cold Thanksgiving Day, when the weather suggests we may be in for another rough winter (at least for Richmond), may you remember Paul’s advice, Anna’s philosophy and look around you to find “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing…and think about those things.” They are there. Because of the cross, they are there, somewhere…be they fine friends. Or fine food. Or a warm place to eat it. Or, maybe you look into your life right now and find just an empty cardboard box. Whatever it is, let it stand for us in the shadow of the cross and the Lord’s table gifts from the God who empties himself--empties the tomb--that we might it all.



Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 28C] - November 17, 2013 (Luke 21:5-19)

An important conversation occurred in the Martin household yesterday morning. It involved a certain holiday that is coming up (which will remain unnamed for the purposes of this sermon, but it rhymes with Miss-muss), and the need to make room for any possible new items that might arrive because of said holiday. My wife, expert at breaking hard news and broaching difficult subjects with our two young girls, took the lead. More specifically, it had to do with dismantling and removing one particularly large, bulky toy that hasn’t been played with in quite some time. It is the toy kitchen they received several Miss-musses ago that is occupying a large part of one wall in the playroom. Fearful of some possible sentimental attachment they might have to it, Melinda tread lightly, choosing wisely to accentuate the virtues of giving away things you don’t need any more and the benefits of making room for something better. That’s the real hope, of course: that something better might come, that the old could give way for the new. She and I braced ourselves for negative reactions, but they took it in stride and moved right along to the next thing they wanted to do.

Now comes my part: dismantling the thing and finding a new home for it. Several ideas were tossed around, and I suppose, given the fast-approaching arrival of that-holiday-that-will-go-unnamed, I’ll have to get on it pretty soon. Maybe one day they’ll come home and it just won’t be there anymore. For now, however, I want to walk in there with the two of them tagging along behind me, and gesture at it widely with my arm in the same dramatic manner Jesus probably uses this morning as he points to the Jerusalem temple: “You see this kitchen play set, girls, with its adorable miniature kitchen utensils and where you made countless make-believe casseroles? The days will come when not one painted piece of chipboard will be fastened to another! All will be torn down.”

You’re probably thinking it’s a good thing Melinda takes care of these conversations.

stones at the Temple mount in modern-day Jerusalem
Jesus, however, being a Middle Eastern man of his time, was prone to a little exaggeration and dramatic effect. He, too, wanted to have an important conversation about something and he wanted to make sure they got the point. It goes without saying that he was not pointing to some small wooden replica of something. He was talking about the temple that stood at the heart of Jerusalem, the very symbol of the faith of the Jewish people. The stones he would have been referring to were gargantuan. The addition that King Herod added in 19 B.C. contained bricks—if you could call them that—that were 44 feet by 11 feet and weighed 628 tons. It would have been unfathomable to topple them! Furthermore, for the ancient Israelites, the Temple was the place where God was thought to dwell on earth, the place where heaven touched earth. It had been there, in some form, for about a thousand years. It was unfathomable for God’s people to be God’s people without it! Yet, there Jesus stands, with his disciples tagging along behind him, boldly announcing to them and to all the other people who are in awe of the mighty building that it will be torn down.

The Temple is not the only thing whose foundations will be shattered. In a short sermon that probably strikes most modern ears as a little bit fanciful, like something out of a doomsday movie, Jesus goes on to explain that the dismantling of the Temple will be accompanied by all kinds of turmoil and strife. Earthquakes, famines, maybe even typhoons in the Pacific Ocean…indeed, the fabric of human society will torn as wars and riots sweep the land.

an artist's depiction of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70
The scene that Jesus describes is utterly terrifying, and yet he tells them not to fear.  At the same time, it doesn’t sound like they, as disciples, will be able to withdraw from the world and escape the terror, either, which is something that God’s people often try to do. Another thing that doesn’t sound possible is any sort of rapture, a fashionable but false theory some have developed where true believers are supposedly taken right up into heaven at some point in the future to be spared trials and tribulation below.

In fact, in the times Jesus is describing here, it sounds like the followers of Jesus need to be prepared to be singled out for who they are. They will be dragged before tribunals and brought before people of authority and be expected to give some sort of testimony. Come to think of it, the words of Imagine Dragons’ recent radio hit are strangely fitting to this scenario that Jesus describes:  I’m breaking in, I’m shaping up, then checking out on the prison bus. This is it: the apocalypse…whoa!”

What Jesus’ listeners probably didn’t realize at the time is the very thing that we tried to tell our daughters about their kitchen: all of this—the Temple, the city, the human fabric of society as we know it—all of this will be torn down and something better will take its place. When the Temple would fall, about 30 years after this prediction, new life for God’s redeemed people would spring up in the form of a human community spread across the earth. They would be a new temple, of sorts, gathering in homes and villages. Raised up in the shadow of the cross, they would be a people enlivened by the power of God’s Spirit and empowered to testify to Jesus’ love.

"The Crucifixion" Max Ernst (1913)
Standing in the shadow of the glorious Jerusalem Temple that day, it would have been so hard to comprehend and appreciate that, but something better would come. On the other hand, in the midst of trial and testing, persecution and hardship, those promises sound better and more blessed by the minute. It’s what gives people hope to keep on moving, to keep on testifying, to keep on worshiping and praising God: all of this will be torn down and something better—something new, something truly permanent—will come take its place.

The same promise is echoed every time we gather as this temple of holy believers and take the bread and wine of the new covenant. There is forgiveness as we eat, and it is complete, but the meal we share is still but a foretaste of a better, more satisfying feast to come. It is the promise, most of all, that we glimpse as we look at the cross of Good Friday. We see him there, dragged before all the worldly authorities, mocked and persecuted by none other than you and me and our sinfulness, his very life dismantled like one bloody stone at a time. The clouds threaten and the skies grow dark. But something new and wonderful will come in its place, even though none of us expects it, none of us deserves it. In God’s good time, Easter morning will come.
There’s been a lot of devastation in the world this week. I’m thinking particularly of the apocalypse-level destruction in the Philippines as the people there sort through the aftermath of the most violent storm “in recorded history.” There’s been lots of devastation and loss, lots of questioning and anguish, but also a scenes of hope, images of old things giving way to new. One pastor made the rounds his morning blessing dead bodies wherever he could find them and gathering survivors for worship services amidst the rubble. Where they worshipped looked eerily like the scene Jesus promises in today’s reading: a gaping hole in the ceiling of the church let the rain fall through. The windows were blown out and winds snapped at the silver cross on top of the steeple, which was hanging upside down. “Despite what happened,” the pastor said, “we still believe in God. The church may have been destroyed, but our faith is intact…as believers, our faith has not been destroyed.”

And in other area of the battered city, a 21-year-old mother nurses a baby that was born just after the storm hit. As her family was swept out of their house by a wave of storm surge, she went into labor. The baby’s grandmother has still not been recovered, and neither the baby nor the mother is apparently quite out of the woods yet, but the baby has a name: Bea, named after the grandmother, a nod to the past, and Joy. Bea Joy. Joy amidst the rubble.

No one knows exactly when the world as we know it will come to an end, but it will. Not one piece of painted chipboard will remained fastened to another. Even astrophysicists tell us that despite its splendor, the universe is unsteady and unstable (like a giant Jerusalem Temple?) and will eventually collapse or expand or whatever it is universes do. Maybe one day we’ll come home and it just won’t be there anymore. Whatever God’s plan and timing is—whether that’s tomorrow or millennia from now—Jesus, the one who’s already been through hell, promises that we will be cared for. For today, our teachers for how to keep on despite the present turmoil are Filipino. The survivors of Typhoon Haiyan are an inspiration in never wearying to do what is right, even as calamity surrounds and threatens to overwhelm us. They are our inspiration to testify to God’s faithfulness and wait fervently for this new creation and to seek joy’s unlikely birth as we walk amidst our rubble.

Let us look to the cross, dangling there, with its savior barely hanging on, but still resounding with its hope. Let us think of the empty tomb, and remember to make way for something better. And let us give praise and thanksgiving and commit ourselves to performing the works of justice and peace of God’s coming kingdom…we, the new temple wherein God’s Spirit of life may dwell.

As we do this, maybe we can even begin singing along with Imagine Dragons but changing the words up just a little bit:

“We’re waking up, we feel it in our bones, enough to make our systems grow…
Welcome to the new age, to the new age…
welcome to God’s new age, to God’s new age…whooahhh…
God’s love is active, God’s love is active!”


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

All Saints Sunday [Year C] - November 3, 2013 (Luke 6:20-31)

"Last Judgment Mosaic: Saints in heaven." Torcello Cathedral (Venice)
No matter how many times I hear it, I'm always a bit surprised when I’m reminded that before the earliest Christians were gathering to worship and reflect upon certain life events of Jesus they were commemorating the lives—and deaths!—of the holy men and women they knew. From what we can tell, the church in its earliest days did not celebrate things like Easter or Maundy Thursday or the visit of the magi and certainly not Christmas. Those commemorations turned up, in various forms, later on. In its earliest days, however, we do know that the church was marking on the calendar the dates when certain noteworthy and distinguished men and women died.

Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Martyred in A.D. 155
There are several reasons why the church was doing this right at the start. One reason is because everyone thought Jesus was going to return within their lifetime. There was no reason to draw major attention to things like the date of his birth or the date of his crucifixion on a yearly basis because much of that was fresh on people’s minds (although maybe not in as much detail as we have now) and also because they were in this state of anticipation, focused more on Jesus’ future than on his past.

Another reason why the early Christians were remembering these ordinary women and men of faith was because they saw in their lives significant, tangible hope—hope that their faith had not been lived in vain, hope that the things they did and the message they preached mattered to God and God’s kingdom. There was a little anxiety about the fact these people had died before Christ’s return. Would they be lost from God’s plan? And yet, the gospel of Jesus had taught them that their lives—and, just as powerfully, their deaths—were not meaningless in the ultimate scheme of the universe. The lives of these people had offered living laboratories of God’s grace for them, stained glass windows, if you will, through which the light of Christ could shine, and when they died—or, as was more common the case early on, were killed—the church wanted to remember them.

Perpetua and Felicity. Martyred March, 203
The calendar pretty quickly got filled up with these commemorations: Stephen, Polycarp, and Perpetua, just to name three. Once the Twelve apostles died, of course, they were placed on the calendar, too, and as each of those days rolled around each year, the faithful gave thanks for those people’s lives and the way they demonstrated God’s love. They’d say, “Let’s look today at the life of so-and-so. He wasn’t perfect, but he knew God loved him anyway, and we saw signs of God’s coming kingdom in the way he lived his life.”

It didn’t take long for the calendar to get filled up. Every day people were celebrating the lives of multiple people. By the sixth century, and maybe even earlier, the church finally chose a date and called it all saints day. It was one day to reflect on the lives of all those men and women who had gone before us, especially those we had lost most recently.

I think that the closest thing to a calendar of saints we have now in our culture is the Google Doodles. Those of you who use Google’s search engine or visit the Google homepage on a regular basis know what I’m talking about. On many days when you access their main site, you’ll notice they’ve taken their logo and created some cool form of interactive artwork that seeks to recognize the work of some person who was born on that day years ago. Typically it’s someone I’ve never heard of. Maybe some nineteenth century Frenchman who revolutionized hat-making or something like that.

Now, I have nothing against Google or their clever doodles, but it’s interesting to note that a multi-billion Internet giant who gathers and sells information about all of us now has such a strong hand in determining who in our culture is worth commemorating. If only the church could come up with doodles! When I see a doodle, it’s a reminder to me that the people of God still need to be diligent about remembering its faithful departed. It’s a reminder that these people are still a part of us, that we are a communion of saints. Like the theologian G.K. Chesterton once quipped, if someone asks you how large your church is, be sure to count the tombstones, too. At Epiphany we could add the columbarium niches. The church needs to take the time to realized how we’ve been blessed by our heritage of holy men and women—all of them, the dead as well as the living—because their lives have something to teach about the hope of God’s kingdom. Their lives have something to say about the great reversal that God is bringing about.

It is precisely that great reversal, that turnaround of the world’s way of doing things, that Jesus begins talking and teaching about at the beginning of his gospels. Nowhere are the elements of this turnaround more starkly laid out than in the gospel of Luke. As it turns out the things that the world typically values and lifts up as blessings are not what will be blessed and valued in God’s coming kingdom. At one point, Jesus looks up at his disciples and says, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for your is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and exclude you...for that is what your ancestors did to the prophets.’

This kind of talk was earthshattering, and quite honestly didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Everyone was used to thinking that things like poverty and hunger and sorrow were occasions of God’s curses, not God’s blessings. But now Jesus is declaring that they are blessings now because in the coming kingdom those things will be exchanged for eternal abundance and happiness.

And, as if that wasn’t clear enough, Jesus adds four statements of woe. The things that we typically strive for now, things that we habitually cling to for hope—wealth, satisfaction of health and appetite, and giddy cheerfulness, fame and acclaim—these things will not last. They never do, and Jesus wants to make sure we understand that present security does not guarantee future comfort. The kingdom of God will not be based, for example, on earthly forms of wealth. Those who get too used to it now will have a great shock when it’s not there in eternity.

In fact, these three categories of things that Jesus attaches woe to are things that delude us into an evil individualism. When we have a lot of money and possessions, when we have wonderful health and a full belly, when we are just happy and satisfied all the time it is far easier to feel and become cut off from the needs of others.

Just look at the vision of discipleship that Jesus offers as he continues this sermon! There is a whole lot of sharing and interdependence and mutual love going on. If you have a possession, like a coat, and it is taken by another, you let go of it…and then toss in something extra to go with it. You pay attention to others who have needs, even giving to those who beg. You love enemies and do not be given to revenge. If these are descriptions of following Jesus now, then imagine what God’s eternal kingdom, when it arrives in full, will involve. It’s going to be an eternity which will involve a lot of dwelling together in true communion.

I read an article this week that suggested modern-day Christianity, especially in the United States, is marked by a pervasive sense of individualism, as if faith can be lived out between God and me, as if the local congregation is largely just a filling station where we tank up on spirituality for the week, and we just happen to be doing it at the same time with a bunch of other people. If contented individualism is our version of the faith, then Jesus might pronounce a “woe” on us, too. The saints remind us of our interconnectedness, that God, in the end, wants us together, and that that life may begin now. I certainly witnessed that spirit in this congregation recently as we suffered five deaths in the past four weeks. People came together consistently to help the families in their grieving and contributed resources for food. These were our saints.

A sense of togetherness and mutual support is not, however, the primary place to which that the poor and the hungry and the mourning point us. Ultimately Jesus knows these people are blessed because they are most prone to understand the blessing of the cross. Those who are down and out now, those who are painfully aware of their worldly shortcomings are far more apt to comprehend that God is their only hope. They are the ones who will run to the hope of the cross, that will see in it God’s vindication of the hungry, the beaten, the despised.

In the long run, then, the power of God’s kingdom will not be up to us and our ability to “pull it off.” The saints of God surely play a part in it, for sure. Aware of our sinfulness, you and I are transformed by God’s grace and begin to grow into that future, but, bottom line, it is not we who bring about this utter reversal of things. That is God’s doing, and even in the darkest, bleakest, most forlorn corners of this world God can bring blessing.

The Irish rock band, U2, has a lyric in one of their songs about democracy that says, “It’s a place that has to be believed to be seen.” It is a protest song, but, as it turns out, that line is a perfect description for this kingdom—this great reversal—that Jesus brings about on the cross and to which the saints point. To be seen, it must be believed, and to be believed, it must be yearned for. We yearn for a world where the poor are given good things and the rich and the greedy—even if that means us—learn to do with less. We hunger for a world where those who strive for peace are vindicated and the voices who speak honesty and truth are heard above all the others. We long for a time when every deed of hatred and hurt is returned with an even great deed of love and forgiveness. That place, that time, must be believed to be seen, and we all know people who sadly, have died, who by the grace of God, saw this place and attempted, with their lives, to communicate it to us. They knew it had arrived in Jesus…but was also yet quite here.

Come to think of it, these people of the church don’t really need Google doodles, because they’ve already managed to doodle all over our lives. They believed in that place of the great reversal and they saw it, and so they doodled all kinds of kindness and charity and love. And often those doodles became masterpieces as the Lord grabbed their hand and began to move the pen along with them. They doodled this beauty right on into eternity.

And so, from the beginning, the followership of Jesus has wanted to remember these important works scrawled across the millennia as they have waited for the full picture to appear. That’s what this day is called: all saints. All the doodlers. And that includes not just the dead, but the living.

So, then…pick up your pen! Look to your neighbor. Look to the world. And, for all you’re your worth, keep doodling. God will make it beautiful.




Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.