Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A] - January 19, 2014 (John 1:29-42)

photo credit: EPO

On a steep hill, high above the city of Rio de Janeiro stands a gigantic statue of Jesus Christ. I’ve never seen it in person, but like most of you I’ve seen countless photos of it. It’s a famous world landmark. Officially it’s called “Christ the Redeemer,” and I find it really quite breathtaking: he stands tall and straight, looming above the city with his arms completely outstretched. This week, it was in the news that lightning struck the statue right on the tip of the right hand, causing a whole finger of the concrete and sandstone Jesus to fall off. Apparently It’s not the first time lightning has struck Christ the Redeemer. In fact, it’s happened so many times they’ve installed lightning rods around him, but this is the first time the damage has been this significant. No worries: they’re going to be able to re-attach his finger. What is cool, however, is that the lightning strike itself was caught on camera—right at the moment where the big bolt of white is zigging down from the sky to touch Jesus, almost like he’s drawing it to himself— as if to remind us, once again, of his power.

It’s a fascinating image and moment, and one that fits perfectly from these scenes of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as he walks along the coastlines of Galilee and draws people toward him like he’s got some kind of electrical pull. We see him make his way through ordinary people’s lives, reminding people that God is powerful and on the move—he’s a roaming, roving Christ the Redeemer with that trademark wide embrace, reaching out and calling all people. 

John the Baptist bearing witness, Annebale Carracia
This same scene—that is, Jesus’ moving about and calling folks to follow him—occurs in every gospel, but in the gospel of John, it’s especially clear that Jesus’ ministry actually begins with John the Baptist. Jesus’ ministry and work on the stage of human history effectively starts when John, a popular but boisterous prophet who was a type of forerunner to Jesus loudly and points him out. Before Jesus has said or done anything in John’s gospel, John the Baptist has already started talking about him and telling those around him what Jesus is about.

That’s interesting, if you ask me: that before Jesus is noticed, even as he goes about in the towns and villages, someone else calls attention to him, someone else testifies to his presence and his identity. It’s what a prophet does, just as redeeming with outstretched arms is what a Savior does.

More importantly, notice that John the Baptist doesn’t mince words, doesn’t hem and haw when it comes to explaining who Jesus is and why he matters. Right off the bat John tells us four key things about him: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus somehow existed before John even though John seems to come first in timeline of history. Jesus brings the Holy Spirit, and Jesus is the Son of God. Bam! Kind of like a lightning strike! He leaves no doubt about who this Jesus is. This introduction and explanation of Jesus takes place over the course of two or three days. First John the Baptist is questioned as to whether he might be the Messiah. Instead, at his first opportunity, John finds Jesus and points to him. “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” he cries out, as if to urge his own disciples to leave and follow the Lord. Many old paintings depict John the Baptist with an elongated pointer finger because of how clearly he points and says, “Look!”

detail from "The Crucifixion" by Matthias Gruenewald (1512-1516)
Incidentally, the things John says happen to be some of the biggest issues of theology that the early church struggled to understand and communicate about Jesus. For example, it was critical very early on to explain that Jesus’ death somehow dealt with the world’s brokenness and estrangement from God, that his life of suffering and then his sacrificial death would save the world and set it free. His inseparable relationship with the very Spirit of God, which brought life to creation at the beginning of time and inspired the prophets, was another aspect of his identity that was important to point out. John also wants to make it clear that Jesus is not just another prophet, like himself. He is the very Son of God. As such, Jesus will be revealing parts of God’s nature that no one has ever before glimpsed. That’s a lot of information about Christ to cram in the first two days. For what it’s worth, John the Baptist’s claims about Jesus seem to get the job done. We are told John’s disciples leave him and begin following Jesus.

When the attention and action does finally shift from John to Jesus, however, things change rather abruptly. We go immediately from clear, definitive pronouncements to a very open and inquisitive approach to ministry. When John’s disciples begin following Jesus, he turns and asks them a fairly non-confrontational question, “What are you looking for?” or “What do you want?” When they say they want to know where he is staying, he invites them, drawing them in, “Come and see.” As it turns out, they not only take him up on the offer, but they stay throughout the whole day, even though it’s already late. Our translation says 4 o’clock in the afternoon. In the Greek it says, the tenth hour. The point is that they linger longer than one might expect. I imagine he spends time getting to know them, asking them questions, engaging them in dialogue. The impression they get is so favorable, so captivating, that they respond by bringing others to see him.

Jesus calls the first disciples
There is an important lesson for the church, for followers of Christ, in these first chapters where Christ is being made known and starting things off. On the one hand, we need to be like John the Baptist, clear and consistent about who Jesus is and why he matters. On the other hand, we need to be open and inviting and focused on relationship-building when we’re engaged in the ministries of Jesus. When it comes to talking and teaching about Christ, the Lamb of God, clarity and boldness is helpful for everyone. When we vacillate in our message or get wishy-washy in the task of pointing to him, the mission of his movement suffers. This is why I’m encouraged by some of what our new presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, has been saying. She wrote recently in The Lutheran, “If our life together consists primarily of being affirmed by God’s unconditional love and doing works of justice and charity without understanding that God has brought about the transformation of justified sinners through the costly grace of the crucified Christ, then we are not church.”[1]

However, when it comes to actually serving as Christ does and sharing that ministry with others, it is always better when we follow Jesus’ example and give things time, engage them in dialogue.  Find out what people are looking for, what they want, what their lives are in search of rather than quickly shoving down their throats what we think they need. Judgmentalism and abruptness will not serve us well. Like Jesus, we need to show patience. Demonstrate compassion and hospitality. Realize this might involve staying until the 10th hour with them, all the while providing an opening for the patience, compassion and hospitality he always shows us.

Slow as it may seem, Jesus shows us there is, in fact, electricity in this approach. Andrew and the other unnamed disciple are drawn in. Andrew then responds by going and getting his brother, Peter, who will go on to be a leader in the early church. It is still how the communion of Christ’s believers grows most effectively today, and how solid relationships of love and trust are built among God’s people. It’s why I tell people to visit a congregation at least four times before they decide you want to look elsewhere. This is why even things like short-term mission trips, as good as they are for getting us out of our comfort zones and providing service to communities that need it, can still be problematic. These kinds of interactions can come across as too abrupt and judgmental to those being served, unless great sensitivity is demonstrated.

I am thankful to say that, by and large, this kind of sensitivity and care is what we witnessed this past summer in the community we served in West Virginia. After the first couple of days of working in a day-camp like setting with the neighborhood kids, both our youth and I started to wonder what the point of the interaction was. Many of them wanted to be assigned other tasks of service, like building something or moving equipment. But, to give them credit, they stuck with it and got to form some relationships with them. Once some more meaningful dialogue started to occur between them and us—between the serving and the served—our youth began to witness some form of change in respect and interest level. The awkwardness of the first day’s “hellos” was replaced by outstretched arms giving hugs and wiping away tears when we left.

A church that can extend those arms of “Come and see” and a church that can, like John the Baptist, be clear about the person those arms are attached to, will be like a church who can stand atop a hill and let the storms of the world rage around us. We may lose a finger here or there, but God can re-attach it. Most importantly, though, we will be seen as a people who know the Redeemer of the world is in our midst, a people pointing to Jesus, the Lamb of God, whose arms are not just extended to call us to follow, but to suffer and die for us and take away the sin of the world. “Look!” the world will say, because it will be clear in our words and actions that God loves the world. It will be clear by the power of the Holy Spirit that this movement he has begun is still charged with that same merciful electricity.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “Getting to What Really Matters,” the Reverend Elizabeth Eaton, in The Lutheran, January 2014

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Epiphany of Our Lord - January 5, 2014 (Matthew 2:1-12)

Several years ago right after Christmas I found some of those automatic timers that can be hooked onto lamps. We have a couple of dark, but well-travelled corners in our house where it is helpful to have some light, but leaving the lamps on all the time runs up the electricity bill. I fixed the timers on a few of those lamps and tried to arrange it so they’d come on during the night and go off when it was daytime. It didn’t take Melinda and me too long to realize that those timers needlessly complicate things—at least the el-cheapo versions I had bought do. Melinda started to remark that the light is never on when she needs it and then when she tries to turn it on herself it won’t click on because the timer is in control. One night she was making her way up the stairs with Clare in her arms and the light right in front of her went out, inexplicably, leaving her in the dark. Exasperated, she hollered out, “Honey, your light just went out again.” Maybe I’m just no good with technology, but we ended up deciding that it’s still just easier to reach down and turn the lights on or off when you need them.

The magi—or the wise men, as our gospel text translates the word today—are drawn to the child Jesus by a strange light that turns on and off, inexplicably, in the sky above them. They don’t have control of it. Rather, it has control of them. It mystifies them, beginning somewhere in the East, in their country (or countries) of origin, luring them like the tornadoes lure the storm-trackers on the Weather Channel.

This strange starlight brings them from miles away, but they are mysterious figures, in and of themselves. We have come to call them wise men, or magi, or kings, but it unclear exactly who they are or who, if anyone, they represent. Most likely they were something akin to astrologers from the area of modern-day Iraq or Saudi Arabia, but even that is not certain. We have also long numbered them as three, just like the front of our bulletin does, but that’s only because three gifts are mentioned in the story. This could have been an entire entourage of star-trackers in a big middle eastern caravan.

Regardless of who or what these magi really are, their mysteriousness is part of the point. The mystique that surrounds their identity, even to this day and age, is exactly why Matthew wanted to make sure we knew this story. The point is that a group of total foreigners see an extraordinary star shining in the sky and are drawn to the place where it shuts off. After a brief detour to King Herod, during which all of Jerusalem gets worked into a tizzy, the wise men find the child Jesus and pay him homage with their gifts. Perhaps, as Martin Luther once suggested, the wise men went first to Jerusalem because it was the capital city, and where else would a king be born but near a royal palace? In this case, the royal city happens to be Bethlehem, not Jerusalem, which they discover after Herod’s own team of scholars discovers this passage from the prophet Micah. Once they start for Bethlehem, the star automatically clicks on again, and the wise men are filled with great joy. “Why did the star not take the wise men straight to Bethlehem without any necessity of consulting Scriptures?” Martin Luther asked. “Because God wanted to teach us that we should follow the Scriptures and not our own murky ideas.”[1]

Matthew makes it clear from the very beginning of his gospel message that all people will be drawn to this light. Even though Matthew firmly places Jesus within the lineage of Israel, tracing his pedigree all the way back to Abraham, the first people to pay Jesus homage and recognize his royalty are not even Jesus’ own people. All people may claim Christ as their king. It doesn’t matter how mysterious or exotic or plain or ordinary your background is.

"Adoration of the Magi" detail on a tapestry (1894)
What has drawn you to Jesus? What leads you to seek his company and the company of fellow seekers? Whether or not you are able to claim he has some authority in your life, what continues to bring you here on a regular basis? When we reflect on the wise men’s trek from afar, we realize that each of us has our own journey across life’s desert to come face to face with the Lord. What has been the star for you? What is that light in the dark hallway that helps you make your way? It may be Holy Scripture. It may be the words and presence of a particular person who shared God’s love. Or it may be the life of forgiveness and selfless care as it’s embodied by the community of believers, which was so evident in the way you surrounded the Nye family yesterday.

One may say that a church needs to be many things. It needs, for example, to be a center of worship and community service. It needs to be a place where children and adults can learn more about Scripture and their faith tradition and how to forgive and love others. Above all, the church needs to be a place where all people are continually drawn in communion with Jesus Christ so they may pay homage to him. Whether or not the congregation is named Epiphany, the church always needs to be aware of its epiphany duty: that is, the church needs to humbly keep in mind that we are still, at our core, a stable way-station that is accepting gifts for God from total strangers.

No congregation ever really exists for the sake of the people who have already joined, for the sake of the people whose ancestors are on the charter or who have been on the roll for generations. Any congregation’s existence, no matter how strong or weak their programs may be, is based on meeting those who’ve not yet come to faith or who are lingering on the fringes of it, those interactions that the Holy Spirit enables. The church exists to draw in those who are seeking, to be a first taste of the communion of saints for those who realize that they’re sinners, (of which I count myself one). Imagine the kind of God who gathers all of his people together not simply for their own sake, but for the sake of the world that his Son may be known! That’s the God those magi were seeking.

There is some anxiety within individual congregations and in denominations as a whole about declines in membership and activity and influence. Some church leaders have noted that this anxiety and sense of urgency can lead congregations to take too many measures of self-preservation—for example, prioritizing certain ministries or developing certain habits that keep members happy or comfortable over ones that reach out to newcomers and welcome them in. To be quite honest, I think any congregation can fall into this trap at just about any time, and, to complicate matters, it’s not always so clear-cut which ministries and programs are all about self-preservation and which ones really grow out of pure intentions to spread the word about Christ.

"Adoration of the Magi" by Paolo Verone (1573)
Whatever the scenario, one former Episcopal pastor, Barbara Brown Taylor, has wisely observed that “at least one reason for the urgency,” even when it ends up being about self-preservation, is because people know that “the church is the place of divine transformation. It is the place where people say yes both to God and to one another. The church is where Christ turns our water into wine.”[2] I would add: the church is where strangers from afar are made brothers and sisters of the one true King. After all, the wise men did go home by another way. They were transformed by what they encountered in that first epiphany way-station.

Remembering our epiphany duty and enabling these holy encounters is a mighty task for any congregation, and we can sense urgency in everything we do, but when we let it be Jesus who shines—not some nifty little gizmo or gadget ministry or some murky idea of our own—the light will not go out.

When all of us help each of us remember that it is chiefly Jesus who is being offered here for the sake of the community, for the sake of the world, then we will never really have to worry about our survival, and we will never have to be ashamed of what he calls us to do.

When we take to heart that every little interaction that each of us has, that every little word we say to each other can be a holy reflection of the gift in Jesus—or it can be like Herod’s scheming and turning people away—then we are taking seriously our task as church.

When we realize this congregation, like all the others, exists primarily for the sake of those who are still making their way through the wilderness, then, as the writer of Ephesians says, the “wisdom of God in its rich variety will be made known through us” to the entire universe.

And when we think that the little light of grace and glory goes blinking and fluttering inexplicably from time to time, it is not because Christ has left the building, or because we need to shout out, “Honey, your light has gone off again!” More often than not things have gone dark because we’ve taken our eyes off that Brightest and Best of the stars of the morning.





The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.              

[1] Martin Luther, “Herod,” in Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, ed. by Roland H. Bainton. P52
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The poured-out church,” in Christian Century. May 29, 2009