Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Fifth Sunday of Easter [Year A] - May 18, 2014 (Acts 7:55-60 and 1 Peter 2:2-10)

Today is Confirmation Sunday. For those of you who may be new to our Lutheran tradition, this is the day where our high school youth stand before the congregation and make public profession of their faith. For those of you who have been Lutheran since before you can remember…this is the day where our high school youth stand before the congregation and make public profession of their faith. It is not a graduation “into” adulthood in the church, although we Lutherans can often slip into that way of thinking. The technical term for confirmation is “affirmation of baptism,” because everything they and we say and do today is actually a response to the promises God made to them in their baptism—the promise to love you without reserve, the promise to forgive you of your sin through the mercy of Jesus Christ, the promise to be there for you at all times, even after you die.

Confirmands, when you were baptized, your parents and godparents made promises to raise them with the knowledge that God had said these things to you. And so now, today, we arrive at that point where you will stand before the congregation and say publicly, “These promises are for me.” Almost everything your parents and your congregation have done in fulfilling their end of the baptism promises was, in a sense, to get you ready for this moment when you will say “these are my people.” As Peter’s letter puts it this morning, today, in this moment, you’re agreeing with the belief that “once you were not a people, but now—through union with Christ in your baptism—you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” You’re agreeing to the belief that God’s grace has claimed you out of no merit of your own and set you free to serve him. That makes it a public profession of faith.

Is this the first time you’ve somehow publicly professed your faith in God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? I doubt it. In fact, in some way, shape or form we’ve watched you do it before, even though you may not have realized that’s what you were doing or that people were watching you while you did it. This may have been at a youth group event or in Sunday School or before a football game or when you’re just hanging with your friends. To be quite honest, every time we face this font or this cross on a Sunday morning and confess our sins or say a Creed out loud we are making some kind of public profession of faith.

Will today be the last time you’ll make public profession of your faith? Well, we certainly hope it isn’t. While it’s good to choose this day and make a big deal out of it, while it’s helpful to have a day when you’ll put on the white robe and the red boutonniere and stand in front of us and say, “I am one of this royal priesthood”—let’s get real for a minute—the real public professions of faith will come when you leave this place. When Monday comes, are people going to know where you’ve placed your trust and hope? The mercy you’ve been shown by this God—will you somehow show it to others? This unconditional love you’ve experienced from this God—will you practice it with others? Those are the public professions of faith that God empowers us all to make.

However, we need to be very careful here. As good as it is to stand up and say from time to time, “These are my people and this is my God,” none of this is never supposed to be about us. Our faith—no matter how strong or weak it is—is never the most important thing about this moment…or about any moment, for that matter. The key point of any profession of faith is not our bravery or what we’re doing but about what God is doing in the world. We can lift up the promises we make as we respond to God’s love and mercy, but our identity, our purpose, is always based in the promises God makes to us.

We see an extreme but prime example of how a public profession of faith gives glory to God and not to the person professing it this in our first lesson this morning. It’s one of Scripture’s most chilling and most daring witnesses to Christ. You can think of it as Stephen’s confirmation, that moment in his life when his witness to the love of God was more brilliant and bold than any other. To give you some background, Stephen was one of the church’s first deacons. (Incidentally, “deacon” is essentially another word for “diaconal minister,” which is our Christy Huffman’s official job title). Back in the old, old days of the church, a deacon was a special servant who brought food to and tended to the needs of those the church was serving, maybe a little like our LAMBs Basket and HHOPE volunteers. The Christian faith had grown to the point that they decided they needed to have some people set aside to do those specific tasks, lest it get too confusing. Stephen, however, was also very gifted in preaching the Word, and people started to listen to him so much that people who didn’t trust Jesus’ followers thought it would be better if he were silenced. Even though Stephen and the others preached and embodied God’s love for all people, they felt threatened by them because it would upset their hold on power. They brought him before a council and basically asked him to recant his faith.

"The Stoning of Saint Stephen" Rembrandt (1625)
Instead, Stephen put on a white robe and a red carnation boutonniere and recited the Apostles’ Creed.  Actually, he didn’t quite do that, but he stood up and recited a very eloquent description of his faith. At the end of it, his opponents get so angry that they stone him to death. Stephen becomes the first martyr of the Christian faith. His confirmation is his point of death. In dying, he points to the power of the God who claimed him and loved him and set him aside as deacon. Notice how even as he dies, as the stones fly in at his breaking body, he chooses to let God’s promises, rather than his own bravery, shine through. It is still about God and not about Stephen. “Lord,” he says, “do not hold this sin against them.” Right up to the end he chooses to emphasize God’s mercy, not his own courage.

The account of Stephen is profound enough right there, but what makes it even more profound is that we’re told one of the people there at Stephen’s stoning was a man named Saul. Saul hates the followers of Jesus and even approves of Stephen’s killing, but later, even after Stephen’s profession of faith, goes on to realize that he, too, is claimed by God in Christ and empowered to be a witness. Paul goes on to be one of the church’s greatest leaders and witnesses.

No one here hopes that you ever end up having the type of public profession of faith that Stephen does. No one here prays that you will have to undergo a painful, public death on account of your faith in God’s promises. However, we do hope that the Lord will lead you into situations where you can testify to his glory, where you will be able to say with actions and sometimes even with your words that you were once no person but now you are one of God’s people…that once you had no mercy, but in Christ you have all the mercy you’ll ever need. We pray that you will be strengthened in your faith in such a way that others—maybe even other Sauls—will not primarily see you but through you that God is a forgiving, loving God and will want to know more about this Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life.

The book One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the story of a little town named Macondo that sits somewhere in the remote swamps of Colombia, South America. At the beginning of the novel this isolated little town is an idyllic kind of place where everyone basically gets along. At one point, however, a strange insomnia plague sweeps through the town. For weeks on end, no one can sleep.  At first, the people of Macondo are kind of happy with it, because there was so much work that needed to get done and people were happy to do the work. They sit around and tell stories when they’re done with that.

However, after a while, they begin to realize that the lack of sleep was causing their memory to fade. Their brains are getting so fatigued—even though they really can’t feel it—that they are starting to forget things. Pretty soon, they realize they are starting to forget even the most basic things, like how to feed their livestock and how to repair things that got broken. The memory problem gets kind of dire and at some point one town resident realizes that unless they get over the insomnia disease, they are all going to forget even the most basic things they need to survive. They get worried, and so to help them live, to help them make sense of their surroundings as their memories deteriorate, they write down labels for everything. They also put up two signs put signs up in the town: “At the beginning of the road into the swamp they put up a sign that said MACONDO and another larger on one on the main street that said, GOD EXISTS.”[1]

Their memory was disappearing, their energy was waning, but the things they wanted to know and remember most—the things they thought would help them survive—were their location and that God did exist. It wouldn’t be always be obvious and discernable from looking around at the world that God exists, so they knew they’d need a reminder. And it’s true: when the stones of violence and general meanness are raining down, it’s hard to intuit that there is, in fact, a God.

So, while we don’t pray that you may face a stoning over your profession of faith, our prayer is that you will be one of those signs. We pray that with your life you will become one of those simple and profound sings that stands in the midst of the world…a world that works and plays so hard most of the time that it loses sight of its identity and that there is even a Creator of it. This world has some kind of insomnia, but we have come to remember that, in fact, there is one…and this God does not merely exist but also loves us and, in spite of our forgetfulness, makes us his people. In your actions and even your words, may you be given hundreds of opportunities to be another sign that proclaims not yourself, and not the purity of your own faith, but rather the God who gives us Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. P47

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Fourth Sunday of Easter [Year A] - May 11, 2014 (John 10:1-10)

“So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.’”

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that when most of us think of a gate, we think of something very different from what Jesus is talking about with the people of his time, whether they happen to be eager followers or fearsome detractors, who in this case happen to be the Pharisees. When people in our day and age (and in our socio-economic context) think of a gate, I imagine we think of something large and imposing—something with big iron bars or maybe a long wooden arm painted with orange and yellow reflecting paint. We think of something that excludes and denies admittance. That is to say, to most of us a gate is a stopping point, an awkward place where you either need to know the correct code so you can punch it in on the keypad or—better yet—someone on the inside who can wave you in. Regardless of the good kinds protection they offer, gates are essentially barriers that differentiate between those who are in and those who are out or those who have paid the proper parking fee and those who are still trying to figure out how much they owe. A gate is, after all, the defining feature of a gated community. So, when Jesus is talking to the Pharisees who are disagreeing with him and the disciples who are interested in him, is he saying those who follow him are members of a gated community?

Granted, there were plenty of gates and even gated communities in Jesus’ day, maybe even the kinds with large, imposing iron bars, but those are not the kinds of gates to which he is referring when he compares himself to being a gate. Jesus is not trying to say that he is primarily something that excludes or denies admittance or that he is the friend on the inside who has the power to wave people in or leave them out. Rather, the particular gate he is talking about is the gate to a sheepfold, a gate that was not very formidable and probably didn’t even have a lock on it. All it had to do was stay shut during the night or when the shepherd was busy doing something else so that the sheep wouldn’t wander aimlessly around and fall into danger. The gate that Jesus compares himself to was more a doorway than it was a barrier, a doorway that actually remained open most of the time and was shut only when—and here’s maybe the most important thing—all the sheep were inside.

In fact, we know that in the shepherding traditions of Jesus time different flocks were often kept together inside the same fold. That may seem strange to us, but it worked for them and conserved space and resources. Villages and communities housed their sheep together overnight and then often let them graze separately. Each morning when it was time for the sheep to be taken out to pasture, the gate would be opened and the various shepherds would stand out back from the fold a ways and call to their flock. Sheep could recognize their own shepherd’s voice and run away from ones they didn’t know. Eventually, the sheep would assemble around their correct shepherd for a day of grazing and resting among the open countryside. At night, the process would repeat itself in reverse, the sheep somewhat instinctively returning back to their fold, and the shepherd closing the gate after them. That was the pastoral image that Jesus listeners would have had when he told this parable.

Depending on which part of the teaching you focus on, Jesus sees himself as either the shepherd who opens that gate to let the sheep out to graze or the gate itself. Either way, it is this action of opening, releasing and gathering that Jesus relates to himself and his ministry. He sets himself in contrast, then, to the trapping, stealing, and scattering that others might try to do. Thieves and bandits are those who ignore the gate altogether and climb in over the side of the fold to grab or harm the sheep or perhaps strange shepherds whose voice the sheep don’t recognize. These harmful people pay no attention to the relationship between the shepherds and the sheep or the well-being of the sheep themselves. They do what they do out of a sense of their own gain.

Although Jesus never explicitly names them as such, he certainly insinuates that the Pharisees and other religious leaders of his time are the thieves and the bandits. These are the ones who fail to recognize that God is calling his people together through the ministry of Jesus, the Son. For whatever reason, they refuse to believe the signs that he performs and the lessons he teaches. Furthermore, they corrupt this tender relationship between shepherd and sheep and pillage the flock. Sadly, this was a real danger for the people of Israel. It is a real danger for God’s people at any time. They had known many shepherds throughout their history, and most of them had fallen into the thief and bandit category. Jesus sets himself up as a contrast to those previous leaders, and clearly as a contrast to those who are trying to silence that shepherd voice in his own age.

The bottom line of all this opening, releasing and gathering that Jesus, gate, leads to is the flourishing of the sheep—the flourishing of God’s people—and the way they flourish is to go through the gate into the hills and valleys where the shepherd leads them. God wants them to have an abundant life, and a gate that functions properly as a doorway and not a big, imposing barrier will do this.

It makes me think of how I learned to relate to my bawwab when I lived in Cairo. Every building, public and private, in Cairo has a bawwab, an Arabic word that roughly translates as “doorman.” Bawwabs are typically Muslim peasant men from the surrounding countryside who come and live at the door of the building they watch in the city. These posts are usually hereditary—they’ve been passed down from father to son for decades—and wholly unregulated by the government. They receive some cut of the rent and receive a place to sleep for free, usually a small bed right at the door.

Omr, my building's bawwab
In order to live somewhere and work somewhere one must develop a relationship with the building’s bawwab. My bawwab’s name was Omr, and it dawned on me about halfway through the year that I was only using Omr for about half of his bawwab’s function. You see, I thought he was there chiefly as a bouncer and nightwatchman. The apartment building had no security system other than him, and so I thought he was there to keep the wrong people from coming and doing harm. Little did I realize that Omr was actually my gate to the rest of the community on the street! As it turns out, bawwabs were also the ones who went out and created connections for you between the cleaners, the greengrocers, the handymen, if you needed one.

There was an intricate system of relationships along our corridor in downtown Cairo, and the key to knowing how to flourish there was using the bawwab as more than a barrier. It was using him as an open gate.

How often do we, as God’s flock, form Jesus as a barrier that walls us off from the world, keeping the undesirables out unless they can be waved in or as if we speak a certain code they need to know in order to belong? How often do we fall into the trap of viewing our own church buildings as fortresses designed to keep the flock safe and secure so that the only ministry can be done on the inside? Can we learn to see Jesus as a true bawwab who does protect and nourish us, who stands ready to offer his life for our eternal protection, but who also opens us up to form relationships with those in the world around us? For true security does not consist in being locked in the fold behind the gate. True security is being with the shepherd.

Jesus’ whole ministry and life, after all, can be summed up in those basic functions of a gate and shepherd: opening, releasing, and gathering. And it is all done so that we may have life abundantly. I was just fine when Omr was nothing but my door guard, throwing the latch each morning and checking guests’ credentials when they tried to come see me. However, I really began to live abundantly when I let Omr show me what he could do.

The same goes for Jesus, our gate. And he wants to show us what he can do. In fact, he is dying show us what he can do…opening, releasing, and gathering us to the shepherd. Jesus wants to throw open his arms in love on the cross and, in so doing, open the way to God, open the way to salvation, open the way to new life.

He wants to release us—release us from the sin and worry and anxieties that come from living as sheep in a terrifying world. He wants to release us from the fear of that which would do us harm, release us from the desire to lead ourselves or listen to any other voices that would lead us astray.

Foremost, he wants us to be gathered. Jesus wants us to be gathered us with all the flock that the Shepherd has called and is still calling. He wants to let us out into the abundant life where Jesus leads us, for that is precisely where we belong: together and with the Shepherd whose rod and staff will comfort us even in the darkest valley.

So, today, claim your membership in this gated community. There is no secret code you’ll need to know, no moving orange arm that only lifts when you pay the correct fee. In fact, there is no fee at all. This gate is no stopping point, but a going point…a friendly, determined bawwab….a simple door that our loving shepherd opens to lead us out…to lead us with others…to lead us in safety with the sound of his voice to a great and abundant life now and forever.



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.