Sunday, October 26, 2014

Reformation Sunday - October 26, 2014 (Matthew 22:34-46)

Back to the basics. That is one way to view the Reformation movement that Martin Luther and his fellow reformers, including his wife, Katie, began in the early 1500s. Martin Luther looked at the church of his day—a church that seemed to be entrenched in all kinds of rules about how God’s grace works, a church with a structure and format so convoluted that the ordinary person had a difficult time relating to a loving God—and he decided it was time to get back to the basics, because it was important that people relate to God’s love.

Granted, the Reformation turned out to be more than just an event for the church. There were a whole bunch of social and political pressures in Rome's declining empire that played into the upheaval that the Reformation brought about. Nevertheless, Luther saw his time as an opportunity for the church to look again at some of the core principles of the faith and his position as a priest and professor and his educated background gave him the opportunity to know what people were struggling with. His own challenges as a person of faith trying to be assured of God’s favor also helped give him a good bit of insight into what needed reforming.

95 Theses is a lot of basics...but still
Some of those basics that Martin Luther used to reform the church are still well known today. The biggie, of course, is that we are justified by grace through faith alone, apart from works of the law. This was the main one Luther arrived at early on as he read the New Testament and drove home over and over again in his teaching and writing. Luther really felt this was the core of it all, the belief on which the church stood or fell, the belief which should have completely invalidated many church practices in his day: that is, God’s gracious love in Jesus Christ is nothing we could ever deserve or earn on our own. It is not possible purchase or work for real estate in the kingdom of heaven. Rather, it is a free gift to each and every one of God’s children, granted once and forever in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You can see how that’s a basic belief: if Christ’s death on the cross is ultimately not really necessary because God still expects us to do something on our own, then Christ’s sacrifice was in vain.

Another one of the basics that Luther brought up was the importance of Scripture’s authority. That may seem rather obvious to you and me nowadays, but in Luther’s time the Bible was rather removed from the practice of Christian faith most ordinary folks. For one, it wasn’t printed their language. In Latin, it was something only the priests and monks could read and understand. Luther changed that by translating the Bible into German. With that, along with Gutenberg’s printing press, everyday people soon had access to the Scriptures. Furthermore, it wasn’t always clear that things the church taught and drew a hard line on had any basis in Scripture. So, Luther did a lot of housecleaning, and the tool he used was the Word of God. Seven sacraments, for example, got narrowed down to the basic two the Protestant Church has today. Since Scripture was silent about papal infallibility, Luther saw no more use for believing the Pope in Rome had the final say on everything. There were a few other basics that Luther tried to bring the church back to, some of which proved to be more controversial than others. To some degree, these are still the main, basic issues that Lutherans attempt to hold the church to today.

Interestingly enough, Jesus had also sought to bring people back to the basics, too, in his time. We see a prime example of that effort in the gospel lesson this morning. In the face of the Pharisees questions of theology and belief, who are trying to find something to fault him for, Jesus gives a simple but straightforward answer: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

In other words, these two commandments are the basics. Everything that was contained in the Jewish law code and the words of the prophets through the ages were in some way dependent on or in support of those two commands about a disposition toward and actions of love toward God and neighbor. The Pharisees, you see, liked to use that law and those prophets’ words as weapons as they hurled them at their opponents or as walls against people who they viewed as unclean. Jesus very quickly reminds them that the foundation of their entire religious system was really about loving God with every fiber of your being and loving other people as you love yourself. That is, everything the people of God are about should really come down to these two related commandments about love. One of them involves a vertical dimension—from God to us—and the other a horizontal one that unites us with the people around us.

The Pharisees gather...
Interestingly enough, this is the final encounter Jesus has with the Pharisees and the scribes. The last little argument that Jesus has here involves his identity as the son of David and Messiah. The Pharisees had essentially denied that anyone could ever be greater than King David, their ancestor. Jesus, however, uses Scripture to prove that a Messiah would come that would be even more “anointed with the Spirit” than David was. Again, those were the basics: that a Messiah would arrive who was God’s own son and that that God was concerned about a relationship based on love more than anything else.

As it happens, love really becomes the centerpiece of Jesus’ life and witness, and not the kind of love that is based on emotions or dispositions toward others. It is a love that stoops to serve. It is a love that reaches out to the other. It is a love which risks alienation and death, a love that Jesus eventually demonstrates in his death on the cross, the perfect but painful intersection of a vertical dimension and a horizontal one. The basic of all basics the cross of Jesus. That is where we come to understand the depth of God’s great love for us and the kind of relationship God calls us to extend to our neighbor. That is where Pharisees and outcasts alike all come to terms with their sinfulness and their shortcomings but also God’s gracious forgiveness and desire to include everyone in his kingdom.

The church should really always be about the basics, if you think about it. In fact, when we start going too far past them and adding things on to the mission of Christ’s Church is when we start to get in trouble. When the church, for example, gets aligned too closely with certain political or social agendas as it did even in Luther’s day, then the church can become just a tool for certain powers. When the church becomes too mired in rules of religious purity, as if following Christ is only about ticking off boxes and chiefly avoiding certain behaviors then we risk becoming more like the self-righteous Pharisees.

When it comes right down to it, the church should be a place where these two commandments are at the center of everything we do and say, where an understanding of God’s love for us in Jesus leads us to a love for our neighbors, especially those who are different or distant from us. As I heard a pastor once say, the holiness of the church is not its perfection. The holiness of the church is its capacity to love. That is to say, what makes the church the church is not our ability to be morally perfect people, but rather our embodiment of the love Jesus has for people. And we can only learn how to love over and over again when we are constantly reflecting on who Jesus is and what he does.

That, in fact, is the focus of that second argument with the Pharisees in this morning’s text. The Pharisees struggle to explain Jesus’ relationship to King David and to God. I think many of us—church leaders, included—struggle to explain just who Jesus is to us and why we feel he has rescued us, and just what we feel he rescues us from. It has been said that Lutherans are great at demonstrating the gospel through their actions. We could probably, however, bone up on articulating that gospel in our words.

Some interesting research has come out recently from the Barna Group about faith of Millennials, those who were born between the years of 1984 and 2002. One extensive study discovered that of those in the Millennial generation who are still active in the Church today, a full 68% responded that “Jesus speaks to me in a personal and relevant way.” It was the single-highest response across the board. Of those who have dropped out of the church, only one-quarter claimed that. According to that study, then, developing that basic relationship with Christ was more important than anything else—more important than beliefs about the Bible, for example, or style of worship. Two of the other most important factors in the faith of Millennials still active in church? “Close relationships with an adult in the congregation or parish” and “an experience serving the poor.” It strikes me that right there in those three responses you see both dimensions of that love…vertical and horizontal.

A few months ago we were sitting down to eat supper and our older daughter, who is seven, asked to say the prayer. That is nothing out of the ordinary. They often take turns offering one of our usual rote table prayers, “God is great, God is good…” But that evening she folded her hands and offered up a completely original prayer, in her own words. I was flabbergasted by the beautiful pattern of it, and her boldness to say it. It was clear that she had learned to speak to God that way, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t from me. Someone in this congregation—a Sunday School teacher, a Cherub Choir director, someone—had taught my own daughter to speak to God with her own voice. Someone here is modeling how to love God with her heart, her soul, and her mind.

Now, I wouldn’t want to base all ministry on studies and surveys, but it is striking to me that some research points to what we, in some ways, already are doing and knowing. That is, well…the basics. Here we are, almost 1500 years into this Reformation movement, and you can still see the need for many of the Lutheran reformers’ main points. They are simply a re-telling of Jesus’ own lesson, that on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

In the middle of it all, of course, is that intersection of the two dimensions: developing that relationship with God through Christ so we may love with all our heart, and soul and mind, and strengthening our relationships of service and compassion with our neighbor. Therefore, in the Spirit of Luther’s reforms, let gather at that cross in the middle and recommit ourselves…to getting back to the basics.



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24A] - October 19, 2014 (Matthew 22:15-22)

It’s that time of the year again when we human beings are going to engage in what must be one of the most peculiar and uniquely human of all behaviors. Many of us are going invest a good bit of time and energy and even some hard-earned money to locate and obtain a specific variety of squash that we think fits a certain criteria we have in mind. In fact, some of us are even going to ride a wagon or a tractor out into a field that we don’t even own with the sole purpose of choosing one of these perfect squashes. We are going to buy that specific variety of squash, called a pumpkin, and we are not going to eat it. We are going to hollow that thing out and we’re going to carve a face in it. And then we’re going to put a candle in it so that the face lights up at night.

Regardless of what you believe about the origins of this Halloween practice, you have to admit it’s quite a preposterous one. Personally, I have no problem with making jack-o-lanterns. I think it’s a lot of fun and, in fact, the youth group will be doing it today. However, as human practices go, from start to finish, it’s pretty eccentric! If you ever are tempted to believe that humans are really not that different the rest of the animal world, that we’re just another organism inhabiting the galaxy, think about all these hollow, grinning-wide squash.

In fact, you can branch out from there quite easily, because we humans like to put our image and leave our mark on a lot of things. From graffiti art on a subway car to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, from cave drawings thousands of years old to computer avatars today—in art, poetry, or the craftsmanship of a decent and honest job, in the wisdom we impart to our young—human beings have always felt drawn to imbue the things they create with their own image. It’s one of those features we share in common with God. It’s a way we take control of our surroundings, make order from chaos. This is the way that we place our mark on the world and leave a legacy. And it is also a way we claim things as our own, for ourselves…not simply a goofy pumpkin with the lopsided smile, but things with far greater importance: This cave corner that keeps me safe. This cathedral. This city skyline.

This is likely how coins and other forms of money had come to be formed with the images and trademarks of emperors and queens and other people in power. It was a way for them to it to consolidate their power and to control the people. Almost as extraordinary as putting human faces on pumpkins, Caesar, in Jesus’ time, had stamped his own face on the denarius coin. So, then, every time goods and services exchanged hands it was like Caesar was there, saying “This is mine.” Every time one of the empire’s taxes came up, Caesar was there, proclaiming, “This is mine, too.”

The people of religion loathed it. Currency, especially with a human face on it, was the stuff of idolatry. It was easy to see, for one, how people could start to worship it, to give it more value than anything else. In fact, in addition to Caesar’s likeness, each coin also bore an inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of divine Augustus.” So it was no wonder that the Jewish authorities would have despised them so much. Simply the use of the money was a constant reminder of the Roman occupation, and the yearly census tax made it even worse. Each time that tax was paid with one of those coins, it felt like worship to a false god.

This is precisely why the Jewish religious leaders find this to be the perfect way to trap Jesus. If Jesus agrees to the payment of Caesar’s yearly tax, then he will become immediately unpopular with the crowds of ordinary folk who are following him. They, too, feel that Caesar’s face is everywhere, oppressing their livelihood, and this yearly tax (I know it’s hard to imagine) was deeply unpopular. It was another form of tribute; that is, a system whereby they handed over a portion of their livelihood in return for protection and the right to live. By consenting to that system he will be seen as just another one of the spineless leaders in hock to the Roman army trying to maintain the status quo. However, if Jesus agrees it is unlawful to pay the tax then he becomes a normal revolutionary, an upstart warmonger who wants to overthrow Rome. It will be much easier for the authorities to encircle him and label him as trouble.

Jesus’ response about paying the tax is remarkable. He manages to wiggle out of the trap by reminding them of something that everyone finds so easy to forget, or worse, deny. What’s more extraordinary and ingenious than the face of Caesar on a coin? Well, the fact that each one of us—each pumpkin-carver among us, each cave-wall scribbler, each money-minter—bears a mark on his or her very life. What’s more astonishing than an entire system of currency containing the image of the emperor who made it? The truth that each one of us human beings is minted in the image of our Creator. From Jesus’ point of view, it is no big deal at all to pay Caesar’s tribute with the money in our pockets once we remembers that we pay tribute of thanksgiving and service to God the Father each and every day with our lives. The currency of Caesar is copper, stone, and sword. Those are powerful, insofar as you want to build a city or an army. But the currency of the Creator are things like flesh and blood, intellect and language, creativity and morality and kindness. And imagine what those things can build.

To be reminded that we are created in God’s image is no small thing. I wonder if the Pharisees and Herodians had forgotten it, caught up, as they were, in fretting about how Caesar was laying claim to everything. Come to think of it, I’m not sure we really know what it means anymore to be made in God’s image.  We hear so many competing definitions of what it means to be human nowadays that our divine qualities get glossed over or downplayed. The brain is just one giant computer, programmed from birth, some say. Others tell us all our features of human-ness can just be explained by cold-hard science, as long as we have the time. More likely, we don’t hear these things; we just feel them. So many of us get the impression that we are just cogs in a giant machine, working, day in and day out, to pay the bills and make ends meet, worrying if we’ll have enough for retirement, slaving to consume and purchase things that leave us unfulfilled. Millions of others of us scrape by in the filthy slums of the world’s poorest communities, living on little more than a denarius a day. We see, we hear, we sense deep in our bones that we are just pawns of whichever cruel empire we have, that we are massed-produced squishy computers that can just be controlled and manipulated.

The reality, we must remember, is different. The reality is that God has carefully picked out and chosen each person who has ever walked on this earth, male and female, and said, “This one. This one is mine.” The reality is that each victim of Ebola who seems destined to become just another statistic, destined to become just another contagion for us to fear in the attention-hungry news cycle, bears the image of God. It means that Hannah Graham bore God’s image, just as whoever abused her and left her to die, though we are so prone to call such a person a monster.

But bearing God’s image does not just mean that we are precious or worthy. It means that we have the capacity re-present God in our very thoughts and actions and interact with creation in the same manner that God can. It means that as much as we participate in a world that will always try to convince us otherwise, we have been designed to reflect these qualities back to someone else in a way that contributes to the good, to praise someone other than ourselves.

A recent edition of the magazine Intelligent Life ran an article where they asked six leaders in very intellectual fields to answer a question: what’s is the point? Noted novelist and atheist Philip Pullman weighed in, as did a philosopher, a poet, a psychoanalyst and a reporter. Their articulate responses were all fairly interesting to read, very auspicious-sounding, full of wisdom and observation. Most compelling, however, was the simple four-word response that came from the biographer and obituarist Ann Wroe. She was the person among that list whose career essentially involves scouring the sum total of people’s life stories and finding within them some pattern and meaning. Ms. Wroe responded curtly, “The point is love.”

Yes, love is ultimately what we and no one else are able to render to God and creation. It was placed there in the beginning and it remains there still, like a small tea light in the bottom of a hollowed-out pumpkin. And even when our godlike image is so tarnished and broken, so demolished by sin and our self-serving behavior that we are not sure we are even able to love, not able to recognize the healing powers of our speech, our intellect, our creativity, much less lift it to God…then we remember that God become one of us in that human image. And because of that, we can see that even in death, even in utter suffering, we still bear the image of the divine. Even as we breathe our last and the story of our life comes to a close there is still opportunity to reflect God’s glory. Caesar’s army and tax may be powerful, but imagine all the force of justice and righteousness if our redeemed lives were offered in tribute each and every day to the Lord of heaven and earth because the point is love.

That, I believe, is what Jesus envisions as I see him flipping that coin back into the hands of the Pharisees. He isn’t all that impressed with the power of cash or currency, but rather with the beauty of our very beings offered in grateful devotion, each one of us, like a beautiful jack-o-lantern, who learned from Christ that the point was love, our light glowing from the inside and shining that smile of existence right back in praise of the one who carved it.

And he envisions that Creator gazing right back, with them lined up on the front porch of his creation, saying, “These. These beauties are mine.




Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22A] - October 5, 2014 (Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46)

I had a rough go with my backyard garden this year. Granted, that little 8’ x 8’ plot, which is bordered by basic landscaping timbers and situated in barely six hours of daily sunshine, has never been all that lush and productive, but I was always proud of it. I was proud of the ways in which the soil I had worked received the seeds and seedlings and nurtured decent growth. I was proud of the juicy tomatoes that I sliced in early August. In fact, I might have been guilty in previous seasons of taking periodic photos of its growth throughout the spring and summer and posting them on Facebook so everyone could see the fruits of my labor.

This year, however, I was not proud of it, and there was absolutely nothing worth taking a photo of. The half-dozen or so cucumbers we got looked like something grown in Chernobyl. Have you ever heard of someone having to stake sunflowers? Well, now you have. Not one batch of pesto could be made from the skimpy basil plants that eked out a yellowish existence, and many folks consider basil the easiest plant to grow. The place where I planted leeks gave way to copious stands of crabgrass, and even that seemed to throw in the towel by late July. And out of nowhere one random volunteer cornstalk grew up in the middle of the tomato vines.

 All in all, it was a disaster. In the past I’ve been pretty meticulous with it, but somewhere along the line this year I suppose I assumed the garden could just take its own course. Somewhere along the line I suppose I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need to be that involved…that, on its own and without any work from me, the garden would naturally produce the results I wanted. The truth is I am ashamed of that conclusion, and now, because of my neglect, between now and next spring I will have to rip out the termite-infested landscape timbers and scoop out all the old, tired soil, and start all over.

On a much grander and more complicated scale, that is the gist of the situation between God and God’s people over the years and years of their unfruitfulness. As the prophet Isaiah explains, God has taken great pains in planting his people as a vintner tends a vineyard. He has chosen the spot carefully in an area where they will get plenty of sunshine. He has removed all the stones from the soil so the roots can become established. It’s got a watchtower to prevent thieves from climbing in and a vat right in the middle where the grapes can be pressed. He expects it to produce grapes so that he can make wine, but instead he gets a bunch of crabgrass grapes and a random volunteer cornstalk.

It proves to be nothing but an embarrassment and a disaster. The vintner has no choice but to let it take its course and go to waste, since that’s essentially what had already happened anyway. He removes the protective landscape timbers and lets the wild weeds take over. What was supposed to be a special area of beauty and productivity among the rough hillside is allowed to return to ugly barrenness.

For Isaiah and the people of ancient Israel, this love-song for the vineyard becomes a picture of their unfaithfulness and a prophecy of God’s judgment. It becomes a poem about their unrighteousness and bloodshed despite God’s desire that they be a special people of justice and beauty. Eventually they will read in this prophecy the story of their descent into weedy chaos once the armies of Babylon run them over and cart them into exile. They will read how their inability to be people of righteousness and peace had grieved God to God’s core.

It’s a peculiar thing to consider, isn’t it: that God the Creator of the universe can’t even determine what crops up in the hearts of his people? On one hand, it might raise questions about God’s omnipotence and effectiveness. On the other hand it makes one ponder the great amount of free will God has turned over to humankind, the depth of the relationship God actually wants to cultivate in his creatures…and the joy God must get when they do. We are far more complex than plants, which turn their leaves to the sun and start growing up. We can turn in to ourselves and not even realize it—which is one definition of sin—and assume all along we’re growing the way we’re supposed to. Left to take our own course, we’ll put forth maybe a misshapen cucumber or two, but for the most part we’ll struggle to do even that. It will take enormous effort and sacrifice and suffering on God’s part to break into our hearts and our communities to turn us to him.

And that, my friends, is the basis for this parable that Jesus tells the Pharisees and chief priests as he comes out of the Temple in Jerusalem. Borrowing this vineyard imagery from their prophet Isaiah, Jesus explains how those whom God had left to tend the vineyard, those whom God had put in charge of helping God’s people produce their trademark righteousness and justice had turned wicked. As Jesus re-tells it, the problem lies not just in the vineyard itself, with all its crabgrass grapes and random cornstalks, but with those who are supposed to steward it. They repeatedly reject the landowner’s attempts to get involved from a distance. Slave after slave is sent to help with the harvest, but slave after slave is slaughtered. Prophet after prophet had been sent to assist God’s people in their production of God’s justice among the nations, in their role as special place of beauty and righteousness among the otherwise barren hills.

Eventually the landowner takes the final step and sends his own son, which, you understand, is tantamount to going there himself. The son is the heir to the vineyard. What his father own he owns, too. And still the tenants refuse the care and leadership of the landowner! They have grown so in-on-themselves, they are so overrun with greed and spite and jealousy, they are so misled into thinking that the vineyard belongs to them and not to the landowner that they kill the son, too.

I looked in several sources at what this parable is called. In the version we used this morning it is titled, “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.” They certainly play a major role, and in Jesus’ first telling it was clearly directed at the leadership of in the Temple. They were meant to hear themselves as those tenants. Another version called this parable “The Parable of the Vineyard,” a title which certainly highlights the role of God’s people in the analogy, but quite frankly isn’t that descriptive. Vineyards are featured in about a half-dozen parables.

artist unknown
One version, however, called this parable “The Parable of the Passion.” That one interests me the most. It takes the focus away from those terrible tenants and even away from the beloved vineyard and focuses it on that son, that son that comes as not just a representative of the landowner, but as blood of the landowner himself. It focuses on the length to which that landowner plans to go in order to have his vineyard produce what he wants it to. The vineyard will not just run its course, and neither will the wicked tenants just run theirs. For that vineyard to produce anything the landowner’s son will have to suffer and die.

This is the harsh reality that our sinfulness will require from a God who loves so passionately. As much as we would like to think humans are just naturally much as we like to believe that, given the right environment, the right upbringing, we’ll grow the way we’re created to, the truth is we grow wickedness. To paraphrase Martin Luther, we will never naturally, on our own accord, give ourselves over to the type of wholesale re-working that is needed to produce works of justice and compassion. God will need to get involved for that to happen. New life and new harvests will only come as a result of suffering. Bread will be broken. Blood will be shed. And a cross will need to be planted squarely on that barren hillside.

It has been quite the year for this congregation, this little vineyard. Within the span of nine months—to the day—we have had three congregational meetings. A senior pastor has been called, property has been purchased, and the call for another associate pastor has been considered. That’s just the ministry that has required congregational approval, according to the Constitution. Think of what else has gone on! Even as leadership has experienced major changes, the amount of ministry undertaken by our staff, our teams, our volunteers, our Council has hummed along with remarkable consistency.

Epiphany youth group at Shalom Farms, Oct 2013
As this congregation begins a new chapter, however, it will be imperative for us to remember one lesson from the Parable of the Passion. That is, fruitful ministry in a congregation or in an individual does not ultimately come from the people who are leading or even the people who are serving. Faithful ministry in a congregation or in an individual does not lie chiefly in the ingenuity or creativity of mission statements or the size of endowment contributions or the vitality of youth programs. All those may be nice, but fruitful ministry in any setting truly arises from the faith that God is deeply, deathly involved in what is going on here. Our life together is a result of someone loving us to death. God’s Son is the cornerstone. This Son is dying to forgive sins and mend relationships. This Son dying to plant in us the righteousness of his kingdom that we might share that with the world.

And—good news of good news, my friends of the vineyard—this Son is dying even to take our pitiful malformed cucumbers and random volunteer cornstalks and transform them through his passion into a tasty treat from the garden.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.