Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Nativity of our Lord, Christmas Eve - December 24, 2015 (Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-20)

Tonight is a night of contrasts. It’s a night about things being put together that are total opposites, or that don’t really seem to match at all. They’re all over the place.

For example, everyone wants and almost needs tonight to be the same tonight as it is every year—the same old carols we sing in worship, the same old candles we light, the customary family recipes we’ve consumed before we got here. And yet we all also harbor an irrepressible sense that something unexpected is going to happen in the midst of it all, that there will be surprises beneath the tree tomorrow, new toys to play with, new toys to put together.

Tonight is all about contrasts. I’m talking about the fact that it is the dead of winter, we’ve been dreaming about a white Christmas for weeks now (or at least singing along with the radio about it). We’ll drink our Peppermint Lattes and our warm egg nogs, and yet here we are running the air conditioning and I’m wearing shorts under this robe. (OK…I’m kidding about the shorts).

Stark contrasts! You realize there are others, too, once you start thinking about it: like the fact that Christmas is touted over and over as the most wonderful time of the year, yet for many among us it is the loneliest, a time filled with sorrow and painful memories. Some of us claim we wish this night, this feeling, this spirit, could last a little longer, while others just want to get through it and hope it goes quickly.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds (Daniel Bonnell)
Tonight, though, all of those people are all in the same room together tonight to hear the same message. And it, too, is a message of contrasts, powerful, glaring contrasts. “The people who walked in darkness,” says the prophet Isaiah, “have seen a great light.” An Emperor takes an orderly census of his far-flung, mighty empire based in his thriving metropolis of Rome, and yet there is hardly room to squeeze in one more baby here on the fringes, in an old royal city that is now little more than a backwater. Shepherds, brown-collar workers ion one of the lowliest trades of the ancient era, quietly biding their night shift on the edge of town, suddenly find themselves surrounded by a huge choir of bright angels. A random field of sheep becomes the epicenter of the announcement that there will be peace on earth. And, of course, there is the greatest contrast of all: that the Lord of all, the Messiah, the King of Kings is nestled in a feedbox. It is a night of contrasts, and I’m not sure we can fully make sense of it. We are gathered here simply to marvel at it, worship it, and, like Mary, ponder them in our hearts.

It makes me ponder a particular contrast that caught my eye just the other day as I set up my sterling silver home communion set just inches away from a Chromebook laptop on a dresser top in the apartment room of one of our homebound members. What an altar to the Lord!  Granted, pastors are accustomed to these makeshift worship spaces when we make our visits, but the juxtaposition of these items really made me stop and think. We had just finished scrolling through photos on the Epiphany Facebook page she hadn’t seen before. I wasn’t sure what she’d think of them, but with each click her face would light up as if she were looking through a family photo album. On each photo she found one, two, sometimes three people she recognized.

“There’s Ken Reckenbeil…oh, and there’s Georgianna!...Is that really Taylor Williamson? She’s grown up so!”

“Yeah, she teaches Sunday School now,” I said.

After a few minutes of communing with the saints through digital media, she politely shut the computer down and asked for Communion of the sacramental kind. And seeming more like an angel to me, she then leaned in toward her stereo, which had been playing this whole time in the background, and turned up the volume. “For unto us a child is born. Unto us a Son is given…” I think we had reached one of her favorite parts of Handel’s Messiah, and soon the sounds of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and choir started to drown out the noisy dialogue and comings and goings of the people in the hall outside her room. She, the angel, and I, just a shepherd being visited…it occurred to me that beside this laptop and on top of this ordinary dresser is a perfectly suitable place to receive the Lord’s presence.

God apparently loves to work with contrasts. God is at home here, in our humble dwellings and our humble hearts, just has God was this night so long ago, gathering shepherds and angels, kings and mangers in one room. Things that we would never put together, especially in relationship with the divine, God is quite comfortable with.

However, the true message of this evening—the more important news of Christmas—is not that God simply likes contrasts or that God engineers these paradoxes all over the place. God goes one step further, beginning with this birth. God is going to switch places with these opposites. God isn’t just going to partner for a while with the lowly and the common. God is going to use them, infuse them, become them, be them, so that they may become like God.

The message of this night is that a great exchange is going to happen between the one who Created us and those he has created. Even though we are broken, even though we have taken what God has given and squandered it, even though we have misused our own lives and each other’s, God still decides to dwell among us and live alongside us. In Christ Jesus, God decides that humankind, in all its messiness, in all its tendencies to betray each other in all of it its fascination with other gods and other promises is worth saving and redeeming.

And to do so, God exchanges what we are for what God always is. “For to us a child is born,” Isaiah proclaims, “unto us a Son is given.” Not leant. Not just to look at. Not just to project our ideal selves upon, our dreams and hopes for the future. But, rather, given. Exchanged. Because God loves us. And in the end, the contrast of this exchange will humble us completely. For we will give him death. But in return he will give us life.

Maybe one of the best depictions of this Great Exchange, this great combining of contrasts, appears in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which turns 50 this year. The second-longest-running Christmas special of all-time, Charles Schutz’s Peanuts characters’ grappling with the commercialization of Christmas and the holiday’s true meaning broke barriers in 1965 just as it does today. Of course, a lot of attention gets placed on Linus’ famous speech where he boldly recites from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, something unheard of on mainstream TV.

However, the scene that most vividly portrays the Christmas message, the length to which God will go to overcome the contrast between heaven and earth, comes right before the final credits roll. After the pageant ends, of course, Charlie Brown brings his little pathetic Christmas tree outside to decorate it, but stops in his tracks when he notices that Snoopy’s over-the-top, garish doghouse decorations have already claimed first place in a contest. Disgusted and defeated, Charlie Brown skulks away, leaving the tree standing cold in the snow. The contrast couldn’t be more obvious. Then the pageant gang appears and, in a surprise move, takes all the decorations from Snoopy’s house and places them on the small tree. It’s grand and glorious at that point, and Snoopy’s house stands in the background, stripped bare, reminding us somewhat of Calvary.

When Isaiah says that the Son is given to us, he means that we receive him and all that he is—his forgiveness, his mercy, his love—and that we give him our brokenness, our rudeness, our failures. It means God looks at us as the bare, scrawny trees that we are and yet still bestows first prize of heaven upon us, cloaking us with glory, all because of Jesus.

Tonight is all about contrasts, isn’t it, then? Communion with the holy in the surroundings of the ordinary. Shepherds and angels. “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.” Highest heaven and lowest earth. God is quite at ease here, in our land of scrawny trees. Perhaps, then, we can learn to be so, too: at ease because God is with us. I suppose then we can announce to one and to all, to those who seem like us and those with whom we always seem to contrast, to those who have stirrings of great joy and those who are in great grief, those who get a white Christmas, and those who have to settle for a wet one: “Glory to God in the highest heaven AND on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

The Annunciation to the Shepherds (Nicoleas Berchem)


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year C] - December 20, 2015 (Luke 1:39-55)

Where would we be without the faith of Mary and Elizabeth?

It’s hard to say.  I’m sure that God would have found another way for the good news to break into human history to bring about his kingdom, but God didn’t have to: Mary and Elizabeth come through. Mary and Elizabeth, in a day and age that so much of the time overlooked women become the people through whom the Lord of grace makes his entrance. In a day and age when women were often given little voice, Mary and Elizabeth shout and sing and become examples of the power in believing…in believing that God might be up to something new…in believing that the miraculous might happen.

fresco at the Church of St. George
in Kurbinovo, Macedonia
Where would we be without the faith of Mary and Elizabeth? To begin with, look at Mary! She takes off to see Elizabeth up in the Judean hill country all by herself. Who does she think she is? Most historians tell us that people didn’t just up and travel unless they had some compelling cultural reason. And women would almost never do something so bold, especially while carrying a child! By going onto something like secluded bedrest for five months, Elizabeth had done the more socially and medically expected thing. Clearly Mary believes she must be blessed, that the baby she carries in her womb can ward off danger on the road.

And then look at Elizabeth! Immediately upon seeing Mary, she shouts out in joy. The child in her own womb kicks right when Mary enters in the house. Elizabeth overflows in her blessing of Mary. We can just see them, can’t we, throwing their arms up in the air and hugging each other over and over, happy to see each other, happy for new beginnings. Elizabeth becomes the first person in the story of Luke to call Jesus “Lord,” which is, interestingly enough, what Jesus will mainly be called after his resurrection. Here, right at the beginning, just as he does after his resurrection, Jesus is already bringing signs of new life. And Elizabeth is the first to notice it.

And then there was Mary’s big “yes” to the angel Gabriel in the first place. That’s the truly astounding part of this, what gets the whole ball rolling. What would we do without it? In contrast to Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah, Mary believes the messenger’s news and consents to the miracle of Jesus’ birth.

a painting of the Visitation at the church of El Sitio
in Suchitoto, El Salvador
Martin Luther had a very interesting take on the annunciation to Mary. He said there were really three miracles present here. First, there is the miracle that God and humankind would be joined in a child in the first place. That’s pretty amazing. Second, there is the miracle that Mary should conceive before she is married. However, neither of those miracles, Luther said, were a big deal for God. The Creator is able to bring about whatever the Creator wants to bring about. The third miracle is that Mary ever consented to this plan, and that’s the one with which Luther was most impressed. “Most amazing of all,” he says, “is that this maiden should credit the announcement that she, rather than some other virgin, had been chosen as the mother of God.”[1]
The faith of Mary and Elizabeth is where it all begins for all of us. The angels will eventually sing about peace for the whole Earth, but only because these two women display peace with God. God’s kingdom will eventually take up residence within every nation on earth, but only because this lowly, vulnerable soul decides not to let the duty fall to “some other virgin” and first lets God take up residence in her body.

And in spite of the danger this whole condition might put her in, we see more of Mary’s faith and foresight in the song she sings after Elizabeth blesses her. It’s clear that she is beginning to understand how far-reaching her decision will be: down the road all generations, not just Elizabeth, will call her blessed, which is something I’m doing this morning.

She sees a world where God has put everything to rights, where the people who are proud and who have everything and who cling to power are removed from everyone’s list of role models and those who are humble, weak, and lowly are lifted up as the examples to follow. She sings of a world where the hungry and the needy are satisfied with more than leftovers and where those who have a lot finally learn to live with less. We don’t typically think of it as a Christmas carol, but in many ways is the first one, and maybe the most essential. And it all begins with her recognition that even her little lowly, easily forgotten, first-century Jewish female soul can magnify the Lord.

Earlier this week I was visiting one of our homebound members with Holy Communion and I had chosen this lesson for us to speak together like the verses of a song. This particular woman suffers from macular degeneration, making it difficult for her to see, and before she could participate, she had her husband fetch her magnifying glass so she could read it. There before me was this kind, older woman—maybe like an Elizabeth, warmly welcoming me into her home—too feeble to join in worshipping with the congregation she so loves. She was reading Mary’s song with a magnifying glass, and it drove the point home for me in a fresh new way. That is, when Mary says that her soul can magnify the Lord, it’s like she’s saying that the almighty Creator of the universe will use Mary as a magnifying glass so that the whole world can read and understand the gospel.

Where would we be without Mary? Where would any of us be without any of God’s little magnifying glasses all around—those who have shined with the power of faith in spite of the odds, those who have borne Christ to us and enabled us to read how much God loves us. More often than we’d probably care to admit, it is the faith and belief of the lowly and the humble—the ones we’d least expect, the ordinary, the unspectacular, the rough that surrounds the diamonds—that pops up out of nowhere and bowls us over with grace.

It may sound corny, but I’ve noticed that the truth of Mary’s faith and the echoes of her song show up even in almost all of the secular stories and movies of our culture at this time of year. In one after the other, power is spoken and transmitted through the weak and overlooked characters rather than the super-talented or the super-human. None of our favorite Christmas movies never feature people like Superman or Batman or even (dare I say it?) Luke Skywalker. No, it’s the likes of Tiny Tim, Cindy-Lou Who, Rudolph, George Bailey from “It’s A Wonderful Life," Buddy the Elf...even Macaulay Culkin's character in Home Alone...who save the day. All of them are just variations of Mary, examples of how in God’s plan, it is the meek and marginalized who, despite the odds, become the entry point for grace…who become the voices to help restore justice…who become the unlikely people who speak a new reality into existence. Where would our culture’s Christmas be without these little versions of Mary, the magnifier?

Where would the world be without Mary and Elizabeth? Eventually Mary’s faith and Elizabeth’s blessing draw a straight line to the cross, for this new world where the mighty are brought low and the lowly are lifted up will not fully be brought about until Jesus shows us just how low the Almighty God will go in order to bring us new life. There we witness the most amazing miracle of all: that God’s own Son will grow up and then offer himself up for us to remember the promise of mercy.

Where would any of us be without the faith of others who have borne God’s presence for us, who have, through humility and surprise, through calm words or persistent pestering built up our own trust in God and presented us with the joy in believing? Who has helped you remember the power in faith? Who has been that magnifying glass who’s been fetched from the side of the room that person, who has approached you through the treacherous hill country of Judea, who has unexpectedly allowed you to understand and experience God’s grace in Jesus? Because those folks around us even now, more often than we probably care to admit. They were here at Jim Anderson’s funeral yesterday, for sure, milling around in Price Hall, offering words of grace, giving hope to his family and congregational family.

And they’re around us now, these echoes of Mary, giving delivering the Lord once again, telling us that, in spite of all we see, God’s exciting new day is here and that you—even little you—can proclaim it.

Visitation (Fra Angelico, 1434)


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Roland H. Bainton, ed., Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, Augsburg, MN, 1948 pp14-15

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The First Sunday of Advent [Year C] - November 29, 2015 (Mark 21:25-36)

For the second year in a row, the Martin family set up their Christmas tree on the weekend following Thanksgiving. Yes, this is something that’s a little difficult for this former Advent snob to admit. I grew up in a family that was somewhat strict about holding off on as much Christmas for as long as possible—but this is how I ended up changing my tune: Melinda and I looked at the December calendar and, after penciling in all of our obligations and the kids’ obligations, we realized there’d be no way to even have a tree unless we got it while it was still November.

It’s crazy! I don’t know if your Decembers are like this, but everything fills up so fast! Instead of letting the month roll out with some kind of normalcy and excitement, building to a big, mysterious finish, we find we have to start with the daily planner open at December 25 and work our way back to make sure we get everything in that we need to do and want to do. At one point I thought we were going to have to start scheduling our potty breaks.

I hope it does not sound like I’m complaining, because it really is wonderful to be healthy and active. It’s great to have these occasions for gathering and celebrating. They’re part of why this is such a beloved time of the year, but it’s kind of ironic that modern life has interfered so much with the spirit of anticipation of this season, that sense that time is suspended for a bit as we prepare ourselves for this news about Jesus. So, as it is, the Martins find themselves a little busier than usual, and some long-held practices about Advent and waiting have to be compromised. At some point Melinda and I just came to the realization that Jesus doesn’t really care when you put up your Christmas tree, or if you even put one up at all. And so even though it was 71 degrees and sunny yesterday and it felt like we could just have easily been going to the store to buy tomato plants, we ventured out to the local Christmas tree stand and wandered around the Frasier firs in, you know, our flip flops. It’ll probably be brown and crispy by December 25, but that’s OK.

No, Jesus doesn’t probably have too many opinions about the specifics of our decorating, but if he did, I’d bet he’d steer us away from evergreens. He’d want us to put up a fig tree in our homes—yes, a fig tree with little green leaf-buds just beginning to form at the end of each righteous branch. Instead of going to Costco for a fresh Frasier Fir or Target for a faux Frasier Fir, he’d say to head on over to Lowes for a bare-branched maple or cherry tree, something that would make you think of winter just finally coming to an end.

The symbolism of the evergreen is nice, of course. It makes us think of the continuation of life in the dead of winter, but with the arrival of Jesus, you see, a whole new world is coming.

All the time-worn decorations we haul out of the attic this time of year are fun for re-creating our familiar holiday atmospheres, but with the arrival of Christ, a whole new life is coming into existence.
All our traditions and customs become a way for us to mark time and call to mind the days of our childhood, but with the coming of the Son of Man, a whole new day is dawning. A newly-budding fig tree will be just perfect. It’s brown, bare limbs might look a little lifeless to us if it weren’t for the small burst of light green pushing out here and there, pointing with each little twig to sunnier and brighter times.

That is the message Jesus has for his disciples as he nears the end of his road in Jerusalem. This was the place of Israel’s glory and splendor. Everything from the gigantic Temple on Mount Zion to the hustle and bustle of the city marketplaces and the walls around the city proclaimed that. But, as Jesus makes clear even as they stand in the midst of that glory, God is going to bring about something completely new. It will be sunnier and brighter times.  This new creation will be so complete, so far-sweeping that the entire cosmos will be involved. Think you’re anticipating the release of the new Star Wars movie this Advent? You have no idea! This coming redemption is not just about clearing out or tearing down the Temple and convincing everyone to re-focus on the important things. Jesus explains that God intends to redeem the whole of creation. When his disciples anticipate his next arrival they will be anticipating something grand and powerful, an event that will be unmistakable to everyone who lives on earth.

These readings may seem a little out of place in terms of how we view this time of year, but really these words of Jesus speak exactly to where Christians find themselves all the time. That is, we’re waiting for Jesus. Our Savior, who came among us once already, preaching and healing and spreading the news of God’s kingdom, has been crucified and is now risen. We now expect the full, decisive conclusion to what God began in that resurrection of Jesus. It is justice and righteousness for all of God’s people. It is the end of war and death’s destruction. It is the full reclaiming of all people from sorrow and grief because God’s sacrifice of love on the cross will no longer be clouded by the lies of the evil one. It is the kingdom of God. This is what we are waiting for, and its arrival is neither totally predictable, like a little block on a daily planner that says, “December 25,” but neither is it completely unnoticeable as it approaches.

The stories in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia capture this spirit of anticipation brilliantly, and what the coming change means for everyone in the snowy kingdom. The children of the first book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy, have only recently arrived in this new world and they don’t really understand exactly who or what they’re anticipating, but they sense that the unfair, icy grip that winter has on the entire kingdom is already loosening. The color green has started to show up for the first time in ages. At one point, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver usher the children along through the snowy forest, explaining what they know about this great One who is arriving any minute to do battle with the evil White Queen. The children just figure that the one they are awaiting is an ordinary man, but they are surprised to find out the truth:

"Aslan a man!" said Mr. Beaver sternly. "Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don't you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion - the Lion, the great Lion."

"Ooh!" said Susan, "I'd thought he was a man. Is he - quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."

"That you will, dearie, and no mistake," said Mrs Beaver; "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly."

"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.

"Safe?" said Mr Beaver; "don't you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."

"I'm longing to see him," said Peter, "even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point."[1]

The children tell it like it is: we wait for the arrival of one who makes us feel a mixture of fright and desire, one who is never really safe, but always good. Christ brings fright to those who are committed to the same-old, same-old ways of this world as they cycle over and over, fright to everyone who gives in to complacency with the current world’s systems of injustice and definitions of power. But Christ’s advent brings joy to anyone who has tasted pain and regret, anyone who has faith God’s creation was designed to be better than this. Christ is unsafe for anyone who thinks that no change will be needed from them to receive this new kingdom, unsafe to all who believe whatever’s coming won’t cause us all to live differently than we do now. But Jesus our redeemer is also good to the core because we know he is the Son who lays down his life for others. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” he reminds us, “but his word—the word about God’s eternal love—will never pass away.”

And so we wait, my friends, realizing each gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation we see is a bud on the tree of this new kingdom. We wait, confident that every story we hear where someone’s sacrifice leads to another’s joy and life means that he is one step closer. We stay alert, knowing that each can of food collected and distributed at LAMB’s Basket, each board nailed together through Habitat for Humanity, each meal provided for homeless Veterans through Liberation House is a step towards receiving his kingdom.

Yesterday I dropped in on the women here who assemble quilts for distribution through Lutheran World Relief. Normally they meet and work in Price Hall where they can really spread out, but they were displaced to another room in our building because we were hosting a funeral for a member of the expatriate Liberian community, a pastor who had died rather suddenly, leaving a young family and many bereaved friends and relatives. As I visited with the quilters, this little metal tool—no bigger than the end of your thumb—lying on the table next to the fabric they were stitching caught my eye. I picked it up, perplexed.

“What is this thing?” I asked them.
“It’s a needle-threader!” they responded.

“How does it work?” I asked.
And they showed me.

My friends, each little needle threaded and stitch sewn in those quilts is a way these women are waiting for our king’s arrival. It was a striking contrast: the sharp, disturbing sounds of grief as the mourners wailed for the coming of this new world in the same building as those working to hasten it. Curious, I later Googled, “Liberia,” “Lutheran World Relief,” and “quilt.” Sure enough, it is very likely some of those quilts will likely make it to someone in Liberia, just like some did in the mid-90s, send to alleviate some of the suffering of that country’s civil war.

The times are crazy. We live in busy, burdened blocks of time which often leave with a sense that it controls us. Too bad our Frasier Fir is already in the stand. I might try to return it for that fig tree, something that will remind me that as one of the redeemed children of God, no matter how much time controls me, I am still held in the hands of the One who controls all time. We are all held by the one who has died and is risen for us, the unsafe but good One who is bringing a bright new day for us…any…minute!


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Christ the King [Year B] - November 22, 2015 (John 18:33-37)

The first time they tried to catch him he was just a baby. They sent armies—men with swords and probably torches—in order to hunt him down, killing indiscriminately anyone who matched his description. His crime, if you could call it that, was simply that is birth was inconvenient to some. It’s hard to believe the armies would come after him before he could barely speak, but the word had already gotten out that he was some kind of a threat. In fact, he didn’t need to be able to say a word at all because he himself was the truth. But, being born into dark and risky times, the truth immediately had to flee.

Matthew tells us all about it, about how the father was warned in a dream to leave for Egypt in order to escape the slaughter. He does so, scurrying and hurrying his frightened family out of town while it was still night. They cross the border and, as far as we know, were welcomed in a foreign land for a number of years.

So, you see, the child who was born to give us refuge became first a refugee himself. The child who was born to rule over every land first knew the vulnerability of having no land. The one born to give freedom, began his life on earth captive to fear. That was the first time they tried to catch him, but he got away.

The next time that they tried to catch him he was preaching in the synagogue in his own hometown. There were no armies this time, but instead angry townspeople—probably some of the people who knew him best. There were no swords and torches, either, but a cliff at the edge of town they wanted to hurl him over like their ancestors had done to some of the prophets.

This time his crime (if you may call it that), was preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed. It was suggesting that God’s kingdom was breaking in. The people in the synagogue recognized those words from their Scriptures, but in their judgment he was speaking them dishonestly. He came speaking truth, but the people did not want to have it.

Jesus is in the synagogue at Nazareth
Luke tells us about this episode, how the people stand there, not believing their ears, and wanting him to perform some signs of wonder. If he really is who he implies that he is—that is, the one who brings God’s kingdom—they want to see examples of it right there in Nazareth. To their minds, the things he had done in Capernaum and in the other towns—the healings, the powerful teachings, for example—do not really mean anything until they are duplicated here.

But he does not humor them. Instead, he takes the opportunity to remind them that God’s kingdom does not have national boundaries, that God’s kingdom has always had a habit of occasionally breaking in among foreign people, that God’s truth and grace is often witnessed by people beyond the margins, by those who speak other tongues. And he gives them examples to underscore this truth, examples they would have known: “Remember how the prophet Elijah was sent to the widow way out at Zarephath, and how the Lord did a miracle there? And what about Naaman, the Syrian,” he says, “who was cleansed by the River Jordan at a time when there were plenty of lepers in Israel who could have used a good healing? None of them were our people, were they?”

It’s the truth, but all this does is make them enraged. They rise up against him and drive him to the edge of the cliff. No more of that truth! That was the second time they tried to catch him, but again, he somehow got away.

There were a few other times they tried to catch him. It is mainly John who tells us about those. For example, once a crowd tried to capture him in order to make him king because they were so happy with the way he multiplied bread. The other times, however, he was viewed as an outlaw because the religious authorities didn’t trust his take on the truth even though he told them knowing the truth would make them free. It was the truth about God’s love for the world and the truth about their sin. It was the truth that the Father of the universe was somehow present and active in the life of this one man. It seemed less and less possible that any of them would ever see that, and so they conspire to catch him, to lay their hands on him and do away with him.

"What is Truth. Christ and Pilate" (Nikolai Ge, 1890)
Eventually they succeed. The people capture him and bring him before the leading authorities, and he doesn’t get away. Thinking that swords and torches will be needed they come armed to the hilt, but little do they know that he will remain defenseless. He will remain completely defenseless except for one thing, that one thing he’d had from the beginning: the truth. He holds in his power the truth about God’s almighty love and forgiveness and the truth about their brokenness. As it turns out, that is all that he’ll need to respond to their false accusations and their fear of his agenda.

The representative of the occupying Roman power, Pontius Pilate, is left to question him in his headquarters in Jerusalem and there we see in stark relief just how different these two kingdoms are. The one that Pilate embodies—that is, the one that Pilate and all the Herods and Pharaohs and chief priests and Nazareth and townspeople are party to—is the one that uses swords and torches and violence and bombs and drones and boundaries to influence people and bring them under control. These kingdoms occasionally bring peace and justice, occasionally grant freedom to the captives and hope to the poor, but overall they operate in a world that is broken and afraid and doesn’t always know how to admit it, that they’re methods are incomplete.

The kingdom Jesus lifts up, the one he has represented since he was just a little child, operates according to God’s love. Like God’s mercy, it has no real boundaries, but is always fluctuating, always growing, albeit sometimes with painful slowness. Like God’s compassion, Jesus’ kingdom will always be reaching to pull more people in, rather than push people out.

And that basically sums it up. We could go on, but clearly time with Pilate is running out. The people want this whole episode over, just as they’ve wanted it over ever since Jesus began preaching about it. The truth is too much. They don’t like it. They don’t believe it, and so they do what they know always silences the truth. They nail this King of the Jews to a cross.

Except…it doesn’t silence it this time. This time God changes the course of history, raising up this man and making him victorious over all those attempts to push him out. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus returns, he speaks and preaches a little more to his disciples, and then sends them the Holy Spirit before returning to the place where he began at the foundation of the earth, robed in majesty, and girded with strength at the right hand of his Father.

We are told that we will see him again, in all his glory, and when that time comes, it will be his turn to capture us and all of God’s people. At that point it won’t be about us getting a hold of the truth, but about the truth finally getting a hold on us. The full splendor of God’s glory will spread over all of the universe, and things—all actions, all intentions—will be named for what they are.

In the meantime, the community which he has claimed for himself through the blood of his cross will feel the tension of living in these two kingdoms we see in opposition in Jerusalem—the one Pilate represents and the one brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the meantime, we get to participate in his Risen life which means we will have the opportunity to see him still among us, to remember him standing in weakness before Pilate. We will have the opportunity to remember him, for example, as a child refugee crossing borders in the night, to remember him graciously pronouncing God’s grace to the poor and the captive against the will of his home people.

In this meantime, as one kingdom slowly crumbles and the risen one takes over, we get to testify to the truth that we, too, follow a religious extremist—one who demonstrates love and peacefulness to the extreme, one whose love knows no boundaries, not even the boundary of our death.

In these mean times, let us then to testify to his truth with Word and Water, with morsel of bread and sip of wine, with service to our neighbor and peace to our enemies…the truth that despite the terrorism and despite the poverty, that despite the sorrow and despite our sin, that this Jesus the Crucified really is the King.

And that, because of his love, God will not ever let us get away.




Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 33B/Proper 28B] - November 15, 2015 (Mark 13:1-8)

The world as we know it is coming to an end!

That was the cry of many people across our region just earlier this month. The news was not altogether unexpected, and some had been reluctantly anticipating a change for years, but it was still hard to comprehend that such an illustrious era was in its final days. When it was officially made public, a mixture of shock and respectful thanksgiving flowed throughout the land, followed by substantial worry about what would lie ahead: Frank Beamer had announced his retirement.

The world as we know it is coming to an end! That, too, is the underlying subtext of the debate we are now treated to every November when the supposed “War on Christmas” heats up. Whether it involves the decorations on coffee cups or the political correctness of seasonal greetings, or the placement of nativity scenes on public property, the discussion about Christmas’s place in current culture is really about mourning the loss of privileged status. For decades the Church held a prominence in American culture that seemed to go uncontested. As people in society become less apt to identify with a particular religion, as many congregations continue decline in membership and vitality, those of Christian faith start to feel as if some kind of world is ending...and so we argue about Christmas. There is substantial worry about what lies ahead, for sure, and an anxiety as we shift and adjust to the demands of a new time.

The world as we know it is coming to an end! There were already plenty of examples in the news about how the world order is creaking and straining under the rise of religious extremism, but sadly at least two more were added (that we heard about) in the last three days. Deadly attacks in Beirut and Paris, carried out by the extremist group ISIS, have left hundreds dead and injured. Hundreds of thousands of refugees who are fleeing similar acts that happen every day in Syria and northern Iraq stand stranded at the borders of Europe and other countries. Millions more across the world, filled with anxiety about issues of security are wondering, if not exactly with these precise words, “Is the world as we know it coming to an end?”

A reconstructed model of the temple at the time of Jesus
It is helpful in times like these to pause for a moment and realize that these are not the first times this question has been wondered, and we are far from the first to ask it. Jesus himself gave warning to his disciples as they marveled at the structure and size of the Temple in Jerusalem that they, too, would live through times when it would feel the world was coming to an end. There would be wars and rumors of wars and a type of pandemonium would ensue. Even the Temple in Jerusalem would be torn down.

When Jesus says this to his disciples, they must have thought he was exaggerating. The Temple in Jerusalem was humongous. It was very likely the largest main-made structure his country-bumpkin disciples had ever seen. In fact, Herod’s newly-renovated and expanded masterpiece might well have been considered one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world. And the Temple did not just loom large physically. It was near and dear to the hearts of many. Because the Jewish people understood the Temple to be the place on earth where God actually dwelt, it was revered emotionally and spiritually. Although it had already fallen once, back in the days when the Babylonian army rolled through, to hear Jesus say that it would fall one day was still unimaginable. The stones, themselves, were too large to imagine as crumbled. If it happened, it would mean God would have nowhere left to dwell. And that could only mean that the world as they knew it was ending.

As Jesus’ words about the destruction of the Temple sink in, the group of disciples walks over to the Mount of Olives and we hear in their questions to Jesus some of the most commons human responses that arise from terror and anxiety and concern that our sense of security is under attack.  For example, Peter, James, John and Andrew immediately want to know when it will all occur. Being able to pinpoint an exact time and map out a precise schedule for how events will unfold does a lot to calm fears. Isn’t that true about everything—What’s the semester going to bring? When will I meet my future spouse? When will the doctors know the results of the latest scan? If Jesus himself is suggesting that the times will become turbulent, we can understand the disciples’ desire to have some details.

The Fall of the Jerusalem Temple (Francesco Hayez)
The second thing the disciples wonder as they sit back overlooking the Temple is what the specific signs will be. This is crucial, for if you aren’t able to know the specific time that things will change, then the second best is to know what to see in order to anticipate living differently. Or—as in the case of certain military groups that have an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world ideology—if you are privy to the precise signs, you can lead people astray and attempt to manipulate world events and cause terror in order to bring about the signs that supposedly indicate a change in your favor.

It’s all puzzling stuff, and I don’t know what you’ve noticed, but I’ve found, generally-speaking, that peoples and groups that have relative power don’t like to talk about these topics as much. Maybe they consider the “end-of-the-world” scenarios passé or too Hollywood-y. Then again, if the times at hand benefit their well-being, overall, it would stand to reason that they really wouldn’t look for things to change, or they’d pooh-pooh people who clamor for it. Apocalyptic literature generally arises out of communities that are suffering mass oppression, those who look around them and see no hope and realize God is going to have to take charge from outside the system.

What we should really find interesting here, however—at least I do—is that Jesus does not give them direct answers to either of their questions. His concern with the fall of the Temple and the vague mention of conflict is less with when and what precisely will happen and more about how faithful people should live. Because the truth of the matter is that the world as we know it has been coming to an end ever since that first Good Friday, when we saw the depth of God’s love for the world. The truth of the matter is that although the Temple would fall, God has already decided to take up residence elsewhere: in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And again through the work of God’s Holy Spirit in the lives of the faithful on earth. Because of the cross of Jesus, we live in God’s new age, and death, as terrifying as it can be, does not have the final word. It is a new age, and evil, as often as it rattles its weapons and straps on its bomb vests, will not ultimately triumph.

The only clear instructions Jesus gives his disciples as they wonder and worry about the new times at hand is this: “Do not be led astray” and “Do not be alarmed.” As God’s people, our focus should not be on attempting to figure out precisely what is going to happen in the years ahead and more with wondering how we can respond to whatever happens in a Christlike way. As followers of Crucified and Risen One, our energies are better spent by serving our neighbor and taking part in the suffering of the world that with interpreting events and signs in order to see if they fit in some broad symbolic pattern or code.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
For a few, this call to remain unafraid and to involve ourselves in the world’s struggles will involve high profile acts of courage and even martyrdom. One example people like to remember is that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in World War II. He spoke out against the Nazi regime and got involved in a plot to take down Hitler, but was caught and then imprisoned in a concentration camp. You can hear his strong confidence in the ultimate triumph of God’s goodness in the words of our Hymn of the Day today, which he wrote just months before he was executed.

For others this calm fearlessness looks like taking part in large demonstrations of peaceful solidarity in support of others, a powerful example of which we saw on Friday night after the attacks in Paris. In spite of their grief, large numbers of crowds poured onto the streets in the dark, holding up simply-worded signs that Jesus himself might have written, each letter illuminating the night: NOT AFRAID.

For most of us, though, I imagine heeding Jesus’ words to not be afraid in world where Jesus’ grace is on the advance will look like small but no less meaningful sacrifices of time and talent that benefit our neighbors. It will look, I believe, like some of our HHOPE pantry and Vacation Bible School volunteers this summer. After learning through their outreach efforts that our congregation is immediately surrounded by several immigrant and underserved families,  they developed a plan to invite them and then transport them to Vacation Bible School this past July. They translated our VBS promotional materials into Spanish and distributed them with the food. Then Cecil Baecher and one of our college youth drove the church van and picked up three neighborhood kids every day. At first the young children were apprehensive to join in, but by mid-week they were practically running out of their houses and jumping in the van.  That following Saturday, when VBS had ended, one family drove in to pick up food at the pantry. The child in the car was upset that they weren’t coming to Bible School, but when he saw Cecil standing out directing traffic he exclaimed to his mom, “Look! There’s my friend! See? He’s waiting for me to come inside!”

NOT AFRAID…neither driver nor child.

Not afraid to reach out and form new friendships.

Not afraid to live into a new age of hope and promise under the guidance of a Risen Savior.

The writer to the Hebrews offers some direction this morning, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The world as we know it is coming to an end, God dwells even now with God’s people, and will bring everything—ev-er-y-thing—to a glorious conclusion.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

All Saints Day [Year B] - November 1, 2015 (John 11:32-44)

Halloween should always be on Saturday night.

With the pressure of a school night off, and with an extra hour from the time change, our streets were crawling with more kinds of characters deeper into the evening than they usually are. I saw Ironman, Batman, Superman, and Spiderman. There were witches, too, but more zombies than I think I’ve ever seen. Darth Vader was out and about (no doubt in anticipation of his movie’s release), but far outnumbered was he by white plastic-clad Stormtroopers that lurked around every corner. At one point I saw Jake from the Neverland Pirates, a particularly cute bumblebee and about twenty-two Elsas from Disney’s Frozen.

Halloween should always be on Saturday night. It just gives us more time to soak in this age-old tradition of mocking death and all the things of the dark.

Pity, then, I saw no Lazaruses, last evening, even with all that creativity. For if anyone could mock death, it would be him, and maybe his sisters, too. If anyone could thumb his nose at the fear of the dark, the zomb-i-fied stench of the closed-in tomb, it would be Lazarus, brought back from decay by Jesus’ word. Four days in the grave!? A Lazarus could mock death, for sure. He could tell it to be gone, for he knows the power of the resurrection and the life.

"Raising of Lazarus" Giotto
Just look at the scene that surrounds his burial cave! The drama is as intense as any episode of the Walking Dead! When this scene, which is the last of seven major signs, or miracles, in John’s gospel, was depicted in ancient art and iconography illustrators tried so hard to make sure the whole range of action was conveyed in one still scene. Often it took up one whole wall of a church fresco. The women are weeping over to one side, along with some of their sympathetic friends. Mary kneels, of course, her eyes on Jesus as she pleads. The by-standers are there with their sleeves held up to their noses to mask the odor. Jesus, typically in the center of these paintings, has his hands raised as if he is calling…and then Lazarus, out of the dark, is emerging from the tomb, bands of cloth already beginning to unravel from his body and face in the hands of yet other by-standers behind him.

It was the early church’s best stab at Halloween, if you will. A grotesque mockery of that shadowy valley that claims us all. And a reminder that in Jesus of Nazareth, the resurrection and the life, that valley of shadows has met its match.

But death is not always something we mock, is it, which is why Halloween feels so safe. You see, we’ve been in the hospital waiting rooms, the bedside vigils, we’ve conferred with the hospice nurses and cancer specialists. We’ve stood, too, by the gaping hole in the earth, or the cold, granite cubicle in the columbarium as we’ve said goodbye. We know death is not all zombies and goblins and vampires. In fact, it’s worse. It feels like a long Saturday night with no ending.

"The Raising of Lazarus after Rembrandt" (Vincent Van Gogh, 1890)
And the grief that goes with it? It’s exhausting. Worse than any squadron of Stormtroopers that lurk behind any corner, it overcomes us and overwhelms us when we least expect it, and we don’t know what to do with it, but we can’t usually mock it.

Ina piece in the New Yorker last week, Matthew Malady poignantly describes his emotions when he comes across a photo of his deceased mother on Google Street View, of all places. He explains how he breaks the monotony of too many hours behind a computer screen at his job by periodically checking out scenes from his past on this technology, devised by tech giant Google, that gives people a three-dimensional view of just about every street in the world.

One night, after many hours of writing, he decides, just before bed time, to look up the street he lived on in his late teens and which his mother lived in up until her sudden death two years before. He starts at the top of the street, working his way down past new picket fences and trees that are now taller than he remembered. When he gets to his old house, there is his mother, carrying a grocery bag and walking on the path that leads from the sidewalk to the front door. The Google car that was taking the photos of that street must have happened by at the exact minute his mother was coming home from shopping.

Immediately upon seeing her in those black slacks and floral print blouse, Malady experiences what he calls a “confluence of emotions…there was joy, certainly (Mom! I found you! Can you believe it?) but also deep, deep sadness. Heartbreak and hurt, curiosity and wonder, and seemingly everything in between.”[1] He grabs screen shots of the scene, knowing that eventually the Google car will make additional rounds and update the street view, wiping his mother’s memory away forever. He doesn’t say it, but he feels mocked, and Malady concludes by wondering how technology—things like simple Facebook posts and email reminders for flowers on Mother’s Day might complicates our grieving nowadays and he leaves the reader wondering whether if he reaches any so-called closure.

I feel that a similar non-conclusion could be reached by any one of those in our midst who is grieving someone today, especially some of the families of those printed on our bulletin. Death has scored another victory, it seems, and the only words left bouncing around in our head are a version of Mary’s resentful cry: “If something along the way had gone just a little differently, my loved one would not have died.”

It precisely in this horror and sorrow and regret that God has chosen to meet us and share our pain with us. When Jesus shows up at the tomb of Lazarus, he does not react some superhero from the Justice League, some soulless wizard that comes to save the day. He arrives and weeps. In the Greek, he is agitated or greatly disturbed by what he sees. In other words, even Jesus doesn’t first mock anything or anyone. He has compassion. Or anger. Or a complex confluence of both. And since we are coming to understand that God is the one behind everything Jesus does, we glimpse for a moment that God himself is as bothered by death as much as we are.

And as the bandages start to fall away from Lazarus’ body, we see that death itself has started to unravel. It turns out that for suffering and loss and grief and anything else that would try to separate God from God’s people, Jesus is really bad news. It may take a while to sense it, but He has come to be the resurrection and the life. Anytime he shows up, death will eventually begin to lose its grip on creation. Anything Jesus calls to eventually comes to life. Anywhere Jesus arrives becomes a place to make all things new. Anyone Jesus encounters is ultimately changed by his love.

This is the hope all the baptized have in Christ, as those who have been claimed by Jesus, as those who have been encountered by Jesus, as those whose name has been called out by the one who is seated on the throne. God has spoken, and God’s words are trustworthy and true. And although our silly mockery of death and decay may come to an end even after an especially long Halloween Saturday, and although death’s cruel mockery of us never seems to end, let us remember we wake and gather today in the light of another Sunday morning.

It was another Sunday morning when the women went to another tomb and they did not have to call into the darkness because he had already left it. By that point he had already conquered it and had emerged and was waiting for them, to call out their name. The raising of Lazarus is but a foretaste, you see, of that great new day that is coming when God’s selfless love in Jesus triumphs over all the world’s darkness.

Irish rock band U2 sings in one of their earliest songs words which I’ve always thought would serve as as a perfect hymn for All Saints Sunday:                         

October and the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear.
What do I care?

October and kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on and on.

Yes, because of the cross of Jesus, God goes on and on. His love never ends, and those who have died believing in his name rest in that promise.

My friends, we may dry our tears and uncover our noses, for the kingdoms of grief and sorrow fall. All Hallow’s Eve is finally ended, and we gather in the light of the resurrection. And with those who’ve gone before us we may wait in confidence that he will one day call our names into the dark and make all things new again: Jim, Brenna, Brenda, Kitty, Barbara, Fred, Russell, Harriett, Ron, Dennis, Cora, and while we’re at it, add to that number Samuel Lang Bolick. He may be small, but is is wet, too, his life just unfolding. All the saints…a whole host of characters who we may really aspire to be, the living and the dead, joined in Christ the victorious, who goes on and on.



Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “The Ghosts in our Machines” by Matthew J. X. Malady in The New Yorker. October 22, 2015