Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Year B] - January 25, 2015 (Mark 1:14-20)

So, I saw in the news this week that the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences has set the Doomsday Clock up two minutes so that it now reads three minutes to midnight. Supposedly, that’s a bad thing. The Doomsday Clock is a big, symbolic timepiece that certain nuclear scientists and environmentalists came up with during the Cold War to alert us all to how near we are to a second nuclear age or even world annihilation.

I know: real cheery concept, right?

To calculate where we are on the Doomsday Clock, the scientists take into consideration things like the proliferation of nuclear warheads, the military tensions between major world powers—and now they even include data on climate change—to estimate the world’s proximity to some kind of meltdown or age of destruction. On the clock, midnight symbolizes that terrible moment. We’re not really three literal minutes from destruction or whatever, but the idea is that things have gotten to the point that the world is supposedly nearer now than we have been in a long time.

Although the Cold War officially ended almost two and a half decades ago, some people apparently think the Doomsday Clock still has a purpose in getting our attention. Does it get yours? I’m not sure it gets mine, but it is an interesting concept. Even if I did buy into what it said, I’m pretty sure there is nothing I could do about it. If that day comes, I guess I’ll just be swept along with everyone else.

This concept of a certain time finally arriving—the nearness of big change and the start of a new era—is exactly the message Jesus brings once John the Baptist gets arrested and Jesus arrives back in Galilee from his baptism. It’s like God has pushed the minute hand to midnight, except this isn’t a Doomsday Clock that Jesus is holding up. In fact, it’s the total opposite. It’s a Good News Clock. With Jesus’ arrival, we’re talking about total world reconciliation, not total world obliteration. When Jesus shows up in Galilee, calling disciples to follow him, we’re looking at the arrival of a bright new future, not the end of it.

“The time is fulfilled,” Jesus proclaims, “and the kingdom of God has come near.”

Jesus calls his first disciples (mosaic, Ravenna, Italy)
With these uncomplicated words, Jesus begins his ministry. And they’re meant to get our attention…and, unlike the Doomsday Clock, we can do something in this time change. This news affects us on our level, down to the in-and-out of our daily lives. You and I, ordinary people that we may be, can join up. As New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright says, “the news what God has done in and through Jesus creates a whole new world, and we are invited into that world.”[1] The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.”

For first-century Jewish folks, and for the Christians that Mark and the other gospel writers were first addressing, this first announcement about the kingdom of God’s arrival would have been loaded with meaning. They would have heard Jesus’ words and immediately thought of the ancient prophet’s words and God’s coming reign of glory and power. That’s what a gospel was, to be sure. In our text it is exchangeable here for “good news.” Somewhat like a newspaper headline on the day after an election, a gospel was a general announcement about the reign of a new leader or emperor, a change in regimes. Announcing a gospel provided the one who heard the gospel the opportunity to change their loyalty, to surrender to the new ruler. So, when Jesus comes announcing the gospel about the nearness of God’s kingdom, then they would have understood it was time to align their lives with that new regime.

That might be one reason it’s so easy for Jesus to attract those first followers. Mark, who is the one telling this version of the story, likes to drive home that Andrew, Peter, James and John all respond immediately. There they are, just fishing with their dad, mending the nets, and…bam!...they leave everything to follow Jesus. Some Christian scholars suggest that in that day and age any young man would have jumped at the chance to be called into service with a rabbi. Since they were working as fishermen (the theory goes) we can assume that they weren’t accomplished enough in their study of the law to make the cut. Therefore, when Jesus the rabbi comes along and offers them a spot, they immediately seize the chance to follow, like it was a no-brainer. Other scholars claim that leaving their station by the fishing boats would have entailed a real sacrifice for them. Some recent archaeological findings suggest that fishermen were comfortable middle class folks. This might have been a profitable family business and a semi-respectable position in the community they were leaving behind.

I don’t think we’ll ever know the full of it. The fact remains that their call is immediate; they hear the word “gospel” and they perceive that they are being invited into a whole new world. That is, they sense the minute hand has hit the moment of God’s grace, and they go with it. Even if it does come across as very abrupt, the initial disciples give us a powerful, real life illustration of what it means to repent—change direction—and believe in the good news. It gives us an idea that the new age has finally come and that anyone may respond.

This is crux of the church’s life: to proclaim in word and sacrament that the new age has begun. It’s to point people to the fact that God, in Christ, is in charge, and that we all are invited to go with it. The church’s ministry, whether we’re talking about things we do as a group or as individuals in the world, is to bring to everyone’s attention the news of this gospel. “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.” Sometimes it will look like it’s not. The world will seem dark and doomsday-like, which reminds us that while the time has come for the kingdom to begin, the kingdom itself is not quite fully here. When times are difficult, God’s kingdom is more hidden, operating by stealth in many instances, but it is still near at hand. It doesn’t mean we turn a deaf ear to those who call for nuclear disarmament and care of the environment and the like, but we certainly operate out of a sense of hope and love, not fear.

Photo source unknown
When we start to wonder and doubt, it is important to remember that those first brave disciples were not always clued in, either. What begins so clearly and optimistically on the beach in Galilee quickly dissolves into the anguish of a hopeless Good Friday. But this is precisely how God’s kingdom likes to occur. Its grace forces and sneaks its way in to the brokenness of the world. God will not be frightened by the mess we make of things, or the mess we make of ourselves. Remember what precipitates Jesus’ announcement of the gospel? The arrest of his cousin John. Yes, each and every moment, as mundane or as frightening as they may seem, is a chance to proclaim that God is victorious, that Jesus is risen, and that the time has come to believe, to respond, to turn around and follow.

One of my good friends visits a Waffle House every Sunday morning before he goes into church. It’s basically intended as his alone time, a chance to have a quiet breakfast and morning devotion by himself before the fun craziness of church. Several months ago, the cook at the stovetop noticed my friend’s collar, and he walked over to my friend’s table to share that his sister had been diagnosed with cancer and was beginning treatments. Things didn’t look good, and the cook asked my friend to pray for her. So he did, and my friend asked some folks at church to include her in prayer, as well.

Last week my friend walked in for his quiet breakfast and saw the cook standing outside, and asked how Stella was doing. The cook shared that she had died right before Christmas. My friend expressed his sympathy and spoke with him for a minute. Later, as he went to settle up at the cash register, the waitress said that it had already been paid for, and the cook, behind the counter, gave him a wink.

To think that God’s kingdom would have occurred only if that sister had survived the cancer misses the point. Quite the contrary: that Waffle House cook recognized that God had come near in the presence of a stranger who willing to listen and express interest in her well-being, in the existence of a community who cares enough to remember her life. In fact, the 2nd grade Sunday school class here last Sunday was asked to put the Lord’s Prayer into their own words and one girl wrote “thy kingdom come” as “make my community more like heaven.” In some way, it was that day for that cook and my friend, standing on the sidewalk, and a meal of grace marked the occasion.

That is the call of a disciple, of one who heeds the gospel and repents and who believes our communities can be more like heaven precisely because Jesus has come. We may not know much about the credibility of this Doomsday Clock, but the Spirit gives us faith in a risen Lord Jesus. His time has started, and all may follow. Don’t let the drastic job change of those first followers trick you into thinking that the call to follow only comes in the form of major career or educational changes, although it often may. Jesus approaches each one of us, sometimes by the door of Waffle House, and bids us to pay attention to the new age that is at hand.

As a matter of fact, you may even have an opportunity to hear the good news and respond with your own life even before…tick, tick, tick…this sermon is over.



Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Baptism of Our Lord [Year B] - January 11, 2015 (Mark 1:4-11)

We live in a world where things can be holy.  Such a concept may not seem real to some, or terribly modern, but that doesn’t really matter. You can go back a long time and observe that humans have always sensed that certain things in this universe, things around them—tangible, visible things, things that actually take up space and time—have been visited by some divine presence. Such things are then holy, sacred, designated for use by God, who is the embodiment of holy.

For some folks, it is a stretch to even conceive of a God, a Creator, in the first place. You can see that it is even harder for many to comprehend that the Creator of all that is, the source of all life and energy, would descend to associate him or her or itself with certain objects, places, and people, especially considering how filthy objects, places, and people can be on this troubled planet. And yet, we have holy things, sacred moments, hallowed ground, and they command special attention, a turning aside.

That is, I as see it, one of the main issues at play in the tragic shootings in France this week. In the eyes of a violent few, the satirists of one publication routinely disregarded the holy things of another people by depicting something they hold to be sacred in image form, not to mention hurtful and insulting. Granted, the great majority of us do not believe that violent retaliation is the appropriate response to blasphemy, which is the term for doing something improper with things that are holy. But the fact still remains that, regardless of what a government policy is, and regardless of what the prevailing public opinion is about equality among people or the truth of religion, some people among us maintain that certain things have been set aside by God and are therefore holy, blessed, just as many believe the right to blaspheme it is also, somehow, holy.

There are no easy answers to this issue and other ones like it, which I fear are in our future, other than condemning violence when we can, speaking up for the innocent and oppressed, and comforting the grieving, but perhaps one way forward is to acknowledge and respect the presence of holiness among us, even if these things are nothing you personally would designate as holy, as something that God’s own self has touched or associated himself with.

It is worth noting, then, that when this man from Nazareth steps into the water in the Jordan River to be baptized by John, a holy moment is occurring. The divine, in all its glory, in all its total other-ness from creation, is associating itself with this particular figure, Jesus. The Creator, with all that power and splendor, is visiting those particular waters at that very ordinary moment. In fact, when Jesus comes up out of the water, he notices that the heavens are torn apart, which is a big cumulus clue that anything separating God from humans is being ripped away. Just as at the beginning of creation when chaos started to give way to order because God spoke right into the messy mix of it all, now God is descending again to say, “Enough of this separation. My holy will mix with your commonplace.”

We’ve probably all seen the heavens open up at some point. It doesn’t happen all that often, because the sky and the sun have to be just right, but occasionally the clouds part in such a way that only a little bit of sun streams through. When that happens, the beams of sunlight look a lot like a spotlight from God, or maybe even the bright, outstretched arm of the Creator. This is what I imagine occurs right over top of Jesus, right there in that river that separates the wilderness on one side and the Promised Land on the other. This tearing apart of the heavens is what happens right there as John the baptizer wades out into the muddy water, offering people a new beginning, a chance to pause, turn around, and look aside because God is moving in their midst. There are holy things to be revered.

The baptism of Jesus is one of those moments—and for Mark, the gospel-writer, it is THE moment—when God decides to get directly involved in creation, to sanctify the lives of humankind, to boldly declare as “blessed” the relative obscurity of human life. Who is this man? Where is he from? For as long as it has been around, the gospel has maintained this crazy thought: that God himself ripped the boundary between God’s heaven and God’s earth and entered human history in the life of a specific person.

This is important because the tendency is always to base an experience with God all on our ability to attain some spiritual nirvana, to tap into some divine wireless access point of our brain or tune into the right frequency. We acknowledge that crucial separation between us and God, but then make it all about us reaching in that direction. This is not the gospel. Ultimately, we learn that the truth is the other way around, beginning with Jesus’ baptism: we know God and experience the holy only because God first comes to us. Ultimately we only ever touch the divine because God showed up on the banks of the Jordan River about 2000 years ago over the life of this man from a backwater town about 40 miles to the north and effectively pointed to him and said, “Him. He is holy.”

As we learn, this will be Jesus’ mission: to make all humankind holy, each and every human life, especially the most forlorn and obscure. It will be a powerful thing that he does, full of vigor and might. He will address evil head-on. He will even be forceful at times, dealing in a strong and direct way with the powers and principalities that enslave and corrupt human beings, but he will never be violent. He will never avenge or need to be avenged because that is not how God will work in him. The Spirit descends on him like a dove, not a drone. He will demonstrate the unstoppable influence of love and peace when one offers his life as a ransom for many. Wherever he goes he will be like the heavens torn apart right there, with the holy otherness of God shining through. In him we will see that God’s holy kingdom belongs here on earth, too, not just in some realm we go to after we die. And through him, by the power of that same Spirit, we will be included in moments of his peaceful, powerful kingdom throughout our lives.

On their test last semester on the Lord’s Prayer, the confirmands were asked to describe a time in their life when they experienced God’s kingdom coming. Their responses were uplifting to read. They spoke of feeding the hungry and working with at-risk and special needs children. One said the kingdom of heaven was like the feeling she gets when she knows she can call her mom to come pick her up from a party where people are doing dangerous things. One confirmand answered, very perceptively, “Experiencing God’s kingdom can happen whether you realize it or not,” and a couple of others mentioned that they were not sure they ever had been a part of God’s kingdom. Quite frankly, that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it? That’s the miracle we see in Jesus’ baptism: that God’s holiness can pop up even in our murky lives, with our unclear vision and slippery grips.

And so this inauspicious Jordan River entrance is where God chooses to rip open the heavens and let his holiness descend. This man from Nazareth is the person God is designating as most holy, most blessed, most well-pleased. Sad to say, in our own messiness, in our own muddiness, we eventually reject him and blaspheme him and hang him out to die. Unable to handle holiness in such plain human attire, we reject it, we execute it. Like some of those confirmands are bold enough to admit, I don’t think we ever fully grasp that God’s holiness breaks in around us, and claims us as a part of it. In our brokenness, we never fully grasp that in Christ, each person bears the image of the divine. Each living being is a cartoon, if you will, of God the Maker. And each person, because of Christ’s appearance among us, can be an instance where the heavens open up and let the light of God shine through. That’s the real wonder of God’s grace.

Carrie Underwood, God love her, is on the radio with a new song. Over and over she sings “There must be something in the water.” If you listen, you can tell it’s a song about baptism, about the wonder of God’s grace, about the miracle of order being brought from chaos. Our response to Ms. Underwood this festival of our Lord’s baptism is that, yes, there is something in the water, even this old ordinary water. The something is Jesus, Son of God and holy Beloved, the Word, full of power and ready to change the world by even dying for it.

There is something in the water, and in his baptism he gives creation a fresh new beginning, free from its sin and chaos. In his death he claims you and he claims me and he claims each and every kind of person on this planet. And in our baptism, the public sign of that claiming, God bestows us with the same promise that his Father bestows on him: “You are my child.”

“You—yes you—can consider yourself sacred because you may show forth ME. My cross will be on your brow.”

Therefore, John the baptizer’s call rings ever true: Stop. Turn around, and look aside. Treat each other with love and respect. We live in a world where things—and people—can be holy.



Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Second Sunday of Christmas - January 4, 2015 (John 1:[1-9] 10-18)

I had it made this Christmas.

Normally I get all tied up with gift-giving, especially when it comes to my beloved Melinda. Either things don’t get shipped in time or I can’t figure out what she wants, or I can’t find the time to shop, but this year she just went ahead and bought the gift for me to give to her. It was a winter coat, an item which she needed. When the package came in the mail, she even opened it, tried the coat on in front of me, and said, “Why don’t you just get me this for Christmas?”

And I said, “Merry Christmas, honey!”

I tell you, I had it made this year. All the hard work done for me. Do you think I had the decency to wrap the gift, or even just put a bow on it?

That would be a ‘no.’ It sat there on a chair in our bedroom for about three weeks in the same brown box it arrived in.

Wrapping paper seems like such a meaningless, wasteful thing until the moment of the unwrapping. That’s the thing. The gift itself is nice—even when someone does all the hard work of getting it on your behalf—but how the gift is presented is important, too.

What the people of God have long understood and attempted with their lives to explain is that when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth, the wrapping is as important as the gift itself. Indeed, the wrapping, the presentation, is an indispensable part of the gift. What I mean is that the idea that God would descend to give himself to his own creation is monumental on its own. It’s a bit crazy down here, after all. We’ve got waterboarding and influenza and internet article comments. That God would choose to wrap himself up as a human being is the real miracle, the bold new step of love no one saw coming.

orthodox icon of Jesus, Christos
This is how John, the gospel-writer, wants to explain what we call the mystery of the incarnation. Luke tells us about the baby in the manger. John talks about the Word becoming flesh. Luke gives us a story to hear, with characters and music, so that we can paint a picture. John gives us poetry, with words and concepts, so that we can start making sense of who Jesus, theologically-speaking. And theologically-speaking, John says, Jesus is God wrapped up as a human being.

Granted, John is not so succinct as that. He begins by referring to Jesus as the Word of God. This Word that God uses to create everything was with God at the very beginning. We can go back and read Genesis and, regardless of where we each stand on our interpretation of the creation stories, we can all agree that God uses the power of speech—utterance—to bring things into existence. Even light, the first thing God makes, which eventually brings life to everything, was brought into existence by this Word of God.

People of faith have long been amazed and perplexed by all of that, but they at least have always understood that words that come from God are part of God just as your words, when they’re at their most honest, are part of you. Yet John wants to explain this a little more. He says that this divine speech—this moving power of God with all its wisdom and efficacy—is so near to whatever God is that when one talks about that Word of God, one is talking about God, too.

That’s why John says, “In the beginning the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Whatever path the philosophers and scholars and you and me conceive this Word of God to be, the the point that John is really driving at here is that that Word, that very stuff of God that was responsible for all this great creation—that became flesh and dwelt among us.

And I think we tend to forget this, or overlook the magnitude of it. As Lillian Daniel observes, we are all so prone to talk about God’s presence or God’s beauty in other aspects of creation—sunsets (that’s a favorite), or the ocean…nature…animals…even the interstellar cosmos…yet rarely we do find ourselves waxing eloquent about how other humans embody the divine. The church’s celebration of Christmas, the mystery of the incarnation, is that God has looked past the sunsets, past the serenity of the oceans, past the star-studded wondrous heavens, and has picked up the gift off the chair in the bedroom that is God’s very self and wrapped the Divine Self in brownish skin. Brown, human skin. That was probably dirty most of the time. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” Theological and poetic, for sure, but it starts to sound just as beautiful and real as the story about the baby in the manger.

I don’t think I can put it any better than Denise Levertov, a British-born American award-winning poet who did not convert to Christianity until the age of 60. In one of her short poems “On the Mystery of the Incarnation”, she phrases John’s thoughts like this:

It's when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind's shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

Entrusted. Given. The Word, wrapped up a very specific way just for our sake. And just as Bible translators have struggle with how to explain “Word” over the years, that part about the wrapping has produced some interesting interpretations, too. A few versions say, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” One version I found says, “The Word became flesh and took shelter among us.” That one echoes my favorite translation of John’s original Greek, one which gives me a vivid mental picture: “He pitched his tent among us.” The root verbs for “pitching one’s tent” and “living among us” are the same in Greek. Tents, after all, used to be made out of hide, so the connection is there. In Jesus, God pitches his tent right here in our camp, right here with all the pain and joy of being wrapped in skin in a crazy world that has waterboarding and influenza and internet article comments.

I once met a young woman who worked as a counselor with troubled teens at a camp in a rural part of this state. This camp is actually better described as a wilderness school that serves as a last-ditch effort for troubled youth in order to get their lives back on track. Many of the teens who come there have been convicted of minor drug violations or petty crimes, and many are struggling with addictions and issues resulting from abuse or neglect. They stay there at this wilderness school, learning survival techniques, how to care for animals and themselves, learning how to live in harmony with nature, until they are clean enough to leave and re-enter life as responsible young adults. Here’s the thing: they sleep out in tents all year round. The ruggedness of the environment and their education helps put their lives in perspective, I suppose, and helps flesh out some of those issues they need to deal with.

image: source unknown
The part that struck me was that this young woman I met, who worked there as one of the “teachers,” helping the students lay out their curriculum, was required to live in a tent, too. Quite literally she pitched her own tent right in there with the kids, through all kinds of weather and all kinds of temperatures. If they slept in it, so did she. If they didn’t get much sleep because it was too cold or two loud, neither did she. The idea was that whatever issues they were facing, whatever inner demons they would confront, whatever tests they would endure, their teacher—their leader—would also. By pitching her tent in there among with the youth, she was not only learning to identify with their struggles, but she was also more accessible. If the night got scary and lonely, and the way to sobriety too twisted, their support was right next to them, not in some distant heated cabin or apartment, out of the woods. Not exactly a job I could do, but I’m glad there are people willing to pitch those tents with the youth, thankful there are people willing to wrap themselves in the dangerous circumstances of others in order to lead a way to redemption.

The step that God takes toward his creation by sending his Son to pitch his tent among us, to be wrapped in flesh like we are, is rough and dangerous. Jesus will be abused and beat up. He will be rejected even by the people he is sent to save. Yet God wraps him up and sends him anyway to take shelter with us. And he shows us the way to redemption. In the life and ministry of Jesus, the heart of God is revealed, and we can see God’s glory through him.

Our principle task, then, as people of this Word, is to let ourselves be present in and among the people of this community, this city, this planet. We, too, are to be wrapped up just as we are, residing with those who feel the strain of life with skin, reminding them in our words and our actions that though the night is often dark, the light has been overcome. It is to be people who explain through our ministries and our worship that the great gift has not been left lying on the chair in some back room—hey, Merry Christmas, go find it yourselves—but that someone has taken the great care to present the very essence of God’s love to us so that we may see it.

Our task is, in short, to let that “awe crack our mind’s shell” and tell the world that this Christmas…and every Christmas…and every day we breathe…and the day we cease to breathe: because of Jesus Christ, we have it made.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.