Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve - December 24, 2016 (Luke 2:1-20)

A very peculiar thing happened this year in the Martin household as we decorated for Christmas. The boxes were down from the attic and we were all set to take the family out to pick out a Christmas tree, when we realized we had no idea where we were going to put it. The birth of a third child this year has crowded things a bit in our living spaces. Lots of stuff comes with babies and children. We tuck them in the corner, we shift things under the ottoman to accommodate it all. So there we were scratching our heads there that day, wondering how we’d solve this problem, wondering if there were maybe another room in the house that could become Christmas central this year until we finally realized we had only one real option: dismantling the baby’s Pack ‘N Play to so that we’d have a place for the tree. If we needed somewhere safe and secure in which to lay him in the month of December…well, sorry kid.

And there, you’ve heard it: we removed a manger because there was no room for Christmas.

Don’t worry! It’ll come back, of course, once the tree is taken to the dump and all vestiges of the holidays are cleaned away, but the irony of what we were doing was profound. One of the main messages of this night—the beginning point of our Savior’s story—is that although things were crowded, a place was found to lay the baby. In all the rearranging that must have been going on—the shuffling around, the last minute cleaning up, the pressure to make sure Mary was doing OK—the priority was finding somewhere the child could sleep and not be trampled on.

Rearranging. Finding a place. The world seems to be particularly full of it these days, and it’s not just Christmas trees and trying to fabricate an authentically festive holiday, whatever that is. A recent election in this country promises us that the government is going to be rearranged. Some are hopeful, others are not. Outside of our country, the world is seeing record numbers of refugees get rearranged due to wars and ethnic conflict. This creates anxiety for many, not the least of which are the ones with small children who are caught between the bombs in their own family rooms and the borders that say, “Nope. No room for you here.” The rising threat of global terrorism causes uncomfortable rearranging, too. “Things don’t seem as safe as they used to be,” we muse as we hustle through airport security, rearranging the boxes on the conveyor belt, and as we reorganize the ways we assemble in public.

When we step back we find that so much of life is about rearranging and finding space, often at the last minute: The massive downsizing to make living in the memory care facility more manageable. The moving around of a week’s events you thought were set in stone in order to make room for a funeral service and burial. The ways we end up having to shelve our joy and relaxation in order to make space for grief or recovery.

Earlier this fall a member of our congregation had to drop everything, take a leave of absence from work, and tend to her mother who had fallen gravely ill. She rushed to the town out of state only to find that every room in every hotel was occupied due to a local university football game. She managed to find the one vacant room available. It was the handicapped room in a 2-star hotel, and things had to be rearranged for it to work for her and her adult children. Her mom managed to cling on, and so this woman had to keep adding on days, but the overworked and probably underpaid hotel staff bent over backwards to make sure she was comfortable. Fresh towels, clean sheets before they even asked for it—and then one afternoon a personal note from one of the housekeepers, left on the nightstand: “I heard about your mother. You’re in my prayers.” A few weeks later, reflecting on those long days and nights in that inn out of town she said to me, “Such a simple place it was. Not fancy. But everything we needed was somehow provided for us. And more. It was like being born in a stable.”

God apparently doesn’t need detailed daily planners and careful clockwork to make an entrance. God didn’t then, and God doesn’t now. We may rearrange, reschedule, reposition, delay and dismantle, but grace won’t. It finds room. It makes itself welcome.

a first-century Pack 'N Play
The traditional understanding of Jesus’ birth story has Joseph and a pregnant Mary going from place to place looking for a room, coming across an inn—maybe 2-star hotel—and learning that there’s a home football game census taking place and they’re going to have to use the barn out back. It’s a fine understanding, and it certainly might have happened that way, but in reality it could just as easily have been that Joseph and Mary were already in a family room somewhere in someone’s house, maybe even a relative’s. The meaning of the word for “inn” in this passage is actually very ambiguous, very unclear. It is not the same word used for “inns” in other parts of the gospels, like, for example, the inn that the Good Samaritan uses when he helps the man he has found beaten along the side of the road.

In fact, this place where Jesus is born may have just been a regular first-century Middle Eastern house. Families lived—that is, slept, ate, worked, raised children—in one big room connected by the same roof to the area where the livestock were kept. The manger was a stone feed trough that marked the separation between where the humans lived and where the animals rested.

layout of a typical first-century house
So, Mary begins to deliver. Things are crowded. There’s not a Christmas tree, of course, but other items are temporarily cluttering the living area because family from Nazareth and other little villages are here. Things are crammed under the ottoman. More towels and bedding and laundry than usual. As it turns out, it’s not that there is no room in the inn, (Mary and Joseph being turned away by cold-hearted innkeepers), but rather little available space left in the living area where they’re overnighting, and the baby needs to be laid somewhere safe and secure. Viola! In all the rearranging, God finds a way in and lies down in the manger.

Of course, we don’t know exactly how it all went down, or what the real meaning of that ambiguous Greek word for “inn” is, but what we do know is that in Luke’s story of Jesus that particular word appears one more time. Years later, Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem and he tells them to go looking for a place where they can celebrate the Passover. Jesus instructs them:

10 “Listen, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ 12 He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there” (Luke 22:10-12)

More rearranging, more last minute readying, and what do you know? The type of place that is too crowded at Jesus’ birth is the same type of place where Jesus’ has his last supper. As it turns out, from birth to death, our God’s life among us is framed by borrowed space, by last-minute rearranging. And that includes our preoccupied lives.

So tonight, as we hear the message from the shepherds and the angels, as we imagine the young couple looking for a Pack ‘N Play, here is what we’re beginning to learn: God is going to find a way. He’s ready to make an entrance. He’s comfortable here, in a world that is constantly shifting around, in lives ever in need of rearranging, ever being reminded of how temporary things are. The One who never changes, will be fine for now amid our ceaseless changing. The One who gives life without end is fine to let his life end.

"Nativity," Master of Hohenfurth (1350-70)
God will find a way, and we discover this will lead to him borrowing one more space that won’t belong to him. It’s on a spot of ground just outside of Jerusalem, in the area where sin gets paid for. As the Christmas carol so bluntly puts it,

“Nails, spear, shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you.”

The part about the inn or the living area, the manger, the Upper Room, well, it’s all prologue to the big rearranging that God has in mind: He comes and finds a way so that we will know the Way.

And so this day and every day, in this room and in all your rooms, in every bit of rearranging you find yourself doing, happy or sad, be prepared for the God of the manger and the God of the cross to leave a note, to set a table, to make a place for you and find a way for faith to be born again.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year A] - December 18, 2016 (Matthew 1:18-25)

‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the city

Everybody was stirring to make sure things looked pretty.

Stockings were hung and Christmas trees trimmed.

Candlelight brightened while daylight’s glow dimmed.

Wreathes on the doors, inflatable Santas on the lawn

Proclaimed the news that the special day would soon dawn.

The frenzy to get out and string up some lights

Gave purpose and urgency to December nights.

While some decked the halls in understated ways

Others gave new meaning to the term “Tacky Light displays.”

Blinking and flashing, from treetops festooned

And, of course, synchronized, and to a radio tuned.

With garland and tinsel, greenery real or plastic.

The point was to make ordinary things look fantastic.

Amid the bleak gray of the winter atmosphere

Stood colonies of snowmen and moveable reindeer.

The shopping malls, too, were a sight to remember—

Nevermind that the decorations had been up since September—

Their glitzy and glamorous holiday fashion

Was a mood-setting trick so you’d spend with a passion.

For those who preferred displays of a more religious kind

Noticed that nativity scenes were not hard to find.

Drivers on Horsepen enjoyed the decoration

Set up by one particular Lutheran congregation.

Their display was more subdued.  But not to be outdone,

They used life-size figures that could be moved one-by-one.

And almost as mysteriously as the Word became flesh

The shepherds and wise men crept their way to the crèche.

With clothes of brown burlap, polyesters blue and orange,

It was the church that pioneered the Mannequin Challenge.

Yes, from Southside to Ashland, from Churchill to Glen Allen:

Christmas by the bushel.  Yuletide cheer by the gallon.

The brightness and gaiety of the outside décor

Was matched by attention to detail indoor.

With ribbons and garland they set all their tables

With as much precision as they strew lights on their gables.

Brown paper packages tied up with strings?

Try bright-colored wrapping paper and glittery things!

Gingerbread houses and mistletoe sprigs,

Poinsettia plants and Frasier fir twigs.

Decorations both outside and in went to show

The holidays were about making everything just-so.

Tradition and custom dictated the season

Every bauble had a story; every ritual a reason.

Whether the style was Clark Griswold or Currier and Ives

The conventions of Christmas consumed many folks’ lives.

But in that congregation with that moveable nativity

The worshippers shuffled in for their weekly activity.

With Kevin playing organ and Pastor Joseph leading

They had just settled down for one last Advent reading.

The lessons they heard spoke of hope and salvation

From Isaiah’s pronouncements to Paul’s Rome salutation

But the Scripture that sparked the most imagination

Was the story of a man in a sticky situation.

Like their own custom-dictated Christmas condition

This fellow lived in times that were bound by tradition.

People knew that God’s statutes were part of God’s call,

And what was lawful and righteous should be followed by all.

Like boundaries and rules to a game that is played

God’s law for his people could never be swayed.

To say nothing at all of sin’s power to ensnare 

The law was their assurance of God’s constant care.

Ever since those long days of wilderness wandering—

When they’d had plenty time to do some good pondering—

God’s people had known that his covenants contained

The discipline and wisdom for life to be sustained.

From the mouths of the prophets and announced from each steeple

The law was God’s way of dwelling in the lives of his people.

And this Joseph knew, as a humble young man.

He obeyed the commandments, trusted God had a plan.

Matthew calls him righteous—a high honor, indeed—

Which was a way of saying he let God take the lead.

We can trust, for example, he had his ducks in a row:

First betrothal, then marriage, then children in tow.
The contract had been signed, both families were ready

To support and provide them a life that was steady.

So imagine, then, friends, what he first must surmise

At the discovery of his fiancée’s pregnant surprise.

The law was clear in what justice dictated:

An adulteress would be stoned; the contract negated.

Life would go on.  Joseph’s family would recover,

And no one would ever know Mary’s mysterious lover.

There was one more option: to call it off neatly.

A judge could be found to annul the marriage discreetly.

A righteous man would bend backwards to prevent a big show,

And Mary’s transgression would be kept on the down-low.

So Joseph went to bed with the firm resolution

That a private dismissal was the most respectable solution.

But that night he had dreams as he tossed in his bed

Not of visions of sugar-plums—but of an angel instead.

A messenger from God gave him news of a birth

That would bring hope and salvation to all of the earth.

This child was the one on whom history had waited

To initiate the promise they’d anticipated

From that day when Satan had first conquered and won

Influence and power over everyone.

His name would be Jesus, which had rich connotations

For in his native Hebrew that meant “Savior of Nations.”

From sin’s dark corruption he’d set them all free.

And, redeemed by his love, God’s people they’d be.

So all this good news came to Joseph by dream

From an angel who’d been sent by the one God supreme.

But the biggest shock to Joseph’s ears—we can assume—

Was that this child was the babe in his fiancée’s womb!

She’d not been with a man, as it had been perceived,

But the Holy Spirit was the one who new life had conceived!

Mary, it turned out, had not been an unfaithful mate;

Rather God had chosen her, and this was her fate.

And thus the angel’s message as Joseph tossed in his bedding:

“Righteous one, do not fear.  Go ahead with the wedding.”

So Joseph woke up with a whole different view.

What before was no option was now the right thing to do:

To marry a woman who would soon bear a child

And shelter her, guard her and keep her undefiled.

And the son to be born would be in Joseph’s protection.

He’d care for him too, and give him direction.

Though that child, as God’s Son, would be Savior of Nations

And belong, like no other, to the whole of creation,

Joseph would be the one who’d teach the child how to grow,

How to talk, how to work, and other things he should know.

The result of that dream was a whole future changed

Joseph’s own hopes now altered, his life rearranged.

As Joseph had learned when he had his decision resolved,

One can have things just-so…and then God gets involved.

And that was the message to those Lutherans that morning:

God can surprise with his grace and change your plans without warning.

For, you see, Joseph’s challenge was to adjust to God’s word

Receive it, believe it, and trust what he heard:

That God had now chosen with his people to dwell

Not as law, nor as temple, but as Emmanuel.

And by that we mean human—not a statue of stone—

But flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.

As true God and true man Christ invades this dark sphere

And announces God’s kingdom to folks far and near.

In Jesus God ventures forth into dangerous new lands:

To risk to being born and putting his life in our hands.

With a true Son on earth, God meets us face to face:

A divine participation with the whole human race.

Now God is with us, not remote or removed,

But in life and in death, as the cross has now proved.

Now God is with us.  From this the believer derives

That in Jesus Christ God takes up space in our lives.

You see, Joseph was not making room for a concept,

For a doctrine about God, or some religious precept.

Joseph’s life was rearranged on account of a person,

And no amount of reasoning or wishing or cursin’

Could alter the fact that God’s grace would come down

And grow up and live as a man in his town.

That, my dear friends, is the real Christmas scandal,

On which, try as we may, we never get a handle.

For the thrust of so many of our holiday preparations

Is just about conjuring vague contemplations

Of beauty and love and the virtues of giving

Or the charity of others that make life worth living,

When really, like Joseph, we should concentrate on receiving

And guarding the Savior of Mary’s conceiving.

And instead of making sure everything is just-so,

We should hasten to his table, his mercy to know.

God’s presence among us is not some dreamlike notion,

Or well-intended habits of religious devotion,

But in a particular person in a particular place

With a particular story and a particular grace.

So whether inside by the hearth or out where others can see it,

(And if Tacky Light displays are your thing, then so be it…)

Guard your traditions and customs, the holiday things that you do,

But most of all, guard this babe and see what he grows up to do.

He’ll appear in the neighbor in search of a friend

His hand in your hand when you kindness extend.

From the West End’s safe havens to Aleppo’s bombed alleys

From mountaintop high points to deaths darkest valleys,

In times that reflect his way of self-giving

God finds chance after chance to grant life that’s worth living.

And when Christmas often seems like a foregone conclusion

“God with us” becomes a quite welcome intrusion.

When, what in our wandering lives should appear,

But a God who in mercy and compassion draws near.

His name is Lord Jesus, as Joseph was told,

And in his living and dying God’s love we behold.

Where two or three are gathered, we are promised he’s there.

And we’re equipped as his Body his message to share.

We live peace on earth, good will to all women and men.

Thanks be to God! Merry Christmas!  Amen!

© 2016  The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Holy Family with Bird (Murillo)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Third Sunday of Advent [Year A] - December 11, 2016 (Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 3:2-11)

This morning our hymn should really read, “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist cried,” because John the Baptist, the person that old hymn is about, is no longer there. That’s where John began, of course, crying out on the banks of the River Jordan where he was baptizing people, but now John is in prison. His bold, throaty pronouncements about a kingdom coming, have now diminished to a tentative questioning. “Did we get the right guy?” he wonders about Jesus in the loneliness of his cell. Was he right in announcing Jesus as the one who brings the kingdom?

"The Preaching of St. John the Baptist" (Domenico Ghirlando, 1486) 
As a prophet, someone who speaks truth to power, John knows this matters. It matters because John had hoped that he was helping bring about God’s new kingdom, that he was preparing the way for the Lord. John had helped people get ready for this. He had gotten them stirred up and full of anticipation. “Repent!” he had told all those people. “Change your ways! Bear good fruit.” In fact, saying just that to the king and his entourage is essentially what got him in trouble. He had criticized some of Herod’s lifestyle choices, and it was not received well. As he lives out his sentence in confinement, he manages expectations. It’s starting to look to John like the great world-change he had foretold in Jesus may not be coming to pass. His characteristic boldness has changed into doubt.

On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist once cried.
But now he’s thinking he might have lied.
He sits in shackles, waiting still,
For God his righteous plan to fulfill.

Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever anticipated something, hoped for something—perhaps even touched the edges of its very reality—only to have it turn out to be different once it arrives? Have you ever felt set up for something—something you think will be just perfect—only to be disappointed or disillusioned when it comes to fruition?

It occurs to me that this time of year is ripe for that kind of thing to happen, what with Christmas wish lists and all. I have always been really interested in nature and science and I remember once as a young child I went through geology phase. Things like rocks and precious stones fascinated me. I learned that my birthstone was turquoise and I mentioned it would be really cool to have some turquoise someday. My grandmother heard me say that, and so she got me a turquoise ring. I still remember the profound awkwardness and disappointment I felt when I opened it up on Christmas morning. In my mind I had been thinking just a big chunk of turquoise (I had no idea what I’d do with such a thing, but that was what I was expecting) but she had gone through the trouble to find a ring. After all, birthstones are about jewelry, right? But as a fourth grade boy, I was never, ever, going to put on a ring.

That’s the message this third Sunday of Advent, with John the Baptist in prison. (Maybe he’s wearing a turquoise ring). We pause to reflect on the possible disconnects between the act of waiting and preparing and what we’re actually waiting and preparing for. We take the time, like John, to manage expectations a bit, to wonder if we’ll actually know it—and want it—if what we’re expecting finally gets here. Like the prayer as we lit the Advent wreath put it today: We allow our deeply-held hopes to be re-shaped by God’s promises.

Because it’s not just Advent and Christmastime that can fall prey to possible disillusionment. As we walk the whole journey of faith we find it’s a relatively common occurrence. We commit every so often to a certain new direction in life, or a certain faith community, or a certain ministry, only to find ourselves wondering once it’s underway if it’s really what we’re looking for and hoping for. Doesn’t quite pan out like we want. We may be quick to judge John for possibly jumping ship too soon, but when we’re honest with ourselves, especially when we’re stuck with bleak surroundings, when we look around and see little hope, John the Baptist’s questioning often becomes our questioning. What is God bringing us, anyway? What does he promise?

Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples is to point to the signs of what has been happening as Jesus has made his way through Galilee. The ministry of fierce judgment and dramatic overthrow of the religious authorities which John seems to have been expecting in the Messiah has not been happening, but signs of God’s coming kingdom are there. The blind are receiving their sight, the lame are walking, the lepers are being cleansed, the deaf are hearing, the dead are raised, and the poor are receiving good news.

John would have recognized that these were, in fact, hallmarks, clear signs of the kingdom of righteousness John wanted to arrive. The particular elements of judgment and condemnation that John was especially hoping for are taking more of a back seat, at least for the time being, to the intense joy and freedom that Jesus is about. As the prophet Isaiah says in the very part of scripture that Jesus quotes to John’s disciples, life can be a desert. At times it can feel like a wilderness and it is bleak and lonely, but it’s not a nuclear bomb that God needs to drop in order to start over, but a bunch of crocus bulbs. It’s not a bulldozer that Jesus is bringing to start the kingdom, or even an axe at the base of the tree, as John had once proclaimed, but springs of water that can feed new life. It’s not a mighty army that God plans to roll in, reminding all there will be hell to pay, but a simple message to strengthen the weak hands and feeble knees. Managing our expectations is a part of receiving God’s kingdom.

Earlier this week Pastor Joseph were down in a nearby city for a conference meeting and we found ourselves driving right through the middle of the downtown while we were there. I had never been through this town, and although I was aware from watching the news and reading the papers that it has fallen on hard times, it wasn’t really apparent to me what that meant until this week. It is a bleak desert. Storefront after storefront lies empty. At night crime rules the streets. Then at one point we noticed one side of a building, right near a main intersection, had been boarded over and then painted over. At the top were the large words, “Before I die I want to ______________.” And underneath were dozens of different answers to that question, scrawled out in different chalk handwriting:

“Before I die I want to see my children live their dreams.”
“Before I die I want to travel the world.”
“Before I die I want to be clean from drugs.”
“Before I die I want to grow some hair.”

It was a little like what some people call their bucket list, or their ideas of what they want to achieve before their life ends, but there was something a bit different about it. After some brief research after I got home, it appears that this project might be some sort of anti-gang endeavor, as that city has in recent years become infested with gangs and gang-based crime. The goal of the wall seems to be is to get gang members and other citizens of that bleak downtown to envision hope, to dream of joy. It is an ongoing reminder for people imprisoned in cycles of violence and decay to imagine that their desert can blossom, to manage expectations for how change could come. The wall looked a bit like a crocus bulb, a stream of water, right there in the midst of such wilderness. And the handwriting was that of a bunch of John the Baptists, hearing that new life is possible, that God is loose on the earth to rescue people that the blind were being given sight and the lame given new legs. It is good news to everyone, especially those whose life feels like it has no value that God loves them, that God is coming for them that God cherishes them and wants to transform their landscape from death to life.

For that is the promise of the truest crocus blossoming in the wilderness, for at some point we’re all living in an abandoned downtown. It is the cross of Jesus where God manages our expectations in a way that lets us know we are not perfect, but we are precious to him. It is the cross of Jesus where we see that someone has not just come to preach and heal, but that someone has come to offer his life for us. And with Jesus, “Before I die” becomes “Because he dies.”

Because he dies…our lives contain worlds of hope, of power, of glory. Because he dies the world is filled with all kinds of renewal: people building houses with Habitat for Humanity on Advent Saturdays when they could be shopping. Because he dies, some people apparently did go shopping, because twenty-five unclaimed stars on our Angel Tree got grabbed up within 24 hours once we put out an appeal on Facebook in the middle of the week. Because he dies, a family grieving the deaths of three family members within the past two years experience the warmth and care of a community of faith in ways they’d never imagined. Because he dies…we could go on and on with the outreach just of this congregation and our Synod, and organizations like Lutheran World Relief, not to mention all the crocus bombs of new life God is dropping in lives we haven’t even heard about yet.

We could go on and on telling these things to John in prison—and we need to—telling others with wavering faith, and telling ourselves and our own skewed expectations that God’s kingdom has come near. This is the kind of world we live in…where these beautiful, wonderful things are happening.

In Herod’s prison the Baptist cried
And longed for hope to be born inside
But God was there, amidst the gloom
Just wait! You'll see the kingdom bloom.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving Day - November 24, 2016 (Philippians 4:4-9 and John 6:25-35)

Israelites gather manna in the desert (Nicholas Poussin)
Author and radio personality Garrison Keillor has said, “We live by a series of gifts, not by what we earn,” and if there is ever day to reflect on that, Thanksgiving Day would be it. We may make a living by what we earn—what our paychecks or social security disbursements provide—but our lives are actually built and then buoyed along by an unending string of outbursts of God’s grace, none of which we purchase and many of which we never even take note of. It is this grace that gets us through this life more than anything else: the phone call from a friend at the right time…the doctor who gives perfect counsel…the second chance at a job interview…the aging parent who winds up in the perfect nursing home facility because her son spent extra time researching it all…and yet it is so easy to chalk them all up to chance or karma. Really, they are gifts from the Giver.

And when we look at the stories contained in Scripture, this fact becomes even clearer. Our forebears’ lives are case after case of people being given just what they need in order to make it, often against insurmountable odds, and almost always in spite of the fact they don’t deserve it. That is, for example, the main point of the manna which God gives the Israelites as they trudge through the wilderness to the Promised Land. They receive just enough to sustain them each day, one day at a time. The stuff literally drops from the sky. They live by a series of gifts, not by what they earn.

Perhaps no one was more aware of God’s series of gifts than the apostle Paul, who lived so many of his days persecuted as a follower of Jesus. From city to city, from congregation to congregation he journeyed, running into trouble with local authorities who wanted to suppress his message and getting himself imprisoned on more than one occasion. And yet, rather than becoming bitter or downcast, Paul exudes joy throughout his life, thankful for the string of gifts that somehow get him from one day to the next.

This is especially evident in his letter to the Philippians. In prison and unable to be with his beloved congregation, he writes to them a heartfelt letter literally bubbling over with joyfulness. The Philippians, themselves, seem to be going through some kind of a rough time. It’s unclear exactly what their malfunction is, but Paul knows that having them concentrate on the series of gifts that are certainly around them—the morsels of manna God has mysteriously thrown around on the ground—is the antidote to their woes. No matter what is going on or how badly the main mission is faring, they can always find something for which they can be thankful. In fact, he lists them like a series of gifts, clues as to where to find this string of grace. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable…If there is any excellence…think on these things,” he reminds them.

And, so, for this Thanksgiving, I thought it might be fun to heed Paul’s advice. Perhaps it’s been a rougher year than usual for you. Perhaps the recent and ongoing political developments has you on edge, like so many others. Perhaps your faith in God has been challenged this year like never before for other reasons you’ve not really shared with anyone. Whatever the case, it is good to remember those pure and commendable series of gifts which are there, those things by which our journeys are sustained. Here I will offer just a few from within the life of this congregation.

“Whatever is true”: In this sense of the word, Paul means whatever is genuine, real, dependable, and when I think of those words, I think of the volunteers of this congregation. I think of how new people stepped up this year to fill positions where others had faithfully served for so long. I think of the dependable leaders of Vacation Bible School, CARITAS, and our new property team volunteers.  I think of the genuine conversations held by the Timothy Ministers in the youth group, the confirmation mentors who share their faith and are modeling prayer and thanksgiving. There has been plenty of true and genuine here over the past year, and we thank God for it all.

“Whatever is honorable”: It is hard to think of things more honorable serving one’s country in the armed forces. This congregation currently has four members in active duty military, one of whom will be soon serving overseas. At a time when it could be so easy for these young men to begin a life for themselves and follow their own paths they’ve chosen to serve and protect our nation. We are grateful that they have made this honorable decision, and we’re thankful that they come to worship with us so often when they’re home on leave.

“Whatever is just”: For the word “just,” think “righteous,” “upright,” and “honest.” I think of our volunteers through the Micah Initiative who are assisting the teachers and staff of Southhampton Elementary School be upright and honest role models in the lives of their students. One woman spends one day a week helping four-year-olds learn how to write their name, four-year-olds who don’t even know how draw a straight line yet or understand the word “trace,” but she sits their patiently, encouraging them to practice, over and over. I think of the honesty of the conversations between our Stephen Ministers and their care-receivers, who share very personal thoughts and concerns with each other and are careful to do so very confidentially.

volunteers for Micah Initiative
“Whatever is pure”: My mind goes to a member of this congregation who had to drop everything earlier in the year to rush out of state to be by her critically ill mother in ICU. As the week wore on, it looked like her mother might me rebounding. As she was checking out of the hotel where she had stayed for a week she got a call from the hospital informing her that her mother had just failed two breathing tests. She had taken a sudden turn for the worse. Exhausted and overcome with emotion, she began to break down right there at the counter, a line of people behind her. The clerk noticed what was happening, came out from behind the desk, and embraced her. She said a prayer for her right there in the lobby in front of everyone. It was a moment of pure, innocent grace that got her through the day.

I think of all the pure, loving care that our volunteers give at every funeral reception, the women who call and email asking for food to be made and dropped off, the people who keep the kitchen clean and functional. Care extended to the bereaved at the death of a loved one is perhaps the purest, most holy form of Christian care, and we have many people willing to serve in this capacity.

“Whatever is pleasing:” The music programs of this congregation have filled the year with pleasing sounds and expressions of faith.  A new baby grand piano, donated by a family in the congregation, and a new harpsichord broaden our ability to praise God and enhance congregational singing. Our choirs and handbell ensembles volunteer so much of their time to lead worship at multiple services, typically attending all three services on Easter morning. The Cherub Choir and singing saints light up many faces in the congregation, something I get to see from my vantage point. The talents of instrumentalists and soloists within our ranks is something to marvel at, whether it is oboists, or flutists, or people playing percussion. But many would find most pleasing the talents of our youngest musicians whom Kevin invites to play during preludes and postludes. A congregation that encourages such diverse levels of gifts is truly lovely for the praise of God.

“Whatever is commendable:” We have a young adult serving on a mission team in South Africa. Council has registered three people for seminary study. Members of the youth group planned their own service project on their own this past spring without any adult suggestion or guidance, but because they felt like it. We have three members serving on the boards of Synod institutions, and a few other members who serve on boards of local service organizations. Another member has developed a curriculum, complete with tools, that can be used to adapt confirmation instruction to a child with special needs.

The list could go on, but suffice it to say there is much among us that is worthy of praise. God’s grace has rained from the sky like manna, allowing this congregation to continue its witness. These things worthy of praise are occasions of the food that endures for eternal life. They are examples of Christ, the bread of life, present in and with us. Nurturing and sustaining us far beyond our physical needs, they are all reflections of the way our Father comes down from heaven         to give life to the world. For what is really true, what is deeply honorable, what is most just, pure, pleasing and commendable is the life that Christ leads for us as he takes his own body and blood and sheds them for the forgiveness of sins.

Thanksgiving is our response when our faith grasps this truth, just as the Israelites’ fingers grasped the manna God showered around, just as our own hands grasp the bread and the wine offered at his table of plenty. We live by a series of gifts, not by what we earn, and Jesus invites us, once again, to that table. We certainly didn’t deserve our seat there, but he knows our hunger is real. He understands the thirst that we sometimes try to deny we even have. Let us gather, lifting up today all that we have seen that is true, all that is honorable, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is pleasing, all that is excellent.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Christ the King [Year C] - November 20, 2016 (Luke 23:33-43)

"Crucifixion" (Peter Gertner)
The world around us is talking about presidents and prime ministers, but we—you and I—are going to hail a crucified king.

The world around us is going to hash out popularity votes and voter turnout, but you and I are going to talk a profound unpopularity that leads nowhere but a cross.

The world around us is going to say that the people have spoken, and their voice is loud and clear, but you are I are going to know that the people just stood by, watching.

The world around us is going to say, “To the victor goes the spoils!” but you and I are going to hear, “They cast lots for his clothing.”

The world around us is going to witness the uncorking of champagne, the sweet taste of victory, but you and are going to hear “they offered him sour wine.”

The world around us will discuss the Oval Office, and moving into the White House, but you and I will remember they came to a place called the Skull.

The world around us is watching to see which allies will be selected for cabinet positions, who will sit at the leader’s right and at his left, but you and I will realize that he hangs between two criminals—one on his right and one on his left.

The world around us will wonder about campaign promises made and not kept, but you and I will hear, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Sisters and brothers, the world around us will sell us on the virtues of claiming what is ours, that screams, “Save yourself!” but we will meet a Savior who offers himself to claim others.

Christ is King. We’ve gone through another cycle of a church year, and that is the message we end on.

Christ is King. We’ve had another chance to reflect intentionally and methodically on the life and times of this man from Nazareth, and that is the statement of faith at which we arrive. The United States may have a new President, England may be working with a new Prime Minister, “Dancing with the Stars” may have awarded a new mirror ball, but when it comes to all of creation, Christ is King.

We know that Christ is many things for us: he is shepherd, taking care of his flock with unparalleled care. He is teacher, showing us the way of mercy and love for our neighbor. And he is healer, binding up our wounds, external and internal, and making us whole again. But ultimately it is his kingship that we must come to terms with, for it is a kingdom that he comes to bring. It is the first words on his lips when he shows up in Galilee preaching and teaching and gathering disciples, and it is one of the last things he speaks about as he dies on the cross. His loving reign over us and over all that is and all that ever has been and all that ever will be is what we need to consider and remember. His authority is what we must hold in tension with the all dominions and authorities of this earth we live under now. But his particular authority is radically different from other authorities we deal with, and this kingdom operates on a different philosophy.

It goes without saying that all good rulers are seeking to expand their boundaries, to establish a greater sphere of influence. We see political maps where certain states are labelled blue, red…or battleground. We talk about fundraising. We talk about ground games and air time. We see military campaigns fight for control over key Middle Eastern cities like Mosul or Aleppo. I know that in my own kingdom (if I could even call it that) if I want to establish any authority here lately it’s going to need to involve bribery and Halloween candy.

All of these different rulers of the earth use strategic plans to gain more power, but they’re all essentially aggressive, clandestine. Jesus’ kingdom, by contrast, uses mercy and kindness, and often beginning with the scattered-most remnants, those who’ve been looked over. That’s how it advances and gains ground. Jesus empties himself, disarms himself. We see this right up unto the end. He has been mocked and flogged by the very people he has come to save. The Roman authorities have offered to free him for the Passover, but the people chosen to crucify him instead of a convicted murderer, Barabbas. He has every reason to pursue revenge, to spite, to choose vindictiveness, but instead he lets himself be humiliated.

"Crucifixion" (Vernonese, 1580)
The kingdom of God advances with mercy and kindness. Look at how Jesus uses his last few breaths! Even as he is mocked by one of the criminals hanging next to him, Jesus manages to look to the criminal on the other side and offer him pardon and freedom. Crucifixions in the first century were always public events, and the Romans were known for nailing several people to crosses at the same time in order to maximize the gore factor and establish a rule of law.

Not much is known at all about the two criminals who were executed alongside Jesus, but we do know that one of them experienced the release of God’s forgiveness right at the end. “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus says to him. Paradise is a term that Jewish folks would have associated with the Garden of Eden, that time in creation when all things were in perfect relationship with God and with each other. Jesus is promising in that very dying moment this this man will know full restoration. In spite of his sin, in spite of his crime, the kingdom of God will come to him because Jesus advances his reign through mercy and forgiveness.

Even as he is hoisted on the cross above the crowd, Jesus offers forgiveness because they know not what they do. The “they” in that sentence has long perplexed scholars. Is he talking about the people doing the nailing? The jeering? The standing-by-not-speaking? It is believed that the “they” is intentionally ambiguous So that it can encompass everyone involved in any way in his death…from then until now. All these are forgiven, even though they don’t grasp what they’re doing to him.

God knows that nothing we experience can equal the power that forgiveness offers. That is the constitution of his kingdom: the forgiveness of the enemy. And when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, for example, for his kingdom to come, that is the authority we’re appealing to. Martin Luther says, “In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own, without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” Through his blood on the cross, Jesus has advanced his kingdom right up to our hearts. And we, as those who have been freed by its power, have the command to follow the example of our king and help proclaim the freedom of others, to let them taste Paradise even today.

When we study God’s kingdom in confirmation, we discuss the powerful example of Mary Johnson, a woman in Minneapolis who lost her only son, Laramiun, in a shooting. When he was only 20 years old, he got into a fight at a party one evening and another young man, Oshea Israel, pulled out a gun and shot him. Israel was eventually convicted and spend more than a decade in prison. Now Ms. Johnson lives next door to Israel in the same apartment building. She has helped him get back on his feet and readjust to life after prison.

It’s a powerful story of forgiveness—these two people, living side to side, like Jesus next to the criminal on the cross. Their lives are joined by one horrible, deadly event, but then restored by an unlikely advance of Jesus’ kingdom. Ms. Johnson talks openly and honestly about hard it was to grapple with the evil that took her son, how hard it was to visit the prison and look into the face of her son’s murderer. But she also speaks beautifully and articulately about how unbelievably freeing has been to live in this new relationship of mercy with her son’s killer. She treats him as a son. Even today, in their own way, Ms. Johnson and Israel live with Jesus in Paradise.

In the end, when everything is said and done, when you and I have gone from this earth and creation reaches the end that has been prepared for it, we have hope that all will be restored through the blood of the cross. All wrongdoing will be accounted for and all brokenness will be healed. We will be able to look into the faces of those who have wronged us and those we have wronged and have all hurt and sorrow taken away. The scene that takes place on the Skull where Jesus forgives without will extend its healing rays all over the universe, over and over again. It is through mercy and forgiveness that this restoration will happen and no other way. No force will do it, no secret strategy, no clever manipulation.

Until that time, we keep advancing his kingdom in a ground game of compassion and kindness. We expand his boundaries, one act of selfless love at a time. So, when the world around us will be plotting revenge, retribution, but you and I will be thinking mercy. And when the world around is is saying, "We have only gotten what we deserve," we will practice grace.

And when the world around us is in arms about the republic, the state, the neighborhood, the universe…you and I will point to kingdom without end, because the One who was crucified now is risen and rules forever and ever.

We will point to the King, the King who frees.

Christ the King


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.