Monday, February 29, 2016

The Third Sunday in Lent [Year C] - February 28, 2016 (Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13:1-9)

It’s been another bumpy week in the news for Starbucks. On Monday the Seattle-based coffee chain made a lot of folks unhappy when they announced major changes to their rewards system, which is one of their gimmicks to cultivate lots of repeat customers. Beginning in April rewards will be earned based on how much money a customer spends each time they visit, rather than on how many times a customer simply visits. This means those who purchase the really expensive—and unhealthier—drinks on a regular basis will have a much easier time earning reward stars and the freebies that come with them. Those who stick to plain coffee come up shorter. They will spend and spend, just the same as they always did, but it will take longer to rack up new reward stars. I figure under the new rewards system, it will be next August before I get my free drink that I so clearly deserve.

It’s funny how successfully enticing those little rewards systems are, aren’t they? Not just for Starbucks, but for everything! They hook you right in, making you spend far more money than you normally ever would simply because they dangle some free rewards treat out there in front of you. You usually get a card, along with some distinction of privileged status like being called a member or a premier client. Starbucks calls them members—gold-level members, even—and the chain reveals that Rewards members spend three times as much as non-members.

Contrast all this with God’s Rewards system, announced, as it is, with such gracious openness by the barista Isaiah:

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
Come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!”

There is no special card here, no elite privileged status that you must earn or maintain. God is simply prepared just to give it out, the best there is around. It’s always free. Loyalty is valuable, but God’s got no gimmicks to keep us interested. It makes no sense, especially for the business-minded. And that’s quite alright, for God reminds us,“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” That is, “I don’t do things like Starbucks. This gracious and open-ended anti-rewards program of goodness that I offer is intended wholly for your well-being. Like a feast of foods both delicious and nutritious, it has been offered for us you to thrive and grow.”

Early church giant St. Augustine once said to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Isaiah would have worded it, “Our souls are continuously hungry, and they do not find nourishment until they feast on God.” This is the way we stand before God from the time we are born until the time we take our final breath: a thirsting, a hungering for the God who gives us life. And even though we are prone to go searching for things which eventually leave us empty, and sink our roots into soils that never really nourish us, God still stands there offering his goodness for free. God still draws near, hoping we will notice we can turn to the Lord and listen that we may live. The rewards in this relationship is the relationship itself. There is no manipulation here, so salvation latte dangling on the edge of a stick. We are created to receive God’s mercy and, as we receive it, grow in the faith and love of God.

In Jesus’ day, then, it was tempting to think that when bad things happened to people, then it must be some form of divine retribution. People were prone to believe that one stood before God in terms of whether or not they were getting what they deserved. That is, if one did not turn and listen to receive the mercy and pardon God granted, that person could expect some form of just desserts. Luke tells us about some people who come before Jesus to ask him how God might have been at work in a tragedy involving some Galileans who Pilate ordered killed during their trip to the Jerusalem temple. Did they somehow get what was coming to them? And Jesus not only answers, “No,” but he adds on another story that people of that time would have probably known about, a story about a freak accident involving a tower that fell and killed eighteen people. In neither case, Jesus clarifies, was God somehow at work handing out justice or revoking rewards points because of something those victims had done at some point.

It may frustrate us to hear this, but Jesus doesn’t seem concerned with the question of why bad things happen, whether they’re the result of human deeds of evil or seemingly random acts of nature. What Jesus is concerned about is our repentance, His point is this: we do not stand before God in terms of whether or not we’re getting what we deserve. Jesus certainly didn’t get what he deserved, and he stood before God blameless. To paraphrase Bono, front man for the band U2 says, love has interrupted any type of system of karma we might believe the universe ever had.[1] We stand before God in terms of listening and living, of seeking and searching; that is, we stand ready to receive him as nourishment, or as medicine, or as sunshine that tilts the head of a flower towards it so that it may grow.

Jesus doesn’t reach for the image of a sunflower to illustrate this, however. Instead he uses a fig tree and manure. There is a fig tree that isn’t producing any figs. It’s at least three years old, which is the traditional length of time that even a young fig sapling would take to grow some fruit. Sadly, it just sits there, using up a valuable spot in the vineyard, wasting precious soil that could be used for another plant. If the fig tree truly got what it deserved, the landowner would rip it out immediately, but love interrupts. The gardener still sees potential, in spite of its reluctance, in spite of its age. It was made to grow and produce figs. Maybe one more year and an extra helping of free, nutritious fertilizer will wake it up to a life of fruitful repentance.

A couple of weeks ago Epiphany hosted a one-day conference called, “Engaging Adults in Faith Formation.” Geared towards church professionals and volunteers responsible for leading things like Sunday School for grown-ups, it challenged us to think of adult faith formation as the primary emphasis of a congregation’s ministry. So often all the resources and attention go into faith formation of children and young people. Congregations beef up offerings for their youth group. They look at our numbers of children’s ministry and Sunday School. And while the conference reaffirmed that all of those things are important and good, it also pointed out that learning about faith and growing in understanding of God is something that continues lifelong.

The presenter pointed to the work of John Bowlby, a British researcher whose pioneering work on orphans in the 19th century showed that children can literally die of loneliness. He further demonstrated that we never outgrow our need for human contact and deep emotional bonds. The thought that we reach some point final maturity, at least in terms of our need for growth in our relationships, isn’t really true. Likewise, our ability to grow figs is always there. And yet it is so easy to harbor this thought that our bond with God is something that kind of stops growing once we get confirmed or when we think we are too old to go to Sunday School anymore. For whatever reason—perhaps fear, perhaps apathy—we neglect our desire to engage those roots and wrestle with deeper questions within the community of our brother and sister faith travelers as we get older. Studies show that by the time our children are age 10 or 11 they have figured out if faith practice is really real and important to their parents or if they do it only for the sake of the kids.
I must say that this congregation is blessed to have so many people of all ages who have felt that continuous interruption of God’s love and who are regularly searching and seeking, who aren’t participating in worship and other activities out of a sense of obligation or duty but because of a desire to grow and learn. Last summer our minister of faith formation, Christy Huffman, planned a week of Vacation Bible School for whole families in addition to the one we traditionally offer for pre-school and elementary aged children. The children had a blast, but it was the adults who requested we do it again and maybe expand it. A new fellowship group for those who are in their 50s and 60s who may now be empty-nesters has formed and is getting ready for their second event next week. Adult Bible studies are full and growing, and Dr. Westin’s class on the history of the Reformation has almost been standing room only. Over the past year, we have supported three members who have been pursuing seminary studies.

Numbers are nice, of course, but it is not the only way to measure the growth God gives us. Even if just one fig tree suddenly produces a fruit it is something the landowner would look on with pride. There is one gentleman in his 80s who is hear on a regular basis whom I regularly hear saying after a Men’s lunch gathering or a Bible study, “You know, I had never thought of that Scripture in that way before.” Still growing. Still admitting the need for wisdom, still listening so that he may really live.

It’s another instance of that love that interrupts, a grace that offers itself again and again, without money and without price. It’s another gracious run-in with the gardener who still believes in that fig tree, who intercedes with his life and says, “Nuh-uh. Not so fast. I like this tree. It just needs a little more attention.”

Yes, it’s another surprising encounter with a most rewarding God who tells us there is no need for points. “Throw away that silly member card. You, my child, are my star.”

 Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas. Michka Assayas

Monday, February 15, 2016

The First Sunday in Lent [Year C] - February 14, 2016 (Luke 4:1-13)

(photo cred: USA Today)
Well, another Super Bowl is in the books; another winning team has been crowned. Another quarterback’s legacy has been validated, and…another coach has endured a Gatorade shower. Gary Kubiak, coach of the victorious Denver Broncos, was doused last Sunday evening with orange Gatorade as the final seconds of the game ticked down. Those who watch football may understand the significance of the Gatorade shower: it’s that moment when victory seems definite and the winning team “sneaks up” behind the coach to pour a whole cooler of Gatorade on him.

For many people, the Gatorade shower is the real end of the game, meaning more than the clock actually reaching zero  or more than the referees’ final whistle. At some point in history it was probably some team’s spontaneous reaction to a hard-fought win. Now it’s become a necessary ritual that signals the real end of the battle. In fact, the Gatorade shower is such a traditional part of American football that bookies now take bets on what color the Gatorade will beat each Super Bowl. I’ve never had anyone dump a cooler of Gatorade on me, but I imagine it’s quite a rush. All the bumps and bruises of the long season are in the past, all the self-doubts and second-guessing are washed away. You are named and claimed as the winner. Everyone gathers around you, supporting you, congratulating you, and you are free to do nothing but beginning to bask in the glory.

Jesus’ life is like a football game in reverse. His Gatorade shower comes at the very beginning of everything—when he is baptized in the Jordan River—and the struggle only intensifies from there. He is named and claimed as the winner—the Son of God—but there are no shouts of joy to accompany it, no basking in glory, no sudden end to the self-doubts and second-guessing. Immediately after his baptism, which all four gospel writers mention in some way as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the Spirit leads Jesus into solitude in the wilderness where he does battle with his enemy. The bumps and bruises are just beginning. He eats nothing and is weakened by hunger. He undergoes a series of temptations where the devil tries to lead him astray. His baptismal shower has freed him from nothing. Instead, it has initiated a life of challenges.

In Luke’s version of this story, those challenges begin with three tests which include just about every type of testing a person of faith can experience in life. One test tries to lure Jesus away through his body by offering to diminish his intense hunger. Another test attempts to strike through his heart and sense of ego by laying before him the kingdoms of the world. And a third test battles his intellect by using Scripture to argue against God’s power. Strength, soul and mind are all find themselves under siege in the wilderness.

Here’s the thing: these challenges make it very tempting to look at the account of Jesus’ temptation and think it primarily tells us about how human Jesus is. That’s a common reaction. We read it and think, “Look! This shows Jesus knows what it’s like to be human. The One we call Savior feels temptation. He struggles with hunger. He understands the lure of power and control.” And that reaction is not all wrong. Jesus’ undertook baptism, in part, to show solidarity with humankind, and the fact that he has to contend with temptation, with being hungry, for example, is part of that solidarity with us.

But the temptation of Jesus does not ultimately show us how human or ordinary Jesus is. It shows us how godly he is. It shows us he is not your ordinary human being. He is something extraordinary because he contends with evil and evil does not defeat him. The great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky is credited as saying that if the whole Bible were somehow to be lost and only the account of Jesus’ temptation were to remain, it would be enough for us to have hope. A Savior has arrived. Someone has appeared on the scene who can contend with temptation, even in his weakened, isolated state, and stand down the dark forces that draw us from God.

That’s who, after all, this devil character is: the one who draws us from God. Those who constantly want to debate and wonder about what the devil looks like or whether the devil is a real physical being are missing the point. Scripture talks much more about things like voice and strategy when it talks about evil. There are voices and influences and ideas that try to lead us away from the good. There are influences that tell us lies about the strength of our own autonomy. And in the wilderness Jesus somehow manages to hear those voices and feel those influences and not believe them.

The account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness traditionally kicks off the Sundays in Lent, this time of the year when the Church pays special attention to Jesus’ sacrificial way of the cross. Modelled after Jesus’ own time of temptation and fasting, Lent is a season of forty days of special prayer and other spiritual disciplines. It has several purposes, but one of them is to have us pause and reflect more intentionally on what it means to turn to God. And this morning we remember that we are only able to turn to God because Jesus has contended against the forces of evil for us. He is the gift. He is the way. He stands up to the voices and influences that would separate us from God and, ultimately on the cross, puts them to death for us.

None of this is done for us because we deserve it, or because we are distinctly loveable, wonderful people. God rescues us in Christ Jesus out of God’s great love and desire to have us back, to grant us a future that of communion with him. Just like the ancient Israelites stand at their first harvest in the land God promised them and recount how God brought them out of Egypt into a land flowing with milk and honey—how God heard their cries of affliction and  saved them with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, not by any power of their own—so do we stand in God’s promises of life because of what Jesus has done for us. The battle has already been won. The gift has already been given. Our life, our journey, is now one of repentance; that is, learning to receive and re-learn what this great gift means.

I don’t know if you heard the story this week out of California about the couple who were getting ready to buy the boat that they’d always dreamed of, that they’d saved up all their money for, but had a change of heart and ended up instead using the money to send an entire kindergarten class to college. Navy veteran Marty Burbank estimates that it will take about $1 million to accomplish this, so he’s set up a private foundation for Ms. Ashton’s class at Rio Vista Elementary School. All twenty-six kids speak Spanish at home and arrived this year not knowing much English or what college even was. Many of the families at Rio Vista would never even be able to afford college, and for many of them it may not be the right thing to go to college, but Burbank, after something he heard one Sunday at church, of all places, decided to take all the money he was going to spend on himself and instead offer it in some way to the school he had been volunteering at for several years. The gift is theirs.  All the kids have to do is draw a picture or write an essay every year about what going to college will mean for each of them and their families.[1] Now someone needs to buy Marty a boat.

It occurs to me that that’s an illustration of repentance: a conscious reflection on the fact that the gift has already been given what it means to you, and how you plan to receive it. Repentance, especially in the church, often gets reduced to just meaning your sorry or asking for forgiveness, but really it’s far more interesting—than just that. Repentance is a process, or a frame of mind, or a series of movements of the heart and mind that are far too complex to summarize in one image or action.

In fact, repentance is the way of Christian life. Martin Luther, in his first line of the 95 Theses, which is the document he posted to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg as he attempted to reform the church, says, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Just as thankfulness, for example, may take look different depending on the situation and the thankful person’s specific circumstances…just as Valentine’s Day involves different gestures and celebrations—or lack thereof—depending on the beloved’s mood…so does repentance take on different aspects throughout the life of a believer.

Sometimes it does involve apologizing for and confessing sin, but sometimes it entails something different, like a dimension of realizing your potential for growth in ways you’ve never noticed before. Sometimes repentance may look like coming to terms again with your overall helplessness and weakness in this scary world. At other times it may look like the practice of learning to desire and treasure the right kinds of things in the right way, and seizing a chance to do so. Each of the gospel readings this Lent will focus on a different aspect of repentance, offering up two opposing examples of the choices we might make as we learn to receive the gift. Regardless of what the life of repentance looks like today and again tomorrow, it is always a reflection on what Christ has already done for us, a rejoicing in the triumph over death and sin that Jesus has already accomplished and handed to us.

No, I don’t know a thing personally about what a Gatorade dump feels like at the end of a game I’ve fought hard to win. Nor do I ever want to. But I do know what baptism feels like, and what it’s like to hear that the battle has already been won for me. O Lord, may I, like a fresh little kindergartner in Ms Ashton’s class, always be ready to sit down and at least draw a picture or say a prayer of what that means to me.




The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday - February 10, 2016 (Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)

When my sister and I were little, there was a book in the toy bin at our grandparents’ house in Winston-Salem that my sister loved to have read to her. It was a little Golden book in the Rocky and Bullwinkle series called something like Rocky and Friends. It was only about twenty pages long, and, being a children’s book, its very simple storyline was driven more by big, colorful pictures than by sentences with words. But my sister loved the story, and whenever we were over at their house, she would inevitably end up on granddaddy’s lap at some point and he’d read it to her, over and over and over.

I was never involved in the listening or telling of Rocky and Friends—I would always be occupied with something else that I thought was less baby-ish—but the plot had something to do with a camping trip in the woods which seemed to be going wrong. One by one, Rocky’s friends would leave the tent where they were all sleeping and disappear into the dark night, never to return. Every time a new person left the tent, the words would go, “One second, two seconds, three seconds went by.” For most little kids, that kind of stuff is suspenseful. My sister ate it up. As for me, I would get so put off by repetition of that middle part, the way it droned on and on, that about halfway thought I’d tune it all out. Bored by the monotony and frustrated with the tension, I never actually listened to the end to hear what happened to Rocky and his friends in the woods. I must have heard granddaddy read that book to Katherine a hundred times. I can hear his kind voice and see her legs dangling under the edge of the book. I never paid attention to how it ended.

Today is about paying attention to the end. That’s what the ashes soon to be placed on our foreheads are all about. Our lives are a story that can be, especially in the long middle stretches, boring and monotonous, tedious and filled with tension. We can get caught up in the repetition of certain aspects or distracted by things that don’t really matter. And even if we are successful at tuning it out for a while as we worship the idol of youth or burnishing the impact of our legacy, we ultimately won’t be able to ignore where it all winds up for us. We are dust, and to dust we will return.

Today, tonight, throughout the world, friends and strangers gather in worship to be reminded in stark fashion that we will disappear back into the woods at some point. It’s unavoidable. It happens whether there is suspense in our lives or not. It happens whether we are surrounded by worldly success or not. God formed each of us from the same raw materials of his universe, and that is the direction our bodies eventually take. Ash Wednesday is considered by many to be the most jarring, the most solemn time of worship of the entire year. It reminds us that we are not in total control of what is happening to us and that we have inherited a human story that ends in death. Pope Francis has said, “Lent comes providentially to reawaken us, to shake us from our lethargy.” Indeed, call it the lull of “one second, two seconds, three seconds going by.” We need to be shaken to pay attention to the end of our story.

That appears to be one of the motivations for the people of God during the time of the prophet Joel. They too, are confronted with a great darkness on the horizon that promises to wipe all of them out. They see the day of clouds and blackness approaching, which we think may have been a swarm of crop-devouring locusts, and they contemplate their end. It could mean massive famine, disease, war between those who have and those who have not. No matter what, it is their end, and in contemplating it through the acts of repenting and praying, even mourning for their impending demise, they remember that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Because just as they become aware of their story of sinfulness and decay, they are also aware of God’s story. It is a holy story that began with their very creation out of dust and continues through the mighty acts of that loving Creator, each time pulling them out of the monotony and tedium, sorrow and boredom of their human story and making them aware of another end that God has in store for them.

And that, we remember, is a story of salvation, not of ultimately clouds and thick darkness. It is a real history of God working among God’s people to love them and restore them to blessing. This God had once called their patriarchs and matriarchs like Abraham and Sarah, in order to become a holy people that would be a blessing to the earth. God’s story continued as God heard the cries of suffering of the slaves in Egypt, the offspring of those matriarchs and patriarchs, now stranded in a strange land. God brought them out, delivering them through a great Exodus into freedom that would renew their covenant with God and allow them to shine once again as God’s treasured people.

As God’s story for them continues, they plead for a leader who would be able to unite their bickering tribes and help them maintain their treasured status among so many other diverse peoples. And God renews his covenant once again, and makes of them a real city on hill. Unbelievably, God would come to reside with them in that city, taking up residence in a holy temple. But unlike other holy shrines elsewhere, God’s temple would not contain God goodness and glory in one place. Rather, God’s light would stream out from there to be embodied in the relationships of the people in the kingdom where grace and love for the neighbor would rule over all else. 

The Flight of the Prisoners (Tissot)
When their efforts at that began to burn once more into ashes, God would draw near, this time forming them through a period of great hardship and sorrow. In foreign Babylon they would become like slaves again, scattered from their holy city and the temple that inspired them so. Into exile and then back, they’d yet come to realize God was still with them, honing them to be people who lived according to his Word, no matter where they were.

Then, to fully link the human story of death and sin to God’s holy story of life and freedom, God gave his Son, Jesus of Nazareth. His birth, life, and death among us unites our story as mortal creatures with God’s story of salvation and life eternal. This is the story, the great history of hope, that we have inherited through our faith in Christ. When a person receives the water of baptism, the pastor stands at the font and sometimes says, “We are born children of a fallen humanity; by water and the Holy Spirit we are reborn children of God and made members of the body of Christ.” Though our human story is broken by sin and ends with the ashes of death, we are now also united to God’s story in Christ who is risen from the dead.

The traditional disciplines of Lent are designed to awaken us and help us pay attention to that story, to that hope. Fasting, the giving of alms, and prayer all, in different ways, jolt us out of the humdrum of a normal, self-centered existence and help us re-learn and receive this new ending in Christ’s life. We become living and breathing—and even dying—reminders that our story of decay and sin has now overlapped with God’s great salvation. Devoted to God and to neighbor, we can bear God’s image, answer the call to be God’s people, enjoy deliverance from sin, build God’s kingdom in our presence, and be molded by God’s judgment of slow anger and steadfast love. The life of faith helps us remember that everything—everything—comes to an end except for the love, grace, and peace of Jesus Christ.

My own grandfather reached the end of his earthly story last October at the age of 93. As we sat gathered with close family in his final days, the subject of that old Rocky and Bullwinkle book came up. As an act of remembering him and honoring that time together, my sister hunted and hunted for a copy of it somewhere. It’s out of print, of course, so it wasn’t on any of the major booksellers on-line, but eventually she got it from an obscure Etsy seller for a whopping $3. It arrived the week or so after he died.

I was curious about the end, and as it turns out there’s a little surprise. Rocky’s friends disappear one by one in the forest not to meet some terrible demise, but because they’re throwing him a secret surprise birthday party. After so much worry, or boredom, or tedium, or suspense, the story ends in a celebration of life and thankfulness.

Huh. A story with a surprise end of joy and thanksgiving. Well, now how to you like that?

Granddaddy (Bob) and my sister (Katherine)

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.