Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Resurrection of Our Lord [Easter 1C] - March 27, 2016 (Luke 24:1-12)

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”

“He is risen, indeed, Alleluia!”

Yes, that is the message of this great day, as has been repeated for centuries since that first Easter morning since the women first stumbled upon the empty tomb.

Christ is risen…unless, as it happens, you are attending worship at Acomb Parish Church in North Yorkshire, England, this year. The on-line news source The Daily Dot reports that members of that congregation ordered large banners to attract worshippers and announce the Easter message to the town without carefully proofreading the final order. Instead of having signs that proclaimed that message that was first proclaimed at the empty tomb, the news that forever changed the world, the parish ended up with large banners that say, in large red letters, “Chris is Risen.” Able to laugh at themselves, they posted the unusable signs to their Facebook page. As you can imagine, the comments they received were equally funny. One person wrote, “No need to make a song and dance about it.” A person named Chris responded, “I have risen every morning so far. I plan to continue. Thank you for your support.” And yet another commenter went with the typo theme and wrote, ‘Thank the lard.’”[1]

Chris is risen….Christ is risen…what exactly is the message of this day? What precisely did occur at that tomb outside of Jerusalem so many years ago? Are we any better about communicating and articulating what this event means, what this news involves? It’s not just Acomb Parish who has had a difficult time getting the message across. Are we surprised to learn, in fact, that the first ever Easter banner is chalked up as nothing but a verbal typo? The women—those dutiful, faithful women, discharging the dirty work of tending to the dead—show up at the tomb only to find it empty and return to tell the other disciples only to have it dismissed as nothing but an idle tale. “Surely you’ve left out a letter or something,” reply the eleven and the rest, scoffing.

"The Women at the Tomb" Il Baciccio (1685)
Women, typically treated as second-class citizens in that day and age, had actually been integral in Jesus’ ministry from the very start. Luke has told us that at least once already, earlier in his gospel. They worked alongside him and probably even served as leaders in this growing community of faith, but this bit of news is too much for anyone to grab hold of. The men do not believe their report, and you can guarantee that if there had been social media in that day and age, they would have had a heyday with what the women said. “Christ is risen? Whatever your sign is supposed to say, you’d better it re-ordered right now before people think you’re silly.”

Yes, whatever the message of today is, it’s been struggling to catch on since the start. Whether we’re drawn to its promise, intrigued, or defiantly hopeful in its gift and joy; whether we’re suspicious of it, or even downright doubtful, it’s somewhat comforting to know that people have been wondering about it since the beginning. Even Peter, fresh off his night of denying any association with his Lord, who runs right to the tomb to proofread the women’s message, does not appear to make sense of or even believe what has happened. We only hear that he is amazed.

And, to be accurate, the confusion about the resurrection’s message goes back even farther than Peter’s discovery and the women’s report. There is apparently major misunderstanding and mistaken motives right from the start, when the women first show up at the tomb. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” ask the two mysterious visitors whom the women bump into at the tomb. The original language is even a little more provocative: “Why are you seeking among the dead the one who lives? He is not here, but has risen.”

To be sure, all four gospel writers report some confusion and disorientation that first Easter morning. It’s understandable. Dead bodies are not supposed to get out and walk out of their grave. But Luke is the only one who includes this sense of “You should have known!” a sense of “Didn’t you proofread anything, women and disciples? Jesus told you it would be like this all along…that he would come to Jerusalem and suffer and be crucified at the hands of sinners and then rise on the third day?”

The news of the resurrection, then, begins with a missed up message, a misprinted banner. Christ’s followers are looking in the wrong places. And they don’t even realize what they’re looking for. Life has been promised. Suffering will be defeated. Death itself will die. This is the kind of God they believe in, the particular God who has called them into service, but they’ve continued along like none of it has ever happened or mattered.

It is God who delights in overcoming the insurmountable, the God who miraculously embraces the runaway son, who doggedly seeks out the lost sheep, who works through the compassion of a despised Samaritan. It is the God who whips up dinner for five thousand with a handful of ingredients, the God who arrives for dinner at the tax-collector’s house, the God who restores the leper, long invisible, to his community, the God who began this journey of overturning the power of death in, of all places, a manger! Such a long track record he has, ladies! And gentlemen! Things would be no different with that cross. Now tell me again, “Why do you seek among the dead the one who lives???”

And that’s right where I think all of us can jump right in this morning. My fear is not that we get the message wrong, that the words are misspelled or misplaced on the resurrection banners we wave with our lives, that we misrepresent what this day means. My fear is that we’re so surrounded by death today that we forget to look for the God who lives. There are a lot of things about culture, about world events, about the direction of things in these times in which people feel don’t have a future. We see so much decay and degeneration that it’s all we begin to look for. It’s all our eyes are trained to see, all our hearts are trained to trust. But God specializes in living! The God who has formed and made each of us has a long track record of surprising with mercy, with love, with life.

Last week an amateur metal-detectorist in Denmark got off work early and decided to go looking for treasure, as was his hobby. Lo and behold, he ended up unearthing a gold crucifix dating back to the tenth century, startling and amazing archaeologists and causing the historians to re-write the history books, all of whom had no idea that Christianity had arrived in Denmark that early. Says Dennis Holm, who made the discovery, “[Ever] since I cleared the mud and found the jewelry, I have not been able to think of anything else.”[2]

Sisters and brothers, believe it or not, some people are still looking amidst the terrorism, amidst the hospitalization, amidst the fear in their hearts, wanting to believe there is a God who can clear away the mud of this messy world and bring about the living from among the dead. It may seem like an idle tale, but it will forever change the way they think. And you, shiny treasures of gold, have gotten the message, despite the obstacles of understanding: “He is not here. He is risen. Remember how he told you?”

So…figure out a way to say it, to be amazed by it.

Make your sign and live it.

With the Spirit’s help, you can. You will.

Christ is risen! Absolutely appropriate to go ahead and make a song and dance about it. Thank the lard.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “Easter Church Banner Declares that ‘Chris is Risen.’” The Daily Dot. Gabe Bergado.
[2] “Ancient Crucifix discovered by amateur treasure hunter” in Christianity Today. Florence Taylor, March 18, 2016

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - March 20, 2016 ("The Cry of the Whole Congregation")

If you haven’t personally taken part in a political rally or a political counter-protest this year, you’ve no doubt heard about them on T.V. They’re practically inescapable. We’re in the throes of an election season that is turning out to be more tumultuous than usual, and many of people’s anxieties and hopes seem to be coalescing and sometimes erupting at these large group gatherings. Hardly a week goes by without reports of some mob violence getting a bit out of control. There have been roadblocks and protests, and now there are Anonymous hacking attacks on a lead candidate. We hear all kinds of shouting, both from excitement and from fear. Hopes are pinned on a particular outcome, only to have them dashed on an election day.

So, rallies and protests all around us—sick of them as some of us may already be—and here we come into church on Palm Sunday to find out we’re going to be in one! This entire week—that is, the defining story of Christian faith—culminates with one giant mob scene surrounding a guy who seems, at least at the beginning, to have a direct pathway to a coronation. It’s worship, yes, and we’re reading from Scripture, but there is an unmistakable crowd mentality at work this morning. We have shouting, underscored by a palpable fear. There’s even an Anonymous hacker (“Is it I, Lord?” “Is it I?”) who knows secret information about the leader’s identity and plans to reveal it to the public.

I promise I’m not being clever here, drawing out some strained connection between our faith and modern-day events. Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem is a political rally. The people who shout Hosannas, waving palms with one hand while trying to figure out how to balance their bulletin open with the other so they can sing the hymn, have political hopes for their candidate. They want him to topple the oppressive, out of touch rulers. They want him to establish God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness. They have professed all kinds of loyalty to him, but they are still fickle in their hearts and if he goes off-message they will jump ship. In the course of that one week, the overwhelming majority of them do just that. Disappointed with his message and unimpressed with his power, they congregate in a big angry mob and demand his downfall.

It’s a funny thing that in both of the Creeds of the church—the Apostles’ and Nicene—it is Pontius Pilate who gets directly associated with the crucifixion.  Pilate did have legal jurisdiction over this event, and early Christians found it important to include a mention of his governorship in their statements of belief, probably because it gave it some historical credibility. However, it is clearly the crowd who rises up and demands Jesus’ death. In Luke’s account of the trial and crucifixion, especially, Pilate seems to do everything he can to proclaim Jesus’ innocence, but to no avail. Encouraged by the religious leaders and egged on by the rising sense of frustration surrounding him, the crowd is enraged, whipped up into a frenzy, They are the ones who become primarily responsible for sending Jesus to the cross.

A large part of the experience of Holy Week involves searching our souls and realizing we’re in that crowd, somewhere. As much as we’d like to distance ourselves from it all, as much as we’d prefer to lump these crazed people separate from us and remain objectively distant and collected, the cross won’t really let us do that. Jesus’ path of suffering and death involves each one of us at some point, whether it is our outright denial of him and his peaceful way before others…or our willingness just to go along with the flow…or our ability to shrug off others’ suffering as “just the way the world works”…or our inability to do anything about the rampant brokenness we see around us and in us. We are in the mob, and the mob is within us. We are anonymously part of the in-group that betrays him whether or not we want to be. We all, in our own ways, want to bring him down.

And here’s the thing. Jesus does not choose a side in order to vindicate any one side. He chooses death to free everyone. He chooses the cross, revealing to us the dead-end of all our dark ways, liberating us from the temptation to save ourselves, the temptation to think we’re better than all that. He chooses the cross, electing to hand himself over to the masses and die so they may eventually see, with eyes of faith, that he’d rather love all of us and forgive all of them than begin making distinctions of who is worthy and who is not. He chooses the cross, or it chooses him. And his path to the coronation takes detour through some suffering where he takes away the sin of the world.

So, I hate to break it to you, but this is a rally. By all means. Every worship service is, come to think of it. God is rallying God’s great love for us, even though we do not always claim it. God is rallying life for us, even though we hand him death. God is rallying through the shame of the cross to set us free for him.

That’s what is so evocative in the imagery on these new stoles Pastor Joseph and I are wearing, made by Ms. Mary Cathron Brown. Made to match this hanging here, they show a cross bordered on one side by black, thorny branches, the kind that would like to choke it. They are thorns that scream, “Crucify!” and thorns that say, “I know him not.” But on the other side, growing from the same root, is a green, vibrant branch, rallying to new life, reaching out in welcome. Know this: God promises that this kind of Jesus-growth is going on in our lives right now, right in here amongst the rabble. Our thorns giving way to his righteous new life. Right in here amidst our mob.

I believe we may pin your hopes on this one, this strange king. Let’s see how things turn out next Sunday.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Fourth Sunday in Lent [Year C] - March 6, 2016 (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)

It was a brilliant attempt at bridging an increasingly polarized conflict. The two sides had become irreconcilable to each other, and it had actually gotten kind of nasty. They both found each other repulsive, and the dislike between the two groups had become so strong and intense that members of either side wouldn’t dare be caught with the others. In fact, as time wore on, even though the plan was to bring people closer together, the two groups were actually moving farther and farther apart. There had been debates, and, my, how the sparks had flown! Those who had watched them had harbored some hope that they would clear up some of the issues, but the disputes had actually muddied the waters even more. Things were reaching a boiling point, and so the person at the center of the controversy, the one person who had been able to listen and engage both sides reached for one of the most trusted tricks in his bag. He told a story.

He told them a story—a story that he hoped would illustrate that they both had a place at the table, that in the new regime no one was going to be left out intentionally. It was a story which would use everyday images and occurrences but then he would twist them just a bit, then add a mixture of exaggeration in order to get them interested in how it might all play out. It was a story which, of course, he hoped they might recognize themselves in—both the members of the legalistic rule-following crowd and the ones who didn’t seem to care about rules.

"The Return of the Prodigal Son" (Batoni, 1773)
In the story there was a father with two sons and right at the start everyone knew what that meant: boys do what father says. The older one would one day be fully independent and receive the majority of the estate—once the father died, of course—and the younger son would receive whatever was leftover. But right at the start of the story something goes horribly, offensively wrong. The younger son, seemingly out of nowhere, walks up to his father and unceremoniously demands his portion of the property right that moment. This is kind of unheard of, and that group of rule-followers listening to the story probably would have thrown up a little bit in their mouths at that point. No one has the audacity to do that, except the most vulgar of people. No one makes a request for their inheritance while their parent is still living. It’s basically like saying, “I wish you were dead.”

Most other fathers most likely wouldn’t have handed his son the money, but for whatever crazy reason this father does. He takes the younger son right to the bank, gets the attorney and the will, does some basic calculations, and liquidates the assets. He divides out who gets what and the younger son then promptly takes his share of the cash and gets as far from his dad as he possibly can. Think Vegas. Or the Cayman Islands. Wherever you would go to escape it all and put your past behind you…that’s where this guy heads. And there is no intention of staying in touch. He goes off the grid completely. He wants absolutely nothing to do with that place he came from.

But the way in which he lives ultimately is a dead end for him. He never sees the famine coming, but even if that hadn’t happened, he would have had plenty of problems sooner or later. He winds up working for some guy who pays him just to slop pigs, a dirty job that no self-respecting Jewish person would lower himself to, even if he weren’t that religious. And a strange things starts to happen to him while he’s hungry and covered in mud. Maybe it was a childhood memory. Maybe it was the thought of his mother fixing his old favorite food. Something starts him thinking about all that he left behind him. He’s an awful long way away now, but might there be a way to get back? He knows his father, if he’s like any normal father out there, would never welcome him back as an equal, but maybe he’d be able to get a job there and he’d at least not have to worry about starving to death.

So he comes to himself. Literally. It’s like part of him had been wandering elsewhere while a small part of him had secretly stayed behind, and at this point, the two parts meet up again.  The wandering him comes back to the long-lost version of himself and he realizes everything more clearly. He practices a little speech that might win his father back over, and he starts off back towards home.

So far much of this story has been very over-the-top—the disrespect shown by the younger son, the profligacy of the father, the job slopping pigs out in Timbuktu. But the most over-the-top part of the story what comes next. The father sees his son on the road back and runs out to meet him. At this point you realize that this father must have been waiting the whole time, because otherwise it would have been really uncanny that he just happened to spot his son in the distance coming back. The father runs out to his son on the road and is so excited he tries to chest bump his son. He starts high-fiving him, basically smothering him with love because he’s so happy to see him. And the younger son, probably a little taken aback, starts to go through his well-rehearsed speech about being sorry and everything, but before he can really get to the end of it the father has already started texting the kitchen to throw on some barbecue. He’s ordering a tent so friends can come over and they can party all night. And he’s got the D.J. lined up. Just to drive it all home, they’re going to start the party off with that song by American Idol winner Phillip Phillips from a few years back, the one that goes,

Settle down, it’ll all be clear.
Don’t pay no mind to the demons, they fill you with fear.
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found
Just know you’re not alone.
‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home.

That’s what’s playing in the background as they head back to the ranch.

Which is what the other son must have heard. All the focus so far has naturally been on that younger, wandering son, but all this while the older, dutiful son has been helping out dad and not interfering with anyone’s life. And yet, he is just as distant as the young son. He hears the party and can’t even bring himself to join in. Not only that, but instead of asking his father what’s going on he goes to one of the slaves to find out. He is so angry and confused about what his father is doing that he doesn’t even want to be a part of it. He’s out there Tweeting, though, all kinds of nasty things about his family. #unfair #cantbelieveit #wheresmyparty.

And then, for the second time in the story, the father comes out of the house to greet a son. For the second time in the story, the father deals lovingly and patiently with profound disrespect from one of his sons.

"The Prodigal Son" (Auguste Rodin)
Remember that one of the original ideas behind telling the story about these two sons was to get them to recognize themselves, the Pharisees and scribes, especially, since they were acting kind of like the older brother. But the main idea, the storyteller hopes, is to get them to recognize the father. He’s the one who brings it all together. He’s a father of profound grace and understanding, a parent who is more excited to celebrate the restoration of someone’s life than in handing out punishments. He’s a father of seemingly unlimited compassion, who waits patiently and pleads insistently. He’s a father who illustrates that the kingdom of God is always running out onto the road to forgive and renew, who wants both sides—all sides—to join in the joy of bringing everyone home. That’s the nature of this father’s love, which is something the older son is too self-focused for the time-being to understand: It is inherently a love that looks outward, waiting, anticipating a chance to show mercy. That’s who the man telling them the story wants them to recognize, because that love can actually pull these two groups together.

The story ends, though, without any resolution, which is another quirky feature of the way this guy tells stories. We never know if the older son actually makes his way into the party and is reconciled with his brother and his father. We don’t know if the younger son, perhaps, wanders away and gets lost again. It’s kind of open-ended, any conclusion playing itself out over and over again in the lives of the listeners who get lost and then found, then lost and found again…or who get self-possessed and resentful and then found again.

Eventually the time for storytelling, however, runs out, and the man who tries desperately to bring all of God’s children under one loving kingdom of profound forgiveness ends up dying to do so. He lays his life down on the cross in order to show what so many of his stories and sermons tried to: that it’s impossible to get too far from his Father’s love. It just can’t be done. No amount of turning your back on his life, no amount of ignoring the grace, no amount of internal resentment and selfishness no amount of dying can separate you from this God.

The focus of Lent is repentance, learning to receive again and again God’s grace in Christ. Two weeks ago repentance looked like coming to terms with our vulnerability as humans and realizing God is our refuge. Last week it meant understanding our lifelong responsibility for growth in faith and God’s desire to give us new chances to attempt that. This week it’s about coming to ourselves, turning around, and running back into the open arms of a God whose instinct is to come out onto the road of life to meet us.

The troubles, they might drag you down
You get lost, but you can always get found.
Just know you’re not alone…
This God will always be your home.



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.