Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21C/Lectionary 26C] - September 25, 2016 (Luke 16:19-31 and Psalm 146)

Sometime about a year ago a house on my way to and home from church got painted pink. All the other houses along that street are plain-colored, ordinary-looking houses. That whole house, however, from the ground to the roof and every bit of siding and shudder in between, is a bright pink. It is so pink that even I, someone who suffers from red-green colorblindness, can tell it stands out. My wife says it is a Pepto-Bismol shade of pink, just to give you a mental image. We happen to like it. It’s just…different. Who knows? Maybe the person who lives there is a John Cougar Mellencamp fan.

The other day as I was driving that route I got to the next stoplight past that house and for some reason a question popped into my head: is that house still pink? And then I couldn’t believe I had even asked myself that question because, after all, I had just driven past it. It was clearly painted to be noticed, to turn heads, and yet, after going right past it about nine or ten times each week, I had somehow managed to stop seeing it altogether. It had become just a part of the scenery, I suppose, part of my way to work. I hadn’t necessarily chosen to ignore it, but my mind had moved on to other things. The really interesting thing is that later that day, on my way home, even after I had resolved to look at it, I passed the same house again and, once again, failed to notice if it had been re-painted or if it was still pink.

Lazarus and the Rich Man (Fedor Bronnikov, 1886)
The parable that Jesus tells the Pharisees this morning which has come to be known as the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, is about noticing things. It’s about not passing by, over and over again, that which really should stand out, that which should really disturb and distract. It’s kind of an extreme example, an embellished tale about two people and the drastic consequences that befall them after they die, but the message Jesus has for his listeners is there are certain pink houses smack in front of us and, believe it or not, it’s awfully easy to let our minds be lulled into ignoring them.

We begin with a rich man. He dresses in the finest clothes available and he eats whatever he wants and however much he wants every single day. We would say he’s in the 1%. In fact, he’s the top 1% of the 1%. Then there’s Lazarus, the bright pink house situated at the opening to his property. Right of the bat there is something noteworthy. No other character in any of Jesus’ stories has a name. Not even the rich man has a name. Lazarus happens to mean, of all things, “God helps.” He’s the bottom 1%.

Jesus really piles on the details with Lazarus, and it’s kind of gross. In the time before napkins, they say wealthy people used to use pieces of bread to wipe their mouths and then toss it to the floor. That’s what Lazarus wants to eat. He doesn’t get to, of course, but if he could just get one spit-covered piece of leftover bread with some half-chewed pieces of food on it he’d be satisfied.

And then there are the open wounds all over his skin. Every day, right there in front of the rich man’s house, right where Lazarus’ friends had laid him, the mangy street dogs come, almost like they expect him to die. The wounds on his skin are oozing with something they like to lick, and poor Lazarus is too weak and tired to shoo them away.

And that’s Lazarus’ day: lying at the rich man’s gate, dreaming about scraps of slobbery bread while dogs lick his wounds. It’s a really, really a sad sight. Except the rich man apparently doesn’t see it. And if he does see it, he doesn’t see it for what it is, or, I should say, he doesn’t see Lazarus for who he is. He is someone God helps. And therefore Lazarus is an opportunity to practice compassion.

Meister des Codex Aureus
Of course, the real interesting action takes place after the two men die. Lazarus is whisked away by the angels to rock in the bosom of Abraham and the rich man goes down to Hades where he suffers in extreme heat, where it’s, like, 95˚ with a heat index of 110˚, and he didn’t get to bring his water bottle. Suddenly, for the first time, he sees Lazarus! He notices Lazarus, even though now he is far away, because Lazarus has something that he wants. Abraham and the rich man go back and forth over this request for a water droplet until finally the rich man thinks of someone else…his brothers, who are probably just as well-off as he was. Jesus’ parable ends with an intriguing bit of foreshadowing. Those who are not able to notice through God’s Word through history that God helps the downtrodden, that God desires mercy for the neighbor, that God looks on the lowly, are probably not going to understand God’s essential character even should someone rise from the dead.

Jesus never intends for this parable to be a literal description of what happens to people when they die. And neither is Jesus trying to teach that only by doing good things can someone avoid Hades and get into heaven. Those are exaggerated, folklore-type features that Jesus has added in. They’re in every parable Jesus tells, over-the-top elements that surprise and sometimes warn. Here he’s added them so that the Pharisees and anyone else who is listening may understand that a great reversal is taking place. With Jesus, the entire system of the world will be upended, turned upside down, and it is high time to notice the kinds of people God has decided to help, the kind of situations God has chosen to get involved in.

It just so happens that wealth, possessions, material things can blind us to that great reversal. And it’s not just affluence that has that ability. Educational level, class, race, even technology can do the same. There was a piece in the Washington Post this week titled “Why Church Can Rescue Us from our Smartphones” which made excellent observations about how our constant desire to be connected through technology has actually, in many cases, “disconnected us from our sense of humanity and from one another.”[1] All of these things—money, education, technology—are gifts from God but, allowed to run amok, can have a power over us, reinforcing our innate selfishness and encasing us in a type of privilege that prevents us from understanding what it’s like from someone else’s perspective.

As for the Pharisees, those in Jesus’ day who are a bit infatuated with wealth, no one speaks with greater authority than Abraham. And Abraham reminds them that the whole gist of God’s law and order is to practice compassion, to take care of the unfortunate. That is, to open our eyes and see the things that God sees and God helps. God sees the orphans and the widows, as the psalm appointed for today reminds us. God sees the stranger, the one who doesn’t have a home, the one who doesn’t belong. God notices those who are oppressed. God never, ever, drives by and gets to the next stoplight and wonders, “You know, did I just pass someone who the world seems to have forgotten? That house, where that family just lost a loved one, is it still there? Or that house, where someone’s struggling with addiction and the shame it has brought them, is it still there?” In Jesus Christ of Nazareth, crucified for the world, God is driving around and stopping at all these Lazarus places—and making them his priority. It would be a shame for us to miss out on the great reversing, the first-shall-be-last-and-the-last-shall-be first-thing that is happening for real in his resurrection from the dead.

Speaking of people like orphans and widows and noticing them, of being in tune to Christ’s great reversal and jumping in to help, Matt Greenshields, our Council Secretary, received a special thank you note last month from Lutheran Family Services of Virginia. The email contained a link to a story about a 12-year-old boy named Jahem who had spent most of his life in the foster care system (and in hospitals) but who had recently been adopted by a family and given a forever home. The note, which Matt shared with me and Council, and we think needs to be shared with you, read,

“Dear Matt,

I wanted to send you a link to this story and share with you how we used some of the donation money received from Epiphany Lutheran Church.  This little boy has had multiple surgeries over the years for his medical needs and we finally found an adoptive family for him!  Several years ago, Epiphany also donated money for a special speaking device for this young man, as he is nonverbal.  We used a portion of the donation money to throw him a huge adoption party and to buy some nice gifts for the family – including a picture of a family tree with all of their names on it. We are so very thankful for the support Epiphany has provided us through the years.”

So, Jesus’ parable reminds us we are on a journey of grace to see the ones God sees, to help the ones God helps, the ones first in line for the great big turnaround his creation is longing for. As we open up our eyes, as we receive God’s Word, as we remember he has risen for us to have new life, we begin to see them, too. And when we have our eyes opened wide enough by the Lord of heaven and earth, we look around at the people in the news, the stories from around the world, the Jahems and Lazaruses and rich men and women who are right around the corner and we may even begin to realize, my goodness, (Grant us wisdsom! Grant us courage!) this parable isn’t such an exaggeration after all!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “Why Church Can Rescue us From our Smartphones.” WashPost. Russell Moore, Sept 21

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19C/Lectionary 24C] - September 11, 2016 (Luke 15:1-10)

Several years ago I was locking up the building one Sunday after worship and before I had a chance to leave I saw the car of one of our members pull up in the circular drive out front. The woman got out of her car and came and knocked on the front door of the church. I unlocked the door and let her in. She explained that she had gotten home from worship and quickly realized that one of the bracelets she had worn to church that day was no longer on her arm. It was a very special bracelet that her husband had given to her when they were courting over seventy years before. I could see that the bracelet like that meant a lot to her and would warrant getting back in the car and immediately driving back to church to find it. She didn’t know where it was, she said, but since she hadn’t really gone many places that morning, she figured there were only a few places it might be.

Of course, I offered to help her look for it. Even though I didn’t know what it looked like, I figured a bracelet can’t be that difficult to locate. It’s not like an earring or a ring or something like that. We went in the sanctuary and she showed me where she had sat during worship and I got down on the floor and looked all around. She checked the racks where the hymnals are kept. We then did the same kind of searching in the pews in front of and behind where she had sat, and all along the wall in case it had fallen off and someone had unknowingly kicked it. She attended the 11:00 service that day, so we figured it couldn’t have gone far. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn up in the sanctuary, and she was a little bummed because that was the only place she had really gone inside the church. So we went outside and retraced her steps in the parking lot between the front door and where she had parked.

Nothing turned up. There was no telling where that thing could be. And then she remembered one other place she had gone: the bathroom. So we went and looked in the back bathroom there together. I got down on the floor while she picked up things on the counter and looked under them. No bracelet. We looked through the waste paper basket. No bracelet.

The funny thing is now I can’t remember where her husband was during all of this. In my memory she had left him back at home, but, come to think of it, she may have left him in the passenger seat of the car with the motor running while the two of us ransacked the church. In any case, she left that afternoon without her bracelet, but I promised that if it turned up we’d call her immediately.

About two hours later I was at home and the phone rang, and it was her. She was laughing as she tried to explain to me that she had found the bracelet. She had gone to use the restroom and found the bracelet, of all places, in her underwear. Apparently it had fallen off her arm in the bathroom at church but her undergarments had caught it. That whole time we’d been walking around together she had still been wearing her bracelet, she just didn’t know it!

Lost sheep, lost coin, lost bracelet. In one real-life episode, that woman managed to tie together all the important aspects of the first two parables Jesus told about God’s determination to find those who are lost. In coming all the way back to church, leaving her husband who-knows-where by himself, she was like the shepherd who leaves the 99 perfectly-safe-and-sound sheep to go rescue the one who had gotten separated. In carefully retracing her steps at church and turning over every hymnal and pew cushion and stack of paper towels she could find in order to uncover the precious item that belonged to her, she was like the woman in the parable who loses the coin. And, in telephoning me in great joy in order to tell me she found it—no matter how embarrassing that discovery may have been—she was like both the shepherd and the woman, go the extravagant extra mile by inviting friends over and throwing a party simply to celebrate the finding. She was like the shepherd and the woman. And therefore she was like God, becoming a sermon for this religious authority as I was locking up the church on the wideness of his mercy.

That’s the point of those two over-the-top characters in the parables Jesus tells the Pharisees. Jesus has found that he needs to make an important point about the basic character of God. The Pharisees and the scribes, religious authorities of Jesus’ time, are watching Jesus eat with people they think are deplorable. The tax collectors and sinners were the folks who, by their actions and by the company they kept, seemed to show open disregard for the laws of God. Everyone knew they were in sore need of repentance. The Pharisees were used to shunning these people, looking down on them, drawing a line to make sure they weren’t included in God’s circle. But Jesus takes the opportunity to explain in very relatable, ordinary terms, that God doesn’t look down on anyone. God simply looks for them. God looks for us. Both the shepherd and the woman—two run-of-the-mill, everyday characters—are symbolic of God the Father, who, as it turns out, is obsessed by what has gotten separated from him, fanatical about who has been lost, fixated on who has gone astray. That’s the basic character of God.

But here’s the thing: for as ordinary and run-of-the-mill as these two characters may be, they both do something very extraordinary and peculiar that surprises us all. It’s one thing to look for something that you’ve lost—that is, to sweep the house up one side and down the other, to leave the ninety-nine to traipse off into the wilderness—but to throw a party when you’ve found it? That’s a bit extravagant. In both parables, they are so overcome with joy that they invite their friends and neighbors to take part in it. In the Greek “friends and neighbors” essentially meant anyone around you, the people in your close peer group as well as those who share the village with you.

This is an over-the-top reaction to finding what you’ve lost, and Jesus wants the religious folk to hear that. When even one person realizes how lost he or she is…when even one person faces up to how unsafe they really are in this world when left to their own measly powers…when even on person comes to terms with how susceptible they are to chasing after that which is invaluable, God is filled with joy. That’s why God doesn’t look down on the lost and the least. God, in Jesus, looks for them. Over and over. Nonstop. Knocking on the church door and searching the bathroom with the pastor, if he has to.

This is the lesson about God’s character that Jesus wants the Pharisees to hear, as they look down on that crowd, and it’s a good one for us to reflect on again and again. I can’t presume to know what “being lost from God” looks like or feels like for anyone else. I imagine it feels different for everyone here. But I do know this: Repentance, however you like to define it—the changing of the mind or and turning around to realize the treasure of God’s presence—is something always open to us, and even more easy to undertake now that we know we have Jesus looking for us, now that we have a shepherd who wants to put us on his shoulders and carry us home when he’s found us.

I think most of us are aware that today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  I find a lot of conversations regarding that event still begin with questions like, “Where were you when you found out about the Towers?” and “What was that day like for you?” And yet I’m kind of shocked to realize that the 9th graders who will start confirmation with me this week have absolutely no memory of that day or its immediate aftermath. They were born after (or right before) it happened. It’s a historical event to them and to all the children younger than they are. There is a lot about the world now that seems to have just picked up and moved on. The feelings of camaraderie and compassion that flowed out of the response to 9/11 is basically gone. The spike in church attendance we experienced even here at Epiphany in the two years following the attacks as subsided. There have been additional terrorist attacks in other countries, there are wars still being fought today as a result of that event, and tens of thousands of people have died as the world starts to reshape itself in response to these acts of terror. With so many competing understandings out there regarding what God is like, let us be clear about our witness of God’s basic character. We need to proclaim more than ever that the shepherd is still looking for lost sheep, that this woman is still sweeping the floor for that coin because every single person is a child of God in need of a relationship with their Creator.

When I recall 9/11 I’m most moved by the stories of all those first responders who sacrificed their lives to go into the tower to search for people who were stuck in danger, people who were lost. Maybe that’s the best parable we can find today, For, as it turns out, Jesus doesn’t just look and look and sweep and sweep to find whatever belonds to God. He dies and suffers in order to have them, to bring them back, to save them from forever being separated from the God who loves them. He offers his own body on the cross to search out and rescue from the darkest corridors of life all those who belong in God’s care.

And he throws a party! Bread and wine are passed around, people share of themselves and rejoice in the love of the shepherd. Pharisees and scribes, sinners and tax collectors—we’re all going to be gathered in the feast of friends and neighbors.

And that leads me to the other way that woman here reminded me of God that day. God sweeps us up into his search-and-rescue efforts. We’re not just the sought-after. We’re also the seekers, his helpers, pressed into action, down on our hands and knees, searching high and low to invite, to welcome, to offer another blessed word of hope that God is still running into the dark to seek and to save. And that this good news is a reason to join the Rally, the party, the phone call to friends and neighbors. What was lost has been found.

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18C/Lectionary 23C] - September 4, 2016 (Luke 14:25-33)

Like so many of you, my wife, Melinda, and I have spent a lot of time and energy over the past week getting our children ready for a new year of school. We are always both flabbergasted by the amount of school supplies, even though we both agree it all makes sense. I’ve learned that there’s a whole ritual to it—we get the list of things the teachers are requesting, we go out and purchase what’s needed, and then on school orientation day we cram everything into paper bags and head over to the elementary school along with all the other students and their parents. We schlepp our bags of school supplies into the classrooms, locate our daughters’ desks, which are labeled carefully by the teacher with a nametag bearing the neatest handwriting you’ve ever seen, and then follow the instructions for unloading and unpacking everything in those paper bags for a new school year:

Colored pencils and five erasers—count them—go in the green pencil box that stays in the desk. Ziploc baggies and boxes of Kleenex are deposited in the appropriate bin on the table on the other side of the room. Pencil sharpeners go here, markers go here, tennis balls get sliced and put on the feet of the chairs right here. Armed with a clipboard and organizational skills that could single-handedly run a space program, the teachers make their way in the midst of this crowd, putting names to faces, allaying fears, pumping the enthusiasm.

That’s the ritual. Here’s what it has taught me: What teacher, preparing her students for a year of learning, doesn’t first calculate how many glue sticks they’ll need, how many bottles of hand sanitizer they’ll go through? What teacher, encouraging her class to seek new horizons, doesn’t remind them of what they’re getting into? The adventure of education seems so exciting and refreshing each year, but the teacher knows more than anyone else: there are costs involved, sacrifices to be made, preparations to be considered.

The crowds are swarming around that other Teacher, too. We think we’re ready. We claim to be excited. We sign up for the Bible study, the Sunday School class, the baptism preparation sessions. We say “I’ll serve,” or “I’ll believe,” and we rush in closer to where the enthusiasm is being pumped, and then we’re handed the disciples’ list of supplies.

As it turns out, it doesn’t involve items we need to accumulate, but rather mindsets we need to adopt. This Teacher’s list doesn’t mention anything about things we need to pull together, but about what we need to give up. Interestingly enough, this Teacher’s idea of being prepared doesn’t involve saying “Yes” to a new year or a new experience as much as it will involve saying “No”—“no” to cumbersome relationships, “no” to a sense of entitlement, “no” to unhealthy relationships with possessions. This Teacher, like any good teacher, wants his followers to know as much as they can right up front what they’re getting themselves into, that sacrifices will be made. What kind of preparations have you taken as you’ve walked with Jesus? Is there anything you wish you had known about before you responded in faith?

The part of Jesus’ little discipleship pep talk that raises the most eyebrows is the line about hating your family members and even life itself in order to follow Jesus. That sounds harsh to us, especially because there are so many other times when Jesus is telling us to love others. And there are times when Jesus and other biblical voices embrace the joys of this life. Jesus’ use of the word “hate,” might just be an example of exaggerated speech which was common—and still is common—in the middle east. That is, he doesn’t literally mean despise your family and wish them dead.

No matter what, he is getting us to acknowledge that following Christ takes priority over other commitments. He is hoping we understand that a disciple’s identity in Christ is paramount to any other identity we have, even the one we receive from our family. In Jesus’ time, the loyalty to family and clan outweighed all other bonds. It determined just about everything about who you were and what you could do and who you could associate with. When Jesus says disciples must hate their family and even life itself he is not saying they must turn their backs on those they love, but he is saying from now on his followers will not make all decisions based on what is best for themselves or their family or even their country but on which option forward best embodies the love of Christ.

It’s been interesting to watch San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick struggle  with allegiances to different ideals and movements this week as he takes heat for refusing to stand for the national anthem. Despite what any of us may think about his thinking and decision, whether we support Kaepernick or disagree with him, that kind of resolve is precisely what Jesus is looking for in a disciple.

Another mindset change that Jesus issues to his would-be followers involves the carrying of a cross. Jesus wants the crowd to know that self-promotion and self-assertion have no part of his mission. He is about self-denial and self-sacrifice. Carrying a cross doesn’t mean to suffer for any ol’ reason, which is how we often twist it when we don’t like the choices we’ve been given. It means to be a part of the kinds of activities and the ways of living that involve a giving over of self, even when it’s painful, choosing the more difficult path in a given situation because there will eventually be greater good.

Third on the list of school supplies Jesus hands out is the handing over of possessions. Those who are on a journey of faith are really learning to value things that cannot be bought or sold or even held. They are seeking things like hope and love and justice and peace. They are staking out a place in a kingdom that has no boundaries, no weapons, no money. To live there, then, one must learn to release things that get in the way of travel in that direction. Material things aren’t bad, but they will eventually weigh the disciple down.

This weekend Pope Francis in Rome declared Teresa of Calcutta a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Some have criticized her work, but she founded an organization that runs nineteen relief hospitals and homes for what some consider the world’s poorest in the slums of 160 cities, helping in regions where no other company or government has been able to make a similar difference. The only possessions to her name when she died in 1997 were a bucket at two saris.

“No” to competing loyalties, “no” to and attitude of entitlement and “no” to cumbersome possessions: that is the Teacher’s list of supplies. But with so many “nos” it would be awfully easy to forget what a disciple is saying “yes” to. With such stark instructions for what it means to follow, it would be easy to forget the element of surprise and mystery that accompanies a walk with Christ. We may be able to count the costs, but we still don’t know what is going to be in store for us.

I know a friend who hesitated quite a bit before saying “yes” to a year as a young adult in global mission, the same program our Emily Dietrick just left on. She knew it meant leaving behind for a while the security of life in the States, saying goodbye to close friends, and going directly into a teaching job. But then once she did, she was introduced in her new country to a community of different Christian denominations, which ignited an interest to enroll in seminary. She then said “yes” to a her supervising committee’s urging that she pursue a Master’s Degree, which led to a “yes” to ordination. She now serves a Lutheran congregation in South Carolina that also hosts an Episcopal congregation.

There is also the story of a man in the congregation of one of my colleagues who said “yes” to marrying his wife, who then talked him into flying lessons, which then led to a job in small craft airlines where he flies planes for CEOs. Because most of the planes are small enough, he finds time to talk to his passengers, when the opportunity arises, about God and his faith.

There’s stories from within our own congregation Ask the people involved with the HHOPE pantry at some point, who’ve reluctantly said “yes” to organizing this feeding ministry. They’ll talk about how they initially thought about how they’d be sacrificing some Friday nights and some Saturday mornings to sort food and set up the donation tables. But then they never thought about the weekly hugs they’d receive from the community members who depend on the bags of food, or the relationships they’ve build with people who live right around our church. How do you calculate the benefits of those things?

Jesus knows those things really can’t be calculated. Jesus knows grace can’t be figured out beforehand, like you can when you put the colored pencils in the supply box and the eighteen glue sticks in the Ziploc bag. The irony of Jesus’ list, of course, is that when the Lord of life is involved, none of us really knows what we’re getting ourselves into. We walk the journey, making each decision with the help of the Holy Spirit, confident in God’s mercy if we get things wrong. We walk the journey with this gracious Teacher, certain that we do have a God who has counted the cost for us. We have a God who is exactly like the person who builds a good foundation and knows what it will take to complete it. We do have a King who understands the price of doing battle, who knows the terrible nature of what he’s up against, and still goes in for the fight so that, on the cross, all may win victory.

With faith in that, we can agree to this list of “nos” knowing that many new “yeses” await us, too. As Samuel Wells, vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, says about the church he serves, “We haven’t arrived, but the journey’s great. We’re not sure exactly where we’re going, but it’s getting better all the time. We’ve had wonderful experiences, but the best is yet to come.”[1]

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “Seven Possibilities for church.” The Christian Century, June 22, 2016. P 29