Roses are Red, Ashes are Black

A sermon for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

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Roses are red
Violets are blue
Some day I will die
And so will you.

Roses are red
Ashes are black
Tell me I’m dust
And I’ll tell you right back.

When Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincide, you might as well take advantage of it!

I ran across a couple of other possible holiday cards for today’s occasion:

             “Won’t you be my valentine, you miserable offender?”

and

“Remember you are dust, but awfully loveable dust!”

And, for Roman Catholics:

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
I don’t want chocolate. It’s fish fries or bust.”

There is actually a hashtag trending on Twitter for today: #AshWednesDate, as in, “Won’t you be my AshWednesDate?” That reminds me of the time when I was studying abroad in Germany after college and I liked this one young woman and finally asked her to go on a date with me one day. She said “yes,” and since we both had an interest in the local history and culture, I took her on a tour of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Turns out that’s not the most romantic place for a date. My buddies never let me live that one down.

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So maybe Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday don’t really go together all that well after all. Death kind of clashes with sweet reminders of love, at least the kind of love that Hallmark envisions. But it does strike me as interesting that while school kids across the nation will be taking scissors and cutting out millions of construction paper hearts today, priests and pastors throughout the world will be tracing millions of ashen crosses across foreheads young and old.

And on the same day many people will be rushing to the florist or the candy shop at the last minute to purchase something that will remind their significant other of their love, as many more of us are somberly shuffling into worship services to be reminded of their mortality.

It is as good a time as ever, then, to remember that love is what draws us here. But this is no frilly, cutesy, chocolate-covered love. This is the enduring love of the Creator. As the prophet Joel announces to the people of God, it is the “slow-to-anger, aboundingly-steadfast love” of the same God who first fashioned us from the dust.

Joel inserts this important reminder of what God’s love is actually like into his call to repentance. Joel is calling them to return to God because death itself is staring them in the eye. The Day of the Lord that is storming onto their horizon is not going to be the party atmosphere they had expected. It is a day of gloom and thick darkness. Like an army, a massive infestation of locusts will wipe out their crops and lead to a famine and thousands may die. Their situation is not due so much to the fact that God has deliberately sent the plague to punish them as it is that their thoughtless living has left them vulnerable to these kinds of calamities. Joel speaks to a people of God who have essentially forgotten their responsibility to one another and to the poor in their midst. They’ve lived as if they don’t need to worry about the damage their selfishness can do to themselves and others. They’ve lived as if they have all the time in the world. The prophet sees this this impending disaster as a kind of wake-up call from all of that.

That is the purpose of the ashes today. It’s an impending disaster, a reminder that though we are beautiful and good, we are neither as beautiful or good as we should be. We have wandered from our holy calling to be examples of God’s righteousness in the world, and it grieves God. And yet God invites us to return to him, to change direction and face that fact not in a sense of fear or doom, but in the hope of love, of steadfast love. We are given the opportunity by a gracious God to rend our heart—to rip that carefully cut Valentine heart—instead of our clothing. That is, to let this reality of death shake us to our core, not just on the surface through platitudes, and know there is nevertheless forgiveness and cleansing and life in God’s care.

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And therefore a Valentine’s Ash Wednesday gives us the chance to come to terms with the two messages that enable us to truly live as God’s people: “You will die,” and “You are loved.” The two statements which, when placed together, free us to be who we are created and redeemed to be are “Remember you are dust,” and “Remember you are loved.”

Just as in Joel’s prophecy, both are vitally important, and nothing more really needs to be said. Knowing we are going to die reminds us we don’t have all the time in the world. We make mistakes. We aren’t perfect. The ignoring of death leads us to make all kinds of harmful decisions to ourselves and others. Hearing we are dust reminds us of our need of God’s eternal care and, just as importantly, forces us to come to terms with our common bonds with others, of our responsibility to live as God’s fragile people together, aware of our needs, not to live as God’s individuals who are out to get what they can while they can.

But hearing that we are also loved lifts us up. It reminds us of another aspect of who we are—that we still have worth through God’s steadfast love. It reminds us of the great lengths God has gone to have us return to him, to make us God’s own.

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And that’s why the shape of love on our foreheads tonight will not be a heart, but a cross. It is a symbol that manages to encompass both: a sign of where our brokenness takes us—of the place human sinfulness always leads—but also a sign of what true love looks like. This love is selfless…it is for the other…it gives its life. It says “You, child, are dust, but you are my dust.”

We live in a world that offers few healthy perspectives on death or love. It tends to glorify the one through violence, a sick fetish with weaponry, or through a self-loathing that thinks of death as a solution to problems, and it sentimentalizes or oversexualizes the other. In this midst of all this, the follower of Christ stands somewhat as a fool. We are God’s funny Valentines to the world, honest about our own shortcomings, and honest about what death does to God’s creation and our relationships.

But we also get to be honest about the love that has been given to us for the sake of others. We are freed to live our faith in ways that hold those two things in tension. We confront the darkness in ourselves and others, but we also proclaim that God has reconciled it all to himself in Jesus.

On Wednesdays this Lent we will explore the lives of some notable fools in Christ, people who have been particularly outstanding examples of that reconciliation between God and humankind, people who strove in their unique witness to remind others both of the world’s sin but also of God’s steadfast love. As a bridge of saints connecting Valentine’s Ash Wednesday and an April Fool’s Easter, they will inspire us to give thanks for the people who have gone before us. As people who share our baptism—Harriet, Dietrich, Francis, Oscar, Catherine—they will encourage us to live into our own baptismal call as fools in this dying world…and into the message of tonight’s ashes…that (hmm, how shall I say this today?)…

Roses are red
Violets are mauve
Both broken and beautiful
We’re marked by God’s love.

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

Temporary Chapel

A sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year B]

2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9

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St. Mary’s Hospital down the road here has a beautiful chapel that happens to be under renovation at the moment. I don’t know what they’re doing to it or how long it will take, but they’ve got that whole area around the doors boarded off. There’s no telling what’s really going on behind there. In the meantime, however, the hospital authorities have taken a plain-old, ordinary board room, and fancied it up a little with some religious decoration. They’ve set up chairs in rows all facing one direction sort of like pews, and there is a table in the front that looks like it is standing in as an altar. They’ve got a sign on the wall outside the door that welcomes people in and lets them know that although at first glance it appears to be a plain-old ordinary board room, it is actually the place where daily mass and the prayers of the Rosary occur. Clearly someone has gone to some lengths to make it feel like a place where someone could connect with God.

The hospital calls it—get this—the Temporary Chapel, and all over the first floor of the hospital there is very well-placed and easy-to-read signage that points you to it in case you find yourself needing a moment of solitude and prayer. But they want you to know it is just the Temporary Chapel. It’s not the real chapel, but it will do for now. It’s not anything close to what the final version of the hospital’s chapel will look like or feel like, but it is a promise they are working on it. It is nice enough for the purpose it needs to serve, but it is also a reminder that not too far down the road there will be something better.

The transfiguration of Jesus is like a temporary chapel. Jesus is changed before the disciples’ eyes into something glorious, but it is not the final version of his glory. The transfiguration is a powerful moment where the disciples connect with Jesus’ divine identity but it is not anywhere close to what they will eventually experience in him. And it is a nice enough gathering for now, this dazzling moment of wonder and awe, but the transfiguration is never meant to be the end of the journey. It is only meant to be temporary, a plain-old ordinary mountaintop briefly transformed into a holy space for the disciples to be reminded that there’s going to be something better.

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Transfiguration (Fra Angelico, 1442)

And that’s why Peter’s idea to stay there, to build some tents and camp out there, ultimately makes no sense. No one is going to set up shop in the Temporary Chapel at St. Mary’s or change the official floorplans and the blueprints of the building because they’ll eventually be moving back into the renovated one. Likewise, Jesus does not bring the disciples up the mount of transfiguration as the final stop on his journey as the Son of God. It is a moment of glory that somehow points to the final one. Just like people often go to the top of a mountain in order to get a better lay of the land, to see farther afield, Peter, James, and John are brought to the top of the mountain to see what lies in Jesus’ distant future.

Of course, then, the whole point of the transfiguration is to look at it. It’s not clear that they’re supposed to understand it when it happens, but they disciples are supposed to use their eyes and see it. Jesus’ clothes become bright white, his appearance changes, and there’s the arrival of Israel’s two all-time greatest historical figures, the prophets Moses and Elijah. These are all things that they pick up on through their sense of sight.

I often think that for modern folks like us this event, which is told in three of the four gospels, sounds a bit too much to believe. The other night we were watching the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and I kept having a hard time believing that what I was seeing on my screen was real. At one point, the announcers even slipped in that people in the stadium were actually not seeing everything we were seeing on our televisions. Some of the graphics and computer animations were designed to be visible only through the camera and broadcast this to those in their homes. The announcer had a word for it. She called it “augmented reality.”

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For us the transfiguration has this quality of being augmented reality, something that is told to us that may not have been experienced exactly like that for the people who were there. Regardless, the early Christians took this seriously. It was a key event for them because they were fighting against a distorted form of Christianity known as Gnosticism (which we’re still fighting now) that taught and thought that God could only be experienced through things like meditation and reading certain secret books and learning special sayings. As dreamy as the transfiguration may sound to us nowadays, it was actually a sign that God had a visible representative here on earth in the person of Jesus Christ. Looking at him, no matter how perplexing and overwhelming it may be sometimes, will be vital to understanding God.

That’s similar to what Elisha goes through as he forces himself to watch his mentor and companion Elijah leave him. It’s clearly painful and uncomfortable for him to go through with it, even though it is ultimately to his benefit. He will gain a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. It’s often how we talk about the difficulty of watching a loved one die. Sometimes we’ll even say we don’t want to go visit grandma or our parents in the hospital or nursing home because we don’t want to see them in that state. We’ll say, “I don’t go visit much because I can’t bear to see her like that,” or even, “I don’t want to look at her because that’s not my grandma anymore,” as if she’s somehow left a look-alike there in the bed and slipped out to another room. I know that when I went to visit my 99-year-old grandmother back at Thanksgiving she was very different from the sprightly woman I grew up knowing. She didn’t even know who we all were gathered in her nursing home room. But it was no less her. It’s painful to see someone leave us, painful to think of being left utterly alone, painful to miss the old times and yet there’s something deeply healthy for us about watching that transformation occur, even as we lose them. God still teaches us and speaks to us even in those final moments that are so hard to live through.

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And that’s exactly what Peter, James, and John are going to have to go through, too. As important as it is for them to look at Jesus on during that transfiguration and learn that God’s own Son can actually be seen and therefore followed, the most important part of watching Jesus comes after they’re down the mountain. The disciples must watch as Jesus slowly, gradually, leaves them, involving himself more and more in his mission to suffer and die.

Everything up until this point has been winning for Jesus. He’s cast out demons, he’s healed sick people, even those on the edge of death. He’s won arguments with his opponents, he’s exercised miraculous power over nature. Now he begins what looks like losing. He will lose himself to the powers of darkness and evil. He will lose himself to the visions of grandeur and militaristic discipleship that the disciples have. And he will lose himself completely on the cross. Everything he is and everything he has will be snuffed out like a candle.

 

And so this is a temporary chapel, right here on the mountain. We cannot stay here, but we learn it is good for us to look at Jesus now because it will not seem to match with what comes next. Maybe that’s why the voice from God says to listen to him. When we don’t know what to do, like Peter, when we find it hard to watch God or even find him in the story of our lives, we can at least listen to him. When we find it too difficult to see the glory of God in our world because things are too broken, we can always hear him speaking. We can hear him in the words of Scripture. We can still hear him calling to us in the lyrics of hymns. We can hear him as we gather around the table: “This is my body, given for you.” Given for us…even as he loses himself for us.

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When Elisha finishes watching Elijah disappear into heaven and the sweet chariot swings low to carry him home, Elisha is left alone. He tears his clothes in sorrow and anguish. But the disciples are never left alone. After the glory of the transfiguration fades and the cloud disappears, there he is: only Jesus. He walks down the mountain with them into the valleys and towns below. And on to Golgotha, where it’s only Jesus. And even on the Sunday after he is crucified, after the clouds of Good Friday roll away, there he is…only Jesus!

As disciples, we are called into the service therefore of one who never really leaves us. Although the road can get rough and wind its way through scenes of endless renovation, the Spirit calls us to stare into the dark places and not avert our eyes, to venture into the struggle of the human condition and not despair. Jesus calls us to address the needs of the world without short-circuiting the work that God’s Spirit can accomplish in suffering.

For one day the real chapel will be finished, fully renovated according to God’s design. Oh, you, who are walking through the dark, meandering hallways of life, you who long to see your dear ones’ faces and not just in your mind’s memory…one day the gleaming Chapel will be finished, and he will gather us there. The one whose blood and tears have put it together will call out, and we will hear his voice and listen. The light that shines in our hearts now, that light which pierces the world’s shadows through our acts of love and mercy and kindness—that light is his light and one day it will be all we see.

And it will be good for us to be there. So good. Best.

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Back in the Game

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [Lectionary 5B]

Mark 1:29-39 and 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

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The National Football League’s season comes to an end today. The Philadelphia Eagles will face off against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII, which, lucky for the players, will be held indoors. It is supposed to be 6 degrees in the host city of Minneapolis today.

There is one NFL player who will be watching from the warmth of his home, and not just because his team didn’t advance through the playoffs. He will not be playing, and he is still not playing football because he was just released from the hospital this week from a spinal injury he received in a game on December 4. It is Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Ryan Shazier. Those who follow him on Instagram know that he has been very tight-lipped about the details of his injury and his progress. What’s clear is that he lost feeling in his legs, had spinal stabilization surgery, and now it appears he spends a lot of time in a wheelchair. He’s only 25 years old, and while his injury is by all accounts severe, his hope of returning one day to the football field is undimmed. Shazier doesn’t just want to get better; he wants to play again. Shazier doesn’t just want his legs to work; he wants to workout his legs in football.

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Ryan Shazier at Steelers practice, January 10

It occurs to me that’s actually our hope whenever a football player gets injured on the field. There’s a moment of shock and fright whenever a player goes down, and everyone hopes he’s OK—“quick…how many fingers am I holding up?”—but the real joy comes whenever a player picks himself up, checks out with the medics, and returns to the formation immediately. For Shazier and for others, that healing is just taking a little longer. The hope of purpose is no less there, which is why when Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law she jumps right back to work. They’re all like “Quick, how many fingers am I holding up?” but she brushes their hand out of the way, pops out of bed, and wheels in a cart of stuffed grape leaves and pinot noir.

This is not a statement about proper gender roles in first century Judaism or now. It’s about what it means to be healed, to be restored to purpose. It’s the hope of everyone who’s ever been knocked down, who’s ever been wounded in an accident, gotten a diagnosis, been in recovery, had their name on the transplant list. It’s the deep desire of everyone who’s struggled with a demon of any kind, everyone whose livelihood has been warped by society’s hurtful labels. Full healing, you see, is not limited to physical remedy—to having the fever go down, as in Simon’s mother-in-law’s case—but allows one the chance to re-engage in community as one of its members. It is, as Shazier knows, to get back in the game.

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And there’s a whole city of people now outside of the house in Capernaum where Jesus is staying who think there’s a chance they can get back into the game. Those who’ve walked have come there themselves on foot, but many have been brought and carried by friends and relatives. Jesus has, at this point, performed just one healing, not counting Simon’s mother-in-law. It’s hard to get a handle on that because we read Scripture in little bits and pieces throughout the year, but we’re still in the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. Jesus has had one seemingly unplanned encounter in the synagogue with a man who has an unclean spirit and within one day he’s a celebrity. By night-time they are there on the sidewalk, on the road, dropped the door. Simon’s house looks like a Wal-Mart parking lot in the wee hours of Black Friday.

In this crowd we see a whole humanity that is held back from the game of life. They’ve stopped whatever they’re doing to find this man who releases people from their burdens. There’s a sense of desperation, like they’ll do whatever it takes to see the person who can restore hope and purpose to them.

The wife of one of my colleagues was diagnosed with a relatively rare form of cancer a few years ago. The two of them have two young children and are living overseas. She’s in constant treatment now to beat back the tumors in her body. This week I just happened to hear on the radio a report that scientists in Boston had announced a very promising new hope for a cure for her type of cancer. I actually haven’t had any direct contact with him in years, but I found the article on-line and sent it to him anyway, thinking that surely he’d already heard about it. He is always super on-top of things in all aspects of life. To my surprise, he hadn’t heard about it, and within a couple of hours he had responded to me, saying, “I can’t thank you enough for this. It looks like they have not moved to clinical trial yet, but I will be contacting them and we’ll be first on the list.”

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waiting room at a health care clinic in South Africa

 

Jesus has a list by the morning of his second day of ministry, and he works and works, never letting up. I imagine the size of the crowd never decreases. With every healing, another two or three new people show up. What is he in all of this? He is living, breathing proof that God wants to heal his people, to set them free from whatever is holding them back. He is a strong clue, right here at the beginning, that God is about restoring people to life.

If you think about it, there are so many characteristics and qualities which people ascribe to God. People will say things like, “God will only give you what you can handle,” as if God is handing out maladies and challenges. Or we’ll hear things like, “God has a plan. Everything happens for a reason,” as if God is primarily about knitting together some secret story for every individual’s life and we’re supposed to decipher it and lucky for you if you figure yours out! God even gets looped into political party agendas and platforms, leading some of us to believe that if we vote one particular way then we’re voting against God or the Bible itself. Some aspects of those thoughts and theories may be helpful to some people, but generally-speaking it’s best we leave them alone. When he opens the door of Simon’s house that morning and sees the mass of humanity there, he doesn’t shout out, “God only gives you what you can handle!” or “Vote Democrat—or vote Republican—in the next election and this will all take care of itself.” Here, right at the beginning of Jesus’ story we get a clear description of what God is truly about, the fundamental character of God’s kingdom. It is to restore people to life—to give power to the faint, as Isaiah says, to lift up the lowly.

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However, it’s not just Simon’s mother-in-law and all those sick folks who are having their purpose restored. It is about Jesus having his own purpose restored and rebooted, right here at the beginning. At the end of that first day, in the morning, Jesus escapes somehow to pray. It takes his disciples a while to find them, but when they do, they remind him that there are more people at that door. They’ve all come searching for Jesus.

And he could have just as easily, I suppose, gone back the next day and started over. There was certainly plenty to do! And if he had, then you and I today might just be additional members of what would be called the First Church of Capernaum. Faith would perhaps consist of traveling there to see the great healer, over and over, when we needed him. But he doesn’t return there. When he hears his disciples say, “Everyone is searching for you.” Jesus responds with, “Let’s keep moving.” It’s as if Jesus already understands that already this early it’s going to be easy to get the roles reversed, to flip who is supposed to be searching for whom. With so much need in the world, it’s going to be so easy to turn God into the object of our searching, the basis of our faith, when really we’re the ones God is seeking out.

It would have been so easy, I think, for Jesus to have stayed put, to have people put their name on the list, to set up an appointment, but that’s not who God came to be for us. God’s purpose in Christ Jesus is to enter our world, not make us come to his. “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” And on and on through Galilee he goes, working his way into all kinds of hurt and human turmoil.

Eventually he works his way to the cross where he shows the depth of his desire to search us out to get us back into the game.

The architect who is working on our “Brighten Our Light renovations and additions is an active member of a congregation here in Richmond. He sent me an email this week out of the blue that contained a presentation he had attended at his church about the gifts and challenges of being church in this day and age. It contained thought-provoking information about the fact that Boomers are beginning to retire, Generation X is now assuming leadership roles in the workforce and politics, and the Millennials are making up a larger percentage of the workforce. It spoke of how the Internet and digital communication are creating all kinds of new possibilities but also new barriers to older ways of doing Christ’s ministry.

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Much of the presentation he sent me was material our Council has discussed and digested before, but it is always good to review it again. The Building Team has been so grateful that Epiphany is working with a design team who fundamentally understands—or at least cares to understand—what churches are facing in the years ahead, how it is vital that we not just try our best to make sure people are welcome when they come to us, even changing our architecture if we need to, but also that we seek them where they are. That is, that the church is still in important ways like Jesus, on the move, going out into the world and proclaiming the message. We seek to be all things to all people, as Paul said, in order that we might win some. By venturing out there, we help make the gospel free of charge. That can end up looking many different ways, but in the end it always communicates that God comes into the world searching for his children and setting them free, emptying his life for them— for that is what Jesus came out to do.

Last weekend I was with twenty-one of our high school youth at a Virginia Synod Youth event about two and a half hours west of here. The youth tend to love these youth events of our Synod. They sing the familiar songs and reconnect with old friends.  They look forward to the rhythm and flow of a weekend away, maybe like the one Jesus had outside Capernaum.

One of my favorite parts of the weekend is actually something not on the agenda, and it’s something I’ve never participated in. The last morning we are there—Sunday morning—some of the seniors have a tradition of waking up early to watch the sunrise from a hill that overlooks the broad valley down into Lynchburg. This year the tradition got cancelled because of bad weather, but I still remember the photos of past years with these high schoolers sitting shoulder to shoulder, on the brink of adulthood. On retreat in a quiet place, they look out onto the dawning of a new day. I imagine they are thinking about their friendships over the years, giving thanks for the ways they’ve been molded in faith though Sunday School and youth group. There’s also a sense of expectation as they do this, an undeniable fact they are moving on to new horizons, new challenges. They are not to stay here, frozen in the moment. The point is to go on, to grow and seek out new places where they will walk the journey and witness with joy. They remind me of a church preparing to follow Jesus into Galilee.

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And as the sun rises I hope they know—and I hope we know—the Son is risen. The Son who was crucified is risen and is indeed shining, restoring us to life, getting us back into the game.

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

 

Our gifts for God’s kingdom

a sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Lectionary 3B]

Mark 1:14-20

 

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A song came out this last year, in 2017, that still gets played on popular radio a good bit. It’s by a British band named Coldplay, and it is co-written by another band called the Chainsmokers. The song is called, “Something Just Like This,” and though the tune is fairly catchy, the message of the song is pretty good too. It’s actually a love song about worrying like you don’t measure up, that in order to have a worthwhile relationship you have to possess some kind of superhuman skill or special status. The opening lines go like this:

“I’ve been reading books of old
The legends and the myths
Achilles and his gold
Hercules and his gifts
Spiderman’s control
And Batman with his fists
And clearly I don’t see myself upon that list”

I don’t believe that Andrew and Simon and James and John would see themselves upon that list either. They’re just fishermen in Galilee, regular everyday people who blend right in to everyone else around them. They don’t really stack up with great warriors like Achilles, who supposedly had a shield made of enchanted gold, or Hercules, who had unbelievable strength. And a movie made about the first disciples would not contain amazing, dazzling visual effects or cool tools and cars and weapons. They would just have boats. And some fish. And scene after scene where they hang out with their father and pull their nets onto shore and fix them.

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The Call of Andrew and Peter (Duccio, 1311)

The first disciples are not myths and legends in any sense. And they’re certainly not made up in the way people invent comic book characters as a way to project their fantasies. They were actual, ordinary people, with nothing special to commend them to any type of world-changing movement…and yet they end up mattering. Jesus chooses them, of all people to begin his kingdom. Here, when the going gets tough—because his cousin John the Baptizer has been arrested down in Jerusalem, and times are dangerous for people taking on the powers-that-be— Jesus goes up into everyday Galilee and finds these fishermen to follow him.

None of the gospels writers give us any kind of backstory to what’s going on here. We know next to nothing about these first four disciples. We don’t know, for example, how good they are at fishing, although some researchers say that the fact that the Zebedee brothers and their father have a dragnet, a boat and a fishing crew means they must have doing fairly well for themselves. However, in terms of what—if anything—else happened which pushed towards this new vocation of following Jesus, the gospels are silent.

For example, did they know of Jesus beforehand and had inwardly developed an interest in being nearer to him, should the opportunity present itself? Were they miserable in their work and looking for something different? Did Jesus just have that kind of hypnotic pull over people so that when he walked up and locked eyes they couldn’t resist? Different scholars and historians have come up with several different ideas about what might have happened and have given us a little peak into the life of a first-century middle eastern fisherman. But ultimately what the gospel writers are concerned about is that Jesus calls them. Jesus enlists them, not the Achilleses and Herculeses of the world.

He finds them right in the middle of what they’re doing, not auditioning for kingdom-building school, not filling out a form for a change in job, but while they are just being themselves and doing what they can do: their gifts for God’s kingdom.

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Jesus drives this particular point home by telling Andrew and Simon that he will make them “fish for people.” What they are already able to do will be put to use in a slightly new way in order to bring more people into a relationship with God through Jesus. In fact, Mark tells us that James and John were mending the nets, but a better translation of that word is preparing the nets, meaning that they were in the act of venturing out to work right as Jesus comes by. When they become followers, we can think of their task as people who go into the world and help prepare others to receive God’s grace. They help prepare others not by performing feats of strength or superhuman control, but just using what they already can do. They discover God has already given them exactly what they need to help bring in his kingdom.

The call of Jesus’ disciples becomes the theme for our Consecration Sunday: our gifts for God’s kingdom. As we set aside our own gifts and contemplate how God might be calling us to give of our time and talent through the ministries of Epiphany the disciples remind us we don’t need to be on the list with the myths and legends of old. We don’t need to be on any list of any kind. God calls us all. Everyone has gifts and abilities for God’s kingdom. There’s no such thing as too small or too ordinary when it comes to helping the kingdom of God come near, because Christ can be reflected in all. And, truth be known, the smallest and weakest reflect Christ the best.

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When we start talking about gifted-ness, I know that there can be a lot of anxiety around the way school systems identify only certain kids as gifted. As a parent, I know it’s almost a taboo subject to bring up in mixed company because our culture places so much emphasis on certain specific academic abilities. Our children undergo tests, assessments, get tracked into certain curricula. And I’m not intending to criticize any of that because I’m not an educator, but I do know that here, in this place, everyone is identified gifted. And these are gifts that matter. They are not consolation prizes. They are things that come naturally to you, talents you have developed that improve the lives of those around you. And when you pass through these waters you are called to use those gifts for the advancement of Jesus’ kingdom each and every day.

There was one summer when this really dawned on me. I was on staff at Lutheridge and had I decided I would try to work as a counselor for a week or two with the special needs campers. Lutheridge has a long history of offering summer programs for folks with diagnoses like Down Syndrome, autism, and other cognitive or developmental delays. I was nervous about it because I had never worked with those populations before. I realized I had always thought about them mainly in terms of how they were different from me. We were in one of our orientation sessions where we were learning how to care for them and I’ll never forget what the director of the camp programs said to us as he began. I had assumed he was going to begin by telling us basics about what to do around them or what they’re diagnoses meant or how to handle certain situations that might arise that we might not be prepared for. Instead, he looked at us and said, “You need to know these people have gifts.” And then he repeated it, “The Spirit has given these people gifts. You will come to see them.” He didn’t wax schmaltzy or schmoozy. He just stated it as a fact, which it absolutely was.

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a week that changed my life sometime in 1994

Now, that was groundbreaking. For a twenty-year-old who was incredibly entitled and self-centered college guy and who, to be honest, thought he had a lot in common with Hercules, that was revolutionary. That was a moment when all kinds things about God and the world and myself shifted radically into place, I’m still trying to make sense of it all, still trying to take that to heart about everyone, but when I hear again and again the call of Andrew and Peter and the Zebedee brothers it enables me to re-hear was Eric Fink said that evening. We have gifts because that’s our God. He has created them in us and they have been redeemed through Jesus and sanctified for his kingdom coming by the Spirit.

Our hope is that today as we celebrate Consecration Sunday—and this year as we focus on a year of our congregation’s service ministry areas—will be a time you can reframe your own self-understanding in terms of how you are gifted. And we also hope that these may be times when you can hear again the call of Jesus to share those gifts. You are on the list.

Speaking of being on the list…in the spring of last year the worship team recruited some new people in the congregation to serve as worship assistants.  One member mentioned to me several times how nervous she was to be serving in this capacity and yet how she felt it was God’s call for her to give it a try. She had served in many other leadership capacities in the congregation but never as a lay reader or communion assistant. Some of you may know this person—it’s our outgoing Council Vice President Amy Boyle. About a month before she was to serve as a worship assistant for the first time she spoke to me and felt she needed some encouragement. She was afraid she’s spill wine on someone or that she’d trip in the robe or unknowingly do something around the altar that wasn’t respectful. I told her that she had nothing to worry about. I unknowingly do things that are disrespectful around the altar all the time. She’ll fit right in!  She had the gifts and it was, in fact, surprising to me that she wasn’t already serving in this way. Her anxiety still had her worked up but I think I had her convinced that she, Amy, had the gifts for this and that she was ready to give it a whirl.

Then, on the week before she was to serve for the first time the bulletin had incorrectly listed her name, and no one had caught it. We had only messed up one letter, but it was an important letter. She showed it to me and said something like, “If you think I’m qualified for this role, why is my name listed as “Any Boyle”?

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We’ve had some good laughs about that. Any Boyle will do! Send any one of them up! And yet, in some ways, that is the message we hear as God calls any fishermen…and then any tax collector…and then any people who initially hate church like Paul…and then any people who intend to go into other fields, like Martin Luther…and then any people like you and me. People who become, when put to work in God’s kingdom and when following Jesus’ footsteps to the foot of the cross and then past the tomb of Easter, even more gifted and more powerful than Hercules.

 

Been reading books of old
And bulletins of today
Disciples of the past
Everyone who can pray
They look so very plain,
Such ordinary folk
But when God calls them then his kingdom’s underway

 

Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

of missed calls and God moments

a sermon for the second Sunday after the Epiphany [Year B]

1 Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51

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It seems about once a week I misplace my cell phone. I’m sure many of you are not surprised. I’m a bit attached to it, and I walk around with the thing either in my hand or in my pocket, and it’s within an arm’s length if I’m sitting down somewhere. Typically when this happens I retrace my steps and find it pretty quickly, but after last Thursday’s staff meeting I was not having any luck. I had no idea where it was. Beth, our volunteer coordinator, was in the office, and as Beth is always ready and willing to help anyone with anything, she jumped up and said, “Why don’t I call your phone you listen for it to ring.”

And I said, “Beth, that’s a great idea, but, first of all, the church is large and I’ve been several places this afternoon and, second of all, I’ve put it on ‘vibrate.’”

Before I could answer she had already dialed my number and was standing there, waiting for it to ring somewhere. She said, “Maybe if you’re really quiet you can hear it vibrate.” So for the next several minutes, Beth stood in the office, repeatedly calling my cell phone number while I tiptoed around the church, standing in different places, and trying to strain my ears to hear that “vvvvvvvvt” sound. I stood in my office. Nothing. Then I went and stood for a while in the Commons. Nothing. Then I started to walk down the hall, listening, concentrating. Finally, after a few minutes, I heard a distant, muffled, but familiar cell phone ring. As it turns out, the ringer was not on vibrate. There, locked in the locked and darkened chapel, lying on the top of a chair that had been scooted underneath the table, was my phone. And when I picked it up, it said I had missed three calls already. All of them were from Beth. I answered it and now I know I should have said, “Speak, Beth, for your servant is listening.”

Just as young Samuel learned when he was lying down in his darkened chapel years ago, serving the priest Eli, the call of the Lord can take several times to get through. The word of the Lord was rare in those days, Scripture tells us, which is a small but important detail slipped into the story. Experiences with God were rare for Samuel and his people, which meant they were not accustomed to hearing or discerning how God was moving and speaking in their time. Apparently even priests and people who slept in the temple of the Lord were not quick on the receiving end. The word of the Lord was rare in those days, which meant God called Samuel four times before he finally responded.

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young Samuel and Eli in the temple

And even when he responded he needed the help of Eli, his mentor, to perceive it and discern it. Kind of like I needed to have Beth’s help to locate my phone, hearing and responding were not things Samuel could do in isolation, with no one else around him to mediate and articulate what the call meant. What’s more, the story tells us Samuel didn’t even yet know the Lord. That is, Samuel hadn’t had a chance to develop his own relationship with God and come to understand God’s character. Too young, perhaps, or too inexperienced, Samuel was not the kind of person who most would expect to be getting direct communication from God. But that’s often how God works: choose the unexpected, the overlooked. He’s essentially just the acolyte, and yet Samuel is told he can respond, just like anyone else, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

The call of the Lord is not always easy to hear and pick up on, and so often we are deaf or clueless to it because we’ve essentially put the ringer on vibrate and walked away. Maybe we don’t want it to disturb us. Maybe we’ve got preconceived notions about how God calls people and what it might feel like when his Word comes. Somehow we get in our heads that knowing and hearing God has to feel a certain way, or such an experience can only happen to certain kinds of people.

In our confirmation classes each year we always take time to address questions about God and faith and the church that the confirmands themselves have. We then attempt to build those questions into the curriculum by answering them together as a group. This year one of the questions that confirmand submitted led to a very fundamental faith conversation and at least three said on the test it was the most important thing they learned all semester.

The person asked, “I’ve never had a God moment. How or why do you believe?” Responding to that question required some deep-thinking on my own part, and as we talked about it in the group, we realized that knowing God is going to feel and look a bit different to everyone. Some experience faith more in their heart as an emotional sensation of closeness with a higher power while for others is it more based in the brain or in their thinking, as they come to a deeper and gradual understanding of something they understand to be true about God. Both are valid experiences with the Word of the Lord, but to say that having faith means having one common standardized experience limits the way God speaks and calls his people.

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Sometimes I worry that the church defines having faith solely in terms of one or the other, that if you go on a mission trip or a youth event and don’t feel the same way others say they’re feeling then you are missing God’s call. Something one person might label as a “God moment” may not even move the needle for someone else. The important part to remember (if there is one important part), is to stay open to possibilities, to be ready to walk around and concentrate on listening, to be willing to be surprised and to wonder. It also means remaining in community with Elis and Beths, those who have experience hearing and listening and discerning what God is up to.

And that brings us to Philip and Nathaniel under the fig tree. Jesus’ ministry begins in Galilee, a place where many people might have said the word of the Lord was rare. A relatively far-off place, Galilee was a land where different cultures and languages and customs intersected. That is, it was not thoroughly Jewish, not all that sophisticated. It was quite rural, and many towns were too small to have a synagogue. Places like Nazareth and Bethsaida were especially off the beaten path, not regions where one would expect God to be particularly vocal. Yet this is the area where Jesus begins to meet and find followers. It’s good to keep in mind, probably now more than ever, that the face of God’s Son often first appears in the places we’ve written off, the areas we think are beyond or beneath us.

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Wherever it breaks in—Galilee, Henrico County, Hanover County—Jesus’ ministry and call is issued with the most simple and open-ended of invitations. “Follow me,” is what he first says to Philip. “Come and see” is another one that Jesus uses over and over, and it’s that one that Philip himself uses when he finds his friend Nathaniel. Would Philip and Nathaniel have described their encounter with Jesus as a God moment? Perhaps so. Nathaniel certainly has his socks blown off by his encounter with Jesus and calls him Rabbi and Son of God and the King of Israel. And Philip, who sounds more like the head-faith type, is excited that Jesus lines up with what they’ve expected from the law and the prophets. In both cases the more important part is that they’re open to a further relationship, even when Nathaniel is initially throws shade on where Jesus is from.

So often I believe we want and expect the call of Jesus to be “Do this and you’ll get that.” We look for clear parameters, definite boundaries, a spreadsheet of what this will entail and where it will end, kind of like some version of the Field of Dreams theology—“Build this one thing and this will automatically happen.” And, to be honest, occasionally the Word does operate like that. But Jesus more often says “Come and see.” It is an invitation to stay engaged, to be gradually let in on something, to hang on and see where it leads.

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And we can notice that God is still calling people into encounters with his Son Jesus. The Word of God is not rare anymore. It is walking around, it is ringing off the hook, it is wide open like a book. It has people serving on Saturday mornings handing out food from our narthex, it has thirty youth showing up on a snow day to play games and hang out with friends in Price Hall. It has called four people within the past five years to discern a call to seminary, and has sent one to South Africa to serve as a Young Adult in Global Mission. It comes to numerous people who volunteer their time through agencies like GraceInside prison ministry, Lutheran Family Services, and Crossover Ministries, the local faith-based medical clinic that offers aid to the underserved populations in our area. And the word of God rings and rings and rings in each home and workplace, calling us to respond in kindness and gentleness in moments of conflict and misunderstanding.

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Youth hearing the call to form the shape of a guitar and responding together

I think one of the challenges in the life of discipleship is to be more of a Philip and a bit less of a Nathaniel. It is to position ourselves in terms of what might be rather than what definitely can’t be. It is to keep doors open to another encounter with Jesus rather than shut them. It is to run along the way rather than stay seated under the fig tree. It is to remain open to God’s gracious calling and issue it to others rather than to say it’s over and issue judgment that’s premature. Because, truth be told, any judgment we make about someone or their faith in God this side of the resurrection of the dead is going to be premature. No one’s story is finished. No one should be written off. God calls again and again. And God uses us, again and again, to bring people to Jesus.

And, truth be told (again), God’s Word knows how to deal with rejection. It gets rejected over and over again, thrown out of the synagogues, spat upon and laughed at. It is mocked, considered unmodern and opposed to science. You know, it has even been nailed to a cross and left there to suffocate and bleed out.

And, come on. We know by now what it does when that happens. Risen, the living Word of Christ still finds a way to come to us, opening heavens of possibilities, beckoning us to follow, to give it a listen. Ringing, ringing, ringing, ringing—“vvvvvvvt!”—it is ready to show us even greater things than these.

And if you, like I, still having trouble hearing it, finding it, knowing where it might be or even what you’re looking for…head or heart…go see Beth…or someone like her. They’ll hook you up!

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Dropping the Ball

a sermon for the first Sunday of Christmas [Year B]

Luke 2:22-40

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Tonight it is estimated that even though it will be 11 degrees (not counting the wind chill) more than 1 million people will gather in and around Times Square in New York City to ring in the new year. The culminating event—at the stroke of midnight—involves watching a big ball drop. Statistics from past years suggest that around 1 billion people will watch that ball drop from around the world on their TV, and 100 million of those viewers will be in the United States.

The ball itself weighs 11,875 pounds. It is adorned with 2,688 handmade Waterford crystals and illuminated by 32,256 LED lights. It takes 55,000 watts of electricity to make it work. It is without a doubt the most watched and most anticipated New Year’s Eve celebration in the world. But others in other places have something festive to do, too. I remember going to Atlanta on New Year’s Eve once where they drop a big peach to ring in the new year. And in Raleigh, where I went to college, they drop a giant acorn, because it’s the City of Oaks. Just up the road in Fredericksburg I hear they drop a big pear. Is it the city of pears? And in the mountain town of Brasstown, North Carolina, they drop a live opossum. Don’t worry! He’s gently lowered in a cage and then released once it reaches the ground, becoming a hapless metaphor of the freedom and new beginning the new year tends to bring to some people. All this is sounds like a big deal. Lots of time and energy and electricity go into making these events big and yet it is estimated that almost a quarter of Americans will be asleep by the time the ball drops at midnight.

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There is something alluring to at least three-quarters of us about the change from one year into another, about staying up and waiting, watching to experience this momentary event that ushers in a new time. Perhaps we’ve been waiting for a new beginning, a new excuse to start something or to change something in our lives. We make resolutions. We think, “This could be the year!”

When the young Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem for his presentation and her purification, they meet a man and a woman who’ve been waiting not just one night but their whole lives to see a new era ushered in. The man is named Simeon and the woman is Anna. To our knowledge they aren’t related to each other, but they’ve both spent considerable time in the temple waiting for the ball to drop, so to speak, for the redemption of Israel. They are both very faithful people, sure that God will honor his promises to his people and send the Messiah that the prophets had long foretold. The Messiah was the anointed one that God would send forth to rule in righteousness and peace over Israel and over the world.

It sounds like Simeon may have gone to the temple many times looking for the right family with the right son. We’re told that Anna, on the other hand, spent day and night in the temple, as if she never left. Each day there would have been a new batch of babies for them to look at, since Jewish law stipulated that forty days after a first son’s birth the parents were supposed to bring him to the temple for a dedication and for Mary’s purification after childbirth. Also according to custom, Mary and Joseph would have made a sacrifice. Theirs is of two turtledoves rather than the traditional lamb and turtledove, which was probably a concession made for their economic status. There were new tax brackets that year, perhaps. Everything was being re-adjusted.

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Simeon the God-Receiver (Alexey Yevgorov, 1830s-40s)

Regardless, in the hustle and bustle of the scene that was the temple, there stand Simeon and Anna as representatives for all of God’s people. They are representative because they have this visible hope and expectation for God to deliver on his promises. They are representative because they are patient and persistent. They listen to the prodding of God’s Spirit and do what it tells them. They are faithful and devout, and they never give up. And…they are aged. In their lives are collected a great many experiences and deep wisdom about faith.

And as Simeon sees Mary walk in with Jesus, he scurries over to her and takes the baby in his arms. It may sound somewhat dramatic and odd for a random stranger to take a baby from his or her mother in public but my guess is that it was not altogether strange back then. I know that even now when we take our toddler son to the grocery store people are drawn to him like a magnet. They get up all in his face and “goochy-goochy-goo.”

When I was serving my first parish I occasionally took Laura or Clare with me on visits to the homebound. Those visits were some of the best because of the reaction that a young child brings to an older person is magical. So many of our elders live very isolated lives, and the presence of a young person is rare. I remember this one couple had a big Rottweiler and I brought Laura over and that animal turned into another big baby. They were both wiggling all over the place and the couple I was visiting just didn’t know what to do with themselves. Typically it was all smiles when I would do this, but sometimes I’d see the glimmer of tears. I suspect that for many older people a baby brings back memories of their own children or nieces and nephews. It takes them back, causes a brief reunion with some happy earlier times in their life, and it is touching to watch. I was watching this, to some degree, after Betty Wise’s funeral reception yesterday as her children all crowded around our black and white picture from the dedication in 1962, finding themselves bundled up as little kids on the lawn of the church with their parents and family members.

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cross-generational interaction is priceless

That’s not what happens with Simeon and Anna. They do not replay the past. They are excited about the future. In their understanding, guided by the Spirit, the ball has finally dropped, God has sent the one they’d hoped for, and the world can step into a fresh new beginning. I can’t help but see Simeon and Jesus today somewhat like Father Time and baby new year as depicted in New Year’s Day cartoons. Simeon stands as the bent and wizened old man who is walking out, leaving things behind, ready to die, and Jesus, in his diaper and little else represents all the hope of something new. He and Anna are ready to depart in peace, ready to praise, because, as Simeon says,  his eyes have seen salvation. Just to see Jesus and behold him, as a baby, is enough for Simeon. It’s enough to know that God has sent the son, born of a woman. It’s enough to know that the light is now shining, as small as that flame may be. Simeon may not live to see how bright that flame will grow, but he knows it has finally been lit.

I do not know what about Jesus and Mary and Joseph tips Simeon and Anna off (other than the Holy Spirit) but one thing is for sure: when Simeon hands the baby back to his parents Simeon becomes the first person to understand what that salvation entails. First of all, he knows that it is for all people. Jesus is not just born for Mary and Joseph, and not just for the people of Israel, not just for people who go to church all the time, not just for people who understand theology. Jesus is God’s love wrapped up for us and given to people everywhere. No one needs to wait any more—not one second more—to find out what God’s grace is like. In fact, Jesus was truly the last thing on which the universe was waiting. Now that he has come no more balls really need to drop. Jesus has blessed every year the same…into the future…into eternity. God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven, in 2018 just as it was in 2017.

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Simeon in the Temple (Rembrandt)

The other main thing that Simeon understands about Jesus is that his birth is directly connected to his death. When God’s Son is born among us, then it means, by definition, that God’s Son will die among us. You can’t have one without the other, which is perhaps why Simeon and Anna can be so joyful and be prepared to die even when they’ve only seen him as a baby. They are wise and can tell the cross is in his future. When Simeon tells Mary that a sword will pierce her own soul too, and that her son is destined for the falling and rising of many, he understands that Jesus will suffer, that his life will have consequence for us all. In the cross we see exactly what Simeon is talking about: that Jesus comes both to deliver us from evil and to confront it and defeat the evil in us. He comes to end our slavery, as Paul says, to make us all children and heirs to God.

There is no telling what kinds of events the new year will bring, but one thing we already know is that Jesus will be there. He is Alpha and Omega–the source and the ending—and so 2018 is already in the bag for him. I suspect some of us will watch the ball drop tonight and anticipate good things in the next twelve months. We think “This will be the year!” and we have our resolutions ready. If so, then we praise God like Simeon and Anna. Jesus stands ready for us.

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Some of us will watch with mixed emotions, fearful of what might be around the corner, resentful of how our resolutions always turn out (or don’t). If so, then we can still praise God like Simeon and Anna as we remember he is victorious over sin and death, forgiving of our own failed resolve. I’ve been around this congregation long enough to learn there are people worshiping with us in this room right now who we will lose in 2018. We will be sad, but because Christ has come, because salvation has been revealed, we may rest assured they will be dismissed in peace.

And still others of you snoozers, you 22-percenters who will fall asleep before midnight before the fun starts, before the champagne is uncorked, before the possum and the peach and the pear even start to fall…as for you folks…well, you might be onto something!

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Before Bethlehem, Nazareth. Before Gloria, Magnificat.

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year B]

Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 1:46b-55

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Tonight—we all know it—the focus is going to be on the baby, the child that is born to save. But this morning the focus is on the mother.

And when we think about where that baby will be we know that tonight the spotlight will shine “away in the manger,” that feed trough for livestock that will hold that baby. But today we find the spotlight shining on a womb. We will remember the first place that Son of God will ever be held is inside the body of a young woman.

Tonight, tonight we’ll be taken to Bethlehem. We know it well. The hopes and fears of all the years are met there. It’s the city of David, a small little place, and we go there because Joseph is descended from the house and lineage of David. And in Bethlehem we’ll be out in the back of some inn there, an inn that didn’t have any room. But this morning we are still in Nazareth of Galilee, an even smaller town, even farther away from Jerusalem. And though we’re not given any details about where in Nazareth we are, there’s a good chance it is in the bedroom or the humble living quarters of this young woman. A private space where strangers do not visit. A great many artists who have painted this scene in Nazareth even depict the young woman on her bed, legs dangling off the edge, the sheets all strewn about as if she’s been interrupted during a nap. No room in the inn, but room there in her bed.

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“Annunciation” (Adam Pomeroy)

Tonight we’ll hear a song. We’ll even sing the song! It goes, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.” Tonight’s song is a loud song, made up of hundreds of voices, and it fills the whole night sky. Angels from heaven sing it, and it’s so powerful that is sends some shepherds to Bethlehem to see that baby who is in the manger. But this morning we hear a song, too—and sing it—and it’s a powerful song, maybe filled with more power than any other song in the Bible. But it’s sung by one voice—that woman—and only one other person hears it. It starts “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” And it goes from there to talk about the mighty being cast down from their thrones and the rich being sent away empty and the poor being filled with good things.

The reality is that before we can really hold the baby we have to behold the mother. Before we can gaze upon the manger, we have to take stock of the womb. Before we can settle down in Bethlehem with the shepherds and the inn and the people crowding around for the census we have to stop by that simple bedroom in Nazareth. And before we sing “Glory to God in the highest,” we need to hear, “He has looked upon his lowly servant.” Before there is the birth there is the annunciation. Before the gift comes the asking. God does not just plop his Son from out of nowhere into the hay, although God certainly could have. God approaches a young, unmarried woman in a backwater town and says, “I’m going to need your help.”

There’s a short little poem called “After Annunciation,” by Madeleine L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, that goes,

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.

Of course, the point is we can imagine that if Mary had been thinking purely rationally—or selfishly—at this moment then we might not have the parts about the manger and the angels. If Mary had only focused on what this might have all entailed for her in the moment (and for the next nine months, perhaps), then she may not have responded, “Here I am, let it be with me according to your word.” The Greek, Roman and other ancient cultures of that time had plenty of stories about gods that would come down from the heavens and take advantage and even assault women for their own purposes. Here we have a God who sends an angel to approach a woman peaceably and in an unassuming manner. Even though the way Gabriel announces the conception makes it sound like it is a done deal, Mary gets the final word. The fulfillment of it all hangs on her response.

When we tell the story of Jesus Christ, God with us, God among us, it is important to remember that it is Mary’s faith and courage that paves the way for it all to unfold. As Father James Martin points out in his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Mary doesn’t ask her father for permission or Joseph for his input. “A young woman living in a patriarchal time makes a decision about the coming king.”

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“The Annunciation” (Fra Angelico, 1437)

To some degree, all decisions to take part in God’s coming kingdom require courage and faith. Our calls to follow and bear Christ in the world do well to follow Mary’s example. We let faith—wonder, mystery—enter into the equation. We prepare ourselves to understand that God does not work principally through the great and the strong, but through the humble and meek, that he looks upon the lowly. We think less selflessly about it all and where God’s call might take us.

I think this is one reason Mary sings that all generations will call her blessed. She’s says this not just because she was the one person who carried the Eternal God in her flesh. All generations will also be blessed by her example of responding to God’s call to bear Christ. When I think of Mary being blessed I think of all those who are currently in the call process who are considering a new congregation to serve. I think of those who, in the secret chambers of their heart, contemplating going to seminary. But I also think of each person who has ever pondered a role or a moment where they might, like Mary, carry Christ into a situation. There are moments all the time, each and every day, where God might approach us and say, “I’m going to need your help.”

Before we get the Jesus in the manger we have the person who brings him there. And before we have the song of the angels, we have that song of Mary’s. This past week I met with a group of senior men in the congregation and for devotions I was a bit unprepared. I knew I was going to have us look at Mary’s song and discuss it, but I was worried that it might be a little too obscure or abstract. I find that most of the time I’m better at presenting things like Jesus’ parables or stories about people doing things, not songs with deep meaning. I thought I really needed to find an angle to get the conversation going and I didn’t have time to come up with one.

However, I found that as soon as I read it to them, they had thoughts and questions of their own. When Mary talks about the mighty being cast down from their thrones and the rich being sent away empty these men brought up current events about world dictators and the intricacies of nuclear disarmament talks. We talked about principles of good leadership and how humility is an important ingredient to political stability. And we all agreed we really did want to live in a world that looks like what Mary sings about. We long for a time when the hungry are filled with good things and the lowly are lifted up. We shared that we are all drawn to a God, like Mary is, who actually acts in the world, who brings about change for all. Mary taught me a lesson this past week at the men’s lunch group. She’s still singing.

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Before we rush to Bethlehem and join the angels, we need to stop in Nazareth and spend time with Mary. The gift of Christ is not just something that glows within the cockles of our own hearts, assuring us alone of eternal life and the merits of giving, as if Jesus came just to make you and me better people on the inside. Mary tells us more than anyone what God’s kingdom is going to be like. The powerful and the proud have their days numbered. But the kingdom of God will have no end. It is both Mary and the manger that will point us to Golgotha where we see even more vividly that nothing is impossible with God. We see that God loves to present himself to us in surprisingly humble ways, that God offers himself up over and over again to this risky world and asks us to join us in bearing him in all our vulnerability, with all our faith. So that when God approaches us in Nazareth…or Bethlehem…or here at Epiphany and says, “I’m going to need your help,” we can respond “Here we are! Let it be with us according to your word.”

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

Key player

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent [Year B]

Isaiah 40: 1-11 and Mark 1:1-8

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At home we have a set of those matryoshka dolls that make up a nativity scene, and our 20-month-old has discovered they nest almost as perfectly in his hands as they do within each other. He can twist the smaller dolls open and fit them back together, one-by-one. That’s the genius of matryoshka dolls. They’re like a puzzle and a figurine at the same time. It’s really cute because he’ll walk around the house and show you who Joseph is, who he calls “Doh,” and which one is Mary, and which one is the baby.

Unfortunately sometime this week the bottom of Mary went missing, and it has thrown our house into upheaval. We have turned the place up and down and I know it sounds funny and maybe borderline sacrilegious, but we can’t find Mary’s bottom. No matter how we say it when we’re looking for it, it sounds weird: the bottom of Mary. Mary’s lower half. The rest of Mary.

Whatever the case, we’ve discovered that’s the downfall of the matryoshka system. Each figurine has two different components to keep up with and when even one of those is missing, the whole set doesn’t fit together like it’s designed to. Mary is kind of a key player in the Christmas story, if you know what I mean. You have to have Mary for it to fit together and make sense. Thus the upheaval. We’re still searching.

You could say the same for John the Baptist, even though I’ve never actually seen a nativity set containing a little John the Baptist. But here he is, every Advent, on about the second week, right when we’re ready to sing Christmas carols, shouting at us with his camel hair and locusts. If you glance through our hymnal, John is referenced or directly mentioned in about half of the hymns in the Advent section. John the Baptist is and has always been a key player of our celebrations and devotions at this time of year because John is the precursor to Jesus. John is crucial not just because, as Jesus’ cousin, his own birth was miraculous and timed just before Jesus’, but because in every story of Jesus that we have, John comes along announcing Jesus.

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All of the early Christians and people of faith and even Jesus himself saw John the Baptist—or John the baptizer, as Mark calls him this morning— as the bridge between the prophets of Israel’s past and the present ways God’s kingdom was breaking into their midst through Jesus. He is Jesus’ same age, but his preaching is taken from Isaiah and some of the other ancient prophets. John’s role seems to be primarily to get the world ready to receive Jesus, to wake us up, to prepare the way for the Lord. He shakes things up, gets people talking and coming out into the wilderness at the River Jordan to begin again. Since preparing to receive Jesus does not just mean replaying his birth story over and over, perhaps playing with the little dolls and marveling at how they fit snugly together, John the baptizer becomes the perfect person to help us do what is necessary to make room for Christ in our lives now.

There are many ways that process of preparation takes shape, and as I spent a while at church yesterday morning, I realized that many of you are excellent models of this. It was fascinating to walk among you as you were all involved in essentially some form of preparation. Before I even parked my car, for example, I noticed that a couple of men were trying to remove several rather large tree branches that had fallen under the weight of snow into the driveway. They had already loaded one branch into the back of a pickup truck and were hitching another larger branch to the back so they could haul it out of the way.

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John the baptizer might tell us that an essential part of preparing the way of the Lord in your life and in the world is removing things that are in the way. Now, I know sometimes it’s hard to decide what’s actually in the way, but sometimes it’s obvious, and it’s surprising how long we’re just content to let it stay there. Often it remains until something out of the ordinary happens to us and it comes crashing down.  Preparing for Jesus involves cutting back and hauling away things that weigh us down in our walk of faith, places in our lives that aren’t productive anymore. Perhaps it’s the unnecessary dependency on a relationship or a habit we’ve developed. Maybe it’s moving overgrown routines around so we can experience life a little differently.

Isaiah, whom the Baptizer quotes, says that every valley will be lifted up and the mountains made low, the rough places made plain. This is serious earth-moving here that God calls us to do: dismantling the obstacles to faith active in love that prevent the world from perceiving Christ’s presence among us. It’s work out in the world. It gets us sweaty and dirty sometimes, causes discomfort. But in the end it is rewarding.

As I actually came into the church building, I happened upon the HHOPE pantry volunteers who were setting up their tables and bags of food for their distribution day. Our HHOPE ministry has a very well-rehearsed and well-run system for greeting guests, getting them registered, and giving them their food. Their system actually begins the night before when a group of volunteers meets to divide food into bags and set them out for easy access. Then on Saturday morning more tables are set up with additional items and people stand ready to receive whoever comes. There are youth here, adults, sometimes even younger children: they all have a role to play and a job to do.

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HHOPE Pantry volunteers, ready to serve

John the baptizer might tell us that part of preparing to receive the good news of Jesus involves serving. It involves putting ourselves at the foot of our neighbor in need. When we do that, when we make ourselves available to the brokenness of the world, we see more clearly the brokenness that Jesus comes to address. Serving helps us place our self-centeredness to the side, which is an important and life-giving thing to do in this individualistic and narcissistic era.

We realize we can be an important part of the comfort that God announces to his people through the prophet Isaiah. At one point Isaiah even says, “God will feed his flock like a shepherd, and gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom.” Literally feeding those in our community and receiving them in our church building is a reminder of the kind of Savior John the baptizer announces and prepares the world to receive. How can you make feeding other people—serving them, carrying them in your bosom—a part of your journey of faith, not just at Advent time but throughout the year?

I left the HHOPE volunteers and came upon Ms. Cheryl, our Faith Formation Director. She was in the hall, going through our old costumes closet and trying to get props and clothing ready for the children’s Christmas program today. She had the behind-the-scenes task of matching what we had to what was needed There are types of preparing like that which are more hidden, less glamourous, but just as important. They involve taking stock of what’s in one’s life, reflecting on its usefulness and bringing it to the front.

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This is an essential part of repentance, which is the core of John’s preaching. To repent doesn’t just mean saying sorry. It is more like a change of mind, or a turning around, seeing things for what they really are, going in a new direction. The new life that Jesus brings will take deeper root and wash over us more fully when we’ve taken the time to turn around and face it, to stand ready to receive it. Just like Cheryl had to stand there and go through the costumes and props and creatively think about how they could be used, part of preparing for Jesus means consciously thinking about which parts of my life can be pressed into service for Christ’s kingdom. Are there gifts or talents, certain stories you’ve pushed to the back of the storage closet that can actually be brought out to let God’s light shine on it? This can prepare the way for Christ to enter your life and someone else’s.

The final place I came to yesterday was the sanctuary where Kevin, Alice, Donna, and Scott were all helping the children prepare for their Christmas program today. I didn’t want to stay too long and distract them from what they were doing, but as you can imagine, they were running through their lines, singing the songs, and learning the moves and stage directions. They were working hard because they want to get things right for the final show. They want to tell the story well. The prophet Isaiah says that part of preparing is announcing good tidings. “Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem…do not fear. Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” What the kids taught me yesterday is that a vital part of preparing for Jesus is knowing the story. Part of making things ready for Christ means refreshing ourselves with Scripture, God’s story…learning how it goes, that it is good news that Jesus comes to us.

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rehearsing for “The King and Me”

That, in fact, is how Mark begins his whole account of Jesus. “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It is good news that he comes to remove the sin that gets in the way. It is good news that he comes to feed us and serve us like a shepherd cares for the sheep. It is good news that our God comes and gives us chances to turn around, to repent, and have a new direction.

And so we prepare by telling and re-telling the story, rehearsing our lines of witness, to remember that we are heralds of good tidings. We remember that in a world that often likes to imagine God as vengeful and angry we know one who speaks “Comfort, comfort O my people.” We tell of this more powerful one who comes after John so we can remind ourselves of just what this power looks like. When this God carries us in his bosom, he carries us on the cross,  in his very body. Our Savior comes not to bear arms, but to bear all our burdens, all our fears, all the ways we don’t feel we fit together inside by handing over his life.

That’s the reason why John the baptizer is so central, such a key player, why the matryoshka doll of the whole Jesus story isn’t complete without him. He helps us bridge an important understanding: that is, the way we prepare is for the Lord. It is his road and he comes on it, not us. But the preparing does something for us, too. From the top of the high mountains to the bottom of the low valleys, it does something for us, all in God’s grace. Or, you might say: right from the top all the way to the bottom…even if you can’t find it.

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Time loop

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37

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Last weekend, after we returned from a trip to North Carolina for Thanksgiving, Melinda and I looked at the family calendar and quickly realized that if we wanted to do any Christmas decorating we were going to have to do it right then. We weren’t really ready to do any Christmas preparations. Emotionally we just weren’t there yet. We wanted to wait a bit longer. Also it was 70 degrees and sunny. I was more prepared to go to Lowe’s and get stuff ready in the garden.

Nevertheless, on Saturday and Sunday I found myself traipsing up to the attic and bringing down our boxes and bins and laying everything out on the family room floor. And that’s when it hit me: Nothing I do in the course of a year makes me feel more caught in a time loop than decorating for Christmas. Forget Groundhog Day! The real re-run holiday is Christmas. As I dragged the first box down I was sure I had just packed it and put it back up in the attic yesterday. When I was pulling out the cardboard that we lay beneath our trainset I knew exactly which two pieces we needed because it felt like I had just slipped them back in their storage place that morning.

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Laying out the decorations. Last year’s photo of the same thing is almost identical

Do you get that feeling this time of year, or is it just me—like the rest of the year didn’t really happen? And if it did, it suddenly collapses into the span of a few seconds once you start trying to wedge the Christmas tree into its stand? I think that’s especially true if you’ve lived in the same place for several years and you don’t move anything around. To some degree, this aspect of Christmastime is comforting to many of us. We like these traditions, we like these rituals and handling the artifacts of our families. They have an anchoring effect. I think it is engineered, in part, to impart a sense of timelessness, that things may change, but these aspects of our lives won’t ever be any different.

However, if the truth be told, that’s not really where we need to be. We don’t really need to be drawn back into a loop of the same-old, same-old, however soothing and reassuring it may be. We don’t really need to find comfort in hauling out the old boxes of memories and the rerun of our cherished moments. We don’t really need the sense of timelessness amidst a changing world. I know that can come off as kind of harsh and insensitive, and even a bit hypocritical since even here in the church we even prepare this time of year to run through our own list of rituals and time-honored customs.

When we take a good, hard look at the world around us, when we take stock of our own lives and our own brokenness, we find the best place to look for hope and comfort is not the attic, or the shopping mall, or the traditions that warm our hearts. The best place to look is outside of ourselves and our own endeavors—from outside of our world. The fact of the matter is we shouldn’t want everything to be the same as last year or the year before. We want things to be different. And I’m not talking about small incremental, quaint change. It needs to be dramatic, sweeping, unmistakable. What we and the whole world needs is for God’s power to return in a way we can understand once and for all.

If the truth be told, it’s the words of the prophet Isaiah that give us the best outlook not just for this time of year, but for any time. “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” he cries. We can see him with his arms open in an act of pleading and apology: “as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil!” This is not “let’s get out the garland and tinsel and make things look pretty.” This is wholesale rearrangement of everything—action that has swift, clear results.

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Russian Orthodox icon of the prophet Isaiah

As it happens, these are the feelings, the perspective of the people of God a few thousand years ago after they returned from exile in Babylon. They had had high hopes for what going back to live in their old Promised Land home would be like. They’ve been there several years, gone through the rituals several times. They’ve gone up into the attic and lugged down the boxes, lit whatever candles of their Israelite traditions that are supposed to make things OK.

But things are not OK.  None of their own efforts have really helped bring about the righteousness they’ve longed for. In fact, they’re own attempts at right relationships have become like “dirty rags,” Isaiah says. Enough of their own lackluster attempts at tax reforms and health care legislation and addressing the opioid crisis! Enough of their own half-baked platforms and diplomacies and strategies for governing themselves. Enough of the inability for men and women to treat each other and their bodies with respect.

And so they find themselves looking beyond their immediate control, looking to the heavens for a time when God will somehow break in and straighten everything out. The prophet Isaiah helps them realize that what they’re really waiting for is not a re-run of the best parts of the past. What we all need is for God to tear open the heavens and come down here among us. It’s like that song by singer-songwriter John Mayer from about ten years ago: “So we keep waiting for the world to change.”

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Lyrics by John Mayer (“Waiting on the World to Change,” 2006)

Jesus actually borrows this kind of imagery when he speaks to his own disciples about how they’re to live once he is crucified and risen. They’ll be waiting for the world to change, living in anticipation and expectation for God’s power, not just replaying the best parts of the past. Jesus talks about himself in the language ancient Israel had used to describe the end of all time. They will look to the heavens and see the Son of Man descending from the clouds, this great deliverer who will establish his reign of righteousness on earth.

All this confusing talk of the four winds and the elect and the clouds is not necessarily meant to be taken literally. It is the best way Jesus can explain at that time that true redemption is not going to be something they themselves can drum up. God alone, through the compassion and mercy of Jesus, can bring this about.

When I think of the “Son of Man coming in clouds,” I think of how every week I probably see no fewer than five sunrises or sunsets on social media. As modern as we are now, there is still apparently few things as awe-inspiring and other-worldly to us as clouds arranged dramatically across the sky. People are captivated sunsets and sunrises. I am one of them! I posted one this morning before church started and it already has twenty likes. True and complete deliverance will get worked out when Jesus returns, and it will be from God’s realm once more breaking into ours, and this imagery is something even Jesus’s audience found captivating.

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sunrise on the first Sunday of Advent from the top of Monument Avenue, RVA

The good news for us is that Jesus says he is at the gates. It’s not much longer now. In the ancient world, and for much of human history, people who lived in cities new they were protected by large walls that surrounded them. Depending on the size of the city, there were several gates in that wall leading in and out of the city which were typically kept closed. When a coming delegation or army would approach, the gates would be closed. However, if they knew what was good for them, they would go ahead and prepare for those gates to be opened. Even though the delegation wasn’t actually inside the city—and in many cases couldn’t even be seen as they encamped outside—the residents of the city had to begin living as if the gates were open and the advancing army was already among them. They needed their life together to match what it eventually would be.

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St. Stephen’s Gate, Old City Jerusalem

Jesus says that’s how his followers are to live as they await his final arrival. Know that he is near, at the very gates. Begin living now, inside your city, as if Jesus, in all his power and glory, is right outside the gates. Keep awake, stay alert, put your faith into action.

As some of you know, one of our members lost her brother in a tragic, sudden death two days before Thanksgiving. He had been living in another state far away, and so she and her parents had to travel quite a distance in order to take care of his final affairs and arrange, if possible, a memorial service for him. Unfortunately, they did not know anyone out there and our member’s brother did not have a church home. Through some contacts here in Virginia, the family was able to set something up at a Lutheran Church in that city.

Everything, as you might imagine, was very last-minute, and as it turns out, one major complication was that the women’s group at that church had already set up the entire sanctuary for their annual Christmas tea. Hosting this memorial service for a group of out-of-town, mourning family members who was quite literally at their gates of their church was not on their agenda. It meant all the decorations had to come down and all the tables get put up before they were supposed to. But they did it without complaining and gladly, as if it were on their agenda. Because they were waiting, ready. Ready to put faith into action. In the matter of a few hours, the church was prepared for the memorial service and they welcomed these strangers at their gates in with open arms. A member of the church choir offered to sing a solo for the service, and the assistant to the bishop of that synod even showed up to lend support to the grieving family and to help lend vocal support to the hymn-singing.

We cry out for God to stir up his power and we have faith he is at the gates. We live now in the world as if he is already among us at the end of time, full of grace and truth. We lend support to the singing, keep alert, we move tables, we feed the hungry, we wrap the presents, and if we have to, we put up the decorations, and we take them down.

But we know it is only for a brief spell. Our tea time, all our traditions, will abruptly come to an end. And those who have come to know this King, who may have been baptized—we are no better than anyone else, but we do know we really have no fear of him as he stands at the gates, like a sun just before it peeks over the horizon.

We have no fear because he is the one who first came for us on the cross, who has already laid down his life for us, who sought us out in our brokenness, in our waywardness, and gave us mercy. He is the one, above all else, who brings us comfort, who doesn’t just make things OK but who makes all things awesome, makes all things new—who promises to hold us in his potter’s hands today, this year, and until the last time loop has come to an end.

 

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

Final Appraisals

A sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 28A]

Matthew 25: 14-30

Outstanding Evaluation

At one of the men’s lunch groups this week, the topic of year-end performance appraisals came up. This particular men’s lunch group is made up of men who are not yet retired, and I deduced from what they were sharing that the month of November brings with it a certain anxiety. Before the end of the year bonuses are decided and before raises are figured out each of them is going to have to sit down and have some type of reckoning within their teams of employees. One gentleman shared that one of his primary anxieties came from trying to figure out how to phrase and frame his evaluations of employees when the decision about that employee’s raise had already been made by people higher up in the organization. How do you break the news to someone that they will only be receiving a slight raise when they’ve clearly been getting wonderful reviews all year? And perhaps even more challenging: how do you explain an overly-generous raise to someone who hasn’t quite exceeded expectations. In the professional church world the year ends with a congregational meeting, then Advent and Christmas, a mad scramble to plan and decorate, print extra bulletins, learn more music, write more sermons. In the business world, there are reviews and appraisals. I’m going to stick with my end of the year!

It’s the appraisal of all things that is on Jesus’ mind as he approaches his final days in Jerusalem. Perhaps sensing his own days might be numbered at that point, he sits with his disciples and wants to talk to them about it, and let them know that there will be some kind of reckoning. The Son of Man will return. I find that not much of modern day Christianity likes to touch on this aspect very much. Unfortunately, we have tended to leave talk about the end of time and things like the judging of the living and the dead to Hollywood. Maybe it’s because we feel it doesn’t fit our overly scientific worldview. Maybe it’s because deep down it brings fear. Regardless, one of the topics that Jesus brings up with a good deal of regularity during the time with his disciples is his return at the end of the ages to claim his kingdom of righteousness in full. To take Jesus seriously means taking to heart what he says about the future.

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What he says this morning about the future is often called the parable of the talents, and I don’t know if it’s just a sign of the influence of the times is having on me, but doesn’t this read like an episode of “The Apprentice”? A man plans to go on long trip, but before he leaves he decides to leave his slaves in charge of everything. He gives each of them a different portion of the estate, kind of like when you go on vacation for a while and you hire one person to take care of the yard and but find a neighborhood kid to come in and water your plants and feed the cat.

Talents were a way of grouping money in the ancient world, and it is estimated that one talent was worth about twenty years’ wages. So to the first slave the man gives control of about one hundred years’ of wages. The second slave gets the equivalent of forty years’ wages, and the last slave about a year’s worth. So in the end this isn’t just like leaving the neighborhood kid in charge of the plants and cat food. These are vast sums of money, and with them comes vast responsibility and authority. Jesus says the man entrusts the slaves with it. One translation says he “handed over” his property to them, which means it is implied they are supposed to do something with it. In fact, it sounds like they are supposed to do with the man’s property whatever he would have done with it while he’s away.

So off they go. We learn the one who was given one hundred years’ wages uses it to develop a cool new technology that enables people to carry around little computerized phone cameras in their pockets. Pretty soon everyone in the world buys one and uses them to share photos of what they’re eating and get into political arguments with each other. He doubles the money that was given to him!

The second slave decides to go the toy route and uses the forty years of wages given to him to create a little three-pronged plastic and metal device that operates on ball bearings and can spin forever on the edge of your finger. People think he’s silly and that he’s just throwing his master’s money away, but look who’s laughing now! He finds people will part with $10 on one of these things! He, too, doubles his money in no time.

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A million dollar invention. kinda reminds me of the Trinity.

The third guy is nervous about this whole responsibility thing. He knows better than to go risking his master’s money on anything. And he’s definitely not going to spend a dime of it on something as frivolous as a smartphone or a fidget spinner. So he figures the best thing to do is just find a shoebox, put the money in there, and shove it under his bed until the master comes back.

Well, it takes a really long time for the master to come back. The amount of time is never the issue, and the slaves are not told to figure out secret codes or read the Bible a certain way to predict his return. The point is that there is some sort of performance appraisals when he does. The first two slaves are rewarded. How does the master phrase his evaluation? “You will be entrusted with even more responsibility and property!” More than that, they receive the joy of their master. The third guy? Not so much, and as it turns out the master is not all that worried about how he spins this appraisal. Wicked, lazy, and worthless is what he gets called, in no uncertain terms, and then the master looks at him across the boardroom table and says, “You’re fired!”

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The issue, of course, is that the third slave misjudged his responsibility because of a fundamental misunderstanding about the master. The slave lived in fear. For whatever reason he thought his master was harsh, unscrupulous, although it’s hard to know why a man who left slaves in charge of so much could ever be thought of as harsh. The master is generous and giving, willing to take enormous risks. And so if the slaves are to follow the master’s lead, they, too, should be willing to risk, to see time not as something to be endured, passed through, but as potential for growing, changing, learning. To tend his gifts, to safeguard them, means to use them even if you’re not really sure where it might take you.

This is Jesus’ lesson about the future for his disciples. In the time when they’re waiting for his return, they should be working, serving, taking risks. Sharing the gifts God has given wisely but generously is precisely what our heavenly Father intends for us to do. Preserving and protecting our lives, keeping everything as-is simply because that’s how we received it is not our mission as disciples.

And neither is focusing too much on the amount of talent or treasure we have received For this parable is not really about money at all. It’s about the whole of our lives, our heart, our joy. As one famous English clergyman from the 1800’s once said, “The greatest of all mistakes is to do nothing because you can only do a little. Do what you can.”[1]

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Putting ourselves and our unique constellation of gifts out into the world, into the service of our neighbor, is precisely what we’re called to do as Jesus’ followers. And the thought we could somehow ever lose what God has given us is a lie the devil tells. Risk is part of the kingdom’s strategy. Risk is factored into the whole shooting match, right from that first moment by the fishing boats in Galilee to the church capital campaign. Look at the risk God himself takes by sending Jesus! On the cross, God goes all in for us, lays it all out there, investing everything God has for the sake of you and me. And even though it looks like Jesus loses it all—even though it looks for a moment or two that his decision to live for God’s kingdom and not Caesar’s was terribly unwise—he doesn’t. On the third day he rises, promising to us all the joy of his Master. This is not harsh at all. This is grace, for you and me.

One of my favorite things to do each week is to read the obituary in the Economist magazine. I find it inspiring and fascinating to find out how different people around the world have invested or shared their lives. And the writing of the obit editor, Anne Wroe, is brilliant, impeccable. She chooses one person each week who has recently died and attempts to capture the essence of their life and their contributions to humankind in 1000 words.  Only about a quarter of the time do I recognize the subject of her obituary. The other three-quarters are people I only learn about for the first time as I’m hearing of their death.

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For example, about four weeks ago her obituary was of Joseph Schmitt, a humble man from rural southern Illinois who ended up doing all the maintenance on NASA’s spacesuits, from Chuck Yeager to Alan Shepard, to John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and the first of the space shuttle crews. The unpretentiousness with which he shared his formidable gifts was amazing! The obituary she wrote for Fats Domino was also enlightening. Some of the lives she shares are more tragic than, others, of course, but most seem to contain at least somewhere an element of a life that was not buried in the ground.

Moved by her talent at writing, I wrote her a card about three years ago to express my adulation and my thanks. To my surprise, Ms. Wroe sent me a handwritten note back on Economist letterhead. The only fan mail I’d ever sent in my life at that point was to a person who writes death notices. In any case, I found the words of her note even more enlightening:

 

How very kind of you to write. I’m delighted that you enjoy the obits. They are a great pleasure to write, and fill me with wonder at the sheer variety and ingenuity of human beings. I hope, too, that they may make a small appeal to incorporate death into life—to embrace it, and to celebrate (as I deeply believe) that the spirit cannot possibly decay with the body, but moves on to even more extraordinary adventures. Unfortunately, Western society finds it so hard to face death that we cannot even find advertisers to go on the page opposite mine!                

 

“Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all our years away,” goes the hymn we sang this morning. Anne Wroe done preached me a sermon! Do we approach the suspense of our death—or of Jesus’ second coming, whichever comes first—with a sense of fear and foreboding, that we can put it off indefinitely, that we can stop the ever-rolling stream, or do we approach the suspense of our deaths and Jesus’ return with the sense of duty to grow and share and serve the world with joy? Can we incorporate death into life, the final appraisal into each daily task?

It seems that’s what Jesus is up to, in fact. Passing around the cup and the loaf on the night he was betrayed. Weeping at the tomb of Lazarus before he calls him forth to life. Offering forgiveness and compassion even as he hangs there dying. We incorporate our own death to sin in baptism into life for the world around us.

Therefore, called forth by this master, let us do with our talents what God himself would do with them if he were the one waiting. Let’s live as the bold advertisements that can go on the opposite page to death…advertisement that say loud and clear, with each breath that what is given by God is more great and generous than we could ever imagine…that say with each day that what is given by God can never be truly lost, but only goes on to more extraordinary adventures.

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Sydney Smith, 1771-1845