The Story at the Center

a reflection for Good Friday

We’ve now arrived at the very heart of Christian faith, the main event, the well from which all else springs. Suspended for the moment in the dark, we find ourselves in the middle of the three days where everything about what we believe and about who we follow comes into focus. This is the core of it all, and one thing we might notice—one thing we might even find odd—is that there is no moralizing. There are no “Do’s and Don’ts,” no life lessons listed for us, no philosophies to ponder, which you might be looking for if you’re looking for a religion. On Good Friday, it can be said we are at the center of what makes us who we are as Christ-followers and yet we find no bullet points that succinctly explain what we’re all about.

About thirty years ago there was a really popular book by the title of  All I Really Needed To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Written by a minister named Robert Fulghum, the book became so beloved because it essentially contained convenient rules to live by, philosophies that he boiled down from the kindergarten environment that could be applied all through life. We get nothing like that. We don’t get nice essays or nuggets riffing on the basics like “All I Really Needed To Know I Learned at Golgotha,” the name of the hill where they crucify Jesus.

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still popular

Instead, we get a story. Instead, we get to hear about something that happened. And what happens is a man comes bearing good news and compassion and life and seems to be terribly misunderstood. Before things really get off the ground the authorities have arrested him, put him on a sham trial and execute him like a common criminal. It doesn’t take him too long to die. As people scatter, the kind of life he lived for, the kind of vision he wanted to give us seems to die with his last breath. He does manage to speak and say a few important things as he hangs dying that may sound like things we’d live our life by, but overall this is just a story that gathers us here tonight, a story that will send us out in silence. Here we are at the center of our faith and that’s the story we get.

Maybe, though, this is what makes it all so compelling, so…true. After all, our lives don’t unfold like a series of bullet points, do they? Our lives are stories. They happen…they are uncontrollable, to a larger degree than we like to admit. They go up and down, around corners with surprise and heartache. When, at our funerals, people will speak, they will not so much talk about who we were from a philosophical standpoint as if we were a concept. They will tell stories about things we did.

And so this is the story we hear of our God. We hear it, we struggle with it, and whether or not we believe it we come away with a God gives himself fully to us. We come away with a man who submits the lies, the denials, the betrayals of his enemies and his friends, whose dreams go up in smoke (for the time-being). We come away with a cross, and for a religion that’s a strange thing to come away with. It says to us, “This happened. Will you see how it speaks to your story?”

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The Flogging of Jesus (Carravaggio)

A few months ago a cross was placed unexpectedly on the edge of our property. It was a tall, heavy cross—two bulky timbers nailed and screwed together, painted bright white and fitted with a stand that helped it stand upright on its own. Visible as you drove into the parking lot but not really in a central location, it was easy to overlook or forget. It stood there through wintry weather for several weeks. I just assumed it was someone’s property or project. Eventually staff started to talk about it. We tried to find who it belonged to, but no one claimed it. So, we had to deal with it, that is was now in our story. We took off the stand and painted it brown. Tonight we brought it into the sanctuary and it is lying on the altar. (By the way, if you recognize it as yours, we’ll give it back.)

The cross happens in God’s story. Jesus doesn’t choose it, but it chooses him. It may not appear randomly, but it is certainly sudden. The cross of Jesus means that God is a gift to us, no matter our story, no matter our background. God simply takes on our brokenness, our sin, our tendency to turn to other gods and just dies for us to see ourselves in his story. This means God is in your story, no matter where it goes or how it turns out. God is there to love you and to forgive you. The cross means that our faith is based not on a set of principles, but rather a trust that God never lets go of us, a trust that God has dropped himself into our lives, a trust that frees us to live and follow him.

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Tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. I was listening to a series of interviews of the survivors of that tragic event, which at the time was the worst school shooting in America’s history. Twelve students and one teacher died from the bullets shot by two students who felt like they didn’t fit in. Twenty years later many of the wounds are still hurting, but, miraculously, many have healed. Many survivors and their families have been moved to forgiveness, and a remarkable number of former students who were there on the day of the shooting have returned as teachers to Columbine. Most of them credit the steadfast love and Christlike compassion, Frank DeAngelis, principal of Columbine High School back in 1999, with the new life they’ve been able to experience.

In the interview I watched, he talks about how he bears guilt and pain of what happened that day, how the nightmares used to keep him up, but that he made the promise to stay at Columbine until everyone who was in kindergarten in 1999 graduated. He stuck with them. He placed himself in the middle of their suffering in order to lead. He refused the opportunity to remove himself from their story. That is the work of a God who gives us a cross, who doesn’t hand out rules to live by, but just lives, in spite of the suffering.

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Isenheim altarpiece, (Matthaeus Gruenewald)

As much as we might like to come away from today’s events with a handful of nuggets to live by, with a philosophy to debate, with a core idea, we really come away with the story of a God who gives himself to us, who enters our story, who stays in our story…who saves our story. On second thought, maybe all we really need to know about God we do learn at Golgotha.

 

Amen.

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Charity Walk

A sermon for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion

Luke 22 and 23

Today, at the same time that we gather here in our sanctuary to read together and reflect on the events of that first Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, when the people lined the streets and formed a kind of parade to welcome Jesus as king, a group of people from our congregation is gathering in Virginia Beach with the family of our congregation council president, Rob Burger, to take part in the PurpleStride. PurpleStride is a walk to rally awareness for pancreatic cancer and raise money for a cure. Rob was diagnosed with a pancreatic tumor in February and has been undergoing treatment for two months. Today is a joyful pause in the grueling rounds of chemo to gather and walk with survivors, family members, and others who have been touched by the disease. A few families from Epiphany have driven down to participate with the Burgers and the Westins and several members of our youth group have joined them, too.

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Rob and his rebels at the PurpleStride in Virginia Beach, VA

The choice of Palm Sunday for the walk, as far as I know, was not intentional. These things are held on various weekends throughout the year. But Rob liked the connection. His team, Rob’s Rebels, is named after the Star Wars characters who fight against the evil Empire. They are wearing purple shirts—purple is the color for pancreatic cancer—and, at his request, a member of their team came by late this week and grabbed some of our palm branches to take with them. So it can be said that this morning, a group from our congregation, waving palm fronds and wearing the color of Lent, is participating in a procession of life. They are walking in hope. They are walking with a united purpose. They are walking because they love Rob.

Palm Sunday aside, walking or running for a particular cause or a cure is a trend that is about 50 years old. It is generally accepted that this idea got off the ground in the 1960s with some very successful walks to highlight causes related to hunger. The March of Dimes got in early on the act and helped popularize them and expand their focus to medical issues. Now tens of thousands of so-called charity walks are held every year. In fact, in 2012 it was estimated around 72 charity walk events were held every day! If you ran or walked in the Monument Avenue 10K yesterday here in Richmond, you were part of an event that was partially sponsored by the Massey Cancer Center.

Why are charity walks or runs so popular? They actually aren’t the most economically sound was to raise money for a something. Psychologists have actually studied this and say it’s because they give people an opportunity to suffer or work for a cause. People are more willing, it turns out, to contribute financially to a cause if they have to exert some kind of effort. If they sweat, if they get blisters, if they run the risk of getting a sunburn, if they P.R. in a race, if they get “palm branch elbow”—they feel joined somehow to the people who are actually suffering from the cause. I think many of us already are aware of some of the suffering of Rob and his family, but much of what they’ve gone through is personal. The PurpleStride gives his friends a way to join in and walk by his side—even if their sacrifice is only small by comparison.

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That happens to be how we think of our Palm Sunday and Holy Week rituals, isn’t it? We come today and to the extra worship services this week not just to remember and reflect but in some way to pay really close attention to Jesus’ suffering. We come to read scripture slowly and dramatically to hear how it all plays out for him. We come to walk with our Lord on his purple stride: the gospels note that at some point during his ordeal the soldiers mock Jesus by arraying him in brilliant scarlet or purple, which was the color of royalty in those days.

All of this—palms, the music, the special readings, the darkened sanctuary during the evening services on Thursday and Friday—all of this adds to our experience in some small, small way to what Jesus endured, and figuring out where, if anywhere, we might fit in. Are we a palm branch waver? Are we one of the loudest ones choosing anyone—anyone, even Barabbas—to be freed over the innocent Jesus? Are we a disciple who betrays him in the garden? A member of the crowd who watches silently by the cross? I mean, that’s the point of that almost haunting hymn we sing, right?

“Were YOU there when they crucified my Lord?
 Were YOU there when they nailed him to the tree?”
Were YOU there when they laid him in the tomb?”

With questions that are left to be answered in the mind of whoever sings or hears it, we wonder: are we going to walk with Jesus too? It’s good and right to think on those things, and to “do” Palm Sunday with those questions, but there is something greater going on we don’t want to miss. The greater point is that Palm Sunday and Holy Week are, in fact, Jesus’ commitment to walk with us, God’s desire to join in our suffering. And that’s not to say that we or our lives are the most important things here, or the center of the universe—far from it! It is rather to say this day and this week are about God’s decision to walk along the paths of human life. All of them.

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Christ’ Passion is about God’s close attention to the ever-sinking lows of what humans can put each other through, about how cruel and dark things can get on this planet. It’s about God looking at his creation and wondering where he’s going to fit in, what role he is going to play and, by golly, God is going to fit right in along those who are suffering. That’s the speaking part God winds up with today, and every day. It is God singing, “I WAS there, I AM there”— with those who are abandoned, those who are hurting, those who are rejected. This is God’s charity walk for us.

And therefore if God is with us today and in the midst of the events of this week, if God finds a part to play among the lows of human existence, then we have more opportunities than just during Holy Week to listen and be committed to his cause. Any time, in fact, we see our neighbors hurting, God is there—not because God is causing it, but because God wants to heal and bring life where its needed. Any time there is pain and loss in the lives of those around us, any time there is loss, God is walking. He sees a place go grant charity. God is walking and we can sign up and join right in with him.

And walk with hope, because Jesus will be victorious.

And walk with united purpose, because the cross is carried for all.

And walk because his love is poured out for everyone, come what may—for Rob, for those in the PurpleStride, for you and me.

With Jesus the loving rebel, we walk from death to new life.

 

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

The fragrance that lingers

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent [Year C]

John 12:1-8 and Philippians 3:4b-14

One time when we were horsing around on the bus as sixth-graders some mean older kid poured an entire bottle of Polo cologne on my head. Back in those days Polo was considered top shelf stuff, so I don’t know why the kid did it, or even why he had it at school. Seemed like a waste to me, and even with the all the windows open zooming down the road in the cool North Carolina spring we were practically choking on the smell. It permeated the entire bus, and I was the epicenter of it. I washed my hair the moment I got home and I still smelled like Polo for days. For days and days. And to this day, a whiff of Polo gives me some powerful flashbacks. Makes me almost gag.

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I think about that event in my life every time I hear about Mary pulling out a bottle of top shelf perfume and anointing Jesus’ feet with it. This was potent stuff, a precious oil-based substance from a plant that grew thousands of miles away in the Himalayas. The fragrance fills the room, and I wonder how long afterwards Jesus still smelled like it.

This happens just one day before his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when the crowds sing Hosanna and proclaim him king. So I wonder if Jesus is still that epicenter of perfume, the fragrance from his feet overpowering any barnyard animal scent the donkey has as he rides it in. And given how quickly things then unfold for Jesus, I wonder if the odor of Mary’s anointing manages to fill the room that night before the Passover when he kneels down to take his own disciples’ feet to wash them. Maybe it was Mary who gives him the idea to do that—a sign of humility and servanthood, since kings were normally anointed on their heads.

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And to think that maybe that perfume is what his disciples sense in the air as he teaches them that he is the vine and they are the branches, as he prays for them to remain one and love each other as he had loved them. And then I imagine those feet, still giving off that sweet aroma, walking him out into the dark night of the garden where he is arrested. Maybe he still smells good while the soldiers are beating him, flogging him, making him bleed. I’ve always imagined Good Friday to have a dark smell to it, one of sweat and dirt and wood, but maybe his feet still bear a trace of Mary’s devotion as he hangs on the cross to die. And perhaps as they take him down to bury him they all get a whiff—maybe just a slight whiff, but enough—not of death and decay, but of beauty and thankfulness and life.

Do you ever think of that? Mary used a whole pound of it, after all. It was equivalent in today’s calculations to about $40,000 worth of perfume. And since we’re told it is purchased for Jesus’ burial, it stands to reason the odor lingers from that Saturday night party at Mary’s house until the end—until the women arrive with reinforcement spices and perfume on the Sunday after Good Friday…perfume they ended up not needing, after all.

This is Mary’s act of faith. It may not be how you or I would choose to honor our Savior, and it’s obviously not how Judas would do it, but it is an expression of her devotion to Jesus and it shows, as one of my colleagues says,  that Mary “gets it.” Mary gets who Jesus is—she gets what he is about. She gets that he is worth even more than a cause, no matter how noble. He is worth more than her savings account, more than her reputation. She gets somehow—maybe it’s the fact that he raised her brother Lazarus from the dead—she gets that the weight of God’s love and power is focused in this actual body of this actual person in front of her, and that he is going to love the world so much that no amount of beating or nailing or dying will turn him away from it. And that those who cling to him in faith receive the eternal life he comes to bring. So she pulls her hair pin out and lets it down so it can cling to his oily ankles. He is the resurrection and the life, right there in her living room, and so it’s time to give whatever she can and do whatever she can to adore him.

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I used to visit one homebound member who had hanging over her fireplace a large version of Da Vinci’s famous “Last Supper” made out of some dark wood like ebony or mahogany and inlaid with mother of pearl. It was one of the first things you noticed when you walked into her house. When it came time in the visit for us to have Holy Communion, she scurried off and got her offering envelope. She reappeared from another room and then, before she handed it to me to bring back to the church, she walked into the middle of the room, faced that picture over the fireplace and then, with hands and arms extended and head bowed down like she was straining ahead, she lifted her offering over her head, silently for several seconds, as if Jesus were really in the room and her gift was intended for none other than him. It was an act of devotion that temporarily halted what was happening and focused our attention on Jesus.

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this is not this woman’s piece of art, but similar to it

It is the same thing that Paul is talking about in his letter to the Philippians. Paul tells his beloved congregation that that nothing in his life measures up to the value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. And Paul has quite the laundry list of things to be proud of, quite a list of statuses that would open doors and turn heads. He can check all the boxes on the list of privilege and honor: the right religion, the right tribe, the right family, the right school district. Yet he, like Mary, understands that the value of Jesus, even sharing in his sufferings, surpasses them all. He forgets whatever lies behind and strains forward to what lies ahead, hands and arms extended and head bowed down. I imagine that’s similar to the mindset a college basketball team has to adopt in a tournament. Always think ahead, strain ahead to the prize. Even if you won last night’s game in a squeaker, it’s now behind you. Think of what’s next.  Survive, as they say, and advance.

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The future Jesus opens for Paul is so new and so exciting and so valuable that all he really wants to do is think about what’s there, where that path is leading, where his faith may take him. And this is all new and exciting and valuable because, Paul says, “Christ has made me his own.”

In his death on the cross, Jesus has claimed you and me forever. He has made us his own. We no longer belong to the forces of this world that tempt us to put ourselves first, that trick us into devising or creating our own worth. Jesus has anointed us. He has poured his life out for us so that we may live as God’s redeemed children forever. Jesus’ love has made us treasures.

We are coming into the final days of Lent, and it strikes me that it’s kind of like an Antique Road Show. Do you know that program on public television, the one where people go into their attics and basements and see if they have anything secretly hidden away that is actually worth a lot of money? They sit down with an antiquities expert and learn about the item they’ve got they didn’t really know much about.

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In the life and death of Jesus it is clear that God treasures us and now it’s time to turn and reflect on how much we treasure Jesus. We bring out our faith, our relationship to Jesus, which we’ve likely stored away somewhere, kind of neglected for a while. Mary and Paul are the experts who have us set it out and dust it off and tell us that for all these years we’ve been sitting on something that’s actually priceless, something that opens infinite possibilities for life, something that will really tell us who we are.

What Paul and Mary give us are challenging questions for us all to confront, for we realize there are other things we tend to adore and treasure too much—other activities and allegiances we prioritize—even when they seem to be good things. Acts of service in the community: do we do them mainly because of the impact they make, because they make us feel useful, or do we do them out of gratitude to the Savior who loves us? Our worship and music: do we love them for how beautiful and inspiring they can be, how they make us feel, or do we love the God at whom they’re directed? Our involvement in church: do we treasure it because of how holy it might make us look to others or the connections it brings us, or do we treasure this time together because it provides us opportunities to praise God?

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I don’t know about you, but sometimes I think I fall into the trap of believing that the church needs to legitimate its existence through the service it does. I start to think we’re only worth our salt if we’re chalking up acts of justice and mercy in the world, taking the right stances on the social and political issues. It’s so tempting to think that the best thing we can be doing as Christ-followers is making a difference in the lives of those around us, but what a cynical and self-serving way to boil down Christ’s sacrifice!

Mary’s act of faith and Jesus’ scolding of Judas challenges that way of thinking in the same way that the homebound parishioner drew the focus from what I was doing to whose picture was over the fireplace. The only thing that makes us legitimate or valuable in the eyes of anyone is the love God has for us in Jesus. He prays for us, he washes our feet, he endures the grave for us. He is the epicenter of what God is doing to fashion everything new: “Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19).

The best we can truly do is whatever reflects our gratitude back to God, and no one can really judge that but Jesus. It is our adoration of Jesus, crucified and risen—our sacrifices of suffering and joy—which will draw everyone’s attention to the God who dies to save, which will wake the world up to the fact as it zooms in the bus down that road of life that there is this beautiful rare aroma, this beautiful heavenly fragrance of life lingering around us that, no matter what—thanks be to God!—just never goes away.

 

Thanks be to God!

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