God of the living

a sermon for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 27C]

Luke 20:27-38

This is a bit of vulnerability here, but I must admit that back when I was trying to figure out whether or not I felt called to seminary and a possible public role in the church one of the things that I really struggled with was whether or not I could handle all the religious questions that I thought would come my way. It’s not that I didn’t like to ponder theology and matters of faith, but I worried that I would grow weary of being “that guy” in every social situation in my future who would end up fielding everyone’s questions about God or the church. It’s kind of like how I imagine people who are doctors probably end up talking about people’s medical symptoms even when they’re not at the office, or how car mechanics end up hearing people talk about noises their cars are making. The people who probably have it the worst in this vein are the people who work in I/T. They never really get a day off. Every time we run across an issue with our computer or our router we feel entitled to their advice or help. That’s what I feared about being seen as an “expert” in religion. Would I ever be up to all these questions, especially considering that religion can be so controversial? What if I gave a wrong answer?

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However, I came to realize at some point that it’s not just seminarians or church professionals who end up being seen as religious experts. I imagine that you have figured out from your own experience that once you’ve been identified with Christian faith, you can end up being the one who receives the religious questions people have. I’m sure many of you deal with the “what do you believe about this?” or “What does your faith/church say about that?” I have come to appreciate that faith often strengthens and deepens through the process of asking better and better questions, struggling with them constantly can also be wearying.

I wonder if that’s how Jesus ever felt. I mean, he gets everybody’s questions, and he gets really hard ones. His own disciples ask him a lot of things. Every time he turns around it seems like the Pharisees are pressing him on some religious matter why don’t his followers engage in ritual handwashing? Why does he pluck grain on the Sabbath day? His entire trial with Pontius Pilate is a essentially a battery of questions. Come to think of it, there was a Prayer of the Day in the old green hymnal, the hymnal before this one, appointed for one Sunday in each fall that really drove the point home: “Our Lord Jesus, you have endured the doubts and foolish questions of every generation. Forgive us for trying to be judge over you, and grant us the confident faith to acknowledge you as Lord.”

When Jesus finally enters Jerusalem, which we hear about in this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus really gets a whole bunch of doubts and questions. The Sadducees think up one particularly foolish one that is actually a front for trying to be judge over Jesus. The Sadducees were a group of elite Jewish scholars we don’t know much about because their beliefs were tied so closely to the Temple life in Jerusalem and when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70 it basically wiped their whole denomination out.

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maybe the Sadducees looked like this

What we do know is that they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead or in the life of the world to come. That was not part of their belief system, for whatever reason. They were in an ongoing debate with other Jewish groups about this topic, and they see Jesus come along and since he is now “that guy” who can field religious questions, they approach him and come up with a purposefully complicated question intended to make the idea of the resurrection sound stupid.

Of course, there’s a lot of backstory here about why they choose this particular question, but it has to do with the custom of Levirate marriage, which was a law ancient Jewish people followed to ensure offspring within one family system. You can hear this question and hear that women were really valued primarily in terms of their ability to produce children, essentially like property. And the Sadducees come up with this outlandish hypothetical episode where one poor woman outlives not only her husband but also all seven of his brothers. And then comes the foolish question: when God raises everyone from the dead, smarty-pants religious guy Jesus, which of the brothers will be her husband, or will she somehow belong to all eight?

Jesus, gentle Lord Jesus, receives their foolish question graciously, just like he does all of ours, and says, “The life after this life doesn’t work like that.” Jesus, who himself is unmarried, understands that marriage exists in societies in large part to offer stability and continuity amid the trials and struggles of this world.

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just to clarify: not my grandparents

I remember when I was still unmarried in my twenties and my grandmother couldn’t understand why I was single. She and my grandfather had gotten married right out of college and she told me one day, “We needed each other.” And she was right. There was World War II. They had grown up in the Great Depression. People needed a partner to manage life in a way young people don’t really need them now. Of course, my grandparents happened to love each other very deeply, too, but her comment opened my eyes to the fact that marriage wasn’t only about the partnership of true love. Marriage, in Jesus’ time but also to some degree in ours, also allows for life to go on through the bearing of children, since it is through parents that new life is brought into this world.

With all this in mind, and in the Sadducees’ minds, Jesus says, the question is moot. In the resurrection of the dead, there will be no need for anything other than God to establish continuity and stability and joy and new life because that’s what Jesus himself will do and be for everyone. In the world to come, when God’s eternal light will dawn on this darkened world, if that is something you believe in, marriage will be essentially outdated. That doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t know and love the people we’re married to now, but it does suggest the new life God has in store for God’s people is beyond anything we might imagine.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there, because that doesn’t really answer the deeper question the Sadducees are getting at. They most likely want to know if there is a life to come, and that’s when Jesus goes back to an old passage in Scripture about Moses. There Jesus finds a clear moment when God leaves a clue that there is more to existence than what we hear and see and perceive now, that the concept of the resurrection, therefore, is not just something the Sadducees’ religious opponents have thought up along the way, but something God established at the beginning.

Jesus says there’s this one time that happens to be in the book of Exodus, where Moses is talking to God himself through the burning bush. And in that moment, God identifies himself as the God of Moses’ ancestors, who were long since dead and buried. But, Jesus points out, God doesn’t say to Moses “I was the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” God says, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And if God says he still is the God of those people, then they must somehow still be alive. God isn’t the God of the dead. God is the God of the living. God is the source and meaning of all of existence, by God’s own definition and name. It’s fundamental to God’s identity, so if he names himself as God of these people there must be some way that life goes on even when here it seems to be over.

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What we don’t hear in this morning’s gospel lesson (because it gets clipped off) is that the Sadducees are impressed with Jesus’ answer and they are no longer willing to question him! He doesn’t just endure the doubts and foolish questions of every generation, but he thoughtfully and carefully receives them and offers us surprising love in return. And Jesus not only argues for the case that there is a resurrection by quoting Scripture and doing a little theology, but he’s willing to lay his life down on it. In doing so Jesus is not saying that what happens in this life isn’t important, or that the world and creation are bad, or that our lives here and now have no value, which is, sadly, how some early Christian interpreted the crucifixion of Jesus. But what Jesus is doing by going to the cross is cutting through all the questions they and we might have about God’s ability to raise life and love  over death and doubt and hate, about God’s ability to create hope and justice when we only feel fear and despair. And God shows himself once more, in bright shining fashion, that he is God of the living by bringing about a resurrection through Jesus. On the third day he rose again.

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Late this summer some of you may know that my kids and I found some Monarch caterpillars on the milkweed in our backyard. Feeling like they were rare treasures, we brought them inside with some clipped leaves from the plant and put them in a little cage. Lo and behold, they all formed chrysalids, one by one. I know not how even though I got to watch a few of them as they did it. And then, several days later, they each became a butterfly, and we got to witness that process too. It takes only a few minutes. One second they are this lifeless-looking pod thing, and then the next second there is a beautiful, orange and black and white butterfly hanging there by legs with two minuscule claws.  And it looks absolutely nothing like the caterpillar that formed the chrysalis. The butterfly eats differently, moves around differently, has different body parts—and we’ll never know how it all happens because we can’t put a little camera in the caterpillar’s body to film it happening.

For the first time on my back porch, of all places, it became easy for me to see why the butterfly was a symbol of the resurrection for early Christians. God is God of the living even though we do not always understand it and our foolish questions can only take blind stabs at it. People who used to live behind the Berlin Wall could really only guess what life on the other side might be like. It was immovable. You’d get shot if you tried to cross to the other side. And then one day thirty years ago this weekend it just came down. People jumped on top and could not just see life on the other side, but walk right into it. And no one ever thought it would happen so peacefully.

There are mysteries, my friends. There is wonder. I think that in such a scientific age we can forget that. I know I do.  I want logic and straight lines and if the lines can’t be straight then I at least want them pretty. But often the lines disappear or get blurry or get crossed. There are mysteries about God and about life and triumph that we just can’t understand and can’t answer now, but I hold out hope that God will one day address them all in the light of Jesus’ resurrection.

Church historian and professor at UVA Robert Louis Wilken says, early followers of Christ and members of the church “were not in the business of establishing something; their task was to understand and explain something”[1] It’s easy to forget that, too, when we see the church just as an institution with programs that serve people or that the point of any sermon is just some application for living our lives, that we always need to establish and build and do. Let us not forget that we’re here mainly because we have experienced some kind of life we want to understand more deeply We’re here primarily to ponder and give thanks for the mysteries, to gaze with the eyes of a child who is looking through a mesh cage at the wondrous life of an insect, to hear the stories of the One who has climbed to the top and testifies to the life beyond. We’re here to look into the eyes of people like the families of our sister Eddie and our sister Flo, people who are fresh back from the graveside, and say to them, “Your loved ones are alive to God.”

We’re here to ask all our questions, foolish and otherwise, because we can stand and declare with a song in our throat that our God is God of the living and that in him life has no boundaries. No boundaries at all.

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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[1] The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Robert Louis Wilken. 2003 Yale University Press, p 3

All Hallows’ Eve

Behold October’s final garden flower:
defying frost, contrast with autumn’s umber,
Upright it stands in fading daylight hour,
Refusing to submit to winter slumber.
You foolish daisy, clueless to the season!
Why cling to summer, pine for yesterday?
This late warm spell, soon finished, is no reason
To protest the embrace of sure decay.
Yet are we also not by death surrounded,
Our hope and joy absurd to some, but brave—
So rooted in a soil of life unbounded
Whose Finest Bloom has sprung from darkest grave?
Deemed foolish by the world his praise we sing
And serve as heralds for the coming spring.

garden daisy

Punch line: Justified

a sermon for Reformation Sunday [Proper 25C/Lectionary 30C]

Luke 18:9-14

Jesus said, “I tell you, this man—the tax collector, the despised and commonly mistrusted tax collector—went down to his home justified rather than the other.”

So goes the punch line to one of Jesus most controversial parables. It’s a parable where two polar opposites go into the Temple to pray.

It’s a parable where if the start doesn’t catch us off guard, the outcome certainly does, for it is the tax collector—and since we don’t really have much of an association with tax collectors anymore, you can insert your own shady stand-in, maybe a drug dealer, maybe a loan shark, maybe an Astros fan—whatever it is, that shady person is the one who returns from prayers at the Temple one day justified. It’s not the Pharisee who is justified, the religious professional, the one with the seminary degree who has checked all the right boxes, but that tax collector. This is kind of a big deal because no one listening would have seen this punch line coming. If anyone was a candidate for justification, it would not be the tax collector.

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As it turns out, justification is also the punch line to the Protestant Reformation. It’s a funny word, a churchy word. Not many people really use this word anymore, but just as it forms a line between those two in the Temple that day, justification became the dividing line of the church in the west. The idea of how one becomes justified before God was what led Martin Luther to reform the Catholic church, beginning with the posting of the 95 Theses in 1517. And in 1999, when the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics found themselves back at a table for discussions, the concept of justification is what had brought them together.

In fact, it may not just be the punch line of this parable, or the punch line of the Protestant Reformation, but indeed the punchline of Christian faith. As the apostle Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “we are justified by God’s grace through faith, apart from works of the law.” Or, to put it in the language of Jesus’ parable this morning: Those who trust in themselves to right their relationship with God are going to come up empty-handed, but those who depend only upon God’s mercy are the ones who wind up justified.

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All that having been said, most of us nowadays, when we hear the word justification, probably think not of 16th century theological arguments, but of margins on a typed document. With one simple click on the computer screen, we can justify the margins on the left, or we can justify them on the right, or we can justify them on both the right and the left, leaving a nice flush line along the sides. And so it is with faith, as we work to understand the punchline to this parable: What is it that makes us flush with God? What takes our raggedy, mismatching edges and lines them up all nice and clean? What sets us in alignment with God’s heart and favor?

In the end, it is nothing we can do ourselves. We can’t click any little icon. God’s grace alone can do it. God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, sets us in line and makes us right with God. When we are aware of our imperfections, when we give voice to our brokenness, then we are open to hearing and receiving how God’s grace sets us free. We are justified by God’s grace through faith, apart from the works we do ourselves.

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And that’s what the Pharisee doesn’t understand, for all his religiosity, for all his fancy do-gooding. He is pleased with himself and his own list of accomplishments. He fasts more than is required of him, not just once a week but twice. And he gives ten percent on everything he acquires, which, according to many of the tithing laws of that time, is considered going above and beyond what is expected. And if all of that that is not enough to set him apart from all the others in the Temple, he also stands apart from everyone, alone, beginning with a prayer of thankfulness that he is not like all the others.

That’s, of course, where justifying ourselves with God or being pleased with our own status ultimately goes—to constantly comparing ourselves with others. We think, maybe even just to ourselves, things like “Dear God, I thank you that I’m not like those people who don’t return their shopping carts.” Or “Dear God, I thank you that I’m not like those who cheat the welfare system.” Or “Dear God, I’m thankful I’m not like one of those white supremacists.” And even if we check ourselves against thinking and praying those kinds of things, even if we know better than to look down on others, we can still, if we’re not careful, finish hearing to Jesus’ parable and think to ourselves, “Dear God, I thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee.”

I found myself this week sitting at the Division for Motor Vehicles. I was there because at some point in the last several weeks I had lost my license, but I also thought it could be time to go ahead and get the Real ID, since it will be required for all domestic flights in about a year. The DMV does not probably rank on anyone’s list of favorite places to be, and it is not on mine, but as I sat there and sat there and sat there I found myself admiring its atmosphere of equality. We were all huddled in one large room, first in a line and then in rows of chairs. There was no way for any of us to set ourselves apart from anyone else, even if we wanted to. All different races, ages, income levels, probably even different legal statuses. The couple with a child in front of me were speaking a language I couldn’t place.

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It occurred to me that rarely are any of us in such close proximity to so many different types of people as we are when we’re at the DMV. In a sense, we were all there to be justified—not by God but by the state. As we waited, even our names were omitted, each of us reduced to a letter and a number. I was I202. And as I sat there, trying to figure out the pattern the numbers and letters were going in, I glanced around the room and realized some Pharisee-like thoughts drifted into my head. I watched. I observed, I imagined myself in their skin, what their stories might be. And found myself thinking, “At least I’m not like these people who are on their smart phones all the time. See, God? I brought a book to read.”

But when I202 was finally called and I proudly sauntered up to the counter, I discovered, to my horror, that I was missing one proof of residency. The lady shook her head at me and sent me home, unjustified by the Commonwealth of Virginia. I have never felt so rejected in my life, but it was my own fault.

We had a professor in seminary, the one who taught us pastoral care, who began each semester not by discussing the syllabus, but by standing up in front of the class by announcing, “Hello, I’m Tony and I’m a sinner redeemed by the cross of Jesus.” It seemed so strange to me at first, but then I realized it helped all of us hear him later when he would have to cover very moralistic topics and warn us against certain behaviors or practices we might take on as ordained pastors in the future. To start with his own confession and have that always before us helped us receive his lessons because we knew though he was much wiser and more experienced, he was still just one of us, full of brokenness.

What Jesus means with the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is that the life of faith is about only being concerned with my own sinfulness, with my own lack of credentials, when it comes right down to it. There really is no part of Christian faith that involves comparing ourselves with others. There is no part of following Jesus that involves looking at my neighbor and setting myself against her in any way, good or bad, unless in so doing I find myself at her feet in service to her needs.

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We do live in time where we love to call out other people (it’s called Call-Out Culture), where we love to confess other people’s sins. We live in a time where self-promotion is the name of the game. Its self-exaltation all the time, on Facebook, Insta, Twitter. We show our best sides, our fanciest dishes, our vacations. We forge our own identities, display the sides we want others to notice.

Before God, however, we can only humble ourselves. In the eyes of the Almighty, there is no profile photo, no avatar other than our own shortcomings. And yet in spite of that, God comes to our side to love us, to lift us up, so say it’s OK that you have no credentials, that you’ve forgotten your proper paperwork. He still receives us. As Martin Luther said, “God doesn’t love us because of our worth. we are of worth because God loves us.”

It’s difficult to know what kinds of questions people are asking about God these days. We know the issue of justification was the central faith question of Luther’s day 500 years ago. People constantly wondered, “How do I get right with God?” I’m not sure that’s the question people ask these days. In fact, I wonder if people are asking many questions about God at all, and if we are, the questions are all over the place, questions like, “Is God real?” and “Can I expect God to work in my life?” and “How do I pray to God?” Statistics show us that in the United States church worship attendance and church membership are dropping off sharper than people initially projected just several years ago. An article in the Wall Street Journal last week reported that every age group, racial group, and region of the country is less Christian than a decade ago.[1] By some calculations, the ELCA will no longer be the largest Lutheran denomination by worship attendance in just a couple of decades, a sobering fact we heard this week at a pastors’ conference.

But as worrisome as all that may sound, I’m not sure it’s our problem to be concerned by those numbers, or even be concerned with them. The gospel has never been about winning popularity contests. The gospel is about telling the truth about God and God’s love for the world. It’s about leading the world in honesty with ourselves because we trust a God who is a mighty fortress but who also lifts up the lowly and exalts the humble. Whether or not we continue to dominate the culture numerically is no concern of ours (unless, of course, we want to compare ourselves like Pharisees do).

Perhaps, then, the reform the church needs today is to remind itself of its call to be more like the DMV where all people can come and not feel compared to one another, where all races, income levels, neighborhoods can be ushered into the presence of the holy God, where, as the Psalm states this morning, even those among us as fragile as sparrows and swallows can find shelter.

Perhaps the best reform we can commit ourselves to today is to hear God’s word and then realize the church is a place where all sinners belong, where we all step to the counter empty-handed and receive a righteousness for free.

Perhaps the best answer we can offer a questioning world is the punchline that is saving us: here, in God’s kingdom, we have come to understand we are seen not according to any status but our brokenness, and then still, out of grace, assigned our true identity: child of God. Forgiven. And yes…justified!

 

Thanks be to God!

sinner

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

[1] “Religiosity, Church Attendance Fall Sharply” in The Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2019 pA3

The Ministry of Healing

a homily for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23C/Lectionary 28] and reflection on Stephen Ministry

Luke 17:11-19 and 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

One of the unmistakable aspects of Jesus’ ministry and really of his whole life is healing. Everywhere Jesus goes in the gospels, healing occurs. Healing but also being made whole as an individual is an undeniable sign of God’s reign, and, indeed, that fact reaches back far before Jesus’ life. We can hear in this reading from the Old Testament today that Naaman experiences healing for his skin disease by washing in the waters of the Jordan, which is the river that formed a border with Israel and which had been so identified with God’s people that it was a symbol for God’s presence. It is a crude excuse for a river, apparently, but it still has amazing healing powers for him.unit13-session-3

In the gospel lesson we hear that Jesus’ healing even occurs outside of Israel’s territory. And that is completely understandable, since everywhere Jesus goes, healing occurs. In this case he is travelling with his disciples around the border of Samaria, which is kind of like enemy territory for Jewish people. Surprisingly enough, the group encounters some lepers who from a distance shout out for mercy. For some reason they already know he is their path towards wholeness and healing.

Their shouting is an important aspect of the story. In ancient times, people with visible diseases or body issues were regularly sequestered and separated from the rest of the community. It was very isolating to have something wrong with you, to be in the need of healing. If you were a person with leprosy or a skin disease, which was especially feared in those times, you not only had to live outside of town with other lepers, but you also were required to announce your presence (technically-speaking, your quarantine) by shouting whenever you moved about. This only exacerbated the isolation of one’s situation. Talk about stigma!

When Jesus encounters these shouting lepers, he says to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” This is because only the religious leaders had the authority to restore people into community, which is part of healing. Physical or medical healing is one thing. Social healing, feeling that you are received and welcomed into society and into community, having your stigma removed—these constitute another very important part of the healing process. By reporting to the priests, these lepers understand that all of that kind of healing will occur. With their social isolation removed they will be restored. One of them, of course, returns to thank Jesus. His healing is even more profound. Jesus praises his faith.

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Nowadays we approach diseases differently. We understand so much more about physical healing and mental healing, about things like microbes and allergens and carcinogens. We also don’t typically sequester people who are sick other than in ways that are leading to their healing, like in a hospital. However, it can still feel isolating to be carrying wounds. When you’re going through a hard time you can still feel completely disconnected from others. Perhaps it’s something tragic that’s happened to you or some kind of trauma or struggle you are dealing with. They may be wounds of an actual diagnosis you’ve received or a treatment you’re undergoing. Or they may be internal wounds—a significant relationship in your life has been broken, an event that has left you shattered, a grief from the death of a loved one.

Jesus still heals those wounds too. He walks where we walk still today, through the borderlands of our lives. We know through his death on the cross that Jesus is willing and does walk into any human condition, shares in any human suffering. He restores people to wholeness and brings people together in community. His forgiveness does that. His mercy accomplishes that. His compassion diminishes the distances between us. He gives us each other to point the way towards that healing. It was the unnamed Israelite slave girl who tended Naaman’s wife initiates the whole message that leads to Naaman’s healing.

In a congregation, people who are hurting may often “show themselves to the priests,” seeking out the priests (or the pastors) for counsel and for sharing their wounds and their desire for healing. This is natural. We go to pastors to help rid ourselves of the isolation that brokenness often brings. But pastors are not the only people who can lend a caring, listening ear. Any one of us who has been touched by Jesus’ healing is able to turn and lend care to others. In fact, we all have an obligation to share our neighbor’s burden in some way. It is one of the gifts the Spirit brings to life within us. There’s a line of Scripture often quoted right at the beginning of most funeral services. A pastor stands before a crowd of grieving people and proclaims this truth:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

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We are able to console others. We are able to offer healing compassion to those around us, even if we aren’t a priest. We are blessed at Epiphany because we have a group of thoughtful, dedicated congregation members who have received special training to offer this kind of consolation. They are called Stephen Ministers, and they work together with the pastors in confidence, to help others bear their burdens, to listen carefully and caring-ly, to offer assistance with some of the inner wounds that still isolate us. Because wherever Jesus is, there is healing.

I am thankful we have this sign of God’s reign here at Epiphany. Through Stephen Ministry, people are experiencing healing, being made whole. They are truly encountering Jesus. And for this good news not just one in ten of us may return and praise God, but all of us can say together, “Thanks be to God!”

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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The Nature of Faith

a sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22C/Lectionary 27]

Luke 17:5-10 and 2 Timothy 1:1-14

The other day our 3-year-old son was in the living room of our home and he got up and walked into the kitchen, stood in the middle of the room with his face turned up toward the counter and said in a clear voice, “Alexa, announce: Mom, I need you down here. I’m thirsty.” And Alexa did his bidding! Melinda was upstairs reading in our bedroom. We have another Alexa device next to our bed, and within a second it snapped on, chimed its little tone that signals a message is coming through. Then came Jasper’s voice, as clear as a bell, “Mom, I need you down here. I’m thirsty.” We got a kick out of it, of course, but mainly we were blown away. We didn’t even know that he knew how to use that function on Alexa. None of us taught him that. I suppose he has watched us use it and has figured out, at the ripe old age of three, has figured out the power of technology to do his bidding.

It is tempting to think of faith like an Alexa skill. While faith, no doubt, is really a complex subject, I find that I often treat it or talk about it like it’s a power or an ability or a capacity that I can use to our advantage to make life easier. Many of us think of faith as this quality or this force we can possess that can get stuff done. And, if so, we’re in good company, then, because Jesus’ disciples seem to think of it in this way.

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One day, after they hear Jesus give them a particular hard-to-digest set of guidelines for living in God’s kingdom—guidelines about forgiving people that sound particularly difficult—they naturally respond, “Increase our faith!” Teach us more skills on the Alexa! Fill up our tank. Insert a chip with more gigabytes, Jesus. That will certainly help us get the job done. And we can’t blame them, can we? In all my years I’ve never, ever heard anyone say,  “Man, I wish I had less faith.” Faith may be the one thing people would say they always want more of.

Yet, based on his response to the disciples, Jesus doesn’t really want us to think of faith in those terms. Jesus doesn’t talk about faith like it’s a skill or a force or a power or a microchip embedded in us that gets us to function the right way. I was recently reading an article about how the third main age of computing is about to be upon us and it will totally remake the world. In this next age we will see mini-computers and micro-ships implanted in just about everything. They’ll be in our clothes and communicate directly with the washing machine on how to clean them. They’ll be used to make traffic lights be more functional to traffic flow in the moment, detect early signs of disease in farm animals. They’ll be in toothbrushes, beehives, and pacemakers.[1] A child won’t tell Alexa to get his mother when he’s thirsty. A device on the refrigerator will alert her that he’s dehydrated.

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The idea that there’s this little seed in us that can have so much power and affect our reality blows our mind to think about. And on the surface, Jesus seems to speak of faith in the same way. He doesn’t say microchip. He says mustard seed, which is very similar. The point is that it’s an incredibly small thing that contains great potential. He tells his disciples that’s all they’ll need  to be able to get a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea. Or, to speak a different language, it’s all they’ll need to raise the X-Wing fighter from the swamps of Dagobah.

If you’re like me, you’re probably fascinated with the idea of something so small having so much power. The problem is that Jesus is actually joking with his disciples here. He’s exaggerating, playfully mocking their request for more faith in order to make a point—a very, very important point. Because whether the analogy for faith is a mustard seed or a microchip or some kind of entity residing within us like “the Force” in the Star Wars movies (which is what it can feel like), the point is we’re coming at it wrong. Faith is not a tool. Faith is not a special ingredient we possess that makes everything better, or that makes the impossible possible. Faith is not a substance that God checks to see if we have before God does certain things for us because ultimately, if that is the case, God really isn’t that important. If faith is just a tool or a seed or something I possess that can get the job done, then faith is really all about me and my powers, isn’t it?

In those scenarios, I become the Luke Skywalker that can overcome my obstacles, and God becomes, at best, just a person cheering me on from the sidelines. At worst, God becomes a cruel landlord or supplier who supposedly requires us to have something—faith—which he alone is dispensing to us. Getting a mulberry tree to uproot and plant itself in the ocean is not an example of how faith can accomplish the miraculous. It is a ludicrous exaggeration to say perhaps faith doesn’t work that way at all.

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The very next thing Jesus tells his disciples is this little story about a slave coming in from working in the fields. No one, says Jesus, would say to the slave, “Go ahead and have a place at the table.” And no one gives the slave any credit for what he or she has done. That’s not the place of a slave. Setting the table and preparing dinner is what a slave is supposed to do. No one tells a slave to stop being a slave and start relating to the Master like an equal. The slave has a role to fill and tasks to complete. The slave understands who he or she is in relationship to the master.

We may find it a little awkward that Jesus speaks about slavery this way, especially given our country’s particular history with it, but in Jesus’ day slavery looked a bit different, and we have to use the lesson he provides. The point he is making is that faith is a relationship, not an entity. It is better thought of as a set of tasks, a role we assume, a to-do list. When it comes to faith, it’s not about quantity, and it’s not about quality either. It’s about doing something. It’s about seeing that God is in charge and we have a role to fill as disciples.

After all, that’s how Timothy, in this middle lesson, gets his faith: first it lives in his grandmother Lois and then his mother Eunice. It was through tasks built on a relationship they understood they had. Faith isn’t based on genes or chromosome and get passed down that way. Nor is it a virus that spread through contact with other people. Faith not something we “have” at all, but something that’s done. It’s heard, seen, copied, perfected, adjusted. Faith is discovered when we take stock of what is right in front of us and, quite frankly, getting to work, living out the next step in our relationship with God…as one post I saw on Facebook this week…do to the “next right thing,” even when we’re disillusioned. And sometimes those tasks and that role are not going to be a walk in the park. A famous theologian and scholar from the early 20 century, G.K. Chesterton, once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”

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Sometimes it may feel like faith is what is powering us, but sometimes we may feel empty. Regardless, the relationship is still there, Jesus says. God is still providing, still guiding, still loving. We are still his children, his sheep, his disciples. And our part, even in those cases where we feel we’re not up to it, is to go on to the next task.

One time at seminary Susan Briehl came to campus to give some lectures. She’s a well-known Lutheran pastor and hymn-writer who has mainly served congregations on the West Coast. Some of her hymns are in our hymnal. She told the story of when she served as a campus pastor at a major university. She shared that some students would come to see her after a few semesters at school and complain their faith was slowly being chipped away at. Maybe it was the pressures of school life and being away from home. Maybe it had to do with confronting thoughts and rival beliefs in a new way. One particularly dejected student came in one day and said, “You know, pastor, when I came to college my faith was strong and vibrant. It was like a house I lived in where I was comfortable and it made my life better. I liked that house of faith. But I feel like everyone—my professors, my friends, the new subjects I’m learning about—they’re all trying to take apart my house of faith. At first, they came and took all the doors off the hinges. My house had no doors! I could keep things inside our outside. It was annoying! But, I still had the house, so I just got used to it.

And just when I got used to my house having no doors, they came along and took off the roof. At first, I thought I was ruined. I thought, ‘What’s a house without a roof?!’ But eventually I adjusted. I still had all the other parts of the house. It was still fairly recognizable as a place to live. It was colder and I didn’t have the protection I did before, but I got used to it.

Then someone came and took all the furniture. That was hard. I liked that furniture. It took some getting used to. But I figured: I can just sleep on the floor. Plenty of people do that. And just when I got used to my house of faith having no doors, no roof, and no furniture, someone came and took the floor. I can’t have a house without a floor. It went right out from under me and now I’m falling, pastor. I’m falling in my faith and I’m scared where I’ll land. What do I do?”

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And Pastor Briehl looked at the student and said, “I’m sorry you’re falling and feel so helpless. I don’t know when you’ll stop falling, but I can tell you this: as your falling, pay attention. Look out for hands. People will be sticking out their hands as you fall. And in their hands will be bread. Go for the bread. Grab that bread and keep falling. You’ll need that bread. It will keep your faith alive. It will sustain you. And eventually, you will land. And once you land, you can begin building a new house of faith. But until then, watch for the hands and go for the bread.”

That message came at a time when I really needed to hear it. Some events of my first semester at seminary had started to undo my house of faith. But Briehl’s words refocused my attention—and maybe it can refocus yours—like a slave that needs to know what job is next.  Sometimes that task is just looking for those hands. There were hands for me—plenty of them—reaching out with bread. In fact, every Thursday evening in the Chapel there was bread at our worship service…just as, in fact, there is bread here this morning and every week, and hands reaching out to give it to you, forgiving you. There are hands all over the place, offering sustenance to keep going, once you begin to look for them.

Instead of worrying about what our faith looks like, or whether we have enough, whether the mulberry trees will ever move like we want them to, whether a given situation will end up like we hope it does, the best thing to do is just to reach out, to grab the bread, to serve, to know the grace will abound no matter where we are, no matter what we think we lack. We are God’s and he will provide. Because even the cross of Good Friday, when Jesus himself is falling, falling, falling, reaches the solid new floor of Easter morning where all can be rebuilt.

 

Thanks be to God!

Mustard-seed

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

[1] “Chips with everything,” in The Economist. Volume 432, no 9160. Sept 14-20, 2019

If God Will Send His Angels

a sermon for the festival of Michael and All Angels

Luke 10:17-20 and Revelation 12:7-12

My wife and I took our middle child this weekend to Staunton, Virginia, for a visit to their huge Harry Potter festival. Called “Queen City Mischief and Magic,” the street festival is a very family-friendly event that their downtown area has hosted over the past few Septembers. There are booths for playing games, winning prizes, painting faces, that kind of thing. There are some entertainers, many of the merchants open their shops to sell homemade Potter souvenirs and trinkets, and Mary Baldwin College even hosts some academic lectures on the fantasy genre for the more literary guests.

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It’s a lot like a regular street fair, except that loads of people dress up like characters from the series, so there are all kinds of mystical and magical creatures walking around, some friendly, some menacing. We saw dragons, elves, witches, wizards, and even mermaids. And He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named is actually He-Who-Doesn’t-Mind-Having-His-Picture-Taken. I got a photo op with Voldemort!

I actually never finished the Harry Potter series and I’ve only seen one of the movies, but I have to admire the imagination and detail that has gone into the world that British author J.K. Rowling created. I can see its enduring appeal and widespread fascination. I was once a bit suspicious of Harry Potter, but I see it as really no different from the kind of entertainment that Walt Disney or Marvel Comics offers up. It can be fun to imagine the existence of outlandish creatures, characters that take the sides of good and evil, that fight epic battles against demons and spirits which determine the fate of the universe.

We might be surprised that every so often even Holy Scripture sounds like something out of Harry Potter. Look at the selection of today’s readings: angels, demons, mysteriously disembodied hands…there’s even a dragon on our bulletin art this morning! It’s like Harry Potter’s world got hold of our worship! Or, as is more likely the case, our scriptures got a hold of Harry Potter! In fact, each of this morning’s appointed Scripture texts mentions some kind of cosmic warfare, and it gets pretty graphic. For many people, things like angels and demons don’t factor into daily faith very often. Most of us, in fact, usually leave that stuff up to the theme parks and Hollywood. For whatever reason, it often doesn’t suit our worldview to allow for beings that are invisible.

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an icon of Michael, the archangel

Yet we know that our reality is governed by things that can’t be seen, by forces no human can touch. We know the earth spins because we notice it in the sun and seasons, but none of can put our hands or our eyes on its axis. We know are feet are practically glued to this planet and that all the other planets are kept from hitting one another by this thing called gravity, and it’s super-strong, but no eye can see it. We are pulled with a force towards our families and friends and fellow citizens that is sometimes so fierce it causes us to sacrifice our own lives, but none of us has ever seen love. And while science and technology have enabled us to see and perceive many things that were mysteries to people who came before us, we must admit there are plenty of questions worth asking that science and technology can never answer, nor do they particularly want to. The point is, when we claim in the Nicene Creed that we believe God is the maker of all things, seen and unseen, we are acknowledging that there are parts of creation not visible to mortals, parts of creation we haven’t fully explained and may never explain.

That is probably where angels fall. Scripture speaks of angels on several occasions, although they never really become central to God’s story. They are beings that show up every once in a while like when God promises to send Michael to protect God’s people in a time of great turmoil; or God needs to send a message of hope in a dark time to a young virgin woman  in the town of Nazareth. In several other places they are described as constantly gazing on the face of God, doing his bidding night and day.

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The Annunciation, depicting the angel Gabriel visiting Mary

In the Revelation text today, the archangel Michael throws the dragon and his angels out of heaven. That may sound completely fanciful to you and me—like, what do we do with that?!—but you and I are relatively powerful and comfortable in the grand scheme of things. We have to remember Revelation was written when followers of Christ were under intense persecution. Describing sin and threatening forces as a dragon or a terrible beast is totally logical to people who are suffering oppression at the hands of evil that is so abominable and so out of control that no human can put a dent in it. This ugliness reaches way beyond them.

It’s like that final, most difficult character you encounter in the original Super Mario Brothers—Bowser is his name, I think.  I never could beat that guy. Ever. I could get all the way to the end most times, but Bowser would always crush me. I always had hand the controller to my cousin Tim to get him to do it for me. If you’re a Christian in the early centuries and the emperor is throwing people like you to the lions, you want some assurance that the Empire won’t have the final say. If you’re a person of color in the 1700s, then a slave-based economy probably seems like a unbeatable Bowser to you. If you’re a Jew in Europe in the mid 20th century, the Nazi regime probably feels like an awful, terrible beast that can’t be brought down.

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Bowser, the Terrible

When you and your people are being dehumanized, when your daily existence is always in question, when it seems evil is so large it reaches right up to the face of God you want word in no uncertain terms that God and heaven are good and are on your side. You find hope knowing that God is ultimately victorious, that someone powerful has thrown the dragon down and heaven doesn’t have evil in it anymore.

To get too specific about angels and what they are like probably misses their point. Overall they are protectors, they are messengers, and they are worshippers, and we give thanks on this day that God’s imagination and God’s creativity is far beyond J.K. Rowling’s, and yours or mine. We give thanks that God protects us from evil in ways beyond our understanding, that God sends us messengers of hope and peace, often when we least expect them, and that we, too, get to worship God and one day will see God’s face.

In fact, we know that one day Jesus sends his own disciples out as angels. He appoints seventy of them and they go into the neighboring towns and villages as protectors, messengers, and worshipers of the one God. They heal people who are sick, they bring tidings of peace and joy to the people they encounter, and they even have power over demons. They come back to Jesus pretty enthralled with their abilities, in fact. They were really able to defeat the little Bowsers they encountered.

I hear people of faith talk like this all the time. Our Stephen Ministers, for example, share stories about how just listening to someone who is suffering and praying with them drives out demons of shame and confusion. The people who deliver altar flowers each week talk about how they feel like they’ve defeated demons of loneliness and despair just by showing up in a hospital room or nursing home for a conversation. I hear folks share about how Kevin Barger and his corps of musicians have helped them experience the divine in the way they lead our worship and provide music.

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And there’s a reason why our youngest children’s choir is named after cherubs, one of the ranks of angels mentioned in Scripture. In their youthfulness and in their desire to sing loudly without embarrassment they connect with us on a deeply joyful level. From where I sit up front I can see your faces when the Cherub Choir sings, and I’ve always said I don’t who has the better view—the people who are watching the children sing or the people who get to watch the people who are watching the children sing.

Jesus rejoices that day when the disciples return to him with these stories. Jesus is excited for them, for they are experiencing the triumph of good over evil in God’s creation. But then he says they should rejoice even more that their names are written in heaven.

The other day when Joseph and Sarah got word that their baby was going to arrive, Joseph had to rush to the hospital and leave his children in the care of me. I was excited to do that for them, and we had done that before when Samuel was born about 4 years ago. So I went and picked up Samuel from pre-school and brought him home in our car. We came back and had a little snack, and then walked to Lucia’s bus stop where I was to get her off the bus. In the Henrico County Public School system, kindergartners are only allowed to get off the bus with approved guardians, and Sarah and Joseph had made sure that I was on that list of approved guardians earlier in the day. As we walked to the bus stop, Samuel told me that to get her off the bus I was going to have to hold up my “hold-up thingy,” by which he meant my photo ID.

 

But, unfortunately, as the bus doors opened, we learned my name was not on the list.  The bus driver asked who I was and how I knew Joseph and I thought, Well, I said, I’m his colleague… and his friend…and his neighbor…and his old camp counselor…and I’ve known him almost his whole life…please give me Lucia! But she was a steady protector. She flipped through the sheets of paper and there was no Phillip Martin listed there. So Lucia had to go take her seat again—she was very brave—and be driven all the way back to school where I then had to go pick her up.

As it turns out, it was a mistake by the transportation department. They had received the message from Joseph, but they had not updated their book of approved names that morning.

Jesus says to his disciples—to us—your name is approved. It’s on the list. And then he shows us that when God comes to fight the presence of evil in the world, when God rolls up his sleeves to fight the big Bowser that resides in you and in me, God sends someone not with a sword or magic wand but someone with a cross.

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God sends Jesus who turns his life over to all the destructive and deadly forces of this world so that he can show them what a dead-end they really are. God proves that his goodness is in control of all things by raising Jesus up on the third day. God shows the ultimate power of humility and love, the authority of forgiveness in a world lacerated by revenge.

And all the angels do, all that any good messenger does, is hand over that message and testify to the glory of the cross of Jesus. That was, in fact, the power that Michael displayed when he overthrew the dragon: he conquered Satan with just the word of Jesus’ sacrifice. So let us hand over that message today to someone who may need to hear it, and sing like angels with the voice that has been given us:

“Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah who reigns forever and ever.

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr

Survivor contestant

a sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 20C – Lectionary 25]

Luke 16:1-13 and Amos 8:4-7

The stakes of the game are clear from the beginning, and they are addictively intriguing. Even though about a twenty or so people start off on the island, or in the jungle, or marooned in some location far from civilization—but with plenty of television cameras and host Jeff Propst—only one of them will be able to go home with the prize money of one million dollars. They compete in several different challenges and games, sometimes for food and other privileges, but sometimes for something called “immunity,” which means they will not be eligible at the tribal council to receive the fate everyone is trying to avoid: to be “voted off the island.”Survivor_Island_of_the_Idols_logo

I haven’t watched the game show in years, but “Survivor” on CBS is now in its 38th season. The first time it aired I was in seminary, and a group of us would gather around the TV the night it came on. We’d all have our favorite contestants by the second episode, the people we were rooting to win it all. And usually by the second episode you could also see the rapscallions emerge, the double-crossers, the ones who would act one way in front of the whole group and then confess their crafty strategy on camera. Those were the ones who would gain ground against all odds. You didn’t ever really like those contestants, but you had to hand it to them. The stakes, after all, were clear from the beginning. It wasn’t about going home with the most friends. It was about going home with the most money. Every once in a while someone whose motives are always pure and self-sacrificing wins the money. But more often than not, the winner is someone who is, well, let’s say a little shady. I remember the first season came down to two finalists who were called “a snake and a rat” by some of their co-competitors.

At one point in his ministry Jesus tells a story about a survivor who is, by almost all accounts, a snake or a rat. He is a manager of a rich man’s property and has been accused of misspending the rich man’s money. The stakes are clear from the beginning: he’s fired and he’s going to be turned out with nowhere to go. He doesn’t want to get stuck digging for a living, which was considered the hardest labor in ancient times, and he definitely has too much pride to beg.

So he devises a plan. It’s a long-shot attempt at immunity. Since for whatever reason he still has all the books and ledgers, he goes to people who owe the rich man money and starts slashing their debts. One by one he does this. He doesn’t care that his master is going to lose money. Remember, this guy’s a rat. All this dishonest manager cares about is his own hide. When he finally hands the ledgers and accounts back into his master, the dishonest manager becomes the unlikely hero. His boss, the rich man, rolls back in his leather wingback chair, props his feet up on the desk, throws back his head in laughter and says, “I’ve got to hand it to you! You know how to play the game!” You see, the manager formed a good alliance. All of those people who now owe less money to the rich man will be obliged to take the manager into their homes, maybe give him a job!

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The story might seem a little strange to us because it describes a world and an economy a bit different from our own. But here’s the bottom line: the dishonest manager knew what was at stake—his livelihood—and he came up with clever steps to ensure it. By putting himself, even with the little power he had at his disposal, in the favor of a whole bunch of people in the community, he was now guaranteed to avoid digging and begging. He was a survivor.

Jesus does not typically tell parables where a rascal, a swindler, is the hero, but then again, we a lot of us like Survivor, don’t we? It’s in its 38th season. We clearly have an appetite for these characters. We admire those who can think quickly, who can see what’s at stake, position themselves to get ahead, and land on their feet. There is a bit of behavior here  that Jesus wants his followers to imitate. Not the conniving, not the dishonesty, so much, but cleverness, the ingenuity, the grit. Jesus looks at the world and sees what we often do: people can be so laser-focused on getting ahead, excellent at arranging things to their own benefit, especially when money is involved. They quickly take stock of their own needs and get the world to revolve around them.

Jesus wants the same cleverness, ingenuity, and grit among his disciples but with a key twist: they should be focused on bearing Christ’s light, on advancing the kingdom. Like a shrewd “Survivor” contestant, the disciples should quickly assess what sacrifices are required in any given circumstance and readjust in order to get the world to revolve around Jesus. It shocks us a bit, but what Jesus is doing is piggybacking on one of the best motivators human beings have: the desire to get money. It’s like he says: “The same ingenuity that can fuel your greed—let it fuel your grace to others.”

Of course, the problem is that the force of greed is strong. Wealth, in and of itself, is not inherently bad, but it can become an idol just like anything else can. We can hear in the words of the prophet Amos, who speaks to Israel in the seventh century before Christ, what things look like when greed and love of money run amok in a society. The health of the community is in shambles. People fiddle with the exchange rates and tip scales in their favor. They think of time chiefly in terms of opportunities to make a buck. Those at the bottom of society really lose out. They just seem like property to everyone else, or they feel like interest rates in a system designed to keep them down.

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I was listening to one of the gentlemen at one of the men’s lunch groups this week talk about the low-level tension that always existed in his small prairie hometown between the farmers and the grain elevator operators. The farmers brought their crops in to store in order to get paid for their work, but were at the mercy of the elevator operator as to what the scales said they should get paid. Another gentleman said that cattlemen would make sure their livestock had full bellies of water whenever they came into the slaughterhouse. That was just in a small town. Imagine that kind of behavior on a national scale.

God gives us wealth and property as tools for helping our neighbor, for building and enhancing relationships with one another, and yet it can so easily become something we worship. and that breaks down community. Jesus thinks: if only the church could be as clever as money worshippers are in how it spreads the message of the gospel…if only the church could be so crafty in how it goes about advancing the kingdom’s goals of love, justice, compassion, healing, then community here, there and everywhere would be built up.

I can’t help but think of that young man who stood in the background of College Game Day on ESPN last week with a sign that asked for someone to send him some beer money. He actually put his Venmo account on the poster, which was made very simply with a black Sharpie. People watching the broadcast saw his sign and actually wired him money—way more than he needed to buy a case of beer. Very quickly he decided to use all the extra money (after buying one case of Busch Light) as a donation to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital. By the end of the week, both Busch Brewing and Venmo had noticed the story, along with thousands of others, and they decided to chip in some funds too. At this point donations to the Children’s Hospital from his one handwritten beer sign total more than $300,000.

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I’m watching the documentary on Netflix called “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates.” It’s about how the multibillionaire software developer, Bill Gates, who at one time was one of the most maligned people in the world, has shifted his attention, along with his wife Melinda’s, to solving some of the public health problems in the poorest parts of the world.    He is still the same focused, creative problem-solver he always was, but the object is different. Instead of amassing wealth through computer programming, he is sharing his wealth and ingenuity through the improvement of sanitation systems in slums, vaccines for children in developing nations, and the accessibility of AIDS medicine, just to name a few.

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Some congregations in other states[1] have figured out how to relieve the medical debt of fellow citizens they will never meet by raising money for a non-profit that purchases medical debt for pennies on the dollar.

And I think of the pioneers of the Virginia Synod who, almost 70 years ago, decided to snag a piece of old farm real estate at the end of an unpaved Monument Avenue to start a congregation that might grow right at the time when people would be moving by the droves into the West End and beyond. And I think of the people involved in that congregation’s ministries now and how they’re always thinking, always solving problems—how can we reach more through HHOPE and LAMB’s Basket, how can we get more free material to make quilts for Lutheran World Relief, how they can pull of a VBS when half of the building is under construction, and so on.

So many of those examples involve money, which is a powerful influencer, but the resourcefulness and cleverness Jesus calls us to really involves our whole lives. One does not need to be financially wealthy to become shrewd. God has blessed us each with immense gifts of time and talent, and we can use them to the glory of God or to the glory of something else. As American author David Foster Wallace once said, “There is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice is what to worship.” We can’t choose whether or not we want to donate our lives to something. We only get to choose who or what receives our donation.

God’s donation, of course, to the life of creation, in the life of you and me, is not a just financial one, either. The Father gives us his own Son—“Himself human—as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6). The stakes are clear from the beginning. It’s about going home with all the friends, all the people. He is going to be a survivor, but first he is going to be a loser. He loses his life—his energy, his vision, his hopes—he loses it all—because he loves all the friends so much. He loves us so much he allows himself to get played, voted out, single-crossed all just to free us, to set us free from all the other gods who bind us so, the gods who will tie us down to death, including our own selves.

This is the truth, the force that lies at the center of all things: a Creator who gives himself up for his creation, a God who renews us everything with the gift of his own life. These, my friends, are the true riches, and they have been placed right in our hands. They have been placed right in our heart.

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Jesus survivor

[1] https://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/local/columbia-church-funds-purchase-of-million-in-missouri-medical-debt/article_8e619494-d314-11e9-a884-0b087f3757d9.html?utm_source=SocialNewsDesk&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=SND_scheduled_post&fbclid=IwAR29FEe8N9F1VIZZxxm1-aN3YqjnJ-g5FDVuIcfTlmOtbkU3kCOF23s4tmk

The Day Kitty was found

a sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19C/Lectionary 24C]

Luke 15:1-10

“Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”

Oh, man, if there is another part of the Bible that better fits the Martin household these days I don’t know what it is. With three kids under the age of 13 and with a father who is as scatterbrained as they come, it seems we are always in a state of losing something and finding something. It is never-ending. Coins. Keys. Retainers. Prized Matchbox cars, the new box of cat litter I know I bought and stuck somewhere—we live these parables, day in and day out.

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The item we probably spend the most combined time searching for is the lovey that belongs to our middle child. She received it from a church member here when she was just a year or so old, and she has been connected to it ever since. It’s a small, gray, Beanie Baby kitten named Kitty. It’s a cute little thing, but it was practically designed to be lost. It camouflages with every environment, and it’s so floppy it can fit into any crack and crevice. In fact, we found this same Beanie Baby on-line a couple of years ago anticipating the day when the original Kitty would get lost and never return. Backup Kitty #1 and Backup Kitty #2 are waiting in the wings for that moment, which we thought had come just a few weeks ago when our daughters were in North Carolina visiting their grandparents.

Details surrounding the event are a little hazy. All we know from the string of texts that Melinda and I kept getting from my parents is that one morning our daughter claimed Kitty wasn’t there, and although they supposedly turned the place upside down, Kitty was nowhere to be found. “If it’s not in her luggage,” texted my father at one point, exasperated with the search, “Kitty has evaporated.” I kept texting my mother with pointers, as if she hadn’t been to that rodeo before: Did you make her retrace her steps? Did you check under the beds? Shake out the sheets? My mom assured me they’d looked everywhere. but promised they’d go back to their cabin and look again when they had more time. If Kitty were found, she’d have to be mailed. Or overnighted. Our daughter was beside herself when they had to leave North Carolina and come home sans Kitty. Backup Kitty #1 was called up from reserves.

But then one day last week I got another text from my mom: it was just a photo, and it was a photo Kitty, lying in the place where she had finally been found: squished under a chair cushion. A few days later a little box arrived in the mail. Our daughter ripped it open and immediately pressed Kitty to her nose, to her face, squeezed it tight. And then tears. From me. But first from her. We stood there in our kitchen and felt more relief and joy than a little gray beanbag should ever be able to give. And I was thinking, “What is wrong with me? Why am I getting emotional about this?” Because what was lost has been found. Because I’m typically the guy who just says, “Eh. It’ll turn up. Learn to live without it.” I have to admit it’s moving to know there are some folks—like my mother, like my wife, like the woman in Jesus’ parable—who will look and look and look until the thing is found.

That’s the thing that’s going on as Jesus tells these parables. He finds himself these days sitting more and more often with bunches of people who finally feel found. He finds himself surrounded by people who finally feel like someone has looked and looked and sought them out, who hasn’t written them off saying, “Eh, they’ll turn up. Learn to live without ‘em.” Jesus is welcoming and gracious to the sinners and the tax collectors, all those apparently forgettable folks who, for various different reasons, have fallen between the cushions of life and gotten stuck there.

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In Jesus’ day they were the people who had fallen afoul of religious sensibilities. Perhaps they had gotten too cozy with the Roman oppressors. Perhaps they worked in professions that religious authorities had deemed unclean. It is really difficult to know all that might be comprised by the term “sinners,” but suffice it to say that they were the people who had been labelled either by a questionable moral decision they had made or, as is more likely, by a circumstance of life they probably had little control over, like a disease of some sort. Maybe they just had found little use for the day to day rules people were supposed to follow to be considered respectable. The point is, Jesus seems to be OK with these people in some way. He’s willing to eat with them and be associated with them, and I imagine if you were someone who had been written off by most of society, that felt pretty good.

The problem is that there were people, like the Pharisees, who did not feel good about this. They grumble and complain that Jesus is allowing God’s kingdom to be infiltrated.

Rather than just arguing with them, Jesus tells three stories to illustrate how he sees this situation. We read the first two this morning; the third is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In the first two cases, at least, we glimpse a character who is driven to return what is lost. One is a relatively wealthy man for he is a shepherd with what was, back then, a fairly sizeable flock. The other is a relatively poor woman, for ten drachma was not a great deal of money. Both go to extraordinary lengths to find what has been lost. In the case of the shepherd, the situation is probably a bit beyond his control. Sheep tend to wander. But coins do not wander. You can’t blame a coin for being lost, which suggests that sometimes being separated from where you really belong is not totally your fault. Sometimes people get lost from God not because of a decision they’ve made but because life has just taken them there.

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The good news is that nowhere does in the parables does the character just say, “Eh, it’ll turn up.” It’s like Jesus finds three different ways to tell the same thing: God doesn’t ever give up looking for what’s his. Sorry, Backup Kitty # 1 and #2. The story is never over until that which is lost has been found. The chance for someone to repent; that is, to have a change in mind about faith, to have one’s perspective about grace and mercy changed, the opportunities to learn “Where God is in all of this thing called life” are ever before us. And they extend to everyone.  No one should be judging or worrying about anyone else’s faith journey or the timing or the depth of their turning around to God.

Today we enroll new candidates for confirmation, which is an integral part of our tradition’s faith journey. It’s a two-year commitment of re-learning some of the basics of Lutheran faith in preparation for the day they will stand before the congregation and profess their faith. What they’re going to say on that day, the day of their confirmation, is essentially they trust in a God who fundamentally finds us wherever we are, and that that’s our hope—not how wonderful we are, but how gracious and persistently loving God is.

Several years ago one confirmand decided not to continue his participation in the ministry. He had had one year of classes, decided it wasn’t for him, actually he wasn’t really sure church or God were for him at all, and decided to withdraw. His father emailed me to explain and said they didn’t want to push him. The lay catechist and I were fine with that. We figured it takes some courage to arrive at that decision. A couple of years went by and we never heard from him, other than a conversation I had with him about his Eagle Project idea.

Then one day right at the time he was about to graduate from high school he showed up in worship. And then he was here the next Sunday. And the one after that. He eventually went off to college, but even to this day, whenever he is at home on break, he worships with us. He is such a gracious, warm-hearted, and humble young man. I asked him recently about his journey of faith and he said, “[During confirmation and after I withdrew] I would have considered myself lost and searching at the time.” Now, he feels he has found his faith, or found his way, but even more than that, he feels he has been found. Not everyone knows his story—none of us know everyone’s story, quite frankly—and he’s got so much his left to discover and live, but, boy, does it feel good to see him here each week.

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icon of Christ the Good Shepherd

 

 

That’s why it’s important to remember that Jesus tells these parables not to the sinners and tax collectors, to the people who are lost, but to the Pharisees and scribes who are grumbling over at their table, to the people who are always in church, to the ones who wear the robes and stand up and preach. Jesus wants them, the ones who may not feel particularly lost at the moment, to remember that this is the nature of God—that God searches out the lost and it doesn’t seem to bother God how far he’ll have to go to return them. That’s the theme and purpose of Jesus’ life, the message of the cross. God goes unbelievably far to return us home. No one, in fact, goes farther. The kingdom isn’t being infiltrated, by the way. It’s being expanded.

What Jesus would like the Pharisees to know and understand, as they sit there with their smug judgmentalism, is that God sees everyone as a sheep who has the capacity for the same kind of wandering. God sees everyone as a coin that needs to be swept out of the corner just as much as one of the nine that stays in the purse. God knows we all are prone to wander, we are all have this habit of getting lost or misplaced. But more than any of that, God is filled with joy when we’re returned.

For that’s the true surprise in these stories. It’s not so much the finding that is amazing, but the joy of the return. They don’t just stand there in the kitchen with Kitty in hand, embarrassed by a few tears in their eyes. They party. The shepherd doesn’t drag the sheep behind him to teach it a lesson. He puts it on his shoulders. The woman calls her friends and neighbors over, people who may not even really know her, to celebrate having all the coins back together again. They’re like, “Why are we going over to that woman’s house this time? Why does she have the fruit and veggie tray out? She found a coin??” The coin is valuable to her, for sure, but even more valuable is her reputation as a finder.

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There is a hymn we sing that has a line,“God has made a new beginning from the ashes of our past, in the losing and the winning we hold fast.” We are not singing it today, but Cheryl Hamm did select it to be sung at her husband’s memorial service this past week as we commended him to God. The life of Christian faith, the life that has embraced us in water, wine, and bread, the life that encounters us on the cross of Jesus is this life of losing and winning, of being lost and being found, of withdrawing and returning, of being a Pharisee and tax collector, saint and sinner. This faith is ultimately about rejoicing, for while our lives are clearly valued in God’s eyes, of even greater value is the one who does the seeking, the one who makes the new beginning out of the ashes of our past.

As it was in the beginning, glory now resounds again in a song that has no ending, Amen.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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Getting a better seat

A sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 17C/Lectionary 22C]

Luke 14:1, 7-14

No matter what the circumstances are, I think everyone likes the feeling of getting a better seat somewhere than the one you were originally given. It could be a sporting event when you slip down to 50-yardline seats at halftime. It could be at the theater when they ask people to fill in empty seats up front at intermission. It could be at your elementary school student’s recorder concert when you get offered something close to the action. And, let me tell you, there’s nothing like attending an event in an elementary school auditorium for finding out just how cut-throat our society has become.

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seating chart for a wedding reception

One time about twelve years or so ago I found myself in a situation where I ended up with a much better seat than I started with. I was serving a congregation in Pittsburgh, and one of my parishioners, who knew I had once lived in Egypt, sent me a newspaper clipping announcing that a Coptic Orthodox church in another community about 20 minutes up the road was going to be holding a special worship service to consecrate their new worship space. The Coptic Orthodox Church is the branch of Christianity “native” to Egypt. It is an ancient but thriving church with beautiful traditions and worship, dating probably all the way back to the Mark who wrote the gospel. One of their traditions is that any time a new church building is acquired or built, the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church needs to come and consecrate it, set it apart as a sacred space.

When I was in Egypt, I worshipped at a number of Coptic Orthodox Churches there. I also knew that they absolutely adored their pope, Pope Shenouda III, or “Baba Shenouda,” as they lovingly called him. He was a famous figure in Egypt, almost like a celebrity, but he was also very accessible to his people and to the people of Egypt. So this parishioner of mine saw this in the local paper and thought I might be interested in it.

As it turned out, this special service for consecration was going to occur on some random Tuesday morning that I happened to have free, so I drove down to the church in Ambridge, PA, parked my car on the street, and went inside. There I found a church full of dozens of people who looked like they were getting ready for a big worship service. Every single one of them looked Coptic to me, like the people I had known in Egypt, so I wasn’t surprised. I was just surprised that there were so many of them in that area of Pennsylvania. No one seemed to notice I was there, so I just went and sat in one of the back pews (Lutheran habits come in handy sometimes) and waited for things to begin.

I had only been sitting for a few moments when someone appeared at the end of my pew and asked me if I was their “distinguished ecumenical guest.” I suppose he had seen the collar I was wearing, along with my blonde hair and blue eyes, and assumed I was not a Coptic priest. Since the gentleman had made it sound like they had invited a specific ecumenical guest—a clergyperson from another denomination—and I had just shown up because I had seen the article in the paper, I politely told him that I was not their ecumenical guest. He wouldn’t accept my refusal. He said something like, “Yes, yes, you are our guest, and sitting back here is not OK.” He then escorted me all the way to the very front pew. Beside me was one other person—a local Episcopalian priest who was also there just because he’d read it in the paper. Suddenly we were both guests and we were both official, and we were both sitting about 10 feet away from Pope Shenouda. At the end of the worship service, the Pope called both of us up and presented us with a special token of friendship and honor, an icon of St. Mary bearing his signature.

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A photo of that consecration service. Pope Shenouda III is on the right. Photo taken by Joe Appel, used with permission. For more of his photos (including of that day) visit www.joeappelphotography.com

It was really amazing. I felt honored and welcome, and I kept thinking about how I’d lived a whole year in Egypt and never once saw Baba Shenouda and here I am 20 minutes from my house and I’m shaking hands with him. And yet the whole time I was standing there I kept hoping that there wasn’t some other “distinguished ecumenical guest” who actually had been formally invited somewhere in the pews behind me thinking, “Hey…I’m supposed to be up there, not that guy!”

Even Jesus seems to understand the benefit of being asked to move up to a higher seat. We hear about this one time when he is invited to eat a meal at the leader of the Pharisees’ house and he basically gives that advice: don’t insert yourselves into places of honor and dignity. It’s better not to self-promote. Take a place lower than you may even think you deserve and let that be how you start relating to people.

To understand what’s going on here at this meal it helps to understand just how important mealtimes were in ancient culture. They were a vital and maybe even the central part of the honor-shame society that the people of Jesus’ time lived in. At whose house you were eating and in which particular spot you were sitting mattered a big deal. In an honor-shame society, everything someone did was to accrue honor for your and your family’s name and avoid shame. Honor only meant something if it was publicly recognized; that is, if other people saw you do something honorable or witnessed honor conferred upon you. Likewise, shame was so damaging precisely because everyone else agreed that you were of less value. It wasn’t just something you felt in your own heart.

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It was kind of like an ongoing popularity contest on a large scale, except everyone believed that there was a limited amount of honor. That meant you and I were essentially competing over the same honor. If I did something that increased my standing in the community then everyone else’s honor went down just a little. That’s not really what happened to me that day in the Coptic Church. No one else’s standing was diminished because I was treated with honor. They were just being gracious.

We don’t really live in an honor-shame society anymore, but an argument could be made that social media is bringing it back. There is a lot of honor and shame involved in Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. When you put a photo or a thought on there, you are hoping that it gets lots of likes or retweets or comments. Comments, especially positive ones, are gold, and you’re almost instinctively prone to measure your own status on social media against everyone else’s. The point of social media for many people, especially celebrities, is to get as many followers or friends as possible.

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One way we convey honor in this age

Honor-shame societies are really damaging and dangerous. People get shamed and shunned and shunted out of real community very easily. One expert in social media consumption in youth culture, Collin Kartchner, says that social media teaches young people that a person’s “worth isn’t inherent, but contingent.” That is, it sends the message I’m not enough as I am. I need to fight for value among by peers or among the public at large. Just ask a kid who has been bullied at school or cyberbullied. These wounds have lasting impacts on our identity, and there are lots of studies out there about the effects social media use is having, especially on our youth.

What’s happening to Jesus in this meal at the Pharisees’ leader’s house is that Jesus has just gotten a bunch of “likes.” Almost everyone would have known that he had received an invitation to this important person’s house. Jesus’ honor, in the sight of everyone, would have gone up. And so he’s sitting there with his newly-accrued honor, most likely in the midst of a bunch of new faces a lot more well-connected than the crowd he usually hung with, and he takes the opportunity to flip things.

He first gives this lesson about how to place yourself in relation to others. Don’t essentially be grabbing honor from others by taking something you may even rightfully deserve.  Humble yourself.  Don’t be confrontational or see yourself in competition with others. Let someone else have the honor that you might want to receive.

Then he takes his lesson one step farther, throwing the whole system of honor-shame on its head. He says, when you throw a party or have a dinner, specifically invite people who cannot give you any honor in return because they are not in a position to reciprocate. The blind, the lame, the poor—these are the folks in Jesus’ time who are always going to miss out. They are never going to receive any invitations anywhere. No one includes them, no one thinks they have anything to offer, no one gives them any value because they can’t give any value to anyone else.

Social media isn’t all bad, of course. For a while I’ve followed this one account called, “The Afghanistan you never see.” It is run by a photojournalist from Afghanistan named Bilal Sarwary who travels the country and showcases the raw, natural beauty of rural life and landscapes. He loves his native land, and so he expresses that by featuring the side of Afghanistan that never gets any mention because it’s not about war or religious extremism or the opiate trade. As it turns out there are wonderful stories to be told and beautiful vistas to see in Afghanistan if you just look beyond what grabs all the attention.

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a post from “The Afghanistan you never see”

God loves this native land, his creation, and his kingdom, therefore, is going to be about the people you never see, the situations that never grab the attention, the stories that never get told. It’s about turning the honor and shame system upside down so that those who are always marginalized, those whose voices never get heard, those who are assigned minimal value get a place at the table. Jesus is going to believe in this mission so much, he’s going to be so confident in God’s love for all people, he’s so sure of the importance that the rich be sent away empty and the poor be filled with good things that he is going to give all his honor away. Every last bit of it. Jesus is going to take all the “likes” that people he has accrued and is going to give them away to us. And he is going to take the lowest seat possible. It’s called the cross. Suffering. Rejection. So that if anyone ever finds themselves in a place like that, they’re not sitting alone. And he does this to show that God’s view of his creation is one where people work together. They do not grade one another on shame or honor or beauty or wealth or status or popularity. The kingdom of new life, of eternal life, is the kingdom where everyone is seen.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this great thing in his little book called Life Together that my friend reminded me of this week. Bonhoeffer is talking about the community that is called together by Christ, with all of its diversity, and says, “I can never know beforehand how God’s image should appear in others.”[1] And he goes on to say that for many people we’ll never know how God is revealed in that person until we’re in real relationship with them. Until they are at the table with us.

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So often I think we come to the conclusion that the way we help bring about God’s vision for the world is through grandiose things: build a hospital. Dig a well in a foreign village. Contribute a huge sum of money to alleviate poverty or hunger. Give countless hours of free time to volunteer. And while the church has done many of those world-changing things, and will continue to need Christ-followers to dream big, what Jesus says at that dinner in the Pharisee’s house is that the kingdom also comes just by seeing and paying attention to those we neglect in ordinary, everyday situations. None of us may ever do something like found an orphanage but we can commit to seeing God’s image revealed in others, especially those we tend to look away from. No matter where we are, we can find someone seated at the back, on the side, alone, swallow our honor, walk up to them and say, “I see you. Come sit with me. No, even better…let’s go sit up with him. There’s always enough room there.”

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p 93

Sitting on the porch during a thunderstorm

I know your grandmother would disapprove—
We’re too exposed, the lightning’s awful near.
There’s nothing to conduct here but to prove
You’ve overcome some basic childhood fear,
Deserve a later, “grown-up” time for bed.
The porch light’s off—that too disturbs you less.
A windgust turns the fan blades overhead:
You squeeze my arm to offset slight distress.
We count the miles. Your seconds tend too fast.
I slow us down, insert a Mississipp’—
Insert a year, insert our common past
Before the tempest makes me lose my grip.
The intervals from flash to clap are growing.
This storm, your youth, our time here–never slowing.

Phillip Martin