Road Trip

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 10C/Lectionary 15C]

Luke 10:25-37

As some of you already know, my family just returned from a vacation out in the Midwest. We first spent some time with our close friends at their home in Wisconsin, and then just the five of us stayed for a few nights in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. All of this involved a lot of driving. I knew on paper that driving first to the northern end of the Mississippi River and then the shores of Lake Superior and then back to Richmond would a long trip, but it wasn’t until we were on the open road that it sunk in just how far it was. All in all it was about 2500 miles and when through a total of eight states, nine if you count the little bit of time we crossed into Minnesota. We are thankful for a reliable car, children who are excellent travelers and Google Maps.

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Google Maps is amazing technology. It makes road trips so much easier. It figures out the quickest routes from here to there, it automatically re-routes you around traffic snarls, it even tells you where the speed traps are (not that I need to know, of course!) But maybe one of the best features of Google Maps, however—one which I think they’ve only added fairly recently—is the little icons that pop up when you cross a state line. They make long distance travel just a little more interesting. Google Maps knows the exact moment you cross into another state and at the bottom of the screen a little window appears that says “Welcome to” whatever state you’re now in, along with a little cartoon character that is somehow related to that state’s history or economy or culture.

Each time we neared a border, we found ourselves glued to the smartphone screen to see what little character would pop up. Lots of times we’d guess as to what it would be. Would Indiana be a little corn farmer? A basketball player? Nope. It was a little Indy car driver. Would Michigan be represented by a car factory worker? Nope. It was a Motown singer. In case you’re wondering, Virginia’s icon is a little colonial-president-looking dude with peanuts over his shoulders. The one we were most surprised by was Minnesota’s, which was a little Prince, as in Purple-Rain-Prince, the pop music singer who died just a few years ago.

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Granted, these little icons are a little bit based on stereotypes, but they do supposedly say something about the territory you’re traveling through. In life, as on trips, we cross boundaries, we encounter others, and we want to what to expect from them, and how we should regard them. What zone do they belong in? What’s their icon? Are they this this group or that?

Isn’t that really the heart of the matter in this dialogue between the lawyer and Jesus? It starts out as a way to test Jesus through a question about inheriting eternal life, but it quickly evolves (devolves?) into a question about how to regard others. This exchange starts out as a way to trap Jesus on his interpretation of Jewish law, but it turns into a matter of how to navigate the world and all of its different distinctions and boundaries and territories. Because the two commandments of loving God and loving the neighbor as self are so intertwined, we can’t have one without the other. That is, if a person’s relationship with God is going to directly reflect on their relationships with their neighbor then (and vice versa)—I agree with the lawyer—it would be helpful to understand just who the neighbor is.

And so Jesus responds to the lawyer by talking about a roadtrip. A man starts in Jerusalem, which sits way up high at this elevation, and plugs Jericho into Google Maps. He knows that it is going to take him down a steep path that plunges 3300 feet in just 17 miles. In addition to that several icons pop up that look menacing. As it turns out, this is not friendly territory. Roads rarely were, but this one, from Jerusalem to Jericho, because of its terrain, was notoriously sketchy. But the man goes anyway. We could question his motive, perhaps. We could question whether he has any right to be there, or if it is a wise decision to travel such-and-such by himself, but Jesus doesn’t seem to do that. And sure enough, the man is attacked and beaten and left for dead.

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Hanna Varghese, The Good Samaritan

Then, as chance would have it, Jesus says, a priest was going down the road and sees the man who has been beaten. It would be helpful to know the priest’s motivations at this point. Does he pass by the man because he assumes he’s dead and it is unlawful for a priest to touch a corpse? Is he in a hurry and doesn’t want to get sucked into this guy’s drama? We could come up with any number of reasons why the priest and later the Levite—both religious professionals—pass by and choose not to help him. The point is that they are stereotypical characters.  They are icons of religion. They work in the temple and synagogues. They are little representatives of the best of what God’s people have to offer. If you were hurt on the side of the road, you would hope and expect that the priest or the Levite would help you.

I have a friend who serves as a pastor out in California and just this week she was visiting someone in the hospital and a nurse saw her with her collar on and asked if she was a Catholic priest. “No,” my friend answered, “I’m a Lutheran one.” The nurse said (nurses know how to get things done), “Well, could you come and pray with this Catholic patient who is entering surgery?” So my friend did. Then, a half an hour later, another nurse came to her and said, “I hear you are willing to do a Catholic prayer before surgery. Please come.” So she put on the gown and gloves and mask and let them all in prayer together.

Priests and Levites are expected to help and pray, but for some reason the two in Jesus’ story don’t and perhaps we’re a bit unsettled.

Then, at this point, the lawyer and anyone else listening to Jesus’ story are expecting a third person because things come in threes. Historians tell us that for Jews in Jesus’ time, the Jewish world was divided between three classes of people: priests, Levites, and then everyday Israelites. But the third person who comes by the injured man is not an ordinary Israelite. He is a Samaritan, a figure completely out of left field! No one listening would have seen it coming. Samaritans were not just foreigners, but foreigners who no one trusted. Their religion wasn’t trusted, their culture wasn’t trusted, and furthermore they lived right at the border, sometimes mixing right in with ordinary Israelites. Law-abiding Israelites like the lawyer would have detested Samaritans. And so to hear this story about the Samaritan being moved with pity or compassion would have been infuriating. Finally in the story we have evidence of someone’s motivation, and it is the foreigner’s! And it is a motivation typically associated with God’s character. The Samaritan’s icon pops up on the Google Maps and…it is an icon of God! The Samaritan not only helps the guy out of the ditch and treats his wounds, but he provides money to nurse him back to health.

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Jesus ends the story by returning to the lawyer’s question but he changes it a little. “Who is my neighbor?” turns out to be not the best question. In doing so, the lawyer is still living by borders and boundaries, into zones of neighbors and people who aren’t neighbors. Jesus asks, “Who was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” and the lawyer has to admit it is the one who showed God-like mercy. Living as a person of faith involves displaying mercy and pity, responding as Christ, and not really being concerned about whichever icon or stereotype they’re represented by. Rather than wondering about who our neighbor is, our task is just to go and be a neighbor to anyone who needs one.

If we’re going to be legalistic about our faith, Jesus says to the lawyer and to that part of each of us that longs to know exactly where the lines fall, the only law we really need to be following is the one written on our hearts by Jesus’ tender mercy. It’s the law of compassion. Because Christ-followers know that we’re all, equally, on dangerous roads in need of mercy. We come to realize that on some level we’re all just wandering through perilous country here, that we all vulnerable and utterly dependent on the grace of God in others to get us through. Jesus doesn’t look upon the earth from the cross and see states or countries or boundaries or Google icons. He sees people he loves. He sees people in need of forgiveness. He sees people in need of cleansing with oil and wine, people who need shelter and nurture. He sees a world where Samaritans can do the things that pure-hearted, God-fearing Israelites would do. And since we are his people, we go and do likewise.

Early Christians were the ones who invented the world’s first hospitals. They were pioneers in creating buildings like this inn in this parable, where the best medical practices of their day would be combined with prayer and service to tend to those who were in any need. Scientists and priests and deacons would work together to nurture people back to health, if they could. Christians became so good at forming these institutions that non-Christians began to take note. In fact, the pagan Emperor Julian, who was notorious for wanting to rid the Roman Empire of Christianity, “chided his fellow pagans that the Christians supported not only their own poor but [the poor and sick] of others as well.” These early hospitals were called “xenodochion.”[1]

You may recognize the first part of that word, “Xeno.” It means foreigner or stranger. We hear it mostly these days in the form of xenophobia, fear of foreigners or fear of the other. Yet early Christians were known far and wide for xenodochion, which means “hospitable to foreigners.”

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immigrants detained at the U.S. border

The Irish rock group U2 came out with a song several years ago called, “Invisible.” All of the proceeds from downloading it went straight to care for people with AIDS. The ending of the song repeats the words:

There is no them
There is no them
There’s only us.
There’s only us.
There is no them.
There is no them.
There’s only us.

I like to think that’s the message echoing in the lawyer’s head as he leaves Jesus thinking about that foreigner-loving Samaritan dropping his hard-earned money in the innkeeper’s hospital.  To be honest, I’d hope that’s what’s echoing in my own head on my roadtrip of life as I watch people bring in diapers to stock the ACTS house today, as I see photos of our youth group’s trip this week to Tarboro where they rebuild hurricane-damaged houses. I hope that’s the message playing over and over in my head as I watch children whose personal stories I don’t know file into our sanctuary by the dozens this week for Vacation Bible School. I hope it’s the message I remember as I deliberate and ponder whatever’s happening at our own national border and with immigrants in our community…and as I still foolishly watch with anticipation to see what stereotype-driven icon will pop up when I encounter anyone on my path.

Welcome little Caius Roma, just baptized today. You’ve got oil on your head. We’re going to have wine here in a minute. Listen:

There is no them.
There is no them.
There’s only us.

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The First Thousand Years. Robert Louis Wilken. p 159

To be clothed in Christ

a sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 12B]

Galatians 3:23-29

Later this afternoon nineteen of our rising 9th-12th graders will depart Richmond and head to Roanoke College in Salem, VA, where they will take part in a week-long youth event that our Synod runs. Known as Kairos, which is a Greek word meaning “God’s time,” this youth event brings together about one hundred youth from congregations all over the state for a week of worship and prayer and in-depth faith reflections and growth as the body of Christ.

Several years ago I was asked to serve as the chaplain for the Kairos event, and I know that Pastor Joseph also served in that capacity just a few years ago, too. As chaplain for Kairos you help serve as a spiritual guide and kind of pastor for the planning team, which is the group of rising seniors who decide the theme of the event and how they will present it. This year one of our youth, Matt Boyle, is on the planning group.

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Youth in matching t-shirts (but not Kairos t-shirts)

One of the things I discovered when I served as the planning group chaplain is that the planning group gets to help design the Kairos t-shirt that everyone receives when they get up there today, and there is some unofficial planning group pressure to have the t-shirt look cooler than any other year. If it’s a really cool and memorable t-shirt design and color, people will often refer to a particular Kairos by its t-shirt in the years to come. People will say, “Oh, yeah, that was the year with cool camouflage pattern t-shirt.” Or “That was the year with the glow-in-the-dark design on the front.” And, by the same token, if it’s a lousy design, people remember that too. You don’t want to make that mistake. You don’t want to be the planning team that asks everyone to wear a bad color. The point is, of course, that the t-shirt has the ability to set the theme for the event, and ideally you want people to honor your t-shirt by wearing it that week and for many weeks afterward.

Rewind that scenario about 2000 years and that is essentially the issue that the apostle Paul confronts in his congregation in Galatia. His beloved Galatian congregation has forgotten how cool it is to wear Christ, or at least they’ve forgotten what it means. Paul is so irritated by the fact that they are dismissing the design of the greatest t-shirt of all time—that is, their own baptisms—that he shoots off a six chapter letter to them to whip them back into shape.

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“St Paul Writing his Epistles” (Valentin de Boulogne, 16th cent)

The letter to the Galatians contains some of the most visceral writing in the whole Bible. You can tell Paul is really worked up. In at least two places he calls them foolish. In the first couple of chapters of the letter he painstakingly goes through his credentials mostly so that they trust he is an authority on matters of faith and the way of Jesus and they should continue to listen to him. Paul is worked up because they are not realizing they wear the holy and righteous and completely awesome garment they have received by virtue of their baptism, and he knows it will be their doom. Or at least it will doom the message of hope and salvation in Christ he brought them.

Now, we may not typically think of Christ as something we wear. To our modern ears that may sound a bit strange. I would guess most of us probably think of Jesus primarily as a person we have a relationship with, not a fashion statement, and Paul certainly has that understanding too. In fact, for Paul Jesus is a real, risen, living man who suffered and died and rose to bring about God’s new creation and who now lives with us through the presence of his Spirit. But Paul also talks about being “clothed with Christ,” which is something that had definite meaning within the early Church and even within the spirituality of Judaism.

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a baptismal font from ruins of an early church. Note the cross shape.

In the early church, when people were baptized they immediately white robe which they then wore for at least a week afterwards. This was a practice that intended to drive home the transformation that had taken place in their life as a result of their baptism. It drove it home for the person who had been baptized as well as for those who would come into contact with them. It drove home that they had been changed somehow. No matter what kind of person they were, they were now a visible part of the community of the church, the body of Christ on earth. It was like they received a Kairos t-shirt—something that indicated they were now people of God’s time in Jesus.  It was a sign that their faith in what Jesus had done for them, their faith in God’s self-giving love for them, no matter who they were, was now their way of life. Jesus’ grace covered them and their sins completely. It was their identity, their community, their hope and joy.

But in Galatia, for whatever reason, rivals to Paul had begun to convince many of them that their faith in Christ was not enough, that there were other t-shirts that were better. These people were claiming there were parts of the old Jewish law that they still needed to satisfy in order to be right with God. And for new Christians who were Gentile in origin, who had never followed Jewish law, this involved some pretty strict sacrifices. That’s when Paul steps in to say to them once again the only sacrifice required for our new life is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The law was fine for a time, Paul says, but once Jesus came, then he is all we need. And that gift cuts across all lines of social class, race, gender, and, we may assume, any other dividing line we tend to set up between people.

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This was true for the people of Galatia and is true for us today. It dooms the message of Christ’s love if we start making any kind of distinctions about it. Jesus clothes us in the same love and mercy and forgiveness, no matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, no matter what language we speak, no matter what country we come from, no matter who our parents are or were, no matter what political party we vote with, no matter how old we are, no matter how long we’ve been a churchgoer…you get the point. Our faith in what Jesus has done transforms the way we look at ourselves and each other. We’ve all got the same cool t-shirt. When we realize we’re wearing it, it makes us view one another as someone for whom Christ died and rose.

There is movie from the mid-1980s starring Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez called The Breakfast Club that was so beloved and so relevant that it crops up in pops up in popular culture from time to time. It tells the story of five high school kids who are all sentenced to a Saturday morning of in-school suspension for different trouble they’ve gotten into. As it happens, they each embody a different high school stereotype. One of them is a jock, one is a preppy snob, one of them is an academic nerd, one is a rebel, and one is a bit of a social misfit. They all are thrown together for this four-hour segment of time to complete an assignment the stern principal has given them as punishment: to compose a 1000-word essay on the topic, “who you think you are.”

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They start as rivals to each other, making fun of one another, but they end as friends. Something about being in the “Breakfast Club” transforms them and they way they view one another. Their old identities don’t completely melt away, but they become transcended. Those distinctions become secondary to their friendships. In the movie’s final scene, one of the characters reads the essay they jointly compose, claiming they each came to see part of themselves in each other.

We, might I suggest, are the supper club…the Lord’s Supper Club. As we come together here each week and break his body and share his blood, we come to see in each other not just a part of ourselves, which is important, but mainly a reflection of Christ, the one who has claimed us all. We realize we’re all wearing that same garment of Jesus’ grace and that there is nothing we can ever do to cause us to lose it. We don’t ignore or downplay critical differences of privilege and power that creep in to our common life, but we do understand that all of us in Christ are one. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female.

So, for example, when we reflect on the massacre at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, when a white supremacist shot and killed nine African-Americans which has its fourth anniversary this month, we don’t think of that event as primarily something that happened to people of color. We realize it was an attack on our brothers and sisters. When we hear about the struggles of fellow Christians in the Holy Land and Iraq we don’t dismiss it as an Arab problem. We hear their cries for justice as coming from our own.

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And this all matters because the world is watching. The world is shattered by all these differences and if there is a community that by God’s grace has learned to overcome them with mercy—or at least frame them in a constructive manner—Paul knows they will want to join us. They will feel the pull of Jesus’ love.

Melinda and I spent last week as Bible study leaders at one of our Lutheran camps in the mountains of North Carolina. We knew going in that we had been assigned to work with thirty 6th-8th graders in a camp known as “Fire and Water,” but what we didn’t know or even anticipate was that about a third of those campers were from Vietnam. I’m not entirely sure how they came to be registered for that week at Lutheridge, but they were actually visiting from Vietnam to learn about America and Christianity.

Although these young teenagers were well-behaved and very sweet, to be honest—utterly fascinated by lightning bugs and making lanyards—there was a cultural barrier and a language barrier that was difficult to overcome. As we all struggled to learn their names and pronounce them correctly, I watched with awe as their counselors, all college-aged young adults, worked extra hard to form one community all week long, to forge cross-cultural friendships, to bridge differences. And I watched the middle school campers not ostracize their cabinmates from Asia but find ways to incorporate them into what they were doing.

It was a tall order and it didn’t always go perfectly. But one day one of the Vietnamese campers shared with his counselor, “I have never thought about this religion thing before, but I like it.” And on our last day of Bible study together, we sat in a circle and tossed a ball of yarn around to form a web and gave each camper a chance to share something they had learned during the week. The American campers called them by their correct names, which was good to see. As it happened, the very last person to receive the ball of yarn was Quang, one of the Vietnamese boys. And as he held his section of yarn he said, “I learned this week about the love of God and the love of people who love God.”

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So as the ball of yarn is thrown to you around this supper, in this place today, may you know the love of God for you and for the person on your left, and the person on your right. May the Spirit so move in us that we see we are all clothed and in our right mind in God’s timeless Kairos shirt.

 

Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr. 

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How to say “Cappadocia”

a sermon for the Day of Pentecost [Year C]

Acts 2:1-21 and John 14:8-17

There was a lot of talk in the church office this week about the Parthians, the Medes, and the Elamites. There was also a lot of talk about the residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia…or is it Cappado-sha? Or Cappado-kia? And don’t get us started on those Phrygians and Pamphylians! We were talking about them because, you see, Hanne Hamlin, our Office Administrator, knew she had drawn the lay reader “short straw” and was scheduled to read the Acts lesson this morning that tells the story of Pentecost. And Turner Barger, the son of one of our office staff members and who serves as the president of the Synod’s Lutheran Youth Organization had also been assigned to read this Acts lesson at the big worship service at Synod Assembly Friday night in front of a group of 300 people which contained at least two bishops and dozens of pastors…as if we know how to say these words. I don’t really know how to say these words. I’ve always just made a guess on all those Cretans and Arabs and proselytes from Rome, which is what we all told Hanne and Turner to do. We told them just to launch forth with confidence no matter how they say it. No hesitation. Power through. Everybody will think they’ve done it correctly. And, to be honest, Turner and Hanne and Pamela all rocked it. Take that, Cappadocians!

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If you like a good case of irony, this Pentecost reading is a perfect example of it. It is ironic that the Scripture lesson that tells us about how clearly understood the first disciples were on Pentecost contains itself so many words that are impossible to say! It is ironic that the Bible reading that is meant to show us how easy it was for those disciples to proclaim the gospel is one of the toughest for people to get through. For you see, the main message conveyed by this reading, once you get passed all the strange names, is that the gospel is no longer a mystery, no longer a complicated, hard-to-put-together message that only a handful of small-town disciples were entrusted with. The main message of Pentecost, the giving of God’s Holy Spirit, is that the love of Christ and his death and resurrection is now something everyone can grasp and not just grasp, but share!

And that message is for all people, no matter how hard it is to pronounce the country they come from, or how uncomfortable the color of their skin may make us, or how easy it is to drive around their impoverished neighborhood, or how tough it is to sit at their table in the lunchroom at school. The message of the gospel—that Jesus loves us and that the Spirit draws us into one body for God the Father—has been given to us to share and celebrate with all people. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved! And we are the ones to let that good news be known.

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The congregation I served during my seminary internship  felt like a mini-Pentecost just about every Sunday in that several languages and ethnic groups were always present in the congregation. St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo is an international, interdenominational congregation supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that sits in the heart of Egypt’s capital city of about 16 million people. It has long been one of the few Protestant churches that offers English-language worship services in a liturgical format. As a result, the congregation is made up not just of American and British and Canadian expats, but also a large number of folks from other countries who happen to speak English. There were Dutch families, German families, as well as several families from various African countries. The congregation also hosted two Sudanese refugee congregations, each of which spoke a different native tongue.

On Christmas our worship tried to gather all of those different peoples together for one service, so we had to make sure the bulletin contained a print version of a lesson in the languages that were being spoken. If the Old Testament lesson, for example, was read aloud by one of the Sudanese worshipers in Dinka, then we’d print the lesson in English, Arabic, and Nuer. If we sang the first hymn in English, then the second one would be offered by one of the refugee choirs. It was a challenge to pull off, but the end result was that each received the message of Jesus’ love in their own tongue.

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the beautiful St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo, Egypt

I was glad for that experience, but I’ve since learned that congregations that speak one language have to be no less intentional about communicating the message of Christ. We may all speak English here, but none of us is exactly the same. We’re all walking the journey a bit differently with our own scars and wounds. We end up hearing things and experiencing matters of faith a bit differently. The Holy Spirit helps bring us overcome those barriers and brings us together in a way that makes us one. The Holy Spirit is that person of God that binds us in mission, so that when we perform an act of mercy or compassion, when we share a word of kindness, we will see the face of God revealed and the world will come to see the face of God in us. Jesus says to his disciples, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” As we, in spite of our differences, live out Christ’s command to love one another, we become the way the world sees God.

Diversity seems to be a big topic church these days, and for good reason. Even in 2019 we are still trying to overcome the divisions of race and gender and economics that have kept our unity less than what it could be. We celebrate that now there are more women and more people of color serving as bishops in our Lutheran denomination than ever before. Three congregations in the Virginia Synod (out of about six) are led by senior pastors who are women, which is sign that the stained glass ceiling is breaking. One day we won’t even count or take note of those kinds of things. They will just be the way the church in America is.Church-Diversity-640

And yet one thing I struggle with my tendency to make the concept of diversity into an idol, as if that idea of many differences is what I worship, not the God behind it. The people on Pentecost were surprised at their diversity and glad for it. Their diversity language and culture is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s activity. And yet the diversity never becomes the focus of their message. It just happens.

We would do well to remember, then, that the only thing that keeps the church true and interesting and powerful is the presence of Christ abiding through the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells his disciples on the eve of his death to keep his commandment of love. Diversity alone does not alone make the church rich. God’s love in Christ does. When it is proclaiming Jesus, crucified and risen, a small congregation of farmers on the plains of North Dakota is just as true a church as the congregation I served in Cairo with its many languages and ethnic groups. A new group of Christians worshipping in a grass hut in Papua New Guinea is just as valid in their discipleship and as a sign of God’s kingdom as we are here with our Brighten Our Light campaign and groundbreaking.

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It is important that we not get too taken away with ourselves, too fixated on our tapestries of diversity—or apparent lack of it—for our task as church is never to proclaim ourselves. It not to point ultimately to how special we are, even though true diversity is very special. Our task is always and only to do the works that Jesus’ love produces in us, which are the works of God the Father. Our task is to point the world to the One who has claimed us and made us his own. It is to lift up the love of the God who has adopted us and made us children, and if children, heirs.

And yet…that is never an excuse just to be content with whoever is here at Epiphany at the moment, as if we’re complete. The Spirit always bringing new people to each church event, to each Sunday worship service. The Spirit is always placing new people in your path out their in your daily lives, people who long to know the love and forgiveness of Jesus. And the Spirit always calls us to be aware of how unintentionally unwelcoming we may be to newcomers, or how confusing our ways may be to those trying to find their way in.

That’s one reason why all the images for the Spirit in the Bible have to do with air. A dove, fire, rushing wind—God can’t be controlled, and be prepared for what can happen when you open up a window and let the air in. The Venerable Bede, an English saint of the 8th century who the church commemorates today, once said, “Unfurl the sails, and let God steer us where he will!”

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The groundbreaking last Sunday was an exciting day in the life of this congregation. We’re getting ready to open a lot of windows. And walls. Literally. They’ll be knocked down and rebuilt. Last week during one of the children’s sermons, as I was showing the architects’ drawings to make a point, one young child spoke up and said, “But I don’t want our change our church.” That wasn’t exactly the direction I wanted to go with the children’s sermon, but, then again, you never know how the Spirit is going to move. In that moment I gave God thanks that the Spirit has developed this congregation in such a way that young children are welcome in worship and are nurtured in their faith in such a way that they can use their voice and respond openly and honestly to what they hear.

And I also gave thanks for that particular boy’s prophecy, because, if I’m honest, a part of me fears what these changes will bring to Epiphany, too. A part of me always fears change a bit, fears the air that blows in the window. I suppose the church is always being changed in some way, not just here at Epiphany, but the world over. If you like a good case of irony, there you have it. The church can always depend on the fact that things are changing. In our sin we consider them too young to do so, but the young men and women are prophesying. And in our sin we often paint them as stuck in their ways, but old men and women do have visions and dream dreams for what the people of God can be doing.

We can fear it, have our misgivings, and yet God still pours himself out for us. God still entrusts to us this powerful message of Christ for the sake of the world. So even when we’re not quite sure how we’re supposed to say it…or share it…how to pronounce it…how to be it…at some point God’s Spirit moves us to launch forward with confidence. No hesitation! Power through! People will see us and see the Father.

Thanks be to God!

Feast of Pentecost Clipart

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

In the right hands

a sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter [Year C]

John 14:23-29 and Acts 16:9-15

The other day I stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few items, and as I made my way to the stack of baskets something caught my eye. One of the cashiers, in her green Publix vest, was walking around the flower department and then the produce section with a young girl who was clutching a stuffed animal. As they passed in front of me, I clearly heard the cashier, a woman who could have easily been the age of the young girl’s grandmother, ask the girl, “Now, where did you last see him?” The woman had her hand gently placed on the girl’s shoulder and was guiding her around the store but at the same time looking up, scanning the scene, as if she was intently looking for something.

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I was witnessing the other side of every parent’s nightmare—the little girl had been separated from her father, or maybe it was her brother or her uncle. In any case, my heart immediately went out to the girl, however, when I looked at her face it did not look frightened in the slightest. There was something about the way this cashier was taking control of the situation that must have calmed the girl and made her feel safe. I watched the two of them meander through the vegetables and fruits before I lost sight of them. It was not clear to me where the girl had last seen the adult she had come in with. It was not clear to me if he was looking for her, too. But what was clear to me was that for the time being, the girl was in the right hands.

On the evening before his death, Jesus assures his disciples that they will always be in the right hands. Even though they will likely feel lost, maybe even abandoned, even though their hearts will be troubled within them, even though they might be afraid, Jesus promises that someone will be there to place a hand on their shoulder and guide them along. At the time that Jesus is saying these things, it is pretty clear the disciples have no idea what he is talking about. The events of that evening have been very strange. He’s just finished washing their feet…of all things! And Judas Iscariot has run off to turn Jesus in…of all things! They are asking all kinds of questions about what’s about to happen and they’re confused.

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But after his resurrection, after they see him die and then rise again and after they spend some time with him these words may start to come to them. As he says, Jesus is not always going to be with them in the same way. He is going to the Father. The disciples will continue in the way of love he has taught them, but he won’t physically be with them like he was when he multiplied the loaves and fish by the sea or the way he was when he broke bread around the Passover table. His community of followers will need to find their way around the grocery store of life without his physical presence. They’re going to have to imagine a life on their own without having him at arm’s length. They’re going to have to make decisions without his direct leadership, without being able to turn to him and say, “Hey, Jesus. What would you do in this situation? I’ve got this bracelet on my wrist that says WWJD. Help me out, dude.”

Does the life of faith ever seem like that to you? Hazy? Open-ended so much of the time, a bit like shooting in the dark? Maybe even a bit frightening, if not frustrating? If it makes you feel any better, it certainly seems the early disciples felt some of that too. Just look at what happens in this morning’s Acts lesson. Paul is stuck in Troas, and he’s not sure where to go next. His original plans had been to go elsewhere and preach and spread the gospel there, but that way for some reason had been closed off to him. So, as a result of a vision, he and his crew wind up in a totally new and foreign place. In fact, it is the first time the message of Jesus comes to a new continent. Macedonia is in Europe, and up until this point the church had only been an Asian thing.

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Even when Paul and his crew finally get to the city of Philippi, they still seem a bit perplexed as to what to do. In other places they had found the synagogue in order to launch their ministry, but here they find nothing like that right off the bat. So they just go to one of the main public areas and start talking to some of the women they find there. That’s how they end up getting introduced to a woman named Lydia, who is likely fairly wealthy and influential. She ends up getting baptized, along with her whole household. More than that, she offers Paul and his people a place to stay. What would Jesus have done? Hard to say, but they were guided in the right direction after all.

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St. Lydia of Thyatira

On a much, much smaller scale I think about how directionless I felt during one point in college and how some simple advice from my grandmother one day over Christmas break ended up leading me down the path to where I am today. She wasn’t by any means insistent in encouraging me to return for a second summer as a counselor, but at a time when I felt a bit troubled and unsure of what to do, she and my grandfather were like a hand on the shoulder giving me permission to take another step.

The point is, the life of faith is rarely clear cut, and Jesus knows this. His own life was full of twists and turns, some of which were terrifying and which involved a good bit of suffering.  But in some way, a part of his Father was always there with him, and Jesus promises that same part will be with his followers, too. The name he gives that part is Advocate, or, in Greek, Paraclete. If you think about what an advocate is, wou realize it is a person who can speak on your behalf, someone who can understand and articulate your needs often better than you yourself can. The image that Paraclete or Advocate would have given Jesus’ disciples is a person who would come alongside you, kind of like how an advocate in a legal setting sits down at the table with you to help you make your case. Jesus means to say that it is the Spirit of God that will come alongside them, gathering them together and speaking to them and reminding them of that love that we’ve come to associate with God.

I’ll never forget the children’s sermon a bunch of youth once did on this Scripture for youth Sunday several years ago. They called the children forward, and it was clear they were going to play the part of Jesus’ anxious disciples while some of the high school guys put on a skit. At the time we had a set of identical twins in the youth group, Matthew and Stephen von Schmidt-Pauli. They were so similar-looking that most people couldn’t tell them apart unless you got really close to them. Stephen played the part of Jesus in the skit, and he told his disciples, “In a little bit I won’t be with you. I’ll go to the Father, but it will be OK because I’ll send someone who will remind you of me.” He left out the side door and then in comes Matthew, who says, “Hi there. I’m the Advocate. Do I remind you of anyone?”

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That’s the role of the Spirit: to remind us of Jesus, to bring us into places where we will experience him. Just as the Father and the Son share this special bond of love, that bond will now be shared with those who have been claimed by Jesus.

The promise of Jesus is not that we will always know what decision to make, or which path to choose or how to solve a particular problem. The promise Jesus makes to his disciples as he prepares to leave them is not that life will be easy or that there will be no hardship. The promise is that we will always have the love of Jesus assessible to us. The promise is that we will always be able to count on God’s presence to be with us in some way. We will always be able to look at the cross, to encounter God’s Word at worship an in study, to receive the bread in our hand and wine on our lips and hear Jesus speaking to us that we are forgiven, we are loved, we are treasured. God will always be seeking us out when we’re lost putting his hand on our shoulder, and finding a way to guide us, comfort us, and give us peace in the same way that God found a way to raise his crucified Son to new life.

On this weekend we remember those who served our country and who have died in combat.  These men and women saw something greater worth giving their lives for. They followed through on a mission, whether or not they may have personally believed in it, and never had the chance to see how it all turned out. In many ways, their dedication to a cause and their willingness to move forward in bravery in spite of fear or apprehension can serve as an inspiration to our mission as Jesus’ people of peace. Because of the freedoms we have in this country, it is unlikely we will have to offer our lives for God’s kingdom in the same way that a soldier does, but we do die to self every day in Christ’s venture. Whether we’re speaking as a congregation getting ready to embark on a bold and exciting new construction project or we’re talking about our own personal faith journey, there are always opportunities to move forward by letting familiar ground give way, ground we may have unknowingly become too attached to. In a world where so much is changing, one constant is that Jesus grants his followers peace. People of a nation can sleep in peace knowing their servicemen and women are on the front lines offering their lives. Jesus’ people can live in eternal peace knowing he has offered his life on the cross.

The rain!

A few weeks ago the confirmands (those 10th graders who professed their faith last weekend in worship) attended a council meeting where they shared a Bible verse that was important to their faith. Each of them had selected a different verse, and all of them did a great job of explaining what that meant to them. There was one young man who had chosen Psalm 31:7, “I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction, you have taken heed of my adversities.” He then very honestly and open shared how in an especially dark time in his life when we wasn’t sure of anything else, even how to move forward, he felt sure of God’s presence. It was the gentle hand of God, the God who conquers death and darkness, who reminded him of who and whose he was. That is a powerful testimony to the Spirit Jesus promised us.

That Spirit is here, and that Spirit gathers us in spite of ourselves to hear the words of Jesus  and to take his body and share his peace. In fact, the Holy Spirit just gave me those words, put them together. And it is the Holy Spirit who, perhaps, helped those words make sense to you just now.

That girl in the grocery store was eventually reunited with her father. As I was checking out, right there in front of me I saw the kindly cashier present her to a man holding groceries, the three of them forming a little trinity. Father, girl, and holy Publix employee, bringing them together. There was a huge smile on the girl’s face, and of relief on the father’s. It had been several minutes. He thanked the woman, and as I handed my cashier my card, I heard the him say to his daughter, “I don’t know how we got separated, but I knew I’d find you.”

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Peter’s Big Day

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter [Year C]

John 21:1-19, Acts 9:1-6, Psalm 30, and Revelation 5:11-14

I do not fish, but I do go birding, and I’ve long thought that the two have a lot in common. Both activities consist of going out into nature, into the world, (even suburban and urban locations!), and hoping that you find something that you really don’t have a lot of control over.

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Right now happens to be peak migration season for many birds species that come from the south to North America to breed and raise their young. I’ve been going out almost every day to some of my well-worn nature trails with my zoom lens hoping for what they call in birding circles a “big day.” I crane my neck into the trees. I get really still and listen all around me. And, suffice it to say, so far it’s been pretty disappointing. Either the birds are just not out there, or I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, or they see me coming and they all say, “Shh. Let’s all be real quiet for a sec.” Sometimes you have such long stretches of nothing exciting that you start to wonder if they’re conspiring against you.

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I’ve talked about this with some of the people in our congregation who fish, and they say that’s what fishing is like sometimes. Will Willimon, a bishop in the United Methodist Church and professor at Duke Divinity School says that if you’re going to get into fishing, you’d better be good at failure. It is just part of what happens, and quite often.

That’s what happens to Peter and his fishing buddies a few days after Jesus’ resurrection. This might be the best-known fishing expeditions of all time, and it starts with total failure. They go out with all their nets and their boats and they fish all night, which is when lots of fishing happened back in those days. They work hard, because, after all, this is how they make their living, and they come up with nothing. Next thing they know a mysterious visitor along the shore recommends they do something a little different and—voila!—it’s a big day! Suddenly they have more fish than they know what to do with. Then, one by one, they come to the realization that the mysterious visitor on the shore is none other than their risen Lord. His presence turns their failure into success. They eventually all get to shore and there they find that Jesus has prepared them a meal and he invites them to join.

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The Appearance at the Sea of Tiberias (William Hole)
The Scripture doesn’t say this, but I bet the failure that is looming in Peter’s mind is not the fact they worked all night to catch fish and came up empty. The failure that is likely on his mind is the one from several nights before when Jesus had been arrested and was getting ready to be crucified. That’s when things had really gone south. He had always been the eager beaver disciple, quick to promise Jesus that he would never desert him, but at Peter’s first chance to say something and prove himself, he had denied even knowing Jesus. Three times he had been given a chance to identify himself as one of Jesus’ followers, to prove his love for his Teacher, and all three times he had been too frightened or nervous to do it.

That’s got to hurt, both from Peter’s perspective and from Jesus’. They both probably feel like failures, to some degree—Peter for denying and Jesus for choosing someone so unreliable. But then Jesus does again what he just did with the fish: he gives another chance. He turns emptiness into abundance. He transforms the situation with his grace. And just as Peter denied knowing Christ three times on Good Friday, Jesus gives Peter three chances to profess his love. He gives Peter a new vocation, a new call—to tend the faithful, to feed the church, to follow Jesus.

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The call to follow Jesus is to know the story is not over until Jesus says it’s over. To know Jesus is to realize that this is the kind of thing God is always up to: looking at our failures, looking at our shortcomings, looking at our brokenness and ultimately not being deterred by them. God’s mission in Jesus will find a way. He is great with turnarounds. It’s kind of God’s “thing.” As the psalmist says this morning, “you have turned by wailing into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” Sackcloth is what people wore when they were mourning or repenting from something shameful. God in Christ is always moving things in that direction—from weeping to dancing, from sorrow to joy—and typically in the bleakest of situations.

Peter learns this by the lake that day eating fish and bread with his risen Lord. Saul learns this, too, which we hear about in our first lesson from Acts. Ruthless and tenacious, he is extremely successful in his career of attacking Christ’s followers. Christians far and wide fear him. Saul is probably the last person anyone might suspect to be transformed by grace, and yet Jesus is able to find a turnaround for him, too. On the way to Damascus Saul encounters Jesus in a type of intense vision and receives a new direction. When Saul eventually regains his sight and receives care from a kind Christian named Ananias, Saul becomes Paul. And instead of using a sword to fight against Jesus’ kingdom, which is what he used to be known for, he takes up a pen and fights for God’s kingdom, writing letters to churches across the ancient world that still teach people of faith today.

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Yet as powerful as the turnarounds are of Peter and Paul, the place where you and I learn about God’s knack for gracious, surprising turnarounds is the cross of Jesus. There we see and call to mind each week in worship that God can step into the most broken of circumstances and bring about life. As the writer of Revelation puts it, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered to receive power and wisdom and might.” Or, as we sing each week on most Sundays of the year, “For the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign.” It’s not the Lamb who climbed his way to the top through popular opinion, who beat everybody else, who had the most power. It is the Lamb who gave his life in the most humiliating way. That Lamb is the one God raised to become Lord of all.

Over and over again we re-learn this story every week so that, in part, we can see God’s work in our lives. So that we can hear the promise that our wailing will turn into dancing, that our denials of Jesus’ love will turn into chances to say, “I love you.” To have our lives of anger and disappointment and bitterness be turned around to gentleness and peacefulness and love. Because that’s what God does.

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All too often we’re prone to take too short of a view of things, especially in times of tragedy or hardship, in spells of doubt or anxiety. We get tempted to think that whatever situation we’re in is irredeemable, there’s no way it can get better. Or that what we’ve done is unforgiveable. Or that a certain relationship is irreconcilable. But there is nothing irredeemable for Jesus. There is nothing unforgiveable to Jesus. And there is nothing God’s love in him eventually can’t reconcile. As one person put it, our worst day is never our last day. Because of Jesus, even in our grave there is a gate to eternal life.

Last week our Question for the Car Ride, which is printed each week in the bulletin, asked if there was an occurrence or conversation that led you into deeper faith in God. For a meeting this week we shared our responses to that question and I learned the most amazing things about people on that team. One person’s response was so simple and yet so insightful. She said it wasn’t just one conversation she can remember that deepened her faith, but the cumulative effect of all the dinnertime conversations she had at home with her family. Her mind couldn’t pull just one topic or epiphany out and settle on it as eye-opening, but just the repeated sitting down with her parents, who were comfortable talking about matters of faith when they arose, slowly over the years built her a strong foundation in a God who is loving and dedicated to turning around the world’s wailing.

It is by God’s great design that when Jesus encounters his disciples that morning on the beach he offers them food and gets them talking. That’s what he does for us each week. He gets us talking as a family around this table where Jesus once again gives us himself. We have conversations. We have them in the Commons, in Sunday School classrooms, in the pews before church begins, in the narthex and parking lot. Sometimes these conversations are profound, but more often that not they are just regular conversations. They are regular conversations that that little by little open us up and lay the groundwork for God’s big transformations to take place.

crowd in Commons

I don’t think anyone can predict exactly where Epiphany Lutheran Church will go in the coming years, just as no one could have predicted several decades ago that we’d be here today making the decisions we have at hand. Some people are excited about the direction implied in today’s vote and the opportunities for future ministry that it will lead to. Others are anxious about it, and still others, I imagine, have misgivings. No matter where things go today, or tomorrow, or the next, Jesus will still be gathering us around this table and inviting us into conversation. That we can count on. We can count on the fact that he will be there to meet us in the midst of our failures and disappointments, in our endeavors that don’t pan out like we think, and in those that go perfectly.

We would well remember that it is the life of turnarounds and transformations our baptism has signed us up for. Never stop the story at today because with Jesus it goes on. You never know how God will find a way to turn wailing into dancing.

At this point I’d love to say that one of my birding misadventures has turned into an epic big day. And even if it happens, I know I have something far better: fellowship with you and with a Lord who gives Peter new chances. With the God who turned Paul to love and peacefulness…With One who was slain who has begun His reign.

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Time for doubt, time for praise

a sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter [Year C]

John 20:19-31

A man in the congregation who has a young daughter, about 5 years old, told me a few weeks ago that she had sat down at supper time and asked him, “When are we going to sing ‘This is the Feast’ at church again?” Evidently the long Sundays in Lent when we remove festive songs containing Alleluia and replace them with the more penitential “Kyrie,” (which means “Lord, have mercy,”) had gotten a little long for her. She was eager to rejoice and sing “This is the feast of victory for our God.”

Mawyer worshipping

And so we should. Alleluia! but we also shouldn’t forget that the first reaction to Jesus’ resurrection is fear. If we somehow were to decide to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection according to the timeline that is presented in each of the gospels, kind of like the way we re-enact and dramatize the events of Holy Week, we would probably not sing any songs of praise right off the bat. We would instead do things that communicate that it all still feels like a tragedy. Even after the women share the news that the tomb is empty. Even after Mary Magdalene tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” The message of the first Easter is tragic and frightening and confusing. The disciples have just witnessed a gruesome execution of their leader…in public! At least two of them have been possibly identified as members of his inner circle. As far as any of them know, the religious authorities, which is basically what is meant here by “the Jews,” want to do away with the movement Jesus has begun. One really natural reaction to all of this is to hole yourself up somewhere in a saferoom, some pre-assigned meeting place, and lock the doors. Who knows what’s going to happen next? How could this have happened?

Last Sunday, as Christian worshippers gathered in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to celebrate Easter, maybe even with trumpets and drums, suicide bombers from a little-known terrorist group detonated themselves in their sanctuaries, and in luxury hotels in other parts of the city. It was an unspeakable, horrible tragedy, and at last count officials estimate 253 people were killed and many more wounded. One article about the event I read this week discussed the various reactions to this event in Sri Lanka. There are many religious groups living together in that country, and now many are worried about how they will trust each other. The article included the reactions of some who are wondering openly, “Where is God?”[1]

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the aftermath in one church’s sanctuary (Sri Lanka)

I found that to be a refreshingly honest response, and I’m thankful they included it. Too often we rush past that part of a tragedy. We hurry to tell people to look for examples of God in the rubble, in the people who are helping and the stories of kindness and heroism that emerge. And those things are important, but often we go all “This is the Feast” without making room for the fear and questioning. And the fear and questioning are real and they’re natural and that’s where the disciples are on the evening of Jesus’ resurrection. It is hard to figure out where God is in all of this when you’re still in crisis mode.

What about you? Do you make room for the wondering, the questioning? Do you understand the urge to lock the doors and hunker down when disaster strikes?

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Of course, Jesus’ death was a tragedy, but the resurrection isn’t, and before things get too carried away Jesus finds them. Isn’t that wonderful? Jesus finds them, because locked doors don’t mean much to the risen Christ. Just as before, he tends to break down barriers and find ways to bring people together. Whether it is through doors that try to lock out the world or communities that try to lock out certain people because they seem different, or hearts that try to lock out love and compassion because of anger and bitterness, Jesus will find a way to enter. It’s usually mysterious how he pulls this off. We are all wound up in our grief or panic and then next thing we know he is there.

When Jesus comes to his disciples behind the locked doors he transforms them almost immediately from people who don’t know what the future holds to people who have purpose and mission. And he does it without shaming any of them even after they’ve demonstrated a lack of faith. He gently and graciously includes Thomas, too, who is bold about his doubt. The first thing Jesus says is “Peace be with you.” He had told them before his crucifixion that he gave them a peace that the world could not give. Peace that comes from someone who has died in order to show God’s love for you is a peace like no other.

Here Jesus basically sets the tone for everything that comes after the resurrection. I know at other churches where the worship service includes the sharing of the peace they often place it more in the middle of the liturgy, right before Holy Communion. That’s how they do it at Synod Youth events. That is a valid option. Here at Epiphany, though, it comes right after the confession and forgiveness, near the beginning, and I’ve come to appreciate that. Right from the beginning we say, “Peace be with you.” Right from the beginning we acknowledge Christ is risen and that he has shown up, regardless of whatever concerns we carry here.

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Jesus transforms them with peace and then Jesus transforms them by sending them out. He re-focuses their attention from themselves and their own inward-facing community to risk themselves in the world. He doesn’t just release them from their locked room to go back to things as usual. He sends them as he was sent, and that is a lot to chew on, if you think about it, considering where he’s just come from. It means he send them out to serve in the manner he serves, and to love others in the way he loves…to die to yourself as he died. To be sent as Jesus is sent is to lead with compassion and humility. It is to stop and be more cognizant of the situation of others rather than yourself.

One colleague of mine says that when he gets bogged down with decisions of leadership and fears of self-doubt creep in, lots of times he just drops everything and goes on visits to people on his homebound list. He literally sends himself out of the building and into the lives of people who knows will bless and minister to him, and immediately the anxieties fall away.

The third thing Jesus does with his disciples that evening is give them the authority to grant forgiveness and withhold it. This is key. Right from the beginning, the life of Jesus’ followers will be linked to reconciliation, to healing the brokenness that can be done by human sin. Christ-followers can be known in this world by so many good things: wonderful architecture like the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Beautiful music by composers from every century. We are recognized by our acts of service and justice, especially in times of disaster. Some are known for their potlucks! But Jesus places how his followers deal with sin at the top of that list. The quality of their relationships with each other, among their community, will lead the way in who they are as God’s people. It will be clear to future followers that Jesus is still among us when we deal with sin honestly and lovingly.

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Of course, Jesus demonstrates this kind of graciousness immediately in the way he treats Thomas, the famous doubter. Jesus doesn’t chastise him or alienate him from the community. He even offers Thomas the chance to poke those wounds in his hand and side in order to show that he is real. It is a gesture of remarkable vulnerability. Jesus ends up including Thomas by opening himself up, by allowing himself to be touched if Thomas needs it. And Thomas goes from being one who doubts  to being the first person in John’s gospel who proclaims that Jesus is Lord and God.

Oftentimes when this story comes up there is so much focus on Thomas, and I suppose that is helpful. He becomes a type of hero for people who struggle with belief, who are honest with their doubts and suspicions about the resurrection, or even about the existence of God. It is easy to put ourselves in his shoes, and perhaps we should from time to time, but maybe Thomas’ shoes aren’t the main ones we should be wearing. Maybe it would be better to place ourselves in Jesus’ shoes. Since we are his body on earth now, it makes sense. And especially since he sends us like he was sent, it really makes sense. Maybe our best witness is to offer our woundedness to the world so they might become ways to faith for them, to practice transparency and vulnerability especially in our weaker places, to let people even poke into our scars if they need to so that they may better understand the nature of our faith and calling and our presence in the world as Jesus’ people. If we let ourselves as individuals and as church be open to share where or how we’ve been hurt or how we’ve hurt others it will give us an opening to talk about how Jesus has led us through.

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Last Sunday while we were all in here with our Easter bonnets and lilies and loud, trumpet music, members of our Safety Team were keeping a lookout around the building and in the parking lot. One of those volunteers, Lyle Gleason, rounded the corner from between the main building and columbarium and was stopped in his tracks by what he saw. The sun, still relatively low in the sky as it was mid-morning, was directly above our cross out front. A long and very distinct cross-shaped shadow was stretching directly toward where Lyle was standing. It was like the cross had become a sundial and the cross’s shadow was giving the time, and the perspective of the photo puts you at the tip of that cross shadow, as if you are standing at the time it has landed on.

Lyle grabbed his phone and snapped a photo very quickly. We ended up sharing it on social media and people immediately reacted to it. One woman made the photo her profile photo. In texting about that photo later that day, and about the message of Easter, one gentleman in the congregation wrote, “All that I have seen teaches me to trust my Creator for all the things I haven’t seen.” I happen to know that this man and his family have been in constant crisis mode for much of the past five years. What a witness for me to hear him share his faith that way. “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

From behind the tomb’s stone to behind locked doors, Jesus moves us from doubt to faith, from shadow to sun, from fear to mission. What time is it? I wonder. The sun has risen over the cross. Death has been vanquished, the dark lies behind. We have peace, we have purpose, we have the promise of forgiveness.

What time is it, O Son-dial?

It’s time to sing “This is the feast of victory for our God!”

Epiphany sun and cross

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

 

[1] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/-where-is-god—-sri-lankans-stunned-after-deadly-blasts-11467340

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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“Teach us to Pray” – a reflection on prayers of supplication

using Psalm 143 as a guide

Even before he really began to form words, we began trying to teach our son, who is now almost three, to say “please.” He was still not forming many consonants correctly, which was normal for his age, but he tried to imitate us the best he could. It first came out as “beef.” He’d motion for something, or grunt for it, and we’d ask, “What do you say?” and he’d say, “Beef.” That was well over a year ago. Now he’s pretty conversant and able to express himself very well, but he still reverts to saying “Beef” when he wants something. We’ll say something like, “Do you want more chicken?” and he’ll say, “Beef.” But we know what he means. It’s an ongoing process.

Whether it comes out “beef” or “please,” what he’s learning is supplication. Supplication isn’t one of those words people use very often, but in a way they do,  because it comes from the same Latin root word as “please.” Both words relate to asking for something from someone and being pleased or soothed by the receipt of it. So if last week’s Lenten worship emphasis was on saying “Thank you” for what God has done for us, then this week we take a closer look at saying “please” for whatever we might want God to do for us.

I would say that if we’re honest, we all arrive at supplication at some point when we’re talking about our relationship with God. In fact, “please” is probably our most instinctual prayer, a place where a great many of us go when we pray, especially when things aren’t going our way. You may have heard the saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, and I’m sure that’s not entirely true, but it is a way of acknowledging that even those who may not normally express any kind of belief in a Creator or a Higher Being often find themselves on their knees asking for help or guidance when things get really tense.

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Jesus, in his final hour, offered prayers of supplication. In the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross he prays for forgiveness for those who kill him, for a drink of wine, for the cup of suffering to pass from his lips. We, too, come before our God in our times of need. And just as a parent teaches a child to say “please” or “May I?” even though that parent would still give her child whatever he needs without it, it stands to reason that God might give us ways to offer our supplications that could deepen our relationship with him and may help us grow.

Psalm 143 is one of many psalms that gives us language for how to say please to God. In it we hear the psalmist asking for protection from some kind of enemy, although that enemy is never named or described fully. Perhaps it’s a military enemy or a personal enemy who is threatening recrimination of some sort. This foe has chased him and crushed his life to the ground, his heart within him is desolate. That may be all we need to know in order to envision any enemy we face in the words of this prayer, whether it be a diagnosis we’re fighting, that sciatic nerve pain, a tough life situation that won’t leave us alone, or even lingering consequences from a decision we’ve made. Regret and shame can feel like enemies, can’t they? They can leave our hearts desolate within us. Naming those emotions within us and the threats from outside is a good first step to coming before God in supplication.

The psalmist then continues by acknowledging how broken he is standing in God’s righteousness. He asks for God not to judge him and instead to listen to his prayer with God’s own faithfulness in mind. We may not always come to God feeling broken or torn down, but it is good to remember that God is faithful and abounding in steadfast love, and that God acts justly but with compassion. We make our appeals to God not only on the basis of how we are feeling or what our condition is, but on how wonderful and gracious God is.

It is helpful to remember that God has a track record with us of being gracious, which is where the psalm takes us next. “I remember the days of old,” he sings, “I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands.” Saying “please,” then, could start with naming our need, re-stating God’s goodness and the things God has done in the past. This is good for us, too, a way of calling to mind even the seemingly little things we might have forgotten that have been like manna in the wilderness for us. I know that when I am broken down nowadays, I still recall the random phone call from a camp counselor co-worker that lifted me out of a dark time in my young adult years, or the email that a high school teacher didn’t have to send me but did that cleared up a lot of questions I was struggling with right after high school. God provides in ways that are often only clear to us in hindsight because the cloudiness of the current moment is too overwhelming.

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But there is still the issue of what we need and how to ask God for it, and, of course, we can form our prayers however they come to our lips and God hears even things we don’t say, but it is interesting to notice the particular way the psalmist words his requests for help and deliverance. “Show me the road I must walk,” he says, and later: “lead me on level ground.” Those requests are both precise and open-ended. They paint the picture of a God who is committed to walking with us, who is not just a wish-granter, but someone who comes alongside of us for the long haul.

At another point the psalmist says, “Teach me to do what pleases you,” which suddenly lifts him into a new kind of relationship. It is not just God who is expected to please me, but there is this suggestion that I have a part to play, too, that this dialogue is not one-sided. Theologian and writer C.S. Lewis says at one point, “What we do when we weed a field is not quite different from what we do when we pray for a good harvest.”[1] That is to say, asking God for something—either for ourselves or someone else—invites us further into action,      and that action leads to growth, which is really what God is about to begin with—growth in faith, growth in love towards our neighbor, growth in wisdom and understanding.

I see that a new version of Disney’s Aladdin is coming out in the theaters again this spring, and I can’t wait to see it, but based on what we hear in Psalm 143, and what we see in the life of Jesus as he prays, too, I doubt God wants to be turned into our genie, a being that we call on just to grant us favors whenever we find ourselves in a pinch. The message is that our overall relationship with God is more important than our specific request in any given moment—it’s about the whole road, not the momentary vista—as hard as that may be to stomach sometimes. That is, God’s overarching goodness to us and fatherly care of us and God’s desire that we grow until our final moment is the reality that shapes our supplications.

It is no accident that when Jesus’ disciples ask him about how to pray, Jesus gives them a prayer that focuses on the things they will ever truly need: daily bread, forgiveness and relationships of reconciliation with others, help in times of trial and temptation, and deliverance in that final hour of ours. So, when we pray for what we need, when we find ourselves chased down by enemies and crushed to the ground, all is framed by God’s graciousness to us in Jesus’ cross. We can trust we have a God who is walking the road with us, who is just, and we can use language like, “teach me,” “lead me,” and “remind me of how good you are” and then prepare ourselves to weed the field.

For me, one of the most helpful teachers of prayer is a woman I’ve never met who has been a guest at our HHOPE pantry over the past several years. Since its beginning almost 10 years ago, HHOPE has placed a small box for prayer requests on the table with the food, so that clients who come for distribution can also leave their prayer requests anonymously, if they’d like. They write them on little yellow Post-It notes and the HHOPE volunteers read them aloud as they circle up for prayers at the end of the distribution. Afterwards they place those Post-It notes in my box so I can pray them, too.

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This one client is a single mother of a teenage son who has special needs due to an autism diagnosis. She shows up just about every distribution, often with some new challenge or obstacle they’re dealing with, whether it’s finding good living arrangements or proper care for her son. She spreads out her hands, soul gasping like a thirsty land, and for ten years this woman’s request has been the same, scribbled in pencil:

“God, please make a way out of no way for me and my family.”
“God, please make a way out of no way for me and my family.”

What a witness to see her faith that God will walk and teach and make that way—and to see that God’s good Spirit has led her on level ground, time after time!

Lord, “beef,” oh, “beef,” teach me to trust you like that. After all, it’s an ongoing process.

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

[1] God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis