Getting a better seat

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

Luke 14:1, 7-14

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

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seating chart for a wedding reception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One way we convey honor in this age

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

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

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

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

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

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a post from “The Afghanistan you never see”

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

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

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

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p 93

Sitting on the porch during a thunderstorm

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

Phillip Martin

Not peace, but division!

A sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15C/Lectionary 20C]

Luke 12:49-56

When Jesus is born, still a baby in Bethlehem, lying in the manger, the first thing said about him comes on the tongues of angels around the shepherds quaking in out in the fields. It’s nowhere near Christmas right now, but I bet most of us could say those words by heart: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” From the very beginning of Jesus’ life, there is this expectation that peace is coming to earth.

Then, when Jesus is a grown adult he demonstrates the peace of God’s kingdom by casting out demons and restoring people who have been marred by disease and social stigma. At one point he looks at his assembled group of followers and sends them out into the villages and towns to announce the good news of the kingdom of God on his behalf. He tells them to carry nothing but a word of peace. They are to enter each house that receives them and say, “Peace be with you.” All indications, you see, are that Jesus’ presence and Jesus’ message are all about peace. I’ve seen a bumper-sticker before that probably boils it all down a little too much, but it said, “No Jesus, No Peace; Know Jesus, Know Peace.”

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So it’s understandable if we’re a little confused this morning when Jesus himself says he’s not here to bring peace. “No, I tell you,” he says, “I came to bring division!” Of course, we’re probably thinking we have enough of that, Jesus. We have plenty of division already! Why are you bringing more? Look at our government systems! We have just two political parties but it’s almost impossible for them to work together. Look at our culture! Far-right and far-left activists facing off in Oregon this weekend. The immigration debate rages on, even bringing churches and denominations into the fray. Last weekend our own denomination declared itself a “sanctuary church body” and church leaders I know have been arguing all week about what that actually means. Division. And right here in Virginia we’re divided over things like racism and white supremacy and gun violence and what we’re going to name our public schools, just to name a few. They pit neighbor against neighbor and school board against school system. We’re a mess, Jesus. I don’t know what you’re talking about but I don’t think we could use any more division. Could we interest you in maybe leading us in round of “Kum-Bah-Yah”?

My guess is that this is one of those Bible stories which reveals a side of Jesus we’re not accustomed to. This story never gets chosen for one of the days of Vacation Bible School. He seems very irritated, fired up. In fact, he even talks about coming to bring fire to the earth. It’s Jesus with a flame-thrower, Jesus with a blow-torch. It’s not firefighter Jesus, here to save, but fire-starter Jesus, here to burn. In fact, when the gospel-writer Matthew tells this same story, the word “division” is replaced by “sword” and we get this startling image of Jesus with >shing< a weapon!

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I was just reading this week a gripping article written about a reformed ISIS fighter and how he is trying to re-integrate himself back into society in his native Kosovo now that the Islamic State is defeated. The journalist who wrote the story had the rare opportunity to sit down with this young gentleman over a period of several months. What emerged from these interviews is the story of a man living in abject poverty in a destitute, war-torn country, few options for a future, who at a very young and impressionable age became receptive to the teachings of fiery Muslim preachers, mostly on-line, who were convinced that they could bring about the caliphate. The caliphate is an Islamic political and religious entity (kind of like the Vatican City) that some followers of Islam desire to be established somewhere in the world. At one time these factions were rather successful at recruiting disenchanted Muslims, mostly young men, from all over the world to go to Syria to fight and essentially establish a kingdom.

As we know now, it didn’t go so well, but for a while ISIS fighters were greatly feared and the enthusiasm with which they got people to fight with them was impressive. They could convince them that a better reality was coming about, and all they needed to do was take up arms and make it happen. In the article I read, the gentleman reveals how his decision to go to Syria and fight cut him off from his family and friends back in Kosovo. The fellow fighters become his new community, his new family, and they even refer to each other as “brothers.”

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Fitim Lladrovci

Jesus almost sounds like one of these ISIS recruiters here, to be honest, drumming up a revolution. He is urging his followers to realize that the kingdom he has come to establish is not just something of the distant future, not just something we experience in heaven. God wants it to be established now, in the present, in the lives of people like you and me. He wants this vision of God’s justice to catch on, like a fire, and spread everywhere it goes, burning off anything that stands in its way. So often we tend to think of fires as destructive, but they are also creative. Fires burn off ore to leave a pure gemstone. Brushfires burn off old dead undergrowth to allow new life to spring forth.

But no matter the fire or its intensity, no matter the urgency with which Jesus speaks, Jesus never gets people fired up to take others’ lives. Jesus never ignites people to violence. That is a distinguishing factor of his kingdom. The fire Jesus comes to bring is one of love, one of intense self-giving, not hatred. In fact, he says he has a baptism with which he will be baptized, and what stress he is under until it is completed. When we hear Jesus talk about God’s reign of justice and mercy and lovingkindness, we must remember that he is on his way to Jerusalem where he will die on the cross. When we hear Jesus talk of suffering, of dying, we must remember that Jesus first suffers himself. He leads the way, he himself submitting to that purifying fire of love for the sake of all of us. That’s at the heart of the division he comes to bring.

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God’s merciful love in Jesus comes to divide us from anything that holds us back from living in God’s justice. God’s mighty forgiveness in Jesus comes to separate his followers from forces that take us away from him. It’s no accident that all of our baptismal liturgies begin with a series of renunciations. We stand by the font with the couple and their child and ask, “Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?”
“I renounce them.”
“Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?”
“Yes, I want to be divided from them. Even when they’re still within me.”

In Jesus’ day, family relationships dominated every other kind of loyalty and community bond there was. One resource I heard this week pointed out that these specific relationships he mentions this morning would have been primarily family relationships of duty rather than affection. For example, if you were a son, your duty to your father dictated much of your identity in society, much of your actions and direction in life, regardless how much that might have gone against your own well-being or your own values. The kingdom that Jesus brings challenges those bonds and in some cases will cause a rift.

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Early on in the history of Christian faith many women followers of Christ disrupted their family’s intentions for them by refusing to become a bride, a token, in negotiations for marriage. Responding to Jesus’ message for them meant a kind of dignity in society where they were viewed not simply by how big their dowry was or whether they could bear children. They were regarded as full individuals with gifts that could be put to use in Christ’s service even if they didn’t have or desire a family.

When we hear the call to follow, we realize there are relationships in our lives that may need to be re-examined. When we are inspired by God’s ways in Jesus, we come to understand there are priorities we have set that will need to be rearranged. When we respond to Jesus amazing grace, we own up to the fact that there are other allegiances we have pledged which need to be recast in the light of the cross. And the thing about peace? We realize we so often confuse real peace—the peace Jesus intends to bring—with just maintaining the status quo, keeping things peaceable.

We may be a bit taken aback by a fired up Jesus who comes to bring division, but, in fact, it is terribly good news that Jesus comes to divide us from the things that hinder the full arrival of his kingdom. If, for example, I could be divided from my gut instinct to consider every moral or legal matter through a political party’s platform I would be a much freer person for the sake of the gospel. If I could be released from worrying how a certain decision of faith might be received among my peers I would live a more abundant life for God. If I could be separated from wondering how every opportunity to give and serve might affect my “bottom line” I would be a much more generous and richer person. There is a baptism with which we have been baptized. It has claimed every part of our lives for the kingdom which never ends. Thank God for the people who have gone before us who have staked their claim for that kingdom, whose decisions of faith may not have been popular but that revealed in time the grace of God.

As many of you know, I was close to my grandmother who died about four weeks ago. One of the brightest starts in my “cloud of witnesses,” we called her Mimi, and Mimi loved nothing more than to be with her family. I imagine like many of your grandmothers our Mimi prioritized family time over just about everything else. All of my grandparents were that way. I’ve been so blessed. We grew up attending worship every Sunday with Mimi and my grandfather, celebrating holidays together, and she and my grandfather made many sacrifices to take the whole family on trips together just so we could spend time together, strengthen our bonds.

So you can imagine my shock when we were visiting last December when she told us in blunt terms that she had thrown our Christmas card in the trash can immediately after she got it. It would be my second-to-last conversation with her. “I can’t believe,” she said, “that you put your family photo on your Christmas card. Christmas is for sending greetings of Jesus, not about you.”

“Well, Mimi,” I responded in defense, “we like people sending us Christmas cards with their family photo on them because then we cut them out and post them on our fridge to look at all year long.”

She shook her head, unconvinced, and quite honestly, rather fired up. “Then tell them to send you a photo separately. When you put your own photo on a Christmas card, you elevate yourself above Christ. And that’s wrong.”

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(at least we have ‘Merry Christmas’ on it?)

I gave up with my arguing because, at 94, she was not going to be persuaded. And perhaps she didn’t need to be. This was a matter of division to her—grandmother against grandson. Division—righteous, good division that rearranged priorities, and who was I to argue with someone who had so purely and genuinely formed not only my faith but also my devotion to family?

It remains to be seen what Melinda and I will put on our Christmas card this year. Sadly, she won’t receive one, but you can believe I will stop and think twice about what it looks like and what I’m proclaiming. It might even have to say, “Glory to God in the highest, and PEACE to God’s people on earth.”

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

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Mizpeh

When I lie dying
let my family gather around
and tell me of the picnic lunches
at highway rest areas
around utilitarian tables
sandwiches we had packed
the night before
slivers of carrots
dipped in hummus
and then
Doritos
Little Debbies
and other things we’d never buy
for lunches at home
but we relished these
in the shadow of pine trees
that had sheltered countless sojourners
only briefly there
on the way to somewhere else

Carolina Lugnasa

The move from July 31 to August 1
is the anti-New Year
nothing to fare well
no kiss
no clinking glasses
to lurch us forward

a month-change incognito
as imperceptible
as the pause between these cicada antiphons
it is just a subtle shift between
mosquitoes in this ear

and mosquitoes in that ear

crisp lawn grass
that promises the same tired hue and texture
four weeks hence
that was beneath bare feet
four weeks prior

It is a midnight as still
as the pressing humidity
against your face

your one chance
to turn the calendar over
with no real reason to bemoan
or celebrate
the ticking of time

“Um…God??”: Jesus Teaches Prayer

a sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 12C/Lectionary 17C]

Luke 11:1-13 and Genesis 18:20-32

I bet we can think of the person who taught us to drive. We can probably think of the person who taught us how to bake cookies or make a meal using the stove. Each of us can probably think of the person who taught us how to play a musical instrument or throw a ball. There are a few high school seniors here who will be heading off to college in a few weeks. I bet if they haven’t learned it already, someone will be teaching them soon how to use a washing machine and dryer.

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Last night one of our members who is at the beach with her extended family this week posted a photo on Facebook of a bunch of adults huddled around a coffee table with some elementary school age children in a dimly lit room. On the table were some playing cards and some chips with the caption, “Teaching the older girls how to play blackjack and poker at the beach…they are big stuff.” My guess is those girls are tired from the sun and the sand and the salt but they are always going to remember when their moms and dads let them stay up a little late and taught them how to play grown-up card games.

Can you think of the person who taught you how to pray? Perhaps you are still wondering how. We may not at first think of prayer as something that needs to be taught. My guess is that many people would think that prayer is so personal, so unique to each person’s own spirit and perspective, that the idea of teaching prayer sounds authoritarian or doctrinaire. Who are you to tell me how to pray?

And yet we know that Jesus’ taught his disciples to pray. In fact, it’s the only thing we know of that Jesus was specifically asked to teach. In both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel we have stories of Jesus returning from a time of quiet prayer and the disciples wanting him to show them what he’s doing. I imagine they’re pretty intrigued. In those days, the disciples would have most likely associated prayer with something that happened in the Temple or in the local synagogue, something that the rabbis, priests, and other worship leaders did or knew how to do. The disciples see that their leader is constantly going off somewhere to pray on this own, that this praying somehow fuels him and gives power to his ministry, so they naturally ask him how to go about it.

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We find that Jesus’ arm doesn’t need to be twisted one bit.  He gathers them around the coffee table, sees their faces eagerly looking up to see what he’ll say. And instead of telling them about a certain position or posture they need to be in or telling them that they need to meditate he actually gives them words. He gives them a real, usable pattern to go by. It’s perhaps the purest example of grace. They ask and he gives. They knock and the door is opened. It’s a real, biblical example of faith formation.

This past Lent the staff discovered, almost to our surprise, that people still respond well to the concept of prayer and teaching someone how to go about it. When the staff came up with the theme for Lent 2019, we decided to continue with the congregation’s focus on faith formation and present different forms of prayer. Some of you may remember that we incorporated an interactive aspect to the sermons. When we learned about prayers of thanksgiving, for example, we were invited to write on a cut out of a flower things for which we were thankful and then to come forward and place that flower on a large board that came to look like a field. When we were taught about prayers of lament, worshippers were given a piece of torn cloth that they wrote on and then came forward to tie on a wooden cross we had set up in the middle of the aisle. We did this for five different kinds of prayer, thanksgiving, lament, and then supplication (asking for something), adoration, and confession.

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Now, I have to be honest and admit that even though I was part of the team that came up with this idea, I secretly worried that the topic and the interactive component would go over like a lead balloon. I couldn’t have been more wrong. People seemed to really respond to the opportunity to learn about the forms of prayer and physically participate in practicing it. The staff talked several times about how moving it was seeing people so eager to express themselves to God.

The prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples that day catches on immediately. They must have responded well to it because we have evidence from the earliest times of Christianity that followers of Christ were praying this prayer and following this pattern. It has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer, and here at Epiphany you may notice we use two different versions of it. There are actually many different translations of it, as you can tell from this morning’s Scripture. With it Jesus says that these are the best types of things you can pray for: that God’s holiness and power be made known through us. That our truest needs be given just for today. Tomorrow can worry about tomorrow. And so forth.

The Lord’s Prayer has become so ingrained in our usage  that some of the truly groundbreaking parts of this prayer may be lost on us. For one, Jesus tells his disciples to address God in the same way that he himself does, in the most familiar and endearing terms possible. In fact, the word “Father” might best be translated as “Daddy,” and that word doesn’t imply anything about God’s gender or masculinity but rather the parental relationship Jesus has with God. All of the pronouns used by Jesus are the informal means of address. Many languages have what is called a formal “you”—used when talking to someone like a professor or an adult you want to show respect to—and an informal “you,” which one would use when speaking to a close friend. Nothing about the language Jesus gives to his disciples suggests we need to be formal when addressing God. He says we are to just talk in the way we’d talk to our friends.

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I remember when I was in youth group we were gathered around one evening for our meeting and our leader asked for a volunteer. I know this may surprise some of you, but I was the kind of kid who’d throw my hand up before I knew what I was being asked to volunteer for. I raised my hand eagerly and the leader called on me and said, “OK, Phillip, pray for us.” I was mortified because I’d never had to pray in front of anyone before, much less all of my peers. I felt like Ben Stiller’s character in that scene from Meet the Parents when he has to say the table prayer in front of his fiancee’s family. I ended up bowing my head, pausing nervously for a really long time, and then bursting out with “Um…God?” like it was a question. And everyone in the room burst into snickering. I felt so stupid. Who starts a prayer with “Um?” Well, the tone of the Lord’s Prayer suggests that God loves to hear that kind of honest plea even if there is merit in being more direct and succinct with our words. God doesn’t grade us on how we begin, how we open our hearts, what language we use, how repetitive we are.

That’s why it’s helpful to use this newer version of the Lord’s Prayer that incorporates more modern language. Many of us are so familiar and attached to the version that came out in 1611 with the King James Bible, and that’s OK, but the new version matches more closely that familiarity that Jesus teaches his disciples in the Bible. I don’t know anyone nowadays who talks to a friend with words like “thy” and “art.” Being open to and even memorizing two slightly different versions of Jesus’ prayer has only enriched my prayer life, and I guarantee it will yours, especially since many of the earliest Christians believed that Jesus intended this prayer to be more like a pattern than a rote saying.

Whatever language we use, however, Jesus then goes on to say that prayer involves action. It is like knocking on a door in the middle of the night so that you can be a good host for someone who’s dropped in. It is like receiving food from a parent’s hand so that you can eat. Jesus implies there is nothing really passive about prayer. It may be done in quiet from time to time, but it is active, and it moves us to action, just as it moved him to action to love and serve us. His last words upon the cross were prayers, as he gave up his life to show us his mercy and forgiveness.

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Seeing this gets us to the real heart of prayer—that it is not so much about getting God to do things for us as it is about joining our lives with what God is doing in this world through Jesus. Christian prayer does not come from a place where we see ourselves as the center of our own lives. It is not about centering primarily on what’s happening to me and figuring how God might fit in or how God might be moving in my life. Jesus says we pray, “Your kingdom come.” When we pray as Jesus teaches us we are tapping it whatever mercy and compassion and love God is bringing about in creation. Our personal needs are surely important and understood by God, who gives what we need without our even asking, but prayer does something even mightier than make those requests known to God. Prayer cracks open our hearts and aligns us with God’s intentions, God’s plans.

That’s precisely what is happening in this interesting dialogue between Abraham and God in Genesis. The heart of God is compassionate and merciful and Abraham knows this. He doesn’t particularly like Sodom and Gomorrah, but his brother and his family are staying there The city-people have sinned against God by treating the visitors with extreme inhospitality. They needed a place to find refuge, and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah took violent advantage of them. Abraham stands before the Lord, however, and asks for mercy. He appeals to the way he knows God moves in the world, the way of God’s heart even though he knows God’s anger is kindled against them.

I have seen this kind of praying among this congregation so often—ways that push them further into the vision for God’s kingdom and God’s will. Just yesterday as I spoke with members of our HHOPE Pantry team. The HHOPE team is very diligent about their own time of prayer together each time after they serve, and over the past several months they have seen a decrease in the number of people using the pantry. Now, there could be any number of reasons for that, but their prayers have led them to reassess their ministry, their outreach. They are now considering a strategy to reach out to additional schools to heighten our profile, to reestablish contacts with their existing local relationships. God’s kingdom is coming when the poor are given hope and the hungry are filled with good things. And so instead of soldiering on the same way or making their ministry the center of what God is doing, they are aligning their goals with whatever the needs of the community are.

I realize that I’ve probably given you know clearer vision of what prayer is or how to go about it. In many ways, it like the disciples asked Jesus how to speak a language. And how do you really learn a language other than start speaking it? If you want to learn how to pray, if you are wondering how it all works, if you are struggling to see the point, may I humbly point out some people in our midst who are native speakers. Join up with them or another group like them. Knock on the door and you will find your heavenly Father, who is gracious, gives the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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In orbit around Jesus

a sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11C]

Luke 10:38-42 and Genesis 10:1-10a

We’ve just finished a week of a Mars-themed Vacation Bible School. Each morning this week 92 children entered the building as Explorers who were learning to “Go Beyond with God” in a fellowship hall that had been transformed into a space station. We imagined ourselves as orbiting in outer space, and stories from the Bible taught us about the power of faith, of boldness, of kindness, of thankfulness, and of hope. A lot of planning and work went into these five days so that the children would be safe, have fun, and learn about Jesus’ love. You could see our Faith Formation Director Cheryl, her four main VBS co-directors, and all the volunteers in their leadership orbits all week long, and last weekend one director was even in orbit high above the ground—literally—as she stood on a scissors lift and hung fabric from the rafters of Price Hall.

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Pastor Joseph, our Mars explorer, led us in adventures of faith

Whether it was intentional or not, it all was timed perfectly with yesterday’s 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Just as Vacation Bible School this week was designed to make us lift our heads up to the ways God calls us to be his people in the world, the commemorations of Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” give us an opportunity to lift our heads up in pride and wonder at the bold things humans can do when we dream and work together as God made us to. When we use our intellect and curiosity about the universe, when we use our ability to listen and collaborate, when we use our bodies to explore and venture into the unknown we are doing what God created us to do.

And, of course, thinking about Mars and the moon and space exploration causes us to lift our heads quite literally and focus on the heavens for a moment and ponder the wonder and vastness of creation. Orbiting and swirling up above us there are stars and planets and supernovas and comets and asteroids that we are only beginning to know about. And deep within us there are cells and mitochondria and strands of proteins that we are only beginning to understand. And around us are animals and ecosystems and weather patterns that interlock in ways that still fascinate and perplex us. People of faith understand that these are all ways that creation gives glory to God.

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Then alongside VBS decorations of Mars and space stations and dozens of kids orbiting here and grainy black and white television footage of the moon in orbit around the earth, we come in this morning and find Mary and Martha in orbit around Jesus. There they are, in their house, with Jesus as guest. Mary is the closer of the two, like Mercury or Venus. His gravitational pull has her captivated. She sits at his feet listening to what he is saying. Martha is in an outer orbit, maybe a Jupiter or Saturn, spinning and whirling with the tasks of hospitality. It is her house, after all. She has invited Jesus there and she has undertaken the holy and righteous role of host.

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Johannes Vermeer (Christ in the House of Martha and Mary) c. 1654

In middle eastern culture there were and still are few things more sacred than taking care of a guest. Centuries of living in and very near inhospitable deserts and wilderness areas and eking out a living as nomads had created a culture among Jesus’ people that revered the visitor because you never knew when you might be the role of someone seeking sustenance. The opportunity to have someone in your home or in your tent, as Abraham and Sarah do in our first reading, was seen as an opportunity to entertain one of God’s own representatives.

I’m not so sure this same attitude toward hosting and entertaining guests still exists in our culture today. There are probably various reasons for that. Melinda and I love to have people over for dinner, but the thought of someone just dropping by could cause us to hyperventilate. We wouldn’t think things are clean and tidy enough. It takes a lot of energy to bring people into your home and make them comfortable there. And yet as recently as in my grandparents’ generation, it was customary always to have one room of the house where you could take in someone at moments’ notice. We were just talking about this yesterday as we gathered with my relatives to lay my grandmother to rest. They said during the Great Depression it was a common occurrence to have people you didn’t know dropping by your house for food or for work and to turn them away or not invite them in was shameful.

Younger couples getting married these days often don’t register for a china pattern, which is not a sign of their lack of taste or a complaint in any way. Fine china isn’t necessarily needed to host, but that downward trend could be an indication that we are entertaining people in our homes far less often than we used to, at least to the level that Abraham and Sarah display. The way in which we make ourselves open towards visitors and guests changes over time and varies by culture. And for Martha, taking care of Jesus was not to be taken lightly. She’s clearing off the table, scraping off the plates, finding the right size Tupperware for the leftovers all by herself. She speaks up about it. Surely the Son of Man, who came not to be served but to serve, will take her side and encourage Mary to join in.

That’s when Jesus surprises us yet again. He doesn’t take Martha’s side.

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a sculpture at our church of Mary listening to Jesus

So many of us struggle with this Bible story. In one of my discussion groups this week people seemed to me to go out of their way to defend Martha, as if we need to make sure we tell the rest of the story, find out how she recovers from Jesus’ rebuke. I think we all kind of want to defend her because there is a lot of work to do, after all. But Jesus doesn’t say that by staying busy and hosting Martha has chosen the wrong part. He says Mary chose the better part. Martha’s acts of hospitality aren’t themselves inherently “off,” but that they have somehow become a distraction for her. Martha’s mistake is not that that she’s working, but that her work has become her.

There’s a lesson here, especially since this story occurs immediately following Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which is about the work of ministry, going and doing acts of compassion in the world. The life of the disciple can so easily turn into one of doing, of basing our worth and our relevance in how much we’re accomplishing—how many items we’re collecting for the food bank, how many people we’re impacting, how much we’re seen out and about in the community and world. These are parts of our faith. They are vitally important parts of being Jesus’ people, but they are not the main part. They are not to be the inner orbit.

The better part of our discipleship, the more central tasks, involve listening and paying attention to the Word, to letting it shape who and whose we are, to realizing Jesus is at the center of all things and letting that shape us, because Jesus will never be a distraction. We as the church aren’t just a “social service organization with sacraments,” as our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton reminds us. We are the holy people of God called to be at his feet in the midst of a busied world.

The Lutheran Campus pastor at the University of Colorado at Boulder recently released a short video on his YouTube channel directed at recently graduating seniors who will be starting college in the fall. It is called, “The Five People You Meet in College,” and in a very humorous fashion imitates five of the stereotypical identities college students often “try on” in their college years. One of them is the student who gets over-involved, signing up for all the programs and activities. Another is the super-philosophical student who questions and challenges everything. Another is the party-goer, and so on. Then the pastor talks about how forming and exploring personal identity has become a part of the college experience, and that God’s world, like space, is meant to be something to venture into and wonder about.

But then he says that we don’t really know who we are until we’ve heard what God says about us, until we know our identity as people redeemed and loved by Christ.  That, as it turns out, is the mission behind his campus ministry. He invites incoming and returning students to gather around Jesus’ Word and around the sacraments in worship each week so that they can pause all the things they’re doing and hearing and be reminded of their central identity. His is not an invitation to “be more religious” in college, or to make the right decisions and stay away from sin. He says he offers chance to hear from and be shaped by One who has died for you. It is a reminder that God himself has come into our house and loves us unconditionally. That is the church’s task in the world, in fact. Not just campus ministry’s.

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Rembrandt (Abraham entertains Three Angels)

Just this past week our 3-year-old had his first nightmare—at least, I should say, the first one we were aware of. He has always been such a sound sleeper and never one to get out of his bed, so when we heard him screaming in the middle of the night it startled both Melinda and me immediately. His words were as clear as day: “I’m scared! I’m scared!” Then the sound of thrashing in the sheets came through on his monitor, too.

Melinda jumped up and ran in and found him with his eyes still closed, but still rolling around as if he were running away from something. It took her a few seconds to break through and calm him down. He was dreaming about monsters chasing him, and he asked her if there were any still in his bed. Don’t you wonder what those monsters looked like? Grover from Sesame Street? Or chemotherapy? Unemployment? A general feeling of uselessness?

I suppose we could have just left him there to figure it out for himself. I suppose we could have just let it play out, let him struggle with the nightmare a bit longer, let him get to the endpoint of his fear, whenever that would be, and learn it his own way. But Melinda opted to break into that false reality, to remind him he’s OK. She comforted him with our words and told him the truth. She rubbed his back and brought him back to this life.

Hearing that is the better part, and it’s what Mary chose that day.  She knows he’s bringing her back to this life. His word breaks through everything—breaks through death!—and reminds us we have a Creator that has given his own life for us, has reconciled it all through the blood of the cross. That’s more critical to our existence than knowing the sun at the center of the solar system. For as beautiful as our works of compassion are, as helpful as our demonstrations of faith can be, as glorious as the cosmos is, none of them can say to us, “I love you. It’s OK. There are no monsters. I’ve beaten them.”

The writer of Colossians says, “For in Christ all things in heaven and earth were created, all things visible and invisible—all things have been created in him and all things hold together.” Let’s be held today, with the Son (S-O-N) at the center—his love for us and all people pulling us in…like gravity.

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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.

Envelope-to-the-Galatians

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!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.