Long prayers

a sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter [Year B]

John 17:6-19

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Our two-year-old is starting to grasp the ritual of prayer, and it is exciting to watch. Around our supper table we typically hold hands for the mealtime prayer, but he also knows that putting his hands together is a way to pray. The other night before anyone had picked up a fork he put his hands together for the prayer and then bowed his head. We followed his lead and prayed one of our quick rhyming prayers—“God is great, God is good, let us thank him by our food…”—and then, for some reason, after we said “Amen,” our 9-year-old daughter looked across the table at him and said, in an all-knowing tone of voice: “Jasper, as you get older,  the prayers get longer.” It was almost like a warning or something. And I immediately thought to myself as I looked at her, about to hit her 10th birthday, “Girl, you have no idea how long they get.”

Isn’t it the truth, though? As we move through life, there seems to be more to pray for. In my Facebook feed this week appeared a photo of two 16-year old twin boys—the photo taken by their mother—who were sitting in the front of a car, one of them behind the wheel, as they drove off together without an adult for the first time. That mother probably prayed from the moment she snapped that photo until the moment she saw the headlights appear back in the driveway. Long prayer.

This week and this weekend I saw all kinds of posts and photos about college and graduate school graduations. There is a lot of joy and pride in these celebrations, but likely some anxiety, too, as these young people prepare to be thrust out into a sketchy job market, carrying some debt, wondering what they’ll find. Yes, the prayers get longer.

And as we look at the state of world events with alliances between world powers shifting and talk of the nuclear threat again, all our prayers should be getting longer for the world to value peace and prosperity for all.

The same goes for Jesus. The farther along in ministry he gets, the longer his own prayers become, especially in John’s gospel. In fact, the portion of the gospel lesson we have today is from one long prayer he says the night before he is tried and then crucified. It’s a prayer that lasts for one whole chapter. He certainly has a lot to pray about. He has just spent his last evening with his disciples. He has shared a Passover meal with them, he has washed their feet as a sign of the new commandment he has given them to love one another, and he has promised they will receive from God the Father a special Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will lead them into the truth. These have been precious final moments with them when he almost seems to be pouring as much information into them as he can before he leaves to be “glorified.”

It is likely that the disciples haven’t got a clue what Jesus means by that, but they will eventually come to see that love is the glory of God. When he goes to the cross to offer his life for them, and when on the third day God raises him up, and when after that he is taken up into heaven at his ascension they will come to understand how God’s glory is made known in Jesus. And so he prays like crazy as all this begins to happen.

The day of Jesus’ ascension was just this past Thursday. We celebrated it a week earlier because it worked better in our schedule, but at the end of the day’s events we gathered in the columbarium for a worship service and read the story of Jesus’ ascension. At Jesus’ ascension, when Jesus goes up, his love goes out. He is able to fill all in all, as the writer of Ephesians says at one point. And the disciples, as his followers, as his body, were the ones who would take this on, the ones who would embody this love of Jesus spreading out in the world. It seems to me that when the disciples would look back on their time with Jesus, then, when they would stand on the other side of all of this they would look back on this prayer—this long, deep prayer—where he prays for them.

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Jesus’ Ascension to heaven (John Singleton Copley, 1775)

I remember spending time with one of our members several years ago who was in the final months of his life. He knew it. His family knew it. They were all trying to come to terms with what it meant. One day when I was out at his house he spoke about how he had been carefully lining things up for his family after he left them. He was disappointed he was going to miss watching his two children come into adulthood, but it was moving to hear about how proud he was of them and how confident he was that they would both excel in their endeavors. It was very humbling to speak with someone who was at the end of life who wasn’t in reflection-mode or replaying the past but who only wanted to talk about the future, a future he wasn’t really going to be a part of. That day happened to be Ascension day, of all days, and I had brought along by Bible to read that passage as a type of devotion, but I realized I didn’t need to. This gentleman had already covered anything I could hope to say.

In many way, that is Jesus as he prepares to leave his disciples. Wanting to focus more on the future than on the past. Preparing his disciples to go out with his love into the world. Of course, Jesus will not be totally gone from his disciples’ forever, and there will be ways in which his real presence will be with them as they wait for him to return—in the reading of his Word and in the holy meal of forgiveness they will share whenever they gather. And they will have the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit with them as they go, teaching them the truth, giving them a voice.

This is Jesus’ prayer for them. He wants them to know we are protected, that not one of us will be lost. Jesus received the responsibility to care for us from his Father, God the Creator, and he has worked like a shepherd to seek us out and keep us. All Jesus’ ministry is centered on this task of searching for the lost, the lonely, and the little, and even now that is his what he is doing.

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Many leaders take this part of their role seriously. I think today especially of mothers and other mothering figures in our lives who sacrifice so much to keep little ones in their care, constantly counting their children in public places to make sure they’re near, who never want to lose that connection with their children. To say that he has protected and guarded us and that none will be lost means even more coming from Jesus once has entered even death to make sure we remain the Father’s. He protects and guards us even after we die.

Jesus also prays that his followers will remain one. It will do no good for his mission if his followers begin fighting with each other or working against each other or dividing and separating after he ascends. Just as God’s love is made known in him and he and God are one, so is the unity of his followers important on earth.

One young man who worships with us very often and volunteers along with his wife to lead our 5th and 6th grade youth group has taken Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers very seriously, and the Holy Spirit has moved him to try to foster some new relationships specifically between Christians of different races in Richmond. He has worked with several African-American congregations and the predominantly white congregations he worships with to organize a cookout together, a chance break bread together and hear about one another’s witness in the community. They’re calling it a “family reunion,” (a wonderful title) and as it happens, it is next Saturday at 4pm at Charlotte Acres in Mechanicsville. Who knows what kind of shared endeavors may come of that, but even a meal in this city between people of different races but of the same faith is a meaningful expression of unity.

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It is impossible to overstress the importance of Christian unity. Following Jesus and worshiping Jesus are not Lone Ranger enterprises. It is easier nowadays than it used to be—or, I should say we think it’s easier—to live individual lives in the West, to forge our own ways forward. But in terms of our faith in Christ, that’s just not the case. Our togetherness is the crux of who we are in Jesus. It is not incidental to our faith. The hard part of being together and working as one is fundamental to our identity, Jesus prays.

Lastly, Jesus prays we understand that we are sent out just as he was sent out into the world. We do not retreat from it. Ours is not a faith that withdraws from the realities of the world, as much as they worry us or make us angry. Ours is a discipleship that listens to the needs of the world and, like Jesus, puts itself at the service to our neighbor. It is one thing to grasp this on an individual level, to understand that I go into the world as a follower of Christ, loved and set free, ready to serve. But Jesus is not talking about individual service at this point. He is talking about our collective witness, the things we will be able to do together through the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is where things can get really interesting, because Jesus can lead us into places and give us tasks and abilities that no one else can. He fills all in all, after all. It is one thing when one of us feels empowered to go out and make a difference, and that is a great thing to lift up. But how we are sent like Jesus together enables us to do amazing things.

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For example, I learned this week that Lutheran World Relief, one of our ministry partners that this congregation regularly supports, is on the ground in Syria even as war rages on there. Support in finances and in prayer and personnel from Lutheran congregations like ours has enabled Lutheran World Relief to rebuild two bakeries in the most heavily-bombed region of that country. These bakeries have fed over 80,000 people at a time when access to basic foods is hard to come by. The bakery is employing people at a time when many people have no jobs, giving them hope they can rebuild their own country. That is just one example of how the church as a whole, as a body, is going into the world as Jesus did. It is just one example of thinking of the future, as Jesus did, and not dwelling on the past, or being content with how things are.

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Youth assembling personal hygiene kits for LWR (2011)

 

As we get older, do our prayers get longer, more involved? I suppose it’s true, but more important than the length or the depth or the complexity of any of our prayers is the fact that our risen and ascended Lord is still praying for us. From his place at the right hand of God, he leans into the ear of his Father and says, “Let’s protect them. Let’s keep them together. And let’s use them to spread our love. That’s their glory…the glory of this love.”

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

Getting along

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter [Year B]

1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8

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There is a new Kenny Chesney song that just came out on country music radio that has caught my ear. The song is called “Get Along,” and it’s not a terribly deep or profound song, but it’s catchy and fun to sing along to, and the message is wholesome. It’s about getting along—not just getting along down the road, but getting along with one another, giving love the upper hand, which is certainly something the world and definitely our country can hear more of at the moment. When I see images of the leaders of South and North Korea shaking hands, and smiling and stepping over the border into one another’s countries, it makes me hopeful for others’ learning to get along. And it makes me think about how the effort and importance of getting along seems to be underrated these days. We’ve focused more on getting ahead, and I think that’s what Mr. Chesney’s song tries to get us to see.

In any case, the lines in the song that bridge the last verse to the chorus are the ones I keep noodling on. He sings, “We find out when we die the keys to heaven can’t be bought/we still don’t know what love is, but we sure know what it’s not.”

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I bet that resonates with so many of us. What is love, really? We seek and are offered so many definitions and versions of it that it leaves us confused. And it’s true that in the English language we have one word for a concept that other languages have several. There’s romantic love, and brotherly and sisterly love, as well as love for your homeland, like a feeling of patriotism. And we can experience any of those, sometimes very deeply, and still not be able to articulate exactly what their essence is. We know love is important, that it is somehow the key to heaven, and we know enough to be table to tell when love is lacking, but we’re left speechless when we have to sum it up.

But then along comes the writer of 1 John, who has no such trouble at all, with all due respect to Mr. Chesney: “God is love,” and “in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be a sacrifice for our sins.” For John, the writer of this letter that comes near the end of the New Testament, it is very easy to define and describe the essence of love. As he explains, it is found in the gift and the act of Jesus, the offering of his life so that we may be forgiven and made one with God. To know what love is in its purest, most powerful form we look to the cross of Jesus, look to the God who pours himself out for humankind.

In fact, John cannot talk about God without talking about love, over and over again. In the fifteen verses of chapter four we read this morning, the word love is used twenty-four times. Everyone who loves, he says, is born of God and knows God. One paraphrase of these verses put it, “you can’t know God if you don’t know love.”[1] Furthermore, we can’t even know or practice love ourselves, he goes on to say, until we have experienced it first, until we have realized how much God has loved us.

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This, I find, is very easy to understand, even when faith in God is difficult. Love is only something we can give when we’ve first received it. This is an overly-simplified example, but it’s kind of like those long Starbucks lines where everyone pays for the person behind them in line. Once you realize someone has paid for your drink, your gratitude spills over into paying for the next person. Somewhere, someone early on started it all, but once you’re caught up in it, it just kind of flows along. John would say the first lover was God, and in Jesus God’s love for us has spilled over, like an overloaded latte, each gesture of self-giving and sacrifice producing more and more so that it may continue to abound, intertwining us all, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, casting out fear, placing us at the feet of another neighbor, just like he did on the night he first gave us that commandment.

Love and God are intertwined. Love always grows, increasing, producing more, seeking another person down the line, including new folks, which is probably why Jesus reaches for the image of the grapevine when he’s talking to his disciples about it. In Jesus’ day, grapevines would have been a very common sight, covering a great deal of the countryside.

Of course, I believe that in this country, when most people think of vines they think of tomato vines. Because of the way that vines grow, no matter what variety, they need support and attention. There’s always been a bit of a debate in my family about that. I prefer to stake my tomato vines and let them form one long main vine, if possible. To do this I have to constantly snip off the suckers, the little branches that grow between the stalk and each leaf, and I also have to repeatedly fasten the stalk to the stake as it goes up. My wife, on the other hand, grew up a tomato-cager. Caging tomatoes lets the vines grow a little more liberally. You don’t have to prune quite as often, but you have to make sure that the cage stays upright. I’ve never scientifically tested the difference between staking and caging in my own garden, but my experience is that staking gives you bigger tomatoes, but not as many as caging.

What has been surprising to see is that sometimes the weight of a tomato or bunch of tomatoes will cause a branch to twist or even break. Sometimes I’ve worried that I’ve lost some tomatoes when a storm comes along, but as long as a branch of tomatoes is connected to the main vine, they grow and ripen just fine. That is, they “get along” just fine. That is the beauty of vine-tending.

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Jesus wants his followers to know that they can produce fruit, that they will be able to “get along” in love because he has first loved them. He is the vine, and they are the branches. The heartbeat, the essence of what we are as disciples, is the love we have for each other. Sometimes that finds expression in the ways we serve and love our communities through projects and works of charity. Sometimes that love shows itself through the music and art we are able to make together through our worship of God. But more often than we probably realize the fruit of love we produce comes in the ways we listen to each other, learn about each other, practice patience with each other, and care for one another, especially in times of need or times of grief. We glorify God and we produce good fruit, sometimes big and sometimes lots of smaller ones, when we abide with one another just as Christ abides in us. In order to abide in one another members of a community need to be together and be intentional about interacting with one another on a regular basis. Roman Catholic social worker Dorothy Day put it very bluntly when she said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

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In child development there is a concept called parallel play versus interactive play. Young toddler start to engage in parallel play, which means they will play at the same time and sometimes in the same activity, but not really with each other. As they grow older, though, they begin to interact with one another as they engage in the same activity. Sometimes congregations can essentially arrange and accomplish parallel play pretty well. We organize all kinds of group activities that point us in the same direction and accomplish a lot. Integrative play and integrative activities, though, are ones where we actually learn about what one another is struggling with in life, to get over that fear of sharing, to ask for and practice forgiveness when needed, and see where God has overlapped our lives in ways that may not appear evident on the surface. They provide the chance to abide with one another and abide in Christ the vine, who has taken the time to twist himself around us, and intertwine his body and heart into our relationships, to know us and love us to the point of offering his own life. After all, when the writer of 1 John is trying to explain the essence of the community’s life, he does not say, “Beloved, let us do amazing peace and justice stuff together.” He says, “Beloved, let us love one another.”

Abiding allows us to be pruned, too, without any harm to us in the long run. When we are connected to the vine and growing alongside other branches, we can become aware of the parts of us that aren’t producing much fruit so that they can be removed to let those areas which are doing well to thrive even more. This is a natural part of any congregation’s growth and expansion. As we consider what fruits of love God has called us to produce in the coming years at Epiphany, we must be ready for Him to prune our ministries, which means, of course, some things won’t stay the same. But we know that as we abide, as we dwell with the risen Lord, new life will always be possible.

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Several weeks ago my family gathered for a birthday party for my parents at a winery down in North Carolina not too far from where they live. Our daughters were very interested in how grapes were grown and what a winery is, and as we drove in, winding our way on the road through the vineyard itself, they kept asking, “Where are the grapes? Where do they grow?” It was early April, and things were still dormant. Expecting lush growth, I suspect, they were unable to recognize the grapevines, themselves, as they passed within a few feet of the window of our car. And I had never noticed it before until they asked me, but grapevines in the off-season are shaped exactly like crosses. Pruned back to their core, to their absolute essence, they come up out of the ground with their gnarled, brown trunk and then branch into two perfect branches that are parallel to the ground. They look dead. There is not a green part on them, in fact, but yet they must be full of life, those vines.. All the leaves, all the flowers, all the grapes, and all the wine that will come from Jones von Drehle Winery this year and next…all the bottling and drinking, all the winery tours, all merriment at the special events, the late afternoon conversations with friends on their winery patio, all the surprise birthday parties gathering friends from near and far will come from those dead-looking crosses that we could see on that hill.

May it be so with Christ’s followers, and for Epiphany. We can’t say for sure what love is for each of us in every situation. But we know that all our life, all our real future growth, our desires and our need just to get along, all our truest love will come from nowhere else but the one and only vine, the ever-growing love of Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Message, Eugene Peterson

Sheep is sheep are sheep

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter [Year B]

John 10:11-18

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Today, since we are a flock, and since the Good Shepherd has gathered here as one, I’d like to reserve several minutes here at the beginning of the sermon for us all to share some pasture time with our fellow sheep. If you could, please find a worship bulletin and turn to the Question for the Car Ride, which you’ll find on page 11. The question is “If you were to be a hired hand on a farm, which task or type of work would you choose to do and why?” Spend a few seconds thinking that over to yourself. I won’t give any examples because I don’t want to limit anyone’s imaginations. And I’m going to set aside several minutes for you to introduce yourselves to the people sitting around you—on your pew or maybe just behind you or in front of you—and to share your answers to that question. Get to know one another, move around a bit if you need to.

[pause for conversation to happen]

Just this past Monday I was visiting with someone in a nursing home and several of her family members were already there. Four generations, in fact. They all happen to be members of this congregation and so it was good to catch up with them, and as we were talking one of them, a young man, explained that he had the day off because he had been in class all weekend long. Knowing this young man was a firefighter, I assumed he meant some type of continuing education course where they were catching up on new codes or new equipment guidelines.

“No,” he informed me, “we were out in the field for this class. It is called ‘Rescuing people from confined spaces.’”

“Oh, yes, that class,” I retorted.

Interested, I asked him to tell me a bit about it, and he said, “Well, we actually practiced rescuing someone stuck in a silo. We had a dummy placed inside a tight silo compartment high off the ground and we took turns climbing up there with a harness on, hoisting it out, fastening it to a zip line structure we had set up and lowering it to the ground that way. It’s all very technical and very dangerous.”

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He said each scenario is different because no one gets stuck the same way. The rule or procedure, if there is one, is to figure out how to perform the rescue as quickly as possible while maintaining a level of safety for the rescuer. Although we often hear about those things on the news pray those kinds of risky things go well for everyone, there is always the realization this young man or another firefighter like him may end up laying down his life for another.

If I were to be a hired hand on a farm, I don’t think I would choose to work in the silo, but I’m glad there are people getting trained to put their lives on the line if I did.

This morning we hear about the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus is speaking with his disciples and the other people who have begun to follow him and he is setting himself as an example against the other caretakers of the people of God through the years who had been reckless and neglectful of their needs. Jesus says he is the good shepherd—the noble shepherd, the genuine shepherd, which are two other meanings of this Greek word translated as “good,”—because he lays down his life for the sheep.

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According to Jesus himself, that right there alone is what makes him good or noble or genuine. We know does a lot of things we would call good—he heals people, he extends God’s embrace and is sure to include in God’s love and forgiveness those who’ve been marginalized, he’s got solid teachings about how to live. But in the end his goodness is not based on any other quality or trait other than the fact he will offer his life for the sake of the sheep. He is selfless. He will sacrifice his own well-being. Other people who watch the sheep, the hired hands, tend to look out for themselves. They don’t look the wolf in the eye. They don’t climb the silo to pull someone out.

Jesus’ followers would have known that their people had a long history of those kinds of leaders, the leaders who really looked out only for themselves, who thought of ways to enrich themselves on the backs of the people they were supposed to be serving. Jesus will not respond to leadership and responsibility that way. He recognizes that those in his care are his own. There is a connection there between him and us that he either can’t or won’t ignore or deny. He says, “I know my own and my own know me.”

There are two main ways you can know something. One way is to learn information about it through seeing or hearing it. Babies come to know their mother and father by seeing their faces over and over again. We come to know a lot of information in school through seeing words and notes and diagrams our teachers give us.

But there is also the knowing that we get through experiencing something, through actually being a part of it and doing it. People learn to perform rescues from confined spaces this way. When the firefighters have classes all through the weekend they aren’t sitting in a classroom reading about the technical aspects of it or looking at pictures of silos. They are actually experiencing it. Climbing up and climbing back down.

To match INSIGHT-In would-be Palestinian state, a dose of reality
a modern-day Palestinian shepherd

Jesus’ knowledge of us comes from being made flesh and dwelling among us. He doesn’t just look from afar at what we go through, or study some textbook about what it’s like to be a human in a broken world. Left to die on the cross, abandoned by his friends, and feeling forsaken by God, Jesus experiences a life that needs rescue. He knows his own people because he’s in some way been there with them in it all.

It stands to reason, then, that part of our knowledge of Jesus will come through experiencing that relationship. We can learn facts about Jesus in Sunday School. We can chew on words of sermons. We can read theology and read Scripture and come to know Jesus that way. But sheep know a shepherd by getting up and following, by moving along, by experiencing his loving leadership. That is, at some point, our faith in Jesus must become more than just knowledge about God. It is stepping into relationship with him. It may mean involve saying to ourselves in some way, “I am one of the people Jesus laid down his life for. I don’t understand it the way I’d understand algebra or the Civil War, but it sounds good and I trust it and I will continue to walk and talk with him.”

Of course, the issue is that walking and talking with Jesus is not something we do alone. A group of rescued individuals all with their own privatized relationships with their Creator is not what he’s going for. It’s not what any shepherd goes for. The good shepherd works to keep his flock together, and this part is vitally important. The laying down of his life and taking it back up again is not done primarily for you and for me, but for the sake of all us—a community, a whole.

Interestingly enough, there is no difference between the singular and plural words for sheep. In both Greek and English, the word sheep is used both for one and for many. All other livestock I can think of have different words. One cow, many cows. One horse, many horses. One pig, a bunch of swine. One ox, many oxen. But sheep is sheep are sheep, and it’s true that sheep do naturally flock more than most other livestock. I don’t think it’s an accident of language. It’s plausible to me that the ancients didn’t really conceive of sheep as single animals, really.  I think it indicates there is something fundamental about our identity as God’s people that comes from realizing we’re all one. Jesus has laid down his life because we belong together, not scattered. In fact, research shows that even singing in groups, like choirs and in congregations, is good for one’s mental health, regardless of one’s own singing ability!

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[image by Carmen Doherty Photography]
We essentially live scattered lives nowadays. Single congregations situated in suburbia, pulling from multiple municipalities, have an especially challenging time embodying the one flock nature of following Jesus. Few of our lives overlap in meaningful ways throughout the course of the week. Typically we don’t even see each other. We spend a large portion of our lives in work situations where speaking about faith is either looked down on or even illegal. We gather for an hour or two on Sunday mornings and that’s about it, and so it’s very easy to begin thinking our spirituality is individual, that as long as we are tending to our relationship with God, we’re doing our part.

But sheep is sheep are sheep, and entering into meaningful relationships with each other here is part and parcel to what the Good Shepherd lays down his life for. We are one flock.

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The “Good Shepherd window” at my home congregation, Augsburg Lutheran Church in  Winston-Salem, NC

Furthermore, there are even others out there, Jesus says, not of this fold that are being brought together with us. Early on, Jesus’ followers may have interpreted that to mean the Gentiles or the Samaritans or others that were not part of the household of Israel, but now Jesus may mean anyone not of our Christian flock.

We may not always know how to interact with others not of our fold—people who don’t acknowledge the lordship of Jesus, people who don’t believe in God, people of different faiths and religions—but Jesus clearly sees himself as their shepherd too. Who knows which folds he is talking about? But he is in the process of leading them into some kind of unity with us. We may not understand how or when, but it does mean that our stance toward others, even those who seem to be outside our household of faith, should likely be one of love and patience and dialogue. Even as we trust in the name of Jesus, even as we gather and help grow our congregation or our outreach and service ministries to the community, even as we grow in our love for God’s creation, even as we grow in our singing, we know that others who do not share our specific beliefs are still in a fold that Christ cares for.

Because to the Good Shepherd each sheep is one of many sheep. Each person is someone for whom Jesus has died, whether they know it or not, and each person is one of a group, no matter how lonely they feel. He has laid down his life for them. On the cross he climbs up into your silo for the rescue and leaves himself there so that we can be free. You are his own. He knows you.  And he hasn’t just learned your face. He is walking with you, with us…because we are his flock.

It is we who he loves.

He is the good shepherd.

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

No foolin’!

A sermon for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Day

Mark 16:1-8

 

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“Hark! The Herald Angel Sings; Glory to the Newborn King!
Peace on Earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.”

Please excuse us, but we figured that was too good of an opportunity to pass up! Besides, people are always saying we need to sing more Christmas carols, anyway. We knew everyone would be gathered this beautiful morning to sing hymns about resurrection and the empty tomb, but it’s also April Fool’s Day, so why not throw in a favorite Christmas carol? We knew everyone would be filing in this morning, on this fresh new day of spring, expecting nothing but Easter lilies around the altar but it’s April Fool’s, so why not arrange for a Christmas tree? And we knew that the last time so many of us were gathered together like this was on Christmas Eve, but today’s April Fool’s Day so why not just play a little prank and roll the two days into one? Christ is born…Christ is risen…which one is it? They’re both good news, right?

The fact of the matter is, the carol works remarkably well, as if it is written as much for Easter as it is for Christmas. Listen again:

“Light and life to all he brings,
Ris’n (that’s the word!) with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that we no more may die,
Born to raise each child of earth,
Born to give us second birth!
Hark! The Herald Angel Sings, Glory to the Newborn King!”

Today we realize that the journey which began in Bethlehem reaches its intended conclusion in Jerusalem. The joy that we first beheld at the manger is only amplified as we see the stone rolled away. Angels announced his arrival in the stable, and now an angel announces his absence from the grave. There was no room for him that night, but there is no him for the tomb today. Because Jesus was born for me and you we know that he was born to die and rise again. The two days are connected and cannot be separated, and one leads inevitably to another, through a cross and then a tomb.

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It makes me think of a Christmas a few years ago when I was on an errand in Dollar Tree. As I wandered the aisles I noticed that one of the store clerks was high up on a ladder switching out the large holiday decoration signs which were hanging from the ceiling. As I watched what he was doing, I noticed he was removing the red and green “Merry Christmas” placards, sliding them out of the holder, flipping them over and then sliding them in again to show what was printed on the other side. To my shock, they were not for Valentine’s Day, but were instead all yellow and pink and read “Happy Easter.” It was December 27. Easter that year was going to fall on April 20. We were two days in and they were ready to move us to Easter…a whole four months early! We may sneer at the commercialization of our holidays, but Dollar Tree had some seriously good theology going on there!

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And so, April Fools to you this Easter day. May you know God’s love for you is eternal, that the Newborn King is born again today. Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

All that is nice and clever, but it still really doesn’t deal with the elephant in the room—that is, the Easter message actually feels a lot like an April Fool’s prank. Whatever happens, as Mark tells it, especially, sounds exactly like a cruel joke, and the candid camera is off in the bushes somewhere. First of all, we’ve got some perfectly unsuspecting victims. Every April Fool’s prank needs unsuspecting victims. The three women are all ready to come to the cemetery that morning and do exactly what they’re supposed to do with their spices and their prayers after someone has died. They’re walking right into this one!

Second of all, someone’s been messing with the tomb. As they walk along, they even wonder about the stone covering its entrance. Who’s going to move it?  How will they get it out of the way? But then they get there and it’s already out of the way! Someone must really want to get them good.

Most of all, of course—the body they’ve come to anoint is missing! Good April Fool’s pranks typically involve replacing something usual with something people would not expect, and this definitely fits that standard. A mysterious angel figure at the tomb says that Jesus is risen, something that’s never happened before, and essentially tells them to continue to prank on Peter and the other disciples. He’s like, “Yes, yes, yes…go on to Galilee, ladies. He’ll see you there. I promise.” And if there had been anyone else there he would have winked and given a nudge. Then it ends perfectly when the women run off, frightened and amazed. Perhaps they’re embarrassed. They don’t say anything to anybody! Someone got them good.

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“The Resurrection of Jesus” (Carracci)

Mark’s account of Jesus’ resurrection is particularly abrupt and a bit ironic. It’s abrupt because it just ends as quickly as it began. It kind of leaves us hanging. We never hear whether they bump into him up in Galilee. And it’s ironic because the women don’t say anything to anyone even when they’re specifically told to do so. Throughout Mark’s story of Jesus, Jesus has tried very hard to control the message about him. Many times he performs a miracle or completes a teaching and immediately he tells people not to say anything about him. He acts as if everything he is doing is a secret, that things won’t make sense until the end. And each time he does that along the way, people go and blab about him anyway. Now, when we’ve apparently reached the end and they are instructed to spread the news…they clam up.

Easter feels like a prank, and if it weren’t for the other gospel writers and the apostle Paul, who did see the risen Lord and who give us other accounts of what happened that day and in the week that follow, it’s not altogether clear that we’d be here this morning.  All the same, are we fools for believing this? Have we been suckered into thinking that Jesus is risen, that our sins are forgiven, that death is defeated, when there might be a more logical or ordinary reason for the unexpected events at the tomb? Is this really plausible, that God would physically step into creation like this in the person of Jesus and make it new?

For as long as there has been the news of Easter there have been doubters and nay-sayers, people who hear the message and figure it’s just a fun tale or who, like those first women, don’t really know what to make of it. I don’t know where each of you stand on it. If you’re like most of us, you probably find your faith fluctuates from time to time. You waver, you question. You find yourselves in need of gathering now and again with others who’ve come to trust the story. You find yourselves digging a little deeper, listening once again a little harder, hoping to have belief rekindled. Or maybe sparked to start with. That’s fair.

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The fact of the matter is that the first people to experience the news of Easter moved from fear and amazement to bravery and insistence very quickly. They ended up so convinced they’ve actually encountered Jesus, wound up so persuaded they were dealing with real resurrection of his body, found themselves so sure that God had changed the course of history by raising their teacher and leader from the dead that most of them ended up dying for their faith. These were not powerful or influential people, by any means. The women at the tomb and the disciples were essentially nobodies, and yet they were so sure and so emphatic that the Jesus who was crucified had risen and appeared to them they were willing to give up everything in order to spread that word. That is no prank, my friends. People don’t allow themselves to be handed over to ridicule and torture, to the jaws of hungry lions and death by the sword in order to continue circulating a silly rumor. An outlandish message entrusted to some women does not within a generation become a worldwide movement of new life if it’s some idle tale about an empty grave. Christ is risen, and through him God is bringing about new life to all of creation.

If there is a prank somewhere in all of this, then the brokenness of the world is at fault. It’s the evil one trying to pull the wool over our eyes each and every day. Easter and Jesus’ new life are the real deal and every day we wake up surrounded by forces that are trying to fool us—trick us into thinking that this life is all we’ve got, that putting self before others is the key to happiness. It’s as if every day we’re being tempted to believe that God can’t forgive our sins, that love doesn’t win, that through every death and darkness is just emptiness and more despair.

But today and every Sunday, in fact, we hear the real version of things once again. Sin is the fool! Let us not be unsuspecting victims to its clever wiles! Let us gather to be reminded in the (real) water of baptism…in the real bread and wine of his meal…in the real comfort of God’s Word and friends’ prayers…that God in Jesus has conquered death and flipped the sign around to reveal the message. And now we go out and share that, too:

 

That…Christ is by highest heav’n adored,
He is the everlasting Lord.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail, incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with us to dwell, Jesus, Our Emmanuel!

Hark! That herald angel sings, “Glory to the RISEN King.”

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Curtain torn

a homily for Good Friday

And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38).

In their versions of our Lord’s passion, two of the gospel writers, Matthew and Mark, both point out to us that the moment when Jesus dies on the cross the curtain in the temple in Jerusalem is torn in two, from top to bottom. It is an odd little detail to throw in…in an event that is full of odd, little details—details like Pontius Pilate’s refusal to change the wording on the sign hanging above Jesus on the cross and the detail about the kind of branch that was used to lift a sponge of sour wine to his face. I imagine there will be details about Jesus’ crucifixion that jump out at you tonight—things you may have heard before but suddenly sound important even if you don’t know why.

The part about the temple curtain being torn is important enough to Matthew and Mark for them to make sure we know about it. It’s the first thing that happens after Jesus gives out a loud cry and breathes his last. In the silence that comes right after he dies (as if there was silence!) there is a ripping, thousands of feet away—what must have been a dramatic severing, from top to bottom, of an ancient, heavy fabric. There were surely people there who saw this as it happened, since the Temple at the time of the Passover would have been a busy place. The public executions outside would have only been a distant commotion.

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“Crucifixion” (Francisco du Zurburan, 1627)

The curtain in the temple of Jerusalem served the purpose of separating the area called the Holy of Holies from the area where the people would gather to pray. It functioned like a veil, rather heavy and opaque, so that light could not get through and people could not see what was on the other side. Since the beginning of Israel’s existence as a people, the holy area behind it, where it was believed God dwelled, was kept distinguished from and undefiled by everything else. It was God’s safe zone, and the temple curtain helped remind people of that. God was there, behind it, and we, with our broken world, were here, on this side.

The cross of Jesus takes that barrier down. God steps out behind that safe zone and enters our brokenness. But the curtain isn’t just pushed out of the way so that God can step into our midst, as if he is a performer coming out on stage to make some pre-show announcement. It is ripped, destroyed, from top to bottom so that it can never be hung there again. The word in Greek for what happens here is “schism”—a split or division that is not easily overcome. As it happens, the only other time this word is used is at Jesus’ baptism, as he comes out of the water and the when the heavens are ripped open and the voice of God is heard saying, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Now, as Jesus turns over his life to his Father, there is another schism, another demonstration that anything which separates God and heaven from humankind is being torn open.

The point is: In the life and death of Jesus, God’s beloved Son, God wants on this side of the curtain. God is coming to us. Nothing will hold Him back.  Not a veil. Not our brokenness. Not even death.

Several weeks ago our congregation hosted a prayer vigil put on by the McShin Foundation for all of those who’ve lost their lives to addiction and substance abuse disorders. We held small candles in our hands under an especially dramatic cloudy sky right as the sun was going down. We were sad. It felt like Good Friday. The woman who led the vigil stood right at the base of our cross out front and began with her own story of recovery. She talked about her struggles with heroin and other drugs and how it had impacted her life and had driven her to the point of despair. At one point she said her life had become a hell—but then she caught herself, afraid that word may have offended me or others. Suddenly aware that she might have crossed some boundary and done something inappropriate, she looked at me and apologized for using that language, apologized for mentioning something so foul and profane in the presence of worship. It was a brief awkward moment, but then she continued, unabashedly, to let loose with her hard story, and it was beautiful to hear. We were thankful for such honesty.

We can often get the impression that church and worship are only for happy things, that to gather here we should just be sunshine, and that having faith in general means showing only a good side. We feel we can’t weep, we can’t let people know our struggles, and that is a shame. That is, I think we set up a certain curtain not just in a church setting but also in our private lives—a veil behind which we sequester our pain, our sorrow and we kind of keep God at bay.

And yet, the cross of Jesus is precisely what gives us the hope that there is no boundary anymore. God wants to be on this side of the barrier. God will not be kept at bay to save us, and if there is any place we can tell our stories of redemption, if there is any place where we can talk honestly about our often hellish lives, if there is any place we can light a candle and expect God to encounter us, to rescue us, it is at the place where his light briefly goes out. God does not like anything hanging between him and us, and if there is any time we can trust God will show us the depth of his love at the cross of Jesus the Christ.

The Creator of all has decided no more holding back. He offers his own life, takes on all our sinfulness and darkness, and breathes his last. And as he does, God steps into the darkest place we could ever go. God and the humans he loves become one again and God will lift them up to his eternal life. The heavens have been opened, the curtain has been torn…God is here.

Just a detail thrown in there, I guess.

But maybe not so odd after all.

And, on second thought, definitely not little.

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

 

 

Lent 2018: “Fools in Christ: lives of daring disciples”

A reflection on the life and witness of Catherine of Siena

Psalm 16:5-11 and Luke 10:38-42

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It was June of 1376 and the church was in the midst of perhaps its greatest conflict ever. As a result of political conflict between the French and the Italians, the papacy had moved from Rome to the French city of Avignon and had been there for about 70 years. There was nothing saying that the papacy had to be in Rome, but it had been there for about 1300 years, and the fact that it was now several hundred miles away, falling increasingly under the influence of the French crown, was creating major political and religious tension.

A delegation from Florence arrived that June to negotiate peace with the French army, and in it there was a 29-year-old unwed woman from the town of Siena named Catherine. She was not officially connected to the Florentine army in any way, but she had gained influence among Florentine government figures and other regional leaders so they thought she would be helpful to the cause. She had been vocal about her opposition to military conflict even though many in the delegation were aiming to start something with France. She had a way with people. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful in their objectives, and things briefly escalated. Catherine did manage through persistent pleas for peace and unity to pave the way for another delegation right behind her to achieve success.

While in Avignon, the determined and precocious woman received an audience with the Pope, Gregory XI, and tried to convince him, even amidst the political turmoil, to move the papacy back to Rome. Six months later, against all odds, he did.

That event was probably the crowning moment of Catherine’s endeavors. It was certainly a major score for her, but she kept busy, just as she had been indefatigably busy for the decade prior. She well-connected in Italian political circles, and she wrote letter after letter to city and national leader, as well as church leaders, cajoling them towards peace, urging them to work together. She was even more effective in person, and she travelled extensively. In 1378, she left her native Siena to go to the city of Rome itself, summoned there by Pope Urban VI, to work with him and the highest church authorities, which were still in major conflict over who had proper authority.

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Things were a terrible mess in general in those years, but everyone both then and now would agree that Catherine of Siena was one of the few bright spots. She was almost universally admired and adored. People of all walks of life, including the most powerful in Europe, sought out her counsel and guidance. She had an enormous following of disciples made up of both men and women, clergy and lay. And yet she was not of means. She lived humbly and was immensely devout, receiving Holy Communion every day and submitting herself to some of the most stringent religious practices. In fact, toward the end of her life she had forsaken all food other than the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In ill health and weak, she succumbed to paralysis and a stroke and died at the age of 33.

So, who is Catherine of Siena? The twenty-third child of twenty-five, Catherine is born a twin. That sister ends up dying very early, and Catherine herself handed off to a wet-nurse, because  is clearly busy with running a large household. Her father works in the fabric industry and does fairly well for himself.

Even as a child, Catherine stands out in her large family. She is known to be a particularly cheerful child and is eventually nicknamed “joy” by her parents. As a teenager she begins having mystical experiences, vivid dreams during times of wakefulness where she hears and feels God speaking to her directly. Rather than ignoring these occurrences or suppressing them, she tells people about them and acts on them, assured that she has been called by Jesus to be his special servant. She eventually experiences one mystical moment where she hears Christ calling her to be his bride. This encounter is confirmed by the stigmata on her hands, feet, and side. “I keep the Lord always before me,” the goes the psalm we read this evening,“because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” Catherine is not to be moved from her commitment to the Lord, a Lord she deeply knows was committed to her, who had suffered for her.

It is about this time—mid teenage years—when she begins to resist her family’s desires that she hurry up and wed, a conflict that would eventually chart a significant course for her life.  When one of her older sisters dies in childbirth, pressure is put on Catherine to marry the widower. She resists by refusing to eat. Later she cuts her hair in order to make herself less attractive to potential husbands, a measure which annoys her mother.

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“The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine of Siena” (Giovanni di Paolo)

Marriage was by far the lot of most women in those days. Families preferred it because it freed them from responsibility to them. Marrying daughters helped consolidate wealth and power. Many women chose marriage because there were not really any professional options open to them. It gave them purpose. The only other option for women was to enter a convent and become a sister. Catherine resists both of these paths, choosing to live a very active religious but single life outside of the walls of a convent. She pleads with her parents to leave her alone and finally they give her a few rooms in the house where she can live. There she lives for a few years, secluded, leaving only to go worship at church.

When she emerges at about the age of 19 she devotes herself to good works out in the city. She works in the hospitals, visits the sick in their homes. She is still joyful, unpretentious and apparently charismatic in personality, for she soon develops a following which joins her in these acts of mercy. She calls them her “family,” and they began calling her “mother.”

She does find a spiritual home in the Order of Dominicans, adopting their spiritual disciplines. The Dominicans are a group of priests, nuns, and friars who pursue preaching and learning and do not tend to live in seclusion like some other orders. Women who are Dominican sisters were unmarried and wear the habit that probably many of us associate with nuns through TV and the movies. During her twenties she begins to write profusely, sending letters to different authorities about matters spiritual topics as well as public matters. Catherine’s status and influence in Siena grows, and in 1374, when she is 27, the Dominicans give her formal protection, which means she travels with an entourage. By then she is already trading correspondence with elected and appointed leaders in the church and around Italy. We still have several of her works, including one called the Dialogue or a Treatise on Divine Providence.

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Dominican sisters today

She is literate, but has no formal schooling, and her main mentor and spiritual director for most of her life is a Dominican priest by the name of Raymond of Capua. He eventually goes on to write her memoirs. As Catherine grew, Raymond begins to seek spiritual direction from her. She still provides spiritual direction today through her writings and her example. She was the first woman declared “doctor of the Church” and, along with Francis of Assisi, is named as one of the six patron saints of Europe.

Even though we feel far removed from Catherine of Siena by time, place, and religious tradition, we must understand that her contributions to Christian faith and her society at the time were enormous. Through her strong faith in the presence and guidance of Christ in her life, she charted her own course which eventually opened up more vocational possibilities for women.

People described her as “boundless in energy” and single-minded and intensely devoted to her ideals. One of her most famous lines was, “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire!”  She loved being in service to Christ even if that meant enduring great suffering.

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statuette by Neroccio di Bartolomeo de Landi (1475)

It’s hard to categorize Catherine of Siena, for the normal formal roles of influence and authority never were open to her. She didn’t preside over a parish because she couldn’t be a priest. She wasn’t given a governmental title because she wasn’t a bureaucrat and never sought office. She wasn’t a former teacher because she wasn’t on faculty anywhere. She followed Christ into the public sphere so ardently that she just managed to attract people and shepherd them. In that alone, she was mighty foolish. Her faith in God just flowed from her, and people could see God at work in her, in spite of the barriers that existed. One of her own writings includes this line, which could serve as a guide for anyone seeking to help others: “Do you think that our Lord would be pleased with us if we left works of mercy undone because our neighbor is unthankful?”

Her wide freedom to serve because she bound to Christ rather than the duties of a family, allowed her to accomplish a lot in 33 years. Catherine never used this power for any personal purpose or glory, and it was the neglect of her own health for the sake of others that likely led directly to her death.

One could describe her as a fool in Christ not only because of the way she forged her own path of faith expression in spite of her gender, but also because of her deep, unwavering desire to safeguard the unity of the church. She was truly non-partisan at a time when everyone was taking sides. The fact that she rose so high in respect and power that she, a truly unattached, single woman, could have an audience with more than one Pope is nothing short of remarkable. Her advice was cherished by many a leader, both political and ecclesial.

In many ways, she may remind us of a Billy Graham of her time. Surely there are more differences than similarities between the two, but some strong similarities are there. Even though she was sought after by the highest people in power, no one managed to fully claim her as theirs. And while she had clear opinions on certain public matters, she never managed to get herself pigeonholed into one particular cause or faction. She was articulate and intelligent, innovative, and published many devotional works.

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“St Catherine of Siena” (Giovanni Battista Tiepolo)

All of this led to the main way she was a fool in Christ: her mysticism. Mysticism is difficult to explain and comprehend, but it is a belief derived from physical or personal union with the divine. Catherine truly believed in her visions and in her belief that she was married to Christ. This may have been done out of a need to defend her unmarried status, but throughout her life she was overcome by profound spiritual moments marked by very personal dialogue with God.

It is easy to think of Mary at this point—the Mary who was the sister to Martha who hosted Jesus in their home. Mary spends all her time at the foot of Jesus, listening, contemplating his words. She is ridiculed by Martha for doing nothing, for only meditating, but then Martha is surprisingly but gently ridiculed by Jesus, pointing out that Mary has actually chosen the better part.

A mystic like Catherine chooses this better part more adeptly than most people. This set Catherine apart in ways that apparently did not alienate others but drew them to her. In a way, we are all mystics of some sort, since we have been joined to Christ through the waters of our baptism. God has chosen us to reflect Christ’s love in the actions of our bodies, in the words of our lips, in the dreams of our imaginations. Some, like Catherine, stand among us as particularly vibrant examples of what this might look like. It is as if the prayer of the day that we’ve been using each week this Lent applies perfectly to Catherine. It lends itself towards faith of a certain mysticism:

“Almighty and Eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; then use us, we pray, as you will, but always to your glory and the welfare of your people.”

 

Make us a bit like Catherine, O Lord. Make us a bit more mystic. Make us a fool in Christ.

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

Wheat farming

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent [Year B]

John 12:20-33

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Two things that happened here just last Sunday made me think about this lesson from John’s gospel.

The first thing was that our 4th grade Sunday School class went on a mini-field trip out to the Epiphany Garden as a part of their instruction for receiving Holy Communion. We took them out to the Epiphany Garden so that they could plant wheat. Sallie Bartholomew, one of the leaders of the garden ministry, had a patch of soil all tilled up and ready for us, and she was waiting out there with her rakes and a watering can. All we needed was wheat seeds, and to get those I first went to Southern States, where the tall guy in overalls looked at me like I was crazy. No one does backyard gardening with wheat, apparently, and the smallest amount they could get me was a 50 pound bag. As it turns out, it’s easy to order wheat seeds on-line. I placed my order for one pound of wheat seeds and about a week later a brown bag of beautiful golden-brown little wheat seeds arrived in the mail from Oregon, of all places. None of us had ever planted wheat before. As the tall guy in overalls pointed out, it is a crop that people typically plant by the square mile. But the 4th graders, Sallie, and I went out last Sunday anyway and we’re going to see what happens.

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I don’t know if any of the seeds will sprout or if we’ll do anything with them if they do.  But Holy Communion involves bread and Jesus talks a lot about bread in his ministry, and so I figured there was some good in having them hold raw wheat in their hands and physically release it into the soil. Maybe, I hope, when they think of Holy Communion there will always be some kind of connection in their minds between this act of letting go in order to receive. Maybe years from now they’ll be able to say, “Yes, I have, in fact, been a wheat farmer once. I did it as I prepared to receive the Lord’s body and blood.”

But maybe not. What was interesting to me was watching them take to it. Kids don’t need to wonder about seeds growing. They went about it with a type of wild abandon, each of them plunging their hands into the brown bag to grab a fist full and standing over the plot and shaking them into the soil. I was a bit protective of the seeds, even though they had been on my desk for only about two weeks. I wanted to hold onto them a bit more, parcel them out more sparingly.

I think when you get older you tend to develop some kind of skepticism about planting things, or at least a kind of sorrow. Letting loose of them seems more risky, that there is a gamble involved that might not be worth it. In times and places where food is scarce and seeds could just as easily be eaten, you do stop and think about the cost of dropping them into the dirt.

The first time Jesus talks about his death in John’s gospel it’s in comparison to planting wheat, and we get that sense that it is risky. We get the sense that some sorrow and pain is involved because he talks about the whole enterprise in terms suffering. The grain falls into the earth. That’s an interesting word to use for planting. The grain falls, as if it is something that should be upright, or something that could or should be in motion. Soldiers fall in battle, for example. And then once it falls it dies. It gives up its life. Jesus doesn’t say germinates or sprouts, terms that have immediate hope. It dies—that is, it stops being a seed altogether. Its lifespan as a golden-brown seed ordered from Oregon comes to an end.

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However, only when that happens is the grain able to produce more grain. Only when the falling and dying first happen will we get the rising and living. Jesus compares himself to that grain of wheat, that in the dying and the rising will God be glorified. Just as he has spoken about losing life to gain it, and tearing the temple down to build it back up, he now speaks about handing himself over in order to gain the life God intends.

Again, this is the kind of life Jesus gets us into. The life in Christ is not about holding back, reserving, clinging to the self. It is about letting go so we can being raised up from the waters of baptism, to the new life we are offered in Christ. As much as we may want to hold the seeds fast a little longer, to savor them in the hand, to feel secure, to savor that potential, it is actually the act of scattering them, of releasing them like 4th graders on a cold March day that we learn in Christ to treasure. We learn to treasure the letting go and even the dying because in the way of God’s glory, new life will rise.

What’s critical in at this point in Jesus’ life and ministry is that this response comes right as he has passed through the gates of Jerusalem for the last time. The people have acclaimed him king and there is a sense of anticipation in the air that things are about to change for God’s people. Right after that happens, we are told Jesus is approached by some Greeks. We don’t have any information about these people. They are probably not Greek-speaking Jews. By “Greeks” John most likely means Gentiles, or non-Jews, people who were of a different culture entirely. These Greeks might be interested in speaking with Jesus because they’ve heard something about him. Perhaps Jesus’ reputation as a teacher has spread and, being Greeks and from the tradition of Aristotle and Plato and Socrates, they’d like to see what he’s about. It is impossible to say what was behind their request, but the noteworthy thing is that Jesus immediately speaks about his death. When given the chance to talk with the Greeks, he doesn’t talk philosophy or the meaning of life. He talks about the importance of his death. He talks suffering. When given the opportunity to reach out and tell more people what he’s about, what he’s offering, Jesus talks about how he’s going to die.

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Crucifixion, by Gabriel Metsu

That is critical to understand because so often, even today, the message of Christian faith is often presented as a philosophy or an idea, like something you could stand up next to Confucianism or yoga. None of those things is bad, but they’re not what Jesus is about. Christianity, put simply, isn’t a philosophy or an idea. It is a story. It’s not a collection about thoughts or wisdom about how to live life right. It is centered around an event, something that happened—something that God does. Jesus does not come to investigate the good life or the nature of reality with probing, insightful questions. He comes to die and rise. He comes to be lifted up and draw all people to himself.

And this is furthermore critical because there is a fundamental difference between a philosophy and a story. A philosophy or an idea is something that I apply to my life. I somehow remain the center and I adopt this particular outlook or way of thinking or living in order to better myself or clarify my own path. A story, by contrast, an event is something I apply myself to, something I see myself as part of. It’s a thing that happens and now I find I need to orient my life around this thing that happened, which is what hating my life in this world really means. It means rejecting that I am at the center and all the mentalities that may come from that. When Jesus is approached by new followers who are possibly outside his own fold of Judaism, he responds that he is only as important as his suffering. The core of his message is not some concept we ponder. It’s something we witness. And that thing is his death, being lifted up on the cross to draw all people to himself.

This past week in confirmation class we finished our lesson on the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, which is the part that begins, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.” And as a part of that lesson we watch the trial and crucifixion scenes from the 1977 television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. The effect on the confirmands it usually pretty profound. It’s a relatively graphic presentation of Jesus’ suffering and death. The way they typically respond to it is revealing. This past week a couple of students said, while they had heard and read about the death of Jesus plenty of times before, there was something about seeing it that made it more real. It’s hard to turn the message of Jesus into just a philosophy about life when you watch a man bleed and die. It causes you to stop and readjust and think: if this occurrence is indeed true—that the Son of God suffered and died like this, if he was lifted up in this particular way—then the story of my own life needs to reflect that reality somehow. It needs to be lived in response to a God who is honest about human suffering and is ultimately victorious over it. And perhaps that’s why Jesus responds to the Greeks like that, if, in fact, he ever gets to see them. They’re going to find out that Jesus primarily came to suffer and die and in that reveal God’s glory.

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a still from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 6-hour epic

I believe that’s also why Dave Delaney, our Synod’s leader for youth and young adult ministry, begins every single youth event with the same song, a version of the Apostles’ Creed. He wants to be clear from the beginning about why they’re gathered. It is nothing other than the gracious work of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus that provides the rationale and foundation for any youth event to occur. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus that allows us to meet today, that allows us to drop the seed of our lives into his.

If this is true—if this suffering that befalls Jesus is true—then there is really nothing else left for us to do but hand ourselves over through the life of baptism. We learn that death isn’t just something that happens at the end of life, but something ongoing, each day an offering, a process of our dying because we know that one day we will be part of that great harvest of new life when all people are drawn to Jesus.

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I said there were two things last Sunday that made me think of this lesson. The first was the planting of the wheat with the fourth graders. The second was after church when I gathered with the Mitchell family to place Jim’s remains into a columbarium niche. I did it again yesterday with the Hahn family. It was time to place their fallen loved ones into the eternal care of the God who made them and as we stood there I could see that emotions were rising to the surface. There’s a lot of things to think about in moments like that, a lot of reasons why tears and quivering silence may come. My hunch is, however, that they were thinking in that moment about all the ways Jim and Hank gave themselves away throughout their lives, over and over.

They were remembering not so much individual aspects about their character, but rather all the times Jim or Hank “fell into the soil” during their life—all the times they handed themselves according to the call of Jesus, as father, as grandfather, as child of God—and all the ways those  instances of self-giving ultimately reflected God’s glory.

And as we closed the niche on Sunday and again for Hank yesterday, we had to let go, too. But we let go in the faith that the ground they had been placed in—the waters of their baptism—is the faithful, fertile ground of Jesus Christ, the living Son of God.

 

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

Lent 2018: “Fools in Christ”

a reflection on the life and witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero

Isaiah 58:6-9 and Mark 8:34-38

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Archbishop Oscar Romero’s life on this earth ended abruptly on March 24, 1980, when a perfectly-aimed assassin’s bullet ripped through the archbishop’s heart as he was standing behind the altar in his church preparing to serve Holy Communion. He died fairly quickly, his blood flowing out of his body on the floor right there in front of the congregation, which consisted that day in the chapel of Hospital the Divine Providence, San Salvador, of a handful of nuns and a few other worshippers. Most people might expect an archbishop to be presiding at a large, grand cathedral, but Oscar Romero, in his humble and foolish fashion, was most often found those days presiding at that small hospital chapel. In fact, that’s not just where he led worship. It’s where he lived, going about with the very people he was called to serve, even though he held the most powerful Roman Catholic office in the country.

As with all martyrs, Oscar Romero’s death becomes the defining point of his life. There is much to say about him. Even though he only served as Archbishop for three years, his influence on the country of El Salvador was (and is) enormous. Nevertheless, there is no other way to speak of his contributions as human being, much less as a fool in Christ, without beginning with the way in which he died.

A martyr is someone who is killed because of his or her faith. Jesus mentions that this is a possibility multiple times to his disciples, telling them that if anyone wants to be his follower they must be prepared to be hated and reviled and be ready to lose their lives. Whatever placed Oscar Romero behind that altar that day, whatever caused him to raise the cup of the Lord in thanksgiving, is also the reason he was placed in the path of that bullet. The person who fired the gun was never formally identified, but it was known relatively quickly that it was a planned attack by right-wing forces aligned with the government.

So, what got Oscar Romero to that moment? What placed him behind that altar was a life humbly dedicated to public ministry of the Church. Born into a rather large Salvadoran family, Oscar finished school through the use of a private tutor and began an apprenticeship with his carpenter father. Although he showed promise in this field, as early as thirteen years old felt called to attend seminary. The first part of his theological education was completed in El Salvador, but he finished it in Rome, where he must have been a good student because he had to wait a year after graduation in order to meet the age requirement for ordination as a priest. He eventually stayed in order to receive a doctoral degree in theology (it was World War II and difficult to travel) but then was called home to El Salvador to serve as a priest.

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Oscar Romero as a young priest at the Vatican City

Once back in El Salvador, Romero began a relatively humble but productive 20-year assignment as a priest first in a rural area and then at the seminary in the capital San Salvador. There was nothing particularly groundbreaking or eyebrow-raising about his service there, but he was a go-getter, helping construct the cathedral in San Miguel and starting various community groups including an Alcoholics Anonymous group.

Whether he liked it or not, Romero was eventually swept up in that upheaval after he was consecrated a bishop in 1970. Relatively quiet and dutiful, he served in several positions before finally being enthroned as archbishop in the capital of San Salvador in 1977. This put him close to the levers of political power, although part of what made him an attractive choice to those in office and to the aristocratic class was that he did not seem to desire much of a political voice. Romero was still an intensely devout and personal man and because of his socially conservative views many figured he would remain quiet even as repression from the government increased.

However, that began to change as El Salvador inched closer to civil war right after he assumed that role. El Salvador was a very poor country, dependent on basic agricultural crops like coffee with one of the western hemisphere’s worst distribution of wealth. In the 1970s, 77% of the farmable land was owned by 0.01% of the population. For decades, the ruling elite had ruthlessly quashed peasant rebellions and intentionally disenfranchised the poor so that they could not participate in elections. The Spanish word for these landless poor is campesinos, and there were millions of them Many lived in slums and lacked access to basic things like access to running water, health care, and education. These places of abject poverty became ripe areas for left-wing Marxist groups to recruit new members.

romeroRight as Romero became Archbishop, government-supported military groups began to escalate their tactics of inciting fear and obedience among the masses campesinos. For example, armed guards would show up in the middle of the night and kidnap people who often would never be seen again unless a group or children happened to come across their body in a garbage dump at the edge of the slums. People, including priests were arrested and tortured. Whenever local demonstrations were held, often military caravans would mysteriously show up and open fire, killing hundreds indiscriminately.

For a person of faith to live justly in such complicated and violent times must be difficult, but Romero was able to maintain his level of trust and personal code of morals in the eyes of both sides. The turning point for Oscar Romero seemed to come, however, when one of his close friends and colleagues, Father Rutilio Grande, was massacred with a poor family as he was driving them into town. At this point Romero began to speak out against the government and its abuses of human rights. He tried to influence his contacts in the halls of power, but typically was ignored.

Because he was archbishop, he had a weekly radio broadcast that he would typically use to address the country and preach sermons. He started using that platform each week to list the government’s atrocities, listing by name each week’s kidnappings and cases of torture. There were no reliable forms of national media accessible to the poor, and the government censored most of what was said. Romero’s radio addresses had an overwhelming effect on the people of his country, especially the poor, for it validated their pain and suffering. It is estimated that 73% of the rural population and 37% of the urban population tuned in.

Naturally, those on the left, including some priests who had begun to vocally support the left-wing militia groups, tried to influence Romero to their side, especially as the attacks on the peasants intensified. But Romero renounced them just as strongly. For the archbishop, the unity of Christ’s body was more important than and more sacred than a particular ideology or party.

Archbishop_Oscaro_Romero_with_young_people_in_El_Salvador_in_this_undated_file_photo_Photo_courtesy_of_Arzobispado_de_San_Salvador_Oficina_de_la_Causa_de_Canonizacion_CNA_2_4_15There is one scene in the movie made about Oscar Romero (Romero, 1989) where the wife of one of the president’s cabinet members asks the archbishop to baptize her new baby. Romero says he’ll be happy to do that, but when it becomes clear that she wants a private baptism in a ceremony after worship one day in the cathedral, which had been the former practice, he tells her that’s not possible. He has instituted a policy that requires all baptisms to be performed during worship with everyone there. That clearly disgusts her because it means she will have to worship with all of the campesinos who attend who were often unbathed and smelled bad. Romero tells her that they are her fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and furthermore members of her same country. The movie does not show how that particular scenario is resolved, but that was one moment where Romero clearly seemed foolish in the eyes of many.

This devotion to his faith and to the cries of the poor was part of a movement that arose among Roman Catholics in Latin America in the 20th century called “Liberation Theology.” Liberation theology focused on the importance of bringing real freedom from poverty and oppression to the masses. Church leaders who emphasized liberation theology would tell you that living the gospel of Jesus did not just come so that we could achieving personal holiness and peace in whatever situation you were in so that you could one day experience fulfillment in heaven. Rather, the gospel compelled us to “break the bonds of injustice,” as Isaiah says, to do what was needed to liberate people from the prison of horrible living conditions by addressing the sins of society. At one point Romero writes, “It is sad to read that in El Salvador the two main causes of death are: first diarrhea, and second murder.” Both of those, he could see, were caused either directly or indirectly by the oppression of the ruling powers, and liberation theology sought to resolve them.

Ultimately liberation theology was controversial because of how it ended up, in many cases, getting lived out. Romero tended to distance himself from many of those who promoted the more strident forms of liberation theology, seeing that it often led to an unhelpful division in the church. And yet he sympathized with its belief that while God loves all, God does have a preferential option for the poor and marginalized.

SALVADOR SLAIN BISHOPAs a result, Archbishop Romero was seen as foolish by both the right and the left. He was seen as foolish because criticized both for what he called their “mysticism of violence,” the belief that guns and weapons had some sort of ultimate power to resolve any given situation. This particular criticism of the mysticism of violence bears special importance on a day when thousands of school children are walking out in to protest our own country’s mysticism of violence, gun culture, and lack of school safety.

He was seen as foolish by both because he held strictly to the belief that God’s kingdom is not beyond our efforts, even though it is beyond our vision. Neither left nor right was trying to build a future in line with Jesus’. Once he wrote in a meditation: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace and enter and do the rest…We are prophets of a future not our own.”[1]

But mostly he came across foolish because he believed the poor had a voice, and that the Church had a responsibility to listen to it, and to realize there is blessing in being near to the poor, the hungry, the mourning. As he said, “There are many things than can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” Just as his radio voice crackled and popped into the dusty, damp shantytown living rooms across his shackled country, echoing their sorrows, the church has a responsibility to put its ear to those who don’t often get heard.

Our baptism is a death, a handing over of the self-centered person we are born. And we rise from the waters, called to a life following Jesus in anticipation of our own resurrection. This places us, too, both behind an altar of holiness, claimed by a kingdom that is not of this world, but also in the crosshairs of sinful forces in this world. Any follower of Christ should feel the tension of that foolish but holy situation. Perhaps it’s at school, when we listen to the ones who are bullied or befriend them. Perhaps it’s here in our own city when we listen to debates about memorials to the Confederacy. Any congregation should feel the call to participate in God’s liberation of God’s people so that, as Isaiah says, “healing may spring up quickly.”

After the one worship service one of our members who volunteers for HHOPE told of a conversation he had with a guest where he offered to come to their home and help them with something. She respectfully told him “no” because she didn’t want him to come to a place so unsafe. This is just a few miles from our church.

The day before he was shot Archbishop Romero gave a sermon where he pleaded with the scrawny, often starving government soldiers to defy orders and not shoot their own campesino brothers and sisters. And in the sermon minutes before he was shot that following day, he had said, “Those who surrender to the poor through love of Christ, will live like a grain of wheat that dies. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies.”

His funeral, held a few days later, drew a crowd of 250,000 people in San Salvador’s main square. It is still considered to be one of the largest public demonstrations in all of Latin America’s history, a whole harvest of hope for a world crying out for Christ’s kingdom.

Last week, the Pope in Rome announced that Oscar Arnulfo Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, fool in Christ who now is liberated fully in God’s promises of new life, will be declared a saint. Millions of campesinos already knew he was one.

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the crowd at the funeral of Oscar Romero in San Salvador

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr

[1] From a meditation attributed to Archbishop Romero, “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own.”

Tearing down to build up

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent [Year B]

John 2:13-22 and I Corinthians 1:18-25

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It was our first Christmas here in Richmond, with two pre-school age daughters, when we decided they needed one of those little play kitchens. It was ordered from somewhere on-line and delivered in a large, heavy cardboard box. We hid it until Christmas Eve when, late after worship was over, my dear father and I proceeded to put it together.

It was not an IKEA product, and so is was not an intuitive project, and it took a while for us to lay all of the parts and pieces out on the floor and figure out what drawing they corresponded to on the instructions. Things were going along fairly well and it was really starting to look like something when we realized we had installed one board of the oven facing the wrong way. It was a simple mistake, really, but one that we soon figured out couldn’t be ignored, since it had holes and grooves that would be integral later in the assembly.

It was in the wee hours of the morning of Christmas Day by this point. We knew the girls would be up at dawn. Even though I was exhausted from multiple worship services that day, saving it for another time was not an option. There was no escaping our fate: we had to tear down what we had in order to build it back up in just a couple of hours. And I have to tell you that the moment it actually dawned on me that we were going to have to do that was not my finest moment. I may have displayed some behavior at that point that was not very Christmas-like. We did manage to get it rebuilt, but until the day it was outgrown and left our house for the second-hand store, it had a little bolt sticking out from the side that wouldn’t go all the way in to remind us of that episode.

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Tearing down in order to rebuild. Dismantling something that is—a structure, a program, a mindset—in order to put it back together again even better. This is part of the life of Jesus, the life we hold fast. We hold it fast—we hold it tightly, as if our life depends on it—because we repeatedly hear Jesus talking in these terms about his own life. He himself speaks of losing life in order to truly gain it, of being killed before he can be raised, and since in baptism we are united to him and become a part of his body, it stands to reason that this particular kind of life will be what we experience, too, in our relationship with him. The experience of saving faith is one where God is systematically dismantling us and our perceptions of God so that he can build something new which will reflect his love to the world even better.

That’s precisely what Jesus is talking about and doing  when he goes to the Temple in Jerusalem just before Passover one year. It’s his first trip there, and for a guy who was raised out in what was kind of like the boondocks of Galilee, the metropolis of Jerusalem was a big deal. The Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was the center of Jewish life and religion. Enormous and occupying the highest point of the city, it was always humming with activity, and here at the Passover it would have been especially busy.

For Jesus’ people, having a relationship with God meant having some sort of relationship to that Temple. Most people would have made pilgrimages there on occasion, and some came every year. In John’s gospel, Jesus makes three trips to Jerusalem and the Temple that we know about. Even if you never had the chance to visit it, you sang psalms about it in worship and referred to it in your private prayers. It symbolized God’s presence on earth, and Jesus’ people believed that God actually resided inside of it. Rulers and kingdoms could come and go, but ideally that Temple would remain, a sign of God’s eternal presence. The Temple that stood at Jesus’s time had been constructed over a series of centuries. The most recent expansions had been under Herod the Great, the Herod who was on the throne at the time Jesus was born.

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a depiction of the Temple at the time of Jesus

Therefore, when Jesus walks into the Temple and declares that he will tear it down and build it up, he sounds like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And if that’s not bad enough, he also displays some very un-Christmas-like behavior while he’s there. It doesn’t seem like his finest moment. He walks in and the first thing he sees are the animals for sale and the tables used to exchange Roman and Greek coins into approved Jewish currency, and he basically loses his temper. It looks like a place of commerce rather than a place to connect with God.

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Jesus Drives out the Traders in the Temple (El Greco)

All of those merchants would have meant well by what they were doing. There is no evidence here that they are corrupt or engaged in any kind of extortion. That is just the kind of thing that the Temple needed to support at the time so that people could approach worship  and make the appropriate sacrifices. Sometimes I think churches can fall into the same system, even though we mean well. Sometimes you walk into our church and the first thing you see is a donation basket or a Christmas tree with gift tags on it, or the last thing you encounter as you leave is someone holding a bag. To one person those things may communicate that our congregation is generous and aware of the needs of its communities. To others those things may evoke guilt or resentment, like they’re being asked for money—that there is an expectation right up front that they give or participate in some drive, even before they’ve said a prayer.

So for Jesus, what he sees in the Temple is a problem. He drives out the merchants and then says they can tear it all down because he will build it back up. Of course, we know that he is talking about himself. The point is the temple in Jerusalem—that particular place—will no longer be the site where God dwells with his people. And neither will God require any longer our sacrifice of animals or offerings. All of that now is Jesus. Both things—and more—bundled into one person. Jesus’ presence is where people experience the nature of God. Jesus’ actions are how people will come to know what God is like. Jesus’ words are the way people will understand the knowledge of God. And Jesus’ sacrifice of himself is our connection to God is going to be sustained.

On the cross, Jesus himself will be torn down by human sin and pride and yet God will still be able to build it back up. On the cross, God continues to tears down our beliefs of what God is like and builds up something more righteous in its place. God dismantles our understandings of wisdom and power and replaces them with foolishness and weakness. Jesus conquers by losing and wins everything for God by handing himself over.

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This kind of tearing down and rebuilding according to Jesus’ blueprint is happening all of the time with us in the life of faith. I remember that when I began seminary one of our professors informed us that our faith would likely be challenged and reformed by what we were learning.

The way he worded it was he said that our “mental furniture would be rearranged.” How is God rearranging your mental furniture these days? What can God tear down and then rebuild in your life so that you can more fully live into the covenant that God made with you at baptism to live among God’s faithful people, to hear his Word and share in his supper, and to serve all people in the manner of Jesus Christ, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?

We can see this tearing down and rebuilding in a congregation’s life together. As we prepare for major renovations and expansions, we are realizing that many of our current spaces will be, in essence, unscrewed, broken down, and then put back together in new ways. This is nothing new.  I know it can feel new and uncomfortable at times, but this is a natural process of doing faith together with a God who meets us on the cross. This building itself does not constitute our faith, but it does allow our ministries to house the ministry of Jesus, and throughout a congregation’s history dismantling must occur if it is to better embody Christ for our community and for each other.

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Our little “temple,” constantly under [re]construction
In fact, I was surprised to learn just how much this physical dismantling and rebuilding has already occurred in the history of our congregation. For example, the Upper Room, the large room at the end of the 2nd floor of our Education Wing where our confirmation classes meet, used to be the fellowship hall. What is currently the faith formation director’s office used to be the parish library, and where the library is now—in the parlor—used to be the choir room. The utility closets along the hallway here used to be bathrooms. And in a repurposing that can only be described as ironic, the current nursery used to be the pastor’s offices. All this information was given to me by the archives ministry team, which is housed in a room adjacent to the narthex that used to be a coat closet. In the architect’s proposed plans, which will soon be made visible to the congregation, they are proposing that be a new family bathroom (where people can change diapers!) and the archives will go down to where Cheryl’s office is.

And tearing down and building up is not just a physical reality. At our Council retreat last weekend, we spent some time discussing ministries in the life of Epiphany that have either died or are suffering and then also areas that are feeling like a resurrection, where new ministries are being built. It was a fantastic and enlightening conversation for me to be a part of, and I heard good things I didn’t expect to hear, but what it revealed to me again is that the life of faith, even for congregations, always involves this turning over, this standing back and looking at the toy kitchen we’re building on Christmas Eve and realizing to make it even better God will tear some things down. And because Jesus is always with us, this is much easier.

Though it can be uncomfortable at times, the dawn is still coming. We need to remember the morning will soon break, the feet will pitter-pat down the stairs, and all the world will be made new. And after all the screws and grooves are lined up by his grace we’re going to look fantastic.

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

Presidents Day

Peas went in today. Hope springs eternal.

They’re the first thing in the soil, little shriveled green test balloons

scouting out the plausibility of May. I have a hard time believing

in this practice every year. Things look barren. The air is cold. I’m cold.

And lonely: only a couple of earthworms wriggled exposed in the loam

my shovel turned over. Frost will come and come. Perhaps snow.

And whatever mystery vermin that took them last year.

But I ran my fingers along the dark line and dropped them in anyway

because hope springs eternal and I’ve been taught life can come from anywhere