Brought to you by the letter B, for “Beloved”

a sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year A]

Matthew 17:1-9

Every time the Sunday of Jesus’ Transfiguration rolls around, someone in my family brings up a story from my childhood which I am too young to remember anything about but which I’ve heard so many times that I feel like I can remember it. Do you have stories like that in your life? One of mine revolves around this strange event of Jesus’ life. Often my uncle, who is also a Lutheran pastor and who was in seminary at the time, will text me or message me on Transfiguration Sunday and remind me of it.

As the story goes, I was about three years old at the time and my dad was reading a magazine that had a little comic of Jesus’ transfiguration. I guess the little cartoon drawing got my attention because I was standing next to him and looking over his shoulder. Curious to see what I thought, my dad asked if I knew who the people were. I pointed to the person in the middle, who was depicted with a beard and wearing a white robe, and said, “That’s Jesus.” Then my dad pointed to the two older guys on either side of Jesus and asked me if I knew who they were, probably hoping in some way that I was a child prodigy, or a model Sunday School student. I was silent for a second and then answered, “That’s Bert and Ernie.”

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artwork drawn for me during worship today…by a child who was baptized on the Transfiguration of Our Lord five years ago.

No, I was not and am not a prodigy, but now I can say that every year when Elijah and Moses are standing there holding a conversation with Jesus I think of Sesame Street. And, truth be told, to many 3-year-olds there are few figures who hold greater authority in life than Bert and Ernie. They teach life lessons. They model how to get along as opposites. They are arguably the most famous pair in the whole world of educational TV, representing not just different personalities, but different ways of dwelling in the world. And suffice it to say if a three-year-old had been on the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John, that kid would have been really impressed with Jesus if Jesus were hanging out with Bert and Ernie.

Being impressed with Jesus is what the transfiguration is really all about. The light, the clouds, the voice—whatever else our modern minds want to make of this strange and mysterious event up on the mountain, it’s clear that it’s meant to get our attention on Jesus. It tells us this is who we’re dealing with here. He is not our ordinary teacher. He dazzles. He shines. He has authority like no one else. He is on level with or even above the greatest figures of Israel’s history and faith, the pillars that God’s Word is based upon: Moses and Elijah.

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It would be like being in a Super Bowl huddle with 24-year-old Patrick Mahomes and wondering just what he’s made of and then looking up and seeing him talking with Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr. It would be like calling in the young IT person your company has just hired to set up a new network and set up a new anti-virus system and then peeking in the employee break room to find her conferring with Steve Jobs and Alan Turing. Jesus may still be relatively new to the disciples up on the Mount of Transfiguration but it is clear from all that happens that something absolutely groundbreaking is happening in him and all eyes and ears need to be on him. God loves him. God has placed him on this earth to demonstrate what God’s righteousness is like. Move over, Bert and Ernie. Today’s episode is brought to you by the letter B, for “Beloved.”

The disciples’ reaction is about what we’d expect. It’s about what we’d expect because we do this too when we’re amazed and dazzled by new people and new experiences. We want to prolong them, bottle them up, save them for later. I’ve seen the youth as they prepare to leave Winter Celebration, often getting teary-eyed and clinging to their friends, wishing they could somehow stay at Eagle Eyrie all the time. Many of us have felt the urge to keep that Christmas Eve candle lit just a little longer and only blow it out at the last possible minute. We want Christmas to “last all year.” I’ve myself struggled to come home from vacations or get back into the swing of things after a particularly meaningful time away with friends and family.

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Peter’s up on that mountain, in the moment, and says, “It is good to be here,” and then he comes up with this idea to make three tents for Jesus and the Elijah and Moses. Peter’s so impressed with Jesus that he doesn’t even think of where he and James and John are going to sleep. But then before any of that can take place, a cloud rolls in, Moses and Elijah disappear, and Jesus tells them all it’s time to head back down the mountain.

And then he does something very strange—maybe it’s the strangest thing of all in this whole episode. Jesus tells them not to mention any of it until after he the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. Typically people come away from amazing spiritual experiences and want to share it, want to let people know what happened. This particular transfiguration Jesus wants to remain a secret.

Just who is Jesus? That’s what’s at stake here. How we’re going to talk about Jesus and explain his presence in our life is not just a transfiguration issue, but a daily challenge. I was once at a pastors’ conference and heard Richard Graham, former bishop of the Metro DC Synod of our denomination, say, “Jesus is the light of the world. Christians don’t advance the conversation in a helpful way when we say to the world, ‘Jesus is just an interesting option.’”

Jesus is announced as God’s Son, God’s beloved, not just another great teacher or leader in a list of great teachers and leaders, and if the point of his transfiguration is to get all eyes on him, to notice how special he is and to make us impressed, then it appears the disciples will need to keep following and listening to him. God wants them to keep listening and moving with Jesus when they come down the mountain.

There is a movement in this story, you may notice, from seeing and experiencing to hearing and following. At first the disciples see things—the dazzling white clothes, the authority figures of ancient Israel, the bright could that overshadows. But by the end of the story, all those visions are gone and they are left with sound—God’s command to listen to Jesus, and Jesus’ own words of “Do not fear” and his urge to “Get up.” The key then to understanding who Jesus truly is, the key to deepening our relationship with him, will lie not in seeking out or prolonging the religious experiences, as holy as they may be, but in listening to him, taking in his words, realizing that in Jesus, God has given us someone we can always count on.

This past week in Confirmation Class we were looking at the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, that long middle section that talks about Jesus, and we were specifically discussing Jesus’ death and resurrection and what it means for us. How do people of faith explain what Jesus’ death on the cross actually accomplishes and why his death plays such an important, I would say, indispensable part of his love for us. We talked about how in some ways Scripture presents Jesus is a sacrifice for us, that he lays down his life like a lamb so that the guilt we bear and the sins of the world can somehow be erased and we can be reconciled to God. Then we looked at how some parts of Scripture talk about Jesus as a rescuer or a liberator that he comes to redeem us, set us free from the ways of darkness and selfishness that hold us captive. And then we talked about how in some ways Jesus is shown as our purifier. His death purifies us of our sin like water and shows us how powerful love is—how powerful unconditional love is—in its ability to make people new again.

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a Greek Orthodox depiction of Christus Victor (Christ the rescuer)

There are other ways that Scripture talks about Jesus’ death, of course, but those were the three we looked at—sacrifice, rescuer, and purifier. And then the confirmands were asked to share of those three which made most sense to them. Here’s how Scripture talks of Jesus. How do you talk about him? It was quiet for a moment but then one of the confirmands raised his hand and said Jesus is a purifier for him because each Sunday after worship he feels purified, cleansed and renewed to go forth into the week. One young woman said that she feels Jesus is more of a rescuer because she has felt Jesus’ presence in her life when she was going through some really difficult stuff and that Jesus was there for her, bringing her out of it.

Hearing their testimonies was so moving for me. It seems to me that kind of faith comes from someone who has realized that what makes Jesus so impressive and authoritative is not that he provides flashy religious experiences but that he comes down the mountain and enters the world’s pain. It seems to me that kind of faith comes from people who know that the two most important people Jesus is seen standing beside, and in conversation with, are not Elijah and Moses, but the two common criminals that hang next to him on the cross. That kind of faith is born in someone who has come to understand, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the most dazzling Jesus ever gets is when he is stripped of all his clothes and left to die. If God’s Beloved Son is crucified, died, and is buried, then there is no limit to how far God will go to give us his righteousness.

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Life can be so hard. The valleys can be dark and the road treacherous. I think Jesus does want his disciples to save up this awesome vision for later, after all, to bottle it up in their minds eye. If you, like me, wonder what’s going on with this transfiguration, after all, if you’re wondering what to do with it, how Bert and Ernie might fit in, then just let the vision sit with you. Let the vision of Jesus transfigured in glory sit with you and then continue to listen to him. Get up on your feet and hear his word not to be afraid. And when you’re moving through days of grief and sorrow that never seem to end when you begin to think in your guilt and doubt there’s no way you can be put back together again, no way anyone could purify or rescue you, then remember of where this all is eventually going to go.

Listen: God’s beloved has come to you. Tell that story over and over. He was transfigured. He is risen. Jesus is the light of the whole world. And his love is most impressive thing the we’ll ever know.

 

Thanks be to God!

Bert and Ernie 2

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Light that Makes a Difference

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A]

Matthew 5:13-20 and Isaiah 58:1-9a

Although it seems that construction here is going to drag on forever, we are actually about two months from completion. One of the major things that has happened in the past two weeks—which is one of the things that has to be gotten right before the project can continue—has been the addition of our new skylights. Because the new administrative suite has expanded the building in such a way that we’ve lost the access we once had to sunlight, the skylights have been carefully thought out and designed so as to provide maximum natural light to the interior.

The new skylight just on the other side of this sanctuary wall, for example, will allow almost twice as much light into that hallway and through those stained-glass windows as the ones before. Three small skylights in the ceiling of the new conference room will help bring light to the office spaces. Perhaps most spectacular of all is the skylight in the new gathering area. It will run the length of the exterior wall that faces the parking lot and is placed the way it is not just so that light will come in, but so that when you look up through it you can see our cross. I think we’re all going to like that the architect was that thoughtful with his concept.

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In each of these cases what I’ve learned with the Building Team over the past year or so of designing and planning is that light matters. I think I always understood that fact on some level, but this whole Brighten Our Light process made it much more real. How light is channeled, reflected, muted, diffused, focused is simple, yet complicated—there’s actually a whole field of study you can major in at a handful of universities called architectural lighting. It helps you learn the physics and art of how light defines a space, opens it up, lifts a mood. Right now there’s a new song on the radio by Eric Church called “Monsters.” It’s not exactly architectural-lighting-level-stuff, but Church talks about killing the monsters in his bedroom as a child just by turning on the 60-watt bathroom lightbulb. Light matters. It makes a difference.

That’s all the disciples of Jesus really needed to know to understand what Jesus was trying to tell them about how their faith, their righteousness, would have an impact on the world. Their actions of love and mercy would be the way the light of God would get in to the dark corners of the world, bounce off the walls, lift the mood, kill monsters. They will matter, make a difference.

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For some time I’ve noticed we talk this way about the desire about our lives. People speak in terms of making a difference in the world, and it seems to resonate with a lot of us. Implicitly or explicitly people mention this longing that their lives will have impact on others and make it a better place. The theme song for the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans, in fact, was “Make a Difference.” We were all taught this song down in the Superdome. “I want my life to make a difference,” went the song’s chorus, “I want my life to make a change.”

That may be, in fact, how you feel. You want your life to make a difference. This place in Scripture right here, right near the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is probably the closest Jesus ever comes to saying “Go make a difference in the world.” He puts a little different spin on it, though, for the difference his disciples are to make in the world isn’t mainly for their own sake of fulfillment. It’s for God’s sake.“Let your light so shine before others,” he says, “so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

That is, the light I shine isn’t primarily for my own well-being, so that I feel I have a purpose. Jesus doesn’t say anything about my feelings at all, in fact. Isn’t that funny? This is about others getting the light and then mainly about God. The light we reflect, focus, diffuse, channel, the 60-watt bulb we flick on to kill the monsters of evil and hatred, is for the purpose of bringing God glory.

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This is also the part of Jesus’ teachings where he gets more scientific than anywhere else. It’s not just light that Jesus uses as an example for his disciples’ lives, but salt. I doubt the disciples would have known this, but because salt is a polar compound, it is able to dissolve into just about any greater substance and make the whole thing taste totally different. The positive and negative ions can dissociate and move all over the place. Have you ever baked bread without adding salt to the dough? I’ve learned the hard way. It tastes awful. It’s like eating plain wheat. And the dough also rises too fast without salt, so it can often go flat. Salt slows the growth of yeast. Just a little is all you need because it can spread out and fill the whole loaf. Therefore salt not only gives a loaf flavor—makes it worth eating—but it also gives the bread better form and texture.

For Jesus, the difference his followers are to make in the world has to do with spreading out, not necessarily taking over. The difference is about expanding, influencing, impacting through small but potent measures. It is about taking the light of Jesus Christ and bouncing it into whatever space we’re in. But the kicker is that this difference is not something we make alone. It is our difference, our impact, our influence as a group, as a church, as a body. It is not “I” but “We.” The song from the 2012 Youth Gathering, although it was catchy, might better have gone, “We want our life together to make a difference. We want our life together to make a change.”

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Jesus needs his followers to know they are a community, that the light they will give, the light the world so desperately needs, is fundamental to the way they live with each other. It’s about their collective values of sharing bread with the hungry, of bringing the poor into their houses, of clothing the naked. They nurture this kind of life together. In fact, these are the guidelines for Israel’s life together that Isaiah announces five or six centuries before Jesus is even born. These things are great when a single person undertakes them, of course, but when even a small community makes them their flavor, an entire world can feel the difference. The light of God will break forth like the dawn.

Things haven’t changed. The goal for God’s people hasn’t changed. We are still called to be salt and light and nurture our common life. Maybe, just maybe, one way the church can be light and salt these days is to be the community that can somehow model unity and respect in the midst of a very divided world. In case you haven’t noticed, the rest of the loaf is tension and anger, it’s Republicans and Democrats ripping up speeches and gloating and yelling at each other, politics as usual. The rest of the world’s loaf right now is malaise, rising levels of cynicism and sarcasm, anxiety and rates of suicide.

And while all that kind of stuff is going on, local Christian congregations will be the salt that keeps the good flavor going. They’ll create a meal chain for a family going through a devastating loss. They’ll have birthday parties for 6-year-olds and instead of asking for gifts they’ll ask guests to bring book donations for a local elementary school library. They’ll see the news reports of tensions rising in the Persian Gulf region, and they’ll take up a collection for Navy personnel who may be stationed on a ship near it all. They’ll maintain a sense of humor somehow, eat pancakes and watch youth be silly at a Talent Show. I know syrup is sweet and Jesus is talking salt, but it works. These people will be peaceful and forgiving in spite of their ornery, clueless pastor. Maybe they’ll do things like that. I think they already do.

One thing I know for sure is—because it’s precisely what Jesus says to them—is that, washed by the mercy of Jesus Christ, they become people who say, “I am part of the problem with the world. I have some work to do” in the midst of a culture who is always saying, “Those people are the problem. They have some work to do.” Christ’s followers will be the ones, the salty little ones, who will point out their own faults and God’s mercy to overcome them rather than pointing out the faults and shortcomings of others. Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and the scribes, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” That’s what the Pharisees and scribes were all about, don’t you know? They were always pointing out where the other people fell short, the sins that other people needed to confess. The Pharisees were experts at diagnosing the problems of the world. The righteousness that exceeds them says, “Look no farther than yourself. Look no farther than yourself. Look no farther than yourself.”

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Because people with that excessive righteousness will know it’s really not about them. They’ll know it’s not about how bright their light is, as if the glow originates within themselves, as if they’ve got their crap together and they’re so goody-two-shoes that all the Pharisees and scribes would die to be just like them. In fact, Jesus’ followers will know their crap isn’t together and God loves them anyway.

No, if they shine at all they’ll know it’s because they’ve been opened up somehow to a certain degree—maybe through repentance, maybe through suffering—opened up, like a hole in the roof, a gash in the ceiling, so that when people look at them they see the cross shining through.  It’s because people will look at them—at us—whether we’re in the building with our cool new skylights or we’re outside of it somewhere, like dissociated ions, filling the world, and they’ll see a righteousness that comes from somewhere else, from a love that is above, shining down. They’ll see us in our light and know nothing among us but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. They’ll not see a people who are making a difference, but a loving God of light who makes a difference.

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Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

Waiting for consolation

A sermon for the Presentation of Our Lord

Luke 2:22-40 and Psalm 84

It was just a few weeks ago. I needed to pick up a few things at Target and I had my 3-year-old son with me. He’s only recently been allowed to walk by himself in the store instead of being strapped into the cart, but I thought I’d give it a go. In we walk, the two of us together, and make our way across the store by way of the wide aisle. We get about halfway to the food section and I realize he’s not right beside me anymore. I turn around and find that he is face to face with a woman I’ve never seen before. She’s got a red top on and khaki pants, so I figure she must be a store employee. She has crouched down to talk to him right next to her re-stocking cart, and as I approach them she looks up and says, “You must be Jasper’s father!”

“Yes,” I explained, as I got ready to pull him away so she could get back to work.

“Oh, let me talk to Jasper,” she said, “I heard his voice since he came in the store and I’ve been hoping I’d get to see him.”

“Excuse me,” I asked, “you know my son’s voice?”

“Oh, yes! I love him. I met him back in the fall and have seen him a few times, but it’s been several months since we’ve run into each other!”

Jasper stood there and gave me a look like, “Dad, leave us alone.”

So I watched them talk for a few minutes, utterly engaged with one another.

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It was one of those moments where I realized that my own son, although he was still young, although he still has so much to learn about people and strangers and conversations, was already forming relationships and interacting with the world apart from me. Although I am very much in control of his world, he was already able to venture out from my care and know people I don’t know. It’s kind of a proud but scary feeling. The Target employee was excellent, though.

It wasn’t Target, but the Jerusalem Temple for Jesus. And he wasn’t three-years-old and able to talk. He was just forty days old, right at that point in his development where he might have been able to start smiling at people, where his eyes could focus only about 8 to 12 inches away. Mary and Joseph walk in and immediately encounter someone who has been waiting for him. This stranger—not a temple employee, but a faithful, devout elder of the city—scoops Jesus from Mary’s arms (can you believe it?!) and begins a conversation.

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Aert de Gelder

The man hasn’t ever actually met Jesus before, but in some way he knows him. He knows him because he’s been waiting for him—waiting for the consolation of God’s people—and the Holy Spirit has led him to the Temple that day. And then here comes Anna, another elder who happened to never leave the temple, so faithful was she in her devotion to God. She begins to praise God and again makes a remark about waiting for him like everyone has been waiting for redemption.

The holy couple are probably both proud and a bit scared. They have that moment—that moment when they realize their child, still so young, will be forming relationships and interacting with the world apart from them. In fact, that is the sole purpose of Jesus’ existence, his reason for living, moreso than any other human: to form a relationship of love and mercy with all the people of the earth, to have an impact on everyone. As Simeon says, he is destined for the rising and falling of many. He is to be consolation. He is to be redemption.

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In the modern-day classic comedy Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell, the main character, TV weatherman Phil Connors, finds himself mysteriously stuck in a time loop where he always wakes up at 6:00am on February 2. He relives the day over and over again. He never ages, the town never changes, and he goes through the course of each February 2 meeting the same people and having the same opportunities. The whole time, of course, he is waiting and waiting to figure out how he can be redeemed from the whole situation. Quite literally, he seeks consolation, deliverance, from what quickly becomes a hell for him. We watch him respond to his situation any number of ways. He is transformed through his waiting but in the end his deliverance comes from within. He figures out, at long last, how to reach his own consolation.

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It is a charming movie and on some levels it teaches good lessons about things like attitude and charity and suffering, but Simeon and Anna are both looking for and find consolation and redemption from outside themselves. Their deliverance into a new world comes from a Savior. Their hopes are fulfilled not because some thought or attitude suddenly clicks from within, like trial-and-error self-help situation, checking out the books one-by-one from the library, but because they see God has reached down into the world and given his Son who is going to have conversations and relationships with people despite their brokenness. He is ours. The wait is over.

A better comparison to Simeon and Anna and to ourselves on this February 2 is the Greensboro Four, the young black men who, 60 years ago today, were sitting down at a whites-only Woolworth counter in Greensboro, NC, and waiting for a meal. They were waiting for consolation, too, for a redemption from a corrupt system of racial discrimination that would only come about when white people in power would let it happen. They, too, found themselves in a hellish time loop, day after day at the same counter, waiting for equality and facing hostility. They would end up waiting 146 days to get served lunch, but that’s only counting from the beginning of the sit-in. Technically-speaking you could say they waited over 200 years.

Simeon and Anna, both at the end of their lives, reveal that waiting and seeking is part of faith. And they both reveal that the only true deliverance from world that repeats its darkness and sorrow and injustice over and over again involves seeing the light of Jesus, of letting him love us and claiming that love. The only real fulfillment to the long wait for salvation is to behold the Son of God whose arrival reveals our inner thoughts, who brings the fall and rise of many. And the ones who fall are the ones we tend to think of as great and powerful, the ones who abuse authority, who lord over their people, who use things like religion and the economy to oppress others. And the ones who rise are the ones we cast aside, who are poor, or who are mourning, elderly, feeble, fragile.

Psalm 84, appointed for today, the Presentation of Our Lord, makes note of how both the sparrow and the swallow are able to make their nests by the altars of the Lord. Two of the most insignificant, most delicate, most non-descript creatures find place in God’s presence, right at its heart. Who are the sparrow-like in our time? Who are the people whose existence is so vulnerable, dependent on others for safety? They are the ones able to draw nearest to God.

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baby swallows in a nest

You may be interested to know there is only one other person in the gospel of Luke who is described as waiting and looking for God in the same way and that person, too, ends up holding Jesus. It comes at the very end of the gospel as Jesus’ limp and lifeless body is taken down from the cross and his followers wonder what to do with it. Another man, like Simeon, appears from nowhere and asks Pilate for the body so he may place it in a tomb. His name is Joseph of Arimathea, and he holds the broken body of Christ the same way Simeon held the child. He too is described as a good and righteous man who is looking for the kingdom of God.

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Mary and Joseph present Jesus in the Temple forty days after his birth, but in Jesus’ death we see just how much God’s love is presented to us. The family comes to be purified according to the law, but through the cross we see how we all are purified by love. Simeon and Anna see a light beginning to shine on the child’s fortieth day but Easter morning will prove just how bright that light will get. These devout and righteous men may hold Jesus in their arms, but in reality it is the other way around: Jesus holds us—in birth, in death, in the life to come.

And today we behold him again, or, rather, he holds us, in bread and wine, in his words,  in the promise of deliverance and salvation from all that holds you captive. He is your Savior. Let him crouch down, scoop you up, love you forever. “Master, now you dismiss your servants in peace, according to your word. Our own eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared—like a table, like a feast, like a lunch counter—in the presence of all your peoples.

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Dialogue, Discovery, Do Life Together

a sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A]

John 1:29-42

Beginnings. We have had a lot of beginnings lately. Some of it has to do with how a new year starts a lot of things over, but some of it is just the Holy Spirit’s timing. Today, for example, we receive new members into our congregation, so that’s a beginning. These fine folks have begun walking the journey of faith with us at Epiphany Lutheran Church. We’ll honor all recent new members with a reception between services, which is a new ministry of the Evangelism Team, in and of itself.

We’re also installing a new set of Council members and officers today. Some of them have never served on Council before, and so they are very conscious that this is a new endeavor for them. The new officers are thinking about the beginning of a new year of leadership that has fallen to them.

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A new Congregation Council for 2020

As many of you know, our congregation hosted the ordination yesterday of one of our own, Daniel Hess, who now begins ministry as the pastor of a church over in the far southwestern part of the state. That is a new beginning in a number of ways.

We’ve at the beginning of an impeachment trial in the Senate (which we’re all looking forward to, of course), the beginning of commercials for the Masters tournament on TV, and this week, in the middle of January, you might have thought it was the beginning of spring. So did the cherry trees at the grocery store where I shop.

So much of the time, like in the cases I just mentioned, beginnings are very clear. In some sense we know they’re coming. We mark it with a ceremony or a reception of some kind, or by telling people it’s happening, or maybe we just know about it within. But sometimes things begin and we’re not aware they’re beginning. Sometimes things get underway before we realize what’s happening, before we comprehend a new thing has actually started. That’s how the beginning of Jesus’ ministry feels in John’s gospel. There’s no fanfare, no drum roll. One day John the Baptist is pointing Jesus out to John’s own disciples and then the next day they are following Jesus. Jesus doesn’t really call them to follow him. He doesn’t draw any attention to himself.

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John the Baptist points to Jesus

We have no evidence, in fact, that Jesus is even ready to start his ministry or receive followers. What’s most strange to me is that one of those first followers never even gets named. We know one of them is Andrew and that Andrew eventually goes and gets Peter, but the other guy (or woman?) remains anonymous. We do know the time this all happens, which is a little bizarre fun-fact thrown in there. It is 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Other than that, though, it all seems to just take us by surprise. In fact, Jesus’ first words as his ministry begins are simply in the form of a question: “What are you looking for?” Those are actually the first words Jesus ever speaks in John’s gospel, and it occurs to me that is a great question to routinely ask ourselves in our faith journey every once in a while. What are we looking for and how might Jesus choose to address that need or hone it down for us?

So while the beginning of Jesus’ ministry among his first disciples seems to come from out of nowhere, there are at least three things about journeying through life with Jesus that are clear right at the beginning. The first is that it hinges on dialogue. That’s why that initial question of his is so significant. When the first disciples come up to him Jesus does not hand them a pamphlet to explain everything about him, with nice bullet points and graphics:

  • I am the Son of God.
  • I am the Lamb of God.
  • I am the Messiah
  • I am co-eternal with the Father in the bond of the Spirit.
  • Share this on Facebook, tag 20 of your friends, and a blessing will come to you tomorrow.

No, Jesus, right from the start, invites conversation and is more interested to learn about his disciples’ motives and interests than in reciting facts about his agenda.

Several years back I was speaking with a friend who was sharing about how he had entered a prolonged period of doubt about God and his faith that he described as intense and painful. As we were talking I asked him what had been helpful in that time, what had drawn him closer to trusting God rather than pushing him away and he said, “When people simply ask me questions about what I’m feeling or struggling with, rather than simply doling out answers.” This is hard for me to remember and model, because I like to give answers. I like to solve problems and share what I think I know. But Jesus teaches us how to begin and continue life with him and it functions on dialogue, and dialogue typically functions with questions, not closed, bullet point statements.

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The second thing the beginning of Jesus’ ministry teaches us about walking the journey of faith is that it’s about discovery. If we are not truly OK with discovering new things about ourselves, even about our brokenness…if we are not comfortable with discovering new things about the world and about other people, then discipleship with Jesus may not be for us. If we’re really wanting certainty and safety and security all the time, then walking with Jesus is going to be off-putting. If we want everything to remain the same, if we want power and control, specifics about how to handle every situation coming our way, then Jesus is going to make us really uncomfortable.

There is a noticeable element of discovery with Jesus right from the beginning. The disciples leave John the Baptist, approach Jesus, and then end up staying at his house all day. As the story of Jesus unfolds, of course, we discover all kinds of things that we would never have figured from the start. He makes the blind see, he feeds people, he washes his disciples’ feet, and he eventually hands his life over. All of the things that stand in the way of discovery, that close life off—disease, hunger, oppression, and eventually death—Jesus removes. He makes a way where there is no way, but it’s not easy and it’s not always clear where the path will lead.

It’s like these new lights we ended up installing in this construction project. They are energy-saving LED lights that automatically turn on when you start walking down the hall. I’m still frustrated that there are no light-switches. I like the certainty of turning on lights and turning them off, but with these lights you need a sense of discovery. You just need to keep walking down the hall so the motion sensor knows you’re there and eventually the lights will turn on. Sometimes, though, it feels like they’re not going to work!      I’m halfway down a dark hall before the lights come on. It’s like they’re whispering “Come and see.”

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“Come and see”

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry we learn it is centered on dialogue, that it is essentially a process of discovery, and, thirdly, that it is an endeavor we do with others. Christian faith is done together. While each person’s faith and understanding of Jesus may be in some way as unique as we all are from each other as individuals, there is never a sense in Jesus’ ministry, even at the beginning, that it is a private journey. While we have our own ups and downs and navigate trials in our own way, Jesus’ life with us is always involving others.

Quite frankly, all of life is like this. Despite what we think about rugged individualism and the power of one person to overcome odds, chart their own course, none of life is truly done alone. We should be thankful that Jesus is so clear about that up front. The disciples naturally draw other followers in. They are a community from the get-go. They pass the message along from one to the next.

Every worship service has an element of this to be sure but yesterday at Daniel’s ordination service we had a very rare opportunity to glimpse how true this is. Gathered in the sanctuary were people from all aspects of Daniel’s life of faith. There were people from this congregation who watched him grow up and eventually be confirmed. There were people in the assembly who roomed with him in college and spent time with him in campus ministry in Harrisonburg. There were people from Camp Caroline Furnace, which is a Lutheran camp in the Virginia Synod where Daniel worked as a counselor for a few summers. There were people from the Synod candidacy Committee and seminary professors with us in worship. And there were people who just were there because they cherished Daniel and had influenced his faith in other ways.

Daniel Hess Ordination Jan 19 2020

It’s powerful to have visible so many of the people who had been doing faith together with Daniel, and ordination are rare worship opportunities which provide for that. But it’s important we remember that we all have that in our walk with Jesus. We all are ultimately doing this as one. Jesus has called us all together, with Christians throughout the world, in his ministry of dialogue and discovery. Jesus promises to be with us along the journey and more often than we probably would like to admit, Jesus’ presence is not borne to us in some warm glowy feeling in our heart but in the friendship and love of other people. It is Andrew to Peter. It is John saying to his friends, “Look there. Here he comes.” It is another disciple saying to another, “We have found the Messiah.”

Dialogue, discovery, and doing the life of faith together: three things that are clear right from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, even if the beginning itself kind of comes out of nowhere. And, of course, the most glorious thing about beginning with Christ is that there is always a chance for a new one. Maybe that’s why the beginning is no inauspicious, so sneaky. It’s because Jesus can always begin again with us anywhere, anytime. Risen from the dead, and ever-ready to take our sins away, he holds out his arms and asks, over and over, “What are you looking for?”

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Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Nativity of all nativities

a sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas [Year A]

John 1:1-18 and Jeremiah 31:7-14

This year our set of Scripture readings for late Advent and the season of Christmas have provided us with the opportunity to reflect on the story of Jesus’ birth through the eyes of three different gospel writers. We only really get that chance about once every three years or so, depending on how the readings of our lectionary fall with the calendar.

This was one of those years, and so two weeks ago we read from Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth. As we heard then, Matthew’s focus is on Joseph. Joseph, Mary’s fiancé and husband and Jesus’ earthly father, hears the news about Mary’s pregnancy through the power of the Holy Spirit and it is Joseph who must wrestle with what it all means.  Then again last Sunday we heard the extension of Matthew’s birth story and how, again, it is Joseph who must immediately take up the role of protector and usher Jesus and Mary to safety in Egypt.

Between those two Sundays, on the night of Christmas Eve, we heard the version of the nativity that Luke tells, which is the one with which most of us are probably familiar. Luke’s focus is not on Joseph at all, but on Mary. There are other characters, too, that factor in—characters like the shepherds and the angels—but it is mainly Mary who wrestles with what all of this means. Luke tells us that there by the manger, after the shepherds arrive and tell the holy family what they heard from the angels, Mary ponders these things in her heart.

Today, on the second and final Sunday of the Christmas season, we hear John’s version of Jesus’ nativity. And in John’s version all the focus is on Jesus. That is not to say, of course, that Matthew and Luke don’t think Jesus is important, but John tells this story of the mystery of God’s birth among us in such a way that Jesus is the main character and that, right at the start, it is to Jesus where our attention is drawn.

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Our attention, we find, is taken all the way back to the beginning, far before Nazareth or Bethlehem or even ancient Israel, which is where we typically think of Jesus having his start. John takes us back to the very, very beginning when God speaks over the waters of creation. “In the beginning was the Word,” echoing the words of Genesis, “and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This Word, which we come to understand pretty soon is Jesus, is there as God begins forming things into existence. All things came into being through this Word, which is a pretty profound statement given that most cultures at the time believed creation was either accidental or the result of capricious or indifferent gods. And just as the first thing God spoke to create was “Let there be light” so we know that this Word was even a part of turning on that first lightswitch so that things could live. So this is the birth story of all birth stories: life itself starts with this Word. There may be no manger and there may be no star, but clearly everything that exists comes to be through Jesus.

It’s hard to translate what John means by Word, but it helps to know that in the culture and language of that time, “word” was a synonym for “basic essence” or “key action” of something. We kind of have something similar today when we say, “I give you my word.” What we mean when we say that is that I am speaking the truth. You can count on me, not just on what I’ve said. It means that whatever I’ve said to you about something is so true to who I am and what I’m about that it’s like a unite myself to that statement I just made.

Black American slang has given us this sense of the word too. We could say, “Hey, that baptism this morning was really awesome.” And I could reply, “Word.” I’m saying, “Yes, that is the truth.” When John talks about God’s Word he is talking about that “Yes” of God, that fundamental truth of whatever God is.

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So when he says that Word became flesh and lived among us, then that’s a pretty big deal. This key action of God, this fundamental component of the divine doesn’t just stay out there somewhere as an idea or concept but takes up residence as one of us. God gives us his word and that word is Jesus. And since God has now taken on our flesh, since God’s Word has now put on human skin and bones then it leaves God vulnerable to anything that a human with skin and bones might experience.

And that is glorious because that is some kind of love. That is grace upon grace. It’s one thing just to speak your agreement with something or someone. It’s a completely different level of commitment and compassion to become that thing or that someone to get your point across.

Several years ago I went ice-skating with a church group and we watched one woman who was not a part of our group fall to the ice and not be able to get back up. Thank goodness she was not hurt, but no matter what she did, she could not get back up. One of the ice rink attendants skated over to her to guard her from being run into and we watched as he tried to explain to her how to get off the ice. He kept saying things like, “Put your hands like this,” or “Pull over on this railing,” but nothing was working. Then he tried to pull her up himself, and that didn’t work. Eventually he decided to get down on the ice next to her and lay on the ice in the same position as she was in. That was the only way she got back up. He became what she was. That is the story of John’s nativity of Jesus.

Skating on the frozen lake

Once we understand that God became human, then, we can never really look at another human being the same way again. Once we come through faith to see that the Word of God took up residence as a man on earth, we can never really interact with another one of our fellow humans as if they don’t mean anything. No matter what another human being looks like, no matter what gifts they have or what gifts we perceive they don’t have, no matter where they’re from, no matter how old or young they are or how they communicate with us, we know God has decided that is the kind of thing God wants to be, that is the place where God wants to dwell, that is the space the Father’s love wants to call home for a while. This rearranges our understanding about God and what God is like but it also rearranges our relationships with one another.

Over the summer we’ve been having to rearrange a lot around here. We’ve lost our main gathering area and our main entrance, for example, and had to improvise with the large fellowship hall and bringing in people through our side doors. Initially some of us were concerned with how that might impact our relationships on Sunday morning and the sense of community. At the same time, we were renovating a room for a new parlor and needed somewhere to stick the old parlor furniture. Someone decided to place it out there in the fellowship hall until we decided where we’d donate it. Well, something kind of unexpected happened. People sat in the furniture right away. Lots of people. That furniture has probably never seen so much sitting! And people sat with people and across from people they didn’t really know and started talking to them. I walked in there one Sunday and there were so many people on the old floral-print couches and wingback chairs, and with the way they were all arranged, they looked like the start of the old Family Feud show.

Price Hall
the old furniture is on the right of this photo

By rearranging space and physical objects we were able to form new community and draw people together. In fact, those are the kinds of things we heard from the Building Consultant in 2016. She had told us that people are opened up to each other—or closed off from each other—simply by how space and doorways and furniture are used, but not until we were forced to change things around here did we see how much that was the case. The words had been spoken to us, but it’s different when it actually happens to you.

In Jesus, God’s love has actually happened to us, and we are rearranged to be gathered unto him. Because God does not become flesh among us in Jesus just as a type of undercover investigation. God does this to bring us back to him. God does this to draw all people into his love and glory. God does not become flesh among us just to experience what we experience. God undertakes this in order to draw us to him, to seek us out and bring us into the divine life, to give us the power, as John says, to become children of God. Or, as Jeremiah announces, “See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, a great company, they shall return here.” No condition or hardship will disqualify anyone from God’s great search and rescue. All are brought in, with a preference for those most vulnerable.

I notice that when we perform baptisms and I walk down the aisle with a newborn baby people are just drawn to watch. They try to sing the hymn—in many cases they’ve got their hymnal open—but they mainly want to watch the baby. There’s just something about a little human that naturally attracts us. That is the life of Jesus, the Word made flesh. There is no baby in John’s birth story, but there is plenty of gathering in. Whether it’s calling fishermen from the lakeshore…or feeding thousands of people with a little bit of food…or washing his disciples feet…or being the shepherd that calls all of the sheep into the safety of the fold…Jesus is always gathering, always drawing people to him, always rearranging all the furniture so that we will see his face and see the face of love. And so that we can see in the face of each other the image of God.

Eventually, though, he gathers us to look to his cross, when he is lifted high in the deepest darkness. He draws our attention there so that we can see the depth of his love for us, just how far he will go to stoop down and pull us up. He is lifted high in the deepest darkness, but the darkness will not overcome it. It is the nativity of all nativities—a new life that never ends, with all things on heaven and earth, from the farthest parts of the earth, the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, a great company—they shall be with God. Evermore and evermore.

 

Thanks be to God!

Jn1

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Bearers of the Promise

A sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve

Isaiah 9:2-17

We are gathered amid the glow of candles and carols tonight, perhaps warmed by the cheer this special day brings, but it has been a rough Advent season for Epiphany Lutheran Church. Amid all the festive preparations that come at this time of year, our community has been laying out food for funeral receptions and gathering in the columbarium to remember the lives of three of our own—three we had every reason to believe would be celebrating the Savior’s birth with us this year.

Maybe that’s where you find yourself this Christmas, too. The prophet Isaiah tonight speaks of people who’ve been walking in darkness, of people who dwell in a land of deep darkness, and while Isaiah was initially speaking to an ancient Israel waiting for a redeemer, some of us feel something like Isaiah might be talking directly to where we are. It feels like darkness now: a sense of loss and wandering and wondering about how to move forward.

Two weeks ago I was visiting the hospital room where one gentleman was watching his wife of almost 56 years slowly slip away. As I prepared to leave he pulled me out into the hallway to speak one on one. Bereft and almost at a loss of words as their time was growing short, he looked straight at me and said, “Well, I can say I have fulfilled my marriage vows to her. I have been faithful. I have loved her. I have kept those promises I made back in 1964.” And then, to my astonishment, right there in the hospital hallway, with no prompting at all, as if to puncuate his heartache, between the beeping of heart monitors and the shuffling feet of nurses he began to recite those vows, one by one. “I, Richard, take you, MarthaiIn plenty and in want, in joy and sorrow, in sickness and in health.” A man’s love for his life’s partner, reaching its climax, even in her final days.

vows

It occurs to me that’s what this special day brings, why we’re gathered here, why the candles glow. The news of Christmas all about the fulfillment of promises. God has fulfilled his promise to shine a light in the darkness. It is about God staying true to God’s steadfast love, making good on his vow to be with his people in plenty and in want, in joy and sorrow, in sickness and health. Indeed, if we say anything about this night, it is that God has reminded us of his love for us, even as the world slips away. In the midst of a rough Advent season that man in the hallway spoke gospel truth to me, and tonight we gather to sing and be filled with joy. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.” He is ours. This birth is God’s promise that though we might feel lost, we are found…that though we might feel empty, God fills us with good things…that though we might feel defeated by what life throws at us, God has broken the rod of our oppressor as on the day of Midian, and the boots of the warriors that trample upon us—the sorrow, the grief, the despair—have been burned as fuel for the fire. Because God fulfills his promises in Christ, we have life forevermore.

For if a son has been given to us, a child born for us who comes as God’s own, then we have the assurance that everything we go through, everything we encounter as human beings on a benighted planet is something that God himself will encounter and experience. God weds himself this day to a world with newborn babies and our favorite Christmas treats and squeals of joy at presents wrapped and placed underneath a tree. And God weds himself this day to a world with impeachment trials and trade wars and cancer treatments and funerals. A child has been born for us.

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Martin Luther, the church reformer, puts it this way in a short little essay for his students from 1522 called “A Brief Instruction on What to Look for in the Gospels.” The essay’s title is its whole point: what one should be looking for when reading or hearing one of the books about Jesus in Scripture. And we read from one this night. Luther says, “Before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given and that is your own. This means that when you hear or see Christ doing something or suffering something you don’t doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you.”

When God decides to fulfill a promise, you see, when God decides to give a gift, God gives it wholeheartedly, and nothing can take it away—not religious authorities who think he is too gracious with his love, too liberal in how he shows it. Not disciples who vow one moment to defend him and then the next deny they even know him. Not forces of sin and darkness that try to nail him to the cross. God promises and God gives and the gift lasts forever. It is ours. Jesus is given to you.

And here’s the thing: those who receive it find they cannot help but give it again. Those upon whom God’s light has shined cannot help but shine it on others. It’s like the heavens break open with the blast and cacophony of angel voices over a field of shepherds. Those shepherds then leave their flocks and hasten to the gift and find him wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. Those same shepherds then return, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.

We, who hear the promise tonight—we who receive the promise—become bearers of the promise of God’s unconditional love to the world. God makes good on God’s vows and we respond, shielding the weak, staying near the world in its fears, holding the hand of the lost. We, who sense the light tonight, or whenever, then shine the light where we go.

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Some of you may have noticed that this year our congregation did not set up its outdoor nativity scene, the one on our front lawn here where the characters of the nativity and the Epiphany slowly but surely make their way to Bethlehem. I’ve heard the disappointment from a few community members and nursery school families. That display of mannequins on wire frames and covered with fabric have become one of our best evangelism tools. We decided, given how construction was affecting access to the lawn and dependable electricity sources, it would be good to take a break this year.

But the other day I received a text from one of our college students. It was text of a photo of her house way out in Louisa County. There, on top of her house, her father had hung the huge star from our nativity display. Her text read, “Now keep in mind we live a mile off the road so no one will ever see it.”

Normally this man the one who uses a complex system of fly-fishing rods and weights to sling the massive star over our cross. This year he took it home and I’m proud to tell you it is shining from his roof. I guess he couldn’t bear for that light not to shine. because the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.

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A light shines in the darkness of Louisa County, VA

So, if the star is not here, but still shining out there somewhere, a beacon of promise, where then are the characters? Where are Mary and Joseph and the shepherds in the fields abiding, who eventually return glorifying God? Where are the magi, traveling from the East with their gifts, plodding their way toward the house in Bethlehem? That’s you and me, people.  This year and really every year. The gospel’s best evangelism tool, you are hope in the darkness, a sign that God’s promise of love has being fulfilled.

Here’s the “Brief Instruction on What to Look for Upon Being a Christian.” Bear the promise. Go with haste. Hang a star. Shine with your good deeds with the glory of a thousand angels. You and me, characters of God’s redeeming story out in the world, because the Son has been given. And they won’t miss the nativity scene because they will find it in you. And perhaps they’ll think in their minds, in the words of a simple tune by Garrison Keillor…

 

There are angels hovering ‘round.
There are angels hov’ring ‘round.
There are angels, angels hov’ring round.

 To sing in harmony
To sing in harmony
To sing, to sing in harmony.

 The shepherds on their knees
The shepherds on their knees.
The shepherds, shepherds on their knees.

 The child in her arms
The child in her arms
The child, the child in her arms.

 O world without end.
O world without end
O world, O world without end.

Maybe that’s what they’ll hear, you Promises.

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Wait list for Joseph

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year A]

Matthew 1:18-25

The congregation where I served as youth director during most of my years in seminary had a live nativity scene that was very popular in the community but even more popular within the congregation because of the ways it drew them together every year. It was a really well-done production, held outdoors so that people could easily gather underneath the star-lit South Carolina sky and watch it from their cars, if they needed to. One of the men of the congregation had a great radio voice and they had made a cassette tape recording of him—yes, that was still back in the days of cassette tapes—reading various parts of the Scripture story and the different characters would walk out of the dark into the nativity scene at the appropriate time.

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It was a well-loved event, and one of the things I learned about that live nativity is that there was an unwritten, unspoken wait list to play the part of Mary. The roles were never decided upon beforehand but everyone kind of knew each year who the next Mary was supposed to be. It was usually one of the high school seniors. One year, for a reason I was never entirely clear about, someone who must have been unaware of that unwritten wait list assigned a particularly eager young girl to play the part of Mary, but she was a seventh grader. And, boy, did that upset the whole system. There was an outcry because she was going to take the place of some other young woman who had waited years to be Mary. It all got sorted out eventually, but not before feelings were hurt and people talked through it.

In all my years, I’ve never heard of a similar wait list for the part of Joseph. I’m sure they’re out there. I’m sure there are some young guys who have their heart set on playing him, this silent, strong figure who stands by in the stable, For the most part, however, Joseph remains a guy somewhat in the shadows.

There are probably several reasons for that. One of them might be because we rarely hear from him. Unlike Mary, Joseph has no speaking parts. In the version of Jesus’ birth that is told in Luke’s gospel, Mary speaks quite a bit. She has a conversation with the angel Gabriel. She even sings a song when she goes to visit Elizabeth. Joseph never says a word. Even in the version of Jesus’ birth found in Matthew—this one we hear today, which is the lesser known one and, from my experience, almost never included when churches and youth groups do nativity scenes—Joseph doesn’t actually speak.

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the angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream

Perhaps Joseph’s relative background status is due to the fact he’s so silent, that he doesn’t display the reactions to Jesus’ birth that Mary does, but perhaps it’s because we never hear his story on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is for Mary and the manger and the swaddling clothes and the shepherds. This version of Jesus’ birth, which focuses more on Joseph’s predicament, is stuck on the fourth Sunday of Advent. It’s just not as well-known. It digs a little deeper with the complicated themes of the roles of women in ancient society and male-dominated power structures.

When the focus is on her, Mary comes across as a somewhat powerful figure. She upends the world’s expectations by bearing the Son of God as a baby into the world. She sings of the rich being sent away empty. Joseph’s situation seems to be more about how to handle his fiancée in the face of tricky social and religious obligations. His power is a bit more subtle—and it comes from the decision to change his mind, to listen to the angel in his dream and not to end their marriage arrangement discreetly, since death by stoning is what the law would have called for  in this type of scenario.

And that may be the key to what we can learn from Joseph, as quiet as he is. Whereas Mary demonstrates faith by doing precisely what the angel asks of her, letting God take up residence in her own body for a while and bringing him into the world, Joseph exhibits faith by not doing what was by almost all accounts considered the faithful and righteous thing to do.

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Mary steps up and delivers. Joseph moves aside and changes plans against what would have been enormous pressure just to stay the course. With Mary comes the promise that even the lowly, not the mighty, can bear God’s presence among us. You and I, even in our moments of vulnerability and weakness (especially in our moments of vulnerability and weakness!) can be a vessel of for God’s Word. With Joseph comes the understanding that God gives us a responsibility to nurture and foster the ways God is present in others.

Joseph shows the holiness of stepping to the side, of putting well-laid plans to rest, of even laying aside a desire to do what the law or what religion may tell us and observing how God is with us in new ways. For that is the always the challenge of a God who is going to be called Emmanuel. When God decides to be with us, which is what Emmanuel means in Hebrew, then God is going to be right in our face sometimes, right there where we’d least expect him, like in Joseph’s pregnant fiancée whose life and status hang in his hands. Or right there in the dreams and anxieties that keep us up at night, pushing us in a direction that feels uncomfortable. Or—might we even go so far to say—with us on a cross.

The church I served in Pittsburgh partnered with an inner-city Lutheran Church one year to resettle some refugees from Myanmar. We put them up in some apartments in the neighborhood of that other congregation, which was in Troy Hill. Some of the refugees happened to be of an ethnic Christian minority, and so the congregation was eager to invite them to worship with them, even though the refugees were not Lutheran and even though the refugees didn’t speak English and the church members didn’t speak Karen. The pastor and the church worked for days to prepare a Sunday School lesson that they thought the Burmese refugees could understand. They got some translators to help. They scrounged together some additional art supplies to do some hands-on activities. They were so ready to serve those refugees and teach them the Bible.

Then Sunday came and the refugees showed up, children of all ages and few adults. The pastor and teachers quickly noticed that none of them were wearing shoes. So even though they had spent so much time on their Sunday School lesson, they figured the right thing to do was just to use the Sunday School time to go get all the kids shoes. And that’s what they did. They moved the Scripture lesson aside and went shoe-shopping.

Ah Pi family
Ignore the time stamp. This was taken in Troy Hill in winter 2007-2008. I never noticed the lady with the infant until now.

There may have been the urge to say,  “No, let’s do this lesson first and then go find shoes. Or make the charity agency aware of their situation.” Joseph could have said, “No, let’s follow my original plan and let God deliver Jesus some other way, in some other family, perhaps.” That congregation decided they were dealing with Emmanuel that morning. Yes, God certainly would have been with them in the lessons and worship they were so prepared to give but they discerned God was even more visible in the needs of their new neighbors.

Struggling to figure out how God is present with us in any given circumstance may be the main task of faith, and Joseph shows us that. Right there at the beginning of Jesus’ life, God is going to change people’s plans, tweak our ideas of righteousness, surprise us with the places he’ll show up. Right there at the beginning of Jesus’ life, God reminds us that all of this ministry, all of the things God’s Spirit does in this world all of the activities of the church are never really ours. They fall to us to safeguard and nourish, to protect and shelter. And we find God really moves and acts and transforms when we take ourselves and our agendas out of the way.

Emmanuel

I know some congregations can struggle with certain ministries and certain pet projects over time. We can get so identified with one particular way of serving or reaching out to the community or one particular task that we forget the ministry isn’t about us or about one set outcome we’ve envisioned. We need a wait list to be Joseph—to be ready to hand things over, to let the spotlight be on others, for when we do that, the spotlight will always be on Jesus. For Jesus is always going to find a way to be with us. Jesus is always going to find us, to work his way into our mess as well as our well-constructed plans and rescue us. You see, his name doesn’t just mean “God with us.” He is also named “He saves us.”

British poet Ursula Fanthorpe was a nurse and administrator in psychiatric hospitals in London in the twentieth century, and what she witnessed of their care and their healing became the subject of much of her writing. She went on to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry. She also wrote poems on her Christmas cards to her friends, and they were collected at one point in a book called Christmas Poems. One which she writes on Joseph manages to capture the struggle of his situation beautifully, finally gives him lines to say even though Scripture leaves him silent. Should you find yourself on wait list for Mary at some point, yearning to bear Christ’s light, may Joseph’s humble service remind you that God, Emmanuel, is already there with you.

 

I Am Joseph (by U.A. Fanthorpe)

I am Joseph, carpenter,
Of David’s kingly line,
I wanted an heir; discovered
My wife’s son wasn’t mine.

I am an obstinate lover,
Loved Mary for better or worse,
Wouldn’t stop loving when I found
Someone Else came first.

Mine was the likeness I hoped for
When the first-born man-child came.
But nothing of him was me. I couldn’t
Even choose his name.

I am Joseph, who wanted
To teach my own boy how to live.
My lesson for my foster son:
Endure. Love. Give.

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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Hallmark Advent movie

a sermon for the first Sunday of Advent [Year A]

Matthew 24:36-44 and Isaiah 2:1-5

Based on what I’m seeing from what people are sharing on Instagram and Facebook these days, and from the different conversations I’ve had over the past week or so, people got a pretty good head start on their Christmas decorating this weekend. Some, I suspect, have already completed it. The boy scout who lives across the street from us, from whose troop we ordered our Christmas wreath, showed up like expected last Sunday to deliver it. We wasted no time in hanging it, no matter what they say about waiting until after Thanksgiving to do that kind of thing.

For you the key ingredient to Christmas decorating may be a wreath on the door, or a tree in the family room, or even an elf on a shelf, but for an increasing amount of people these days a key ingredient for setting the holiday mood involves watching a Hallmark Christmas Movie. These relatively low-budget-but-high-quality, made-for-TV-format films are shown primarily on the Hallmark and Lifetime Channels. And they have become immensely popular. Don’t believe me? This year alone those two channels will air 70 new Christmas movies between October and New Year’s Day. The genre has become so beloved that they have made the Hallmark Channel the most viewed cable channel and, in order to get in on the action, Netflix will even produce six of their own Christmas movies, too.

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The popularity of the of the Hallmark Christmas movie is deep and broad, the genre itself is very narrow, and people readily accept that every movie consists of the same plot with only slight variations. For example, the movie’s always about a love connection that fits the opposites-attract scenario. Their relationship overcomes various odds and obstacles but eventually turns out OK, and the couple end up happily together. The storyline almost always takes place in a small town somewhere, and it’s snowing in the final scene.

 

Confession: I’ve never seen a Hallmark Christmas movie, but I have seen the granddaddy ancestor of that entire genre: White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. And I love it. It, too, takes place in small town, involves a love connection or two, and has snow in the final scene. It was a regular part of my family’s Christmas Eve schedule when I was growing up, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it since. We can all quote just about every single line as we watch it, and for some reason, even though we know exactly how the corny storyline goes, we still get a warm glow-y feeling at the big finale when General Waverly is genuinely surprised by the big bash his old army pals have thrown him. We still get a little misty-eyed when he straightens up his uniform and comes down from the stage to inspect his troops, who’ve assembled from far-flung corners. And the curtain goes up on stage at the very end to reveal the long-anticipated white Christmas no one thought would come…but yet everyone hoped would. I’m not sure why, but my hunch is we like these movies, we like these stories, because they speak to a longing we feel, especially at this time of year, for the familiar, the predictable. We don’t want too many surprises.

The truth is, Hallmark storylines, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, make for great Christmas movies, but probably not great Advent movies. If Jesus were to be the producer of a film for us to watch about that long-anticipated outcome no one thought would ever come but yet everyone hoped would, it would involve a thief breaking in to a house…at night. It would involve a flood that suddenly washes people away while they’re carrying on with their lives as usual. Its plot would contain a certain element of suspense that would keep us awake, even if the movie lasted far longer than we wanted it to.

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Why? Because Jesus would want to prepare us not for some warm glow-y feeling, but for the day of his arrival. Jesus’ goal would be to inspire us not for some seasonal mood or atmosphere, but to live in world that is redeemed and set to rights. For to prepare for the coming of the Son of Man, which is what the word “advent” means, means reacquainting ourselves not with our dreams for the world and for our lives, but with God’s dreams for the world. And God’s dreams are grander and bigger than ours. When the curtain goes up in the final scene, it reveals much more than just happy snowfall.

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a parent in the congregation whose high school age child had just received her first college promotional piece of mail. Talk about a wake-up call! This mother was a little shocked that they were already at this point in her child’s life, and even though it is typical for sophomores to be on college mailing lists, it was still a bit of a surprise, and the small piece of mail reignited all kinds of big questions. What kind of life do I really want for my child? What kinds of sacrifices are our family prepared to make to get her there? What if my dreams and plans for her future end up not being the same as her dreams and plans? I think many parents encounter this fear and anticipation for their children at some point, regardless of whether college is involved or not. And most parents I talk to eventually let their own dreams for their children’s future fade into the reality of whatever the child ends up choosing, or whatever is chosen for them by unforeseen circumstances.

While God certainly has created a reality where we have choices and desires and opportunities for life and joy, a reality in which each of us encounters multiple options each day, each year, to design and build our livelihoods and fill our free time, the truth is that at some point God does make it clear that overall creation is heading in a direction God has planned. We can be lulled by our complacency and hunger for continuity. We can be satisfied with our appetite for the status quo, for the hope that things will carry on just as they are. God is our Heavenly Father who has in mind a way things are going to end and it is better than any of us can imagine.

“Swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” and “nation will not lift up sword against nation,” says the prophet Isaiah, reminding us of God’s dreams. Not just Israel, God’s chosen, will be included in God’s final vision. The prophets tell us all the nations of the earth, in fact, will stream to God’s holy mountain, which God will have established as the highest of all, towering over all the other idol-strewn hills on our landscape. These are glorious dreams and hopes that we may never think of ourselves or, if we do, they get often get overshadowed by other ideas which we, in our brokenness and self-centered-ness become fixated on.

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The statue outside of the United Nations features a man beating a sword into a plowshare.

When Jesus reminds his disciples of these dreams, when he gets them geared up to hear the plot of his Hallmark Advent movie, it can end up sounding like something from the Left Behind series from several years back, those books and movies about the rapture. The rapture is an unbiblical concept that came out of a fringe tradition about a century ago that makes it sound like one day God will just suddenly suck all the special, righteous people into heaven and leave the rest of us here to fend for ourselves in a time of threatening turmoil. Really Jesus is simply impressing upon his listeners just how surprising his eventual arrival will be, how drastically different the end will look from how things often are now. And there will be judgment to anticipate and fear. It will cut right through the happenings of each and every community and each and every heart. But the judgment God will make about the whole of creation and the part we’re playing in it has far more to do with the peaceful way God wants things to be for us than it does with where certain people are going to end up. The suddenness of Jesus’ advent might take us off guard if we’re not in tune with it.

We can choose to go on thinking, for example, that weapons and tools of war are just part of life as God sees it, that guns and bombs are just something we all need to get used to because they help keep the peace, for example. But the judgment is going to come as pretty surprising when it turns out God actually expects us to beat all our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks, our assault rifles into playground equipment. That’s the dream God has for us.

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We can choose to go on believing, for example, that races and tribes and ethnic groups work better when they’re kept separate by borders or neighborhoods or school systems or creeds or whatever, but it’s going to be a pretty big shock to us when the kingdom comes in full and all nations and peoples have a place on God’s holy mountain. As it turns out, the curtain will go up at the end and we’ll see people of all languages and identities have been gathered there in peace and unity, because that’s the dream God has for us.

That’s the plot-line, folks, of the Advent movie. The trick is, we don’t know when the actual end comes, and neither does Jesus. That’s part of living within time—there are beginning and endings—and all humans have to deal with not knowing exactly when the curtain goes up. But the cross of Jesus has already revealed the good news for those who believe. On the cross, Jesus dies to the other dreams humankind has, dreams of violence and revenge, dreams of borne entirely of self-protection and maintaining the existing state of affairs.

On the cross, Jesus shows us that we ourselves won’t be able to build these glorious finales, that we ourselves won’t be able to bring about this wondrous vision through our own efforts, but that God has decided to take care of that himself. On the cross, Jesus has shown us with his own blood and suffering that God graciously gives us this future, bright and spectacular. God has poured out his love for this future and empowers us to take part in it, to live now in such a way because we know how it goes.

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For now, that’s where we find ourselves—not just watching a movie unfold, but participating in it, ready for the end. And we’re the characters not just during Advent, not just in this time as we hang wreaths and drink hot chocolate, but all the time, each day of the year, each year of our lives. We are characters who know the good ending and start pounding swords into plowshares. We don’t necessarily know when the credits will roll, and to some degree it will probably surprise us no matter what. We understand there will be some obstacles, some bumpy roads, but there is glory and light and peace at the end. The General God will come out, proud and regal. He’ll step down from the stage and inspect his troops, lined up as we are from far-flung corners in our armor of light.

That day is near, sisters and brothers.  Be ready. That hallmark day is near.

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Jesus is King!

a sermon for Christ the King [Year C]

Luke 23:33-43 and Colossians 1:11-20

“Everytime I look up, I see God’s faithfulness
And it shows just how much he is miraculous
I can’t keep it to myself, I can’t sit here and be still
Everybody, I will tell ‘till the whole world is healed.
King of kings, Lord of Lords, all the things he has in store
From the rich to the poor, all are welcome through the door
You won’t ever be the same when you call on Jesus’ name
Listen to the words I’m sayin’, Jesus saved me, now I’m sane.”

Those are not words from a church composer you’ve heard before or from a hymn we’ve sung out of our hymnal. Those are words off the new album from rap artist Kanye West, released just a month ago—an album titled, interestingly enough, Jesus is King. I am fairly certain Kanye West did not release it in time for the church’s celebration of Christ the King, which falls on this final Sunday of the liturgical year, but it sure is convenient that he did.

In fact, just two weeks ago when I was driving our confirmation students to Roanoke for the day to see the bishop’s office, talk to the Roanoke College President, and tour several agencies of the Lutheran Church there, Kanye’s album was discussed in our van. Some of the confirmation students had already downloaded it and were wanting to know what I thought of the songs on Jesus is King.

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Kanye West at one of his “Sunday Services”

Some of you may know who Kanye West is, either from his previous work or from some of the controversial statements he’s made in public. It’s been hard to miss him over the past two decades. He is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, and is a 21-time Grammy Award-winner. He’s also married to a Kardashian. And at some point in the past year Kanye West apparently had a religious conversion. As the song says, he claims Jesus has saved him and now he wants to respond to that change in faith. This most recent album doesn’t just have one Christian song. It is made up entirely of gospel hip-hop music he wrote. The album includes references to baptism, keeping the Sabbath day holy, and verses from Scripture.

Now, many popular musicians go through some form of religious awakening at some point in their career, and I’m not going to pass any judgment on the authenticity of West’s faith and commitment to God. This could all be, as some claim, a publicity stunt, just a cunning attempt to cash in on people’s true faith and devotion to Jesus. The album and the way he’s promoted it have certainly been divisive.

It may not be how you or I would choose to profess our faith, but I do know that on Jesus is King, Kanye West is talking about a man who was crucified between two common criminals on a hill outside of Jerusalem around 2000 years ago. What is clear is that on his gospel rap album, West is moved to tell the story of a man who, by many accounts, should have never been known or remembered or retold, so common and ordinary he was. And whether people like it or not, it is clear West articulates a faith that this crucified man has in some way rescued him. An individual’s faith is a very personal and unique relationship, and so none of us can really say exactly what such a statement might mean for anyone else, but it’s evident that this crucified man has power over him, has authority in Kanye’s life.

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And that, in fact, is why we gather here today, and every Sunday, for that matter. From the moment the sign was hung in mocking fashion above his thorn-adorned head on the cross—“This is the King of the Jews—Jesus has been named as a sovereign ruler. Jesus has some power over us, some kind of authority, and we seek to understand it, worship it, grow into it.

And so there I was, rolling down I-64 on Election Day, when Virginia was choosing a new state legislature and other leaders, discussing Jesus’ kingship with a group of tenth graders as we made our way to visit several institutions that he, in some way, founded and still nurtures: a college in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a nursing home for elderly adults, and a school for children with special behavioral and developmental needs. Jesus is king, and thousands of other rulers have come and gone, millions of other elections have seated and then deposed women in men in power, but the kingdom of Jesus lives on, welcoming more and more people into God’s embrace.

Jesus is king, and borders of countries have changed and been erased, walls have been built up and then torn down, but the places where Jesus walks and loves and gives second chances seem to still be popping up everywhere.

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“Christ the King” painting by Ronald Raab (2015)

Jesus is king, and empires have built temples and churches and banks and sports stadiums and concert halls and monuments and marble statues of their finest, but the kingdom that started with a tool of execution, a few planks of wood and a handful of nails stretches across every inch of the earth.

Jesus is King, and armies have fought and soldiers have been trained, presidents have been groomed and princes have been primed, but the kingdom that always starts with the lowly people on the sidelines, the margin-folk—the lepers, the blind, the sinners, the tax collectors, keeps on marching.

It keeps on marching and claims you and me, and Kanye, and Martin Luther, and Harriett Tubman, and Johann Sebastian Bach, and Francis of Assisi, and Dorothy Day and Elizabeth Platz, the first Lutheran woman pastor, ordained 49 years ago this week. It claims Pope Francis and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Claire Louise Johnson.

And it does all of this—this reign has its entry everywhere, even the darkest places—because this kingdom begins on a cross. This rule begins with a man who looks to those who are nailing him there, who want him dead and forgotten, and instead of slinging insults or anger, he says, “Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” This rule begins with a man who looks to his right and left and instead of seeing two criminals, sees two fellow humans with him, who never condescends, who never judges, but up until the very end finds way to speak offer pardon and peace: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” This kingdom begins with a man who has umpteen opportunities to save his own skin, to stop it all, to slink away in anonymity, but instead through dying grants us the dignity to let us see what things really look like when our sin runs free.

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Right now our country is in the middle of an impeachment inquiry. And as everyone wonders what really will happen next, or what it means for the next presidential election cycle, and no matter where each of us may stand on it, the reality is this is a defining moment—maybe the defining moment—of our current president’s tenure. History tends to judge leaders by their defining moments. In years to come, no matter what happens in these four or eight years, people will mention the impeachment proceedings near the top. We can’t talk about President Abraham Lincoln, for example without mentioning the Gettysburg Address. Winston Churchill was Prime Minister for 9 years but he is known for his resolve in World War II. Napoleon conquered over half of Europe, but we always talk about his Waterloo.

Leaders are known by their defining moments, and this is Jesus’. He did and still does so many wondrous things, but his moment on the cross is where it all comes into focus. We can’t talk about him and God doesn’t want us to talk about him without talking about how people mocked him with sour wine, or how people talked about dividing his clothes before he was dead. This is Jesus at his finest, you might say, and look at him! He stands for mercy, for solidarity with the downtrodden, for looking into anyone’s eyes with hope and love.

And so when the writer of the letter to the Colossians, for example, tells us to be strong with the strength that comes from Jesus’ glorious power, he is talking about the strength to be found in being compassionate with people and the glorious power that lies in humility. When the writer of Colossians goes on to say that in Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, we know that the fullness of God can now dwell in any human being anywhere, especially when they are most overlooked and most outcast.

Yale theologian David Bentley Hart describes this concept as a revolution, that the cross of Jesus ignited a revolutionary movement the likes of which the world had never before seen. A revolution is an idea or cause that overturns things so that they can never go back to the way they were before. He says that the cross of Christ is a moment where, for the first time in history, “the human person as such…was invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity, and possessed of an infinite value.”[1] We take that for granted now, so far we are removed in so many ways from the era that crucified Jesus, but the idea that God could enter the world from the ground up, rather than the top down, that value could be found in any person, no matter who they were or what they were like, was begun by Jesus’ defining moment.

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And so for now that is where we seek him and those are the ways we carry on this revolution. We sit down at the table with people who have hurt us, like I witnessed a family here do this week, and we do the hard work of forgiving one another because we’ve come to understand that forgiveness is the only true lasting power we know. It is, as the Psalm this morning declares, the only force that truly “breaks the bow, shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire” (Psalm 46). We devote ourselves to welcoming and serving every person we come into contact with because we know that God is present in them, and we do this even if it means coming to terms with our inner prejudices about people. It means we work to create churches and homes where sinners of all stripes can hear the promise of Paradise. It means we lean in on one another and never close the door on God working to bring life to any situation, no matter how dark it may seem.

There is a small, relatively plain and nondescript house on Skipwith Road that I pass by about four times a day. It is a nice house, and for all I can see taken care of, but it might even be empty. For most of the year it is easy to pass by because it is so ordinary. In its front yard is a tree—one enormous, beautiful, and perfectly shaped tree which turns the most brilliant shade of orange right at this time of year. It is impossible to drive by and not see it here at the end of the year. It is impossible to drive by it and not just marvel at this little plain house with the gigantic colorful tree.

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For now, Jesus’ defining moment is that cross on a hill called the Skull, easy to miss, easy to despise, easy to write off as empty. It takes a bit of faith to realize its worth. But one day at the end of all things his glory will be fully revealed for all to see and it will be unmistakable—a perfect tree! His immense and overwhelming love at that point will be unmistakable, his revolution of mercy complete, embracing all, and all we will really be able to do is stand in wonder.

Or, as Kanye says, “Every time we look up, we see God’s faithfulness, and it shows just how much he is miraculous.” For Jesus, the crucified, is King.

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, Yale University Press, 2009, page 167

God of the living

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

Luke 20:27-38

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

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

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

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

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maybe the Sadducees looked like this

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

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

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

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just to clarify: not my grandparents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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