Hometown boy

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]

Luke 4:21-30 and Jeremiah 1:4-10 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

I don’t envy Jesus. There he is, in his hometown synagogue, giving his first recorded sermon, and he ends up almost getting pushed off a cliff for what he says. Last time I checked, that is not typically what happens when preachers give a sermon in front of their home congregation, especially their first sermon. What I’m accustomed to seeing is pride and joy and extra guests out in the pews for moral support. This congregation has sent four of its own members to seminary and one young adult to global mission in the past seven years, and each time one of them has come back to preach in this pulpit there’s been a bit of a buzz…a happy buzz.

For example, I remember when Nate Huffman, the husband of our former Faith Formation Director, who is now serving as a chaplain in our armed forces preached for us for the first time. It was on a Thanksgiving Day and we used to have Thanksgiving Day worship in the Chapel, but we knew so many would come to hear him that we held worship in here. Sure enough, there were quite a few more in attendance that year than usual, and we hung on every word. There have been similar reactions each time Ginny or Daniel or Alex or Emily have preached. We listen, and we love to hear them share the gospel.

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Daniel Hess (on right) preached at Epiphany, his home congregation, at the end of his first year at seminary.

I still have a copy of the first sermon I ever preached, which was nineteen years ago in front of my home congregation in Winston-Salem. I read that sermon a while back and, quite frankly, it should be shredded. Nobody should ever be reading that. But my hometown crowd acted like I was speaking in the tongues of mortals and of angels. I suppose it was simply because I was one of them—because, like in this sanctuary, the pulpit and baptismal font are right beside each other and many of them that day had seen me get wet 25 years prior. It was as if I had risen straight out of those waters to the place of preaching, the direct path of a disciple so clearly laid out that day. Of course, I basked in the glow of their loving comments and congratulations. But in all honesty, preachers probably like that kind of stuff way too much.

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Augsburg Lutheran Church, Winston-Salem, NC

And so I don’t envy Jesus that day in his hometown synagogue. They really end up thinking he’s a stinker. So what goes wrong? To begin with, we have to read between the lines a little bit and picture what’s going on. Jesus stands up and reads a portion of the Hebrew Scriptures from Isaiah about the coming of God’s kingdom and then declares “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The people in the synagogue are a little shocked and impressed that one of their own would be so bold as to suggest that God and God’s kingdom are encountering them right there and then. They would have been waiting on that moment for centuries, so Jesus’ words are quite a claim, even for a hometown boy. There are some mutterings in the crowd, some shifting around. A handful of people get on Twitter. And then I imagine they start to wonder if he can back this up. If Jesus heralds the arrival of God’s kingdom, what about the signs and wonders he performed in the next town over? If hope of God’s kingdom has shown its glorious face in Capernaum, why can’t we have a little taste here in Nazareth? It would be nice to see a blind person be given sight or some other miracle to go along with this sermon.

And instead of just making them happy and giving them something to really talk about, he gives them two examples of when the Word of God came first to other, foreign people—that is, to people from the next town over, people on the other side of the wall, so to speak. Jesus says that if they remember their Bible stories, they know have several examples of when God showed some kind of preference to people different from them.  He names first the widow at Zarephath, which we actually just heard in a lesson in our worship back in November. She was a non-Jewish woman living way out in Sidon, outside the territory of Israel, and she was the one who got to host the great prophet Elijah and witness the miracle of the jug of oil and jar of meal that never ran out. And Naaman was a Syrian commander, and he was the one God decided to cleanse of leprosy, even though there were plenty of people in Israel with skin diseases.

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“Elijah and the Widow and Zarephath” (Gerrit Willemsz Horst)

These were been stories they would have been familiar with, no doubt, but they seem provocative that day in the synagogue, spoken with the tone that reminded them that God’s Word cannot be controlled, and is not always comforting, either. As the professor Cleophus Larue of Princeton Seminary says, “The gifts of God’s grace are not bestowed because of nationality, tribal loyalty, or hometown connections,”[1] and that is disruptive to us because we love our nations, our tribes, and our hometown connections.

It reminds me of a story I once heard from a colleague about a pastor who was sent to an urban church—this was somewhere in North Carolina, I believe. As my friend tells it, the pastor realized that while the neighborhood around the church was mostly low income and people of color, the congregation itself was made up almost entirely of middle class white folks from the surrounding suburbs. After a while the pastor began some outreach ministries in the neighborhood and before long there were some community members coming to the church and getting involved in activities.

Several weeks later, a person who had been a member of the church for a long time made an appointment to come see the pastor. She sat down and said, “Pastor, there are a lot of members of the congregation who are just not comfortable with all these people from the neighborhood being here in our church.”

And the pastor said, “Well, I am doing this because I don’t want these people to go to hell.”

The woman said, “Now Pastor, don’t say that. We know that God loves everybody, including the people in the neighborhood.”

And the pastor replied, “No, you don’t understand, I’m talking about the members of this church.”

Jesus does not label the people of his hometown as racist, or stupid, or beneath him. He merely points out to them with their own stories a truth we all need to remember: God’s kingdom is going to take root and prosper wherever it is received and believed. And when we, too, hear and receive this, we are saved—saved from our own inward thinking, saved from our own dead-end roads of vanity and narcissism, saved from the hell of a kingdom where we always think we’re the center of God’s attention and no light breaks in.

Jesus escapes death this time, but our mutterings and selfish demands for something spectacular and powerful will find him again and our kingdom of death will nail him to a cross. And he will still love us. He fully knows us and he will still love us just like he knows and loves all the people God has created the world over.

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Jesus’ first sermon in one sense does not go well, but in another sense it goes perfectly well because it gets his message across loud and clear. Just because we don’t like the sound of something we hear in church doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The goal of the Word of God is not to announce something meaningful or pleasant, but to announce something that’s true, and the truth can be uncomfortable. Talking in our faith communities about complex topics that are current in our culture, like that of abortion and women’s health and when life begins, can make us uncomfortable. And yet we hear the word of God come to Jeremiah this morning and say “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”

Mentioning damaging things like racism and white privilege and our governor’s yearbook photo might make us uncomfortable. We might want worship to shelter us from such topics, but this morning we hear Jesus himself lift up people of other ethnicities and races as people who matter, so it’s kind of with us whether we like it or not.

Pastors I talk to often say they take heat when people think sermons are too political or that the preacher pushed a social agenda. Perhaps you have discovered that too, in your own preaching. Because you know what? It’s not just people wearing stoles that are given the task of proclaiming the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, of bearing this often uncomfortable word. There is a direct line from this font to where you’re sitting in the pew, too. Do not say, “I am only a boy,” or “I am only a girl,” or “I am only a non-ordained person.” God doesn’t think that’s an acceptable response. You were ordained in your baptism to share this message. “You shall go to whom I send you,” God says to the prophet Jeremiah, and God says to each one of us. “You shall go to whom I send you…and I have put my words in your mouth.”

To the middle school lunchroom, where people it’s clear who is shunned and ostracized…

To the neighborhood on the other side of town, where the public services and roads might not be as good…

To the friend on social media that posts things you can’t tolerate.

There is a difference, though, between the way others might share uncomfortable truths about God and the way followers of Christ do: love. The apostle Paul says our words and actions for Jesus, however prophetic and however bold they may be, are to be done in love, which is never boastful or arrogant or rude. And we can do it, folks! That love has been poured into our hearts. Our gestures and overtures can be acted out with kindness and patience, without resentment or irritability. Those claimed by Jesus don’t ever rejoice in wrongdoing, they rejoice in the truth. It’s unfortunate Twitter influences so much of our public discourse these days. Twitter and cable news is a lot of rejoicing in wrongdoing and arrogance. It’s about 90% clanging cymbals. It’s a muttering crowd wanting to hurl someone over a cliff and in many cases succeeding.

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Yet Christ is going to catch us all, the mutterers as well as the ones hurled over in hatred. He’s going to reach out and holds us all, the ones who detest the prophecy and the ones who prophesy it. That is the truth we must share above all: somehow he manages to catch us all with those arms so wide with faith, hope, and love…arms that can bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.

And in this embrace maybe one day we all someday see we’ve come to our true hometown.

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Thanks be to God!

[1] “Living by the Word” in The Christian Century, January 2, 2019. Cleophus J. LaRue

Mystery wedding guest

a sermon for the second Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]

John 2:1-11

Funny enough, one of the best little stories of Melinda’s and my marriage involves an incident with wine at our wedding.

The story goes that when we were looking for a reception venue in Pittsburgh 14 years ago, we found a restaurant downtown that we thought would be perfect. The problem was that when we met with the manager we quickly discovered that having an evening reception there was way out of our price range. Although we didn’t have a big guest list, we would still have to pay a rather large reservation fee to rent the whole place out and then, on top of that, cover all of the costs for an open bar, an expanded dinner menu, and parking. Before we left, disappointed, the manager offered us the idea of a lunch reception. Turns out there were no fees for that—no reservation fee for the space, no parking fees and, most importantly, no cost for the open bar. All we would have to do was pay for the food and drinks people actually got and the gratuity. As he explained, it would literally be like we were taking all of our family and friends out for lunch. No contract involved, no deposit—nothing. The only stipulation was we had to be out of there by 4. It cut the cost of a reception there in more than half.

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wedding reception at the Grand Concourse, Pittsburgh, PA

So we moved the wedding ceremony up to the mid-morning and enjoyed a great noon-time reception on a beautiful October day. We partied, we danced, we clinked our glasses, and then at about 3:45 that afternoon, a waiter came to Melinda and me with the bill. It was this long receipt—even longer than a CVS receipt—folded up into a billfold. Just like the manager had explained, we had just taken our friends to lunch. So before we handed him my credit card,  Melinda and I went through the receipt just to see if it looked right. We’re going down the list— gin and tonic, beer, beer, glass of wine, crab cakes, glass of wine—and suddenly we notice that buried in the list there was a $55 charge for a bottle of wine someone had ordered from the bar.

To two newlyweds just starting out, that sounded very pricey. Each time we re-tell the story, the bottle gets a little more expensive, ha! Of course, we were absolutely fine with it, happy to host the reception, glad someone was able to enjoy it, but we just thought it was a little funny that someone had ordered it and that the bar had handed out a whole bottle like that. Must have been something really fancy!

The thing is, Melinda and I have always wondered who it was. We don’t bring it up with our guests from that day, but it does intrigue us a little bit, and we have fun time re-telling the story, remembering what that day was like, how much fun we had. And how much fun some mystery guest must have really had.

Jesus’s first sign, his first display of God’s glory, involves being a mystery guest who gets the good wine at this wedding in Cana of Galilee. Of course, he doesn’t keep it for himself, and it’s just not one bottle. It is somewhere around 120 to 180 gallons of really fancy stuff. That’s like if someone had walked up to the bar at 4:00pm and ordered 757 bottles of wine (or 63 cases)—and then paid for the wedding reception to continue into the evening. I don’t know how big the reception was in Cana that day, but it would have taken us months to consume that much wine. I can’t get my head around that.

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“The Wedding Feast at Cana” (Paolo Veronese, 1563). A servant in the right foreground fills a wine bottle from a purification jar. The steward (I think) is immediately behind him, to his right.

Weddings in Jesus’ time, of course, were multi-day affairs that could drag on and on. They pulled in people from all over the village. The ceremony portion of the wedding itself could last almost a whole day, and then there were parties and meals that followed it, and guests often kind of came and went from them as they were able. The bridegroom’s family was typically required to provide most if not all of the food and drink for this occasion. A wedding symbolized a joining together of two families’ fortunes and hopes for the future, so the more lavish a family could make it, it was thought, the better. Favors would be repaid during these times, invitations reciprocated, and status in society overall could go up if things went well.

To run out of wine, then, which was basically the only thing other than water that people drank in ancient times, signaled the end of the shindig, last call, and could have been a huge stain on the family’s reputation. It’s hard to tell from the details presented, but it sounds like Mary, Jesus’ mother, knew that was the case. Perhaps she was a bit more connected to one of the families, perhaps this was a friend or a distant relative. I imagine her saying it with her eyes wide, through almost-clenched teeth: “they have no wine.” In any case, she is the instigator. She sees that guests are going to start to leave and she coopts her son into getting more wine.

There has been a lot of speculation about how Mary might have known this, or how Mary expected Jesus to solve this problem. Did she know already that Jesus had these special abilities? Why do they speak to each other this way, like she’s bossing him around? To some degree, all of that is just background. The main point is that Jesus does something about it, even though he makes it clear that this kind of thing is not really what he came to do or be. He says his hour has not yet come, which suggests that there will be more to come from him, that a greater glory will shine forth at some point.

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In any case, he does what he is asked to do and goes over the top.   Not only does he provide more wine than they could probably ever drink, but he makes it the fancy stuff. Everyone is amazed, especially the steward, who is in charge of the open bar and the menu and settling things up in the end. The bridegroom gets most of the attention. He goes from looking like a chump to an overly generous, creative, and almost wasteful host. The party lives! New wine flows free and fast.

Here’s the thing: by changing this water into wine, Jesus doesn’t just prolong the wedding. He transforms the wedding. Jesus doesn’t just save this village family from humiliation. He makes them the joyous and glad talk of the town. Jesus’ presence takes something ordinary and turns it into something unexpectedly extraordinary. Jesus’ presence that day doesn’t just keep things going. He creates a new beginning.

As a first sign or display of God’s glory, this is excellent clue of how God is going to interact with the world through Jesus. He is the true abundance at that wedding that day, not the wine. That God would open up God’s heart and pour into the empty vessels of this world the love of Jesus is a grace we will never get our heads around. His presence transforms us and it transforms the world. He is given to take endings and turn them into new beginnings. At this Cana wedding…by the shore where loaves are multiplied for the hungry and tired…by the tomb of Lazarus where people are weeping…at the cross of Calvary where he is dying…when and wherever the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, or becomes acknowledged in our midst we can expect life-giving transformation.

The back room in the restaurant where one of our Men’s lunch group meets has a small icon of Jesus high on the wall. I’ve noticed it several times before. It’s not a piece of fine art, by any means, but it is a nice icon or painting of Christ looking out at the room. It does not look at all like it is part of the décor. This week I asked the proprietor about it, figuring that must be important to her. Sure enough, she is of the eastern Orthodox tradition and explained how she has an icon of Christ in every room of the restaurant. I asked her “why?” and she said it was to help her acknowledge and remember his presence everywhere, that she has the potential to bear him in all that she says and does. And she then went into long history of all the times those icons had transformed conversations and interactions with her guests.

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the icon on the wall at Nick’s Roman Terrace

 

It made me remember how one of our seminary professors all but commanded that we have some kind of visual depiction of Jesus in our offices—a cross, a painting, a statue—something that would acknowledge his presence to us an others people who come into our offices for conversation or support. It wasn’t enough to let people assume that Jesus was some mystery guest whenever we’d meet. It was helpful to, like Mary, point him out and let him work.

I think we are all familiar with examples of how acknowledging another with a gesture of self-giving, of kindness, of humility can utterly remake the landscape of a relationship or a community. We can be the icons of Christ in this case, each using our Spirit given gifts to transform our surroundings with God’s love.

Congregations and church communities, by acknowledging Christ in their ministries are inviting gracious transformation to occur not just in their inner relationships but in the neighborhoods around them. Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa is attested as having said, “Every church should be able to get a letter of recommendation from the poor in their community.”  Those who live and work around us, who come into contact with Epiphany Lutheran Church should be able to say, this congregation is a transforming presence in the Richmond Metro area.

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This sign at the wedding in Cana may not seem, in the grand scheme of things, to have that many implications. No one sick is healed, no one’s hunger is addressed, no one’s life is saved from a thunderstorm. But it is still the first sign of God’s glory. It is the first epiphany of what God is like, the first, “a-Ha, this is who is behind the creation of the universe.”  It is God’s way of saying, here is a sign of how I will work in the world. This, right here—this wedding—is what I’m all about.

There are so many competing definitions for God out there these days. There are so many people and groups claiming God is like this or like that, that God is on this political party’s side or God is like that sunset or that new-fangled spiritual idea they’ve happened upon. And some of those claims and definitions are pretty scary. Some of them seem hard to argue against. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty stoked that we worship a God whose opening act is showing up at a wedding and turning it into a bash. I’m pretty stoked that he’s the guy who goes up to the open bar, who sees opportunity in empty vessels and says, there’s no reason we can’t have $55 bottle wine. This God might be pretty fun to be around. I bet this God of Jesus might be willing to transform some bleak, devastating scenarios into something pretty spectacular—something so spectacularly abundant, in fact, that if I had all of eternity I’d never get my head around it.

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Walk the journey

a reflection on the Epiphany of Our Lord

Matthew 12:1-8 [9-12]

This is a reflection on the first part of this scripture lesson on the Epiphany of Our Lord, which also lines up with the first part of our congregation’s mission statement: The “Walk the Journey” part of “Walk the Journey, Worship the Christ, and Witness with Joy.” Our congregation’s name happens to be Epiphany, and it turns out the magi who come to visit Jesus can help us understand what living that mission might look like. There are important clues about the journey of faith and walking the way of Jesus which the magi reveal in their own experience.

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First of all, the journey of faith in Christ is for all people, and so there will always be others different from us alongside of us. There’s a lot going on this story, but that’s probably the most staggering piece and ground-breaking piece of information we get from it: Jesus is for all people. He was born to be a light to the nations. He is born a Jew, and therefore within a very specific culture with a very specific history, but the first people to visit him and worship him are these strangers from a country or set of countries that isn’t even named. They come from off the map somewhere.

I remember when we had that huge map of the Richmond Metro area a couple of years ago and people were supposed to put a pin in the map where they lived and I came in one Monday and someone had put a pin way off the bulletin board. They were from Louisa County or north of Ashland or something, a place beyond the scope of our map. That was the magi. The exact location or culture they represent is not all that important. The point is they are clearly not of the Hebrew culture or religious identity, and for you and me that might be a simple point we take for granted, but it is a big deal. In a time when the world was very tribal and people stuck to their own languages and clans above almost everything, for these foreigners to be led to Jesus to pay homage to him was earthshattering. It was a sign of hope—that the God who had long been seen to stick primarily to the fortunes of one group of people was now saying, “All y’all are welcome.”

Some would say our culture is becoming tribal again. People are sticking to their own kind. They are associating with people who believe the exact same things they do, who share the same backgrounds and worldviews. But those who have been claimed by this newborn King are called to walk this journey of faith with people of all tribes and clans. It may be more important now than ever that we claim this Epiphany vision.  God is drawing everyone to Christ, and we want to be a congregation that reflects that. Strangers from the east.  Strangers in the West End. People we’ve known our whole lives. People who are sitting in front of or behind us today that we may never see again. And in Christ’s grace strangers become friends, because that is what he calls us. We receive each other and let ourselves be ushered into God’s presence, offering our varied gifts in his service. And we travel on.

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“The Adoration of the Magi” (Botticelli)

Another thing we learn is that the journey of faith is fueled by questions and being drawn into a sense of wonder. This is often a difficult one for the church to remember because we do have dogma and doctrine. There are a lot of answers swirling around in here, lots of certainty. Pastors and church leaders, especially, can come off as speaking with a lot of certainty. And Scripture is a solid foundation, no doubt. People do come to church seeking to build their lives on some trustworthy, constant truths, and they are here. After all, the magi can only find Jesus once they become certain (from Scripture) of where he is.

However, the questions and the wonder should always remain, never silenced, because our questions about God and about life’s meaning are important. They give life to each step. Notice the only thing the magi actually say in this story is a question. It is essentially “Who is he?” or “Who are we looking for?” They don’t know his name and they don’t know where he is, but they let those questions guide them. They don’t give up. They press on.

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It’s Herod who is afraid of the questions. He doesn’t like this mysterious presence afloat, wherever it is. He feels threatened by new prospects, and all of Jerusalem does too, so satisfied, perhaps, with the status quo. And so he seeks to stamp the questioning down.

It is interesting to me that these magi are likely the scientists of their day. They understand astronomy and navigation. They possess great minerals and elements of the earth. Science is built on questions and seeking answers, and it’s fascinating that these are the people drawn to worship Jesus. It can be so tempting to think that science ends humankind’s search for God, but the experience of the magi suggests that isn’t so. We find science can’t answer all of the questions in life that are worth asking. There are some questions that only a journey based on faith and mystery can do that.

In William Butler Yeats’ poem called “Magi” that is about this story he refers to Jesus as the “uncontrollable mystery.” I think that a fulfilling faith journey remembers that Jesus is uncontrollable. We can’t control what he does with his life, or the people he chooses to associate with. We can’t control the way he wants to love us and forgive us, either. So strong it is, his love for us. We can ask questions, though, and that helps us behold his uncontrollable mystery.

The third thing this story shows us is that journey of faith is never a straight line. It is often called “the straight and narrow,” and in some sense that is a good way to describe it, but in the grand scheme of things we need to be prepared for detours and obstacles. They are part of walking the journey, at least for now.

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The star is fascinating, but it is probably not the most constant or helpful way to lead people. There’s been a lot of speculation about what the star actually was—was it a comet? Was it an alignment of planets that looked especially bright, being so close together?—but the reality is that stars are only visible when the sky is dark. That means the travel happens when it is night. In the dark spaces and times of our lives when God is going to lead, but we need to be willing to move then.

The magi also end up at the wrong place first, and they get the right answer from an unsuspecting source. How many times in your faith journey has this kind of thing happened? These kinds of things are typical in this journey of faith in Christ. The path often seems clear and easy, but at other times it seems to disappear.

It happens at the cross, of course. God’s own journey in the Word made flesh knows the pain of obstacle and detour. Just as road to Bethlehem first goes by Jerusalem, the path to God’s glory first goes through the humiliation of death. We wind up at the cross of Jesus, disappointed in our sinfulness, sure of God’s absence, emptied of our confidence in ourselves. But God finds a way to respond, to resurrect the journey. The cross is the true star that guides us on the twisting, turning, exciting path of faith. It is a source of comfort and hope: God has passed this twisting, turning, dying way too.

And so, to conclude, the story of our Lord’s Epiphany can teach us at least three things about this journey of faith that we walk. All people are drawn to God. Faith is fueled by questions and mystery. Detours and obstacles are part of it. But God is always guiding, always creating a way where there is no way. That is what it means to walk the journey.

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

Jesus’ (not so) hidden life

a sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas [Year C]

Luke 2:41-52

The other evening at the music ministry Christmas party several of us began reminiscing about the different kids in the congregation who had played the role of baby Jesus in the Children’s Tableau at our children’s Christmas Eve service through the years. We got started talking about it because this year we had two little girls play baby Jesus, which is absolutely fine. Those were the littlest children available that evening. Neither of them were actually newborns, though. The parents of Kate Behrens, who played baby Jesus at the 5pm service, tried to see if she would lie down in the manger, but she wasn’t really having that so they just let her sit up on her mom’s knee.

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a baby Jesus trying out the manger

Our conversation at the party, though, was mainly about Christmases past, and we tried to name the different kids who had been Jesus each year. We got many of them back to the early 2000s. It was fun to name them and realize most of them are still members of this congregation and are now playing the parts of angels or shepherds in the same Christmas program. We also laughed about the time when John Reynolds played Jesus. At 18 months he was the youngest kid in the congregation, but they used him anyway. None of us at the party were at Epiphany in 1983 when he was baby Jesus, but we’d all heard about how his parents put him in the manger and he promptly stood up and waved at everyone.

We could take all of those kids who’ve ever played baby Jesus and line them up here and we’d have a beautiful picture of childhood and young adulthood right before our eyes. We’d get to see that span of life and realize how through the years we’ve had the privilege to see them get bigger and take on new responsibilities, just like we get to watch the other youth in our midst. Parents might even get misty-eyed about how quickly time has passed.

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the second child from the left once served as a baby Jesus…8 years ago.

And yet we don’t get to see any such growth or progression for Jesus. We know almost nothing about Jesus’ own childhood. There are a handful of stories of him as an infant, this single story of him as a tween, and then time passes. All the other stories of Jesus, of course, are of him as a full-grown adult.

Part of this lack of information is understandable. In the ancient world, childhood was not nearly the sacred, blessed time that it is nowadays. Because of disease, many children did not live to see their fifth birthday, so not many resources at all were poured into documenting anyone’s childhood or youth. In addition to that, children were not thought to make any useful contribution to society until they were able to work to support the family. The idea was to hurry up and grow into an adult, “to increase in human and divine favor,” as Luke puts it. Nowadays it’s quite the opposite: stay as young as possible for as long as possible! Back then childhood was largely something to be endured, which is how most people think of adulthood now. We even have a word for it: “adulting.”

It’s natural to have some curiosity about this time of Jesus life, which is called Jesus’ hidden life, since it is hidden from us. Historians and archaeologists can tell us a great deal of things about what life in Nazareth 2000 years ago was like for the average person, but in terms of specific information about Jesus we have very little. How did he interact with his parents and other family members on a day-to-day basis? What were his friendships like? Was there a Mrs. Betsy figure in his life, or a Mr. Scott, or a Mr. Barger, who helped nurture his faith in some way? How did the teenage Jesus deal with peer pressure? With acne? Given that so much time, energy, and money are allocated in the church these days on faith formation for youth and children, it is almost peculiar we know so little about how all that went for Jesus.

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“Holy Family with a little bird” (Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 1650). This painting attempts to depict a scene from Jesus’ hidden life.

What we do know is that his parents were faithful enough in their observance of Judaism to somehow teach him Scriptures and how to read, because by the time he is twelve and he is in the Temple he is able to do that. We know his family had not just the religious devotion but also the means to take the annual Passover pilgrimage from Nazareth to Jerusalem. We also know that he traveled in a caravan to get there, which means he had a group of people from his village that his parents trusted and depended on. People formed caravans because it was a safer way to travel, and when we hear about caravans of migrants coming up to the U.S. from Central America, we probably can imagine the group that Jesus was traveling with wasn’t all that different.

We also know that while Jesus’ caravan is heading home from that pilgrimage, his parents have a Macaulay Culkin –  Home Alone moment. There’s that scene from that classic 1990 movie when Kevin’s mom is finally on the plane with all her relatives, trying to relax after a hectic departure, mentally running through all that she has done when she suddenly realizes her young son is missing. She has absent-mindedly left him at home.There is immediate panic and then an about-face to figure out if he’s OK. Leaving an 8-year-old by himself can be a dangerous, scary thing.

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“Kevin!!!” (Kate McAllister in Home Alone)

I imagine Mary and Joseph have a similar episode, furiously asking all the other family members and friends if they’ve seen Jesus. And then they stop everything to try to figure out where he is, backtracking for three whole days, traipsing through the places they stayed in Jerusalem for the eight days of the festival. For three days they are separated from their child, unable to know what might be happening to him, which must have been a nightmare. I wonder about those families who are still separated from their children at the U.S. border. As of the end of last month, there were still 173 children in custody, which does not include the 8-year-old and the 7-year-old who died while in custody this month. Terrifying.

For Mary and Joseph, thankfully, there is a happy reunion. Just like in “Home Alone” when Kevin’s parents finally find him back at home doing just fine on his own, even holding off some house robbers, Jesus’ parents finally locate him back in the Temple, which he calls his “Father’s house.” There he is, talking to the teachers of the Temple, listening to them and learning from them. We also find out that Jesus is particularly bright when it comes to his grasp on religious matters. The rabbis he is sitting among make note of it, which is a clue for us that Jesus was already at age twelve beginning to show signs of this special relationship with God. We also see Jesus’ parents not fully grasping that, not quite yet understanding how their relationship to him will change, how they will eventually hand him over to the world.

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Young Jesus in the Temple

In Pittsburgh I have a friend who used to teach parenting classes at the Children’s Hospital and through various community organizations. She was a social worker and had raised three daughters of her own and was widely-respected in that field. In general I found her to be someone with a great deal of wisdom about life. When she would talk about her work with me, I remember she would say that she always tried to communicate that the primary job of parenthood is to produce a responsible adult and release him or her into the world. That was it. It wasn’t mainly to make them wise or give them great experiences. She said we even might be tempted to think it is to ensure your child’s happiness or give them the tools to find happiness themselves. The job of a parent was to produce a responsible, loving adult, which means the process of raising children is a releasing, a letting go, and I remember being surprised by that at the time because I didn’t have children and I assumed otherwise.

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What we see with Mary and Joseph on that anxiety-ridden trip to Jerusalem is the beginning—or at least more—of that letting go. He is in their custody for the time-being, but their child belongs to the world. He will come of age under the roof of their house, but ultimately he is going to be a resident of his Father’s house and open it up for everyone. He will be obedient to them in Nazareth, but his calling is a higher obedience of service and love to all people everywhere. And that call is Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace among those he favors. It is the salvation God has prepared in the sight of all people. It is the redemption of the earth.

God gives us the opportunity to grow in our faith our whole life long, and a huge part of that involves turning Jesus loose to let him be who he is called to be. It does no good to fashion Jesus into a tool for our own happiness. It does not help for us think of him only as our personal Savior, or as someone who primarily keeps us safe. Like Mary and Joseph eventually do at some point, we are to release him and let him offer himself for the life of the world in the way God has called him to do. We let him stand up in the manger, wave to the world, and then step out into its assorted beauty and ugliness.

And then maybe he won’t be so hidden anymore! We will end up seeing his face, for example, in the stranger…in the face of the person in search of a home, or in the face of the person at the border. We let him go so that we can come to recognize his life in the youth who is struggling with peer pressure, the child who makes decisions we don’t like or understand, in the person who disagrees with our personal politics, in the person who has hurt us. We let him increase in wisdom and in years so that we can treasure the gifts of youthfulness but also the gifts of being aged and elderly.

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migrant caravan

We let him go into his mission and we see him offer his life for us to show us the superior way of self-sacrifice, the power of humility and the glory of loving others as God loved us. We let him grow up and eventually watch him love us so much that he brings us all into the Father’s house where we one day we will stay forever and ever.

Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

magi

The ride through the December streets of Sherwood Forest and Buena Vista
winding up to the West End
was not all that
long
but from the back of the Volvo wagon
on the way to church
six kids primed for choir practice
could count
a million
Moravian stars

A child’s game but
I must confess
I wish my eyes
were still so trained
on these other journeys
to look for
bursts of
light

Taking risks

a sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord (Christmas Eve)

Luke 2:1-20

Through the ages we, the church of Jesus Christ, have gotten quite a few things wrong, but I think we’ve managed to get worship on Christmas Eve right. I’m sure there is some way it might be improved upon—perhaps rehearse the anthems and music one more time, definitely polish and shorten up the sermon a bit—but on the whole I think we can give ourselves an A+. God is glorified by what we do tonight. Even though it always follows the same pattern, something still stirs each year within us, something compels us to squeeze uncomfortably in a pew in the way we never would for an athletic event or a show in a theater.

And the candles! That’s really the clincher, isn’t it? The soft glow of, well, of a thousand points of light bathing the faces and tears of both friends and strangers while voices swell in singing “Silent Night, Holy Night,” the world’s beloved lullaby—well, it’s hard to describe that moment. As they say, “You just have to be there.”

CHristmas Eve sanctuary 2018

This subject of that moment came up in conversation over lunch a few weeks ago. Some people were talking to me about the candlelight part of Christmas Eve worship and they wondered aloud what the everything must look like from the vantage point of the pastor or choir right at that moment. I said, “It is incredibly beautiful, seeing all those faces. It’s impossible not to be moved.” And then I offered, “Well, I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to take a selfie right as we light the candles, if you want?” Naaaah. Even I know that would cross a line.

It could be argued there is no Christmas carol more central, more integral, more crucial to tonight’s worship than that one. Millions of people—perhaps tens of millions—will file into sanctuaries and town squares tonight with candles lighted and sing it. It’s been translated into roughly 140 languages. As many of you are already aware, tonight “Silent Night” celebrates its two hundredth birthday, and to think we only have it because of a church’s broken pipe organ.

You’re probably familiar with the story by now. As Christmas Eve 1818 approached in the little down of Oberndorf, Austria, the priest of the local parish, Joseph Mohr, was worried that the church’s broken-down organ wouldn’t be able to carry the congregation’s singing. Wondering what to do, he remembered he had written a poem a written a few years before and he took it to his schoolteacher friend, Franz Gruber, who came up with a tune for it on his guitar. It was six verses long. The priest and his friend performed it with the guitar on Christmas Eve that year and it was an instant favorite.

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Christmas Eve at the Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf, Austria

The version that we sing and know so well comes from a very rough translation done by an Episcopalian pastor serving in New York in 1859. He slowed it down a bit to make it more of a lullaby, but initially it was sung with a quicker tempo, like a jig. He also changed some of the song’s imagery from the original and gave us some turns of phrase that are poetic but a bit awkward. “Round yon virgin”? For the longest time as a kid I thought “Round yon virgin” was “brown, young virgin.” Kind of funny, but that’s probably an accurate description of Mary, beautifully brown-skinned middle eastern peasant woman that she was—at least it’s more accurate than the lily white one in the nativity scenes I grew up with.

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glad to see a brown-skinned Mary in children’s nativity story books today

If you were to directly translate Joseph Mohr’s first verse, which most of us probably know by heart, and not be concerned with making it rhyme or fit the meter, it would go like this:

                        Silent Night, holy night!
                        Everyone is sleeping.
                        Only the dear, holy couple keeps watch.
                        Pretty boy with curly hair
                        Sleep in heavenly peace.

It’s slightly more vivid than our version, isn’t it? Jesus isn’t just tender and mild; we see the way his hair looks!

One of the original three verses that was left out of our version goes like this:

                        Silent night! Holy Night!
                        Where today all Power poured itself out
                        in Fatherly love
                       And where Jesus as brother to us
                       graciously embraced
                       All people of the earth.

Now that’s some lullaby! Turns out far more is happening with this birth than just some angels singing and a young new mother laying her infant in some straw. With Jesus’ birth, all of God’s power and might, all that wisdom that formed the universe, and all the glory of the heavens is being channeled into Bethlehem in the form of a parent’s love. And more importantly it is not your or I, nor even Mary, who encloses the baby in our arms, but rather God who is enclosing us in his—and not just us here tonight, but all the people on earth.

But here’s the thing: Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr took a risk 200 years ago tonight. They didn’t know how their impromptu carol would go over that evening. They just had to put it out there. It could have bombed. The congregation could have heard it and just as easily thought to themselves, “Oh dear, Lord, someone please fix that organ by next Sunday.”

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the original manuscript of “Stille Nacht”

The creators of the song took a risk, which is what is involved every time a gift is given or a statement made. Every time a poet writes something, every time a composer comes up with a new melody, every time an artist throws colors on a canvas there is risk.

Every time a computer programmer re-thinks a code, every time doctor tries to heal, every time a teacher draws up a new lesson plan, risk is involved.

Every time a Christmas present is wrapped and given, every time the family decides to gather around the table for a meal and conversation, risks are taken.

Part of life, part of being incarnational, is putting ourselves out there, hoping whatever we do and think is received and considered beautiful. We create, we utter, we make choices, we decide, never knowing exactly how it might go. We sit with the sick, and we might get sick ourselves. We take seriously someone’s pain and we might figure out there’s something we can do about it. We say “I love you” and we risk hearing nothing in return.

Some of you, I imagine, took a risk to be here tonight. You have doubts, you have wounds, but you still came to worship and hear and to hold the candles again. And we are blessed by your presence.

No matter the reason any of us is here and no matter the fears any of us may harbor about life, no matter the ways in which each of you risk yourselves daily, may we hear tonight above all that God takes a risk for us. In all the singing and wondering and crying and rejoicing may we come to understand again that’s God’s nature. He tries the incarnational thing too. In pouring himself out into that manger in Bethlehem, in revealing himself first to a bunch of no-names from out in the fields, in allowing himself to be held by a tender mother and a no-doubt nervous father, God puts himself out there. God risks again and again for us, lighting another bright candle against the wind of a dark world.

And even when we don’t have time for it, or when we misuse it, or have become to cynical and untrusting to hear it God still risks his love for you and me and hopes it is received and valued.

“Round yon” is not the only time or place God risks things. It continues from there in the life of one who walks in the margins. He risks confronting demons, risks to touch a leper, to eat with tax collectors and sinners. He puts himself out there at a table with bread and wine, where he is placed in the hands of the people he comes to save, body broken and blood shed. And he puts himself out there on a hill outside of town where the power of God pours out in Fatherly love once more. He opens his arms and they’re pinned down by nails that way. There he graciously embraces for real all the peoples of the earth.

In his op-ed in the New York Times, writer Peter Wehner notes that humans are “naturally drawn to covenants and karma, to cause and effect, to earning what we receive.” “Grace is different,” he says. “It isn’t entirely rational. It interrupts…the consequences of your actions.”[1] Grace and risk…two hinged concepts that our God functions with that interrupts our sin. And we know he is still risking today…inspiring us to risk forgiveness, to risk speaking for the voiceless, to risk, as Paul says to Titus, being people “zealous for good deeds.” God inspires us to risk gentleness in the face of a harsh world, and to risk kindness, especially since we’re drawn to operate with karma so people get what they deserve. Jesus, the gracious risk taker, born again in you and me.

serving in Atlanta

Tonight across the world, in a million churches big and small fixed and functional pipe organs will start to play a slow lullaby for another century of Christmas Eve worship. And among us, as this happens, young children in our pews will be given the awesome responsibility to hold a lit candle, not tilt it, and sing about the brown, young virgin and the pretty baby with curly hair. Some of them will be holding their “Silent Night” candle for the first time. Real fire…real wax…real risk. Bearing the light for all around them to see. If you can, find one tonight and grab a glance. They’re thinking “I can do this. I’m big enough. I can be trusted with this flame.”

May we all feel that thrill and that gracious, heavenly risk as we give witness each day to the Lord of Light.

Thanks be to God!

Candle child

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/23/opinion/grace-jesus-christmas-christianity.html

In our midst

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

Luke 3:7-18 and Zephaniah 3:14-18a

The other day I was driving down the road and my cell phone rang. I glanced over and didn’t recognize the number even though it was a local one. I’ve been getting a lot of random robocalls lately, so I just let it go to voice mail, which usually solves the problem and I don’t think any more about it. However, when I finally got to where I was going I noticed the person had actually left a voice mail. I started to think maybe someone was in the hospital or that someone needed me for some important reason, so before I got out of my car I listened to it with anticipation. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I hear that it is Jacob from Project Green, following up with a quote they gave us about my lawn in the spring of 2017 that I never even followed through with.

I am not in lawn mode these days. There were still six inches of snow on the ground that day. I’m waist-deep in Advent and Christmas preparations and this guy is wanting me to think about my grass in the spring? From a visit he made over a year and a half ago? He got about halfway through his opening pitch before I clicked “delete.”

But a few seconds later I had some regret about that. What was he going to tell me? Yes, it’s December, but maybe there was a good reason he was calling. I became curious. Maybe he was going to tell me there was something important I need to be doing—that even though it is winter (technically-speaking still fall) I can still nurture my grass. For it is surely there, isn’t it, even if I can’t see it yet? And there are tasks related to a lush green spring that I might be able to do even now, when I’m waiting in the white. The grass, you may say, is still in my midst, and that, that in itself is a cheerful thought.

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a soggy but cheerful sight

The message for this third Sunday of Advent is that the Lord is in our midst and that in itself is a cheerful thought. Even if we can’t see him or perceive him in the way we might expect the Lord is still in our midst. He may be obscured much of the time by a layer of the world’s brokenness, or terror, or grief, but he is here.

That’s not just the message for the third Sunday of Advent. That was the message to God’s people Israel for years at many points throughout their journey of faith. Their primary posture for so many years had been one of waiting, of wondering whether or not a time of unity, peace, and righteousness would come. They expected a leader who would gather them and feed them and allow them to “draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.”[1] And even as they waited, several of the prophets, like Zephaniah, reminded them that the Lord was nevertheless somehow already in the midst of them. The time of his arrival and salvation was so near, in fact, they could go ahead start rejoicing, dancing, partying. They still might look out and see mainly the ways they and their world fall short, but if they looked hard enough, or with the right lens, they could already see signs of his presence.

Have you ever noticed you can wait for something and anticipate it so much that it’s almost like it’s already started? Theologians and bible scholars call this prolepsis, which is from the Greek words for “before” and “take.” It’s assuming or acting as if something you are waiting for is already happening or has already happened.  Jacob’s call from Project Green was proleptic. I can’t see the grass yet. I am waiting for the spring to start, but I apparently could take some advice now and do some things for the lawn as if it’s already growing and thriving.

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The National Football League is in a bit of a proleptic phase right now. If you watch games, you see that the announcers are talking about what the playoffs are going to be like even though they don’t start until January. They throw potential playoff pairings up on the screen and in some cases teams are playing like they’re in the playoffs hoping to be there in a month. Prolepsis is the “Gentlemen, start your engines,” phase of the race. Even though the flag hasn’t dropped, we’re revving our engines, going through some key motions, smelling the fumes and in many ways we’d think the race is already underway.

This is true of Jesus’ arrival. This is what the prophets want Israel to focus on so they don’t lose hope, and it’s definitely what John the Baptist is going on and on about  on the banks of the River Jordan. “Even now the ax is already lying at the root of the trees,” he says. Even now it’s time to bear fruit! Even as they are filled with expectation and questioning in their hearts John gives them all examples of what that fruit-bearing might look like. He says they can take and receive parts of God’s kingdom before it’s even really here. And like Jacob the Lawn Guy, he’s going to outline specific, concrete actions for any person at any stage in life. Soldiers, tax collectors, ordinary people who accumulate more than they really need: anyone and everyone can bear fruit now that matches the kingdom that is coming. When we take part in these things, we see signs that the kingdom isn’t only on its way. It is in some ways already here.

John has a way about him, though. His delivery is a bit aggressive and confrontational and we can see how people might be put off. And he certainly doesn’t like people talking religiously and acting the part with no intention of true repentance.

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John the Baptist preaching to the people

It certainly appears that some people have gotten his message here, which is exciting. For example, this week I learned that someone in our congregation is undergoing surgery tomorrow to donate a kidney to someone they barely know who is in desperate need of one. This person isn’t looking for any special recognition or honor. They just heard about the need and started researching how kidney donation works and how easy it is to live with only one. John the Baptist says anyone who has two coats must share with anyone who has none. Apparently this person heard “two kidneys.”  When I learn about things like that, I know the kingdom is in many ways already here. In fact, the Lord is in my midst.

When I walked into the Chapel on Friday and saw gifts lined up and wrapped carefully for distribution to children at Ridge Elementary School, I see that the kingdom has already started to arrive. The Lord is in our midst. But then I learned that this is the first year that Epiphany, along with another local congregation, have taken on the entire task of gift distribution from the administration at Ridge, I am further encouraged that the Lord is near. Apparently, the needs in that school’s community (which is, in fact, our community) have become so great that it has overwhelmed the guidance counselor’s department. Three of our members stepped in, along with some volunteers from Welborne United Methodist Church, to spearhead the whole undertaking. It began in October with research and registration to learn about children’s needs, which led to the tags on our Giving Tree, and your vigorous shopping and wrapping and dropping gifts off in the middle of a snowstorm, and then culminated with thirty-two volunteers, youth and adults, showing up in the school parking lot yesterday to distribute them all. The volunteers had helped to secure funding to pay for interpreters for yesterday’s distribution because so many of the families do not speak fluent English, but the interpreters preferred to do their work for free. The Lord is in the midst of us.

When I log on to Facebook and I see someone upload a photo of a bunch of high schoolers and middle schoolers having a good time on a Saturday night, and what they’re doing is standing outside the home of a woman in our congregation who just lost her husband and they’re holding candles and singing her Christmas carols, I think “how proleptic.” (OK, I didn’t really think it that way, but you understand). I’m still waiting for this new season to come, but I here are some kids acting as if it’s already started.

Caroling 2015 outside.jpg

And the best proof we have that the Lord is in our midst, that the kingdom we’re waiting for is also already here is staring us right in the face. Above the altar there, looming over the bread and wine, over the spring-like altar flowers given in memory of those who’ve died, over the single rose reminding us a new baby’s birth, just as it lovingly looms in every suffering corner of this world. It is the empty cross. John says the One who is Coming is more powerful than he is. Faith gives us the lens to look at the cross and see a powerful love for us. It is love that doesn’t just offer a coat for someone in need, but which offers its whole life. It is mercy that isn’t just satisfied with everyone getting what they deserve, but in making sure everyone’s true needs are met. It’s a grace that doesn’t stop at being satisfied with what he earns, but only in what he can give.

sanctuary Epiphany

Love that offers itself…mercy that knows our needs…and grace that gives what we haven’t earned. This is the One Who is Coming, the one who baptizes us so we burn like fire and whose purpose of compassion flows through us like the Holy Spirit.

And the word is: he’s already here! It’s time to rejoice. The call is coming in, the phone is beeping, you’re driving down the highway of life. The question: will we just let it go to voicemail?

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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[1] Isaiah 12:3

Off the radar

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

Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 3:1-6

advent-wreath-two-candles

I usually get to hear some amazing stories and remembrances when I visit people. Two weeks ago I was in the home of Janet and Keith Goodson, and I can’t recall how we ended up on this topic but Janet was sharing about her college experience. It was fascinating to me. She was born and raised in Person County, North Carolina, a fairly rural area, and when she got ready to graduate from high school, her English teacher took on the role of guidance counselor and scouted out placed for Janet to continue her education. This was 1952, and it was not altogether common for young women to go off to college in those days, but Janet displayed the gifts and the ambition to do so. However, she was going to need to pay for her education, and that required work-study opportunities. At the time, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, her primary choice, did not allow women to participate in work study programs, and neither did the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, another place that she considered. Those were the two places closest to Person County that had degree programs Janet was looking for. It looked like the doors were going to be closed for her.

Then her persistent English teacher found out that way out in eastern part of the state—in a place somewhat “off the radar” for a person from Person County—at what is now East Carolina University, a new female dean had instituted work-study programs for women. The Dean’s name was Ruth Allen White, and she had been hired by the university as Dean of Women just one year earlier. Perfect timing for Janet. She applied, was accepted, and enrolled. She ended up working in the library 36 hours a week and completed her Bachelors degree in 3 years.

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Ruth Allen White, Dean of Women at ECU (1951-1969)

I left the Goodsons’ that day thinking about how Dean White prepared the way for hundreds and maybe even thousands of women, many from rural areas, to arrive on campus and receive a university education. I like to think about how many lives were changed, how many doors were opened for women and for their families by Dean White’s insistence to get that policy approved. Eventually, of course, the larger, more well-known and better-endowed institutions in the state would follow suit, but in North Carolina it began in a more off-the-radar college by a visionary new administrator.

A key theme of Advent is preparing the way for God, and on this second Sunday we hear that a visionary new “administrator” appears off the radar in the wilderness in order to do that. Preparing is not just a theme of Advent, however. It’s a theme in all of Scripture. The prophets mention it several times throughout Israel’s history leading right up to the time Jesus is born: a key component of receiving the promises of God involves some sort of making way, some sort of rearranging of things.

One of those earlier prophets is Malachi, who was writing in the 5th century before Christ, a time when people seemed a bit lackadaisical and indifferent to God’s presence and activity in their lives. God says that part of what Malachi would do as a messenger is prepare the people like ore needs to be prepared to render gold or silver, so they could be restored to the righteousness for which they were made and be pleasing to God. Shining like gold or silver sounds good to me, but there’s going to be a process to get them there.

REFINING-FIRE

The people of Israel could point to many more of their ancient prophets who were concerned about preparing the way. And then one of these messengers appears on the scene that the gospel writers want to tell us about—that wilderness-dwelling visionary guy. Luke starts by listing all the standard, well-known movers and shakers and kingdom-stakers of the time. He mentions Tiberias and Pilate and Herod in Galilee and the chief priests in Jerusalem, but then says the word of God does not come to any of them, not to the castles and fortresses and temples. It comes to this visionary John son of Zechariah, son of a small-town synagogue priest, way out in the regions of Judah and around Jordan. The voice cries out from off the radar, just like the older prophets said. This John turns out to be the one who announces God’s arrival and gives us the clue as to what to do. It’s as if this all says, “You can never be sure of how or where God’s Word is going to show up.” We can count on the fact it will, but we shouldn’t assume that it will always take the predictable channels of power and control. And just as that dean at East Carolina surely had to change people’s minds about the roles and opportunities of women, John comes talking about changing heart and changing perspective. That’s the critical part of this preparing for God.

The word for this is “repentance.” That’s what we’re told the core of his message was about. John went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” I think a lot of time we associate repentance with some notion of feeling bad about ourselves or admitting we are wrong about something. The word has taken on some negative connotations, to some degree, probably thanks to many preachers: “Repent!” has taken on this meaning of “I know you’re doing wrong!” or “You’re not pure like me!”

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Saint John the Baptist (El Greco)

In fact, repentance is more like a change of perspective or a change of mind. It’s about consciously being open to seeing things differently, to understanding things differently, which leads to responding to things differently. A part of repentance involves ceasing old ways, but it has more to do with turning around and embracing something new, stopping and re-directing one’s attention. Places where there used to be mountains and hills too high or too cumbersome to climb are now flattened so that they are passable. Valleys that used to be so steep that they would hinder progress are to be filled. These are the kinds of activities that John relates to repentance.

Interestingly enough, the past two years of working with our building team about the renovations and expansions to our church property have taught me a lot about how to prepare to receive people here. To make our front entrance area and parking lot more accessible to more people, especially people with mobility needs, we will literally have to fill some valleys and flatten some hills. The changes to the parking lot to accommodate better and more handicapped parking spaces means grading and leveling out our current one, a process that will involve bringing in some fill dirt and re-paving a lot. Perhaps we should call it “repenting” the parking lot and entrance areas.

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I’ve also been surprised to learn that this is one of the most expensive parts of the plans. It takes a lot of effort to change perspective and turn in a new direction. But we do this and we realize its value to us because we know that God shows up here every week. In the new people visiting, in the families who want to feel a part of a faith community, Jesus is present, searching and waiting for us to receive them. So we prepare the way. We open ourselves to a changed perspective.

Sometimes I wonder if we still trust that God does show up in our everyday lives. Do we still think it’s worth it to prepare the way, to do some things differently that might shift our perspective? Or are we indifferent, a bit tone-deaf, like the people to whom Malachi found himself preaching? One well-known Lutheran clergyman from the 20th century named Edmund Steimle talks about this a bit in a devotion I read this week. He says that we often are willing to speak about how God can show up in our crisis moments of our lives, or in church and worship, in the grand ways when we find ourselves needing or looking for something major to occur.

But what about in the common and trivial and, he says, “in what we might consider the inappropriate moments”? Are we aware he arrives there and then? Steimle says God’s “huge joke…is always appearing to be less than he is.”[1]

I think realizing this is a huge part of repenting—seeing God’s messengers as the ones who are often off the radar. It is having our perspective changed by God’s grace to see that God comes to us first and foremost on the cross of Jesus, a place of suffering and unexpected humiliation. The cross is “off-the-radar” as it gets for the divine life. The act of repentance involves seeing God’s greatest loss actually as the greatest gift for us and for creation. It is coming to regard the places of pain and hurt in our lives as the areas where our greatest growth can occur because God is at work there, healing and refining gold. It is seeing, for example, that unplanned conversation you first wanted to pass off as an unexpected interruption as a place of holy ground. When we are reminded that God comes to us in these cross-borne ways we can start to get ready to receive him.

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Not me, but this is kind of what I do.

Last week a member stopped me after worship and asked me why I bowed my head at the point in the Communion liturgy when we sing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” No one had ever asked me about that before, but it’s something I’ve always done and that Pastor Chris Price, my predecessor, did too. Pastor Joseph also genuflects slightly at that point. There’s probably some formal seminary answer to that question of hers, but as I thought about it, I told her that for me it was a way of demonstrating reverence for Jesus’ arrival in the sacrament. It’s not that I’m more holy than anyone else; no, in fact, at that point I’m changing perspective, acknowledging our Lord’s presence on behalf of the whole congregation.

And as I lift that cup I then look at you—the presence of Christ in our midst—I look then beyond you to our doors, and then to our parking lot. These may all be ordinary, regular, “off the radar,” but we trust he is here. Come to think of it, maybe my bowing is a little repentance for all of us to take part in, a nod of the head that we can receive Christ, holy and humble, in these and in all places. Here he comes, the One promised through the prophets. And like John says as he wanders through the wilderness, preparing the way, we know in Jesus all flesh shall see their salvation.

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Edmund Steimle in “From Death to Birth.” For All the Saints, volume III, pg 12 1995 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau.

Let Earth Receive Her King

a sermon for Christ the King [Year B]

John 18:33-37

“Joy to the world! The Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!”

There’s a good chance that if you know any hymn by heart, it’s that one. And there’s also a good chance it makes you think of think of Christmas. It may make some of the more liturgically-particular people among us think of Advent, since that’s actually the section of our hymnal it is listed in. Whichever the case may be, it makes us think of this time of year as we round the corner of Thanksgiving and set our sights on the birth of Christ, and all of that is understandable since “Joy to the World” was the most-published Christmas hymn of the 20th century.

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Isaac Watts (July 17, 1674 – November 25, 1748)

However, the writer of “Joy to the World,” an 18th-century English clergyman by the name of Isaac Watts, might be surprised to learn that because he did not write it as a Christmas hymn. He did not write it as an Advent hymn, either. Watts just wrote it as a hymn that could be sung at any and every time of the year. He based it loosely on Psalm 98, and the note he included just under its title and before the first line says, “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” Although it’s become for us the quintessential Christmas carol, “Joy to the World” was probably never intended to focus us on a baby in Bethlehem, but the final arrival of Jesus and his eternal reign over all things. When we sing about every heart preparing room we’re not primarily singing for a child who’s looking for a room in the inn but rather for a King who has lived through Good Friday, a King who has tried with everything he has  to surround us and infuse us with God’s love.

In fact, that’s really the underlying message of everything the church says and sings and does, not just Isaac Watts’ hymn. We wait for and place our hope on a kingdom that is coming where Jesus’ reign will be received and acknowledged by all “as far as the curse is found.” That is, we expect Jesus love and mercy is able to advance and conquer wherever human brokenness is present—the brokenness in our hearts, in our relationships with others, and in our relationship with creation. There is no place that is off-limits for the love of Jesus.

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You could say that’s really our main task right now, in fact: to get the world ready to have Jesus as its King. The challenge is that Jesus’ kingdom has some very peculiar qualities about it. For one, Jesus is not going to force anyone to know about his kingdom or force anyone into his kingdom, at least for now. He’s not even going to force his reign on Pontius Pilate, who holds Jesus’ very life in his hands.

Unlike all the authorities of this world—all of the monarchies and democracies and chiefdoms and homeowners’ associations—the authority that God establishes in Jesus never resorts to coercion or violence or financial penalties. Jesus invites people to live under his authority. Jesus performs loving and life-transforming acts in order for people to receive the truth about him. Pilate and the other empires of the world fundamentally don’t understand this because, at the end of the day, they need to back up their authority with a weapon.

We may grow frustrated that Jesus never lays down the law, so to speak, with Pilate—that he never consents to being defended violently by his followers. He’s so close to the throne there in Jerusalem, so close to where he needs to be in order to take over and rule the land. So close! I mean, if there ever were a time for a Second Amendment it would be now, right?—as Jesus is about to head to the cross, as he and his disciples are about to watch it all come crashing down? But in Jesus’ kingdom there is apparently no right to bear arms. Arms don’t even exist where Jesus reigns, so people can’t have a right to them.

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Christ before Pilate (or Pilate before Christ?)

The empires of the world don’t comprehend the kind of power that Jesus wields and neither do we, truth be told, until that love envelops us and transforms us with its forgiveness and grace. It’s not like that we’ve got it all figured out and Pilate is the dummy. To some degree, we’re all Pilate, unwilling to see and make sense of this pure gift of love standing right in front of us. But when it does envelop and transform us, we begin to see that it is something to be shared and spread. If there is a force behind Jesus’ authority, it is the force of self-giving, the force of handing over oneself in love.

Last weekend I was with our 7th and 8th graders at the Virginia Synod Youth Event called “Lost and Found.” The theme of the event was “Lost Hate and Found Love,” and the Bible verse they used as the anchor was the part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he talks about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. The way they laid out the presentations for the theme was genius because they based it on a roll-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons. The small group presentations featured a group of bitter rivals playing against each other in cutthroat fashion until one decides to set herself back so that all can win together. It takes them all a while to catch on.

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At one point in our small group discussions, we had to pretend that we were in a fortress surrounded by an army and that our commanders had told us they were enemies and needed to be destroyed. However, we knew they could be made into friends, and so our quest was to cleverly come up with a secret plan to turn them into allies. Let me tell you, 7th and 8th graders can be very creative with loving enemies if it’s turned into a fantasy quest and no limits are placed on imagination! One small group decided to complete the quest they’d tell their commanders they were going to poison the enemy but then organize an airlift of fried chicken to the battlefield so they could all eat together and have a dance party. (Fried chicken always gets the job done).

The group I worked with ended up suggesting the more practical ways of turning enemies into friends—things like learning to understand your enemy’s point of view, that the people persecuting you may be lonely or hurt. I came away wondering how Christ-followers might help hearts prepare room for Jesus if we all tapped into the creativity and energy of our inner middle schooler.

Jesus’ love is still transforming people and inviting people to live under his authority, and it happens when people listen to Jesus’ voice. It is a voice that calls us to follow and lay down our lives for the other, to lay aside our goals of winning and conquering and seeing instead that God is concerned with all of us being together, all of God’s children crossing the finish line as one. Even Pontius Pilate.

This past week there was a feature article in a regional publication about two local-area school principals. The article discussed the many challenges of serving in the role of public-school principal these days, of the demands on personal time and the crazy amount of creativity and problem-solving skills that school administrators need. It became clear as the article unfolded that the best way for those principals to run their school communities, the best way to establish their authority was through open communication, honesty, and vulnerability. They have found that being open to understanding students’ real problems, being willing to listen and listen some more, and being ready to lead by example is absolutely critical as a leader. Effective principals don’t lord themselves over people in the hallways or lock themselves up in a fortress office.

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Mills Godwin High School

One of the more poignant parts in that article was when the reporter and the principal are making their rounds through the school and they stop at a student table where stickers that say, “You can sit with me” are being handed out by a student organization created to combat some of the social issues teens face today. The principal herself stops, gets a sticker, and slaps it on herself so that kids can know they can sit even with her if they need a buddy or listening ear in study hall or the library.[1]

As it happens, that principal is a member of this congregation and currently serves on our council. In fact, she grew up in this congregation, learning about Jesus kingdom here every Sunday. She’s out there in the world, along with you, along with countless others like her, figuring out ways to spread the selfless love of Jesus, preparing room for him to come and reign. This is how it will happen, folks, as the Pilates of the world interrogate and bully. Those who know Jesus’ love will respond by saying, “You can sit with me.” Because at this table the King has said, “You can sit with me.”

One of the things we try to do every night around our dinner table is take turns sharing our highs and lows of the day. We go around the table and interrogate each other, “What was your high? What was your low? What are you thankful for today?” Our daughters always want to include our 2-year-old in this ritual, and they’re really persistent and creative at phrasing those questions in ways that a 2-year-old might understand. They’ll say things like, “When did you smile today?” or “What made you happy today?” and each time they ask him  he looks at us and says, “Umm…Jesus!” And then they’ll ask him, “What made you sad today?” and he will reply, “Umm..Jesus!”

Granted, it’s probably a stretch to say the kid knows what he’s saying. He’s just giving the answer he thinks we want to hear because he’s heard it somewhere and he’s learned it means something.

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Christ our Redeemer statue, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

And yet, in some ways, we all await the the time when that’s the only worthwhile answer any of us will be able to give. We will no longer pace back and forth indecisively like Pontius Pilate, wondering what to with this love that covers all sin as far as the curse is found. We will no longer see enemies as enemies but see the cross has made us all friends. And the only truthful answer we’ll be able to give for anything is “Jesus”—the way he’s been reflected in our lives, the way he was present in our good times, the way he held us in the bad, the way his self-giving authority has held sway over our self-serving one.

At the end of the day, only the things of us and our time here which speak of King Jesus will be what remains. And we’ll be so fully transformed by him we’ll be able to answer by heart. And on that day, my brothers and sisters, there will be joy. Joy…to the world.

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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[1] “Under Pressure.” Jack Cooksey in Richmond Mag, November 12, 2019

Thanksgiving as refugees

a sermon for Thanksgiving Day [Year B]

Matthew 6:25-33

Everybody probably has a Thanksgiving that stands out in their memory. After all, the whole premise of this day rests on a gathering around food that stood out to the pilgrims and their descendants to such a degree that Abraham Lincoln proposed a national holiday around it in 1863. For some of you it might be the Thanksgiving when someone had returned home from military service, or the first thanksgiving with a new child or in a new home. Maybe this will turn out to be the Thanksgiving you will talk about for years to come.

One of the Thanksgiving meals that stands out in my memory was one that our congregation in Pittsburgh organized jointly with the Muslim and Christian Burmese refugee community we had helped resettle. They had only arrived a few months earlier from one of the refugee camps in Myanmar, and I’ll never forget what they looked like standing in the airport when they deboarded, each one holding a white plastic Ziploc bag that contained everything they could call theirs. They were put up in an urban neighborhood in some affordable row houses we had furnished with donated furniture.

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The Ah Pi family (ignore the photostamp date)

By late November that year they were still getting their feet under them, but we invited them over to a meal in our church basement one Sunday evening to celebrate this traditional holiday in their new country, but we didn’t have a way to get them there, so a member of our congregation figured out a way to borrow a public school bus and a school bus driver. We had also helped them do all of their food shopping earlier, so when the time came they grabbed all their grocery bags and boarded this big yellow bus and rode over to our church and started fixing their food in the church kitchen right alongside our members.

We made turkey with all the trimmings that, according to tradition, were eaten by those original pilgrim refugees from England in the 17th century, and they made traditional Burmese dishes, which, we quickly learned, contain a whole lot of hot spicy peppers. They spoke no English at all at that point, so there wasn’t a whole lot of talking going on, just chopping vegetables and boiling big vats of water. The refugee children were fascinated with the deep fryer some of our guys were using to cook one of the turkeys. I can only imagine how gross and bizarre that process must have looked to them. It kind of looks bizarre to me.

Our church women, by contrast, were fascinated with the fact the refugees didn’t wash any of the veggies they were chopping up. All clumps of dirt that were caked onto the onions and peppers went straight into the pot like everything else. After all, they had lived in a refugee camp without running water for 18 years. Washing produce was a waste of resources, especially since the boiling water and the acid from peppers kills germs anyway.

To help drive home the idea of thanksgiving, which none of us could figure out the Burmese word for in a way we were sure they could understand us, we decided to take large pieces of newsprint and tape them to the wall and spread out magazines and scissors and rubber cement on tables in front of them. The idea was we’d all make collages together on that newsprint with images of things we were thankful for. It took some prodding and some jerky sign language motions, but we think we got the point across. We ended up with four or five posters of random pictures cut out from People and InStyle Magazine, which was all we really had.
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Unfortunately none of the photos in the magazines resembled anything remotely similar to the culture they came from. So in the end we had collages of Taylor Swift’s hair and jewelry and Will Smith’s clothes, piles of colorful food stacked perfectly on white plates, and the mansion-like homes pictured some Nationwide insurance ad, which didn’t look like any of the houses or apartments that any of us actually lived in. We think the refugee families understood what the point of that task was, but to this day I worry we may have given the impression that our little craft was an American tradition and that wherever they happen to live nowadays there’s a little community of Burmese people cutting up magazines on Thanksgiving while the food cooks.

When the food was finally ready we all ate and cautiously but smilingly tried one another’s foods, but they thought ours was too bland and none of the Americans could really handle the level of spiciness in their food, so we both more or less stuck to what we had made ourselves. The Americans were actually gulping full glasses of water to wash their dishes down.

Oh, the risks we took that evening! The risks our guests took—boarding a bus going to a place they had no idea of, preparing food and eating it with people they didn’t know and couldn’t speak with who ate strange, tasteless food and who plunged whole birds into tubs of boiling oil. And the risks we took—toward friendship, risks in hospitality across cultures, in possibly being misunderstood, in swallowing things that could make us sick—all for the notion of giving thanks, for including newcomers in a tradition centered around a trust in the abundance of God. We had no idea how we would pull off such an evening, but in the end it went perfectly. To be honest, it went better than any of us imagined.

Indeed, how the act of giving thanks slices right into anxiety, like a knife-blade going through a dirty onion! How the act of pausing to remember God’s provision for all of life boils all the germs of worry and doubt away! One cannot be grateful and worried at exactly the same time. It is mentally impossible.

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And how much we do tend to worry! We worry about our whole lives, planning them out with careful precision, avoiding risks when possible. We habitually check the stock market, the values of our 401K, or we add another extracurricular to our high school resume with the hopes it will get us into the right college, Ever focused on the future, we position ourselves and our children in all sorts of ways for a track to success. And while we know none of those things is intrinsically bad, it does seem to go against the life of vulnerability and fragility that Jesus calls us to. A life that is ever focused on the future—on what we need to do next to make us ready to respond to what might be coming down the road—can cause us to miss the moment of service and humility as well as the neighbor Jesus has placed in front of us now. When we concentrate chiefly on what might be coming and how it might affect us, we end up taking our mind off of the opportunities to seek God’s righteousness this very moment.

Why, in fact, just this week a member of the Men’s lunch group asked me to give him a ride to the restaurant and back while his wife ran errands. We had a great time at lunch, enjoyed the conversation, but towards the end of the meal I received a text that immediately refocused my attention on what might happen that afternoon. My anxiety went up, my brain conjured up all kinds of different scenarios and how I might respond, and I got up from the table, paid my bill, jumped in the car, and made it all the way back to church before I realized I had left my passenger back at the restaurant. I didn’t even realize I’d ditched him until I met his wife when I came back in the door and she said, “Where’s my husband??”

Jesus lays down this principle right at the beginning of his time with his followers. Like my Burmese friends, they are discovering they are embarking on a journey seeking a new kingdom—carrying only what they need in their hands, left to the care of people who might extend charity. They discover they are being called to take a risk, a big risk. It is the risk of being a trusting disciple in a world that doubts God’s ability to provide, in a world that believes of gospel of There Is Not Enough and This Will Never Work Out. And instead of obsessing about what they’ve left behind or what they still lack or how it’s all going to be enough they are to venture forth in faith. Can any worrying, in fact, add a single hour to your life?

And, as if to make sure they get the point, Jesus himself will lead the way. He is prepared to show God’s abundance throw in the whole of his life—to become the epitome of vulnerability and fragility—and plunge it all in to death on a cross. In a risk that demonstrates just how powerful God is in overcoming doubt and fear and anything that could separate us from him, Jesus offers himself up. Because of his love for us, we will find that even death becomes a place where we can say thanks be to God.

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If for whatever reason this holiday is painful for you, of if you find you don’t have a Thanksgiving memory that stands out or is fun to recall, may this meal be that for you. This is a Great Thanksgiving, the chief reminder that God has provided all we really need, that those who sow with tears reap with songs of joy. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.” Here is where the Lord of a new kingdom in which all are welcome, where all have a home, offers himself up again. He hands over his life in forgiveness and mercy and takes a whole bunch of strangers and makes them friends.

Have courage to step forward and receive it. It’s all been washed. Lay aside your fear of risks, your worries, your hesitations of food that has a kick to it. The kingdom of God and all its righteousness is given to you.

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.