“Our Jewish Story”— Sermon for 1 Christmas

“Our Jewish Story”

Sermon for January 1, 2017 —1 Christmas
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa, MN
George Martin

In our tradition our new year is a month old. Christians started the church year on the first Sunday of Advent. This day (January 1st) is called the first Sunday after Christmas. Even thought the commercial world doesn’t know it, Christmas continues for us. It’s almost better this way.

My concession to this being a new year is that I created a documents folder on my laptop yesterday that has a folder for each month of 2017. And in March folder I placed a document I’ll use when teaching Paul’s letter to the Galatians in Lent. I’ll do that on Tuesday evenings and on Wednesday afternoons for any of you who might be interested.

I’m thinking ahead.

And at the same time, with this sermon, at least, I’m thinking backwards. This isn’t a review of the past year, but I do have one of the more recent news items on my mind. I think you know that the Israeli government is extremely upset with President Obama. The USA didn’t cast a negative vote on the resolution of the security council that condemned further encroachments on the West bank with regard to Jewish settlements.

Well, having started with this political issue let me clear: this sermon does not concern the wisdom or stupidity of the actions taken by our President. This one historical moment does bring Israel to our attention, and it is the land of Israel that ties in with our gospel lesson from Matthew.

Matthew roots the birth of Jesus in a very particular historical moment—namely when King Herod ruled Judah and Jerusalem. It began, “Now after they had left….” So who just left? The wise men, who “had been told in a dream not to return to Herod.”

In case you didn’t notice, Matthew is a strong believer in dreams as part of this narrative. First there was the angel that appeared to Joseph. Next the wise men had the GPS dream  to avoid Jerusalem their way back home. Joseph has another GPS dream to go to Egypt. And then after Herod dies Joseph was told in a dream to take Mary and the child to go the Israel, but on the way, he received his last GPS dream, and was told to avoid Judea and head to Galilee.

Now in case it hasn’t already occurred to you: this isn’t the first Joseph in Holy Scripture who had powerful dreams. This isn’t the first story of some wicked tyrant ruler who fears the birth of a particular child, and proceeds to massacre innocent children. Being called to leave Egypt with the child and head back to Israel as Joseph was has echoes of another Exodus —the one led by Moses, who happened to have survived by being placed in a basket, and ironically adopted into Pharaoh’s family.

Everything in this story that Matthew tells is about knowing what was in the books of Genesis and Exodus. That’s part of the frame for knowing Jesus as Messiah for the community that stood behind Matthew’s gospel, which is the focus for this liturgical year. Some scholars believe this is the most Jewish of all the four Gospels. I think that’s a debatable question, but it certainly is the Gospel that most frequently has direct allusions to specific texts from the Old Testament.

Since this is a Lutheran church and we have this gospel clearly rooted in reference to the Hebrew bible, I feel a responsibility to discuss Luther in reference to Jews in the 15th century. My source for these reflections is an article by Professor James McNutt titled “Luther and the Jews Revisited.” I don’t know if you know that there were two parts to the life of Luther with regard to Jews.

In the first part, when he was working out his understanding of justification by faith, and when he courageously resisted the papacy, he wrote a book titled, “That Jesus was Born a Jew.” That was in 1523. Twenty years later he wrote “On the Jews and Their Lies.” In the later work his vitriolic language echoed the century in which he lived that created a hatred climate with regard to Jews. The anti-Jewish sentiments of that time, according to McNutt ranged from “verbal abuse to open murder.” (p. 43)

Luther’s earlier theology of the cross had declared that with regard to salvation of the Jews, “God would be God.” Even in a revision of his commentary on Romans in 1541 Luther said thinking about evangelizing Jews, “who knows what God will do with the Jews.” Two years later he wrote the book that the Nazis happily republished to further their twisted aims.

Now please don’t think for a moment I’m trying to diminish the iconic image of Luther the theologian. The problem of the past 1900 years of Christianity is that Christian identity has been shaped in a vacuum thinking that Judaism is somehow radically different. Even though we kept the Old Testament, there has been a persistent wedge between Jews and Christians. The Biblical scholar Markus Bochmuehl said it is a wedge that “…has from antiquity to the period of living memory wrought consequences of incalculable horror.” It’s not Luther’s fault! It’s a history that belongs to all of us.

Perhaps our year with Matthew’s gospel can help us bridge the divide of all these centuries. I think it begins with the wisdom of Pope John Paul II who made a historic visit the oldest synagogue in Rome in 1986. He said on that occasion that Judaism was profoundly “intrinsic” to Christianity. Most significantly he said, ““This people continues in spite of everything to be the people of the covenant and, despite human infidelity, the Lord is faithful to his covenant.” (Bochmuehl, p. 222)

Precisely what Matthew will repeat over and over. Do you want to know who this Jesus? We have go back to God’s story of making covenant, even with people who wander away and forget their story.

Remember, my dear Lutheran friends, that Luther knew Jesus was raised up knowing all those stories. To be sure we have had a history of biblical scholars who try to explain away the Jewish identity of Mary’s son. One of the more recent attempts to offer a “so-called most scholarly” understanding of the historical Jesus was named the Jesus Seminar. Their strange conclusion: that Jesus was not an observant Jew, but a “secular sage.” Try telling that to the author of Matthew’s gospel.

I hope not too many of you are squirming in your seats right now. Many of us haven’t been asked too often to focus on the Jewish roots of our story. I certainly wasn’t as a child, and not even when I was in seminary. It wasn’t something that I heard my New Testament professors taking seriously.

I never knew, for example, that the Lord’s Prayer which we consider so central to our prayer life and our common worship is really deeply rooted in Judaism. One scholar wrote, regarding the Lord’s prayer, “It is the prayer of the Jew Jesus with which every Jew without inner reservation can pray…..The Our Father is the great ‘bridge prayer’ between the Jewish and Christian communities.”

What about the word “remember.” I’ll use that word when we have communion. For we will remember what Jesus did at the last supper and the words he said. And Jews at their Sedar supper, “Remember when my father was a wandering Aramean, and the Lord led us out of the wilderness.”

And what of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, and Peter with his mission to the Jews? Something I never gave thought to: in the early days, perhaps in the 2nd century, when the oral memory of Jesus and the gospel stories were told by those who knew some of the eye-witnesses—somewhere in that time the early followers of Jesus gave the same saint’s day to each of them. It’s June 29th. “They were apostles of the same Christ to different people.” (Bochmuehl, p. 129)

As we begin this new year of 2017 we don’t know how Israel and the United States will resolve their differences. But we can resolve as a people of faith to read our story in the light of Jewish story. To know that it is not our task to change them. That’s up to God. (And that’s what the early Luther was saying as well.)

Our task as a faithful community is to tell the story to our children. Here at LCC this years confirmation class is focused on the Old Testament. Rather than defining ourselves as different from Judaism I suggest that God calls us we treat one another, even those of different faiths, with grace and love. And with my suggested theme for the new year—it is “Going Deeper in Faith—I invite you to consider your spiritual priorities as I do the same for myself. At the very least lets wonder what in the year to come Matthew’s gospel will teach us about Jesus and what we are called to be as his disciples in the community of the Lutheran Church of The Cross, or wherever it is that you call your church home.



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“Out of Darkness, Into Light” —Christmas Day Sermon 2016

“Out of Darkness, Into Light”

Christmas Day 2016
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
The Rev. Dr. George H. Martin

So here we are on this wonderful Christmas morning—for many of us a time of joy and celebration. If we had some of the events happening in our world on our mind, however, we might say these are dark and dangerous and fearful times—if not directly for us—nonetheless for the millions of refugees, those living a day to day existence of extreme poverty—those suffering from various diseases—those living in daily terror from the bombs and guns fueling war— the list can go on an on.

Yet we hear “the light shines in the darkness”..And we wonder. Does it really?

While we heard that the darkness doesn’t overcome the light—maybe at times it does.

Then there are those times known to every pastor when someone comes into your office with troubles and conflict on their mind. And they begin by saying, “I’m not a very good Christian, or faithful like I should be…” And as a pastor I know the darkness, in some way, has crowded out the light. It’s not a time a sermon or some dismissive platitudes. I do wonder about what sermons some might have heard that have led them to question God’s love and grace, however.

And yet, John’s gospel, recognizes worldly realities: And the world came through the Word, and yet the world didn’t recognize him.

But then there, in this Gospel, are those who did receive him, who believed in his name, and they became the children of God.

Do you get that? You and I aren’t all grown up and fully able, supposedly, to understand and handle all the complexities of God’s world—no in God’s tender eyes we’re children.

There’s more to this strange opening to John’s gospel that we ought to consider. It’s set in the context of creation. In the beginning was the Word. We are to recall the story of Genesis, a creation that began in the darkness: Verse 2 of the Bible says “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.”

Then God said, “Let there be light.”

And ever since humans have pondered the essence of light. What is it? Where does it come from. And only in the past hundred of years have scientists been able to trace the light we see, the stars in the night sky that blink, the comets that streak through space, and the traces of energy that can’t be seen—and all that and more is traced back to a single moment in time long ago when the universe began. In science it is called the big bang theory. I shall not try to explain it, though there are plenty of good science books that you can find if you want to learn more. [See Note at the end of the sermon regarding the Higgs Bosum.]

And some of those scientists who know astro-physics and particle theory are also people of faith. One of them is Francis Collins, who was the head the Human Genome Project. He said in a book titled “The Language of God”

“Nearly all the atoms in your body were once cooked in the nuclear furnace of an ancient supernova—you are truly made of stardust.” P. 68

The author of John didn’t know the science, but he said of Jesus, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. “enlightens everyone.” Even folks in darkness? I think so. John adds, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” But some did and they were declared children of God.

And one of the best lines in this unusual nativity story is at the end: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” The Greek word translated as “dwelt among us.” It’s skenoo which is a verb that could be translated as “to tent.” What kind of camping did God in Christ do? He tented among us. Or better yet, “He pitched tent”.

If you’ve ever done tent camping, you know you never want to do it in the dark. And you pick your site carefully, especially if you’re going to be staying in the campsite for some time. As a pastor who does interim ministry I see myself as one who pitches tent.

I use to just come and go from this church; but now I’m around here a lot. I’m taking up your traditions, your customs, and your calendar of events. I’m now part of this family, happily so, and will continue to hold you near and dear, even after we call our next senior pastor. Let us pray that our next Pastor knows how to “pitch tent.”

So John is telling us that the light coming into the world would know our sorrows and joys. Would wear skin, but skin linked to stardust. And he pitched tent. To be with us.

In his ministry he was bringing people out darkness into light shaped by grace, the forgiveness of sins, to be a community of mutual service. It’s what we call “church” knowing it really isn’t an empty building, but church is the word describing a certain people of God who make a witness to the light that came into the world, not in words, but in the way we live with one another. In the way we accept the stranger as if they were angels. As the way we forgive one another and practice reconciliation. As the way we forswear vengeance and retaliation, to be peacemakers in a world tempted to make war. And it is the way in which we minister to the least in our midst, cherishing our babes and children, tending to those facing illness, and ceaseless prayer for our world. This is what is church.

And on this Christmas morn: Let us pray that the dark places in this world know the light that shines in the darkness and that the darkness will never overcome this light. This Jesus. This God with us. Always. Amen.

The preferred name for the God particle among physicists is the Higgs boson, or the Higgs particle, or simply the Higgs, in honor of the University of Edinburgh physicist Peter Higgs, who proposed its existence more than 40 years ago. Most physicists believe that there must be a Higgs field that pervades all space; the Higgs particle would be the carrier of the field and would interact with other particles, sort of the way a Jedi knight in Star Wars is the carrier of the “force.” The Higgs is a crucial part of the standard model of particle physics—but no one’s ever found it.

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Luke’s Story of the Nativity in a Different Light (Christmas eve 2016)

Luke’s Story of the Nativity in a Different Light

The Rev. Dr. George H. Martin
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
Dec. 24, 2016 at 6:30 pm

With us this evening we have many quests. I invite you to sign our guest book as you leave letting us know where you’re from. And if leave us your email address or your mailing address we’ll send a word of thanks for being with us. But we won’t sell or give that away to anyone. We’re just glad you’re here.

Some of you traveled far to be here and to be with family. Other’s live nearby. And all of us have had some trips, maybe like Mary and Joseph took, that were dangerous or hard. Here at the Lutheran Church of the Cross we’ve been following their journey. This creche was empty and the holy family began a journey four weeks ago along a ledge in the back of the church, and the wise men did too. They still haven’t arrived. There they are and they will take another 12 days to arrive.

What binds us together is that we’re all fellow travelers with many stories to tell but in a strange way we’re also bound up in this story of the birth of Jesus.

Traveling was a metaphor for the latter part of my ministry in which I served as an interim pastor in seven churches in different parts of the country before coming to LCC this past August. This church is just seven miles from our family cabin—far and away the closest church I’ve served in a long time.

My first interim call was in Amarillo Texas. After the Christmas Day service in 2000 I drove to the airport. I’d catch a flight to Dallas and then home to Minneapolis. I would get home in time for a late afternoon Christmas dinner. But there was ice in Amarillo and the airport was shut down. Being the independent intrepid cold-climate guy that I am, and coming from Minnesota, I wasn’t going to let a little ice change my plans. I made the decision to drive to Dallas and get home later at night.

I started to drive on somewhat icy roads, that got progressively worse as I headed East and South. Cars and trucks were stranded in the median and in the ditches, and I realized after three and a half hours I’d driven just 90 miles. I pulled into a motel in a little town called Childress Texas and got a room. An hour later there wasn’t a motel room to be had in that little city. I was there for the next two days. Stranded. With only truck drivers to talk to or the sales clerks in the Wall-Mart that was across the street. I went to the local movie theater on Christmas night and saw the Tom Hanks movie just out— with the ominous title Cast Away. I didn’t even have my own soccer ball to call my friend. Tom Hanks soccer ball friend was called Wilson. And what made it worse for me was that Childress was a dry county. Two days later I did make it home, but needless to say I know what it feels like to be lonely on Christmas.

I was certainly not the first to experience such loneliness nor would I be the last. Now many of us might be tempted to think that Mary and Joseph had to feel lonely there in Bethlehem, but if that’s the case we haven’t read Luke’s gospel correctly. Those of you from this church know that I like to teach and dive more deeply into the Biblical text. Let’s do that with Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus.

The usual way of reading Luke’s account about the travel of Mary and Joseph is to feel sorry that they had to make the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Most of the pageants give us a picture of a very pregnant Mary hours from giving birth. Supposedly Mary and Joseph can’t stay in the inn which seems to us a tragedy. Even though there’s an alternative, a manger, and even though we sing carols about the sheep and cows it nonetheless seems like 4th class accommodations for the Holy Family. But what if we’re wrong?

I have it on good authority—namely the New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey—that the essentials of this story—the details—are exactly what Luke, the author, intended. They are that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The child was wrapped in bands of cloth. He was laid in a manger. And there was no room in the inn. Not a single one of those details, however, was ever intended to be interpreted in a negative light. Luke was not trying to tell us that at the beginning of the story of Jesus that his life was somehow in danger. It certainly would be as his life unfolded in his gospel, but not at his birth.

First of all there’s a very telling phrase in Luke’s story: “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.” She didn’t travel in the ninth month of pregnancy and arrive at the eleventh hour to give birth to Jesus. They were there in Bethlehem for a while. And why in Bethlehem? Because, according to Luke, that’s where Joseph’s family lived—for he was of the house of David. It’s the name of David that is associated with Bethlehem. And Bethlehem would, in the framework of the Jewish people be the place for the birth of the Messiah. That means Joseph went to be with his family. The last place he and Mary would ever had stayed, at least in that, his hometown would have been a public inn—essentially a first century version of a motel with a bar and restaurant filled with strangers.

The key to all this is the word used for “inn” or motel in the Nativity Story in Luke. The Greek word used is katalyma.

You and I know how important it is to use the right word in certain situations. So there is a real word for the concept of an inn, or what we’d call a motel, in Greek. And it’s the Greek word used by Luke in the story of the Good Samaritan who paid for the care of the wounded man who’d been robbed. His recovery takes place in an inn—the word in Greek is “pandocheion”—paying for the stay in what was a public inn at that time. Luke didn’t call it a katalyma in the Good Samaritan story, but that’s where there was no room in the Nativity story.

So what’s a katalyma? It’s a guest room, in what would have been a two room house. One room was the living area of the family, and the smaller room, the Katalyma, would have been given to any guests. So Luke said there was no room in the Katalyma. So in the house where Joseph had family, family that welcomed them, that room was already taken. So where would Mary and Joseph be when she gave birth? In the family living room. The slightly larger of the two rooms that defined that house. And where it was the warmest!

Now how do you heat such a house at that time? Well, they would place the house in such a way that it had something like a lower mud room, only this is where on a cold night they would bring in the cow, the goats or the sheep. The main living area of this house would be about three or feet up from where the sheep, goats and cow huddled together. In this two room house, the kind that has a katalyna, or a guest room, it’s living room opens to the area with the animals, who are so precious, valuable, and are part of the family. The animals provide the heat! Where the animals gathered there also was a carved out stone trough, filled with hay for feeding the animals. And in one part of that trough, in the warmth of that house, inside that living room, with the smells of those animals, laid on the straw was a baby wrapped lovingly in bands of cloth.

Mary and Joseph weren’t rejected when they arrived in Bethlehem. They had a loving family to welcome them. And a safe place to lay the baby Jesus.

And then there were those shepherds out in the cold night. They were in a proscribed profession, which means you wouldn’t want your son to grow up to be shepherd. Garrison Keillor once described shepherds as the first-century version of parking lot attendants. But they played a role in this story that is so critical.

Had Jesus been born in a fine home or in a palace it’s a sure thing that lowly shepherds would never had been allowed to see the Christ child, even if they said that angels had sent them. They could see Jesus, in Luke’s telling of the story, because he was inside the warmth of that living room—a room in a house just like they would have had in Bethlehem.

And the significance of the way they saw the baby Jesus? Luke says that the baby was wrapped tightly in bands of cloth, just like they wrapped their own children when they were born. It’s what the angels told the bewildered shepherds. It happens still in so many cultures to lovingly let the newborn feel secure and wanted—as Jesus certainly was, to be all wrapped up. Many of us wrapped our newborns tightly as well. You can imagine the shepherds feeling the love that surrounded his birth. Emmanuel had come to them. Not to the house of Caesar!

And when they left Luke tells us they weren’t muttering, “Oh, what a shame that he had to be born there.” And they weren’t saying, “They don’t even know how to wrap a baby up properly.” Instead, as Luke want’s all of us to declare, this is wonderful. This is wonderful. They left that stable, Luke says, glorifying God for all they had heard and seen. And that’s the song we sing this night.

But this was just the beginning of the story. And what Luke knows, and we know if we live this story, if we come again and again, is that you tell the beginning because you know the end. And you know the end isn’t the end. It’s the beginning. It’s not exactly the beginning that takes us to Bethlehem, but it’s a story that brings us into community that knows Jesus as Lord, Jesus as Messiah. Jesus the Christ. And Luke says this story begins in Bethlehem. It’s meaning is found in the life we share as his disciples.

There’s one more thing to share about the way Luke tells this story. It begins by naming two of the main rulers in that world: Emperor Augustus and Quirinius,the Governor of Syria , those who ruled that land. Anywhere you went in the Roman empire there were arches and temples built and etched in stone with the message that Augustus was the Son of God, and the Savior of the World. The words “Pax Romana” were also inscribed in stone, meaning that the peace you have, now that we have conquered you and subdued your land, you have a peace for which should thank Caesar. And you must counted for the sake of the taxes that bring you this peace.

That’s background for the birth of Jesus. Not born in a palace but in a common two room house, such as any shepherd in Bethlehem would have known. And the angels didn’t come to Caesar—they came to shepherds staring into the night sky, keeping watch over their flocks. Given to them was the promise of peace, peace on earth on those he favors. On a girl named Mary, her dear Joseph, in that family home, and to those lowly shepherds. This is a message for all the world and it began with those who thought they must not count for much in this world. But every life matters. Every life is precious in the sight of God. The shepherds heard. Mary heard. And I pray we have heard the same. And that is why we have sung this night:

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray

And we sang:

Swiftly winging, angels singing, bells are ringing, bells are ringing
Christ the child is Lord of all! Christ the child is Lord of all!

And we will sing in the hymn that follows this sermon:

Mild he lays his glory be, born that we no more may die,
Born to raise each child of earth, born to give us second birth.

Please stand as we sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”

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“Holy Land, Holy Times, Holy People”—Sermon Advent 1 (11/27/2016)

Holy Land. Holy Times. Holy People

George Martin
A sermon for Advent 1: Nov. 27, 2016
Lutheran Church of the Cross

On this first Sunday in Advent, which is a new year in the church calendar, we take our first steps toward our celebration of Christ’s birth. Our lessons though have no hints of this story. None. No visit of an Angel to either Joseph or Mary. No angels even. No little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. No we don’t see thee at all.

No shepherds in the field abiding, well except for the lonely lamb we placed in our crèche, that lamb wondering maybe where the shepherd is. But we did place some straw in that crèche which could just be a home for a few more animals and maybe a family needing a place to stay. Looking above and behind us we can see some of the figures from this story on their journey. And that is how I believe we should approach this season—as on a journey of faith. Not the faith that knows, and even comprehends, what it is all about, but a journey that desires to see better in the darkness around us, and to discover reasons for hope against the background of so much fear and distrust.

How much our world and that of first century Palestine are alike. Our world seems troubled. Theirs’ did as well. 2,000 years ago there so may things to worry about. Questions like “What will happen next?” They are also are questions. No one knows.

We live in a time with what Thomas Friedman has called distruptive change that “creates a sense of discomfort and provokes backlash” according to a Wall Street journal review of Friedmann’s new book called “Thank you For Being Late.” Now that we live in a world of such disorder, Friedmann calls for a slower more reflective kind of living which means belonging to healthy communities which take time to reflect on what is happening around them. It sounds like an Advent practice to me.

I’ve titled this sermon Holy Land, Holy Times, and Holy People because we have these strange lessons for the first Sunday of Advent. And I want to talk about what the word “holy” might mean for each of us.

What I’m really talking about is our ability to sense in what others might call ordinary or common‑those supposedly mundane places, times, or people with their warts and imperfections—But with different eyes, guided by God, we can see deeper and discover mystery, spirit, and holiness where others can’t. With different eyes we know that the ordinary can actually reflect and bear the mystery of God.

Sometimes people think that if we say something is “holy” that it is special and different. The actual definition of what is holy does mean “separated from.” So a “holy day”, which is actually the root of the word “holiday”, is a time when we don’t work—or a time broken off from ordinary life. Yet it is a day. This is what we often forget.

Holy Places are still places. Holy land is still land. Holy people have beating hearts and fainting hearts. And holy time could be marked by minutes and hours, but that isn’t how such time is experienced.

So let’s think about Holy Places. As in the mountain that Isaiah spoke about where you could find God. He meant the temple in Jerusalem. To it he said would come all nations and many peoples. From it would come a word of the Lord that would lead swords to be turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We’re still waiting for that day, but it remains a beautiful vision. And forget not the meaning of the name of Jerusalem. It means City of Peace. And it hasn’t had that history. And yet. And yet it remains sacred and holy to three important religions in the world: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Indigenous people all over the world, including Native Americans, by the way who have a deep respect for the earth and places they consider holy and sacred. That’s part of the story of the Dakota Access Pipeline issue. It’s a pipe designed to go under a lake that provides water to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. I’ve been there and know some of the people. The Episcopal church has had a strong Native American ministry in the Dakota’s, Nebraska, and Minnesota for a long time.

Yes there are issues of the demonstration, and the pipe itself crossing private property. It’s a complicated issue, but at the same time I understand, at least in part, the Indian reverence for the land itself. Let me share a story because it involves an example of a holy time, a holy place, and a holy people.

In October 1990 the Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, Robert Anderson, stood outside the newly built House of Prayer on the grounds of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Collegeville. This retreat center emerged out of an ecumenical spirit—a gift of land from the Benedictine Abbey to the Episcopal diocese. Two hundred and fifty of us stood there on that Fall day chatting away, greeting old friends while awaiting the start of the dedication ceremony. Above us the trees were filled with hundreds, maybe thousands, of birds also chatting away. Bishop Anderson in his red and yellow chausible, holding his crosier shouted “The Lord be with you.” And we replied, “And with your spirit.” And the bishop said “Let us pray.” He paused, as he always did at that point. We stopped chatting, and, and, the birds were silent. I wrote a poem about that stunning moment when I returned home, but kept the poem to myself.

About four years ago Bishop Anderson had a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. I went to see him before he died and gave him a copy of the poem. He smiled, nodded in remembrance of that most holy and mysterious moment, and then asked me, “Do you know the rest of the story?” And I didn’t.

He said that when he arrived that morning he was met by Virgil Foote, one of our Native American priests, who said, “Bishop, six of us native clergy, gathered here at 6 am this morning, and we held our own dedication service of the House of Prayer. We know you’ll do your thing, but we want you to know, the house is already blest.”

Bishop Anderson asked, “How do you know?”

Virgil replied, “Because the deer stood with us this morning. And we know that the animals will be with you this afternoon. We just don’t know who it will be.”

I can’t even begin to explain what happened that day, but I know it we were standing on holy ground, in holy time, and amidst holy people.

Let me be clear, if this is possible, about how I understand “holiness.” What some of us were taught about holy things actually might have led some of us to be afraid of any encounter with the holiness of God. That maybe holiness meant being touched or coming to near God’s anger or judgment.

Holy people were supposedly pure and righteous, better than the rest of us. And so holiness and perfectionism sometimes got connected and that isn’t really a prescription for a happy life. A church historian by the name Roberta Bondi has written about her own past. She said, “…but oh how much we suffered and caused others to suffer in the past with such mis-guided understandings of holiness.” (A Place to Pray, p. 38)

The way into a joyful grace-filled understanding of holiness for Bondi was through her awareness of beauty. The beauty that is not about being afraid of anything, but then the surprise: the music, or art, or some rainbow that leads to awe and wonder. Wonder as she said that leads us into “..the reality of a mysterious, transcendent goodness.”

I think of the opening lines of the poem the Grandeur of God, by Gerard Manly Hopkins

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

We have all seen sunsets up here in the Brainerd area that certainly reflect that grandeur. But it’s not just in nature. It’s also in each of our lives that there are reflections of God, for this is the God, who choses “our form and fashion to take.” (Edwin Muir, The Incarnate One) A God incarnate. It’s ok to say this on Advent One.

But there is another element to what is holy and it isn’t, as Roberta Bondi said about “…doing or believing the right things, or even being the right kind of person.” (p. 46). It’s the realization of grace that comes in the darkest moments, the deepest doubt, the most fearful time, or the anxiety that binds us, and yet we live. And we have a story to tell, and not one of perfection, but of compassion and love that are the true gifts of life.

There it is. Holiness is gift. Gift of hope. Yes. Gift of beauty. Gift of wonder. And gift of Godself. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” Paul wrote. Not after achieving some level of understanding, or knowledge, or perfection. But simply because as Paul said “we are the children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

One of the signs Christians have made, maybe from the very first days, to express this awareness of holiness, of the presence of Christ as a gift, are the hands we hold out at communion.

Now this past week we sent a letter to the parents of our children—a letter, by the way, in which we explain that all children are welcome to receive communion by virtue of their baptism. We said please explain to your children if they are desirous of receiving communion, and you approve, that when coming forward they should hold out one hand over the other to receive the bread.

You see this action is all about receiving a gift. We actually should never think that we take communion. We take a lot of things. We take something when it is passed to us. We take various tests. We take our turn in line.

But at communion we receive a holy gift. A sense that God wants to live in us, and for us to see God in each other. Paul once more: “the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”

And just one more thing about what’s holy. “Hollowed be thy name.” Not that God is separate and so far away, but to say those words is the way we say thank you. For being the Lord of my life. Our Father. What has come to me and to you. And it is gift. Now and forever. Amen

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The World Did Not End on Wednesday — Sermon for 11/13/16

The World Did Not End on Wednesday

Sermon for November 13, 2016
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
George Martin

Tuesday at the staff meeting, Kari, our office manager, asked me if I had a sermon title for Sunday. I said I did. Make it “The world did not end on Wednesday.”

And it didn’t. But I still want to talk about the idea that our political landscape was marked by apocalyptic thoughts coming from many different sides of those who were voting. We were being told in language and images and accusations that many of us found disturbing, and lacking in civility, how terrible it would be if someone would be elected. We heard this in regard to all of those running for President, the Senate, and various congressional races.

The election is over. The world is still spinning. Wednesday morning the sun rose, it was a beautiful gift of another day.

What we need to discover inside our faith story, maybe over and over, is how to tell time. And we just happen to have some lessons today that about time—days that are coming, some that are terrible, and others in which “the sun of righteousness shall rise.” By the way that phrase was captured by Charles Wesley who wrote a carol we all know. Hark the Herald Angels Sang, and in the 3rd stanza comes “Hail the heav’n born Prince of peace, Hail the Sun of righteousness! Life and life to all he brings, Ris’n with healing in his wings.”

Where’d he get that? He got it from Malachi, the last book in the Hebrew bible. And we’re nearing the end of our three year cycle of reading lessons from the Bible on Sunday mornings. Here we are with the last book in the Bible that Jesus knew. And here we are with a gospel reading from Luke, in which Jesus uses apocalyptic language about the terrible signs and events that won’t mark the end of the world, but which will be portents of the end.

The Hollywood version of Apocalypse gives us a picture of complete chaos, destruction and devastation. Stories abound of a few that are left or who are simply trying to survive in what usually appears as a God-forsaken planet. We also have Rapture Theology, as in the Tim LaHaye series of books. Based on a few verses from scripture it’s the belief that a day is coming when some, presumably the good folks, will be pulled up into heaven, and the rest of us will be left to suffer from all the terrible things about to come on earth.

There’s even something on the web called the Rapture Index. On Monday the 7th it was near it’s highest ever level. Had I looked at it then, I might have chosen a different sermon title.

My title reflects what is closer to the truth about the Biblical concept of time in God’s world. Yes, Jews, were looking for a Messiah to come, but not to destroy the world, but to redeem it. To redo creation as it were. Thus Malachi. A day is coming. But it also brings the sun of righteousness with healing in it wings.

Jesus talked about not only natural disasters and troubles between the nations, but that his followers, would bear a message in this world that would bring about their persecution and betrayal. Shouldn’t his followers strike back? Oh no. Such conflict and challenge were meant to be opportunities for his followers to testify and to discover the gift of words and wisdom that would come from God in times of trial. Jesus said that the character of those who followed him would be marked by their ability to endure uncertainty.

And then there was Paul writing to the early followers of Jesus in Thessolonica, a Macedonian city. One astute person at Wednesday morning’s bible study asked me about what seemed to him to be like a group of people just sharing everything they had with each other. And then, there was someone or two who weren’t willing to work and contribute. “Was it really like that?” he wondered. And I said, “Yea.”

For Paul said that he himself worked, and labored hard, night and day, so that he wouldn’t be a burden. And it really wasn’t that some were idle. That’s a bad translation. Paul said that some of the beloved in that community were acting in a disorderly or disrespectful way. At one point he said they were meddling in the affairs of others. Ouch. But it does happen, and when it does, it’s not about building up the life of a community, or a work group.

What we need to remember is that these early followers of Jesus were expecting the Lord to return. It wasn’t rapture theology though. They were living in the context of what is sometimes called “eschatological theology.” Eschatology is the study of last things. And in the three centuries preceding Jesus the question in Israel was when will God come to restore Israel, to free from our oppressors—first they were the Babylonians, then the Greeks, and by the time of Jesus is was Rome. When will the messiah come?

And yes, they saw it in political terms giving them their freedom. And becoming the center of the world to which all nations would come. Remembering the covenant given to Abraham from him would come all the nations of the world. God would surely keep that covenant. But when?

And those first disciples followed Jesus to the cross, and three days later came the resurrection, to which they testified—yes even with their lives. Here’s what they were saying. The end in the sense of what it meant had come in Jesus. And in Paul’s writing we discover there were two Greek words for time: There was chronos and kairos. Chronos is historical time. It’s the minutes, the days, the weeks, and the years. And then there was Kairos time. The right time. The time of now, that captures the story of God, and stretches into lives that live God’s story.

It’s the time of now. But in the sense of “already this has happened” with God, with Jesus, but it’s still not yet. Already, Not Yet. It’s indeterminate time. One philosopher called it “the Time that remains.” It’s not that we know it has an ending, but we live provisionally knowing that God is transforming us and parts of this world into the story of Jesus.

And what remains in this time is a way of living the story. Remember Paul’s great words about love in the 13th chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians. He said three things remain. They are still here, operative, functioning, defining, and shaping us. They are faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.

Rather than using this kairos time to wait for some sudden end to this world, we are called to be connected in God who never forsake this world—not the one created and called “Good.” Remember, please, the connection between heaven and this world, in the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples.

Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven.

On earth. Here. In this world. In this world five days after the election. And let it be in this world where we discover heaven.

Think not that the Christian message is how to get to heaven, and here’s ticket you can use. Or some doctrine. Or some formula to recite.

Paul and the early followers of Jesus thought Jesus was coming back to this earth, to renew it. Thy kingdom come on earth, as in heaven.

We haven’t seen or heard much of this kind of kingdom talk in our recent politics. And I don’t expect there. But here? Here in this community. Yes. Kingdom talk. Kingdom people. Marked by faith, hope and love. If we live like this we’ll have glimpses of heaven. Amen!

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“That We May Be Free” (Reformation Sunday—10/31/16)

That We May Be free!

(A Sermon for Reformation Sunday, Oct 30, 2016)
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa, MN
George Martin

Soon after I accepted your call in late July to be your interim senior pastor, I received something from Andy Smith about the preaching schedule. He mentioned that we be keeping our own celebration of Reformation Sunday on October 30, and even though we were supposed to join with the other churches on October 16 we couldn’t do so because we had an invitation to a guest preacher for that Sunday. That got rescheduled. Two weeks ago we joined other nearby Lutheran congregations in downtown Brainerd for a grand celebration of the 499th year of the Reformation.

Today you have an Episcopal priest preaching on the Reformation. Perhaps a reason for some suspicion and skepticism. To be sure I come from a tradition that had what it calls its Anglican Reformation. Centered somewhat during the time of Henry VIII, continuing into the rest of the 16th century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth—it finally settled during the middle of the 17th century into some order and peace.

The issues in English Christianity were to what extent it would continue with aspects of Catholic Christianity and embrace the ideas that came from the continent with regard to both Lutheran and Calvinist ideas invading England—aspects of both traditiona emerged into the first books of common prayer. It wasn’t any less bloody or violent in England than what took place on the continent. Those were dangerous religious times—sadly with some echoes that continue into our present time.

When Martin Luther posted those 97 theses it was not, historians tell us, with an intent to break with the Catholic Church, but simply to reform it against the particular excesses involved in the system of indulgences. Certainly the theology embraced in those 97 theses contained many of the ideas that would later flower into Lutheranism in the decades that followed.

I don’t know if you will agree with this assessment about Reformation Sunday. It comes from a theologian who I admire, who happens to come from the Methodist tradition—(something of a chemical mixture of Lutheranism and Anglicanism). His name is Stanley Hauerwas. He has suggested that when we come to Reformation Sunday, the only way to properly celebrate it is to bring hearts that are broken—broken over the divisions of the church. Divisions that are many and we pray less pervasive and hurtful than they were in the past, but still present. Protestant versus Royal Roman Catholic. Anglicans versus Methodist. Evangelical Anglicans versus high Church Anglicans. And I guess to this day there are still occasions when a Swedish Lutheran will fall in love with the Norwegian Lutheran and that’s called a mixed marriage.

The text of the gospel is about a “truth that make us free.” I want to speak directly to one truth that involves the story of the Reformation and the way so many churches, both Protestant and Catholic, have been tied to the fortunes of a particular state or nationality. So we have German Lutherans, Norwegian Lutherans and American Lutheran. We have Geneva Calvinists and Reformed Scottish Presbyterians, neither of which resemble their cousins the American Presbyterians, sadly still spilt by North and South. The issue is that when Christianity is too cosy to any government , or particular nationality, it’s message about Christ may not be the truth that makes us free.

There was a moment in this whole story where the fate of Lutheran and Catholic Christianity hung by a slender thread facing extinction—that was in Nazi Germany. Few there were between 1934 and 1945 who dared to resist the threat of Hitler’s orders to render unto him full unquestioned loyalty. But there were a few. One in particular played a critical role with regard to the truth of what was happening and his name was Pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer.

My research for this sermon included a Bonhoeffer biography by Eric Metaxas with the title Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy and this little book George Bell, Bishop of Chichester: Church, State, and Resistance in the Age of Dictatorship. By Andrew Chandler. The paths of both men connected in a way that give us hope on this Reformation Sunday that the truth of the Gospel of Jesus will always live for another day.

First a picture of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Time limits what I can you about him. In general we was what we call an Evangelical Lutheran. He wasn’t giving street corner sermons, but he had very high standards for what it meant to be one who followed Christ.

He said, for example “Of course,” he said, “we build him [Jesus] a temple, but we live in our own houses.” Religion, he declared] had been exiled to Sunday morning, to a place “into which one gladly withdraws for a couple of hours, but only to get back to one’s place of work immediately afterward.” He said that one cannot give him only a “small compartment in our spiritual life,” but must give him everything or nothing. “The religion of Christ,” he said, “is not a tidbit after one’s bread; on the contrary, it is the bread or it is nothing. People should at least understand and concede this if they call themselves Christian.

Published a few years after his death was his most famous work ”The Cost of Discipleship” in which he explained the difference between cheap grace (an easy as it goes kind of Christiany” and what he called “costly grace,” which was the deeper more serious way he advocated. And which he lived. And for which he died.

It has never been easy to be a serious follower of Christ. In the Spring of 1934 Bohoeffer’s brother-in-law who was a distinguished law professor in Berlin was forced to resign his position. Why? He was Jewish. And he was married to Dietrich’s twin sister Sabine. Three years later they and their children would barely escape from Germany. They’d settled in Chichester England, having become friends with Bishop George Bell. Bell and Bonoeffer already had met a few ecumenical meetings in Switzerland and Copenhagen.

What made Bonhoeffer such a different Lutheran was his openness to other Christian traditions and his commitment to ecumenical Christianity. That would serve him well with what God was calling him to do under the circumstances.

By the Spring of 1934 Hitler had chosen a Navy Chaplain by the name of Muller and installed him as the Reichbishop over all churchs in Germany. No votes or synods needed. Purging the churches of all Jews, even pastors who’d had a Jewish ancestor had started. That’s when an independent group of pastors including Bonhoeffer and the theologican Karl Barth met in Barmen. That was the birth of the Confessing Church and the Barmen Declaration. Rejecting the anti-semistism of Hitler it declared the church could never be under the auspices of any government. Later Bonhoeffer would start an underground seminary for its few courageous pastors.

It is critical to know that the world did not really know, nor could hardly any comprehend, what was happening to Jews, to the marginal people (think disabled, mentally challenged, and those who were gay or gypsi) in the systematic killings that had started in Germany. It had no idea of the government control over Lutheran and Catholic churches and of the extensive evils of the Nazi regime.

With his ecumenical connections, and as a theologian, however, Bonhoeffer could and did travel. And he brought news, disturbing as it was, with him to the wider world. Surprisingly, he also carried out some international travel on behalf of the Aberwehr, a German military intelligence agency, and often delivered news exactly opposite of what was intended.

He brought to Bishop Bell a kind of news that also needed to reach the ears of politicians in England and America—news of the insurgent German generals ready to assassinate Hitler and end the war. Dietrch Bonhoeffer, wasn’t connected as one who would pull the trigger, but he would deliver the news to British authorities about their plans—so that immediate support could come for the allies.

At the last meeting between these two clerics Bonheffer delivered the exact names of all those involved to Bishop Bell during an Ecumenical Conference in early 1942. Bell’s attempts to get British officials to respond fell on deaf ears. The plot itself came close to killing Hitler in July 1944. Nearly all it’s conspirators and so many innocent of their families and friends were mercilessly killed. And two weeks before the end of the war Bonhoeffer was hanged.

The war came to an end and then Bishop Bell, and only then did news reach him that Deitrich had been martyred. They held a memorial service, the first, in England for him in Chichester. With his sister Sabine and husband Gert there. Bell knew little about the end of Bohoeffer’s life until he happened to connect to a British secret agent locked in the same cell on the night Bohoeffer died. In 1953 the agent remembered Bhoeffer’s last words.

You must take this message to Bishop Bell he said.

“As nearly as I can remember, Dietrich’s actual words were: – “…. tell him that for me this is the end, but also beginning – with him I believe in the principle of our universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national hatreds and the victory is certain — tell him to, but I’ve never forgotten his words at our last meeting.” Those were words of assurance and love between two men bound together by Christ.

And so on this Reformation Sunday, 499 years after one Martin Luther sought to reform the church, we still must seek reformation, but not division. It’s a singular covenant, one to be on our hearts, Jew and Christian alike I believe, in which we know the Lord and worship the one God. That we all live by grace, by faith, and cannot claim by boasting that we have done anything but be blessed by God. Thank you St. Paul. Thank you Martin Luther. Thank you Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And thank you Bishop Bell.

And there is a truth that makes us free. It may be costly though.

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“Claimed by God”—Sermon for 10/2/2016

Claimed by God

Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
George Martin
Sermon for Oct 2, 2016

I’d like you to meet John Jones—my wife Caroline’s dad. He was a farmer—smoked a pipe when it was ok to do so, loved singing, knew many poems—and was in church every Sunday. A very responsible man, loving to his kids and wife, and cared for others in so many ways.

And we’re going to talk about the word “Responsibility” only we will spell it differently.

Make it the word Response—(with the “e” at the end, and add a dash) and then add the word “Ability.” It defines my father-in-law.

In the case of John Jones when it came to taxes‑he always said “I don’t mind paying my fair share.” And that meant keeping meticulous books regarding farm income and expenses. And sometimes he got audited, and never did he have to pay more. He didn’t mind supporting the schools, the city, the roads and all that he knew was important to living in this country.

John Jones was equally response-able with regard to the farm. He planted shelter belts, dug re-use water pits to save water, and practiced the best environmentally safe, albeit at times more expensive, ways to farm.

He was equally response-able living a measured life in which he quietly shared and supported kids going to college (many more than his own), loans to farmers in trouble, and supported many worthwhile causes and his church. And his church.

And here’s the catch, and it was so true of him. With all those gifts, gifts over and above his taxes, he wasn’t buying anything. Those gifts were not born out of guilt either. They were what he was—who he was.

As we begin the month of October this Sunday our focus for the month is on Stewardship, and it’s on the 499th year since Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation. I’m looking forward to sharing in this celebration with all of you.

And I look forward to sharing in this Stewardship month because I believe in what we as a “Church” can do in ministry for the coming year.

You know how this works. As each household or individual makes a promise to support this church with regular gifts, we can build our budget. The fiduciary responsibility of the church council is to faithfully take those gifts and use them in a responsible manner. That word again. If we have the gifts we are “able” to respond with ministry. It also means we can’t or shouldn’t spend what you haven’t given. That’s what can get a church, any organization, any family in trouble.

Now we have a problem and I don’t know if you all know what it is. You think I’m going to tell you that “we don’t have enough money.” But that’s not the real issue.

We just have less than 50% of our households in this church making a promise to support the church. Now I don’t need know who you are who haven’t made such a pledge or promise, but I do feel compelled to make this an emphasis. Coming here, or coming to any church that you or I call our own, should mean some kind of pledge or promise. After I found LCC and started to come at 8:15 Caroline and I made an annual pledge. I’ll continue to do so after our new Senior Pastor comes.

My first plea is that if you haven’t made such a pledge here in the past that this is the year you make such a promise on October 30th. And maybe you’re heading off as a snow-bird sometime soon. Make a pledge there as well, and when you return in April you can continue your giving, your promise, to LCC. If you’ve been here for the summer and now return to your home support that church, but let your LCC support begin next June.

So how much should you give? Well first of all let me assure this isn’t a Sermon on the Amount. But I do need to explain to you how it is that Caroline and I value the goal of giving a tithe of what we have away. You might guess that her father is a model for us about the way to give. Now a strict definition of a tithe is that it is one tenth of your income. Or if you were a farmer in the context of ancient Israel it was one tenth of the wine from your vineyard or the sheep that were born.

I know there are pastors who preach that everyone should tithe to the church. I’m not one of those pastors. Let me be clear. Pastor George did not say you should give a tithe to the church.

And I’m not saying everyone should tithe. But to grow in our giving means to grow in generosity. And what does that word mean? I found a fascinating discussion of generosity in a website with the curious title the “Science of Generosity.”

Generosity: the word, stems from the Latin “genus” meaning kin or clan. Ah.. As in the word genealogy as you might study the roots of your family history. But the meaning of “generosity” has evolved and changed, from first referring to “noble birth” to a more contemporary concept relating to the “virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly.” It has to do with character, consistent behavior, the giving of what brings about what is good for others, and not clearly aligned with something that is personally beneficial or rewarding in any material way.

Thus generosity can be something of an endangered species in a world of “contract or economic exchange” in which most transactions are conditional. Tit for tat.

This is where today’s parable comes into play. Those servants who worked all day weren’t cheated because the master didn’t serve them when they came in from the field. They still had work to do and would eat after they had served him. That’s the way it was in that world. Jesus would subvert it with calls for us to follow his model and be a servant for others. But he knew that being a servant wasn’t about getting special rewards.

There’s just one problem with the translation of the last phrase in today’s lesson. You heard that the servants supposedly said, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.”

I need to challenge that. The translation “worthless slaves” misses the meaning of the Greek word at that point in the text.

At the same time there’s this whole heritage of us being miserable sinners, who are in deep trouble with God unless we repent and shape up ourselves. If you know anything about Luther you know he struggled with those very deep introspective and troubled questions. It finally became clear to him that God’s grace overcame all of what he thought kept God from accepting him. In other words, per my sermon title, he’d been claimed by God, as a child of God. Or as we say in Baptism “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

I learned this week that the translation “worthless slaves” fails to capture the essence of the Greek word there. The better translation? It should be “We are slaves to whom you don’t owe us anything, we have done only what we ought to have done.”

That my friends, is the way each of us should approach a life of generosity. We aren’t buying or purchasing anything. Our gifts are what we do because this is who we are. We choose to actually give away resources that might get us something, not because we don’t like things, but because we aren’t going to define ourselves that way. Better that we who give, and give without strings attached, know that this is who we are. In the context of this community of faith, this is simply the way we choose to live.

And if more of us grow in generosity then I suspect the gifts we give will move toward or maybe beyond that biblical standard of the tithe. For me that means a chance to give and support more than one church, to support community efforts, to buy $100 worth of Girl Scout cookies sent to our troops, and do other things that only bring us joy because we could do it.

What happens here? Well, right now, we have the resources for ministry that makes it possible for a Pastor to preach a challenging sermon like this. We have the resources to keep this church open to the community. We have glorious music. We spend money to repair the organ, and have the leadership with musical gifts to help us all sing of God’s grace and love. And one particular need I hope our generosity and greater participation by more households will address is this goal. As leaders in this church we hope to find a full-time director of Children’s and Family ministry. This needs to be a salaried position at a level of 32 hours.

As some of you know Erin Karlgaard has this position right now. What a gift she’s been. But now she is getting her teacher’s license and will be leaving this position. The job is much bigger now that when she began. In the last two years average Sunday School attendance has gone from 12 to 60 children. We need to keep up this ministry. With it we will welcome many more new families.

All of this can happen with more of us making a first time pledge; and the rest of us claiming our identity as “claimed already by God” to whom nothing is owed, and saying that giving is part of the way to live this life and reflect God’s generosity. And if when as parents or grandparents we have a chance to explain “generosity” to children “What do we say?” I can hear Caroline’s dad, actually whispering in my ear. “This is just who I am and who I want to be. I didn’t make gifts because I had to, but because I wanted to.”

And he would like the idea of spelling responsibility as “response—dash—ability.” The ability to make a response. The response that comes from us who celebrate our identity as claimed by God in our baptism.

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A Parable of Jesus! Really? (Sermon for 9/18/2016)

A Parable of Jesus! Really?

George Martin
Based on Luke 16:1-13
September 18, 2016 The Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa, MN

We had a lively Wednesday mornings text study group this week. People there liked what Amos the prophet said regarding the way the poorest members of society were treated, even by those who are supposedly keeping the Sabbath. All read 1st Timothy and no one wanted to discuss it.

And then came that Gospel reading! One man shook his head and asked, “How can Jesus possibly commend this thieving manager and his shrewdness as something the disciples should follow?” I didn’t dare ask if any one liked this parable, because I knew the answer. And when I asked if any of them would like to preach this morning, no one volunteered. Many a Biblical scholar and theologian will also be reluctant to tackle this parable.

A few cultural details will probably be helpful. The manager is the one who is suppose to represent the interests of the rich man who owns the land. In that world it was usually presumed that such managers were thieves on the side, raking off a little of what was being paid to the manager, from those who worked the land.

In the context of the world of Jesus those who worked the land never owned it and were always in perpetual debt — faced daily with the question of having daily bread. If you want to hear echoes of the Lord’s Prayer, it’s fitting with some of these parables.

In this parable the manager called two of the tenants to come: he gave them a huge break on what they owed to the rich man. We’re talking about a year and half of wages in each case as a gift. When those contracts were signed the rich man was on the hook for them. Bear this in mind: those tenants had to presume the manager was simply doing what the rich man wanted. So the response in the community when the news went out was to credit the rich man for this generosity, not the manager.

And wherever in a New Testament story there is an example of generosity, or some costly gift of love, it is always, theologically to be understood, as this is the way it is with God. God the creator of life. God who forgives and reconciles.

Looking again at this transaction organized by this shrewd manager involved debts and obligations owed by the tenants. Ah! Another Lord’s prayer reference: Where the phrase “Forgive us our trespasses”, can become in some translations “Forgive us our sins”—unless you’re in a Presbyterian church, and then it’s “Forgives us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Now we live in a world which admires wealthy people and thinks they must have generally done something to earn it. We know some inherit their wealth. They can live at a level presuming that others admire them. And what’s the dream behind the way state governments run the sale of lottery tickets? So many of us dream of winning wealth.

It’s a funny thing about wealth though. Almost no one who is wealthy will ever admit it. Some people who actually have enough, or more than enough, pursue wealth because they worry about not having enough. So I’m not going to ask you to stand up if you actually are one of the wealthy, but I daresay if we all stood up, by the standards of 90% of those living in this world, we all, or nearly all of us, would have far more than the other 90%.

I have in my hands a copy of the Wall Street Journal. I happen to get this paper in part because I was inspired by a comment of a famous theologian. I was privileged to meet Hans Kung, one of the giants of Vatican II, in a tea held in his honor around 1984. He was going to be speaking that night at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Minneapolis. Someone asked him, Professor Kung, when you’re here in the US, what in our media do you like to read. He responded, “I read the Wall Street Journal.”

Stunned expressions appeared around the room, and someone asked “Why do you read it.”

“Because,” he responded, “I learn about what people here worship.”

What I love about the Wall Street Journal are it’s coverage of the world stories, it’s articles on culture and books, and it has commentators of all stripes. Some don’t speak for me, but I feel compelled to read them. I hardly ever look at the money and investment section. But I learn so much about our world in this paper.

I also don’t mind talking about money in church, as I know it’s one component to functioning in ministry. I think you know that I came here before you asked me to serve as your interim senior pastor. I felt part of a community that loved coming here, and that joy and energy, had to be marked I felt by generous people. I found it easy to say to my wife, “Let’s make a pledge to the Lutheran Church of the Cross.” And so we did. (We actually support two other churches in the Cities with a pledge as well.) Generosity can go in many directions.

In October we will talk more about the way we support our church. And one emphasis will be on more households starting to make some kind of commitment.

Let’s get back though to the hard parable. The good folks who came to Wednesday’s Bible study actually wrote this sermon. But none of them would claim credit for this sermon and aren’t to blame if I fall flat on my face. One comment there, however, made we look again at the way the parable ended.

Jesus said this very strange thing: “…make friends for yourselves, by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” (Luke 16:9) The phrase “when it—it the wealth—is gone: that’s what caught my eye.

In this parable who was it who lost his job. Who had soft hands and knew nothing of working the soil? Who was it who wasn’t disabled or blind, which were the categories required it you were to be a beggar? It was the manager who’d been fired. Everything he had was gone. And he had no other options. Where would his next meal come from?

Let that question and his predicament hang in the air for a moment.

Here’s a quote that may trouble the waters, but maybe help us see some redeeming qualities in this most strange parable Jesus told. The quote comes from an Episcopal priest and author by the name of Sarah Miles. I commend to you her book called “Jesus Freak.” In it she said,

“Paul liked to say that “the surest sign of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist is when there’s somebody completely inappropriate at the altar.” [Sarah Miles, Jesus Freak, location 143]

Now it not an exact quote from a letter of St. Paul, but it fits with many passages. So I’m pretty sure Paul would agree that “the surest sign of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist is when there’s somebody completely inappropriate at the altar.”

Before you rise up and want to find another interim pastor let me remind you, that Luke in a rather brilliant way organized these parables using a common thread that involved a meal in the context of a celebration feeding some of the most unlikely characters in his world.

A few weeks ago we heard this advice: Take the lowest place when you are invited. Consider yourself unworthy to be at that table and in that house, and you’ll be called forward.

We didn’t hear the parable immediately following that advice but it’s title is “The Parable of the Great Dinner.” What’s amazing is the special guests invited all decided at the last minute not to come, and offered the flimsiest and most insulting excuses. The master then sent his slave out to “bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And there was still room left and the slave was told “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in.” It meant there were those out there who felt so unworthy, and they needed to be helped to come.

Then we heard of a shepherd who’s shame was losing one of the sheep. How hard he had to search for the scared sheep, near death we presume, and how he had to carry it back. And then announced his mistake and wanted a celebration for this. And the woman who lost part of her dowry, and in spite of the shame called her friends. We are talking about communities that acknowledge the sinner and welcome such into their midst.

The next parable of the Prodigal son, who should never have returned, but found in doing so his Father running to embrace him, having never stopped looking for his lost son. Such is the gracious nature of God.

And now this parable today. The one that says “when all that is gone, and it is really gone, know that you will find a welcome place.”

And this leads me to add one short postscript to this sermon. Our famous rummage sale takes place at the end of this week. So many of us will put in long hours getting ready, enjoy the actual sale, and then there’s the clean-up. Be mindful, if you will, of the difference this rummage sale makes in the lives of some of those who will come, who actually might not feel welcome to come here on Sunday morning.

But you see don’t you? Our challenge is to offer that welcome. To be as welcoming and generous as the Lord Jesus who told all those stories of celebrations that welcomed the most unlikely to know God’s love. And God’s generosity.

Posted in Lutheran Church of the Cross 2016-2017, Publications | Leave a comment

Annotated Table of Contents

What follows is the annotated table of contents for my new book that I hope to complete by December of this year. I welcome comments and interest from others. In early 2017 I expect I’ll be able to be offering seminars and conferences on this topic. Please use the comment section of this web page and I’ll be happy to respond to your questions or reflections.

Annotated Table of Contents

“Meeting the St. Paul You Never Thought You’d Meet”

by George Martin


The reader is invited on a journey of discovering reasons to admire and respect Paul based less on understanding Paul as a theologian and more on Paul who was both telling and living the story of Christ. The introduction reviews the overall structure of the book and indicates some of the reasons for each of the chapters.

Section I: Finding the Real Paul 

  1. Paul in Arabia

This chapter investigates the story of Paul’s escape from Damascus in order to find Paul in a particular year. That date allows for the construction of a reasonable chronology for Paul’s ministry. I have found very few accounts of Paul which logically recount the history of Rome’s control of the world that Paul knew within the context of his letters. Here Paul is connected to Caesar, the Nabataeans, Augustus, and even John the Baptist.

  1. Paul the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles

The author of Acts never acknowledged Paul as an apostle, but it became an extremely important title that he used, not just for himself, but also for those sharing ministry with him. It’s important to consider how Paul was bringing the history of Israel and its monotheistic faith to the world. This was a “daring innovation.”

  1. Paul the Storyteller

In the eyes of some significant scholars Paul is a called a narrative theologian with regard to his use of scripture to tell his story of Jesus Messiah. Indeed he saw his time as the key point in which God had acted in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. He was embedded in that story. The story of Jesus in a sense became the plot of his own story. Were there clues to his life as he reflected on God’s story in his letters? Most important of all is the consideration of his call to follow Jesus with a particular focus on the letter to the Galatians.

  1. Paul a Victim of Identity Theft

In contrast to a statue of Paul within Vatican square which shows a huge muscular Paul holding a sword toward the sky, the Paul here aligned himself with the nobodies of this world. In contrast to the more individualized concept of faith that has shaped much of Christianity for 500 or more years, Paul’s emphasis was on the “faith of Jesus,” that could become the shape of a community called to live for “one another” composed as a “community of others.”

Section II: Paul and Friends 

  1. Paul in Community

The boundary-blurring community that marked off Paul’s communities probably involved real mutualism in all things including shared meals and the pooling of resources. Exploring the realities of wealth and poverty in Paul’s world locates him in a communities composed of slaves and trades people. What to do about those who didn’t willingly contribute to the common good was a real question. Central to Paul was his understanding of being “in Christ” as a shared life and language, not at all akin to the world of patronage that defined the important people in Paul’s world.

  1. Paul and his Team

The majority of the authentic letters of Paul offer us a picture of a gregarious Paul who must have had friends in every community he ever visited. A few had resources, but most were quite common people. Many were women. Of particular importance was the role that Phoebe played in bringing his letter to the communities in Rome. Timothy may have been his closest confidant. Looking at the people he mentions tells us a great deal about Paul himself.

  1. Paul the Letter Writer

There are aspects about Paul’s use of letters that are intriguing and even strange in our world. Most likely they were composed in his head, then dictated, and memorized by whoever would carry the letter. Once the letter was delivered it was probably performed! Chances are that Paul may have helped coach the best way to deliver it to each community of faith. It was called “speech in character.” At the same time some of the letters may be compositions of two or three letters. Questions of authenticity are also addressed.

  1. Paul the Fool

Sometimes we are perplexed when we discover a saint who could get “angry” or when we find a saint who “sheds tears,” which are two sides of Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians. In this chapter I focus on Paul’s issues with a community that seemingly lost trust in him, and how he challenged them to never think more highly of themselves than others. Paul was insistent on not seeking or claiming privileges at the expense of others. This Paul kept seeing himself as a “servant” and as a “slave” of Christ—forms of identification few in his world would have willingly assumed.

Section III: Inside Paul’s World

  1. Paul’s Politics

There was no distinction between religion and politics in Paul’ world. Worship of the emperor was visible on a daily basis in buildings and art. Most road signs were marked by their distance to and from Rome. Public buildings bore messages about the peace and security brought by Roman conquest and subjugation—a theme reinforced by the violence and terror enacted publicly in the arena. Paul’s focus on the cross (the ultimate terror) meant that God alone could bring life out of death—something imperial Rome could never do. Paul used words like “good news”, “Lord”, and “peace” in language that clearly was subverting Roman claims.

  1. Paul’s Watch

Paul was living in a time between the times, anxious for the return of the Lord and God’s judgment on the evil powers of the world. Paul used the politically charged word “parousia” with regard to the Lord’s expected return. Shaped in a world of Jewish apocalyptic expectations some scholars think Paul was an apocalyptic theologian. It’s better to see the continuity in Paul between the Hebrew story and what was new in Christ. Paul lived in a kind of time described by phrases like “already—not yet” or “the time that remains.” It wasn’t a waiting or wasting time, but was filled with the spirit of God.

  1. Paul’s Chains

Prisons in Paul’s world were unlike any in our time. They were nearly often dark damp caves in which the prisoners hadn’t been found guilty, but were awaiting trial. And they were chained together. They could have friends visit and bring them food, or maybe a blanket. Without any light or writing instruments Paul wrote letters from prison. Unable to work with his hands at his trade, Paul in prison had time to think, to compose, and to share his ideas with valued friends who then carried his prayers and exhortations to dearly loved communities he had founded.

  1. Paul’s Mysticism

For too long Paul has been portrayed primairly as a thoughtful theologian. What’s often lost in the dusty libraries where people study Paul is that he had a passionate and vibrant spiritual life shaped by experiences of prayer, visions, and revelations. He could speak in tongues, and knew the voice of prophecy. To be sure he had cautionary words about these elements in worship, but they were very real to him. When he spoke of a man who was caught up into heaven, it’s evident he was talking about himself.

  1. Paul’s Last Journey

Paul’s letter to the Romans described two trips he had planned. He would take the collection to the poor in Jerusalem, and come to Rome, but not to stay. Spain was his destination. What was it about Spain that Paul felt compelled to bring the gospel there? It was the land most recently conquered by Rome. It’s people, now enslaved, were reminded daily that their lives had been spared by the grace of the Roman army. In Jewish lore it had been called the end of the world. Was Paul thinking that the collection and then the gospel to Spain would conclude with the coming of Jesus? Perhaps.


After a brief review of the significant aspects of Paul emphasized in the previous chapters the book concludes with thoughts on what Paul would question with regard to Christianity today. Having tried all the different expressions of the Christian faith he’d probably want to convene a real ecumenical council. He’d certainly appreciate the fact that he and Peter share the same feast day. I’m sure he would speak to the issues of ethnicity, sexual identity, and class that flame into hostility and violence in our world just as they did 2,000 years ago. He’d want us to think about our time as the “already not yet” and the “time that remains.”


Posted in Meeting St. Paul — A New Book, Publications | Leave a comment

Introduction: Meeting the St. Paul You Never Thought You’d Meet

Meeting the St. Paul You Never Thought You’d Meet

I welcome feedback, editorial suggestions, and questions. I’m going public with my chapters as they evolve in the proper order. I’m am also seeking a major publisher who will publish this book. Let me know what you think using the comments part of this website. George

Chapter 1


“Because of the entrenched nature of the traditional paradigm, it is very difficult to see Paul with a new set of eyes.” Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul was not a Christian, p. 216

“Jesus, yes; Paul, never!”    Richard Rubenstein, My Brother Paul, 1972

Telling people that I was writing a book about St. Paul would occasionally evoke “Who cares?” More often than not, I’d hear, “I just don’t like Paul.” There was a third category of responses, and it was the one that brought me to this topic, “I just can never understand Paul.”

It seems that many accounts regarding St. Paul begin with these negative assessments. Consider the title of a recent book by Karen Armstrong “St. Paul: The Apostle we Love to Hate.” Her intent in writing wasn’t to lead her readers to draw further away from Paul, but it seems implied in that title. There’s a book by J. R. Kirk with the title, “Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?: A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Paul.” Kirk’s “problem with Paul” became the main topic of another recent book “Paul as a Problem in History and Culture: The Apostle and His Critics through the Centuries.” [Patrick Gray] I’m not alone in this pursuit of Paul, except that I find myself to be far less critical. I actually like Paul, and hope that is conveyed in this book.

This book is different. I want my readers to have a number of reasons to admire and appreciate St. Paul based simply on his own letters. Clearing up every question regarding him is beyond the scope of this book, but once we realize how many stories he was telling and living there are good reasons to admire and respect him. I think there’s a way to read the letters of Paul that is more like listening to another friend tell us a story. We listen with sympathetic ears and are eager to know more.

What if the story of St. Paul hasn’t been told correctly? What if we’ve been given the wrong picture of this “least of the apostles”? (1 Cor. 15:9) Those are some of the questions addressed in this book. The Paul I have found, through his own writings, may not always be likeable, but he has emerged in my eyes as one of the most fascinating men to have ever lived. I would love to have him come to my house for dinner. The conversation could last long into the night or longer if I could get him to stay. Having studied Paul so intently for a number of years I realize there are so many things we don’t know because our reliable sources for him are so limited. In this book I acknowledge issues with our sources, but I continue to maintain that the lost identity of Paul is revealed, often overtly and sometime covertly in his letters.

The difficult challenge in this book is the picture of Paul coming from the Acts of the Apostles, which is the second half of the gospel of Luke. For almost two thousand years, when preachers and biblical scholars have wanted to share something about Paul, in biographical terms, they nearly always begin with Acts for most details regarding Paul’s story. There we find the dramatic account of his call to follow Jesus when Paul was on the road to Damascus. He was going to Damascus to continue his persecution of followers of Jesus. The same story, with a few variations, is actually told three times in Acts. Ever since this is the story most Christians tell. Paul who had been the one persecuting followers of Jesus suddenly and dramatically became a “Christian.”[1]

In the first account of Paul meeting Jesus the author of Acts used his previous name Saul—clearly a Jewish name. Four chapters later, without explaining anything about the reasons for the change, the author of Acts simply reports that Saul was also called Paul. (Acts 13:9) That becomes the name used for the rest of his account. The dominant narrative line continuing through the last half of Acts, where Paul is the focus, is that he was continually attacked by “the Jews.” The author left Paul’s old name behind. It’s as if he had stopped being Jewish. These early threads of anti-Semitism are the precursors to what became a clear separation between Jews and Christians in the centuries after Paul. Much was forgotten about the Judaism that belonged to both Jesus and Paul. A contemporary Pauline scholar, N.T. Wright, reminds us, “Paul remained a stubbornly and intentionally a deeply Jewish thinker.” [Wright, Faithfulness of God, p. 1408] That’s news to many Christians! It seems it might even have been news to the author of Acts, though he was thoroughly familiar with Jewish ways and stories.

My goal is to introduce you to the Paul found outside of Acts. I’m relying, for the most part, on seven of the letters that nearly all scholars can agree came from his hand. One of the challenges regards what to do with the other six letters[2] that purportedly came from him? That question needs to be addressed because in most of these six outlier letters there is some biographical information about its author that may help or hinder getting a clearer view of Paul. Actually at least four of the questionable letters (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and 2 Thessalonians) may offer erroneous and even contrary information about Paul. A more conventional institutionalized Paul seems to emerge from these four letters that were perhaps composed some 30 to 50 years after he died.

The main focus on my work is to introduce my readers to some surprising, intriguing, and admirable aspects of Paul’s story. My methodology is to rely mainly on what Paul wrote in his letters. Any other external information that can confirm or substantiate something Paul said will be helpful to this enterprise. Acts at times is exactly a source that confirms some data found in one of Paul’s letters. The other side of this process is the premise that any stories or facts that contravene something Paul said must be treated with great suspicion.

As I’ve already indicated Acts usually is the frame for what most people know as Paul’s story. My intent isn’t to trash Acts or to have it removed from the New Testament canon. We can bring historical criticism to this account and still admire the creative narrative handed down to us by the author of Acts, even while questioning its historicity. I would hope the readers of my book appreciate that I am taking Acts as an important account of the emergence of early Christian communities, and that I am treating it in a serious manner. I would wish for the same assessment accorded to an earlier Biblical scholar, John Knox, who questioned the historicity of Acts. It was said of him that he did “…indeed take Acts with the utmost seriousness; instead of assuming its reliability he subjected it to the rigorous cross-examination that is required in good historiography.”[ J.A. Hare, “Introduction” in John Knox, Chapters in a Life of Paul , p. xl]

As an example of the process I am using we need to begin with the fact that there isn’t a single reference in Acts to Paul having written any letters. Not one! By the time Acts was written (probably somewhere between 85 to 120 CE) we can conclude that Paul’s letters were saved and preserved—or at least some of them were. Some disappeared. A few seem imbedded as parts of recognizable letters of Paul. Even at the time he may have put his own letter collections together, and thus they may have been shared and copied within and between communities at least known to Paul. [David Trobisch. Paul’s Letter Collections] Even though Acts ignores important verifiable data regarding Paul’s story the author of Acts was placing Paul on the same footing of importance which he gave to Peter and James. Just a few generations from Jesus himself his early followers had clearly found their heroic figures in the first disciples who lived in Jerusalem, but also in Paul’s story as the “apostle to the gentiles” which was equally treasured. But, at least in Acts, some of the details regarding Paul’s story were ignored, lost, or, perhaps, intentionally distorted. Why, for example, did Acts make so much of Paul being a Roman citizen?

In Acts we are told that Paul was from Tarsus (in Syria), brought up in Jerusalem, trained as a Pharisee under Gamaliel (Acts. 22:3) and a few verses later on has Paul claiming he was a Roman citizen. (Acts 22:25) Not once in any of his letters, however, did Paul claim to be a citizen or from Tarsus. We have some indications from a few of his letters about his ministry in Syria, however, and thus it could be that he was from Syria. There is no collaborative evidence from other sources, though, and this must, consequently, be one of those unanswerable questions. The more important question concerns whether or not he was a Roman citizen? This is one claim that cannot be substantiated within the corpus of Paul’s letters!

Letting Paul’s voice be heard, especially as he came to know Jesus as God’s Messiah, leads us to consider that Paul had little respect for the claims of Caesar. It appears that the Romans may have had reasons to raise questions about Paul and the early followers of Jesus. Paul’s frequent arrests make sense as we consider how the new Jesus Messiah communities could have been considered to be seditious in the eyes of some Roman authorities. Some of these clues appear in Paul’s letters when we discover the subversive character of some of his arguments and words of encouragement.

Please don’t think for a second that the Paul to be met in these pages is some kind of dour pipe-smoking theologian tucked away in a book filled office writing systematic theology. The books he had, mainly the stories from Torah and the prophets, were already in his head. He never needed a library as such. His books (i.e Torah, the Psalms and Prophets) were memorized, which is most likely the way some of his letters were carried and treasured. Paul is also more than ideas or facts offered in some logical or systematic arguments. The Paul I’ve encountered in my research is filled with marvelous stories, some of which he tells, and others which are just hinted at in the course of some particular argument or example. Be warned, though, that this isn’t a biography in the traditional sense of that genre.

The book of Acts also could not serve as a source for much of what you’d find in a contemporary biography. Acts didn’t tell us when Paul was born or anything about his parents, or siblings—if he had any brothers or sisters. We know nothing about his death, though we can presume the author of Acts knew the when and how Paul died. That author made a decision, though, to tell a story in which Paul was still alive, albeit under house arrest in Rome when he concluded his account. Obviously this particular author wasn’t writing biography in a form we would recognize. Paul wasn’t writing an autobiography either, but he was clearly telling things about himself and what was happening. It’s just often overlooked. Until now!

The Structure of this Picture of Paul

This book is divided into three main sections. It begins with “Finding the Real Paul.” Even without knowing when he was born some reasonable guesses can be made regarding when Paul met Jesus. It is also possible to offer a rough course of his ministry based on information found in his letters. Paul’s revelation from God that Jesus was the messiah may have happened within three years of the crucifixion. The two were most likely close in age, with Jesus being perhaps a few years older.

This section begins by placing Paul in the context of the history of Judea and the Roman occupying forces known to both Paul and Jesus. Taking one small clue from one of Paul’s letters it’s possible to attach a particular event to a single year in the first century. That is the crucial date for constructing a Pauline chronology.

Finding the real Paul means seeing how he remained a Jew who happened to develop a focus and passion that gentiles must be invited to the story of God that he knew from his days as a child. Once called by God to know Jesus as Messiah the ministry of Paul was to offer pagans a monotheistic faith more clearly defined through Jesus Christ. Paul did this because he was a storyteller who lived the very story he shared as he founded one new Jesus community after another. Finally this section brings us to the key issue that emerged at least within fifty years of Paul’s death. Paul was somehow institutionalized and made far more respectable than he really was. As the church became more separate from Judaism and eventually hostile to Jews, Paul became less Jewish and more like the first Christian. I call it a case of first century identity theft.

“Paul and Friends” is the title of second set of chapters. Here you’ll find Paul writing to communities of faith and commending a way of living the story of Christ. Each community was to demonstrate to the world what life in Christ was all about. Paul did not go about his ministry on his own. He had various teams of those engaged in ministry with him, and many of its members were women. This gives me a chance to partly right the ship that declares Paul a misogynist. There are some fascinating things to learn about how Paul composed his letters, saved them, and thankfully how they serve two thousand years later to be our source for seeing more of the real Paul. Though always Jewish this Paul lived as a gentile among gentiles[3]. He would just be hard to pick out from the others seeking to survive from one day to the next. Paul comes clearer into view when we realize what it meant that he worked with his hands and had a trade. It was probably something he could never have imagined doing prior to encountering Christ. Bound to the story of Jesus Paul became the “fool” for Christ.

The last section is titled “Inside Paul’s World.” I noted earlier that’s it’s impossible to construct a true biography, but we can read between the lines of Paul’s letters and ask some “wonder questions.” I wonder if Paul had a watch and knew much about the history of his time? I wonder if he paid attention to politics of his day? What was it like for Paul to be in prison and why was he arrested so often? Was Paul really poor and to what extent did his work provide for his daily needs? What about those who seemed to have been patrons who offered housing and sent him gifts? Did Paul have just one spiritual encounter of Jesus? Finally, what about the journey’s of Paul, first to Jerusalem with a collection for the poor and then to Spain, not Rome, as his ultimate goal? There are, at least, some provisional answers to all these questions that can help fill in some of empty spaces in Paul’s story in the context of a world where most struggled for their daily bread. Paul did as well.

Finding the Real Paul: Chapters 1-3

It has already been suggested that the book of Acts is problematic for the task at hand, but all is not lost. The first chapter “Paul in Arabia” places Arabia, where Paul went after his revelation, in the context of the larger history and geography of the first century. The little detail that he went to Arabia has puzzled Biblical scholars, but it connects in a fascinating way to the story of Paul escaping from Damascus in a basket one night. It’s an event he mentioned in 2 Corinthians, and it was also told with different details in Acts. The many pieces to this puzzle can actually provide us the date for a particular year when we can locate Paul. That year, in turn, allows for construction of a chronology for Paul’s ministry based mostly on his letters. This chapter also places Paul in the same critical and dangerous time, under vicious and pervasive Roman domination, that led Jesus to be crucified. The Roman army played a critical, but curious, role in the events that led Paul to escape Damascus and when he, subsequently, made his first visit to Jerusalem.

Once more when turning to Acts and we find a number of accounts of Paul visiting the leaders of the Jesus community there—in particular Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. Acts has Paul making more visits to Jerusalem than can be accounted for from Paul’s letters, but that is a minor detail. More important to this enterprise is an understanding of the kind of relationship Paul had with the disciples who were identified as Apostles by the author of Acts. Never did that author credit Paul with the title “apostle.” Yet Paul called himself Apostle of the Gentiles in a number of places in his letters. Paul, on the other hand, never used the word “disciple.” Mysteries abound!

“Paul Apostle to the Gentiles” (Chapter 2) focuses on Paul’s Jewish identity. Pamela Eisenbaum’s book “Paul was Never a Christian” sets the stage for this chapter. Paul was a Jew reaching out to Gentiles, but not to make them Jews within the concept of ethnicity. One issue of consequence in this chapter is that no one in any of the communities founded by Paul would have ever called themselves a “gentile.” “Gentile” was a category created by Jews who defined all others as gentiles, which essentially meant “not Jews.” Paul, uniquely, saw these others in a whole different light, not because he had some early ethic of “tolerance” towards all, but precisely because in Judaism he knew the stories of Abraham and some key prophetic visions regarding the gentile nations. Paul is the Jew who lives as a Gentile, and welcomes all people to know themselves to be located in the Jewish story. Paul may even have conceived his ministry as Abrahamic.

In “Paul the Storyteller” (Chapter 3) you will not so much find a Paul who tells stories about Jesus, but rather a man committed to living the story of Christ. Paul will even go so far as to say that it is Christ who lives in him. Such audacious claims were made knowing they came with a price, and it was a price Paul was willing to pay, even with death, if need be.

I will also be exploring the possibility of telling Paul’s story in light of another detail found only in Acts, where we learn that Paul’s previous name was Saul. Never once in any of his letters, however, did Paul admit to having any previous name. In his letters it’s always Paulus[4] but in the letter to Philippians he discussed his rather creditable and noble Jewish heritage, which included coming from the tribe of Benjamin. (Philippians 3:5) The traditional understanding of most biblical scholars has been that Paul was given two names at his birth: Saulus Paulus. (Two names: one Hebraic, the other Latin). The account in Acts seems to imply this. I will suggest another theory, namely, that upon discovering Jesus as God’s messiah he gave up the name “Saulus.” I was a simple letter change to become “Paulus,” a name that in Latin meant small. I’m proposing it gives us a window into the real story Paul was telling as a follower of Jesus Messiah.

From a small Paul to a tall Paul is the story in “Paul a Victim of Identity Theft.” (Chapter 3) Here I am asking serious questions regarding Paul’s status in the first century as he traveled along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean sea, and then headed west into Macedonia, eventually after some detours, heading to Spain, intending only to spend some rest time in Rome. Was he really a “Roman citizen” as tradition tells us? Or would we have a hard time recognizing him amongst the multitude of common people struggling on a day-to day basis? Here is the discussion about the history of “fighting over Paul’s legacy” that has marked Pauline scholarship beginning in the 2nd century. We will not encounter Paul the professor of theology, but Paul the founder of nascent communities of followers of Jesus, carving out a common life with each other, needing the counsel of Paul and members of his team, and most importantly his incarnated example of living “in Christ.” In this same chapter I will introduce you to what has been called the “New Perspective on Paul,” and then unpacking the letter to the Galatians leading to what I call Paul’s unexpected identity—that which was lost to our sight for so long.

All of this focus on the identity of one person, namely Paul, is actually contrary to something that is so clear in his letters. Even though he uses his own story, and does that in a variety of ways, his continual focus was always on the life and unity of the communities of those living the Jesus story. The very idea of someone all alone in the world, who reads the scriptures, and who decides they are a Christian, would leave Paul shaking his head and asking, “How can that be?” In Paul’s world there was only one way to follow Jesus, and that was in the company of others committed to the same Lord, and the same shared life of mutual support. If you were to ask Paul, “How can I be in Christ?” He’d tell you “only with others in Christ!” What was one of the most important noun-phrases in all of Paul’s letters? It’s “one another” or as Bridgett Kahl spells it “one an-other,” with the emphasis being on living with those we once thought of as “other.” This is the profound theme in pulling together all of the chapters in the next section.

Paul and Friends: Chapters 4-7

The next step in discovering Paul involves an emphasis on those who worked alongside of him, and who took his message (his letters) to others. There was a constant flow of information and stories in Paul’s world. To be sure there was no CNN reporting on TV to the whole world what just happened. Yet news of events did travel those Roman roads, and was carried on the ships transporting goods. Most important of all were the people who carried the news and stories. It’s a fascinating collection of people who were helping Paul, and what’s surprising to many is the role of women in that story. This second section is the one with the most emphasis on what Paul believed, but not as if we abstracted his brain from is body. What he believed was how he lived “in Christ.”

“Paul in Community” (Chapter 4) is an attempt to capture in words what a grand family portrait would be like had Paul stood in the midst of one of his communities of faith for their annual church picture. We probably wouldn’t be able to recognize Paul from any other others, especially if we thought he might look more distinguished by the way he dressed. I don’t think he’d even be seated at the center of picture. If we have any clue to where Paul might have been in such a picture it may come from the Latin meaning of Paulus. It’s the word for “small.”

Paul was living in what one scholar has called “a remarkable new boundary-blurring human community made up of Jews and Gentiles together…” [Hays, What is Real Participation In Christ. #8] The essence of that shared life was the narrative of a world story centered in the cross, resurrection, and expected parousia (or coming) of the messiah. Inside this story was a way of living with each other and it was this message, above all others, that is so clear in Paul’s letters. It wasn’t a faith to be explained as such, and it wasn’t just to be “spiritual” as if you had to have certain ecstatic experiences of faith. Actually Paul scolded the Corinthians for what he saw as a mere “soulish” approach to faith. [Mc Clendon, Narrative Ethics, # 21] It was a call to “a new humanity” in which identity would be shaped by the other. It wasn’t about finding yourself, but finding Christ in these new brothers and sisters, and then sharing in the story of Christ.

The sharing wasn’t knowledge about the faith, but the actual practice of faith in a community that was challenging all the usual boundaries from the previous worlds of its participants. N.T. Wright has implied that ethics was a kind of team sport for Paul.[Wright, Faithfulness of God, Note #340] His favorite pronoun is the second person plural or, in a more colloquial way, “Y’all.” To be sure Paul called for obedience to the gospel from all within each community of faith. The emphasis was consistently on serving one another, which makes Paul’s frequent references to himself as “slave of Christ” most unexpected in his world. “In fact, the very use of the word [slave] would repel, rather than attract, any listener who is part of the upper ranks of Roman society.” [Ascouth, Paul’s Macedonian Associations, p. 123.

“Paul and this Team” (Chapter 6) introduces the many who shared in ministry and leadership with Paul in what had to be a unique and surprising network which relied on the Roman roads, and the many ships that plied the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The author of Acts also knew that Paul had partners in ministry but the critical issue will be between the reliability of that account in contrast to Paul’s word. The partnership with Barnabas will be an example of this argument. The two parted company but the differing accounts lead to the conclusion that Paul’s story needs to be one followed. There is also the important data regarding a large number of co-workers and friends of Paul cited in his letters. There are even indications that many of them were slaves based simply on their names.

A goodly number of those Paul knew as associates in ministry were women, and one in particular—Phoebe— seemed to have earned his trust and confidence for one very important task, which was to take his letter to the communities of faith in Rome. There were other women of importance mentioned in the letters. Careful exegesis of some of Paul’s comments particularly regarding marriage and the role of women in worship will also serve to counter some of the assumptions that Paul was patriarchal and dismissive of women. He wasn’t.

If the term side-kick is appropriate then it’s also clear that Timothy fit that role. Paul thought of him as his “son” (Phil.2:22), and said he was “…doing the work of the Lord just as I am.” (1 Cor. 16:1). On the basis of the opening greeting in 1 Thessalonians we can even credit Timothy as one of the authors of that particular missal. There were so many others accorded the recognition of sharing in the ministry alongside of Paul. Aquila and Prisca seemed to have played a special role with a community that gathered in their house (probably in Ephesus). That city was perhaps the base for much of Paul’s extensive ministry. It’s actually a rather long list of names on Paul’s team when we add up all that appear in his correspondence.

In “Paul the Letter Writer” (Chapter 7) one of the more fascinating aspects about such correspondence is that it was sent to communities in which the majority of people were not literate. How Paul would be surprised to see so many church people today, with heads down in worship, looking at a bible or the bulletin with the lessons of the day printed while someone reads the assigned readings for the day.. That couldn’t have happened in his world. There—people listened. That’s how they learned the stories of their faith. It was an oral culture. Our world is also a story-telling world, particularly in our daily discourse, when we recount what just happened or what we heard.

There are two main parts to this discussion of Paul’s letters. One focus will be on the way the letters were probably composed, written, saved, and most likely performed from memory. Since a number were composed in darkened prison cells where Paul would not have access to any writing instruments, we can conceive that he was writing in his head, and sharing his ideas with those who came to visit. Of particular interest is why Paul signed the letter to Galatians, and made reference to the “large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand.” (Gal. 6:11).

Letters generally accepted as by Paul Some scholars believe these are by Paul—others disagree General consensus that these are not Paul’s letters
Romans Colossians 1 Timothy
Galatians Ephesians 2 Timothy
1 Thessalonians 2 Thessalonians Titus
1 Corinthians    
2 Corinthians    

The second part of the chapter on Paul’s letters will examine the question of which letters are authenic, and why there are legimitate questions to ask regarding the other six letters which bear his name. (Almost all scholars, by the way, dismiss Hebrews as one from Paul’s hands because of content and language which simply isn’t like Paul at all.) Ongoing controversy reigns among biblical scholars regarding 2 Thessalonians. Some scholars offer some valid reasons that Ephesians and Colossians were written by Paul, but there is not a strong consensus around that idea. The earliest codex (a collection of letters or documents) actually had nine letters of Paul, but it didn’t include Philemon [Eisenbaum, Paul was not a Christian, 118] , Philemon is considered definitely from Paul. The most questionable, but frequently cited letters are what are often called the pastoral epistles, namely 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. When these letters are compared with those we know came from Paul they fail because there is hardly any correspondence with regard to “….style, vocabulary, theology, polemical devices…” [Dennis R. MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle, p. 113] to what Paul wrote. Most significantly these three letters show evidence of “hierarchical ecclesiastical leadership” [Ibid] clearly nothing that Paul knew in his world of Jesus followers.

The concluding chapter in the section Paul and his Friends focuses on Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians where, in both letters Paul called himself a “fool” and at the same time offered various litanies of sufferings, trials, and struggles. This is the Paul who might write “…letters that are weighty and strong but his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible.” (2 Cor. 10:10) In his first letter to the same community he said he purposefully didn’t use “lofty words or wisdom” (1 Cor. 2.1) and then proceeded to praise foolishness. (1 Cor. 3:18). The autobiographical material is like a huge waterfall in the second letter. Paul asserted he was among “apostles” who had become “… a spectacle to the world…we are fools for the sake of Christ.” (1 Cor. 4.9-10)

In “Paul the Fool” (Chapter 8) I am also asking questions about the work that Paul did to support his ministry. What is interesting about the work he did with his hands, is that he most likely didn’t need to labor so hard. He could have, and at times, did accept help from others, in a world where patronage was considered noble and honorable. Others did help Paul and this will be noted. The more interesting side of Paul is that he had some skill that allowed him to provide for his daily needs but not much more. I am also going to entertain the possibility that Acts was wrong in telling us that Paul was a tentmaker, and that is why he stayed with and worked with Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth. (Acts 18:1-3) There is a clue in this story, though, because Paul most likely did belong to a guild of like-minded people with a specific trade. They might even have been in the world of “theater”, making “stage properties” instead of making tents. Paul seemed to know a great deal about the role of “fool” in the theater of his day.

Inside Paul’s World (Chapters 9-13)

 “Paul’s Politics” (Chapter 9) begins this last section because there was never a day when Paul could have forgotten the claims of Caesar to be the savior of the world and the one who brought “Pax Romana” to the Empire. It wasn’t that Paul believed any of those claims. We see over and over in his letters that he had decided that Caesar could never be his Lord—only Jesus. It was a dangerous decision, but one that Paul knew how to negotiate with his biligual and bicultural skills. One scholar maintains that ‘…Paul and his team functioned as bilingual and bicultural translators and mediators – as go-betweeens…’ (Ehrensberger, Paul at the Crossroads, p. 97]. This is the chapter that wrestles with the truth of the claim made by Moltmann that “The crucified Christ has become a stranger to the civil religion of the First World and to that world’s Christianity.” [Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, Page 65] Paul would probably write with the same subversive skills he used about 2000 years ago were he to be writing letters to our faith communities.

The next chapter, “Paul’s Watch” (Chapter 10), focuses on a Paul who would be very surprised to find that the history of violence born out of theories of domination and submission, which he knew at the heart of the Roman empire, would continue for over 20 centuries. He thought he was living near the end of time with the expected coming of Christ which could happen any day. “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1 Thess. 4:16) Paul’s choice of a word to image the coming of the Lord was parousia which was known in his world to describe the coming of Caesar or one of his representatives. Paul used the word in a subversive manner.

If you had asked Paul “What time is it?” he wouldn’t tell you the hour or even that evening was near. He might have given a more obscure answer, perhaps by saying, “This is the time that remains.” That’s the concept offered by the theologian Agamben who wrestled with Paul’s understanding regarding the coming end to the world. This is the chapter where I address questions about Paul’s apocalyptic thinking. Is it the main thread for his ministry and teaching? There is a divide among biblical scholars regarding Paul’s sense of time between those who emphasize his apocalyptic theology, and those who focus on Paul’s sense of continuity with the Jewish concept of the covenant.

“Paul in Chains” (Chapter 11) explores what it was like to be arrested and put in prison in the first century by orders of some Roman official. Paul was in chains for considerable periods of time and on multiple occasions, and this is all by his own admission. Five of the letters came from him while in prison. Douglas Campbell has noted that Paul was “an experienced detainee.” [Campbell, Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography, p. 304] Were Paul to apply to serve one of our churches I suspect his arrest record would be troubling to most call committees.

In Paul’s world those who were thrown into prison were waiting for some kind of trial. Prison wasn’t the punishment that was administered, though it was a place of shame and deprivation. More importantly for our consideration of the letters Paul wrote from prison most prison cells were usually dark caves. There is evidence that friends could bring a prisoner food or come to visit, and that seems the case with Paul’s references to those who shared in his trials.

We don’t know anything about the length of various times Paul spent in various prisons, but certainly they had to last for weeks of maybe even months. He had plenty of time in which to think and compose in his head the letters he might send. More importantly were the hours he spent praying and that brings us to “Paul the Mystic” (Chapter 12). The usual story of Paul, as framed by Acts, is that Paul had a single mystical encounter with the risen Lord when he was on the road to Damascus. As noted earlier this is the model for what some consider Paul’s conversion[5]—an idea that is challenged in a number of places in this book. When it comes to Paul’s mysticism there is plenty of evidence from his letters that he had many deep spiritual encounters in his life in Christ. The kinds of experiences Paul had must have been born out of a deep prayer life which had it’s roots in the Jewish world that shaped his spirituality.

“Paul’s Last Journey” (Chapter 13) brings up more questions than answers, but fits within the scope of this book because of its focus on a few interesting clues regarding this remarkable man. Once more there is a discrepancy between the account in Acts and what Paul wrote. The last chapters of Acts (23-28) focus on Paul who was arrested in Jerusalem and eventually sent to Rome where at the end of the account he was living under house arrest free to welcome all who came to him, still able to preach and teach. The problem is that in his letter to Rome that wasn’t his intended destination. He would only rest up there with his hope to go to Spain.

Why would Paul want to go to Spain to continue his missionary work? That’s the important question addressed. N.T. Wright made an interesting comment about Paul’s missionary work in the cities of Corinth, Philippi, and Rome (to name just a few). They were places where Caesar’s power was the strongest. (Wright, Faithfulness of God, p. 1502). There was one more journey Paul wanted to make. “He had travelled the central heartlands of the Roman empire, and it was now time to head for the city at the very heart itself, and to go on from there to the key western outpost of Rome’s wide domains.” [Ibid, p. 1502] What Wright didn’t say was that Spain was the most recently conquered territory in the Roman Empire. From a Jewish perspective it was also considered the “end” of the world. These are the clues followed in what may have been the journey that Paul did not, in the end, take.

Paul’s last journey also took him, at least in terms of his intentions in Romans, to bring a collection gathered from various Jesus communities in Greek-speaking parts of the Mediterranean world to the poor followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. The story of this collection weaves in and out of various letters, obviously receiving support in some communities, while challenged in others. There’s something in Paul’s understanding of the prophetic message that lent great importance to this collection. Even if we maintain that he was able to bring this collection to Jerusalem the lingering question will still be, “How was it received?”

In the “Conclusion” of the book I offer a brief review of the aspects of Paul uncovered in my research. I will also add some thoughts about the things that would perplex and trouble Paul about Christianity as we know it. We even have to wonder if Paul would decide to call himself a “Christian.” What cannot be denied though, as we continue to read Paul’s letters in our worship and in our study of the early followers of Jesus that the book of Acts was correct. Acts concludes with Paul living in Rome where “…he welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ, with all boldness and without hindrance.” (Acts. 28:30-31). He still is teaching and proclaiming. His voice continues. And hopefully we have a better sense of the man himself and his powerful story.

[1] The word “Christian” appears in quotes because it wasn’t a term that Paul used for himself in any of his letters. Acts makes the reference to this term in ???

[2] Two of the six questionable letters, Colossians and Ephesians, have a number of biblical scholars maintaining that they were written by Paul. Few will claim that 1& 2 Timothy and Titus are Paul’s letters. There are a few making the case that 2 Thessalonians was an authentic letter from Paul.

[3] It wasn’t actually that unusual as I’ll explain, with one very important difference regarding the people who shared Paul’s life.

[4] Paulus was how he was known. It is a Latin word, translated in our Bibles simply as Paul.

[5] My New Revised Standard Version has a title just before Acts 22:6 which reads: “Paul Tells of His Conversion.” The other two occurrences of this story (Acts. 9:1-19, 26:12-18) describe it as a “conversion.”

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