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A list of the books I’ve written and various articles and chapters that have been published.

Thy Kingdom Come — July 30, 2017

Thy Kingdom Come — July 30, 2017

 

Thy Kingdom Come

July 30, 2017

Romans 8:26-39

George Martin

Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN

 

I’m going to be asking us to consider what it means when we say in the Lord’s Prayer the phrase “Thy kingdom come.” What are we asking for?

The gospel for the day had five little parables —all of which Jesus said embodied the Kingdom of Heaven. So it is in that prayer the Lord taught his disciples is the petition that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.

Those parables are deeply perplexing. One even has some kind of scoundrel who discovers a treasure in a field, hides it and then goes and buys the entire field. There are people doing trades like that on the stock market, and as far as I can tell, the Securities and Exchange Commission investigates those kinds of trades.

Rather than try to explain the parables, my choice is go back to Paul and what he was saying at the end of the 8th chapter of Romans.

So one of the things you quickly learn in seminary, even before you’re ordained, is that within your family and among those who know you, have marked you as the the “go-to-guy (or gal) for prayer.” Whatever the occasion—a meal, a wedding, or something sad— people expect that you know how to pray. And the assumption is that I will offer a better prayer because I’ve somehow been trained to pray.

Let’s get something clear. I never took a seminary class on prayer. And it was Paul himself who said, as we heard, “we do not know how to pray.”

When I was a young 24 year-old deacon working as a Curate at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Cuyahoga Falls in 1967 I worked with Ben Topalian—an Armenian who had been a Baptist who became an Episcopal priest. He had been carried as a baby from Armenia during that terrible holocaust that still affects world politics. He’d been a paster in American Baptist churches, but chose to be an Episcopalian for our polity. There can never be a congregational vote following a sermon that people may not have liked. In that parish he taught the same course every year titled “How to Know God” and inside that course was a session called “How to pray.”

So I took that class and I can’t say I learned how to pray. But I did learn how not to pray. You see most of us pray as if we’re ordering pizza, only for someone else or maybe for ourselves. . Or as Ben Topalian said, most of the time we’re prescribing for God in our prayers, offering our diagnosis of what’s wrong, what needs to be fixed, and how God ought to get going on this right away. He said we sometimes offer prayer as “Hey God, I need to have you pay attention to my friend who has a broken leg, and is in the hospital.”

Maybe we think we need to give the good Lord that address to that hospital.

What have we forgotten? It’s that God’s spirit was there alongside our friend at the moment of that accident? Or at that moment when my daughter Kate, years ago, turned off the main trail while cross-country skiing near Grand Rapids. She was lost in the woods when it was 10 degrees and the sun would soon set. That’s when I back tracked down the trail and my voice found her. I heard her far-away voice yelling, but in a whisper, “Dad, Dad. I’m coming.”

Ben Topalian also pointed out how often we are wrong in our diagnosis of what we are praying for. Ben said, “So your friend has an ulcer, and you pray for his stomach. Maybe it’s his marriage? Or real money issues? Who knows? God knows.”

Ben said, see your friend not as one who is sick and hurting, but see them alive to God, well, and whole, and smiling, and living. Pray that they know God’s spirit and love.

Anne Lamott, the Christian essayist, in her small book called Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair writes about the advice she gave to a mother who’s son had just been moved from the ICU unit. He was still in trouble, though. Anne Lamott told her friend,“See him in his wholeness.”

Ann Lamott’s advice was also to see a damaged person as one of God’s regular old customers, instead of being a lost cause.

Aren’t we all? God’s regular old customers? And even the Pastors who don’t know how to pray. Even St. Paul who didn’t know how to pray.

So what it is that we are to pray? Well inside this lesson from Paul we find one of the hardest things we’re ever asked in all of scripture to confront. It’s in that line that says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God….” Do they?

There are some terrible things that always happen in the world, and sadly often to the most innocent or the least prepared. Not too many of us had someone warn us in our childhood about what was ahead of us in life

But then stuff happens. And there are some big losses that come into all of our lives. At the time of each loss please do not utter platitudes that this will all work out, or the worst of all “God has a plan in this.”

I’ve had some huge disappointments in my life, and I know, that God never wanted me to know such disappointment and loss. You’ve had same. All of us.

And there are these losses, as Annie Lamont reminded me, which we never forget. We each have an emotional GPS and we know where we were, what we were wearing, and whatever happened.

I once preached a sermon with the title “A Room Called Grief.” I said it’s always with us. Sometimes it’s a dark room. Sometimes we raise the curtains. And there are different people, different events inthat room called Grief. We don’t have to visit it all the time, but it’s always there. It is a strange gift. Memory. Some laughter. And the realization of some kind of mysterious healing. We got through it. But we didn’t forget it or those we lost, but we kept on living. Limping to be sure. Broken. Fragile.

And, maybe not right at the time, but later we may realize that there were those by our side who called to us from our hopelessness. That’s another Annie Lamott observation.

We’re still left with this conundrum: how can we understand this line from Paul’s letter:

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God….”

There is nothing good in being persecuted or on the unfair side of slander.

 

There was nothing good when Father Jacques Hamel died on July 26, 2016 when he was attacked by two terrorists as he was at the altar celebrating morning mass.

Day in and out we hear in the news so many tragic stories involving violence and negligence. None of these things are good. They are evil. We must never connect the love of God to these events, except as this love of God is marked by this story and parable and what was also in Paul’s letter.

“Who is to condem? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who intercedes for us.” And intercedes for us in what Paul called “our weakness.”

I wish Paul had said more about this idea of God presence known in all things. What he did say was that God was there with us in our weakness. When we didn’t know or realize God’s presence, God was there.

Paul added that God’s presence comes with those who love God. But not because of what those who love God have figured out for themselves, but because the Spirit of God is what is at work in those who love God. Strange way of putting it, but it has truth. God first loved us. And all of us, no matter how we may see each other, we are all created in the image of God. There is a reality of love and mercy that all of us are to know. Even those we would condemn to hell, in some deep recesses of their being is that image of God.

That’s why there’s more to the story of Father Jacques Hamel. The French president on that fateful day called up Archbishop Lebrun wondering what he planned say in a public way to respond to this tragedy. The Archbishop said, “I am going to pray and ask God to help me love my enemies.”

The French President was stunned. The Archbishop actually seemed to believe what he was saying. That tone of forgiveness and reconciliation made all the difference as Muslims and Islamic leaders attended the mass for Father Jacque Hamel, showing solidarity with their Catholic neighbors. (Wall Street Journal, Saturday, July 21, 2017, p. A15)

For that one moment the Kingdom of God was present.

It was a Kingdom of God moment when Ben Topalian taught me to pray for wholeness for someone, and not to see their illness or whatever trouble they were in as defining them.

It was a kingdom of God moment when the faint voice of Kate was crying “Dad, Dad” through the fast falling shadows of that January evening in the forest near Grand Rapids years ago. And we embraced minutes later.

So it is that we shall continue to read the 8th chapter of Romans at a funeral. Or when we are most afraid. Or most lost. It is not that we can explain how it is that God’s rule and God’s kingdom is present in those dark and hard times we all know. But we would stand with one another and with the faith of Paul, to declare that nothing can separate from the love of God in Christ. And that is what I believe we are also praying when we say “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.

Irresponsible Farming — July 16, 2016

Irresponsible Farming — July 16, 2016

Irresponsible Farming

Matthew 13:1-9 Sermon for July 16, 2017

George Martin

The Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN

If you walk out the north door of our church, on the other side of parking lot, there is a solar panel, and behind it there is a fenced-in community garden. The framed in plots of soil are lush with all kinds of vegetables and a few flowers. Had you walked out there in May you would have seen some of those plots marked out with straight crisscrossed strings marking off each square in which a vegetable seed would be planted. Other new sprouting seeds had already emerged in their rows as if they were soldiers standing a straight line waiting to be inspected.

Last May had you followed my brother-in-law Dave, on his tractor down in Seward County, just west of Lincoln, you would have watched him plant corn seeds exactly 8” apart and then have the rows spaced exactly 30” apart. In addition to no-tilling of the soil, and measured and variable application of fertilizer the crops they are getting are amazing and rather consistent in average summers with the right mix of heat and rain. It’s called Responsible Farming. Or at least they wasting seeds.

So I came up with my title “Irresponsible Farming” when I reflected on the Sower in the Parable of Jesus who throws the seeds on the hardened walking paths, the rocky soil, and among the weeds and thistles. What a waste of seed I thought. Not like my brother-in-law Dave. So it looked like the problem lay with the guy planting the seeds.

But we have to be careful. And I knew it. Never assume that any parable of Jesus can easily be explained. And always assume there is something of deep shocking insight that had to be unexpected in most of his parables. I’d told Laurie Hemish, our office manager, on Friday that my sermon title was wrong, but she didn’t have to change it. I’ll let you think of a better title.

We lose sight of the dramatic nature of any parable when we try to explain it and before us today is the perfect example of that. It was in the second part of our reading. There the Parable of the Sower is explained. Or was it?

The explanation is allegory. The rocky path stands for someone who hears the word of God, but has no depth to that hearing, and will fall away at the first sign of trouble. The seed sown among thorns stands for those with great wealth and caught up in the cares of the world. I don’t need to give you the whole explanation again.

A number of Biblical scholars actually question if this interpretation came from Jesus. Perhaps it represents those early followers at work, (in Matthew’s community) preaching and living the Jesus story, who saw how what they believe was true was rejected by others.

If you go home and look more closely at the 13th chapter of Matthew you’ll see that there is another parable, one for next week, called the “Parable of Weeds among the Wheat.” It stands alone, but then it is also explained in allegory.

What we don’t read, but should, is the question the disciples asked Jesus “Why do you speak in parables?” And the answer that Jesus gave, came directly from the 8th century prophets like Isaiah, Micah, Amos, Hosea, and Jeremiah. Jesus quotes the prophets when he says, “The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”

Those 8th century prophets were calling the people of Israel back to the covenant with God—to fidelity, towards concern for the widow and for orphans, and the poor. But they knew their prophetic word was often rejected, meaning so many did not and would not understand.

Hold that word in your mind. Understand. It means to stand under some truth, some way of seeing what is suppose to be, and then walking and living under that truth. We must never remove the ethical component from the call to follow and to be faithful.

So what’s with a parable like the one Jesus told? First of all it is simple in its elements. It’s also a story that connects to something Jesus knew was in the real world of Galilee and Judea. It was also a riddle. It wasn’t a billboard along a highway. But it was a prism. You were expected to be able to see through it to the world as you knew it, and to the world as God wanted it to be experienced.

Above all a parable had a deceiving simplicity and familiarity to it that just might touch something deep and mysterious.

This parable also had the rule of three working for it. Three times the seed falls where it won’t or cannot grow. Three things happen to the seeds. The birds eat the ones on the path, the seed grows in the rocky ground and among the weeds, but dies. And thirdly, the seed grows in the good soil, and then there are three different results of productivity. Thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and one hundred-fold.

(By the way it’s like counting the seeds on a ear of corn. And a hundred-fold isn’t beyond belief, but it is more like picking the largest ear of corn to eat.)

With a simple structure, and a progressive narrative, the parable moves among what’s familiar: paths that are walked, rocky ground where sometimes things do grow, weeds that choke good plants, and good soil.

Notice by the way, there is nothing wrong with the seeds. They are even good to eat from the perspective of the birds. And I believe there was nothing in the way that Jesus tells the story that is wrong with the sower. He’s only mentioned at the beginning and then fades from view.

Some scholars propose that this parable should be renamed the Parable of the Soils, but I’m not so sure. We need context.

It’s the first century. People in Galillee sees a Roman City, Sephoris being built to honor Caesar. That new city that required day laborers and carpenters was four miles from Nazareth. And those farmers and peasants —more of the latter— struggle for their daily bread. They cultivated the tiniest bits of ground—seeking growth from wherever it was possible. They never expected super-abundant crops, but just enough to get by.

And Jesus talked over and over about the Kingdom of God. A rule that would make life possible, because no one would go hungry, or thirst, or be forgotten. Oh, what will we hear Jesus say, from this Matthew’s gospel, before this year is done? We shall hear, “Lord whenwas it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?

The King answers, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)

Who are members of my family. That’s who Jesus is speaking to. They all know that those seeds are meant to bring life—to be bread. Crops for your animals perhaps. And then milk for your children.

And how did those first century Galilleans live? Well certainly with less security and freedom as we know it. But if we are honest there are aspects of all of our lives for which money, security, and whatever we do to preserve our health and prosperity seem at times beyond our control.

Is this parable of the Sower, then, speaking in some kind of puzzling fashion to a human reality that is true for all of us? To what one prayer from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer is said to be “For All Sorts and Conditions of People.” I think so.

In researching this sermon I came across a reflection by Amos Wilder, a poet and theologian, who mentioned the “enigmatic vicissitudes of loss and gain” that touch our “place in creation and exuberance” that also includes a “primodial wonder that existence emerges out of and prevails over nothingness. (p. 141. The Parable of the Sower: Naivete and Method in Interpretation).

That’s a heavy loaded metaphorical way of saying, “Trouble can happen to anyone, and wonder can also be seen in the least expected times, places, and circumstances of life.”

Let’s go back to the seed. It’s everywhere in this parable. And that seed. It’s the presence of God. Or the possibility of discovering God. And the promised reality of the Kingdom of God, even when you can’t see it in the “enigmatic vicissitudes of loss and gain” it is there.

I don’t do this often, but I want to quote from a sermon I gave on this text in 1999. As I got near the end of writing this sermon I wondered what I might have said about this parable at some other point in my ministry. What I said 18 years ago still works for me.

“How many of you can talk of dark, difficult days when you didn’t know God? When you seeking answers in something that wasn’t life giving? But now something has sprung up in your life. At least you’re here.

Jesus tells us something else which all of you know deep down…there is no one who can tell you when, or where, or how God is at work. Because God works in darkness and in mystery. God works with small things like seeds, and little children, and little people like Zaccheaus, and with a little bread and wine. What some may think couldn’t carry the life of God, turns out to carry the very life of God. Even a cross gets turned around by God to be a sign of victory. God’s mysteries never cease in our lives. That’s what Jesus is saying with seed sown everywhere.”

Amen.

Ministry Failure — July 9, 2017

Ministry Failure — July 9, 2017

Ministry Failure

Matthew 11:16-19

Sermon for July 9, 2017

Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa

George Martin

For those of you who are guests or new to the Lutheran Church of the Cross, a year ago, just as July began, those of us who were members here, had a letter from Pastor Andy Smith that his last Sunday would be on August 14th. He had decided to seek a call to serve a church in the Twin Cities where his wife lived and worked. That all made logical sense to us, but we hated to see him leave. I began my work with you the next day on Monday August 15th.

Together we stepped into what is a liminal moment. We were in the space called liminality. It comes from the Latin word for a threshold—a doorway. In contemporary usage the liminal moment is a step into the unknown, the unfamiliar, a territory that is strange, and may even be seemingly timeless. In a Biblical world the best two words to describe stepping into the liminal world were “Abraham Go.” Abraham and Sarah took the first steps in the story that brought us here.

When I began as your Interim Senior Pastor we didn’t know, however, that this was an extended time of uncertainty. We were deluded into thinking that I’d be with you for a short-time and soon there would be a new senior pastor called to serve LCC.

Our time together hasn’t been a wasteland. We kept many things in place,  welcomed new members to the church, filled two key ministry positions, and tried some new things, because that’s all part of intentional interim ministry.

Perhaps, though, we didn’t reflect enough on where God was in this time of uncertainty for which we really weren’t prepared. But then again, as it true with many thresholds in life, we usually aren’t prepared. As a pastor planting a new church 30 years ago I described that work of as “building a bike while you ride it.”

How many of you when you became parents were prepared for what was ahead? I doubt any of us can claim such confidence.

The title of this sermon is “Ministry Failure.” It’s partly born out of the Gospel reading we had today. I’ll explain that a little further on.

I going to propose that you want a pastor who knows what failure is like. The usual assumption is that we want a pastor who’s been successful. Someone to lead us into certainty, into safety, into security.

How are pastors measured? Usually just as the world measures its CEOs. Has the company expanded its markets, gained more customers, added to its wealth, and presumed security, and perceived assets to continue to succeed for years to come? Has the pastor grown the church? It happens, but less and less these days.

And that brings us to Jesus and to John the Baptist. We read the version from the translation called The Message this morning:

How can I account for this generation? The people have been like spoiled children

whining to their parents, ‘We wanted to skip rope, and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk, but you were always too busy.’ John came fasting and they called him crazy. I came feasting and they called me a lush, a friend of the riffraff. Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

So I had this weird fantasy that one day in God’s heavenly kingdom Jesus and John had this conversation.

Jesus looks at John the Baptist and asks, “How, John, would you assess the results of your ministry announcing a baptism of repentance.”

John replies, “I drew big crowds. They came, both the important and the little people, but they didn’t like what I had to say. And you know, Jesus,” John went on to say, “how I got thrown into a prison controlled by Herod Antipas, and he ordered my death….What about you Jesus, how do you assess your ministry?”

“Well.” Jesus replies. “I liked your truth telling John, but I took a different tack. I thought we should sing and dance more, and live like we’re all equal in God’s kingdom. I got in trouble for inviting everyone to the party, and that meant having my parties with the wrong kind of people. And it didn’t end well for me, as you know.”

Ministry failure. And every month it is said that 1,500 pastors leave the ministry. Some few for things they should not have done, but the research is that most are simply discouraged. CEOs can report expanded sales, and increased profits, and rising stock values. The reality facing most churches is that we struggle to keep our people, to pay our bills, and to maintain our assets. And as pastors most of the stories we hear are of failure, and fear, and foreboding. Dare we tell are own stories of failure, fear, and foreboding?

I must be honest with you about this decision I’ve made to leave you while the search is still on for our next Senior Pastor. (Please note that I speak from the point of view of one who likes to come here; and I have really appreciated the opportunity to serve you.) But the truth is that I leave with work left-undone. I leave you while we’re still in the liminal time created when we all started to wonder about our future a year ago. And I can’t tell you how it all works out.

I’m not saying my ministry here was a failure, but I have known ministry failure. And I want to suggest in a very strange way that knowing failure is essential to ministry.

Behind this sermon is a recently read book by Andre Crouch, titled:

Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing

The other book I finished is titled

Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure

It is by J.R. Briggs, a leadership coach, consultant, and pastor.

Some key points to remember. Ministry can never be measured by results or data. Every pastor is essentially an interim pastor—even if someone stays a long time, we never stay.

And every pastor has some really good days—that’s true for my time here— but our most powerful preaching will not be evidenced by stories where we were heroic, or where when we were victims, but only by stories where we were rescued, and where our humanity was at the level of vulnerability, fear, and uncertainty which we all know is the honest part of living.

No pastor has ever been properly trained for ministry. The best seminary can do is give you time to think, but when it comes to leadership, it is crafted in the trenches of conflict and the resistance to anything that is new or different when called to lead a congregation.

Pastor André Crouch who writes eloquently about vulnerability as the essential part of real faithfulness no matter who you are. (His book, by the way, is just for pastors.) To be vulnerable is to be woundable—meaning you are forced to be tender and careful.

The real story of vulnerability involves taking risks—living into an uncertain future—based on a belief that life isn’t measured by the absence of pain and suffering.

The real idolatry that surrounds us in this world though thinks that those who are vulnerable are to be pitied and maybe even deplored for their weakness. Our world constantly bends toward the idols of greatness, strength, power, wealth, might, security, and safety. So many people in authority worship this God which insulates us and them from pain or loss; and pretends that death will not happen. Though it does. Even to those most powerful and protected!

Failure in that world is often summed up in two words: You’re fired. Or three words: Out of here.

There are places though, where knowing failure, is a condition for membership. It’s true in the AA world. And it should definitely be expressed by any follower of Jesus.

What kind of pastor do you want? I would want one who in a phrase by André Crouch drinks from the cup of undiluted vulnerability. They know something of having been rescued—we would say rescued by the grace of God.

Do you know what were the last words of Martin Luther as he lay dying on February 18, 1546? I’ll tell you what he didn’t say.

He didn’t say, “I wonder if they will remember me and have a big celebration of what we started 500 years from now.”

He didn’t say, “I hope pastors will have red leather bound books of all that I have written sitting on the shelves in their personal study.”

Asked if he stood by what he taught and believed, this is what Luther did say: “We are beggars. This is true.”

Think of having as your pastor someone who thinks of themselves as a beggar. They reach for the same holy bread, and the same sip of consecrated wine as you do. Your Pastor doesn’t just lead confession, but makes confession, and needs to hear the words of affirmation and forgiveness coming into their ears as well.

At one ordination a number of years ago the Christian writer Brandon Manning gave this blessing for the new pastor:

May all of your expectations be frustrated,
May all of your plans be thwarted,
May all of your desires be withered into nothingness,
That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child,

and can sing and dance in the love of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Imagine having a pastor who knows the powerlessness and poverty of a child. Who sings, and dances in the love of God.

My time with you in a pastoral role will come to end soon. We don’t know for sure when it’ll end. Probably by September. But it will be another threshold. Another liminal time. A time of not knowing what’s next. A time of risk.

May the words of Jesus stay with us in this time: As we heard. Learn the rhythms of grace. Know that the Lord doesn’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on us. And simply asks that we keep company with Jesus and learn to live freely and lightly.

Happy Birthday, Church! (Pentecost June 4, 2017)

Happy Birthday, Church! (Pentecost June 4, 2017)

Happy Birthday! Church!
Pentecost Sunday— June 4, 2017
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
George Martin

 

Last Friday morning Caroline and I headed off for breakfast with Linda and Paul Schelin. We have a birthday club and that day actually was Linda’s birthday. We were meeting at the the Longfellow Grill on West River Parkway in Minneapolis which is next to the Mississippi river.

I turned on the GPS and followed it, until, until, until I thought it was wrong. I turned off 35E, and headed West on 110 and started up Highway 55 near the Minnehaha Falls. And then, And then I was lost.

Well I did find the West River Parkway and we found the Longfellow Grill. On my way home I followed GPS and it was much shorter and quicker.

Moral of the story: 1) don’t ride with me unless you want to get lost. 2) even though we know GPS isn’t always right, we still need to rely on some guides for our journeys in life.

Welcome to Pentecost Sunday, and our celebration of those who guide us in our Christian journey!

Happy Birthday Church! You know that “Church” is a favorite word for me. In Greek it’s “Ekklesia” and it simply meant some kind of political assembly or a gathering together of people with some shared interests. It just had never been connected with a group of people sharing a religious story though until Paul or someone in the early church, started to think of themselves as “Ekklesia.”

It’s a singular noun that can mean a particular gathering of people, a building, and yet it also bears the concept of many different peoples, literally all over the world. What’s most important is that “church” means “Story.”

And it means body. Paul tells us that we are collection of people with different stories all drawn together because of one story, who are to be unified by that story as we share a common life together.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)

So today we are welcoming many new members to the Lutheran church of the Cross. Might we even call ourselves the Lutheran Ecclesia of the Cross? Well probably, we’d do so, if we wanted to confuse people.

But there it is: the word “church” in our title. This is a good Sunday to reflect on what it means to belong to “a church.” In our liturgical year this is also called Pentecost Sunday, drawing a name from a Jewish festival, which is approximately 50 days since we celebrated Easter.

So what does it mean to be “Church”? Well it means to be the continuing story of Israel. Ecclesia,—church— has its roots in Judaism. So all of us who are brought into this Jewish story, whether by birth, by baptism, or as some of you are doing today by acceptance of membership in the local church. As we are brought into this story we remember things that happened in Palestine, Egypt, Jerusalem, and in Galilee. As one theologian has said, “The Exodus of the people of God from Egypt is our Exodus as well, the ancestors of Israel are our ancestors; Israel’s memory is our memory.” [Page 240, Does God Need the Church?]

At the same time, this church and its story, constitute a new family on the face of the earth. It’s important to remember that when Jesus broke bread with his disciples, at what we call the Last Supper, with its clear allusions to the Passover meal, he was not eating it with his own genealogical family, which would’ve been customary. He chose his ragtag group of disciples for this mean. They are the same ones, who according to Acts surprised everyone by speaking the gospel in a variety of languages.

Thus the question from those who are gathered and who were surprised. We heard, “amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?””

Church almost by definition means speaking out and inviting in. So our mission, shared with churches in all places and all times, is grounded in the story of Israel, focused most clearly around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a story that calls people from the world, to share a way of life, and certain convictions about the way that life is lived, that speak profoundly and sometimes prophetically, maybe always prophetically, about the way life is meant to be lived.

One of my favorite theologians, Stanley Hauerwas, says that through baptism we are “…made part of God’s counter history, counter kingdom, counter community.” And then he adds, “Moreover, we believe as we are made a people of such memory we offer the world a history not destined to repeat her murderous past.” [Page 168, In Good Company]

Church is thus the place that gives us a story to live. Notice I didn’t say a story just to tell. But it is a story lived with others, and clearly others that you might not know otherwise.

My friend, Hugh Magers, an Episcopal priest from Texas, who I worked with on occasion leading some conferences, loved to tell the story of Edna, an elderly member of Redeemer Church in Eagle Pass Texas when he was its pastor.

He said she was probably about the poorest member of the church. This is about 30 years ago. She lived on Social Security, $234 a month. “How do I know that?” He asked. “Well, she tithed. She gave $23 to the church every month.”

And she had a most special ministry. She polished the brass plaques in the church, which honored all the founders of the church, and some church leaders from the past. And that church was still composed of many of the descendants of the founders of the church, who would not stoop to polish the plaques, because they were too good for it. So Edna did what no one else wanted to do.

But every now and then Edna would have an idea of something the church needed to get or to do. And she would go to the vestry, the church council, and because those descendants sat on it, no one ever turned her down. And one day she had an idea that the church should start to offer a lunch, one day each week. She said if they would offer a lunch to the community she would wash each every pot and pan and all the dishes.

Well the vestry approved her idea, and when they started this lunch program the day school children of the church we’re coming. Then lots of business folks showed up every Friday. It was, it turns out, a source of evangelism.

And Edna never had to wash a dish. Those descendants washed those dishes, too embarrassed to let Edna do it.

You see when to take this biblical GPS story as your story, you cannot be the same again, not that you’d want to be the same as you once were. Here we make commitments to each other, that aren’t written in some contracts with mutual obligations and requirements. This is a story that is a journey trod by people like Abraham and Jacob, who had no idea that they would become the people they became. And they never wanted to go back, either.

You see in church we don’t stay the people we once were. Yes we go in and out of the world, that draws us back at times, but coming here, where the Edna’s of the world live, you get changed. Thank the Lord for this.

And here we meet one another when the road gets tough and really difficult. We’ve just had three funerals here in two weeks. That’s a lot of bars offered at each reception. But more than that is the embrace of those who’ve experienced a grief that will not just pass away. So we walk with one another into the darkest valleys of life; for we are the hands, the heart of God. We are the body of Christ. Unified through baptism to be Christ for one another.

And the gift of the Holy Spirit, which we also celebrate on Pentecost, is that agency of God that brings us to discern the call to serve. If the Spirit does nothing else it challenges the presumption of “individuality”— just be yourself and do your own thing. It is the Holy Spirit I believe that turns our narcissistic, self-embodied story inside out. So that we see “others.”

To those we are welcoming let me warn you, but know this warning is actually an invitation. In the life of the church we all called to be vulnerable to each other. We need the story of the other brother, the other sister, no matter what it is that they are bringing here.

And Jesus told his disciples what they could do with those other stories. Especially if “forgiveness” was required. They were commissioned, as we all are, to offer forgiveness to one another.

And then at the very end of the Gospel, what we heard this morning, the same one where he breathed the Holy Spirit on them, Jesus said, “Whatever sins you retain, they are retained.”

The Greek word for something that is “retained” is “krateo”. From it we get our word “crate.”

So whatever sins you crate, you get to keep. It’s your crate. And whenever we start to harbor the sins of others, and carry on our remembrance of wrongs, it eats away at us. Drives a wedge in community. And it’s there, until, until, as many in the world of recovery know, its there until you take the 5th step and beyond. To ask for forgiveness and to give it.

A final word to our newest members. May you find this to be a forgiving community. Where you are always welcome no matter what.

May you find yourself making some commitments to serve and to give that help you define more and more what it means to belong to the church. (We will ask each other for those kinds of commitments.) The

May you find here real peace and joy. Worship that inspires. Study that challenges. Mission enterprises that lead you to greater service and in which you get your hands dirty, or maybe like Edna you polish some silverware, or get them really clean because you washed a lot of dishes. Such is Church.

Watch—Wait— Witness (May 25, 2017 Easter 7)

Watch—Wait— Witness (May 25, 2017 Easter 7)

Watch—Wait—Witness
Sermon for 7 Easter—May 25, 2017
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
George H. Martin

Three words: Watch, Wait, and Witness. All coming from our lesson from the first chapter of the Book of Acts.

Watch:

Why do you disciples keep starring into the heavens? That’s the question two angels ask the disciples who just saw Jesus ascend and disappear into the sky above them. What’s behind that question? I think it’s a fairly simple answer.

We need to be looking around us. It’s staying in the world where the disciples are suppose to be. That’s in our Gospel as well. We are in the world. And here for a reason. And here to watch.

I want to remind you that when we gather in community for worship how much of our worship is based on seeing, and acting, and walking, and standing up and sitting down, and its involves lighting candles, and carrying a cross, and the various places where people stand, and there are different books we use, and then there’s the bread and the wine, and our hands reaching out to be fed.

That’s behind these boxes that Kari Erikson has created for parents to use with their children in worship. They can light their own candle. Make out their own gift to place in the offering. Write out a prayer concern. Follow along the reading in their own bible.

The one thing many of our smaller children can’t do is receive communion. But we’ve been writing to our parents that their children are welcome to receive when they give approval. And why? Because baptism is all you need to be qualified to receive communion. Let me tell you: our children, the little ones, are watching us receive bread and they don’t understand why they can’t have what is clearly a piece of bread. Only here in their short time of living, and being part of family, are they excluded from eating. Pastor Kari and I are welcoming children of any age to receive. Many a parent has to pull back the hands of their child reaching for the bread. It’s OK by us if they receive. We want our parents to know this. And for all of you to understand that as they receive and share fully in worship they are growing up in Christ alongside of us.

Now the wait part: They were to stay in Jerusalem, and they did stay in prayer. All before the day of Pentecost, which comes next week.

So last week as we had a small group gathering on Sunday night, to affirm the importance of being in a small group, we had Sister Joyce with us. She is a dear friend of Pastor Ray Averson , from his days as Chaplain at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Cloud. Sister Joyce taught us about “Centering prayer.” Not new to all, but to most of us. It involves sitting quietly, having a single holy word in mind, breathing in and out, putting aside as many other thoughts as possible, and just waiting for God. At first it’s hard. As one person said, “We sat there, Sister Joan said, for five minutes in total silence. It seemed like two hours to me.”

We had a chance to ask Sister Joan some questions and she made some observations about our time of praying. She said that she had sensed that Jesus was walking in our midst while we prayed.

Now I didn’t see anyone fall off their chair when she said that, but I thought that we tend to have a more cerebral rational approach to faith.

Jesus coming near to us? The Holy Spirit touching us? God tapping us on our shoulders? God speaking a word of comfort, or maybe even asking us to take on some task?

Yes. If we will give the Spirit some space in our lives, and will push away at the external noise, and our extensive near-ending “to-do” lists, and quiet all those other voices, there can be moments of serenity, of peace, and of confidence and faith. And knowing the presence and love of God. We must wait before we are sent.

Witness

Words of Jesus: You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria and to the ends of the Earth.

First witness where you feel at home. That’s the meaning of a witness that begins in Jerusalem.

Judea signified something else: Then in those nearby areas where others live, but they don’t live exactly like you do, and may have an accent or look a little different.

I went to Hobart College from Toledo Ohio. Most of my classmates came from the East coast. Coming from New York City, about 300 miles away, this was the furthest West they ever come and ever intended to come. That was their Judea!

And then there’s Samaria: it’s those places where you have people who really don’t worship as you do; who’s ways of living, eating, and in so many aspects of their lives they are foreigners and strangers. and in some cases we may have been were taught to think of them as our enemies.

If that’s not far enough…go on to the ends of the earth. Where you know you’ll be challenged.

But what shall be our witness?

The traditional answer, ever since the 19th century was to send Christian missionaries to teach them or make them be Christians. I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant here.

What if out witnesses isn’t words, or compelling arguments regarding matters of faith? But what if our witness is simply how we live the story that we know is centered in the death and resurrection of Jesus and with the gift of the Holy Spirit? Not what we know intellectually about that story, but how it shapes and forms the way we live our lives.

You all made a witness this morning. You drove here. You didn’t stay home.

I daresay if we look at your checkbook we’ll see that it speaks to who you are as a follower of Christ. Your daily calendar probably reflects the same with the time you spend as a volunteer, or the trips you make to help someone, or the cookies you baked and gave as a gift.

Yesterday we had a funeral service thanking God for Doris Knudson, who belonged here for over 40 years. So many of our paraments were made by her. Her busy hands as a seamstress and as a knitter told you who she was, and how much she cared for her church. The same can be said for Betty Jean Carlson who graced the life of this church with her high heels and her joy.

So our witness can be here. But it is to also reach out into the world.

Let me tell you about the name used within the Roman Catholic Church for the service of Holy Communion or the Holy Eucharist—the latter is probably the oldest name we have for this worship.

Roman Catholics call it The Mass. Do you know that the word is a corruption of the last words spoken at the end of the Latin Mass. Ite, missa est. Go. You are dismissed. So the Latin word “Missa” for “dismissed,” became the name of the service.

And in some ways it is a great name to use. Why are we gathered together here? Well it’s so we can be sent out in the world, in the name of the Lord, to be Christ in this world.

It means that we are a people to be formed into a life with habits grounded in a set of virtues, many of which are befuddling to a world shaped by theories of management and control; these will be the habits counter-intuitive to the thinking that force and the threat of violence are the preconditions for peace and community.

Jeremiah once said “Seek peace in whatever city you find yourselves in.” And Jesus would endorse that.

If they strike you with the left hand, turn your other cheek, Jesus said.

In a world that relies on violence and revenge, bring non-violence and offer forgiveness.

Now it’s not that these are easy virtues or habits, but they are the ones that represent Jesus. They are counter-intuitive. In many ways they are play ground rules, just not always extended into the rest of life.

So what is our witness?
Exclusion of others, or the embrace of others?
Fear of the stranger or welcoming the stranger?
Tolerating injustice or resisting injustice?

Do we build walls and tear down bridges or we do the opposite: we build bridges and tear down walls?

I had a dear friend, Philip Bozarth Cambell, an Episcopal priest who died way too young. I asked him one day why his license plate had the number 4 and the word “Bear” on it?

He replied: “Its’ what Alla and I had read at our wedding, from Colossians. We promised, you see,” he said, “to forbear one another.”

Let me close with a list of the virtues that describe the kind of witness we are to have to claim Jesus as Lord. From Colossians 3:12-17

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord[a] has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ[b] dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.[c] 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

 

God in the Dock—Good Friday 2017

God in the Dock—Good Friday 2017

God in the Dock

April 14, 2017 Good Friday
George Martin
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN

 

(Please note: This is the 3rd in a Sermon Series that began with Good Friday, and then Holy Saturday. All were indebted to the work of Alan E. Lewis (Between Cross and Resurrection) and Hans vonBalthasar (Mysterium Pascale). The main theme is that whenever the story mentions “Jesus” we should immediately conclude that this “the story of God”!)

 We speak of the Trinity as the best way to understand God: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. So where is God this night. Where is God when Judas led those soldiers to arrest Jesus? Is it not God who is arrested and then put on trial?

The disciples of Jesus could not have articulated the faith and story they would live and proclaim in the years after that first Good Friday. For them it was just Jesus on trial. We must consider, however, that it was God who was on trial, God found guilty, and God crucified. It is also the last day in the life of Jesus. End of story. There is no tomorrow, certainly for any of his disciples.

And why did it end? Clearly Jesus offended the real powers-that-be. We love the stories of Jesus offering forgiveness to those marginalized and out-lawed. One theologian said that equally damning were the “outrageous acts of friendship” practiced by Jesus. (Lewis, p. 64) We picture Jesus sitting at table with those excluded and despised.

Perhaps we overlook the serious charges Jesus made against the “Keepers of the Law, and perhaps we don’t recognize how highly guarded were rules of their vertical world. We must realize that at the end of that Good Friday, they thought they’d sleep well, that Jesus, was dead, gone and silenced. And he didn’t come down from that cross. He failed, by their twisted standards, the final test. And he did so in the company of two others who deserved to die, by the logic of their rule.

Pulling back a little from the scene itself, we must face the fact as one theologian notes: “In the death of Jesus, the deity of his God and Father is at stake.” (Lewis. p.?)

We say we live in Christ. Does that not also mean we somehow, mysteriously, live in Christ at the point of his death?

The story of God, brought to it’s starkest and most ugliest moment in the arrest, death, and burial of Jesus is counter-intuitive, abnormal, and absurd. This can’t be happening to God? God is all powerful. As the detractors will shout: if he’s the son of god, then he should just come down from that cross. But in the rear-view mirror of faith, he stayed on that cross because he is God.

Many theologians, when reflecting on the crucifixion, also note that the God we seem to know, the one who is revealed in Creation, in the narrative of Israel, and in the stories of the birth of Jesus, seemed absent on that day. Even Luther wondered about God who was hidden, or in the Latin he sometimes used was “sub-contrario.” That meant that Luther came to believe that God always works ‘under his opposite.’ A similar observation was made by another theologian: “Jesus, however, did not come to encourage those who are well, but to cure those who are sick (Mark 2:17).” [von Balthasar, p. 56}

There’s a theory of what happened with Jesus called “Kenosis.” It’s based on a phrase from Philippians: (2:6-7). Of Jesus it says, “…he was in the form of God, [and] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” The Greek word for “he emptied himself” is kenosis.

Greek philosophy would picture divinity as totally separate and removed from all is earthly and material. It’s had a strong influence on the Christian story, so much so, that there were debates questioning if the divine side of Jesus actually suffered and died. Maybe it was just his humanity that died, while the divine side watched at a distance. Such thinking has always been contested.

Other arguments trying to define God—argument also influenced by Greek thought—attempted to say that God in order to be God had to be “immutable,” that is not subject to change. Always the same, and thus not affected by anything historical or material. Alongside of this were claims that God must be “impassable,” meaning that there was no way God could ever have feelings, and certainly never experience suffering or death.

Those two words: impassable (not subject to suffering) and immutable (not subject to change), must be challenged when we tell the story of the arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus. I say this because if we believe that God was fully in Jesus, that Jesus was the Son of God, then God is there in that baby in Bethlehem, and the fully grown man arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.

And on this one Friday, within a few horrible hours, he went from life to death, and there was real suffering. And at the same time people of faith know this Jesus as the Son of God, co-equal part of the Trinity. If this be true, and I think it is, it means just as God became fully human in his incarnation, God was fully human to the very last. There wasn’t a moment in his 33 years when he wasn’t the son of God. Not a single moment as John’s gospel says so eloquently “And the word (the logos) became flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1: 14.

And then, on that fateful Friday in Jerusalem, they nailed the son of God to a tree. How far we have come from the shepherds who heard the song of the angels in the night in which he was born. And we cannot say that God in Jesus had stooped to conquer, as if this was some kind of manipulative trick. The theologian Alan Lewis says it better. “God stoops to endure.”

“God stoops to endure and thus to heal and conquer the most broken, terminal conditions of the human tragedy: that union of the eternal with perishability whose completeness Easter Saturday depicts most starkly.” Page 173

What we must confront is that God in so many ways seems off-stage on this day. Except, as we tell the story over and over again, we are telling the story of God in Christ. The extent of God’s love —of God’s mercy— isn’t something brand new on this day—but it can be said to be the revelation who God always was and who God always will be.

And then there is St. Paul. His letters are the oldest documents we have telling the story of Christ, especially as the first followers boldly proclaimed it’s truth. From quite personal experience Paul knew it was a stumbling block to Jews—that’ all, a stumbling block. He was a Jew who had stumbled over the cross story, but then he claimed that story, that cross, and that Jesus as Lord and Christ. He went on to say of Greeks, and he meant all others, that the cross seemed pure “foolishness”—folly, crazy, impossible.

While we may think of the crucifixion of Jesus as past completed event, for Paul it was past, but very present and would stand as well into the future—i.e. continuing—“I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:19) is really saying that “crucifixion had a starting point, but has no ending point, as least not this side of the eschaton.” (Gorman, Cruciformly, pp. 132-3)

Finally, the significance of the arms of Jesus on the cross

“God has opened wide his arms on the Cross in order to span the limits of the earth’s orb.”[From the Didache, an early 2nd century document] page 129

“So God in his suffering spread out his arms and gathered in the circle of the earth, so as to announce that, from the rising of the sun to its setting, future people would be gathered under his wings.” [From Cyril of Jerusalem] page 130

Arms stretched out on that cross—using Roman nails—lest those arms embrace and hold in mercy—all who might also face death. And indeed those arms of love would be stretched out again, but free of those nails, saying Peace Be with you. Peace be with you all. But not this night.

God in the Grave—Easter Saturday

God in the Grave—Easter Saturday

God in the Grave:
Easter Saturday Sermon

April 15, 2017
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
George Martin

 

(Please note: This is the 3rd in a Sermon Series that began with Good Friday, and then Holy Saturday. All were indebted to the work of Alan E. Lewis (Between Cross and Resurrection) and Hans vonBalthasar (Mysterium Pascale). The main theme is that whenever the story mentions “Jesus” we should immediately conclude that this “the story of God”!)

 I attended my first Episcopal church when I was 15, in 1957. We used the 1928 Prayer Book back then. I remember the version of the Apostles Creed we used declared that Jesus had “descended into Hell.”

This morning we read the lesson from 1st Peter because one of the early ideas about Jesus is that he went to hell after he died , but 1st Peter 4:6 said he was there as a preacher.

 For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.

It was then and still is today all speculation, not fact. But he was dead, that for sure. Thus we were reminded about his burial before sunset on Good Friday. I have come to cherish and understand, and keep this Holy Saturday, as the second day, and as maybe the most significant day in the entire year—albeit a very strange and unsettling day— a day I see to remind myself and you that this day, almost above all others, brings the story of Jesus, and God’s story into very sharp maybe even disturbing clarity.

That old 1928 Prayer Book didn’t have a Holy Saturday service, however. This day, though, had been observed by faithful Christians, [more monks and nuns to be sure, than the rest of us] who knew they had to wait on this day, and that in doing so, they wouldn’t rush from Good Friday to Easter, and forget what the death of Jesus meant to his first disciples. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer gave us this service. It’s one page in the Prayer Book. Page 283. No need for vestments. Anyone can do this service. I’ve read it myself in my home office on a Holy Saturday morning. I also have a covenant with my friend, Jan Dougherty, a deacon. We share this service, every year, this waiting time, together every Holy Saturday no matter where we might or however many miles separate us. This time for which no words can ever be adequate can bind us disciples, even now, together, as we cherish the Jesus story.

So how can we make sense of this day? One attempt at capturing the meaning of Holy Saturday came from the pen of the poet Edwin Muir wrote the Poem “The Good Man in Hell.” He was thinking of that phrase “ he descended into Hell.”

If a good man were ever housed in Hell
By needful error of the qualities,
Perhaps to prove the rule or shame the devil,
Or speak the truth only a stranger sees,

Would he, surrendering quick to obvious hate,
Fill half eternity withy cries and tears,
Or watch beside Hell’s little wicket gate
In patience for the first ten thousand years,

Feeling the curse climb slowly to his throat
That, uttered, dooms him to rescindless ill,
Forcing his praying tongue to run by rote,
Eternity entire before him still?

Would he at last, grown faithful in his station,
Kindle a little hope in hopeless Hell,
And sow among the damned doubts of damnation,
Since here someone could live, and live well?

One doubt of evil would bring such a grace,
Open such a gate, and Eden could enter in,
Hell be a place like any other place,
And love and hate and life and death begin.

Muir could write that poem because of Easter. But what of the disciples on the second day? Those who had seen their world end on Friday?

The call of Holy Saturday is really to stay with the events of that previous day, and not rush forward. Those disciples didn’t have a next day to anticipate. They could only grieve for what they had lost, and what had been abandoned was the future of what they thought had been possible in this Jesus who painted a picture of a Kingdom of God.

That dream was now wrapped up inside a dead body in a sealed tomb. The silence of that Sabbath was such that no words could provide resolution or vindication. Caesar had had the last word. The women had told the disciples about his last breath — a moment captured in the hymn O Sacred Head Sore Wounded, where in the second verse we sing of the one, “Jesus, who has vanished from sight, whose power is now expired.” And thus my stark title God in the Grave.

I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that Luther also believed Jesus had the experience of Hell. Here is Luther’s Latin: vere enim sensit mortem et infernum in copper sou.[1] I asked Glen,my Roman Catholic priest friend, to translate it for me. Luther said, in English:

For he truly felt [experienced] death and hell in his body

 All of us have moments when, even in real life, we feel like were in or near hell. This leads me to tell you about this marvelous book of theology by Alan Lewis called Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. Lewis wrote a theology book almost 500 pages in length for a day for which words are not adequate. He can be forgiven f, though, for this was his last will and testament. It had to be finished after his death from cancer which he poignantly attests to toward the end of this book as an illness driving him into his own Holy Saturday chapters of life.

I can only give you a little a little morsel of his wisdom — but it is such that it will connect to many of us who have had times of trial whether from illness, death of a loved one, or some thing traumatic that has happened to us. Writing of his cancer – the disease, the surgery, the radiation, the chemo, and the endless waiting and uncertainty, he said:

“Such losses of appearance and identity, of dignity, control, and almost life itself, brought “Saturday” moments of farewell, grief, and preparations for the end, consequent upon the disappearance of tomorrow. For like the first Easter Saturday, this was a time of unfounded waiting, of hanging on, — sometimes by the hour — without any guarantee of a future to be hung on for, a patiently and otherwise enduring a which might prove no lacunal interruption pending eventual resumption, but cessation pure and simple. This meant in turn my own Paschal descent into forsakenness, where sensations and emotions so overwhelm my powers of description that even the closest loved ones could not understand, and where the comforting assurance of God’s presence could teasingly evade my conscious grasp, locking me in the solitude of divine absence and the spiritual void of prayers unanswered, perhaps because unuttered” Page 404

Did you notice he called this time in his life “Easter Saturday”? And it raises the question what of this day do we bring to the next day?

I think the answer is some truth – some real honesty – about our own finitude — about the borders of life that always frame each day. At one point Lewis in his book pointed out that his birth certificate made no promises with regard to the length of his life, and certainly none about its possibilities, it’s tragedies, or its loves. What we don’t want to admit, except when forced to sometimes by circumstance, is that life is terminal.

For those disciples, Good Friday was the end of the story. There was no tomorrow. Jesus had expired. They had to feel that their lives have come to and end as well.

They had no way to birth any meaning in their grief on that Saturday. It took the next day, and probably weeks afterwards to understand that first day without Jesus, was the day of Sabbath. God accepting life in all of its fragile mortality, moving inexorably toward the dénouement of the next day with its declaration of “God’s victory …over the deadly forces of pride and domination…” (p. 64 Lewis)

To quote Lewis: “God’s tomorrow [would take up] residence in humanity’s today,” [p. 65] but not yet. Not on this Second Day.

On the second day Jesus was no hero, no savior, no Redeemer. The story that might have been written about the wonderful parables he told, the people he had raised from the dead, the blind that had been given sight, the hungry that had been fed, the lame that have been able to walk into a new day, the widow that had her son restored to her, were all stories they couldn’t tell on that Saturday, or probably ever, because of his failure. As Lewis comments, “… Beside him in the grave had been laid to rest the naïve dream that the meek shall inherit the earth.” [p. 50]

We do well to not get ahead of the story —to stay just with this Holy Saturday, though I think, that there’s wisdom in that poem about the good man in hell. The disciples may have been lost on this day – totally useless – totally without a future – but not Jesus. But not Jesus. And even though the story did continue, these friends of Jesus, had no way of peering into the next day. These utterly hopeless and lost disciples on this second day were certainly not expecting what would come. Nor should we as we keep Holy Saturday. Amen.

[1] Hans vonBalthasar, Mysterium Pauschale, p. 169

God in Time — Easter 2017

God in Time — Easter 2017

God in Time

Easter Sermon April 16, 2017
George Martin
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN

(Please note: This is the 3rd in a Sermon Series that began with Good Friday, and then Holy Saturday. All were indebted to the work of Alan E. Lewis (Between Cross and Resurrection) and Hans vonBalthsar (Mysterium Pascale). The main theme is that whenever the story mentions “Jesus” we should immediately conclude that this “the story of God”!)

It’s highly likely that the day will come, some dark day or troubled one, when your pastor, or some pastor will come to be with you. In some of the hardest events in our life chance are that he or she won’t have much to say. So many times in ministry I have been without words. I stood with those I’ve loved, and those I’ve met on the occasion of a tragedy. And I didn’t know what to say, and knew that it was better not to try. And I know it will continue to be that way.

It’s partly because words, in a time of distress and loss, seem so inadequate to the reality of the moment. We pastors often appear powerless, because we know how inadequate we are in the face of real tragedy. Our calling is to preside and be present, but, as I learned the hard way, my call wasn’t to try to formulate in words answers to what in the experience of those we serve are the haunting unanswerable questions of “Why?”

Why do I start my Easter sermon this way? Well, as I will say more than once on this Easter morning, we must always keep the cross in view, lest the real meaning of Easter be marooned into an island of fuzzy bunnies and endless Easter egg hunts. Around us the world trivializes Easter with its colors of lemon yellow and Spring-like chartreuse. Chocolate covered easter bunnies, and chocolate covered crosses. I even found Cross chocolate covered oreo cookies for sale on the internet. God forbid.

The Angel said, in Matthew’s account of the resurrection, “I know you seek Jesus who was crucified.” And my question is “Do we?” How is it that we come to terms with what happened to him? Must his suffering and death be the key point of our ability to recognize him? One who was so abandoned?

The story is that first there was one disciple who abandoned him—Judas—but then the other disciples, notably Peter, abandoned him—then he was handed over to the Jewish leaders who abandoned him to Pilate—who handed him over to death. Only his Mother and a few women stayed. And his call from the cross was a cry of abandonment.

So we sang, “We’re you there when they crucified my Lord?” knowing, in the depths of honesty we may visit infrequently, that we too have times when we’ve abandoned God. But if the story is true, and it is: God has never abandoned humanity. Or, and this is the rather radical idea, nor as God abandoned time. Thus my sermon title “God in Time.”

Now I don’t mean “In time” as we do, when someone rushes into a meeting or maybe a church service, and we say “Whew. You arrived just in time.” The resurrection wasn’t a just in time event. But it was historical. Beyond that we can never say how it happened, but the stories of those who placed their lives on the line, saying that it was true Christ rose from the dead—it is their witness that speaks to us that it happened.

Thus on Easter morning we need the entire story to be before us. To grasp the meaning of Easter means placing in the frame of a particular human life, that of Jesus, and many of the people who had a proven role in his story. He was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus and died at the hands of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate—a name we recite every time we say either the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed.

God’s story includes the human story. And God lived a human finite life, somehow taking up that life in all its fullness. There was nothing essentially human about this Jesus left untouched. Birth, hunger, fatigue, laughter, friends, travels, learning, betrayal, suffering and death. It was all there: meaning that for us, whatever our future is in time, that God is in all the days of our lives, and in the life of God beyond all time. Whatever you and I experience within our humanity is not separate from God’s embrace of a human life.

The great danger of Easter, though, remains a tendency to trivialize the Easter event—giving into its commercialized message with Easter bunnies and egg hunts. Maybe the saving grace in that, however, is that the reality of this Easter story is hard enough to comprehend as adults, and therefore maybe the fun part of it isn’t so bad after all.

Allow me to ask this question. Where is the Cross on Easter? Is it totally out of sight? If so, how can that be? I like what the theologian Ernst Kasemann said: The cross is the signature of the one who is risen. Luther, as well, I learned, built his theology, that is to say how we know and talk about God—he did it from within the Passion Story. (vonBalthasar, p. 39) I also learned that Luther resisted trying to explain the cross—it had to remain the category of a sheer paradox, unique, and at the heart of the mystery of God. (vonBalthasar, p. 61)

When we have the cross in view on Easter morning, what it means is that we cannot talk about a God of Absolute Power, but only about a God of Absolute love. (vonBalthasar, p. 28) More to the point of Love conquering death is that the proclamaton “Christ is risen” means and I’m quoting— Alan Lewis “[the] words and deeds [of Jesus] are risen and triumphant too, verified and vouched for by God’s own power.” (Lewis, p. 63). God whose name is Love.

It was a system of collusion by political powers in Jerusalem that practiced an unforgiving legalism—a legalism which considered the kind of people Jesus loved as expendable—it was those powers that nailed Jesus to the cross. Those powers, though, were ultimately helpless for they could never do, what happened on that Easter morning.

And we are witnesses to God whose love of humanity, of all the earth, knows no bounds, not even the boundary of death. We can speak of “God with us” and “in us” and of being conformed to Christ, or praying in and through Christ, because God has chosen life, not just one single life, but all humanity.

But there’s one special segment of humanity that ought to seem more in view on each Easter morning. This Jesus, considered expendable, had his own ministry focused on the disgraced, the despairing, and those dying and dead. We know in our daily news, from wars and violence, prejudice and racism, raising walls and demeaning others, that the one we call the Son of God was biased toward the least, the lost, and the last. Those of us who call him Lord and Savior must do the same. Be assured, that a clear proclamation of the Gospel that Christ is Risen and Christ will come again, is hope for the hopeless, and still scandalous and revolutionary dissent from many of the powers that be. (Paraphrase of Lewis, p. 112)

In the Christian way of living the Easter story, we believe in a God of Hope. Not a distant inaccessible “Being”, but God in Spirit, in life, in event, in becoming. A God of Advent. God incarnate. A God of Epiphany. God in Time.

Not God distant or absent. Present in the mystery of bread and wine. A child born and baptized. Absent only in that tomb on that first Easter morning, And very much alive in those who lived this story this story two thousand years ago and still do—daring to see God also in the least, the lost, and the last.

Certainly as I can attest, and I know Pastor Kari can attest, as well, and so many of you also know, often only upon reflection, God’s spirit and love and forgiveness has been there with you at some of what might have seem the most godforsaken moments in life.

The very hidden, but real presence of God in those times when even Pastors are silent, that silent life-giving hopeful presence of God in the times of our lives, and in the lives of all in this world, speaks to the reality of the story that did not end on Good Friday. God will mysteriously be even in our death, having surrounded us with grace, forgiveness and love all days of our lives, even in and through the last day. But there is no last day in God’s time.

Easter is sometimes called the 8th Day! The day before? We call it Holy Saturday. It was also the Sabbath. And even, it was said, God rested on the Sabbath. And on the 8th day there was a New Creation. An Easter message. God in time. God in all of our lives.

So I welcome all of you, those baptized in Christ. You are welcomed to this table—this Easter morning Eucharist. And I welcome to continue your Easter worship for the next six Sundays. Today and on the Sundays that follow we will be sent forth each week as witnesses to Jesus, raised to life on Easter morning. A blessed and Happy Easter to all of us!

The Insider Problem (3/26/2017)

The Insider Problem (3/26/2017)

The Insider Problem

Sermon for Lent 3A March 26, 2017
George Martin
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN

I confess that I am and have often been an insider. Now what does that mean? Well, when I went to grade school in Toledo, Ohio in the late 1940s and through the 1950s all of my classmates were looked just like me. The only person of color who I ever saw on a regular basis was my mother’s cleaning lady. And just before she came every week, do you know what we had to do? We had to clean the house because the cleaning lady was coming.

It wasn’t until I went to college that I had classmates, and friends I’m happy to say, who looked quite different than I did and who came from all over the world. I began my rebellion from my sheltered background by joining a very diverse based fraternity.

In the years that followed I still was an insider. I was inside the Episcopal church and served mostly suburban congregations. The church with the greatest diversity which I served was the new one we started in 1986 and that was in Eagan. But I was still an insider.

I was an insider with the two country clubs I belonged to at time different times in my ministry. I may have preached against the bias that must inherently come from living in a gated community, and then—guess what?—I lived in a gated community when I was the interim pastor at a church in Palm Desert California.

So what’s the problem with being an insider? It’s that there are those “outside” and they are there almost by definition, and usually by the practices and prejudices of those inside. When you and I are inside a special community, whether it’s a church, or a neighborhood, or an organization with a special purpose, you will find a set of practices and a language that continually reinforces certain particular affirmations and beliefs; usually over and against others who do not, and may never ever be qualified, to belong.

But a case can be made, and this case must be made, that this, this church, any church claiming Jesus as Lord and as Savior, ought not to be composed of insiders. It ought not to define itself vis-à-vis those who are not here. The absence of those who aren’t like us ought to disturb us; and we at the same time should be deeply disturbed by practices, policies, politics and prejudices that keep us from seeing others as the children of God.

To be sure, and this comes from Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Methodists—or dare we say Methodist insiders?— l they say that when the world asks us to say something political, we ought to say the word “Church.”[1] For when we are truly ekklesia— And that is the Greek word for church— it means those called from all the different insider places in the world—it means we are called into community that must not let itself be defined by those who aren’t here.

I remember the story regarding a reporter who once interviewed the American poet Carl Sandburg. He asked Sandburg, a master of words, what he thought was the worst word in the English language. Taking a breath and letting the word take it’s time to emerge, Sandburg said, the worst word was exclusive.

We keep seeing the worst forms of exclusion in our world, but we must also recognized the subtle, sugar-coated versions of exclusion that cloud our vision. All of this is addressed in this profound book by Miroslav Volf titled “Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation.” The wars of ethnic cleansing are among the most visible aspects of exclusion, but the language of fear regarding groups of people of from various particular nationalities or religious faiths in our world are equally damning.

Exclusion whether overt or subtle is placing ourselves at a distance from the other. Volf says it means removing ourselves from a pattern of interdependence, and assuming sovereign independence. The “other” becomes the enemy. I don’t need to recognize their full humanity. It can result in subjugation, indifference, or abandonment[2]—all of which is to declare some kind of moral superiority, which in the cycle of it all, simply reinforces the insider mentality.

Why have I started this way? It’s because of our Gospel, the lesson from 1st Samuel and our reading from the 23rd Psalm this morning all speak to the issue of exclusion.

Did you notice the direction of blindness in the Gospel story? A man born blind had his eye-sight restored, and knew only, at first, that Jesus healed him. Then it is this once blind man, and he alone, in this story who discovers who Jesus is. The religious authorities want to know how the man received his sight. They don’t believe his story. They called his parents, and his parents disavow any knowledge of the matter. So the religious authorities asked the now-seeing once blind man if the one who healed him was a sinner. The religious authorities call the blindman, himself, a sinner—as if Jesus didn’t know that every one was a sinner. The difference? Jesus doesn’t exclude sinners.

My favorite bible scholar, Dr. Bailey, has said the New Testament names everyone a sinner. Some are repentant sinners, and others are self-righteous sinners. Often those of us well-ensconced inside our safe secure, historical and traditional, religious worlds—we are the self-righteous sinners—usually reluctant to admit the sin part of our identity.

At the end of John’s gospel one man has new deep spiritual insight. He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped Jesus. It’s why in that somewhat heretical reader’s theatre play that I wrote I took the liberty of placing Uncle Levi with Paul in Antioch.

The problem the people of Israel had was that God always broke the insider rules regarding who was important, and how an inheritance was to be handled. God favored the offering of Abel, the younger brother His older brother Cain, murdered Able. And then there was Jacob who stole his older brother’s birthright. Jacob in turn has many sons, and they are the ones that turn against Joseph, the youngest most favored son, and sell him into slavery. God needed Joseph for the rest of that story. And today Samuel is to choose a king to replace Saul from the sons of Jesse. He chose the youngest, a mere boy by the name of David.

Those most inside, or seemingly most qualified by age and experience are hardly ever chosen by God to be the links that continue God’s story.

And then there is Psalm 23. I hope you appreciated that we read the King James Version. This is the one passage from our tradition, other than the Lord’s Prayer, that I think we all ought to memorize and carry with us. It is the singular description of God’s continual grace that follows and precedes us. We are guided to be beside still waters, though they often seem turbulent and dangerous. Yes, we walk through valleys of shadows and doubt, but God is there. And then when we feel surrounded by enemies, God feeds us and protects us. And we are always promised a dwelling in the House of the Lord. Psalm 23 is proclaiming that we are inside God’s story, to be sure, but can walk with confidence into stories of darkness and doubt, and even into stories of conflict. The Psalm isn’t about some idealistic world where all is peace and joy, but rather the presence of God in the realities of all of our lives.

Earlier I noted the unusual direction regarding blindness in the story of the healing of the blind man. The dramatic change seems to be physical sight, but the real drama concerns the world he leaves behind. It is a narrow world of constraints keeping in those who belong and keeping out those who are out.

So what happens when there is true spiritual change that challenges the presumptions of those who maintain the boundaries of a particular faith? Mind you, I’m asking a dangerous question. Dare any of us challenge the presumptions of our church? Or of its doctrines and practices? Some think such questions are but the slippery slope of heresy. Of tearing down sacred traditions. But consider this short but provocative poem called “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham.

They drew a circle that shut me out,

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win,

We drew a circle that took them in!

If that doesn’t describe Luther at his best, I don’t know what would. And what I know is that the traditions of any religious community that turns in on itself, communities with rigid walls and boundaries, will be challenged to open its doors, to let in the light, and to see the others, whoever they, as created by God, loved by God, and pursued by God.

You and I are inside the Lutheran Church of the Cross right now. But I deeply suspect that the Spirit of God, is constantly at work to get us out of thinking we have all the answers. That Spirit of God will not let us just quote from Bible, or even a reformer like Luther, unless we are also constantly practicing a generous, loving, and forgiving faith as we follow Jesus. Should we try to draw really sharp lines about who can and can’t come to this table, I dare say, God’s spirit, will present us with a real challenge to anything that represents exclusion.

One last example when one man took a stand against exclusion. It was in April 1865 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, which for four years was the capital of the Confederacy. They were having Holy Communion. Here I will quote from the author Jay Winik and his book April 1865.

“…the minister, Dr. Charles Minnergerode, was about to administer Holy Communion [but then] a tall, well-dressed black man sitting at the western galley (which was reserved for Negroes) unexpectedly advanced to the communion table—unexpectedly because this had never happened here before. … Usually whites received communion first, then blacks—[meaning until then slaves.] [As the black man slowly knelt down at the altar rail] the minister stood [in place], clearly uncomfortable and… dumbfounded. [No one moved, but then a tall distinguished gentleman, older than people remembered walked to that altar rail and knelt down next to that former slave. Others followed.][3]

That man’s name was General Robert E. Lee. He and that black man were one in Christ. May we all be found one in Christ. Without exception. Amen.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, “Where Resident Aliens Live,” p. 51.

[2] Paraphrasing Volf, on page 67

[3] I have paraphrased much of the longer and more eloquent story that Winik told.

God’s Persistence (3/19/2017)

God’s Persistence (3/19/2017)

God’s Persistence

Sermon for Lent 3, March 19, 2017
Based on John 4:1-41
George Martin
Lutheran Church of the Cross

We pastors can sometimes be very hard to understand. God knows all too well the times I’ve failed in the pulpit. I‘ve always loved the story of the Scottish pastor of whom it was said that he was invisible on six days of the week, and incomprehensible on the 7th.

Today’s sermon is light on theology. It’s story. In particular how I tried to avoid standing where I’m standing.

I will not inflict on you a poem that has 183 lines in it, but the beginning of one of the most famous spiritual poems of all times begins this way:

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;  
  I fled Him, down the arches of the years;  
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways  
    Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears  
I hid from Him,  

The Poem is called The Hound of Heaven, and was written at the end of the 19th century by Francis Thompson (1859-1907). One of our church members said he thought of this poem when I shared thoughts from a poem that begins “Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back, guilty of dust and sin.” I said at the time that was my story.

So I shall share a little of my story in this sermon, in hopes that it will stir up something in you—so you feel more free to reflect on and tell of your story of God in your life. I remember reading a book by a Catholic priest who said there was a 5th gospel that we should all know. And I shook my head, saying, there were just four gospels. But he was serious and pointed out that we all have as story or two to tell about God in our lives.

Certainly there was a woman in Samaria who had a dramatic encounter with Jesus. Our Readers Theater play touched a number of the details in this rather long and most interesting story from John’s gospel. We should begin with the fact that no Jew in good standing or in their right mind would have walked through the land of the Samaritans to get north to the Sea of Galilee, but that’s exactly what Jesus did.

For 500 years the Jews in Jerusalem saw their Samaritan neighbors just to the north as pagans, who didn’t worship God correctly. What Jesus did was cross the border, and his disciples who followed, had to be thinking, what was Jesus thinking? And this woman who came to the well knew immediately that he was a Jewish man. How? Ethnicity was defined then, and often now, by the clothes worn.

What about her coming at noon to draw water? My favorite Biblical scholar said that in the Middle East women always come as chattering group of women early in the day, the coolest part of the day, to draw the water. This woman came alone at the hottest time of day. She was excluded from their fellowship. And we learn from Jesus she has a shady unstable marriage history which includes living at the moment with a man who isn’t her husband.

Jesus comes into a defiled land, and encounters a shunned woman. What does he do? He asks to drink from her bucket—from a Jewish point of view—a defiled bucket. And Jesus with his need—his thirst—places himself at her mercy. This is a very human Jesus. Tired, weary and thirsty. And he talked to her about an eternal kind of water from which no one would ever thirst. And all this raises one question for us: what is it that we thirst for in our lives?

I remember when I was a child one of the persistent questions was always “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It wasn’t “What kind of person do you want to be?” It always had to do with being in a certain job or profession. Around the time I was in high school I was suppose to know how to answer that question. And I just didn’t know.

But I went off to summer camp on the eve of my 17th birthday and before my senior year in High School, and there at camp I fell in love with a girl I dated in my senior year. And on a Thursday night, in the candle-lit service of Evening Prayer, in the campus chapel on our knees one of the priests asked us to quietly open ourselves to whatever it was that God wanted us to know. I remember the hard wooden kneeler but it didn’t hurt. I remember the flickering candle lights and the shadows of that chapel. And I felt God said “You should be a pastor.” And for weeks I never told anyone about it. I was scared.

Eventually it came out, and when I went to college I thought I’d study religion and go to seminary upon graduation. That lasted one week. I soon became an ordinary college student. Just one week is all it took. I decided to give up on a religion major, to study sociology, and become God knows what. Then early in my junior year, was it depression, or what I don’t know. But I was so confused and mixed up and one night I knocked on the door of the campus chaplain. He’d never seen me before. That night, over coffee and cookies, I had tears, and shared parts of my story. He simply accepted me as I was, just like Jesus accepted that woman at the well, as she was. It was communion with coffee and cookies.

A year later he saw me on the campus. Told me he remembered my story from the youth camp and what I thought I heard in that chapel. He said there was a Rockefeller Scholarship for young men to test their vocation at a year of seminary—totally paid for. Feeling obligated to the chaplain, but not especially drawn to seminary, I filled out the application. I was neither disappointed nor surprised when I didn’t get accepted.

In March of our senior year Caroline and I were married on March 28th. A month later on an April afternoon the phone rang. It was the Dean of Bexley Hall, an Episcopal Seminary. Dean Thorpe said he had my application from the Rockefeller Foundation, and right then he offered me a year of room, board, and free tuition to come to his seminary. To go there to test my vocation. You might be tempted to say that the rest is history, but not so. I came in the back door, so to speak, on the whole ordination process, but 50 years ago this June I graduated and two weeks later was ordained a deacon.

After being ordained for two years, however, I went back to graduate school to become a sociology professor. I did some part-time church work, but intended to stay in academia. Three years later, though, at a clergy conference —something dangerous in these church conferences—I was walking down a dusty road with a fellow, and older priest, who asked me to come to work full-time at his church in Omaha. And this time my “Yes” stuck.

Oh, yes my soul drew back more than once. It wasn’t that I was trying to hide, but I didn’t feel worthy. What I had to know is that the Lord never comes to us because we’re some how worthy of God’s love, or have measured up. I didn’t. That woman at the well didn’t measure up. Anytime we think that’s the way to God we ought to be ready to find ourselves lost. Yet even there, even when we’re lost, the persistent God will seek us ought saying, Let go of your pride. Give up thinking your way to me. Give up trying to earn my love.

Just accept my grace and love in your lost-ness. Bring your tears to that table where you’ll find coffee and cookies and unconditional love. And when you do, you have a gospel story to tell. May Jesus tell that story in all of our lives.

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