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

Ash Wednesday “God’s Name is Love”

Ash Wednesday “God’s Name is Love”

Ash Wednesday “God’s Name is Love”

George Martin (3/1/2017—Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN)

We have a curious set of readings: The Old Testament prophet Joel saw a day of darkness and gloom on the horizon. The Lord was declaring to God’s people, “Return to me.”

But come with fasting, with weeping and mourning.

Know, Joel said, that you return to your God who is gracious and merciful.

Then we heard Matthew using the version by Eugene Peterson in what is called The Message.

The first line we heard was “When you do good deeds, don’t try to show off.”

The more traditional words are, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”

So what is piety? It simply means devotion or spirituality. It ought to be a positive thing to pray, to kneel, to study the Bible, and to come to church. But there is a negative side to some forms of spirituality and devotion: Peterson has it right because there is always a danger in showing off our faith.

Here’s the problem: Wearing ashes was always a sign of penitence; and always acknowledging our mortality before God.

But according to Jesus in Matthew we shouldn’t pray in public, but only in a door with the door shut. So do you wear your ashes out of church? Well, don’t worry. It’s night. No one will see you. And we do this inside a community of faith. This is how and when we start the season of Lent.

In some ways this is the most honest day of the whole year. Honest because we get reminded of death. There isn’t a priest or pastor that I know of, by the way, who doesn’t admit that making the sign of the cross on the foreheads of those we love and know at this service——well it’s about the hardest thing we ever do each year.

I should tell you about the ashes themselves. In the traditions of the church they come from last year’s palms. They are burned on Shrove Tuesday, what yesterday was, and they start us on our journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem. Yesterday I asked Pastor Kari about the ashes and she pulled out of her desk a small bag of ashes the church had purchased last year. She said I had some in my office, and after some searching she found the ashes Pastor Andy had left.

“But what about those Palm crosses from last year?” I asked. Pastor Kari knew where the box was. “Let’s burn some of them keeping the old tradition alive.” I said.

With Clint’s help we found an old metal can and drilling holes in the bottom made a kind of oven. And then we tried to light one of the crosses. It wouldn’t light. I went back to my office to my recycle paper bin and brought out the newsletter from First Lutheran that I had read earlier. We lighted the entire newsletter, threw in the palms. It was quickly burned-up. So when you receive the ashes you may have a little of page 6 or 7 on your forehead, but mostly burned palms.

The important thing is that these ashes represent a whole year of worship and faithfulness. Here we are and here we belong.

There are times though when we’re here and don’t think we belong. That’s the reality the poet George Herbert was addressing over 400 years ago. Herbert was born in 1693 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First, and died in 1633, 40 years later, during the troubled reign of King Charles the Second. He spent most of his life as an academic priest inside hallowed halls where intellectuals vied for honor and where hopeful politicians crafted their eloquence.

Shortly after his marriage, at the age of 35, he discovered his true vocation, and that was to be a pastor in an obscure parish in Southern England. When he died five years later he left behind a slim volume of poetry, 99 poems The last poem in the collection was his third poem with the title of Love. (It’s printed in your bulletin.)

I first heard this poem from an English pastor studying with me in 1984 at Virginia Seminary. Something was said, and the next thing we knew Robert Parsons gave us this poem from his memory. I said I have to have that poem, and I have to have it in me. So it is there in my memory as well.

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,

Guilty of dust and sin

`                  But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

If I lacked anything.


A guest, I answered, worthy to be here;

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah my dear,

I cannot look on Thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?


Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste My meat.

So I did sit and eat.

Why do I share this on this Ash Wednesday? It’s because of this guilt thing. This feeling we often have that we are unworthy of God’s love. And please note, if you haven’t already, that the word Love is the word for God according to the poet. And this must be his story. I think it’s mine. I hope it’s yours.

And by that I mean that we can all come to a point where we finally accept that we are loved by God and that we belong at this table where we encounter the holy one, the very presence of Christ. That we stop beating up on ourselves as somehow still not quite right, not quite acceptable.

Can you see that in this poem? My soul drew back. So many people come to mind in my ministry. People who’d sneek into and out of church. Looking up at the roof. Wondering if it would come down on them. They didn’t feel they could ever accept communion or belong to a Christian fellowship.

It happens to all of us. At times we grow slack. Not knowing that Love, God, draws nearer and nearer to us sweetly questioning if we lack anything.

The poet’s story was that he was in search of a guest. A companion. Someone really good—really worthy. Because he didn’t feel that way.

As the poet admits, and it happens to all of us at times, we know that we haven’t been grateful. Our selfishness stares back at us in the mirror of life. And we don’t feel worthy of looking at what is holy and good.

But Love took the poet’s hand, and I love the line, that Love was smiling when this question was asked, “Who made the eyes but I?”

Still the poet resists. For many of us have spiritual stories that include resistance, and as we will see, bargaining or self-justification. The poet feels shame. “Let my shame go where it doth deserve.”

Earlier I mentioned that we can sometimes have a problem with what I termed this “guilt thing.” What’s important is that we know the difference between guilt and shame.

Guilt, as strictly defined, means we have done some specific wrong. We can say we are sorry for something that we did. We can try to make up for what we did. What we did stares us in the face.

Shame is when our whole self feels wrong. It’s guilt defused into so many aspects of our lives. Many of us are dealing with issues related to shame, and not so much guilt.

The poet said “let my shame go where it doth deserve.” But here’s where the revelation takes place for this poet and I hope for all of us.

Love replied, “And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?” A clear reference to the cross. God has made us, God watches us grow slack, God bore the blame, and God wants us to be at the Lord’s table.

And no bargaining here as, if you don’t belong. That’s at the end. The poet offers Love a deal: He said, “My dear then I will serve.”

Love rejects all our bargaining, and says we are to sit down, and taste. And so the poet did.

We belong my friends. Right here. Belong with ashes on our foreheads, and then hands reaching our for God’s bread, because God who made us, wants us to know and celebrate the one whose name is Love.

What the World Needs Now

What the World Needs Now

What the World Needs Now

Sermon for Epiphany 6, Feb. 12, 2017
Based on Matthew 5: 21-26
The Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
Pastor George Martin

The title of my sermon is “What the World Needs Now” — what I’m going to talk about isn’t love. If you can please turn off the song in your heads.

I like to tell you that the sermon was one where all the pieces just flowed together, but that wasn’t the case. I would personally mistrust the preacher who said oh it’s easy to preach on Jesus’s message. I certainly wouldn’t trust a pastor and I hope you wouldn’t either, one who said “We should never get angry.” I can’t say that. I do get angry.

Jesus does say that anger that continues can make one liable to a hell of fire. I do have trouble with part of this gospel.

Actually in my office I have a copy of an old ad that I was somewhat responsible for creating back around 1979. I have in my hand and the headline says “if all you want from churches hellfire and brimstone, burn this ad.”

I don’t think I’m alone and having trouble with some of the harsh and difficult stories in the New Testament where violence is done to those who have done wrong. There actually are eight stories in Matthew, four of which are original to Matthew, and four of which are shared with the other synoptic Gospels in which we find some kind of violence — with weeds cast into a hellish wire or saying that there are those who are sent into eternal punishment. We will have to confront stories like this from Matthew’s gospel later this year.

Right now I’m teaching about the St. Paul in our Forum time and I’ll lead a Lenten bible study on Galatians. I got into this work because there was a Paul I didn’t like. That’s Paul in the first three chapters of Romans, especially where he says that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” Maybe I’m not alone in being troubled by what clearly is called “the anger of God.”

So maybe what the world needs now, is really some sense of anger about all the injustice and the oppression that goes on in this world. There are some deeds that ought not to be tolerated. And as Eli Weisel said at the trial of the Nazi criminal Klaus Barbie, we must not forget what happened. He said, “Justice without memory is an incomplete justice, false and unjust.”[1] So not only is there something called righteous anger, there is also memory of what happened.

When Jesus, compared anger to murder, and said that we should come to terms quickly with another person when there’s been a disagreement, is he saying we should simply forget what happened? Don’t we usually have a very clear memory of various wrongs done to us? Aren’t we able in a narrative form able to reconstruct the conversation or the series of deeds that caused us to feel wronged? Don’t we keep reconstructing that story over and over again? And yes, we do. And maybe it’s that’s the reality Jesus wanted us to understand.

But he compared “anger” to “murder”? That can’t be right. But isn’t that what happens over and over again? Story after story of someone who loses their critical ability to think and all the emotions in the frontal cortex of their brains take over and they lash out in violence. We’ve all been prone to do that. Later we look back, and we may ask, “What was I thinking.” And the answer is obvious. We weren’t thinking.

Let’s go back to the story of anger. The repetition of what went wrong is what one philosopher described as “Resentment is a storytelling passion.”[2] We all know people who do this. I do it too. And, truth be told, it’s very easy to reconstruct the wrongs of life into good stories—but not necessarily healthy stories. And sometimes we tell those stories over and over.

The author Rebecca Solnit said that we tend to “grant immortality to an old injury.”[3] Ah that’s the danger. They live on. They aren’t forgotten. They are enhanced, even embellished in memory, still stirring even in the night when they even appear in our dreams. Indeed they may become a malignancy. The geography of our emotions leads us on the positive side of things to make new friends. That same geography, though, in the context of anger, especially the anger nurtured in constant repetition, may end up preserving and strengthening the walls we created at first with the anger. Nurtured it can become resentment and the story that drives us away from each other. We know those who once were friends and are no longer, by what they did to us.

Notice by the way, the progression in what Jesus understands about human nature when we are angry. He said, If you get angry with a brother or sister, your liable to judgment.

Then: If you insult a brother or sister, your liable to the council.

Then: If you say. “You fool” which in Greek is “Moria” or our word for Moron. So “If you say You Moron, you’re liable to the hell of fire.” There it is again. I don’t like it, but it’s there.

I think there’s a three fold progression meant here. “Liable to judgment.” First, from the one with whom you are angry.

Second: There is the council. That means the community matters. And that is a critical theme throughout Matthew’s gospel. We are the ekkesia, Cburch, those called to be in Christ, and we are always affected when someone in community isn’t living the Christ story. Especially is they are continually angry.

Third, the hell of fire. The part I don’t like. God in the wings, so to speak. I think we can find some redemption though here…just not yet.

Then we have this curious example of Jesus. It’s a little parable he told. “When you’re at the altar, in worship, and you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go; be reconciled to you brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

Notice the amazing 180 degree shift in the anger story. It begins with me. My anger, my insult, my name calling. And how does it end? This is actually where it starts to hurt, but hurt in a good way.

For the first time, maybe in a long time, and this is what Jesus said, “You remember that your brother or sister has something against you.” How could this be? You mean there are always two sides to this story? Do you mean that my story of what happened, my story of the wrong, isn’t the only story?

And finally, as far as God is concerned, is there just one story we should be able to tell? And the answer is “Yes.” Just one story.

So in 1986 I took my nineteen years of being a pastor and offered to start a new church in Eagan for the Episcopal church. Many new churches were planted then and I became really good friends with Pastor Larry Smith starting All Saints Lutheran church. I think you know I came here with lots of Lutheran connections.

One of the gifts of God to our new church was Sarah who played a marvelous guitar, and she knew lots of good contemporary church music. [Sarah isn’t her real name, by the way.] For years our new church community grew and grew and her music was a major part of that story. She really loved the Lord, appreciated liturgy, and sang like an angel.

And then we had a difference of opinion. It’s part of life. You can think back to the past week when you had a difference of opinion, and you’re still in touch with the one who differed with you. I can’t tell you what it was that caused Sarah and I to see our relationship rip apart as it did. I know that I had my narrative of wrong, and I knew she had hers. It turned out we both carried with those memories a sense of deep regret and loss. Sarah and her family left our new church, and we did not speak to one another for years.

My friend Mark is part of this story. (Mark isn’t his real name.) Mark was a former Lutheran pastor. He was in secular work when I met him. We discovered that we both loved White Castle hamburgers. We usually went to the White Castle at the corner of University and Lexington in St. Paul. Then Mark was discovered to have what turned out to be un-curable cancer. His funeral was at Central Lutheran in Minneapolis, and it was a large turnout for a great man. After the funeral service I hesitated about going to the reception, but decided to go. As I stood in line for some coffee and the luncheon sandwich, I saw Sarah across that crowded dining room. She waved, and without hesitation, almost like, she was leaving her gift at the altar, she came and said, “I have to talk with you. Will you join me?”

“Of course,” I said. Breathing something like relief. Starting to let go of a burden.

And there we sat, hands reaching out across the table. Two people, alone in a very crowded noisy room, with the years we had traveled together and then for years had gone our separate ways. We now met again. We sat across from each other with tears in our eyes, saying “I’m sorry.” Echoing one another. Asking “Can we be friends again?” And nodding our heads as you do when say “Amen” and say “God be in this moment.” It wasn’t a prayer that God might be, it was a prayer of blessing that God was in that moment. It was Eucharist with coffee, sandwiches, and tears.

We talked just the other day. And I’m sending Sarah a copy of this sermon. It feels so good to do so.

It is our anger, not God’s, that creates the hell into which, I believe, we condemn ourselves. My image of God waiting in the wings, is simply that. The Holy One waiting until we discover that what the world needs now, and always has, and always will need is reconciliation. And with reconciliation comes forgiveness. But one more thing can come and that is “forgetfulness.”

The anger harbored in memory keeps the hurt, the moment, and the self-righteousness alive —even for years. But when there’s true reconciliation and forgiveness, we may enter a time when the forgiven sin is forgotten.

It was Isaiah, the prophet who declared

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isaiah 65:17)

God forgets the former things.

And Jesus who said that what we all need is to be reconciled to one another.

[1] Miroslav, Volf, Embrace and Exclusion

[2] Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

[3] Ibid.

Salty Christians

Salty Christians

Salty Christians
Sermon for Feb. 5, 2017
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
Matthew 5:13
Pastor George H. Martin

What did Jesus mean when he said “You are the salt of the earth.”

Salt as you know can be used to flavor food. Or you can salt a piece of steak before it’s grilled and it will make the texture of the steak easier to chew.

Up here we salt our roads and sidewalks. For centuries people salted meat and fish as a way to preserve the food itself. It was used in religious ceremonies, even in the Jewish temple. And Jews made deals with each other or what we call a covenant by throwing salt over their shoulders to seal the deal.

We have the expression to be worth your salt. In Roman times soldiers were paid in salt, and the word salary is derived from the Latin word “salarium” which was the soldier’s allowance for buying slat.

We have expressions like the nautical term “salty dog” for an experienced sailor who’s spent most of his life aboard a ship at seas. And someone who might be considered trustworthy or maybe a little curmudgeonly might be called an “Old salt.”

Ironically salt is composed to two substances, sodium and chlorine, which separately can kill, but which combine to make salt. Salt too, though, in too large of a quantity can also kill.

Salt was also used as a fertilizer and still is in places. It can help crops to grow and may even kill some weeds that grow close to the surface.

And I learned it is still a tradition in some places to put salt into a coffin, because Satan hates salt, because it’s a symbol of incorruption and immortality.

I also learned from Zack that the adjective “salty” has a particular, and rather different meaning, in the world of the Internet and among millennials. If someone makes a post on a Facebook page like “You’re feeling salty,” it may mean you’re mean, or upset, or angry. I you say “I’m salty” it might mean something didn’t go my way, or turn out like I wanted it to.

So to those of you under 25 in the congregation let’s get something clear. Jesus didn’t know anything about Internet language. He did know what actual salt was, how much it cost, and what good things and bad things could be done with salt.

So if I say that I think we’re called to be salty Christians, I don’t mean we’re suppose to be mean, angry or upset. But we just might have an edge to us with regard to what’s right and wrong. And we might take part in moments of truth, even uncomfortable moments of truth, that reveal God’s concern for justice and what’s right.

And I thought of a time which I call one of my salty Christian moments. Years ago I went to a weekday Eucharist at a bookstore a few blocks from the White House which was an outreach ministry to the poor and homeless in Washington. It was a ministry of the Church of the Savior, and that day it’s pastor, one of the real saints of the last century, Gordon Cosby was there. A few of us were Episcopal clergy, there were government workers on their way home, members of the church, and lots of street people, who knew that what was called the Potter’s House offered them hospitality, warm soup, guidance, and the love of God. Potter’s House, it was said, was the nation’s first Christian coffee house.

Gordon Cosby preached on a passage we’ll hear in a few weeks when Jesus asked,

“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” Pastor Cosby said we would share communion just passing the bread and the common cup. We were to give to the person next to us the bread and say “Sister, help take the log out of my eye.” And then give them the cup and say the same, “Help take the log out of my eye.”

A friend gave me the bread and the wine and asked for my help in taking the log of his eye. I never thought he had one.

And I turned. And I’ve never forgotten her. A homeless woman from the streets. Deep lines on her face. Intense eyes, perhaps with some fear, maybe from me. Probably just living and struggling had added years to her life. She was African American. And she held out her hand and I said, “Sister, help take the log out of my eye.”

And it hurt to say those words. I wasn’t so much saying them to her as to myself. I knew the prejudice that had surrounded me in my youth and my young adult life. I knew the privilege I had that I took for granted. I knew that I didn’t have a clue to what her life was like and what she faced on a daily basis.

And then it hurt again as I gave her the common cup from which we all drank. I said, “Sister, help take the log out of my eye.”

What I wish I had done is to ask her name. But I’ve never forgotten her. And never forgotten that salty moment.

I don’t think I told that in ancient times when someone was wounded in war, or when they had cut themselves, salt was poured on and rubbed into that wound. And it really hurt. But it also started the healing process.

Here’s something else I learned. Luther preached on this text and said that salt bites. He even said, and this sounds awful at first, that a pastor’s job is to rub salt into the wounds of the sins of a congregation. What he was getting at is that there are truthful words—words or truth we may not want to hear. But hearing them, facing the truth, it may lead to change, and change for the better.

There is something called Prophetic Ministry which is about speaking truth that may not popular or well received, but which is truth. Jesus said blessed are those in this ministry. And that was the passage just before Jesus said you are the Salt of the earth.

We need to back up to last Sunday. I want you to see the connection between the last of the beatitudes, which we heard last week and the first declaration of Jesus in this week’s gospel.

Listen to this version, from the bible translation The Message:. These are the last of the beatitudes from last week.

10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

And then, in today’s gospel we hear Jesus say: “You are the salt of the earth.”

I think we’re called to be Salty Christians. At times giving gifts of seasoning to others, which can mean, as we heard the translation from The Message “bringing out the God flavors of this earth.” But maybe our salty call is also to speak a word that makes someone come to terms with their prejudice or their privilege as happened to me so long ago. Maybe it’s to help someone get up and move in a different direction in their life, one that really brings them life, hope, and joy.

I heard Ton Brokaw reflect on his life in a long documentary about his news career with NBC. He wondered if the color of his skin was just a little darker, would he have had the same opportunities as he had? And he reluctantly, almost with a tear in his eye said, he knows from the racial divide in our world, that he wouldn’t be able to tell the same story.

Speaking of tears they also have salt in them. The wounds, the hurts, the disappointments—that makes us cry—we cry salty tears.

One more thing. Our bishop, Tom Aiken has written a letter about immigration and refugee resettlement in our country in light of the recent actions of our President. We’ve placed a copy of it out in the narthex that you may take home and read. For the most part he reminds us of the strong continued ministry of our church under the auspices of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. His letter seems to me to be a salty Christian missive. It’s sobering.

I know this is strange. And I must admit that after almost 50 years of preaching this indeed in a first. Rubbing salt into a open wound? Facing, in my case, my own sense of privilege and opportunity denied to others. Reminding all of us about the lives of immigrants and refugees, nearly all of whom are innocent victims of war and persecution. We’d like to turn off the news. Turn away. But that’s not the way of Jesus who said we were to be the salt of the earth.

Salt that can lead to healing. Yes. But first poured into our wounds. Salt that stings. Salty encounters that lead us to see our neighbor—to see our neighbor as our neighbor. Not as an other. But as a child of God. I know I’m not preaching comfort. I think Jesus knew that if we truly became the salt of the earth, we’d be on our knees praying more.

Let us pray

What Does It Mean to Be a Disciple

January 22, 2017 Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
Pastor George Martin
Based on Matthew 4:12-23

This past Wednesday morning, at our church’s text study group, I asked “What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus?” There was silence around our table. They looked to me for an answer, but I was looking to the 12 or 13 around the table. At the moment I just couldn’t think of an example of a disciple. Later I remembered this story.

It was around 1990 that I was the President of the Board of Trustees of Bexley Hall Seminary, from which I had graduated in1967. The seminary had moved to be in an ecumenical setting in Rochester New York. It was connected to Colgate Rochester a seminary connected to the American Baptist Convention. And then Crozier Seminary, where Martin Luther King had been, joined the complex. It even had connections to the Roman Catholic diocese at the time.

We were installing the new President of the seminary, James Evans. He’d invited many of his Baptist clergy friends to be there with him—including James Forbes, the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, one of the most famous Protestant churches in America. Along with James Forbes the other clergy were all veterans of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. They had marched in Selma. They road buses and were at lunch counter sit-ins. And they all have known Martin Luther King. I asked some question about Martin Luther King, and then the stories started. Stories of struggle, times of doubt, and dangers they had faced. But what I remember was the laughter. The joy. The reality of disciples who had endured through some dark nights, and emerged years later without wanting retribution, and fully able to sing and laugh and dance. And dance, I think we did, in that procession that evening. I walked with some true disciples.

This Sunday we hear Matthew’s version of the calling of the first four disciples—all fisherman by the sea of Galilee—Peter and Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee who were left mending nets in his boat. We heard in that lesson, as well as the first reading from Isaiah, all kinds of place names. Land of Zebulin and Naphtali. The sea of Galilee. Jesus left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum. At the end were heard the news had spread to Syria.

Many translations begin this passage by telling us that Jesus withdrew to Galilee. Withdrew sounds like he was getting away. Going off on a retreat. Maybe hoping to hide out? I think not.

Let me tell you about where Galilee was. We did a little geography lesson on Wednesday. It’ll be good to do the same. (Jersusalem is in our back right corner. Those near the sound room are on the other side of the Jordon River and the sound room itself is in the Dead Sea. Those of you sitting on the right side up front? You’re in Samaria—not a place where Jews wanted to travel. Those on the West side you’re in Judea, flatter, more farm like, and you look up toward the East to some mountains and that’s where Jerusalem is. And to the north, in the far right transcept, that is the northwest region of Galilee.

Galilee is a fertile bread basket producing grain that is heavily taxed and sent to Rome. The fish in the sea are taxed as well. When those fishermen unload their fish each day a large portion of what they caught belongs to Rome. A few years before Jesus came to Capernaum to live there had been an uprising by the Galileans against Rome. The re-conquest was brutal and traumatic. Many were killed, more were enslaved. Two thousand had been publically crucified.

Galilee was also far away from Jerusalem. Not a religious center at all. To say Jesus withdrew to Galilee? No, I think he choose to begin his ministry at the region of the holy land which was the most oppressed; where there was the greatest poverty and where the traditional community life was most threatened. And where the pagan presence of Rome was the strongest.

And he came saying “Here comes the kingdom of heaven.” The word “heaven” is a circumlocution for the word “God.” Jesus meant that the Kingdom of God was a stark bold contrast to that of Caesar. Jesus was about to create a living communally-based demonstration of the Kingdom of God in action. So what is sometimes translated as “the kingdom of God is at hand”, or near” isn’t that at all. It’s not about to come. It’s breaking in. Watch Jesus in action and you’ll see evidence of God’s rule as a kind of energy, creative loving forgiving power that touches people where they hurt the most. The new world of God isn’t an idea you learn in a book, it’s a story to be lived with others.

And it begins with a call. Turn your life around. It’s a call to change the way you worship. It’s call to live into the future right now, and not sit on the sidelines waiting for the future to come to you. Yes it’s a “Word” but not words on a page, but words that call to you, to come, to change, to belong. And yes it’s about a different life. Not staying in the boat. Making a move. Acting differently. And finally it reaches into ongoing history in actions that relate to issues of peace and injustice.

So what does it mean to follow Jesus?

We are all baffled by the quick response of Andrew and Peter who got out of the boat and left their fish and their equipment behind. Then James and John do the same.

Up here, of course, while we gather to worship on a Sunday there are many who go fishing. A week ago as I pulled into church while it was still dark, a car ahead of me headed up the road. I saw a flashing sign for bait. And I realized not much is open early on a Sunday morning except bait shops and churches.

Back to those four who start to follow Jesus. Do you think they could have told us on that day that they already knew what it meant to follow Jesus? I don’t think so. “We just accepted the call,” is probably all they could tell us.

In that world when a Rabbi had students they didn’t learn from him by attending classes and writing term papers. They lived with the rabbi on a day-to-day basis. It wasn’t just learning the Bible but how to live the story of God.

If we have someone with us this morning who’s wondering if they should came back here. Or keep looking for a Jesus community somewhere else, all I can say, is Welcome.   We’re glad you’re here. Some of us know a little about following Jesus, but we might have trouble putting it into words.

We really only know our story of being his disciples because we can look back at the road we’ve traveled with Jesus. And there were times when we lost our way. There were times when we worshipped things that weren’t at all connected to God’s story. But then there was forgiveness and love. Or some healing. And we came back. Many a disciple story is about coming back and coming back. Back again and again to a story of unconditional love and acceptance.

But one thing about this following Jesus needs to be noted. Jesus didn’t offer success. Not some big successful enterprise that would make those disciples famous or important. There is nothing here in this disciple enterprise that can add to your worldly security—it won’t get you elected to office, or a better job. This disciple business really doesn’t fit with the world as many people know it.

So when we talk about having been a disciple of Jesus and when we look back maybe we wonder about the ways we might just have shared in the healing ministry of Jesus. Visits were made to someone with a serious illness. Hands were held in a loving prayerful circle as someone died. We waited with others while their loved one was in surgery and that waiting lasted a long time. Or we shared in a hot dish ministry over a period of months for a family.

Maybe we can look back and see how we passed on the story. Holding hands and saying grace with our children and guests at the evening dinner table. I’ve seen some grandmothers and grandfathers sit on little chairs in a pre-school class on a Sunday morning. Big grown up disciples with little disciples to be. Or maybe you went on a boundary waters trip with some teenagers and had Bible study around the evening campfire.

Perhaps there was a time we stood up against some bully. Or went to a town hall meeting knowing that our lakes needed to be preserved for generations to come. And in a few cases protesting laws that were unjust and wrong.

What does it mean to follow Jesus?

I’m afraid my answer isn’t very profound. But I answer it this.

It’s to follow Jesus, as best as we can. And then look back. Then to follow. Then look back.      Let us pray.

“Our Jewish Story”— Sermon for 1 Christmas

“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.



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

“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.

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

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”

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

“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

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

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!

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

“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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