Browsed by
Category: Sermons for St. Matthews 2013-2014

The collection of sermons here reflects a year of transitional ministry at the parish of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Pacific Palisades, California.

To Be A Blessing — Nov. 23, 2014

To Be A Blessing — Nov. 23, 2014

“To Be a Blessing”
Christ the King Sunday   — Nov. 23, 2014
St. Matthew’s Parish (Pacific Palisades, CA)
George H. Martin

As many of you know this my last sermon as your interim rector. Having preached six other last sermons in six other interims you’d think I’d be pretty good at this, but not so. It has gotten a lot harder. I know I’m leaving while they’re is still another part of the interim to do. Please know that I have no doubt that the leadership here is fully capable of carrying on of the during the last part of this interim time. You will be well served with the experienced hands of Michael Seiler who becomes your acting rector. A part of me really wants to stay; the other part tells me to be a husband, dad, and grandpa and yes to shovel some snow.

I’ve loved being with you. My regret in leaving now is countered knowing that “in between time”—the time that remains— even the next short period for St. Matthew’s can be full of blessings and possibilities. Let me begin by telling you a story of a church that entered an interim time that actually blessed all of us.

It’s what happened at old North Church in Boston in the year 1775. You have probably heard these lines.

Listen my children and you shall hear
The midnight ride of Paul Revere
On the 18th of April in 75
Hardly a man is alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

Thus began Longfellow’s poem. There’s another story you may not know about that night. The first Rector of old North Church was Timothy Cutler—rector for over 40 years. He had come from the Congregational church and converted to Anglicanism. As he reached the end of his ministry the church had an associate but no one liked him or wanted him to be the Rector. So they went searching for another Congregational pastor who would convert, and they found him in The Reverend Mather Byles. Upon his arrival around 1773 he immediately started to complain about his pay. Members of the parish were dismayed that he owned slaves.

Byles was there to preach on Easterday, April 16, 1775, and then came the annual meeting—always held on the day after Easter. The congregation had heard that he had had an offer to take a job at St. John’s Church in Portsmouth and they told him to take it. I think it was assumed that he might have had sympathies with the British as well. The wardens got the keys to the church back. They were then starting an interim time looking for the next rector.

The next night, April the 18th, one of the wardens and the sexton used the keys of the church to open the belfry tower from which they hung out not one but two lanterns. “ …and the rest of the story you know if you read your history books. How the British fired and fled and the farmers met them ball for ball.”

Conclusion: For wont of an interim there may not have been a Revolution.

St. Matthews parish is going to be just fine. Your vestry is in the process of interviewing some amazing candidates. My confidence in our vestry comes from words that we heard from Ephesians this morning. I’m going to twist those words just a bit as I pray that our vestry “will have a spirit of wisdom” as you as a parish discover with the leadership of your new rector “the hope to which God has called you.”

Those of you who know me understand that I hardly ever make idle quotes from a letter of Paul. As I leave you I am sincere about my intention to write a book making St. Paul’s letters more accessible and understandable. I also want to retrieve him from a misreading that is taken place at least for 500 years. For way too long the assumption is that Paul was explaining how we get to heaven through Jesus. In the crudest sense it’s almost as if our job is to get out of this world, or at least get through it in such a way that we have an insurance policy that gets us into heaven. The problem is that for way too long people have looked at the letters of Paul as if they were about theology, when in reality the focus was on a story of God in Christ—yes what God had done—but, the real emphasis was how it was meant to impact humanity—how we are called to live with one another, and how we are to see the world in which we are living as the world being restored through Christ. It’s not that the ethics of Paul trumped his theology. But the focus is on a faith to be lived out in relationship to one another and as a witness to the world proclaiming this is how humanity is supposed to look.

It’s clearly there as well in our last reading for this liturgical year of reading from Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew wasn’t a gospel written to convert people to become Christians. Those in Matthew’s community already knew the Jesus story. Thus in so many of the stories contained in this gospel the emphasis was on developing habits of life, a vision of common humanity, and refusing to adopt any presumptions of superiority in relationship to anyone else—with the intention to embrace and live out a life that showed the presence and love of God as they had seen in Jesus.

So today we have the parable in Matthew 25 that concludes a long teaching section in Matthew’s Gospel that began with the Sermon on the Mount starting in chapter 5 when Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” And on to seeing that “…you’re blest when you’re persecuted on his account.”

Then comes the misnamed parable, “The Judgment of the Nations.” I say it’s misnamed because using the word judgment places the focus on some last final event. Somewhere today some preacher, maybe many, will try to use this parable to scare people away from hell into heaven. You won’t get that message from this preacher.

I think there’s a deeper mystery at work inside this parable. Here we can discover a marvelous invitation for us to have a kind of community and a common life that speaks of the generosity and love of God as we really have seen it in Jesus crucified risen from the dead.

Consider the way it begins with the vision of the kingdom of God. It begins with these words “Come, you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you get me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

And it begins with an invitation to those who are blessed by God.

As a little aside for a moment. Some of you may have noticed that many times I sign off a short note or an email with the words “Blessings, George.” Why?

I use that word because it’s very profound in our common life with one another inside the Jesus story. Yes we bless our food—blessing in the sense of thankfulness— then we are giving thanks for one another and, finally, and hopefully always being mindful of the needs of others. I like what the scholar N.T. Wright says: “Blessedness,” however, is what happens when the creator God is at work both in someone’s life and through that person’s life.”[1] Blessedness also relates us to the entire covenant story of God beginning with creation. In turn it is a word inviting us to continue to recreate the world, but by being blessings to all everyday.

Thus the power in that line that opens the parable “Come, you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation world.”

And then notice that they weren’t trying to manipulate God, they were not trying to obtain credits to get into heaven; they weren’t playing some religious game; and they didn’t even know in any conscious way of this inheritance of God’s kingdom. But they had met those human needs. They had habits of life not born out of a competitive, “I win you lose world.” They had habits of life not borne a world of boasting or emphasizing my worth in comparison with somebody else’s.

And notice that they were not being praised for doing some stupendous, noteworthy inventions or solutions to massive problems. These were little ministries rewarded. There were ministries that met three basic human needs: food, shelter, freedom.[2]

So how will we ever meet Christ? This strange, way too relevant parable, tells us we will meet Christ in someone who is hungry or thirsty. We will meet Christ in someone who is a stranger. And we will meet Christ in someone, who for whatever reasons of sickness or of something they did wrong has caused them to lose their freedom.

You and I might choose to go on a mission trip 1000 miles away to find Christ. But we don’t need to. If you and I are asking “Where is Christ?” we don’t have to look very far. Christ is in our world — daily, sometimes living right across the street, sometimes in our own homes. Even at a corner waiting for a light to turn. At least we ask must always ask this troubling question: “Is that the Christ?”

And yes this world seems to be as dangerous as ever. The violence rooted in ethnic conflict leaps out at us on a daily basis. But please remember this: it was the world in which Jesus lived when he told this parable. We haven’t changed much except, except some of us choose to follow Jesus as King. Some of us want a church community just like Jesus described it to reflect God’s kingdom. And what will it look like? It will be a people who are gentle with one another. It will involve a kind of suffering patient love. It will involve forgiveness. And it will involve the admission of failure.

So it is that we are called to inherit the kingdom of God, knowing that we are inside a world of blessings. As we are blessing one another, we are forgiving one another. As we are blessing one another is means we are serving one another. As we are blessing one another, we see Christ in one another.

In conclusion we cannot dodge the nagging questions about the presence of Christ knowing that in the words of this parable: ‘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.’

I’ve seen that this message is grounded in the life of this parish. People of privilege and promise may come here, but again and again in this congregation we are called to seek ways to minister to “the least of those who are members of God’s family.” May this ministry continue to be a blessing to those most in need, and in a profound way to bring all of us to our knees seeking an answer to this question: “How can I more truly pray? ‘…thy kingdom come on earth as it is heaven.’” If’s to be on earth, we are God’s hands and feet. And meant to be that blessing.”

I thank you for the privilege I’ve had sharing the gospel with you this past year and half. Thank you for your love, your support, and for the way we’ve worked together to prepare this congregation for the next chapter of ministry in the name of Jesus.

[1] N.T. Wright. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, p. 104[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook Matthew 13-28, p. 570.

The Time that Remains — N0v. 16, 2014

The Time that Remains — N0v. 16, 2014

The Time that Remains

A Sermon for Nov. 16, 2014

The Rev. Dr. George H. Martin

(Based on Matthew 25:14-30—The Parable of the Talents)

St. Matthew’s Episcopal Parish

 Each week on the radio show that features Garrison Keillor as its host there is a segment on a Private Detective who works in St. Paul Minnesota. It begins this way…

“A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets. But on the 12th floor of the Acme Building, one man is still trying to find the answers to life’s persistent questions… Guy Noir, Private Eye.”

Twenty miles to the South, just about two years ago I was in my office at home in Rosemount Minnesota. I too was wrestling with life’s persistent questions. The phone rang. It was Howard Anderson, the fifth rector of St. Matthew’s Parish. He told me about his forthcoming retirement and was hoping he could offer my name as a candidate for the interim Rector that St. Matthews would be needing. I told him I was retired and the answer was “No.”

Well I guess I wasn’t very good at saying “No” was I?

It all worked out pretty good for me to come here for this year and a half. And now it’s time for me to retire, head back to that office, and continue to find the answers to life’s persistent questions.

And one of those questions concerns the way things always come to some end. A friend recently was contemplating turning 70, which I’ve already done. He said, “Wow, that age 70. You know you start to lose people you love. I don’t know what time I will have left.”

My friend didn’t know it was he was wrestling with an area of theology called “eschatology.” The study of what comes last. Echatos is the Greek for last. Related is the word “escahton” or the end of time, or the end of the world.

A related word is Apocalypse. Here’s what I said about that word in my very first sermon here in June 2013:

“The word “revealed” in English is the word “apocalypse” in Greek. A “revelation” is an “apocalypse.” And yes, think of it as something that is earth-shattering, explosive, and cosmic in its dimensions. That word in Greek, apocalypse, doesn’t mean it was simply something that had been covered up and which now is brought in the light of day. It’s more than disclosure. It’s more than waking up to some new reality. It isn’t just a new coat of paint or a revision of something outdated. It’s the brand new unexpected world — and it’s the end of the old world. There is no going back in time.”

Why am I starting this homily with the focus on eschatology and apocalyptic thinking? Well, yes, this is my next to last Sermon here.

But we have had two parables in row from Matthew’s gospel: the five wise and 5 foolish bridesmaids with or without oil to greet the Bridegroom. That was last week. Today we had the Parable of the Talents. I presume that some of you might have sympathy for the poor guy with one talent who buried it in the ground, returned it to the man who owned the property and then was thrown out into outer darkness.

Many read this parable looking for a supply side Jesus. The one talent guy didn’t lose the talent. It seems within our marketplace mentality that Jesus is rewarding the first two for making money and becoming successful with that which had been given them. What is actually said is that they were good and trustworthy or faithful. It never says they were successful in an entrepreneurial world—a world unknown in Galilee.

Context is everything in each of the four gospels. They were performed, not read in the early church. Many were probably only written down after they had lived as repeated performances. And yes there were people fully capable of memorizing these completely.

The gospels weren’t simply stories and parables strung together in a row, but they were plotted and shaped by an author who knew what it meant to live with the story of Christ crucified. The story was repeated and told in the context of a community of people called to wait for …for the End. The conclusion of the story. They were all in an interim time. And thus it continues to be.

What is the question that faced us in this particular interim time, between rectors? Would we still be faithful? Would we hold this community together, it’s worship, it’s ministry, it’s giving support to others, and all that we do in the area of pastoral care, would we carry on in the name of Jesus? And the answer is “Yes.” That is what we have done. We have continued as good, faithful, trustworthy witnesses.

If you read the chapter before this one with the two parables I mentioned you’ll find it is filled with teachings of Jesus about the end times. Moreover the command is to be watchful and to wait. It is said there, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Mt. 24.44)

Thus presumably don’t wait with oil lamps that won’t work. This is the time to give witness to the one you serve. That guy with the one talent seemingly wasn’t sure the property owner would ever come back or that it made a difference if he lived openly counting on the return of the one who gave him that gift.

I remember my friend who was the police chief in Eagan when I was starting the new church. “When are you going to get a building?” he asked me one day at Rotary where we got to be friends. “We’re in the school right now on Sundays and maybe we’ll have a church building in two of three years.” He said, “I’m waiting for the church to be built.” And he said that over the course of a year. And then one Sunday he and his wife showed up for worship in the school cafeteria. I said, “I thought you were waiting for us to have a real church.” “We were,” he replied, “We couldn’t wait.”

And from that moment on he was helping us get to that first church building. What we really creating, of course, was a community, a people of God, a people who witnessed just we do, to the love of God, and the power of God to transform us and carry us even in the most uncertain of times. In interim times.

It’s eschatology. The special Christian understanding that Christ has come and Christ will come again. And the in-between is where we are. Marked not with the Greek word for time that is chronological or sequential, “Chronos” is that kind of time. But we use a different word for time— It is the Greek work Kairos. It means the time of the now— a “now” that doesn’t pass away into history, but is time of opportunity, the time of meaning. It is time that is “already, but not yet.” It is time that one philosopher[1] calls “the time that remains.”

I suspect some of you are still worried about the one talent guy standing in outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Maybe that’s was Jesus speaking about the search for answers to life’s persistent questions.

As an experienced interim pastor I’ve served all kinds of churches. I’ve yet to serve a perfect church. And I’ve met so many people who struggle to understanding the meaning of life.

Over and over I’ve lived in uncertain times when it wasn’t clear at all how it would all turn-out. And that’s the St. Matthew’s story as well. But look we’re here. We’re close to starting a new chapter in this story with the call of your next rector, but this story won’t be ended when that person leaves—that day will come. And you’ll be in another interim time. Just as we have done together bread will be broken and shared. The cup will be shared. The story of Jesus told. New people will be welcome and encouraged to use their gifts in ways that witness to God. The time?…yes…the time will remain.

[1] Giogio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2000)

Tough Lessons (Stewardship Sunday) 10-12-2104

Tough Lessons (Stewardship Sunday) 10-12-2104

Tough Lessons

The Rev. Dr. George H. Martin
Sermon for Oct. 12, 2014
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Parish (Pacific Palisades CA)
The Rev. Dr. George H. Martin

 One Sunday morning a man came down to the kitchen, still in his pajamas. He said to his wife. “I’m not going to church today.”

“Yes, you are,” she said.

“Well,” he replied, “give me one good reason why I have to go.”

His wife said, “Last time I looked you were still their pastor.”

So here we are on the Sunday we launch our stewardship drive. I’m happy to be in church, but I have to tell you I’ve been unhappy all week knowing it was my turn to preach. Ordinarily I would have looked ahead and handed these lessons off to someone else.

Why? You ask. Well in particular I think we have some lessons that on the surface do not make God look to good.

We’ve been following the story of the Exodus as Moses led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And yes there was some grumbling and loss of faith when they were thirsty; and yes they thought about going back to Egypt before God provided daily bread with manna from heaven. Those stories turned out right. But today God has had it with his people.

Moses had been gone, up that fiery shaking mountain for 40 days. Feeling lost without Moses, Aaron who is Moses’ brother, asked all the people to make an offering. He asked for their gold earrings. And that’s where the Golden Calf came from. And when God saw it what does he say? I almost hate to repeat what’s there in the passage.

God said to Moses, “He had to go back down to “Your People.” Note not “My people.” But “Your people.” “They are a stiff-necked people” Then God said, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them…” God wants to sulk and hold on to his anger?

Fortunately the story from Exodus as we heard doesn’t end with an image of an angry God. It doesn’t change the fact that the theology of an angry God, false in many respects, has been around for a long time in different places.

And it doesn’t get any better with today’s gospel. In fact it gets worse. The parable begins with a good picture: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” Nice beginning. Not exactly a vegetarian menu, more like a Texas barbecue. Then look what happens with the invitations: the people invited snub their noses at the King. But it gets worse. There’s violence in this story. The slaves of the King are mistreated and even killed by those invited. It’s an insurrection. A rebellion against the king. This story has gone way off track.

And then the part that I really don’t like —and why I was open to someone else preaching — it is the rage of the King who destroyed the murderers and burned their city.

I’ll probably get in trouble for this, but at least for this first part of the parable, I cannot believe it really was something that Jesus taught. Part me says there has to be a link to Jesus here, but how? There are scholars who tell us that Matthew’s gospel was written after the year 70 according to our calendar. That means the Matthew community knew about the destruction of the temple and entire city of Jerusalem, as well as the massive crucifixion of many of its citizens. Living in the Roman Empire those early Jesus is Messiah people knew full well just how vicious and violent kings and emperors could be. This parable may be hidden code language for what a king (think emperor) is like that world, as those early Jesus messiah people remembered the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army that belonged to Emperor Vespasian? Maybe.

We know aspects of that world. Our news is filled daily with wartime atrocities and fears of it all getting worse. The natural tendency seems to be to use violence to fight violence. But those early Jesus people didn’t take up arms. Except they looked to one who was a failure, whose arms had been stretched on a cross. A cross to any sensible Roman citizen was failure.

Failure? We measure our place in the world by the word “success.” There isn’t time to unpack the idol, or the golden calf of success. Allow me though to confess that success is something we clergy struggle with and that’s because many times in this world the measures used to judge us are the ABCs: attendance, buildings, and cash. We should add the letter “D” because that gets us to discipleship, and that might lead us into the second part of this parable, and maybe even an even deeper muddle.

Today’s Gospel parable has a second part. Does it help? The wedding feast invitations went out again, and this time both the good and the bad were inside. That’s a good picture isn’t it? We’re all inside. Well, except for the one guy who wasn’t wearing a wedding robe? He was tossed out into the outer darkness, where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Opps. It got worse. Can we find something redemptive here?

For the moment, though, lets go back to Moses. Where we can see another side to God. Moses will be the one who helps us commission our stewardship callers. You are not being sent out as representatives of an angry God, or a stern God. But of a God who remembers.

Each of you are sent out with a message of promise and hope rooted in a faith grounded in God’s love. Remember how special this story is when Moses talked to God: “Remember,” Moses said, “Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I promised I would give to your descendants and they shall inherit it for ever.”

Moses implored God for the sake of the future story that was to be told. And that is a story of covenant and how a people live lives that keep the faith that was given to them. They wear the faith. And God walks with them.

And walks with them in a special way. The lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, (of failure)
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

No we don’t talk about an Angry God at St. Matthew’s. We know there is a world measuring everything by success, maybe even power and fame. But here failure is a possibility, because there is a walk called discipleship. No one has to wear the robe of discipleship. That’s the meaning I think of that man in the parable who was given the robe to wear, but took it off. If you come here and want to know this Jesus Messiah, there are certain expectations.

I believe the second part of that parable may really come from Jesus, because he was so insistent that the disciples live a Kingdom life in which they shared as a family of equals. And it was a welcome to any and all who were hurting, lost, lame, blind, and even those who were failures. I still don’t like the aspects of an angry God in this parable, but I discern that this is to be a community which feeds and nourishes “all sorts and conditions of people” and which involves certain expectations.

I wish we read the epistle. There we would have heard;

“Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.… Keep on doing the things that you’ve learned and received and heard and seen… And the God of peace will be with you.” This is from Pauls letter to the Phillipians.

We practice forgiveness. We emphasize mutual upbuilding of one another and serving one another in Christ. And we will talk about making meaningful sacrifices of ourselves, our time, our talents, and our treasure. Yes it involves making and keep pledges. Yes it means we spend less on ourselves, and make sure that our gifts keep this ministry going. It means coming to worship on a regular basis. Growing in our faith. It’s that “D-word”—Discipleship.

Now I’d ask that all of those on the team for this year’s Stewardship Program come forward for a blessing.

Shield the Joyous

Shield the Joyous

Shield the Joyous
Sermon for Evensong, Oct. 25, 2014
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Parish, Pacific Palisades CA
George Martin

Following my homily we will hear the choir sing the prayer that begins,

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night..”

They are there in the hospitals, waiting in the emergency rooms, cruising our streets in the middle of night protecting us—they are those who work or watch this night.

And then also awake through the night, but for a different reason are those who weep. Sure as the sun rises some greet it with tears.

Then we pray:

“…and give your angels charge over those who sleep.”

It finds an echo in the antiphon that concludes Compline: Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake 
we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

Then comes a little verb—the word “tend”—to tend, to pay attention, to be focused, to want something to be right. “Inclined to action” is another dictionary definition.

“Tend the sick, Lord Christ….”

To pray for someone who is ill we do not need to know what it is that has caused their illness or even from a medical point of view what is the best strategy that will bring them healing. It is enough to see Christ there at the bedside. With tenderness.

And then almost like a litany we have a series of petitions for four conditions of human experience that cause us grief and bring us to our knees.

We pray,
“…give rest to the weary, bless the dying, sooth the suffering, pity the afflicted….”

And then comes the last petition. Maybe the most curious prayer to be found in our Book of Common Prayer. The prayer ends with this petition:

“…shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”

Hmm. Shield the joyous. What does it mean?

I welcome your ideas when we gather for a social time following our evensong. But allow me a few thoughts from musings I found on the internet.

One pastor wondered if those who work and watch at night are charged with shielding the joyous. Some of them wear a shield as law enforcement officers. Some wait in emergency rooms or the quiet long hallways of the hospital upstairs. Maybe. I don’t know

We all know something about the joyous—especially at night. Someone just engaged or discovering love. Maybe a group of friends at a late night dinner. They may not have watched the evening news or are they ware of that last horrible thing that has happened. They may be able to travel home or wherever with a sense of joy—and may they travel safely. May their joy last through a night.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe there’s more.

Another wondered if joy wasn’t always a gift of God waiting to be discovered. Tasted. And held long enough to be a memory—perhaps the memory that would sustains us through some other long dark night of weeping.

To be joyful is to be vulnerable, needing protection lest we are shattered by someone else’s reality.

Do you know the noun agelast (ah-jel-last)? It is someone who never laughs. We have grumpy people we all know. Always ready to remind us how awful something is. Always doubting or criticizing or complaining. The glass is always half-empty.

I think there is a special place in sight of the gate of heaven for the grump people.  And there is smiling joyful angel who greets and pulls aside those who are the most grumpy. He cheerfully addresses each, saying: “On the other side of that gate is heaven. There is no complaining beyond those gates. There is nothing you have to try to fix or even finish inside. We want you with us but only when you’re ready to smile, relax, and enjoy…did you hear? When you have enjoyment, you have joy. That’s what’s ahead if you’ll come.”

And until they meet that angel we pray “Oh Lord, please Shield the joyous.”

Now joy can’t last forever on this side of things. But may it linger. We watch a brilliant sunset we savor its waning moments of light. And then the stars come out. Savor such moments.

Joy can’t last forever, but like that bouquet of flowers, we pull out those that have died, discovering the beauty of the few that remain in that vase.

Joy can’t last forever, but we flip through the family album smiling at the face that fell asleep in his first birthday cake, knowing he’s all grown up, he deals with much reality most of the time, but there was that precious moment of innocence coated in frosting. Yes, shield the joyous.

You have your memories of fleeting joy. We have our memories of fleeting joy in this community. Memories that can be fertile ground for other times of joy to come; other gifts of God’s joy to those who hunger and thirst for peace and happiness.

One more thing. Look for the word joy as it comes in our Eucharistic celebrations.

We say we lift our hearts to the Lord. And the Celebrant responds:

It is right to give him thanks and praise. 
It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of 
heaven and earth.

And as we come to the end of that prayer the celebrant prays for

“the last day” when God will “bring us with all your saints 
into the joy of your eternal kingdom.”

Grumps in this world you will not have the last word. The last word is the joy of heaven. So it is that we pray for now “Shield the joyous. And all for your Love’s sake.

God’s name in this prayer is love. And wearing God’s amour—the God who shields us— our joy is protected in God’s love. Let it be, let it be so. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Bob Palmer and The Good Shepherd – Oct. 11, 2014

Bob Palmer and The Good Shepherd – Oct. 11, 2014

Bob Palmer and The Good Shepherd

A Sermon for the Memorial Service, Oct. 11, 2014
At St. Matthew’s Episcopal Parish
Pacific Palisades, CA

The Rev. Dr. George H. Martin

 Sheep and Shepherds and our thanks for the life of one of the sheep who by his own admission got lost in life, before he found his life. It was a life he been given, like one risen from the dead, and he had it for 43 years. And then for many of you he was a Shepherd.

And yes he spent time in this space—this church, but many of you know of where spent more time and gave so freely of himself. Many of you are here today, in tribute to Bob Palmer, for the life he helped you find. So it’s good that we who are sheep recognize one who would never have claimed to be a shepherd, but who we know was such.

Many of you have years of Bob stories to tell. Mine is about a year old as I’m what is called an Interim Rector. I’m from Minnesota and yes I’m going back there in a month or so, just in time for winter. Bob thought I was crazy when I told him that. Many of you may think the same. I get that.

I too was blessed, as so many of us here were, to know this singular soul who’d seen the darkness, knew what it meant to be lost, and yet had found a unique community that deep down is grounded in spiritual principles of mutual acceptance and forgiveness. He also found a way to be reconciled to some special people in his life just before he died.

I feel a special connection with all of you because I treasure that there was an Episcopal priest who played a key role in the early days of AA. His name was Dr. Samuel Moor Shoemaker who served Calvary Episcopal Church in New York City in the 1930s and 40s. There was a small group of committed men in that church called “The Oxford Group.”

One day three members of this group convinced a judge to parole a man named Ebby Thacher into their care. Ebby had already been in jail many times for his alcoholism. As he sobered up he called his old friend, Bill W. and told him about Sam Shoemaker the priest. Bill and Sam became friends, and Bill W. reported years later that the 12 steps were inspired by what he learned from Sam Shoemaker.

There’s a marvelous poem summing up Sam Shoemaker’s life that captures the spirit of the shepherd that doesn’t want to lose any of the sheep, and who is the one ready to lay down his life for the sheep. Shoemaker felt his role as a Pastor It’s called I stand by the door. Let me read the first part:

I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out.
The door is the most important door in the world-
It is the door through which men walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only a wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands.
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it…
So I stand by the door.

And we’re here to honor Bob for the way he stood at the door for many of you, and many who couldn’t be here.

We’re not here to honor someone who was perfect. None of us are. And fortunately God is looking for perfect people. Just those who can fall on their knees and say a prayer. Just those who will let someone open the door for them. Those who stop thinking the world revolves around them, and who give up wanting more and more, and then begin to wonder how they can give love away. Sometimes it takes us a long time to learn this lesson. But that’s OK as long as someone is there at that door when we’re ready to find it.

It was my privilege to be with Bob on a number of occasions during his last days. There was the time I was getting his room number at UCLA, and there were two of Bob’s AA buddies wanting his room number as well. We were like three wise men, or wise guys I guess, riding up the same elevator. The nurse was so glad to see us. “See if you can get Bob to talk and connect she said, He needs you.” And thus began a time of stories.

At one moment Bob asked, “Hey. Am I suppose to entertain you guys?” and Larry said, yes. And Bob launched into a vaudeville joke I can’t tell here.

Then as we walked with Bob in the last days he was so peaceful and breathed so easily. About four days before he passed away I came into his room at his home. He’d been sleeping. I said “Hi Bob.” He opened his eyes. Gritted his teeth and said, “You’re not here to convert me, are you?”

As I left I asked, “May I anoint you, give you god’s blessing, and a prayer.” And beatific smile came on his face, and he said, “I’d like that.”

But it wasn’t the last word he spoke. On Sunday, two days before he died, I brought communion to his bedside. Traci and Jim where there along with Cody. Dylan was caught in traffic. I told them that I had four consecrated wafers, and that I could tell that Bob couldn’t swallow and wasn’t even awake. I said, “I’ll just place the bread on his lips, and then I’ll consume it.”

So I gave the three of them communion bread and then, and then, I placed the bread on Bob’s lips. I said, “The body of Christ, Bob. The bread of heaven.” I lifted the bread from his lips and we all heard him say, “Amen.”

His family heard him say “Amen” from time to time as the day drew on into the night. So be it. That’s what amen means. The word he took with him when Jesus opened the door to life everlasting.

He’d been a shepherd to many of you. Professionally, of course he had quite a life and many of us look forward to seeing those stories in a book someday. He was blessed with his wife Nancy who is still mentioned with great love and affection by so many in this faith community. And there were his two children. Tracy who is here today, and really is here in the life of this church. Chris was her brother who sadly died about two years ago shortly after receiving a heart transplant. That happened two months before Nancy died. It was a double grief that haunted Bob these last two years as it would any of us.

Speaking of his son Chris, I happened to talk to his priest from the Episcopal Church Chris attended in Germany. Alan, my friend, was the priest there at that time. What a small world it is at times. Some of you knew that Chris was a wood-worker.

My friend told me about his family heirloom—a table that Chris restored. It had been covered in layers of paint over the years, and when Chris was done there was this gorgeous wood underneath waiting to see the light of day. The table sits in a rectory in Atlanta.

Bob Palmer did the same as his son—only with people. It didn’t matter what you’d become or how far you had to go, he saw beneath all those layers a life, a good person meant to know the light of day.

And you know that is also the simple story about Jesus and his ministry with ship-wrecked people. We Christians often forget that we’re not better than anyone else. And sometimes, sometimes, we actually get it right. Being on our knees. Standing in a bread line with an open hand—hungry for God. We’re all sheep who need a shepherd. And we all standing in the need of prayer.

So Bob if you’re listening in, you certainly didn’t need to be converted. But after years of being a shepherd to so many, I’ll bet you and the Good Shepherd are sharing lots of stories. Yes, he there waiting to open the door for all of us too.

 

 

It’s Not Your Fault – Aug. 17, 2014 Sermon

It’s Not Your Fault – Aug. 17, 2014 Sermon

It’s Not Your Fault—Sermon for August 17, 2014

On the front page of the Wall Street Journal (Thursday) there’s a story about military aid coming to the Jurdish fighters in Iraq. A nearby story is about the conflict between Irasel and Hamas in Gaza. Page 3 has the story about the immigrant children coming to the US from Central America and there is story about Ferguson Missouri and its challenges with racial issues.

All the stories deal with conflict—two or sometimes more groups, neighbors in many cases, a shared history in others, and yet they want to kill each other. Again and again they choose violence to solve their problems. With regard to the immigrant children—so many have fled for their lives, or in the case of a high school brother and sister they came on their own after their mother and a younger sister were killed by a gang.

I know it’s not the happiest way to begin a sermon. It allows me though to get rather quickly to the issues clamoring for attention in the Old Testament story and in the Gospel.

And this is a good chance to tell you about one of the tracks coming up in our Fall program which I will help lead. Please note I said I’m going to help lead it. I’m looking for some help from some of you. It’s called “God in the News.” We’re going to have a discussion time about what’s been happening in our world and where we think God is in these various stories.

Maybe this sermon is an example. I’ll let you be the judge. Today I’ll focus on the Joseph story and the gospel. and I’ll conclude with one news story that’s gotten attention from all over the world—the story of the death of Robin Williams. A scene from one of his movies connects to these Bible stories.

First is the Joseph story. I must admit that I’m disappointed to discover that in this year’s cycle of readings there is just one story from the entire 14 chapters of Genesis devoted to Joseph. Over 1/4 of Genesis is about him, and we get one story. Thus I wrote a Spark Notes version of those 14 chapters for the bulletin. But maybe this one story gets to the heart of the matter anyway.

We heard of the brothers coming before Joseph in tehir search to purchase grain. They’d brought back the younger brother, Benjamin, but Joseph didn’t revealed himself. They only knew him as Pharoah’s right hand, and they had to be scared about what would happen next. If they even suspected for a second that it was Joseph I assure you they would have been afraid for their very lives. Joseph had every reason to hate his brothers for what they did to him. Many who have carried a grudge against someone for more that the 22 years can testify that it’s easier to carry the grudge than to let it go.

Then Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. He said, Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves…for God sent me before you to preserve life.” The whole fourteen chapters of the Joseph story is actually lacking references to God, but Joseph invoked some profound theology with his statement seeing that all that God was about was this moment and the future of his people.

And at the end Joseph, Benjamin and all the brothers are weeping. Weeping not just out of relief, but because of the mercy they’ve received.

The gospel story has some particular challenges. Jesus seems to have left his hearing aids at home. This Canaanite woman was shouting after him and it says he didn’t answer her at all. The disciples intervened and wanted Jesus to send her away. Be mindful, please, that these are the same disciples of little faith. Jesus responded with a curious statement. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Had we read the previous 15 or so verses we would have heard of the way Jesus trashed parts of the Pharisees approach to righteous living.

This woman was determined to be heard. The disciples couldn’t stop her.

She came and knelt before him. i.e she worshipped him, and we know it’s worship, because she used the disciples name for Jesus. She called him Lord, Kurios. And she used the Jewish messianic terms to address him as well, calling him Son of David.

That Jesus responded at all is remarkable. Men in that world were never to speak to a woman in public, even it was a sister or aunt. We know from other stories that Jesus broke that norm, and to what cost we don’t know.

And then he responded rather obliquely with a curious kind of riddle. It gets all too easily lost in translation. The ancient world was grounded in stories and rhetoric that included the clever use of riddles. Jesus essentially offered one when he almost teased this woman when he declared, “It’ is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

In asking her this riddle he was actually raising her status in a world that would always try to diminish her importance. She someow matered just because he talk with her. Jesus was playing a word game with her as if, as if she was equal to any of the men.

Implied in that statement about who throws food to dogs is what the Jews called the people of Tyre and Sidon, and what they in turn thought of the Jews. Oh, as you might suspect it’s the ancient version of Israel and the Palestinians. It’s the animosity between the Kurds, the Shites, and the Sunnis in Iraq. It’s a city in Missouri in racial turmoil.

And that world where Jesus was? Well to call someone a dog was highly derogatory. And would be to this very day in that part of the world.

Remember they had dogs in their world, but never, never as pets. To be sure the disciples must have thrown parts of the fish they caught and filleted to the nearby dogs, but they were never their pets.

And her response? You have to wonder if Jesus was expecting it. I’ll bet for sure the disciples who were watching never thought she’d get the last word or get to Jesus. But she did. “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

And in that world the only ones who weren’t like dogs, were the Romans and the few elite who cooperated with them. It was a world of gender and ethnic oppression. In Roman eyes the Jews, the Gauls, the Greeks and you name it, were all considered barbarians. They were all dogs in Roman eyes. They might have said of all the nations they conquered, “Let them have the crumbs that fall from our table,” That’s all.

That’s not what this woman meant. She was speaking of a crumb of mercy and forgiveness. It was a crumb a dog would eat, maybe your pet does it: the crumb is devoured with gratitude. g. Something to continue life.

And she found it at that moment. Not a crumb of food, but of worth. Worth. Value. And life for her daughter. There are so many people like her in this world, some/many in every church I’ve served. Many of my ordained brothers and sisters as well. So many,   Wondering “Am I OK? Will I ever be accepted for who I am?”

It’s the question lurking in the shadows of the movie Good Will Hunting for which Robin Williams won his academy award.

Now Robin Williams was an Episcopalian. He said that belonging to this church was “Catholic-lite: the same religion, half the guilt.”

The Sharp Notes version of the movie Good Will Hunting is that Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon, is a 20-year-old South Boston laborer, an unrecognized math genius: as a way to avoid going to prison for an assault he agrees to see a therapist, Dr. Sean Maguire, played by Robin Williams.

Toward the end of the movie Dr. Maguire confronts Will about the reality of the child abuse he experienced. (Dr. Maguire had a similar story.) Slowly the camera lets us see Dr. Mcguire come closer and closer to Will repeating “It’s not your fault.” Will nods his head, Yes. Says “Yes,” but to end the conversation.

Dr. McGuire keeps repeating, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.” The viewer can feel the tension rising. Will says more than once in some very strong words, “Don’t mess with me.” But the doctor says again, “It’s not your fault.” And then finally with tears flowing like a waterfall he throws his arms around his therapist, and they embrace each falling on the other’s neck, both of them wordlessly crying.

Oh. “Then Joseph fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept upon his neck.”

One of those God moments of forgiveness and mercy. The crumbs are enough. It was enough to say over and over, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”

We have a prayer in the prayer book by the way about the crumbs under the table, this table. And if you read the prayer right, it’s not that any of us are crumbs, but that we worship a God of mercy.

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful
Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold
and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather
up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord
whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore,
gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ,
and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him,
and he in us. Amen.

Whose property is always to have mercy. God, Jesus, the Holy spirit, saying over and over, “It’s not your fault.” We can pray can’t we that Robin Williams finds himself at the same table as that Cannanite woman who verbally sparred with Jesus? And across the table are the sons of Jacob who allowed their brother to die, even though that’s not what happened. And we can pray that along with all of them, we hear, or maybe even better yet, hear it now, but hear oursevles saying “Yes.” to the words “It’s not my fault.” Which is what leads us to find our place at the table of the Lord. Amen

Now and Not Yet

Now and Not Yet

“Now and Not Yet”

A Sermon for July 20, 1014

St Matthew’s Parish

George Martin

This is a poem by Ted Kooser, former poet laureate who teaches at the University of Nebraska. It’s called The Red Wing Church.

There’s a tractor in the doorway of a church
in Red Wing, Nebraska,
in a coat of mud 
and straw that drags the floor.
A broken plow
 sprawls beggarlike
behind it on some planks
that make a sort of roadway up the steps.
The steeple’s gone.
A black tar-paper scar
that lightning might have made replaces it.
They’ve taken it down
to change the house of God
to Homer Johnson’s barn,
but it’s still a church,
with clumps of tiger lilies in the grass
and one of those boxlike, glassed-in-signs
that give the sermon’s topic
(reading now
 a bird’s nest and a little broken glass).
The good works of the Lord are all around:
the steeple top is standing in a garden
just up the alley; it’s a hen house now:
fat leghorns gossip at its crowded door.
Pews stretch on porches up and down the street,
the stained-glass windows style the mayor’s house,
and the bell’s atop the firehouse in the square.
The cross is only God knows where.

[From “Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985 by Ted Kooser]

But St Paul knew where the cross was. At was at the intersection of “Now” and “Not Yet.” As it is for many of us. Some of us with faith. And some without faith. What a difference faith makes.

Faith never takes away the tears or sadness of some reality that crashes into life. But faith can shape that “now” within the context of a “not yet” that is certain and promised.

Last week’s sermon was about Paul’s understanding of “now.”

The title I used for that sermon came from a 13 word verse in Romans which began with these four words: “There is therefore now.” In that sermon I talked about how the Jewish Paul knowing full well the whole history of God’s people had come to believe that it was all summed up in the singular story of Jesus. It’s true meaning in Paul’s eyes was that the death and resurrection of Jesus meant that there was no condemnation, no punishment, coming from God. What God was doing was the creation of the worldwide family of God promised to Abraham. And it was a “Now” in Paul’s world.

Today we heard the next section of the 8th chapter. (And we continue to read from the Letter to the Romans on the next nine Sundays.)

This morning we hear what Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Rom. 8:21)

I need you to be good detectives with me on this. A single sentence in a letter to Paul can be very dense, and can even be the occasion for a single sermon.

So Paul said that creation will be set from its bondage. Bondage? Set free from slavery? It was there in the first verses of our reading today as well.

“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” (Rom 8:15)

We’re going back to Egypt with these allusions. And the story remembered to this day by our Jewish brothers and sisters, is the way God brought them out of slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the Promised Land.

Paul was updating Exodus theology, but not simply as a story about getting out to Egypt, but as it related to the whole creation. I’m struck by the optimism of Paul and the encouragement he gave to those early Jesus people, and I’m amazed by Paul’s courage.

Paul spoke, for example, of a glory that is about to revealed in us. Actually somewhat dangerous words. For all of the public images of Caesar in that world showed glory shining from Caesar’s head alone. Hmm. Paul saw glory coming from all those who would know Jesus as Messiah.

And then there is that phrase that capture’s the reality of “Not yet. But almost.” It’s verse 19 “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” Creation is on its tip-toes. It’s something new, God starting all over again, and it so close.

Yes it is a “still-to-be-redeemed world” ..it’s groaning he said, with labor pains, it’s not here, but it is coming, it is near, and it is of God, and that’s what led Paul to talk about having hope, not for what we see, but for what we wait for in patience.

We wait in patience but also aware that the “not yet” of this world involves its complications in that which is evil—that which is counter to all that God’s people are to be like. That reality of the world’s evil is there in the cross which stands at the overlap of “Now” and “Not yet.”

The same kind of intersection was implied in the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.

I’m always troubled by the explanation that comes at the end of that reading. I think parables are meant to leave you wondering. The explanation comes from that literary vein of allegory, where everything is suppose to have some meaning that easily explained.

So, yes, Matthew’s community used allegory to explain some of the parables. I don’t think for a minute that Jesus did. In my ears, at least, allegory makes a parable a little too pat when it ends up basically explaining every detail. I think there was a basic inscrutability to the original parables that Jesus told, and there is at least one troubling thing in every parable that seems really hard to believe. And I think we are to stay with what is hard to believe, not what’s easily explained.

Thus in that parable what’s hard to believe is that the weeds get to grow alongside the wheat. And we all know that the only good thing weeds are for is the compost pile and the sooner the better.

Or maybe weeds are simply plants that have some good that is yet to be discovered. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that a weed was “a plant whose virtues haven’t been found.” An botanist who wrote about weeds noted they also tend to grow in amazing ways in some of the most hostile environments imaginable—“a bombed city, a crack in the wall” and it “means that they insinutate the idea of wild nature into places otherwise quite shorn of it.”[1]

Let’s take the parable as Jesus told it. The weeds are to be left alone, to grow alongside the wheat. Sounds like real life to me. It’s true. We’re given a picture of what God’s kingdom is suppose to look like, but things happen, weeds appear, and worse. And yet in this complexity the promises of God’s kingdom, in wheat that grows, are there.

But sometime we can’t see the wheat.

I’m thinking of the grief of the five children of Joep Lange one of the 298 who died in the plane shot down over the Ukraine on Thursday. The five children, ages 17 to 27, were in state of shock, the Wall Street Journal reported. Their father had been president of the International AIDS society. It was his research dissertation in the 1990s that led to a protocol of using drugs in combination that gave hope to the fight against AIDS.

It makes no sense that so many innocent people, most of whom were simply headed for holiday, should have their lives taken away, in a war-torn part of the world, that seemingly is dedicated to violence as the only way. So many shattered lives as a result.

Pete Seeger sang “Where have all the flowers gone?” and in that song about the circle that leads to wartime deaths he asked “When will they ever learn?”

In a sense Paul was asking the same question, but with a cross-centered faith he was certain and confident that God had made it clear that there was a way to live in this world that could be grounded in hope.

To be brought into Christ and to know that the Holy Spirit is working in all things, even the worst, is to know the promises of a kingdom marked by love and peace—Paul would say it happens in a cross-centered kind of community that remembers the story of God in Christ.

I began this sermon by saying:

Faith never takes away the tears or sadness of some reality that crashes into life. But faith can shape that “now” within the context of a “not yet” that is certain and promised.

I believe that is true. Over and over I see how faith takes shape in our lives. How it brings us together into Christian community. How when the worst things happen that we reach out in love, in prayer, and walk with each other.

I see the life of faith in a conversation I had with one of the members of this church. She and I were talking about what it means to give at least 10% of what we have away to help others. Yes, there are people in this church, so incorporated into this story, this story that know where the cross is, that they feel God’s spirit leads them to make gifts that others would think are irrational.

Or we get called on to be patient with one another. Forgiving of one another. Tender to the weak or someone who has fallen. Willing to let the weeds stay with the wheat. And knowing we live at the intersection of “Now” and all it means, even terrible realities, but also knowing God’s love and spirit in our midst the midst of what we can’t explain or justify because there is our faith in “Not Yet”. It is a “Not yet” that is certain and bound up in Hope. And we know where the cross is.

 

 

[1] From the book “Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants” by Richard Mabey. Copyright © 2010 (Found in a 2012 Wall Street Journal essay on June 4, 2011 “Why We Must Learn to Love Weeds” by the same author.)

There is Therefore Now (Sermon July 13, 2014)

There is Therefore Now (Sermon July 13, 2014)

There is Therefore Now
George Martin
Sermon for July 13, 2014

This is a sermon on one verse from all the scripture we heard read this morning. It’s the opening line from the 8th chapter of the letter to the Romans where Paul wrote:

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Thirteen words.

Some of you know that part of my daily practice is to walk to the Starbucks in the Palisades early on most mornings and while I’m there having two dark roast coffees, I read very boring books and essays all focused on trying to understand the letters of St. Paul. Sometimes my reading takes me on excursions into philosophy, especially with regard to linguistic issues or post-modernism. At other times I’m learning about Greek and Roman history, but mostly I keep circling back to St. Paul.

So a simple one sentence like this has now become hardly simple at all to me.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

There’s was an argument at work in the first seven chapters of the letter, and then Paul wrote, “There is therefore….” Therefore what? Therefore when? Therefore why? Therefore for who?

And in a way I hope I can help you appreciate many of the answers to that question are implied in that one sentence.

But then we also need context. We need to let the camera as it were draw back from this sentence and see the larger picture, the grand narrative that informed St. Paul, and ought to shape our thinking as well.

We need that reading from Genesis: “These are the descendents of Isaac, Abraham’s son…and [Isaac’s wife] Rebeccas conceived… and there were twins waiting to be born. The first came out all red and hairy and they named him Esau. And then his brother came out hanging onto Esau’s heel, and he was named Jacob.”

And then there’s that story of Esau selling his birthright for a pot of stew and Jacob in effect steals the birthright and the inheritance that was due to Esau. And on that bit of trickery, and not the last, the story of God follows Jacob, as shady and devious of a character as you’ll find in all the Bible.

Paul has this story in mind because his three words “There is therefore” were prefaced with an extensive retelling of the Abraham story in the 4th chapter of the letter. He also went back to the story of Adam and the Fall in the 5th chapter.

And Paul was writing it seems to a congregation that included those who, like him, had been born and raised in the Jewish faith, but now it included Gentiles—all of whom were expected to have a crash course in God’s story going back to Adam, shaped by the covenant given to Abraham, and then there’s the slender thread upon which this story always hangs.

Will the people be faithful to their God, and will their God be faithful to the promises of the covenant? And thus we see the suspense then ensues with Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, from Hagar the slave woman, and then Isaac, from his barren Sarah.

And then Jacob the second born carries the story. And then he has 12 sons, and it’s the youngest, the one his brother’s tried to kill, but they sold him into slavery, and the story of God continues through Joseph. Ah there’s a theme here.

You see it in David chosen in the most unlikely way to be King as he comes in from tending the sheep, and he the smallest the youngest who was destined to be king.

And then Jesus told a story about two brothers, one faithful to his Dad, and the other the errant one, who was for all purposes dead, but who came back to life. And the one rejected, the early Christians proclaimed, was the chief cornerstone of their faith.

Paul straddles the fence in writing to the Romans. With his Gentile audience in mind he’s saying if you want to know who Jesus is, and especially how this Jesus is God’s Messiah, then you have to think and know, and follow the whole Jewish story. These scriptures, we read, are basic to our understanding who Jesus is and why he’s the Christ.

And then Paul’s, “And therefore now” was equally addressed to the Jewish members of that community who were learning to call Jesus Messiah, because this is the “Now” moment, as Paul, unpacked it, that explained that whole history of God going back to Adam, Abraham, David, and then the exile, and then coming into their own time when Israel was still oppressed.

“And therefore now” is an eschatological statement. I can say to all of us we are in an eschatological moment— a “And therefore now” moment in the life of St. Matthew’s. God spirit if hovering over all of us, calling us to a new time, and time in which with the coming of our new rector, another chapter of ministry opens up. But it begins in this “now.”

And then Paul said “There is therefore now no condemnation…” Hmm. Many of us thought that condemnation was what Paul was mostly saying. That somehow he seemed angry. That he didn’t like women. Or that he hated all who ever did anything wrong. That he was “full of himself,” I’ve heard it said. And aren’t there passages where he talks about a coming judgment? And yes there are.

But then how can he say “There is therefore now no condemnation?”

I may not be able to fully unpack this statement this morning. I am planning to give three lectures in October at the request of the rector of All Saints in Beverly Hills at their Wednesday evening adult series, and those lectures are titled, “Meeting the St. Paul You Never Thought You’d Meet.” We’re also hoping that our Fall program here can include some adult classes and if that’s the case I’ll do the same lectures here. At least this sermon might give you a hint of a St. Paul who’s more optimistic and hopeful than you may have ever thought possible.

We should take St. Paul at his word , and say that because in his world there had been plenty of punishment and condemnation. Israel hadn’t really been free for a very long time. Don’t even think of them as second-class citizens, they were plainly put in the category of the oppressed, alongside all kinds of other conquered nations first by the Alexander the Great and then by Rome. And always in the background for the Jewish people was the covenant, and it’s presumptions of mutual faithfulness, and then if they were suffering, the assumption is they were suffering for their sins, or as the prophets kept framing it as their idolatry and apostasy.

And then Jesus appeared. Seemingly as a prophet. Certainly with a message about how to live in God’s kingdom, as we heard in the gospel this morning. By the way there’s pretty good evidence that Matthew’s community was mostly likely made up of Jews who believed Jesus to be Messiah. It wasn’t a Gentile community, or to the extent it had former Gentiles they were probably living a more strict Jewish way of life.

Back to what Paul said, “There is therefore now no condemnation.” Paul re-interpreted the whole story of God, especially the un-resolved time of exile, as the prophetic fulfillment of God’s promise with regard God’s way of keeping the covenant,

and it all comes out in the story of Jesus crucified who was raised from the dead.

In the process Paul isn’t creating a new religion, for he holds onto the themes of one God (Jewish monotheism), election, and eschatology (where does it all end?—what does this moment mean?) and declares that this is a new world that God is creating. Later in this same chapter Paul wrote about the whole of creation groaning and waiting for this moment in time. You see this is a very Jewish Paul who calls Jesus Messiah.

And here’s the amazing thing about “There is therefore now no condemnation”—it’s how God’s family is being re-created but it all went back to the time of Abraham. One family of all the nations. No condemnation of anyone. N.T. Wright, a marvelous Biblical scholar puts is this way:

“For Paul, as for Jesus, the salvation of the individual is set in the context of God’s redefinition of Israel, his call of a worldwide family whose sins are forgiven in the blood of the new covenant.”

What we do each and every Sunday is the announcement that there is no condemnation. You are forgiven. You are accepted. You belong. And we are called to share that Peace with each other. And we are thus defined not by our nationality, or race, or sex, or our sexual orientation, whether we like country music or classical, whether we are rich or poor, or anything else that divides people—instead we make this peace because, in the words of St. Paul we those who are in Christ Jesus.

So much follows from that phrase “those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Go back with me to my Starbucks in the Palisades. As I sit in the alcove reading at a round table, next to me might be Peter, arms stretched out over his head, contemplating a sentence he just wrote. He’s writing about his life. But he doesn’t write much. Or maybe it’s John who owns some property and has a home in New Zealand, in his 60s still surfing, drinking a green forthy coffee thing, and reading the New York Times. John’s not been there for a few months. There’s Linda and her husband—we just met. He gets her coffee, and then heads off to work, while she plays games on her iPhone. And there’s Rick always wearing his St. Louis Cardinals t-shirt and ready to talk sports and he calls me “Father.” And there’s Joshua and Anne the baristas who fill my coffee as I walk in the door knowing I want a dark roast with two ice cubes. None of them know that I read St. Paul. I don’t talk theology with them. But I think it.

I see them as “those who are in Christ Jesus.” They may not know it, but my reading of St. Paul tells me that’s how God sees them. That each is precious in God’s eyes and meant to know God’s love and forgiveness.

The one thing I’m sure about this St. Paul you never thought you meet is that he really had faith that there was “no condemnation coming from God toward those in Christ Jesus,” —The important social ethic principle that follows as the equal and clearly important call for of who are in Christ Jesus is that no condemnation of others should come from us.

Thus theology becomes ethics. What we say about God, becomes what we say to each other. As you’ll also hear next week the primary mark of those in Christ Jesus is to be filled with hope. That theme of hope was there in this one thirteen word sentence wasn’t it?

“There is therefore now…” And imagine how these four words convey to us a sense of hope about what God is doing in our midst. “There is therefore now” at Matthews? Hope for what is next.

Take just these four words with you this week. “There is therefore now” and see what God might show you even in your life, that comes to this now. Amen.

 

 

What We’ll Find in Heaven

What We’ll Find in Heaven

What We’ll Find in Heaven

Pentecost Sunday, June 8, 1010
St. Matthew’s Parish, Pacific Palisades CA
George Martin

Thirty years ago when I was the rector of St. Luke’s Church in Minneapolis, we encouraged people to wear red on Pentecost, but we also renamed it Red Balloon Sunday. In those days, those old times, we didn’t know that helium filled balloons let loose to fly off carried by the winds could land in lakes, ponds, and streams and be eaten by ducks who could die from those red balloons. Our balloons, in that more innocent time, carried messages of love, hope, and peace, along with the name of the one who sent the message. Many times we heard back from people in Wisconsin, naturally, but once one of our balloons made it to Pennsylvania.

On those Sundays I would also wear a big ten-gallon cowboy hat, solid red, which I wore during the Fall when the Nebraska Cornhuskers were playing football. Those were championship years, by the way, for Big Red. I told my congregation on those Sundays that I wore that hat in the procession with the permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but none them believed me then, and you shouldn’t either.

I think my Pentecost Day sermons back then were often upbeat, positive and celebratory in nature. I didn’t go back and look at any of those sermons, however, this week. But I will make reference to a sermon I gave when my grandson Zack was baptized. I also plan to make reference to something that’s been in the news this week. And all this finds me somewhat worried because I’m not offering one of those cheerful happy Pentecost Day sermons like I used to give.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the Gospel. We heard a longer version of this same Gospel text from John on the Sunday after Easter, which is sometimes misnamed “Doubting Thomas Sunday,” because he missed the first resurrection appearance. There are two things relevant in this shorter reading we have on Pentecost Sunday. The most obvious is that John’s gospel places the gift of the Holy Spirit as coming on Easter Day, through the breath of the Risen Lord. The author of John’s Gospel framed the opening lines of his Gospel story as a second creation story—remember the way it opens?—In the memorable language of the King James version

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.
All things were made through Him,
and without Him nothing was made that was made.
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.
And the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not comprehend it.

And at the end of that gospel, twenty chapters later, Jesus breathed on them, and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Ah! Clear echoes of the Genesis creation story;

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was[a] on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And the Hebrew word used for Spirit, as in Spirit of God, is Ruach. If you say “Ruach” and put the emphasis on the second syllable you catch the force of your breath. Try it. Say “Ru-Ack” and you’ll feel your breath.

The life of the world created by God is the breath, the spirit of God, hovering over the face of the waters. Hovering over the disciples. Catching the breath, the very Spirit of Jesus, which is the Breath a God, and the Breath of Creation!

But then Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

And on that short little phrase hang some dark chapters of church history, as this command has been so grievously been mis-intepreted—twisted cruelly into injunctions of ex-communication from the fellowship of Christian community, those banned from the communion table, and even exiled into ground not blessed, not holy, because someone took their own life, and thereby didn’t deserve to have their body placed in sacred ground.

So ten years ago I preached on this same text, at the baptism of my grandson Zack who has turned ten years old this very day! He was baptized on the Sunday after Easter just before his first birthday. I wrote a letter to him, but I made it the sermon I gave on the day of his baptism.

In that sermon I told him that his new last name was Christian. I said that if there was such a thing as a telephone book in heaven, it would be terribly hard to use, because everyone there has the same last name—Christian. He was baptized Zachary Martin Christian. (Please turn to someone, and say Hello, to those around you, but only use your full Christian name.)

I told nine-month old Zack on that Sunday that “as a result of this family connection you now have brothers and sisters everywhere. You’ve got Orthodox aunts and uncles who worship in incensed filled dome covered churches all over Russia, Greece, and Turkey, to name just a few countries. You’ve got some Baptist cousins who would tell us we’re doing your baptism wrong because we’re not waiting until your old enough. They’d also be upset because we’re not using enough water. Those Baptist cousins of yours think you’ve got to get dunked under the water in order to be properly baptized.” They may be right about that!

Indeed as we heard from the story in Acts the picture of those who received the gift of the Holy Spirit crossed every possible ethnic and language barrier imaginable. To be sure in the context of this taking place in Jerusalem, they are all Jews, but Jews dispersed as it were throughout the whole world, who cam to the city of Peace. And they were reminded of the vision of the prophet Joel about their sons and daughers being able to prophesy, their young men seeing visions, and even—the part I like—about old men who dream dreams.

But I had to be honest with Zack in that sermon that he would grow up in a broken world, and I mentioned that it was a world that had trouble—a world that had, still has, and probably always would have trouble with the concept of mercy. I was thinking about the kind of mercy, that doesn’t pity unfortunate or the unlucky, but where mercy was the act of forgiving one another. I had in mind mercy, after receiving some hurt, some injustice, but then resulting in tenderness and restraining from harsh judgment. I was thinking of mercy as what God was always extending to us, but which I knew we found hard to give to others unless we added certain conditions to the process.

In that sermon I told Zack that I knew he’d run into a few bullies along the way. And he has. We all do. I mentioned that most bullies think mercy is for sissies.

And I went on to tell him that bullies are found not just on play grounds, but in all aspects of life. And most of the time we don’t want to forgive a bully; we want revenge. I admitted that there is a place to stand up to a bully and demand justice. I told him, “We shouldn’t let anyone who bullies people get away with hurting someone.”

Didn’t Jesus know about bullies in his world? And if he knew them how could he give his disciples the gift of this spirit that calls for the forgiveness of sin? Or did he possibly know how hard it was to do this, and that the retention of sin, was what we did. He said there, “That the sins that we retain are retained.” Hmm? What did he mean by giving us the power to retain sins?

I told Zack about the Greek word used, the verb, for retaining something. It is Krateo. And from it we get our English word —“crate.”

What does it mean to hang onto to something that is sin, especially if it was a wrong done against us? Well, we box it up, we crate it up, and we carry it with us, until? Until? Maybe until never. But maybe, if we’ve breathe this Holy Spirit breath it’s until it’s forgiven. Which means we let it go. Until it is allowed just to be part of our past. If remembered, it is a memory, but if forgiven, it is memory that doesn’t sting anymore.

One woman told her pastor theologian friend she knew she’d finally forgiven her husband from whom she’d been divorced.

“How?” he asked, “How do you know you’ve really forgiven him.

She paused, a tear came to her eye, “And she said, I realized I wished him well. I wanted him to be happy or to find happiness.”

And that part of her crate was cracked open, and left behind.

Toward the end of that Zack baptism sermon I told him:

So Zach, my grandson and my brother in Christ, we’re to experience real freedom and joy in life. We’re not to be bent over carrying lots of baggage and memories—especially the un-forgiven ones we crated up. We’re to live in hope knowing that we’ve got this promised inheritance. And we’re to know that we’re already forgiven in Christ. We’re even forgiven for not forgiving, and for carrying our load of memories, and crating up all those sins, if that’s what we do.”

And then this week, at least on two occasions, I was asked what do you think about the story of the Talaban handing over Sergeant Bowie Berdahl in return for five prisoners we’ve kept? We’ve probably all heard suspicions in the media that Sergeant Berdahl may have wandered away, and perhaps even deserted his company. I know enough of judicial procedures to know that he’s probably going to have to deal with aspects of military justice if an inquiry concludes that he isn’t innocent. In the world we live in, those inquisitions and procedures are to be expected.

But then I had a nagging question, knowing that we had this saying of Jesus about forgiving sins and retaining sins before us today. What if Segeant Berdahl were to come to church this morning? What if he belonged to us? Would we presume to know the facts of the case supposedly against him, and would we retain that what we knew. Suspicious that something wasn’t right would we box it up for a while, judge and exclude him, or (?) would we forgive him, even if we knew what he did was wrong, but still accept him as a brother in Christ? I know I’m mixing politics and religion, and I’m not suppose to do that, but that’s what Jesus did. It happened in one gospel story after another. Jesus lived in an oppressive political system, one ruled by Caesar Augustus and it was that rule that authorized the final solution which was a cross.

And I got to thinking if we decided to send Sargeant Berdahl away from our midst, who would be next? Is this only a gathering of the righteous? Have some of us, perhaps been bullies in the past, and now regret the hurt we’ve caused? Aren’t some of us here with honesty about our failures, and with resolve to live differently? And some of us have found, perhaps only on occasion, but they’ve been markers along a way—indeed these are the signs which have reminded us when we’ve uncrated the hurts and resentments, that we’ve boxed up—those then have been signs of an intimation of heaven.

And that’s why, at the end of my baptismal letter I wrote to my grandson Zack I said that if he would keep coming to church he’d always be challenged to be one who forgives. And my final words in that sermon, and in this one, remain the same.

“…I pray that you will realize that forgiveness is what makes life worth living for and what we’ll find in heaven.” Amen.

 

Welcome, Welcome Happy Morning: Easter, April 20, 2014

Welcome, Welcome Happy Morning: Easter, April 20, 2014

 Welcome, Welcome Happy Morning

EASTER SERMON, APRIL 20, 2014
ST. MATTHEW’S PARISH, Pacific Palisades CA
George Martin

Welcome! welcome, happy morning!
Welcome, happy morning! Age to age shall say;
Hell today is vanquish, heaven is one today!

These words will be sung at the offertory today as the choir premieres a piece by a composer and member of this church, John O’Reilly. It comes with a dedication:  in thanksgiving for the ministry of the Rev. Betsy Anderson, the newly retired associate for pastoral ministry here. The music certainly captures Betsy’s spirit, for she was marked by joy and hope— that which is also meant as the gift of this worship, this day, for all of you.

On the first Easter there was joy and hope, but something else. It was Surprise. It was totally Unexpected. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb as any who mourn, many of us even, when our love takes us to the place where the body was buried. Matthew’s Easter story has an earthquake, and  an angel who rolled back the stone. I like the picture. The angel sat on it. Oh how I wish I knew what was on the face of the angel. A smile, probably. But what kind of smile?

In the story the two women didn’t  see Jesus. They saw where he was. Or where his body was and now where it wasn’t. The angel had a message for them.

We get a clue to what was on their faces for the angel told them “Do not be afraid.” They were to go and tell the disciples what has happened. And then they ran away, with both fear and great joy. A most interesting complex of emotions. And then? And then Jesus meets them,  also telling them also not to be afraid. His brothers were to go to Galilee where they would see him.

So we sing with great joy and hope about the resurrection. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary had joy tempered by fear, by unexpected news — an event that was incomprehensible, and still is. There is no way to explain how it happened, for no one saw it happen.

Remember this: two days before these women had watched him die and presumably they reported the details to the disciples who had abandoned Jesus out of fear. Fear, or maybe it bordered on terror,  was a character playing a role throughout the story. The fear of the religious authorities; Pilate’s fear of the crowds;  the fear of the two who were crucified with him;  and even the anguish of Jesus in the garden of  Gethsemane.

And so like a grief many of us have known coming to the end of our story with someone we have loved, in coming to that tomb those women may have wondered if there could ever be another tomorrow. But that empty tomb signaled the message, to quote one theologian, “God’s tomorrow has already taken up residence in humanity’s  today.” [Lewis, between Cross and Resurrection, page 65]

In the days to come, for those first disciples, and for us who will continue for seven weeks to celebrate Easter, fear is transformed into joy, and then into a faith and hope that serving as a beacon light to overcome despair in those times when the world gets shattered again.

So often the Psalms from the Old Testament speak with a real honesty about those times of despair—when we ask “Why?”, “Why did this have to happen?”, “Why me?”.

This Easter morning Psalm declared:  God is our strength and our salvation. It speaks of victory and triumph. Earlier in verses we don’t read, however, we hear about distress, fear, being surrounded by your enemies. The Psalmist says he was falling but the Lord helped him. And then there was this reflection on rejection: “The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”

Now a cornerstone sounds like what is needed for starting construction on a building that can last. In Jerusalem they often used solid limestone for their buildings, but I learned from Michael Seiler, who’d been to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that it was site of worthless limestone. Marked by cracks and crevices—useful only for crucifixion and burial. Thus the Christian understanding of the cornerstone of our faith begins in a place where building something to last wasn’t possible. Or was it.

After all, the cornerstone of the faith of the Apostles was that it was Jesus crucified raised by by the power of God.

You will not find any suggestion that Jesus somehow survived crucifixion and burial.  Resurrection is not the survival of death. The message from its earliest days was that it was Christ crucified whom God raised from the dead. And Paul wrote that this was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Two days previously, the world of unforgiving legalism and the  world Imperial power declared it alone could crucify people. They were victorious on Friday and that Sabbath. Their world was safe — Jesus was dead, and buried.

Easter morning tells a different story. The world will still have its unforgiving legalism. Violence will mar the landscapes of many lives.   Tragedy strikes so many who are innocent and mortal. We must note the  cloud of grief hovering over those in South Korea on this Easter morning who lost friends, and most side of also many children in that ferry that sunk. The story told to frequently in the pages of history called anti-Semitism was there in Kansas City, and the Jewish residents for the elderly, and their three died, three who were Christians, but who died nonetheless because the killer thought they were Jews. Hatred tells so many—really too many sad stories.

Two days ago, on Good Friday, Brian Palmer, emphasized that the cross pointed to love—to the way God loves the world. And last night George Daisa in his sermon, that almost bordered on an altar call, we emphasized God’s call to all of us to be disciples of Jesus. Disciples who would be part of a revolution of love—indeed a living sign to the world that seeks success and things as if what we possess and achieve brings us ultimate hope and joy. Instead we are to be servants in the way of Jesus.

I had already put into my Easter sermon a story about a man who failed in that world of success and having things. It wasn’t that this man found God or the church, but he did find Starbucks.

Michael Gill’ book is called How Starbucks Saved My Life.  It’s not a rags to riches to story. He had a riches to rags story, days away from being homeless when he got a job at a Starbucks coffee shop. There he learned to clean bathrooms, and eventually became a barrista. It was finding dignity in a world he never expected to be in.

The story he tells about cleaning  a bathroom the Starbucks way was powerful; it was Crystal who had taught him how to do it, but then he also locked his newly clean bathroom to a non-paying homeless man. Then he’d had to face the stern warning from Crystal to never make that mistake again.

Crystal was like Jesus in his story. “In my store, in our store, (p. 80)we are welcoming.” she said. “Don’t refuse that toilet to anyone especially someone who really needs some welcome and someone who doesn’t need another person putting them down.”

It was a turning point in Mike Gills life. He reflected on his journey from being unemployed to cleaning a bathroom at Starbucks.

“Back off, I told myself. You are not on some high-flying spiritual journey. You are a guy who made a series of stupid mistakes, some like the ones you made tonight, and you  blew an easy existence. Pace it, Mike, I told myself, you didn’t get religion … you got broke.

I admitted at that moment that I would never have found this new world I really loved unless I had had to.

And I had not been on some spiritual journey for the perfect job or satisfying life: I had been caught in a struggle for survival. Which was common for most people in this world, but uncommon for the spoiled prince I had been. Crystal had noticed me, the way you might see someone having trouble swimming, and given me a hand.

What was that famous poem about swimming by Stevie Smith when she says she was not waving but drowning?”

I liked that book. And Jesus showing up as Crystal. There are many Easter stories around us and they don’t always have to speak of Jesus.

The key for us is to remember that the Jesus story isn’t about success. And it’s not just about surviving. It’s about an abundance of joy and promise in the face of realities that seem like huge stones guarding tombs holding something or someone who has died. Or maybe they are the stones rolled over the hidden things in our life that need to be resurrected. I like what the theologian Leslie Newbigin said about the Jesus story: in the New Testament the emphasis is always on what’s unexpected. It’s always about surprise.

“It is the sinners who will be welcomed:  to those who are confident thinking that their place in the world is secured will find themselves outside. God will shock the righteous by his limitless generosity and by his tremendous severity. The ragged beggars from the lanes and ditches will be in the festal hall, and the man who thought his own cloths were good enough will find himself thrown out (Matt. 22:1-14). The honest, hard-working lad will be out in the dark while the young scoundrel is having a party in his father’s house (Luke 15) .” [ The Open Secret, Page 173]

So many stories of reversal in the ministry of Jesus.  If you come back often enough you’ll discover its a really long list of unexpected surprises.  Easter tops the list, but all the others prepared the way. And it is the crucified messiah is the one who is resurrected. And now we know!  Death does not have the last word upon human destiny. The powers of darkness will not have the last word. Yes welcome happy morning age to age shall say!

That anthem concludes with:

God of life the authored death did undergo,
Tread the path of darkness, saving strength to show;
Come, then, true and faithful, now fulfill your word.
On this bright third morning praise the risen Lord.

So let Easter not just be a day but let it be a verb — verbs are the energy that makes sentences work. Verbs that get us somewhere. Verbs for keep us moving. So  it was that one poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, prayerfully asked that God Easter in us. May God Easter in us in whatever days are dark or fearful. May God Easter in us in our uncertainties. May God Easter in us in all our doubts. May God Easter in us and in all that we do in our families and what we share among our friends. And may the blessing of this day Easter in us this day and always. Amen.

 

 

Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: