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Month: March 2014

Listen to Jesus — Sermon for March 2, 2014

Listen to Jesus — Sermon for March 2, 2014

Listen to Jesus

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday
Mar. 2, 2014

The Rev. Dr. George H. Martin

Good Morning! And welcome to St. Matthew’s on one of those Sundays when we think about the future of the Church. Our focus begins with the young men and young women and what we call the Celebration of Manhood and Womanhood. This is, for them, what we’d call a rite of Passage.

We recognized today that each of us is called to leave childhood behind as we enter into the world where we share God’s power of creation. Entering a world where life can be created, and assuming responsibilities for shaping this world to reflect God’s purpose for life calls for such a rite and such promises.

The prayers we say are for these young adults, for their parents, and for all of us in the church have to with our hopes and dreams for them as well as for God’s world. We will begin by renewing our baptismal promises:  promising to stay with the story of Jesus and to live that story by the way we treat one another and by the way we honor the dignity of every human being. And it’s all framed in the context of being on a journey of faith together.

Today we are also thinking of the future of the church celebrating those who belong to our Legacy Society, and hopefully inviting and challenging others to do the same. When I was preparing my sermon I was going to say that membership in the Legacy Society is simple, but then I pulled back from that observation. The paperwork is straightforward; the commitment to make a gift to the church in the context of our own death is another matter. For us as adults with experience in life there is another rite of Passage as we face our mortality, and in the context of our church’s Legacy Society declare that we will leave something of significance that benefits others, particularly our church and it’s ministry, after we are gone.

We live in a society that values youth, individuality, freedom and spontaneity. Do your own thing. Be your own person. Have it your way. Get what you deserve.

And when those are the core values we must ask what we have left behind? What’s the legacy that given to others when all you think about it your own pleasure and that you always lived just for the moment? What about other values?

Honor your Father and Mother. Respect your elders. That I don’t know it all, and that there is wisdom to be learned. There is something worthwhile in assuming and taking on responsibility for others. With every blessing comes an obligation. It matter’s who your friends are. The stories that have shaped us, need to be the stories that we are telling by the way we live our lives. Those are the values of this community, and these rites of passage.

These care values ma seem to be lost. But not on this Sunday. It’s not lost in context of recognizing those who yesterday were children, but now, but now are young adults. And they are entering the privileged phase of adulthood. In the world of Christianity it’s where we talk about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

It leads us to constantly question what it means to follow Jesus. In my own journey of faith I find that I sometimes need to go on retreat to focus on that question—to go to someplace that’s quiet, or where there is ordered worship that allows sufficient time and space for prayer, for reading, and for reflection. Only once did I really flunk a retreat.

Many years ago, I decided that I wanted to spend a week at a monastery, and I chose St. Gregory’s Benedictine Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan. It’s about 30 miles from Kalamazoo, nestled in the rolling hills of small farms, wooded forests, and rivers and creeks that empty into Lake Michigan.

Upon my arrival I was given a small guest room and then had a visit with my spiritual director for the week, Brother David. I was a welcome guest for their meals, and their seven times of prayer throughout each day. I entered into the time of Great Silence which began each evening with Compline and lasted until mid-morning with the conclusion of the Eucharist. I was up with them at 5am for the first of the seven offices. And I met daily with Brother David. At the end of my retreat, my last meeting with Brother David, I asked him, what I should do to prepare for my next retreat at St. Gregory’s? Brother David, looked at me kindly, but glanced out the window, cleared his throat, and said, “We don’t think you should come back here for your next retreat.”

I gulped. And asked, “Can you tell me why?”

And he gently said, almost in a whisper, “You talk to much.”

Indeed I had. For I was the curious one, asking questions of the monk about their life. Their call to living in community. But then I saw a smile on Brother David’s face, as he said,

“We have a suggestion for your next retreat!”

And so it was that I went to convent in South Bend Indiana on my next retreat and spent part of a week in a small hermitage, talking to no one but myself and God. That’s a story for another time.

I’m not alone in having the problem of sometimes “Talking to much.” That was the problem with Peter, that disciple of Jesus who spoke about setting up three tents or booths as a monument to Jesus, Moses, and Elijah for what had just happened on that mountain, where Jesus was bathed in a divine light—the light that caused the face of Jesus, scripture says, to shine like the sun, and for his clothes to be the as white as light.

There’s an exhibit, by the way, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art featuring the work of James Turrell, an artist who plays with light. His art is about light that appears sometimes as shapes bursting in one instance out of a corner of a blank wall.  A review called Turells’s art “seemingly unmodulated fields of colored light.” There is a room where the light is a kind of epiphany. I felt like it was a bath and a shower of light. Where was this light coming from, I wondered that was swishing around me slowly changing color and intensity? I felt I could grab the light, but it was the light that was enfolding me.  We had eight minutes or so to be in that space and then had to leave it. I was like Peter, I wanted to stay much longer.

Hi desire to stay in the moment led Peter to be the first to speak on that mount of Transfiguration. It wasn’t the first or last time that Peter would be talking to much, or saying the wrong thing. It helps to have a little context.

Just before this Gospel story we are told that Jesus took his disciples to a town called Ceasaria Philippi, which was the northernmost city in Israel at that time. It was literally on the boundary between Israel and the rest of the world.

There Jesus asked “Who do people say the Son of Man is? And the asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter was the first one to answer Jesus. Of course he was. And he declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of God who is alive.” And then Jesus charged them not to tell anyone else about this. Keeping quiet was obviously, a challenge to a Peter.

Then Jesus talked about what it meant to be a disciple. That he would go to Jerusalem and there be killed and raised again on the third day. And Peter? Peter, Matthew says, took Jesus aside and rebuked him saying, “God forbid it Lord, it must not happen to you.” And then Jesus reminded Peter, and I think all of us, what it means to be a disciple. He said, “Get behind me.” Now he called “Peter the name of Satan” at that point, for that’s exactly what Jesus said when he’d been tempted in the wilderness.

The meaning for Peter? And for the rest of us? The line forms behind Jesus. We follow the cross, as we do, each Sunday, into and out of Church.

Thus Peter, with his edifice complex, wanting to stay on that mountain, said, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, let us make three dwellings for you here, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for you.”

Pause for just a moment. The Orthodox icons of this event frame it with three figures at the top, but clearly Jesus is in the center and he is higher than Moses or Elijah. Jesus has his right hand held in blessing, and holds a scroll in his left hand. The halo around his head says, “The One Who Is.” Namely this is God’s name. Moses and Elijah have hands raised in intercession to Jesus. Moses, represents the law, the Mitzvah, the covenant. the Torah, and the whole exodus/promised land story is there as well. Elijah is in that line of prophets who called Israel to return to faithfulness and for all that Moses stood for. Lastly, we see sprawled on the steep incline with their garments in disarraythe three disciples, Peter, James and John. (There are some reproductions of this icon in the patio and at the back of the church this morning. )

Back to Peter now, and his talking about building a monument as it were on that mountain, as a way to preserve something of what had happened. And then a voice. A startling voice. That is the moment captured in the Orthodox icon—when the disciples were terrified on the mountain. A voice from heaven that interrupted Peter and said,

“Listen to him.” The great Shema of Israel is echoed. Listen is the translation of “Shema”. It’s  voice not just for Peter, but for community, as it always was in ancient Israel.

But for those of tempted to speak before we think, those of us like Peter, we really need to hear the command to “Listen.” What is essentially at work, isn’t just to hear some words, but to know what they mean, and then embody them in our lives.

Before we build something, we should listen. Before making a big decision we should listen. Before acting on some emotion, or reacting to something that has hurt or offended us, we should listen.

Now it’s hard to listen, especially if listening involves something called obedience, or duty, or responsibility as it often does. My Mom would say to me when I was a teenager, can you be home by 10, and I’d say yes. And there were times I didn’t hear her, or so I said, and returned home much later.

I’ve learned the hard way, that it’s hard to multitask and to really listen to someone. If you see me looking at my iPhone in a group meeting, don’t presume that I’m listening very well. The better thing is say, “Hey George, look at me for a second.” Then once you know if I’m looking at  you chances are I might hear what you have to say.

Oh, that’s what happened on that mountain. The voice of God came, and said Listen, look at Jesus. “This is my priceless Son. Listen to Him!”

And then they came down the mountain. Down into the real world. A world where people don’t always tell the truth. Where there is competition and it isn’t always fair.

But there is this community that harks back to the stories of Moses, the message of the prophets, and it is our practice to hold on to a way of life, and the story of God affirming each time we gather that this commitment ultimately matters. In Judaism this tradition of remembering is held forth in a rite called the Bar Mitzvah. when a young man becomes “a son of the commandment” or it is the Bat Mitzvah when young girl becomes “a daughter of the commandment”. It happens at age 13 in Judaism.

We honor that tradition today, but add it to the Christian story. That journey down the mountain for those disciples, with Jesus headed to Jerusalem. That story that they didn’t tell, until they knew that it wasn’t a story that ended on Good Friday, but a story that they were take to all the world.

I want to conclude with a few thoughts about solitude, silence, and listening as the way we live this story.

Most of us find few times when we are really alone in this world or if we’re alone when we fell good about it. Many of us are surrounded with immediacy in terms of all the conversations that are possible. We can’t leave our text messaging behind for long, we need to instagram, facebook. or twitter, all nouns and software, that have become verbs in our lives. They are there when we wake up, and there buzzing sometimes as we fall asleep, or even waking us in the middle of the night.

And  yet the great questions of identity are always there waiting in the wings. Who am I? What am I be? What am I called to do? And eventually we wonder, What will be my legacy?

What will last of who am I, what I’ve done, what I’ve become, and and What I have? What will last?

That word “last.” It means sometimes what comes at the very end. But it also means “what will endure.” What goes on and on.

So a part you, this child part, isn’t lost forever. It will last. It becomes an adult. And those of us of some age, can know that part of who are is that child was, but we are also the adults who’ve had to grow up and take our place in God’s world. We won’t live forever. There is a last breath, but we know something of who we are can can also last. Last as memory. Last as story. And last as legacy.

This Lent, that begins this Ash Wednesday can involve those quiet times. When we can listen. We can even find times of silence that we wish would last. Alas, the busy world will call us again, but those times of silence and listening will make a difference. May the gift of Lent, include our listening for the word of God.

Becoming a Truthful People—Sermon for Feb. 16, 2014

Becoming a Truthful People—Sermon for Feb. 16, 2014

Becoming a Truthful People
Sermon for February 16, 2014

The Rev. Dr. George Martin

 My friend Clark Morphew worked for the Pioneer Press newspaper in St. Paul Minnesota. He was their religion editor. He’d been a Lutheran pastor but he had a somewhat irreverent attitude to Christians who were either too serious about too much, or Christians who were extremely pious but who failed to consider the needs of the poor and those who were suffering. We often met for lunch, but we always went to the same place. I’d pick him outside the newspaper headquarters and off we went to the corner of University Ave and Lexington in St. Paul, where we could have White Castle hamburgers. It’s a kind of proletariat burger. I visited with Clark as he fought a losing battle with cancer.

On the day of Clark’s funeral I drove to Central Lutheran church, and as I went there I knew I’d probably see his nephew Don and his wife Joanne. The last words that Joanne and I had, a few years before that,  were angry ones. She’d been so involved with the work of the new church we started together, and then we had an argument. She went out of my life, and I let her go, hanging on to my anger. Then there had been this great silence—an argument that wasn’t resolved. Would it even be possible I had long wondered?

I didn’t see either Don or Joanne in the service itself. It was such large crowd, but then as I stepped into the reception. There was Don and there was Joanne. She immediately came over to me and said, “We have to talk. Will you sit with me?” she asked.

Over the coffee we shared we both had tears in our eyes. Sadness for Clark, but mostly for the unresolved difference we had and our failure to communicate. Tears of regret for the years that had passed. For the angry words. For not listening to one another. For not talking until then. And we forgave one another.

And Jesus said,

“When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

Notice: it’s not you have have something against that other person; it’s if they are holding onto something against you. In my case it rightly so.

But sometimes the things that divide us are mutual. Whatever it is, we all know of situations where someone holds a grudge for long long time. Never admitting any burden of the blame. Thankfully Joanne and I  reconciled. A part of that funeral became a confessional at a table in the corner of noisy wake. A piece of the Sermon on the Mount, actually happened, one day for me and my friend Joanne. A broken relationship that needed to be mended was far more important than any gift to be brought into a sanctuary. Actually because of our reconciliation we we knew we could worship together once more as friends.

This section of the the Sermon on the Mount has Jesus reflecting on parts of the Mosaic law. Missy in her fine sermon last week, reflected on Rabbi Jesus teaching the disciples being like the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Most likely there were other rabbis present for this teaching, probably Pharisees, in his audience. The people listening to Jesus were looking at Jesus and then at those other rabbis. Maybe like folks watch a tennis match. They are studying the faces of each. Jesus—The Other Rabbis. Jesus—The Other Rabbis.

Today’s gospel bring us teachings of Jesus regarding murder, adultery, divorce and oath taking. There are clear echoes of the ten commandments, and in a sense whole spirit of the Torah. Three times Jesus says, “You have heard it said in those ancient times…..but I say to you.”

You might be tempted to think that Jesus was setting out a new set of commandments. It has been interpreted that way by Christians through the centuries, but I don’t think so. What was really happening was that Jesus was challenging a system that was legalistic and prescriptive; which had become at times all about the rules—rules intended to honor God, but which effectively hurt and violated others—rules that excluded and condemned whole segments of people who were outside the covenant.

Jesus pointed beyond the codified mentality—that rule-seeking way many believed put them right with God. Sadly, Christian history is marked by many who have at times turned the Gospel into the language of a legal library. Strict rules regarding sex, the use of money, and rules regarding who could and couldn’t be ordained or serve in various church offices. It was always a mis-reading of scripture, and nearly always has had tragic consequences.

I really believe that Jesus, himself would shudder, to see the hurt that has been caused whenever the Gospel has become a tool of condemnation and rejection.

Each time in this passage Jesus says, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.” Each time those disciples and that head-turning crowd was called to see a new picture of a community marked by restored relationships. Inside such a community was to be a faith that protected the vulnerable, and which brought the witness of God into every life, no matter how they may have been judged in the world.

Each time Jesus said, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you” the legalists in the crowd had to be stunned—dumfounded that he would re-interpret the commandments of God with such freedom and with such radical inclusivity.

To get a grasp on this I have a very strange idea to suggest to you. I knew that this was all about our trying to understand just how radical Jesus was with this part of his teaching. I invite you to use your imagination.

You know the story of the Prodigal son. The son who wasted his inheritance, who came limping back to his Father. And then it’s the Father who reclaims him as his son. The father in that parable didn’t demand repayment. He  just threw a party for the son, killed the fatted calf. gave him a robe, a ring, and slippers, and invited the whole community to a celebration.

But in that parable there was also his older brother who stayed at home. But he wouldn’t come into the party that was held for his brother. And the older brother told his father, “I worked like a slave for you. I’ve obeyed every command you ever gave me. You never even gave me a goat so I could have a party with my friends.”

Even though the father went outside and pleaded in a public way for the older son to come in, the parable ends with the two of them at odds, still outside.  It’s an unfinished parable. We don’t know how it really ended. Did he did come in, or did he stay outside?

So imagine now, my strange idea, that the older brother was there, at that Sermon on the Mount, and heard Jesus say “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.”

I can hear that older brother muttering: “The old law was what came from Moses. It’s the way things are. We have our rules to follow. The rabbis have said it’s more important to honor God, give your gifts at the temple first, before you make up with someone else. We have a rightful way to do these things. It in the law that men can file for divorce. And we can show you where it says in scripture that you are to swear or make an oath using the name of heaven or swearing by Jerusalem.”

This older brother, like some people we probably know, wanted a world based on rights: rights that he may earned, or may come as a result of birth. He is the older brother after all. There ought to be some good result for living according to the rules.

Yes, it is with some editorial liberty, that I have placed the older brother of the prodigal son  in the crowd that listened to Jesus. But I do so, that all of us may hear and see what God calls us to be and to do in the context of our lives as disciples of Jesus.

That older brother was still resentful toward his younger brother. He resented his Father’s love and the generosity expressed toward his brother. For he believed that love was earned. The generosity, was not so much of a gift, but really a kind of payment for living dutifully. He was not about to leave his gift at the altar and be reconciled to his brother.

Jesus had a radical vision of a new way of being called into community. It meant the dismantling of duty especially if some religious duty preceded the restoration and healing of relationships. Jesus also dismantled duty when that kind of loyalty created victims who were and would remain weak and the powerless. How so? you wonder.

As an example look at the seeming condemnation of divorce; almost all divorce? Did you notice that Jesus was talking directly to the men—for under the Mosaic law, men had the right to initiate divorce proceedings.  Not women. Those in that crowd had to know right away that Jesus was standing up for women.

Two thousand years later we do not believe that to be divorced is some terrible sin, but we all know that the process involves pain, and loss, and hurt more often than not. It’s not that there isn’t life after divorce> As many of you know first hand, there is life after divorce. But in the time of Jesus divorce was like a death sentence for a woman and her children. Some of the women who stood there alone at his cross on that Good Friday afternoon, maybe they were there that day when Jesus reinterpreted the Mosaic law about divorce and said, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.”

And then was the matter of Matthew 5:33. It was on one of the signs that spouted on yards this past Fall in the midst of our Conditional Use Permit process. It said. “St. Matthew’s practice what you preach. Read Matthew 5:33” Most of didn’t have a clue about that passage.

You heard it this morning in church. “Again, you have heard that it was said of ancient times. “You shall now swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.”

Proof texting as you probably know is always dangerous. And the next line? the one not quoted on the sign? Jesus said, in his fashion in this debate with the heads turning from the rabbis to Jesus and back, “But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven…or by earth, or by Jerusalem.”

You see by this point in the religious life in Israel no one would dare to swear by God’s name: but it had become a kind of game. You swore by something connected to God, say to heaven or Jerusalem, but it was like there was even a little wiggle room in what you were swearing to. Sort of like making a promise with your fingers crossed behind your back. There was a kind of insincerity built into the very process.

So Jesus said “You should not swear at all.” But then he said “Let your Yes be Yes, and Your No be No.”  In other words he calls his disciples to be truthful. His vision of the kingdom of God isn’t about folks who qualify their loyalty to one another or play theological word games, but about people who live and practice in ways to always affirm the dignity and worth of all that God has created. And, yes, to tell the truth.

So the message for us in the church: it is that this is to be the community of reconciliation. We don’t need to have lots of rules or a legal code that defines who is in and who is out. Actually whoever is out is suppose to be welcomed in. Whoever we have offended is the one we should seek out in order that we might reconciled. There is no second-class member of this community. But if someone is vulnerable, or powerless, or weak: then we are to be especially tender and kind-hearted. The words we use with one another matter. And if we misuse our words, there are other words and other gestures, including that of a bent knee, that we are to employ. And rather than using our words to prove our point, to win an argument, to be proved right, we are to use our ears to listen to the other, and to respond in a way that tells the other they have been heard, respected, and honored.

In a little while we shall be invited to the Lord’s table to receive the bread and wine. We will hear the words “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” But remember that the church, this gathering, is also the body of Christ. Paul said that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Paul knew where this reconciliation really could happen—in a community which practiced reconciliation, peacemaking and truth-telling. As we practice reconciliation, peacemaking and truth-telling, Christ lives in us and we’re living more of the kingdom life.

Music That Knows Heaven’s Door—Evensong—Feb. 9, 2014

Music That Knows Heaven’s Door—Evensong—Feb. 9, 2014

Sermon for Evensong at St. Matthew’s—Feb. 9, 2014
The Rev. Dr. George H. Martin

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!

How is that line from Isaiah’s prophecy to be read? That way? A bland unemotional reading. Or is it a command, maybe even echoing the instrument invoked.


Like a TRUM…MMMM..mmmmm…PET

There’s such intensity and focus in Isaiah’s prophecy. I almost want to surround it with a combination of brass instruments and the timpani. What Isaiah was saying was: don’t play with religion. And don’t think for a second that just going through the motions is what God wants.

And then Isaiah lowers the boom.

6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

The gift of that voice. The twist that comes when the piety of religious devotion such as fasting, becomes the action of feeding the hungry, responding to the needs of your neighbor, and seeing the one who is in need as kin, as my brother, as my sister.

And yet my afternoon meditation for this evensong isn’t just about Isaiah’s prophecy. This is a reflection on Sound. Well it’s about sound and silence. And it’s about space that’s needed to hear—to hear the music, and to hear the message in the words.

I’m also thinking about the wonder of just being here for Evensong: this ancient monastic practice which less us to stand outside of the rhythms of the world of the 405 or the evening news regarding the latest fluctuations in the markets.

By the way please turn off your phone! Phone. The greek word for sound or voice. Do you know the word “cacophony?” It’s got “Phone” in it. And the prefix, is the Greek word for “bad.” Symphony is opposite. It’s prefix is the Greek word for “together.” And if the music is “polyphonic” it means there are two or more melodies in harmony at the same time.

So turn off your phone. And if you’re wearing a watch, as I am, please realize it’s a kind voluntary handcuff we wear. It leads us to think of what’s next. What hour is this. How many minutes have passed.

And that is the exact opposite almost of the monastic practice of the hours of the day that were to be marked by prayer, not work, not study, not sleeping, but prayer. There were seven such times—times declared by bells that rang in the monastic halls, saying Stop. Come. Come together. Symphony. It’s God’s time now. Always is and always will be.

And Thomas Cranmer in writing the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, in the aftermath of the destruction of the monasteries, brought the genius of that prayer life, to the parishes of the English countryside and to the great Cathedrals of the cities. The psalms, the chants, the ancient hymns and prayers, were shaped into Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. And they were sung. And they were said. And they were kept, calling people every day, if they so choose, to come.

I was formed and shaped into the Episcopal Church as a teenager. Then as a seminarian. And through the early years of my ordained ministry I was always in churches that kept the routines of Morning Prayer, especially, but also kept Evening Prayer, or it’s sung version, Evensong, with more regularity that I see in common practice today. A couple of special memories of Evensong always come to mind: one is of my friend, The Rev. Walt Pulliam, an American Baptist pastor, who would come to St. Luke’s in Minneapolis, once a year, upon my invitation, to chant and lead Evensong. Why? Because he was a closet Anglican, all those years he was a Baptist pastor.

And then there was an Evensong in one of the Cathedrals that Thomas Cranmer knew. It may have been the Wells Cathedral in Sommerset. We were with Caroline’s mom and dad. He had hearing aids, this was in the mid-1990s, but they didn’t always work. Mine don’t always work either. But on this one occasion, in that Cathedral, with evensong, and the boys choir, they had a sound system that meshed perfectly with his hearing aids. And he heard every note. And beamed with delight on his face for that gift.

The poet George Herbert knew what a gift church music could be. He wrote:

Sweetest of sweets, I thank you: when displeasure
Did through my body wound my mind,
You took me thence, and in your house of pleasure
A dainty lodging me assigned.

Now I in you without a body move,
Rising and falling with your wings:
We both together sweetly live and love,
Yet say sometimes, “God help poor Kings.”

Comfort, I’ll die; for if you post from me
Sure I shall do so, and much more:
But if I travel in your company,
You know the way to heaven’s door.

But not all music is what we would call music. One man heard that there would be a prison quartet singing at a nearby church the next evening. He didn’t know that there was a prison anywhere nearby and thus was curious and showed for that service. The pastor introduced his four singers that night. “This is our prison quartet,” he said, “behind a few bars and always looking for the right key.”

I get that. I’ve stumbled more than once while preaching from the pulpit. And have left people confused and dismayed. I hope that’s not the case tonight. But even St. Paul, admitted that he wasn’t the greatest preacher. We heard in the second lesson:

3And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom…

Paul lived in a world that praised those who could command a stage; offer stirring arguments in a compelling rhetoric and entertaining way. But not Paul.

Paul was thinking about a different language. The language of God revealed to him in a way that the rulers of this world couldn’t understand or fathom. He said

9But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”— 10these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”

And how it is that this Spirit language of God is heard? We have to turn off the cacophony of the busyness of this world. Stop looking at our watches and studying our calendars for what’s next. And listen. And listen.

You see language, whether its words or sounds, whether it’s poetry or music, or both, involves space. Spaces between words. Spaces in the music. All those notes we hear in hear? They may overlap, but we hear them for the fact that there is some moment of time, those infinitesimal spaces, that lead us to hear each note, and to sense the way one note is connected to the next, and how they pull together to make a whole piece.

And thus this is the Eighth Sacrament. My apology to all who think that coffee is the eighth sacrament. It’s really the music of the church. When I’m home and up at our cabin in Northern Minnesota I belong to a Lutheran Church. It’s an easy drive. They don’t do communion very well, and it’s only twice a month, but they sing. It’s the kind of congregation that Garrison Keillor loves.  He said,

“I once sang the bass line of “Children of the Heavenly Father” in a room with about three thousand Lutherans in it; and when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices.  By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.

I do believe this: people who love to sing in four-part harmony are the sort of people you could call up when you’re in deep distress.  If you’re dying, they’ll comfort you.  If you’re lonely, they’ll talk to you. If you’re hungry, they’ll give you tuna salad!”

I’m blessed to worship with Lutherans who actually do sing in four-part harmony, as a congregation.

So let me give Isaiah the last word.

“You shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am.” Isaiah didn’t shout that. Those weren’t words that he trumpeted. But I  sense that he took a deep breath. The breath that is so necessary to singing, to speaking, to playing music. I’ve heard Tom Neenan, stop a rehearsal, and say, “Note that you’re suppose to breath at measure 58.”

Isaiah must have said this line slowly. Taking breath. Advising, us as it were, to breath this message into the very core of our understanding and life together.

“You shall cry for help,    (Breathe)

and God will say, (Breathe) Here I am.”

John’s gospel says it really was just a single word. The Logos.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

We are hear to breathe the Spirit of God. And for The Word.  To listen. To Pray. To sing. And to know “God is here.”

But don’t say “Amen” out loud as I come to the end of this homily. Let’s just breath. And listen. And listen for the music that knows the way to heaven’s door.


Pitched Tent Among Us—Sermon for Dec. 29, 2013

Pitched Tent Among Us—Sermon for Dec. 29, 2013

Pitched Tent Among Us
A Sermon for Dec. 29, 2013The First Sunday After Christmas
The Rev. Dr. George Martin

During Advent I prepared for Christmas by focusing on the poem by W. H. Auden’s called For the Time Being.  It seems fitting to me to let you hear part of the conclusion to Auden’s telling of the Christmas story.

He wrote:

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Leftovers to do, warmed up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.

There’s some truth, maybe a lot of truth, in that reflection which Auden made thinking of the way it is once we get past Christmas. It will seem strange even in this church this morning on the first Sunday after Christmas for we still continue to sing Christmas carols four days later. The Musak music in the malls of America has surely switched back to other tunes, more contemporary, and certainly less religious. The playing of that Christmas music always starts too early for my ears and maybe that’s true for others. And then the music stops all too abruptly and I think inappropriately on the day after Christmas.

Looking around the church, four days later,  the are many fewer people gathered. It’s still Christmas. But the Gospel, we hear on this day, tells us a different Christmas story. It tells the story in an Emily Dickinson way. It’s told slant. In John’s gospel there is no Bethlehem. There are no angels or shepherds. No stable. This Logos, this word of God, isn’t even a baby. He just is, and is in this world—indeed was in the beginning of this world.

For John’s Christmas story is a creation story. It’s opening lines hark back to the first book of the Bible which begins “In the beginning when God created the world.” For John it’s all one—one  creation—one God—the monotheism you’d expect someone formed in the world of Judaism to affirm—one story, one Word, one light. It is God at work and God’s work now seen in Jesus who will affirm later in the Gospel to be one with his Father.  You will hear echoes of John’s gospel throughout our worship today.

These are strange words. Poetry in a way. Philosophical in another way. Threads of God’s salvation story are also always there—beginning with allusions to the first creation and then reminding us of the prophets of the past, and in particular the prophet John the Baptist, who is named in this telling. Only at the end of this prologue to John’s gospel do we hear that the one expected, who has been from the beginning is Jesus Messiah. For the first sixteen verses he is simply, and not so simply, called The Logos, or translated “The Word.”

Perhaps the most respected New Testament scholar with regard to John’s Gospel was Raymond Brown who wrote a magnificent two volume commentary that is almost a required set of books to appear on any pastor’s bookshelf, even if they remain unread. The presupposition is that this dense commentary will ooze its wisdom into a pastor’s brain much as a car can leak oil sometimes. That’s a personal witness by the way. I’ve used these commentaries, but never fully read them.

Thinking about the prologue, the first 18 verses,  Raymond Brown noted that “The Prologue is not concerned with with the earthly origins of Jesus but with the heavenly existence of the Word in the beginning.” (p 18, Vol. 1)

But then Brown emphasizes that there is a very strong statement regarding the humanity of Jesus at the end of the Prologue. What’s the significance of emphasizing his humanity?

At the end of the first century, when this Gospel was written, there were many different ideas about Jesus, a number of which the early church eventually considered heretical. One school of thought embraced Docetism. The Other Gnosticism. Do we have any graduates of Education for Ministry here? Please raise your hands. They will tell you what those terms mean, if they got through the third year of that program.

So here we get a little introduction to Education for Ministry. What was Docetism? It was somewhat grounded in the thought of Plato. It declared  that Jesus only appeared to be human—that he really was a spiritual being, and was never truly a human being. And the presumption: that what was earthly, was fallen, and could never represent divinity.

Gnosticism, was a related philosophy. It saw the world of the flesh as part of an imperfect world passing away. The world that would last would be found in knowledge or gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. Such knowledge was a gift to be sought, preserved, and shared among the very special who possessed it, and therefore knew of their redemption.

John’s Gospel countered both tendencies. It began by declaring, as we heard in the Gospel today that the Word of God became flesh. George Daisa reminded me of a particular translation that gets at the heart of the Greek translated “the word of God became flesh. It’s what we call a paraphrase. It is by the New Testament scholar and biblical translator Eugene Peterson.

His translation includes the key phrase from the Gospel: “The word became flesh and blood….”

and then adds this phrase:  “… and moved into the neighborhood.”

Another translation, of the same passage which I’ve heard and also like is:

“The word became flesh and blood, and pitched tent among us.” That’s because the Greek word often translated as Dwelling, and as you just heard translated as “Neighborhood” literally means “Tent.”

Pitched Tent. I’ve always liked that translation. It suggests that Jesus, this word of God made flesh, is not here to live in a fancy palace. He connects with real people.

When you camp and put up a tent you get really much closer to the real world. If the rain falls it’s clearly heard on the thin walls of the tent. The wind blows and those walls move.

Pitched tent: it implies something more temporary. Something that changes. Something moves on. It’s for the Time Being—the phrase used by W. H. Auden.

Auden knew, as we all know, that for a great many people Jesus gets confined to a few special days. Christmas, Easter. Maybe for a funeral. Or a baptism. But the one who pitched tent was really to be known in the ordinary times as well. In the putting away of the Christmas decorations. Found to be with us at the meals we share on a daily basis. Next to the children back in their regular routine who are naturally thinking that the next Christmas seems so far away, not knowing that as the year’s pass each Christmas will come closer and closer together.

Many of us in the shadow of Christmas know of what Auden called an “unpleasant whiff of apprehension” just around the corner. He wrote, “Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now be very far off.”

But at least for this Sunday with the memory of our Christmas—just a few days ago—and the time with our family, or maybe with a few friends. There is also the memory of worship on Christmas eve or Christmas day. Such worship, Auden said, helps us remember the stable—the stable in which Jesus was born—He said it this way: ”the stable where for once in our lives, Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”

Christmas on one level is all about the gifts we share with one another. It’s not a bad thing. It’s good. It forces us to think of what other’s need. Part of growing up and having a Christmas history, as it were, involves that discovery of what we receive when we give to others.  To be sure, there’s a little child still in all of us that naturally delights in gifts, but there’s something of God’s spirit that delights in the joy of others.

In each story, of each life, there are waiting gifts, as it were, that are powerful and transformative. In John’s gospel, in the prologue we hear that “The word became flesh and tented among us”. Then it adds, that this was “grace upon grace.”  Another translation says that was the gift of an “enduring love.”

An enduring love? That’s the hard kind of love isn’t it. It’s the love that still there when someone disppoints us, or walks away from us. It’s the love that involves those other promises: “For better or worse, for richer or poor, in sickness and health, til death do us part.” That’s enduring love. Made as promise. Never assured in our humanity—always requiring some external spiritual connections—the very source of which John’s Gospel says is the Word made Flesh, Jesus the son of God.

The only assurance of “Enduring Love.” It’s in Jesus.

And if our Gospel of John uses poetry I follow the spirit there in using the poetry of W.H. Auden to close this sermon. For the Time Being ends with Jesus being called the Way, the Truth and the Life. Words clearly rooted in John’s gospel. If you want to open your hymnal to hymn number 463 you’ll be able to see these words in what actually is a very hard hymn to sing. (It is the only hymn in our hymnal that uses his poetry.) As we look the three sections I want to make a brief comment on each part.

He is the Way.
Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness:
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

Yes, let us move on from Christmas to see some wonderful things in the year to come, and have some unique adventures. If we take as our clue the way that John’s gospel tells the Christmas story we know it doesn’t spend on the usual Christmas symbols—less about decorations on a tree, or Christmas carols sung while we shop—and more of Christmas as God who tented among us.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to that great city that has expected your return for years.

So in the year to come we will all have some difficult and challenging times when we shall be anxious or experience sadness or loss. These are  an unavoidable parts of life. But it may be that those experiences will let us grow and become more and more who God intends us to be.And what ever seems like end, need not be the end. There’s more to life. There’s new creation—destination—indeed a great city waiting.

He is the Life.
Love him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions will dance for joy.

This is our world, This is our time. Don’t try escape it this time—your time, my time, our times. We certainly shouldn’t embrace the parts of this world that deny God and ruin God’s creation. But at the same time we can show our Love of God by deeds and actions that involve us in the lives of others, making some sacrifices, and facing some hard realities. At the end—an enduring love—indeed the love that is with us always. And each time, we accept the gift of this love, it’s a kind of marriage, as it were, where in all it’s occasions there is dancing for joy. What a picture. What a Christmas gift.


About That Manger: Christmas Eve 2013

About That Manger: Christmas Eve 2013

Christmas Eve—Dec. 24, 2013—St. Matthew’s Parish, Pacific Palisades, CA

About that Manger
The Rev. Dr. George Martin

 In telling the Christmas Story, Charles Dickens has Ebeneezer Scrooge encounter the Ghost of Christmas Past. In that part of the narrative Scrooge reaches back into childhood memories. The memories he is shown reveal a history of his detachment from the real meaning of Christmas—a pattern set in place early in life, of other’s enjoying the Spirit of Christmas, while he was absorbed in himself. A different Christmas story appeared last Saturday on the front page of Los Angeles Times.

The story was about a family that keeps Christmas traditions which trace back in time—to the time centered around the death of the father of three little girls. Dad was a perfectionist about finding the right fresh tree, cutting it down himself,  and decorating it just right. And ever since?—well every tree is judged against his standard. What would Dad say about each tree? And some of the trees, through the years, wouldn’t have received his approval. And yet the story tells of redemption, as every tree helps them remember their Father, and in the case of the author of this piece, her husband.

Family traditions at this time. So important. Some may strangle us or hold us back. Other’s free us to renew our memories and engage each Christmas with joy and gratitude.

A few years before he died, I’m glad I asked my father about a Christmas tradition which I knew when I was small. I would go to bed in a house that had a few decorations up, and maybe even a few wrapped presents next to the fire place. We never had a fire in that fireplace, but I was assured that Santa could get down it, and would be glad that he wouldn’t get dirty coming down that chimney. And there was no Christmas tree when I went to sleep, though it was always hard to fall asleep on that particular night. When my Sister and I awoke, and when we’d creep down those stairs to take a peek, there it was! The Christmas tree, all lit up, with presents sitting under it. You see, Santa, brought the present and also brought the tree.

For years I never asked my father about that. As a child I had never thought about the logistical problem Santa faced with bringing all those presents and all those trees to every house.  But then, when my Dad was about 92 years old, he admitted that Santa brought the gifts, but he went out each Christmas eve, after we went to bed, and he found us a Christmas tree. He and Mom were up late those nights putting the tree in it’s stand and then decorating it.

But I wonder not about how the wen about decorating the tree.. Here’s what I asked my Dad, “But we’re they still selling Christmas trees, on Christmas eve, when you went looking for a tree?”

He answered, “Once. Once a lot was still open.”

“And you paid for the tree?”

“I did then,” he answered.

“But then all those other times. I’m mean Dad I hate to ask this, but did I wake up on most Christmas mornings, to a stolen tree.”

“Well, son,” he replied, “they weren’t really stolen. They were done selling them. And anyway you always had the trees no one wanted. And I always picked them out in the dark.”

And you know what? I never remember seeing any tree we had as ugly. Never.

And that observation leads me to suggest a different way of understanding the Christmas story as we hear it read from Luke’s gospel. It seems to us, as we usually hear this story, that there was a rather disappointing moment in the story. The way we hear it it is that when Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem that there was no room for them in the inn. And this leads us to presume that they were lucky to get the stable. We hear the story and presume that the stable wasn’t a choice place in which the child Jesus was born. We are led, moreover, to think that the timing of his birth was rather critical—we almost assume from the way we sometimes hear the story that Mary has started to be in labor as Joseph is knocking on the door of that inn.

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 nineth 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 motel with a bar and restaurant.

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 and the stay was prepaid. Luke doesn;t call it a katalyma.

So what’s a katalyma? It’s a guest room, in what would have been a two room house. And 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 cows or the sheep.  The main living area of this house would be  about three or feet up from where the sheep and cows huddled together.  In this two room house, the kind that has a katalyna, or a guest room, has it’s guest room open to the area with the animals, who are so precious, valuable, and are part of the family. Your guests are the one’s who get to be warm. 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 guest room, with the smells of those animals, laid on fresh straw was a baby wrapped lovingly in bands of cloth.

And then there were those shepherds out in the cold night. They were in a proscribed profession, which means you wouldn’t want you 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 sure thing that they 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 guest room. A room in a house like they would have had in Bethlehem. And the significance of the way they saw 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 happens still in so many cultures to lovingly let the newborn feel secure and wanted—as he was. You can imagine the shepherds feeling the love that surrounded his birth.

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 we shall do the same.

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.

I began by reflecting on Christmas past in the life of Ebenezer Scrooge, and maybe my Christmas tree stories stirred up something in you. I want to end with another story from the past—it happened in December 1914 on a blood drenched battlefield contested by the German army and the combined Allied army composed mostly of French and British soldiers. A truce had been declared for December 24th by both sides. There had already been some fraternization between soldiers on both sides, but those isolated incidents never were rooted in history, like the one I’m want us to remember. Some of you know what happened.

The British soldiers, mostly on that battlefield, could see during the day that the German soldiers stepped out of their trenches. They were trusting the word of the Christmas truce and started to place Christmas trees around their trenches in the vicinity of Ypres (ee-pra) Belgium. They placed decorations on those trees.  Then in the fading light of that Christmas eve afternoon  they sang their familiar carols. One in particular was known to the British soldiers.

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Soon the British soldiers sung in English, what will we sing after communion. Silent Night, Holy Night. Stille Nacht, heilige Nact.

On that Christmas eve in 1914 with four more bloodly fruitless years of war ahead, the soldiers from those two armies did something totally unprofessional in a military mindset. They crossed the ground that would be contested in days ahead, but on this evening they exchanged addresses, pictures, mementoes, and they hugged and laughed together. The commanders of their armies were not happy. There were a few  other such occasions at other times in that awful war, but after the Christmas Truce of 1914 the generals of both sides declared this a violation of their standards for proper military men.

But, oh! Oh how this true story captures the spirit of Jesus and carries the message of the angels: Glory to God in the Highest and on earth—peace.”

So you we always come on Christmas eve mindful of something from the Christmas past. This story, this life of Jesus, includes the past we always bring, but with a message we sometimes forget. The past can be redeemed. It need not haunt us like it did Ebenezer Scrooge. It can call forth something in us that roots us in the people of God who try to walk lives that express the love of Christ. So come here or come to some place that knows Jesus. Not just that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But knows Jesus as Lord of Life. King of Kings. Savior. Redeemer. And know Jesus the Christchild so wanted in this world— Jesus born in Bethlehem.

We get the whole story with the last stanza of our closing hymn. Hark! the herald angels sing!

Mild he lays his glory by,
born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth,
born to give us second birth.
Risen with healing in his wings,
light and life to all he brings,
hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
hail, the heaven-born Prince of Peace.  Amen.


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