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Month: January 2015

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.


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