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Month: April 2017

God in the Dock—Good Friday 2017

God in the Dock—Good Friday 2017

God in the Dock

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God in the Grave—Easter Saturday

God in the Grave—Easter Saturday

God in the Grave:
Easter Saturday Sermon

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God in Time — Easter 2017

God in Time — Easter 2017

God in Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Insider Problem (3/26/2017)

The Insider Problem (3/26/2017)

The Insider Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They drew a circle that shut me out,

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win,

We drew a circle that took them in!

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Paraphrasing Volf, on page 67

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

God’s Persistence (3/19/2017)

God’s Persistence (3/19/2017)

God’s Persistence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ash Wednesday “God’s Name is Love”

Ash Wednesday “God’s Name is Love”

Ash Wednesday “God’s Name is Love”

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

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

But come with fasting, with weeping and mourning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,

Guilty of dust and sin

`                  But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

If I lacked anything.

 

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here;

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah my dear,

I cannot look on Thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?

 

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

Go where it doth deserve.

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

My dear, then I will serve.

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

So I did sit and eat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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