Monday, December 23, 2019

Wayne's Christmas Tree

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The story I’m relating below is a true story told to me in written form by the late Frank Wayne Martin[i], one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known and one of my parishioners when I served as vicar at Grace Lutheran in Yorktown Heights, NY in 1996-7. Wayne wrote this story of his youth and sent it to me shortly after I became pastor of Faith Lutheran, Philadelphia in 1998. I read it as my Christmas Eve homily in 1999. I have, alas, since lost Wayne’s manuscript, and he is no longer around to replace it for me. I fear I may be unclear on some of the facets of the story, and may be prone to remember some incorrectly or neglect others. Nevertheless, I think I have the main points of the tale correct.

It was during the Great Depression, and Wayne was a boy of twelve or so. He was an only child, growing up in beautiful Vermont when the first tragedy of his life came calling. His father, a veteran of the Great War, had developed a heart condition believed to be the result of over-exertion during deployment. This cut his life short and left Wayne an orphan and his mother a widow. It also left the surviving Martins somewhat destitute in those days before the New Deal provided the social safety nets upon which we’ve come to rely in our time.

The death of a parent is devastating enough to a child; however, the loss of the family provider also meant a curtailing of non-essential expenses. I imagine it must’ve been very hard on Mrs. Martin to tell her son there would be a very limited Christmas that year. There could be no bonanza of gifts under the tree. In fact, as Christmas trees cost money, there could be no tree.

To young Wayne, this simply wasn’t right. It wouldn’t be Christmas without a Christmas tree. The youngster determined to put this situation to rights. With a knack for problem-solving which would serve him well in later adult life, Wayne approached the local man who sold Christmas trees and made this proposition: he would work for the man after school and on weekends during the Christmas season without pay. The only recompense he asked was to be given any unsold tree leftover at close-of-business on Christmas Eve. The man, who, in those belt-tightened days of the Depression could not afford to pay an assistant, eagerly accepted the boy’s offer.

So Wayne went into the Christmas tree business. As trees were sold off the front of the lot, the boy would haul fresh trees up from the back. He assisted customers by tying trees to their cars or carts or dragging them home through the icy streets. Perhaps he received a few pennies in tips for his efforts. The tree man liked Wayne, and would put him in charge of the cash box when he took a break to have dinner at a local lunch counter.

A few days before Christmas, Wayne’s boss told him that, as business had slowed considerably, he would no longer require an assistant. Wayne’s “pay” was waiting for him in the back of the lot. The boy discovered that his “employer” had reserved for him one of the biggest and fullest of the trees.

Wayne dragged the gigantic tree home over the snowy sidewalks, anxious to delight his mother with his prize. Mrs. Martin was amazed by the beautiful tree and ran to the attic to get her box of tree ornaments and decorations. Mother and son sang carols as they trimmed the massive pine. When they had finished, they stopped and admired their work and placed the few presents they could afford under the boughs. Wayne had saved his tip money to buy a box of face powder for his mother. He had also purchased a small catnip mouse for the family cat. Mrs. Martin, knowing her son’s interest in art, bought him a set of colored drawing pencils. This set would become a prized possession, used carefully and sparingly for years afterwards, and even made it into the backpack Wayne carried as a forward observer in Patton’s 3rd Army.

Unfortunately, the three small gifts seemed rather puny and humble beneath the limbs of the magnificent tree. Mrs. Martin had an idea. She had plenty of wrapping paper left over from more affluent Christmas’ past. She and Wayne gathered up everything they could find—soap flakes, breakfast cereal, old cigar boxes filled with buttons and thread, the telephone directory, books off the shelf. Anything. These they wrapped in the festive paper and placed under the tree until it looked as if Santa’s pack had split open at the Martin’s house.

On Christmas morning, the Martins celebrated just as they had done when Mr. Martin was with them. The mother and son used their fantastic imaginations to explain the origins of the unusual “gifts.”

“This is for you,” Mrs. Martin said as she handed Wayne a parcel to unwrap. “It’s from President Roosevelt.”

Wayne tore off the paper. “Oh boy! Kellogg’s Corn Flakes! Just what I wanted. How did he know..?!”

By the following Christmas, Wayne and his mother had gone to live with relatives. The subsequent years would be less stressful, the Christmas gifts more abundant. Nevertheless, Wayne maintained for the rest of his life that no other Christmas—with the possible exception of one spent in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge—was ever as meaningful or as memorable as the one he spent alone with his mother the year his father died.

I think sometimes that the beauty of Christmas is in its poverty, not its excess. God chose to come to an unwed teen mother who would find herself homeless at the time she gave birth. God announced this birth to the poorest and most despised of peasants, the shepherds. The boy born to be the Prince of Peace would soon find himself a refugee in Egypt. The prophet hailed as Messiah on Sunday would be rejected in favor of another by Friday. The teacher who healed the sick would die a criminal’s death on the cross.

And yet that same despised peasant would rise again, and his followers, frightened working-class, uneducated peasants, would find the strength to change the world. Sometimes it’s in the moments when we have the least that we discover God has given us so much.

Merry Christmas, my dears!

[i] I recommend any serious student of history check out Wayne’s WWII memoirs, Patton’s Luck Scout, published by Crickhollow Books. Wayne Martin died in 2010 shortly after the book was published. You can read more about him at

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Remembering the Innocent (Reflections on Christmas 1, Year A)

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“Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’” (Matthew 2:13)

After all the joy and festivity of Christmas, the Revised Common Lectionary leads us out of the calendar year with this disturbing story of jealousy, oppression, and mass murder (Matthew 2:13-23). I’m not sure I really blame the folks who decide to sleep in on Christmas 1. This story, known as The Massacre of the Innocents, is really a buzz kill, isn’t it? After “Peace on earth, good will to men,” we end the year getting reminded that this world we live in is still a pretty sick place.

Now, should it make you feel any better, I could tell you that the story of King Herod murdering all these little boys under age 2 in order to wipe out Jesus as his competition is  believed by many historians to be apocryphal. Of course, it’s not that hard to believe that a ruler might use his governmental power to destroy a rival, is it? And we know historically that Herod the Great had no trouble murdering members of his own family in order to secure his throne. It’s not very hard to believe that he’d want Jesus dead, too.

The Gospel isn’t going to let us off easy with just a message of Joy to the World. Christmas 1 reminds us that suffering still abounds, and innocent children are still victims. This past year alone 100 children have been victims of gun violence in the city of Philadelphia. Between 2009 and 2018 there have been over 180 shootings in K-12 schools in the United States, resulting in 356 youngsters killed or wounded, and countless others scarred by the experience. Over 400,000 children are in foster care in this country. At this moment there are still over 700 children separated from their parents and detained at the US border. 35 million children are living in the world as refugees from violence, war, persecution, and starvation.

Our Gospel lesson should remind us of these suffering innocents because the Most Innocent, was, according to this story, a refugee from violence and oppression himself.

It’s kind of hard to know how to preach on a passage like this, so I’ll defer to the great Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who penned this poem (which later became a Christmas carol) during the bleak days of the Civil War:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn

The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He 
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Our Gospel lesson tells us two things: the world is sick, but God is still active in healing it. God desires wellness in our land, in our world, and in ourselves. It’s appropriate that we at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia observe a healing liturgy on this last Sunday of the year. As the sands ebb out on 2019, we can come before God with all that troubles us and all that troubles God. We can pray for deliverance, but we can also recount how we, like the Holy Family, have been delivered and rescued. We can take that deliverance as a source of strength as we go forward to do our part—however small that may seem—for the healing of the world.

The poet said, “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” Take heart. Have hope. Go on.

May God give you courage and peace in the New Year.

Righteous Mess (Reflections on Advent 4, Year A)

Danielle[i] was the single mother of three. She was also an opioid addict. She fought bravely with her disease, but the authorities removed all three children from her custody shortly after she gave birth to her third. Because the children’s father is in prison, Marc and Sue, a compassionate couple, took in the children and conscientiously included their birth mother in their lives. Danielle was able to visit with the kids and maintain a relationship while she fought to get her life back on track.

But her life never got back on track. She died of an overdose a few weeks ago. She was 33 years old.

As I read the funeral liturgy for Danielle, I watched this newly-created family. There were two boys, 13 and 9, and a little girl of 7. They looked healthy and neat and respectful. Marc sat with his arm around the younger boy, comforting him as a father should.

I thought to myself, “These kids have been through a lot. Their dad is in jail. Their mom is dead. Who knows what kind of memories may haunt them? What kind of people are moved to take in a stranger’s children and raise them as their own? Has this couple thought about what they’re getting themselves into? They must be some pretty righteous folks if they’re willing to take on this burden.”

Righteous. In our gospel lesson appointed for Advent 4, Year A (Matthew 1:18-25), Joseph is described as being a “righteous man” (v. 19). Bible scholars are on the fence about what Matthew meant when he so described the guardian of our Lord. Was Joseph righteous because he had compassion for his betrothed even though she seems to have committed adultery, or was he righteous because, according to the purity standards of his society, he would not be yoked to a woman who had so obviously committed a sin? Perhaps both interpretations are accurate.

The Bible says Joseph “planned to dismiss her quietly.” This speaks to his compassion, but it also get him off the hook. Don’t you ever wish you could just quietly dismiss the causes of anxiety in your life? The people who—maybe even in spite of their best intentions—are the source of your sleepless nights? Don’t you wish you could do away with all the mess in your life neatly and without further aggravation?

But that isn’t how it works out, is it? God’s way is so often very messy. God’s way calls for you to go down streets the society teaches you to avoid, and to deal with situations which aren’t of your making, but a righteous love of God’s justice and mercy compels you to address. Dirty jobs that someone has to do, and that someone is you. God is calling you to take on others’ burdens, engage with strangers, and trust that God’s hand is in this.

I wonder if Joseph suffered any for obeying God. Did the society look askance at him because he was willing to be the husband of a woman they considered a whore? Perhaps he knew that the prophet Hosea had done just the same thing and yet was accounted an instrument of God. Did Joseph worry about the son he was taking on? Would the “righteous” folks look down on this boy because his parentage was in doubt and he couldn’t be proven to be 100% Jewish? How was Joseph to parent a lad like this?

Sometimes God calls us to frightening tasks. Our Christmas story of Mary and Joseph is the miracle story of simple people like Marc and Sue who can see the Word made flesh, and are willing to say “yes, Lord.”

Thanks for reading, my friend. May God grant you a blessed week and give you strength in the tasks he has set before you.

[i] This is not her real name. I’ve changed all names out of respect for the people involved.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

What Did You Come Out to See? (Reflections on Advent 3, Year A)

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“When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” (Matthew 11:2-3)

So, in our Gospel lesson for Advent 3, Year A (Matthew 11”2-11), we find John the Baptist in the lock-up. Boy. That must really suck.

I guess no good deed ever goes unpunished. Poor John has been preparing the way for the Messiah, speaking truth to power, and encouraging people to lead godly lives in anticipation of God’s deliverance—and all he gets for his trouble is a jail cell. You can see why he suddenly starts doubting Jesus. Can you blame him? Things aren’t turning out the way he pictured, so he sends his disciples to talk to Jesus and get a little reassurance.

And what does Jesus say? Folks are getting healed of their infirmities, the poor are being encouraged, and those who welcome Jesus’ message are being blessed. Yes, life may suck for John right now, but God didn’t stop being good because John’s circumstances prevented him from seeing the goodness. And, if you think about it, that’s true for us, too. On the crappiest day we’re ever going to have, some woman will deliver a healthy baby. Some kid might get his first job. Two youngsters might fall in love. Somebody may be told they are cancer free. The goodness of God’s Kingdom is in the here and the now.

Heck yeah this world—and our nation—are in a lousy state; nevertheless, there are warriors of the Kingdom still working to put it right. God has not abandoned us. It’s just that God’s Kingdom may not come as we expect it to come.

I’ll bet Jesus got some kind of a chuckle out of John’s disciples. He had to rattle their cage a little (Jesus is good at that) and ask them just what it was they expected in the Messiah. He asks them what they expected to see when they encountered John.

After all, John was pretty counter-cultural. He was on the outskirts of society in the wilderness. He dressed in skins and ate bugs and wasn’t anything like the religious leaders they’d come to know or expect. He wasn’t a reed in the wind who blew in the direction of the current fashion, and he wasn’t a prissy courtier to the power structure. He wasn’t anything conventional they were used to. Why would they think God’s Messiah would be conventional?

Our Messiah doesn’t fit the mold. He does not come with the trappings of wealth, political power, or celebrity. He comes to give comfort and hope to the people who have none of these. And he’s active right here under our very noses.

A few months ago I was at a conference at my synod headquarters on vital congregations. I found it really empowering to hear how God is moving in churches large and small, how God keeps showing up in unexpected ways through unexpected people. If we have an unconventional Messiah, why should we define our churches in conventional ways? It’s no longer about “Butts & Bucks”—that is, butts in the pews and bucks in the collection plate. It’s about love and relationships. It’s about compassion to the poor and the marginalized. It’s about welcome. It’s about healing. It’s about deepening a relationship with God and with humanity. It’s about seeing God active in the world and in your life. And if you feel you’re experiencing these things in your congregation, you should go and tell somebody about it.

On this Guadete Sunday, rejoice for the Kingdom of God has come near. A blessed Advent to you, my friend!

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

John's Voice of Hope (Reflections on Advent 2, Year A)

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"Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:10)

I don’t know about you, but the above quote is pretty scary stuff to me. Old John the Baptist is giving us a pretty stern warning that we better get our act together or else..! In 2019 no fewer than three congregations in my deanery have gone belly up at the top of the ecclesiastical fish tank. The ranks are thinning, and I have to wonder if my little parish will be the next one to get chopped down.

I keep asking, “Are we bearing fruit?” I mean, in the voice of John the Baptist from the gospel appointed for Advent 2 this year (Matthew 3:1-12) I can just hear that ax grinding on the wheel. John’s voice is full of judgment. It’s telling me something better get done in a pretty quick hurry or that blade is coming down. I can’t lean on my good Lutheran theology for help because God could make Lutherans out of rocks if God wanted to (and I sometimes think God did!).

But once I get over my initial panic at the prophet’s message, I have to notice two important things about this text. First, John is calling for repentance. Second, John is promising that God will send a savior. This is actually pretty good news if you stop and think about it. Why would God want us to turn around if there were no place to turn? And why would God send a savior to a world which is beyond hope? The answer, of course, is that God wouldn’t. John’s warning voice is really a voice of hope. God has just packaged this hope in the guise of a scary, bug-eating, wilderness dude to get our attention.

Before we get too hopeful, however, we’d be wise to consider there’s plenty to be alarmed about. Besides our vanishing congregations, the life expectancy of Americans is getting shorter due to stress, gun violence, depression, suicide, drugs, and a bunch of other factors[i]. The world is getting wetter and warmer and climate disasters are becoming commonplace. We face a growing inequality between the haves and have-nots.

I know you’ve heard all of this noise before, and you probably don’t want to be reading about it from me when you’re getting ready for Santa. But the bad news might actually be good news in disguise if it can wake us up, turn us to Christ, and move us to action which is pleasing to God. We have already witnessed God’s desire to set us free and to give us life and healing when we have chosen to honor and obey.

For instance: In the 1970’s the US passed the Clean Air Act which banned lead in gasoline. Since that time the mean lead level in the bloodstreams of Americans plunged by several points while our average IQ scores increased[ii]. Similarly, when we began to get religion over the hole in Earth’s ozone layer, we made the decision to ban halocarbons. Guess what? The ozone hole has started to close back up![iii]

Some things just aren’t “fruitful” enough, and they need to get the ax. But the good news is that God’s will for us is always life—and abundant life at that. The Hebrew scripture passage appointed for Advent 2 (Isaiah 11:1-10) provides us with that really cool image of the shoot rising out of the stump. Yeah, something was cut down, but something new is growing from its remains.

Martin Luther believed that the Church has a duty to speak to the society. In a sense, we are always cast in the role of John the Baptist, calling out the world to stop screwing around and get with God’s program. This always means an uncomfortable and—usually—resisted demand for change. But when that change is made, stuff gets better.

But we’re called to take a look at our own personal stuff, too. For example, I recently had a wonderful encounter with one of my older parishioners (and I hope I don’t get in trouble for using her story in this context) who has made the rather dramatic decision to go into a nursing home. For a lot of us, the Old Folks’ Home is the end of the line, and we want to put it off as long as we can. But my parishioner realized that going to live in a retirement home—even though it meant restrictions and cutting off constant interaction with her family—also meant security, regular physical therapy, group activities, weekly chapel, and the possibility of becoming part of a new social community. She does not dwell on what she’s lost, but on what she’s now gaining. She’s happier than I’ve seen her in years.

I guess the challenge for us in hearing these Advent texts is a willingness to heed the warning without freaking out. The Bible is asking us to take a hard, serious look at our sinful state as a society and as individuals and to be willing to let the ax fall on the things which are inhibiting our growth. At the same time, we are to look toward Isaiah’s beautiful image of God’s intended kingdom and commit ourselves to making it a reality.

A blessed Advent Season, Dear Reader. Thanks for visiting!