Notes from Pastor Jon

God’s Rubbish Service

The city where we previously lived in Virginia has a monthly trash collection that was handy. In addition to the weekly trash collection, on the first Tuesday of each month, the town collects almost anything you put at the street. This provides a way to dispose of items that are too large to fit in a rolling bin. (The Lexington City web site describes a similar service for its residents.)
So, on the first Tuesday of each month in the limits of that Virginia town, there is an assortment of items all waiting to be hauled away. The official name by the public works department for these items is “bulky rubbish.” The Martins made regular use of this popular service.
Once we put an old push mower out. Before the town came and took it, however, someone else came by and asked for it. We said yes. It’s possible that some items set out for the town to haul away never make it to the landfill, but become flea market items-and I’m okay with that! 
And once when I was driving on a first Tuesday, I saw a gas grill someone had put out. It looked like it still had some life left in it, and I admit that for a brief moment I considered stopping but didn’t. Susanne would not have approved.
There is a theological point here. In our Presbyterian worship service, we offer a similar “bulky rubbish option” every Sunday morning of the year. During the service, there is a time for individual and collective confession. We are all encouraged to push to the street all of the parts of our lives that we don’t want anymore: all of the sinful behavior, all the struggles and anxieties and hassles. And God hauls away all of that bulky and not-so-bulky rubbish. With all of that gone, we are assured of God’s forgiveness, and sing as we make a fresh start for a new week.
To receive the benefit of a town’s rubbish removal service, you must live within the town limits. To receive the benefit of God’s bulky rubbish service, your zip code doesn’t matter; you need only ask-and it doesn’t have to be during a church service. And it’s always available. We include God’s rubbish service as part of our worship each Sunday morning because, we believe, God wills for us to take our human condition seriously.
I appreciate the way January arrives each year with energy about making a fresh start in a new year. Some of you make plans and resolutions and so do I. Whatever plans you make, please consider in these first Sundays of 2023 what you would move to the “street” that you don’t want to bring with you into a new year. God will haul all of it away. Peace to you and…
We are growing together in Christ.

The Household of God

Susanne and I have been decorating our house for Christmas for the past couple of weeks. This year we started our Christmas decorating by setting up the tree. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago: when it comes to Christmas trees, we are definitely Fraser fir tree people. Rockefeller Center can have their Norway spruce, but the Martins will stay with the Fraser fir!
We put all kinds of ornaments on our Fraser fir. Some of our ornaments are homemade. Some were given to us. Some we gave to Katherine and Jonah. Some came home from school as art projects. They are made of wood, pewter, glass, plastic, metal, wax, ceramic, and some are stuffed. Others need batteries or hold a photo. Some have been on twenty-seven different Christmas trees and one or two are new. Every year we unpack this assortment and hang them one-by-one on the tree.
Our collection of ornaments reminds me of the church. To be more specific, it reminds me of something I really like about the church. We are a gathering of people who are united in the household of God, and yet have varied backgrounds, worldviews, cultural identities, political leanings, work-a-day lives, personal stories, interests, gifts, and much more.
I like this because a diverse body of Christ is God’s idea. Jesus told the disciples to make disciples of all nations, and that’s what they did. They carried the news of Christ’s death and resurrection into all the world. The church is truly world-wide – and what a gathering of people it is!
One window into this diversity is the church’s wide-ranging Christmas celebrations. In Ghana, a fruit tree in a family’s yard or in the center of a village might be decorated with simple ornaments. In Lebanon, a family might spend the week after Christmas visiting relatives (Some of you might be planning something similar.). In Australia, a family might unwrap presents on the patio then the children might cool off by running through the sprinkler on a summer day. In Saudi Arabia, celebrations and decorations are confined to embassies and private homes. Public displays are very seldom seen. In Germany, families open their gifts on Christmas eve.
I like a Christmas tree full of all sorts of ornaments as a symbol of the diversity of the world-wide church. Like the branches of an evergreen tree holding a collection of ornaments, Jesus holds all of us together in our diversity.
The Martins wish all of you a Merry Christmas filled with hope, peace, joy, and love, trusting that we are…
Growing in Christ,

Every Part of Us

This week a very important question was asked in the Martin house. It is asked every year about this time. Right about the time the Christmas mugs are unpacked, and we have returned from the Christmas tree lot with a Fraser fir, the Martins’ favorite tree for Christmas. After the tree is in the stand and moved into the house, the question is asked, which side of the tree should face the wall?

Of course, the deeper reason for asking that question is to make sure the best side of the tree faces into the room. I admit that some years that has been a difficult question to answer, partly because the Fraser fir is a terrific tree.

That question is asked when you have a fresh cut tree in your home. I understand all who prefer an artificial tree (ease of set up, pets, allergies, etc.), but there is something about the uniqueness of a fresh cut tree and the evergreen smell it brings into the Martin house that we enjoy. But the fact remains: one side of the tree must face a wall.

That’s what you get with God’s spectacularly diverse creation. No two Fraser firs are alike. No two sides of a Fraser fir are alike-even on the same tree! People are like that too. We are all unique, but don’t we all have a side we would prefer not to show to the world? When my brothers and I were small and we were going as a family into a restaurant, my dad would look at us and say, “Boys, be gentlemen.” There was a rowdy side of my brothers and me that my parents did not want fellow diners in the restaurant to see. 

As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, consider that no matter what side of ourselves we show to the world or what side we hide from the world, God knows every part of us-and still loves us. We are each an expression of God’s creative work and while our own brokenness can make that much more complicated, Jesus birth sets in motion God’s fullest plan to rescue us and heal our brokenness.

When we decorate our tree, we still hang lights and ornaments on the side of the tree facing the wall. That reminds me that God’s gift of love and redemption born in a manger reaches every part of us. God doesn’t only seek out the presentable sides of our lives, God’s redemption is thorough.

I hope you are able to share in the Advent and Christmas events at First Presbyterian this month, there is a gospel promise at the heart of what we do together: even as these winter days grow shorter and darker, the light of Christ shines brightly, and the Spirit stirs in the church. God calls us together-every one of us and every part of us-so that we can hear and respond to God’s love come near.

Growing in Christ,

Olives and Imagery

Last Sunday during the children’s moment, I shared that November is a month full of wonderful smells. I named a few with the children. When I asked the congregation to call out their favorite November smells, I heard several responses: pumpkin pie, apple pie, turkey, cinnamon, dressing. I am looking forward to those smells in our new house.

After asking about smells, I gave each child a small wooden cross. I told them to scratch the wood and then smell it. I could see that they were trying to figure out the unfamiliar smell of the wood. The crosses were made of olive wood, and olive wood when scratched with even just a fingernail releases a sweet, fruity aroma.

I’ve had those small crosses for a long time. I brought several back from a trip to Israel and have enjoyed giving them away one by one over the past many years. I am thankful to have enough left to give them to the children of First Presbyterian Church. (I only have one or two left.)

The smell of olive wood was familiar to people in the ancient world, where olive trees were cultivated. The oil from pressing olives was used in lamps. Remember Jesus’ parable about the woman who loses a coin and lights a lamp to search for it? (Luke 15:8-10) That’s an olive oil lamp. In ancient Judaism, olive oil was used for more than lighting up a dark room. It was used in preparing food, in religious ceremonies to anoint priests and was part of the sweet-smelling perfume used in the Temple. 

After Jesus shared his last supper with the disciples, they went outside to an olive orchard to pray. If we were reading about this in a Bible study, I would ask why do you think Jesus chose an olive orchard as a place to pray?

In about a month, we will hear from the prophet Isaiah with the familiar Advent reading: a shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse, a branch shall grow out of its root. (Isaiah 11:1). Isaiah is using the image of a new spring of life coming out of an old olive tree stump. We understand that image to point to Jesus, to be the new life coming out of old established line of Judah. These are just a few, but there are many other references to olive trees in the scripture.

I hope some of these images, or others, come to mind the next time you smell olive wood, or more likely, the olive oil you keep in your pantry.
Together in Christ,