Marlow's Everything store and the Incarnation Problem
Marlow’s Everything Store was a feature in downtown Manchester.
It was an old style department store on Main Street, and for decades it was part of the social fabric.
Thursday night was shopping night in Manchester;
all the stores were open, and since it was the only night of the week when they were,
everyone was out.
You could buy everything from Ball canning jars to corsets to lawn mowers at Marlow’s,
and it was a stop on everyone’s list.
By the time I moved to Manchester in the mid-90’s, however, things had changed.
The mall had gone in on the north side of town, with big box stores that had greater inventory
and lower prices than Marlow’s could ever offer.
It was open 6 nights a week until 9pm.
Like small town business centers across the nation, Main Street suffered.
Stores lost customers and began to close.
New businesses located near the mall; empty store fronts became a target for blight.
Marlow’s was operating on borrowed time.
Mr. Marlow, well into his 80’s still worked there with a skeleton crew.
He sold old inventory, replacing only what was necessary.
There was stuff that was clearly 20 years old sitting on the shelf,
with the old sticker price tag still in place.
But you could indeed find everything there.
One time my husband and I wanted to buy a special pan to cook ebelskivers, little round Danish pancakes.
It was the days before online shopping, so the pan was not easy to find.
Not only did Marlow’s have it, but Mr. Marlow knew exactly where to find it in the store.
People in town lamented the changing landscape of Main Street.
They missed the old stores, and Thursday night shopping.
And though many of them liked the mall and its tax revenue, an era was slipping away—
a way of life, really-- and they knew it.
The old timers had trouble seeing any future for their little Main Street, bc the old times weren’t coming back.
The Gospel of John was written to a similar band of people.
They were second and third generation Christians, some 60 or more years removed from the death of Jesus.
They were born into a significantly different spiritual landscape than the first Christians.
All the people who knew Jesus personally had died—there were no more eye witnesses.
Their passion and example was gone, their leadership – gone.
The direct connection to Jesus was gone.
On top of that, the claims about a Palestinian peasant being God were just hard to swallow,
and some Christians were falling away, like the disciples turning away in our reading today.
It was a new and trying era, and it was hard to see the future.
The folks for whom the Gospel of John was written had what I would call ‘an incarnation problem.’
‘Incarnation’ is the word we preachers use to describe God becoming human.
The problem comes because it can be hard to believe that God is present in the world—
especially in the midst of unfavorable times.
Whenever a person or community has trouble trusting that there is a connection
between what God is doing and the present situation, that is an incarnation problem.
We just have trouble believing that God is really a part of this messed up world.
That’s the problem that the Gospel of John was written to address.
The whole Gospel of John works out the implications of incarnation
from the beginning of Gospel, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
to the end, where it says, “these (stories) are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah,
the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
The Gospel explores how God in Jesus is became a part of the world
how Jesus, this God in the flesh, is therefore present in all circumstances of life
and how Jesus makes a new future possible, even when the old ways and life are crumbling around you.
And it worked.
What was once a first-hand experience now could be passed on by telling stories of Jesus and his followers.
No one knew Jesus personally anymore, but believers became examples of the faith.
Their lives were visibly different than that of those around them as they lived Jesus’ command to love.
They took up the mantle where Jesus left it.
In essence, God came to live not only in Jesus, but also in the lives of his followers
as they acted and believed in his name.
It seems to me that the people of John’s community are not the only ones with an incarnation problem.
It is a common feature of contemporary church life, especially for those of us in the mainline.
You know the stats—church attendance declining, the rise of people with no religious affiliation,
churches closing their doors.
A generation of Christians is passing on, and they are being replaced by generations that are fewer in number,
who by and large worship less frequently and give less money.
When we think on this situation, it’s easy to get like the folks bemoaning the demise of Main Street.
We can get like paralyzed like John’s people when we don’t have the answers for living in a new era,
or panicky when people leave the church like the disciples who turned away from Jesus.
We wonder, are we like Marlow’s, living on borrowed time, selling old inventory that nobody wants?
We can’t see a way into the future, and so we cling to what worked in the past.
But the doctrine of the incarnation means that Jesus always lives in the present tense.
God enters our human experience deep in the flesh
God entered human time and story in Jesus,
but the story continues because Jesus lives in everyone who believes in his name.
That’s what Jesus has been talking about in this Bread of Life discourse that we have been hearing
in our Gospel readings for the past five weeks.
Jesus becomes so much a part of us that it’s like eating him,
taking him into ourselves like bread and wine.
We are Jesus’ body in the world, and so whatever we experience, Jesus experiences, too.
Incarnation means that God is deeply involved in the affairs of the world,
even the circumstances we do not like or wish were different.
God is working in all circumstances, and our job is to trust in that, and to pray for open eyes to see it
and willing hearts to become part of it.
Main Street Manchester, after a number of hard years, had a little renaissance.
New businesses came to replace the empty storefronts.
Now there are ethnic restaurants, antique stores, and offices for businesses.
The Main Street has come back to life as a place to work and gather,
focused less on retail and more on the service industry.
But Marlow’s Everything Store is not there.
Mr. Marlow retired after over 60 years in the business.
One day prior to the store’s closing, my husband Jonathan met Mr. Marlow one afternoon outside his shop.
Old Marlow was folding up the awnings and struck up a conversation.
“You know,” he said, “I started working here for my dad when I was 16 years old.
I always had to close up these awnings—and how I hated it! It seemed like such a chore.
Then I got drafted in WWII. I was involved in some pretty heavy fighting, and things got pretty bad—
No medicine, no food.
In the trenches I thought to myself, If only I could fold up those awnings.
And I prayed to God that if he got me out of that war, I would always be grateful to do it.
Now I think of that every time I close up shop.”
I don’t know what the future is for churches with buildings and paid professional ministers and budgets.
Maybe many of them will go the way of Marlow’s.
But Old Mr. Marlow didn’t seem to fret the changes that were underway when he told that story.
Instead he kept a much bigger picture in mind, and it gave him a heart of gratitude.
He kept on providing the personal touch and service that was his signature
always putting into the hands of the customer just what they needed.
And so I think maybe Marlow and his Everything Store can be an example to us
as we trust in the incarnation and that Jesus is present
in the changing cultural and religious landscape in which we find ourselves.
We may let go of many of the trappings of church as we move forward,
but we will hold onto the things that make us who we are—
a small community with a personal touch, a great sense of care, a commitment in the world around us.
And, of course, gratitude.
Because like Mr. Marlow, God has seen fit to bring us to this new day.
God has a purpose for us today, and we can be grateful for that work.
We can open our eyes and hearts to Jesus’ future, trusting that he is with us, in the flesh, down deep.
What affect did the bread have on the town?
Has bread every had that affect on you?
What if we changed the title to Son Bread?
For five weeks, we have been reading from John chapter 6, where Jesus calls himself “the Bread of Life.”
What do you think this means? How is ‘bread’ connected with ‘life’?
Jesus gives us everything we need for abundant life—
like the bread in the book that brings full bellies and cheerful hearts.
Jesus is the Son Bread for us to share, to share light and joy and fullness of life.
“Pray for me” story from Nat Geographic about the pope, in his bishop days, asking for prayer
his deep humility and genuine spirit
praying for leaders
praying in the Spirit at all times-- stories of praying in every day life
Say a little prayer… Aretha Franklin
prayer spaces in the worship space
icon, prayer beads, meditation, candles to light, write a prayer
children’s sermon: prayer chain—or baking bread Sun Bread