Off the radar

a sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent [Year C]

Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 3:1-6

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I usually get to hear some amazing stories and remembrances when I visit people. Two weeks ago I was in the home of Janet and Keith Goodson, and I can’t recall how we ended up on this topic but Janet was sharing about her college experience. It was fascinating to me. She was born and raised in Person County, North Carolina, a fairly rural area, and when she got ready to graduate from high school, her English teacher took on the role of guidance counselor and scouted out placed for Janet to continue her education. This was 1952, and it was not altogether common for young women to go off to college in those days, but Janet displayed the gifts and the ambition to do so. However, she was going to need to pay for her education, and that required work-study opportunities. At the time, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, her primary choice, did not allow women to participate in work study programs, and neither did the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, another place that she considered. Those were the two places closest to Person County that had degree programs Janet was looking for. It looked like the doors were going to be closed for her.

Then her persistent English teacher found out that way out in eastern part of the state—in a place somewhat “off the radar” for a person from Person County—at what is now East Carolina University, a new female dean had instituted work-study programs for women. The Dean’s name was Ruth Allen White, and she had been hired by the university as Dean of Women just one year earlier. Perfect timing for Janet. She applied, was accepted, and enrolled. She ended up working in the library 36 hours a week and completed her Bachelors degree in 3 years.

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Ruth Allen White, Dean of Women at ECU (1951-1969)

I left the Goodsons’ that day thinking about how Dean White prepared the way for hundreds and maybe even thousands of women, many from rural areas, to arrive on campus and receive a university education. I like to think about how many lives were changed, how many doors were opened for women and for their families by Dean White’s insistence to get that policy approved. Eventually, of course, the larger, more well-known and better-endowed institutions in the state would follow suit, but in North Carolina it began in a more off-the-radar college by a visionary new administrator.

A key theme of Advent is preparing the way for God, and on this second Sunday we hear that a visionary new “administrator” appears off the radar in the wilderness in order to do that. Preparing is not just a theme of Advent, however. It’s a theme in all of Scripture. The prophets mention it several times throughout Israel’s history leading right up to the time Jesus is born: a key component of receiving the promises of God involves some sort of making way, some sort of rearranging of things.

One of those earlier prophets is Malachi, who was writing in the 5th century before Christ, a time when people seemed a bit lackadaisical and indifferent to God’s presence and activity in their lives. God says that part of what Malachi would do as a messenger is prepare the people like ore needs to be prepared to render gold or silver, so they could be restored to the righteousness for which they were made and be pleasing to God. Shining like gold or silver sounds good to me, but there’s going to be a process to get them there.

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The people of Israel could point to many more of their ancient prophets who were concerned about preparing the way. And then one of these messengers appears on the scene that the gospel writers want to tell us about—that wilderness-dwelling visionary guy. Luke starts by listing all the standard, well-known movers and shakers and kingdom-stakers of the time. He mentions Tiberias and Pilate and Herod in Galilee and the chief priests in Jerusalem, but then says the word of God does not come to any of them, not to the castles and fortresses and temples. It comes to this visionary John son of Zechariah, son of a small-town synagogue priest, way out in the regions of Judah and around Jordan. The voice cries out from off the radar, just like the older prophets said. This John turns out to be the one who announces God’s arrival and gives us the clue as to what to do. It’s as if this all says, “You can never be sure of how or where God’s Word is going to show up.” We can count on the fact it will, but we shouldn’t assume that it will always take the predictable channels of power and control. And just as that dean at East Carolina surely had to change people’s minds about the roles and opportunities of women, John comes talking about changing heart and changing perspective. That’s the critical part of this preparing for God.

The word for this is “repentance.” That’s what we’re told the core of his message was about. John went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” I think a lot of time we associate repentance with some notion of feeling bad about ourselves or admitting we are wrong about something. The word has taken on some negative connotations, to some degree, probably thanks to many preachers: “Repent!” has taken on this meaning of “I know you’re doing wrong!” or “You’re not pure like me!”

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Saint John the Baptist (El Greco)

In fact, repentance is more like a change of perspective or a change of mind. It’s about consciously being open to seeing things differently, to understanding things differently, which leads to responding to things differently. A part of repentance involves ceasing old ways, but it has more to do with turning around and embracing something new, stopping and re-directing one’s attention. Places where there used to be mountains and hills too high or too cumbersome to climb are now flattened so that they are passable. Valleys that used to be so steep that they would hinder progress are to be filled. These are the kinds of activities that John relates to repentance.

Interestingly enough, the past two years of working with our building team about the renovations and expansions to our church property have taught me a lot about how to prepare to receive people here. To make our front entrance area and parking lot more accessible to more people, especially people with mobility needs, we will literally have to fill some valleys and flatten some hills. The changes to the parking lot to accommodate better and more handicapped parking spaces means grading and leveling out our current one, a process that will involve bringing in some fill dirt and re-paving a lot. Perhaps we should call it “repenting” the parking lot and entrance areas.

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I’ve also been surprised to learn that this is one of the most expensive parts of the plans. It takes a lot of effort to change perspective and turn in a new direction. But we do this and we realize its value to us because we know that God shows up here every week. In the new people visiting, in the families who want to feel a part of a faith community, Jesus is present, searching and waiting for us to receive them. So we prepare the way. We open ourselves to a changed perspective.

Sometimes I wonder if we still trust that God does show up in our everyday lives. Do we still think it’s worth it to prepare the way, to do some things differently that might shift our perspective? Or are we indifferent, a bit tone-deaf, like the people to whom Malachi found himself preaching? One well-known Lutheran clergyman from the 20th century named Edmund Steimle talks about this a bit in a devotion I read this week. He says that we often are willing to speak about how God can show up in our crisis moments of our lives, or in church and worship, in the grand ways when we find ourselves needing or looking for something major to occur.

But what about in the common and trivial and, he says, “in what we might consider the inappropriate moments”? Are we aware he arrives there and then? Steimle says God’s “huge joke…is always appearing to be less than he is.”[1]

I think realizing this is a huge part of repenting—seeing God’s messengers as the ones who are often off the radar. It is having our perspective changed by God’s grace to see that God comes to us first and foremost on the cross of Jesus, a place of suffering and unexpected humiliation. The cross is “off-the-radar” as it gets for the divine life. The act of repentance involves seeing God’s greatest loss actually as the greatest gift for us and for creation. It is coming to regard the places of pain and hurt in our lives as the areas where our greatest growth can occur because God is at work there, healing and refining gold. It is seeing, for example, that unplanned conversation you first wanted to pass off as an unexpected interruption as a place of holy ground. When we are reminded that God comes to us in these cross-borne ways we can start to get ready to receive him.

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Not me, but this is kind of what I do.

Last week a member stopped me after worship and asked me why I bowed my head at the point in the Communion liturgy when we sing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” No one had ever asked me about that before, but it’s something I’ve always done and that Pastor Chris Price, my predecessor, did too. Pastor Joseph also genuflects slightly at that point. There’s probably some formal seminary answer to that question of hers, but as I thought about it, I told her that for me it was a way of demonstrating reverence for Jesus’ arrival in the sacrament. It’s not that I’m more holy than anyone else; no, in fact, at that point I’m changing perspective, acknowledging our Lord’s presence on behalf of the whole congregation.

And as I lift that cup I then look at you—the presence of Christ in our midst—I look then beyond you to our doors, and then to our parking lot. These may all be ordinary, regular, “off the radar,” but we trust he is here. Come to think of it, maybe my bowing is a little repentance for all of us to take part in, a nod of the head that we can receive Christ, holy and humble, in these and in all places. Here he comes, the One promised through the prophets. And like John says as he wanders through the wilderness, preparing the way, we know in Jesus all flesh shall see their salvation.

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Edmund Steimle in “From Death to Birth.” For All the Saints, volume III, pg 12 1995 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau.

Let Earth Receive Her King

a sermon for Christ the King [Year B]

John 18:33-37

“Joy to the world! The Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!”

There’s a good chance that if you know any hymn by heart, it’s that one. And there’s also a good chance it makes you think of think of Christmas. It may make some of the more liturgically-particular people among us think of Advent, since that’s actually the section of our hymnal it is listed in. Whichever the case may be, it makes us think of this time of year as we round the corner of Thanksgiving and set our sights on the birth of Christ, and all of that is understandable since “Joy to the World” was the most-published Christmas hymn of the 20th century.

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Isaac Watts (July 17, 1674 – November 25, 1748)

However, the writer of “Joy to the World,” an 18th-century English clergyman by the name of Isaac Watts, might be surprised to learn that because he did not write it as a Christmas hymn. He did not write it as an Advent hymn, either. Watts just wrote it as a hymn that could be sung at any and every time of the year. He based it loosely on Psalm 98, and the note he included just under its title and before the first line says, “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” Although it’s become for us the quintessential Christmas carol, “Joy to the World” was probably never intended to focus us on a baby in Bethlehem, but the final arrival of Jesus and his eternal reign over all things. When we sing about every heart preparing room we’re not primarily singing for a child who’s looking for a room in the inn but rather for a King who has lived through Good Friday, a King who has tried with everything he has  to surround us and infuse us with God’s love.

In fact, that’s really the underlying message of everything the church says and sings and does, not just Isaac Watts’ hymn. We wait for and place our hope on a kingdom that is coming where Jesus’ reign will be received and acknowledged by all “as far as the curse is found.” That is, we expect Jesus love and mercy is able to advance and conquer wherever human brokenness is present—the brokenness in our hearts, in our relationships with others, and in our relationship with creation. There is no place that is off-limits for the love of Jesus.

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You could say that’s really our main task right now, in fact: to get the world ready to have Jesus as its King. The challenge is that Jesus’ kingdom has some very peculiar qualities about it. For one, Jesus is not going to force anyone to know about his kingdom or force anyone into his kingdom, at least for now. He’s not even going to force his reign on Pontius Pilate, who holds Jesus’ very life in his hands.

Unlike all the authorities of this world—all of the monarchies and democracies and chiefdoms and homeowners’ associations—the authority that God establishes in Jesus never resorts to coercion or violence or financial penalties. Jesus invites people to live under his authority. Jesus performs loving and life-transforming acts in order for people to receive the truth about him. Pilate and the other empires of the world fundamentally don’t understand this because, at the end of the day, they need to back up their authority with a weapon.

We may grow frustrated that Jesus never lays down the law, so to speak, with Pilate—that he never consents to being defended violently by his followers. He’s so close to the throne there in Jerusalem, so close to where he needs to be in order to take over and rule the land. So close! I mean, if there ever were a time for a Second Amendment it would be now, right?—as Jesus is about to head to the cross, as he and his disciples are about to watch it all come crashing down? But in Jesus’ kingdom there is apparently no right to bear arms. Arms don’t even exist where Jesus reigns, so people can’t have a right to them.

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Christ before Pilate (or Pilate before Christ?)

The empires of the world don’t comprehend the kind of power that Jesus wields and neither do we, truth be told, until that love envelops us and transforms us with its forgiveness and grace. It’s not like that we’ve got it all figured out and Pilate is the dummy. To some degree, we’re all Pilate, unwilling to see and make sense of this pure gift of love standing right in front of us. But when it does envelop and transform us, we begin to see that it is something to be shared and spread. If there is a force behind Jesus’ authority, it is the force of self-giving, the force of handing over oneself in love.

Last weekend I was with our 7th and 8th graders at the Virginia Synod Youth Event called “Lost and Found.” The theme of the event was “Lost Hate and Found Love,” and the Bible verse they used as the anchor was the part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he talks about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. The way they laid out the presentations for the theme was genius because they based it on a roll-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons. The small group presentations featured a group of bitter rivals playing against each other in cutthroat fashion until one decides to set herself back so that all can win together. It takes them all a while to catch on.

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At one point in our small group discussions, we had to pretend that we were in a fortress surrounded by an army and that our commanders had told us they were enemies and needed to be destroyed. However, we knew they could be made into friends, and so our quest was to cleverly come up with a secret plan to turn them into allies. Let me tell you, 7th and 8th graders can be very creative with loving enemies if it’s turned into a fantasy quest and no limits are placed on imagination! One small group decided to complete the quest they’d tell their commanders they were going to poison the enemy but then organize an airlift of fried chicken to the battlefield so they could all eat together and have a dance party. (Fried chicken always gets the job done).

The group I worked with ended up suggesting the more practical ways of turning enemies into friends—things like learning to understand your enemy’s point of view, that the people persecuting you may be lonely or hurt. I came away wondering how Christ-followers might help hearts prepare room for Jesus if we all tapped into the creativity and energy of our inner middle schooler.

Jesus’ love is still transforming people and inviting people to live under his authority, and it happens when people listen to Jesus’ voice. It is a voice that calls us to follow and lay down our lives for the other, to lay aside our goals of winning and conquering and seeing instead that God is concerned with all of us being together, all of God’s children crossing the finish line as one. Even Pontius Pilate.

This past week there was a feature article in a regional publication about two local-area school principals. The article discussed the many challenges of serving in the role of public-school principal these days, of the demands on personal time and the crazy amount of creativity and problem-solving skills that school administrators need. It became clear as the article unfolded that the best way for those principals to run their school communities, the best way to establish their authority was through open communication, honesty, and vulnerability. They have found that being open to understanding students’ real problems, being willing to listen and listen some more, and being ready to lead by example is absolutely critical as a leader. Effective principals don’t lord themselves over people in the hallways or lock themselves up in a fortress office.

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Mills Godwin High School

One of the more poignant parts in that article was when the reporter and the principal are making their rounds through the school and they stop at a student table where stickers that say, “You can sit with me” are being handed out by a student organization created to combat some of the social issues teens face today. The principal herself stops, gets a sticker, and slaps it on herself so that kids can know they can sit even with her if they need a buddy or listening ear in study hall or the library.[1]

As it happens, that principal is a member of this congregation and currently serves on our council. In fact, she grew up in this congregation, learning about Jesus kingdom here every Sunday. She’s out there in the world, along with you, along with countless others like her, figuring out ways to spread the selfless love of Jesus, preparing room for him to come and reign. This is how it will happen, folks, as the Pilates of the world interrogate and bully. Those who know Jesus’ love will respond by saying, “You can sit with me.” Because at this table the King has said, “You can sit with me.”

One of the things we try to do every night around our dinner table is take turns sharing our highs and lows of the day. We go around the table and interrogate each other, “What was your high? What was your low? What are you thankful for today?” Our daughters always want to include our 2-year-old in this ritual, and they’re really persistent and creative at phrasing those questions in ways that a 2-year-old might understand. They’ll say things like, “When did you smile today?” or “What made you happy today?” and each time they ask him  he looks at us and says, “Umm…Jesus!” And then they’ll ask him, “What made you sad today?” and he will reply, “Umm..Jesus!”

Granted, it’s probably a stretch to say the kid knows what he’s saying. He’s just giving the answer he thinks we want to hear because he’s heard it somewhere and he’s learned it means something.

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Christ our Redeemer statue, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

And yet, in some ways, we all await the the time when that’s the only worthwhile answer any of us will be able to give. We will no longer pace back and forth indecisively like Pontius Pilate, wondering what to with this love that covers all sin as far as the curse is found. We will no longer see enemies as enemies but see the cross has made us all friends. And the only truthful answer we’ll be able to give for anything is “Jesus”—the way he’s been reflected in our lives, the way he was present in our good times, the way he held us in the bad, the way his self-giving authority has held sway over our self-serving one.

At the end of the day, only the things of us and our time here which speak of King Jesus will be what remains. And we’ll be so fully transformed by him we’ll be able to answer by heart. And on that day, my brothers and sisters, there will be joy. Joy…to the world.

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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[1] “Under Pressure.” Jack Cooksey in Richmond Mag, November 12, 2019

Thanksgiving as refugees

a sermon for Thanksgiving Day [Year B]

Matthew 6:25-33

Everybody probably has a Thanksgiving that stands out in their memory. After all, the whole premise of this day rests on a gathering around food that stood out to the pilgrims and their descendants to such a degree that Abraham Lincoln proposed a national holiday around it in 1863. For some of you it might be the Thanksgiving when someone had returned home from military service, or the first thanksgiving with a new child or in a new home. Maybe this will turn out to be the Thanksgiving you will talk about for years to come.

One of the Thanksgiving meals that stands out in my memory was one that our congregation in Pittsburgh organized jointly with the Muslim and Christian Burmese refugee community we had helped resettle. They had only arrived a few months earlier from one of the refugee camps in Myanmar, and I’ll never forget what they looked like standing in the airport when they deboarded, each one holding a white plastic Ziploc bag that contained everything they could call theirs. They were put up in an urban neighborhood in some affordable row houses we had furnished with donated furniture.

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The Ah Pi family (ignore the photostamp date)

By late November that year they were still getting their feet under them, but we invited them over to a meal in our church basement one Sunday evening to celebrate this traditional holiday in their new country, but we didn’t have a way to get them there, so a member of our congregation figured out a way to borrow a public school bus and a school bus driver. We had also helped them do all of their food shopping earlier, so when the time came they grabbed all their grocery bags and boarded this big yellow bus and rode over to our church and started fixing their food in the church kitchen right alongside our members.

We made turkey with all the trimmings that, according to tradition, were eaten by those original pilgrim refugees from England in the 17th century, and they made traditional Burmese dishes, which, we quickly learned, contain a whole lot of hot spicy peppers. They spoke no English at all at that point, so there wasn’t a whole lot of talking going on, just chopping vegetables and boiling big vats of water. The refugee children were fascinated with the deep fryer some of our guys were using to cook one of the turkeys. I can only imagine how gross and bizarre that process must have looked to them. It kind of looks bizarre to me.

Our church women, by contrast, were fascinated with the fact the refugees didn’t wash any of the veggies they were chopping up. All clumps of dirt that were caked onto the onions and peppers went straight into the pot like everything else. After all, they had lived in a refugee camp without running water for 18 years. Washing produce was a waste of resources, especially since the boiling water and the acid from peppers kills germs anyway.

To help drive home the idea of thanksgiving, which none of us could figure out the Burmese word for in a way we were sure they could understand us, we decided to take large pieces of newsprint and tape them to the wall and spread out magazines and scissors and rubber cement on tables in front of them. The idea was we’d all make collages together on that newsprint with images of things we were thankful for. It took some prodding and some jerky sign language motions, but we think we got the point across. We ended up with four or five posters of random pictures cut out from People and InStyle Magazine, which was all we really had.
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Unfortunately none of the photos in the magazines resembled anything remotely similar to the culture they came from. So in the end we had collages of Taylor Swift’s hair and jewelry and Will Smith’s clothes, piles of colorful food stacked perfectly on white plates, and the mansion-like homes pictured some Nationwide insurance ad, which didn’t look like any of the houses or apartments that any of us actually lived in. We think the refugee families understood what the point of that task was, but to this day I worry we may have given the impression that our little craft was an American tradition and that wherever they happen to live nowadays there’s a little community of Burmese people cutting up magazines on Thanksgiving while the food cooks.

When the food was finally ready we all ate and cautiously but smilingly tried one another’s foods, but they thought ours was too bland and none of the Americans could really handle the level of spiciness in their food, so we both more or less stuck to what we had made ourselves. The Americans were actually gulping full glasses of water to wash their dishes down.

Oh, the risks we took that evening! The risks our guests took—boarding a bus going to a place they had no idea of, preparing food and eating it with people they didn’t know and couldn’t speak with who ate strange, tasteless food and who plunged whole birds into tubs of boiling oil. And the risks we took—toward friendship, risks in hospitality across cultures, in possibly being misunderstood, in swallowing things that could make us sick—all for the notion of giving thanks, for including newcomers in a tradition centered around a trust in the abundance of God. We had no idea how we would pull off such an evening, but in the end it went perfectly. To be honest, it went better than any of us imagined.

Indeed, how the act of giving thanks slices right into anxiety, like a knife-blade going through a dirty onion! How the act of pausing to remember God’s provision for all of life boils all the germs of worry and doubt away! One cannot be grateful and worried at exactly the same time. It is mentally impossible.

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And how much we do tend to worry! We worry about our whole lives, planning them out with careful precision, avoiding risks when possible. We habitually check the stock market, the values of our 401K, or we add another extracurricular to our high school resume with the hopes it will get us into the right college, Ever focused on the future, we position ourselves and our children in all sorts of ways for a track to success. And while we know none of those things is intrinsically bad, it does seem to go against the life of vulnerability and fragility that Jesus calls us to. A life that is ever focused on the future—on what we need to do next to make us ready to respond to what might be coming down the road—can cause us to miss the moment of service and humility as well as the neighbor Jesus has placed in front of us now. When we concentrate chiefly on what might be coming and how it might affect us, we end up taking our mind off of the opportunities to seek God’s righteousness this very moment.

Why, in fact, just this week a member of the Men’s lunch group asked me to give him a ride to the restaurant and back while his wife ran errands. We had a great time at lunch, enjoyed the conversation, but towards the end of the meal I received a text that immediately refocused my attention on what might happen that afternoon. My anxiety went up, my brain conjured up all kinds of different scenarios and how I might respond, and I got up from the table, paid my bill, jumped in the car, and made it all the way back to church before I realized I had left my passenger back at the restaurant. I didn’t even realize I’d ditched him until I met his wife when I came back in the door and she said, “Where’s my husband??”

Jesus lays down this principle right at the beginning of his time with his followers. Like my Burmese friends, they are discovering they are embarking on a journey seeking a new kingdom—carrying only what they need in their hands, left to the care of people who might extend charity. They discover they are being called to take a risk, a big risk. It is the risk of being a trusting disciple in a world that doubts God’s ability to provide, in a world that believes of gospel of There Is Not Enough and This Will Never Work Out. And instead of obsessing about what they’ve left behind or what they still lack or how it’s all going to be enough they are to venture forth in faith. Can any worrying, in fact, add a single hour to your life?

And, as if to make sure they get the point, Jesus himself will lead the way. He is prepared to show God’s abundance throw in the whole of his life—to become the epitome of vulnerability and fragility—and plunge it all in to death on a cross. In a risk that demonstrates just how powerful God is in overcoming doubt and fear and anything that could separate us from him, Jesus offers himself up. Because of his love for us, we will find that even death becomes a place where we can say thanks be to God.

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If for whatever reason this holiday is painful for you, of if you find you don’t have a Thanksgiving memory that stands out or is fun to recall, may this meal be that for you. This is a Great Thanksgiving, the chief reminder that God has provided all we really need, that those who sow with tears reap with songs of joy. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.” Here is where the Lord of a new kingdom in which all are welcome, where all have a home, offers himself up again. He hands over his life in forgiveness and mercy and takes a whole bunch of strangers and makes them friends.

Have courage to step forward and receive it. It’s all been washed. Lay aside your fear of risks, your worries, your hesitations of food that has a kick to it. The kingdom of God and all its righteousness is given to you.

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

No Leftovers

a sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 27B/Lectionary 32]

1 Kings 17:8-16 and Mark 12:38-44

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One thing I realized not too long ago was how much I love leftovers. I used to hate eating leftovers as a kid. When my parents decided it would be leftovers night I was always upset. I thought I deserved fresh food every night. I didn’t want to revisit chilled food, popped in the microwave oven, unevenly warmed up. I especially didn’t like leftover nights when it was leftovers of something I hated the first time. That was the worst!

But now, as a grown-up, leftovers are the best! There’s something challenging and satisfying about rummaging through the refrigerator and scraping together enough partial dishes to make a whole meal. Just this week for lunch I scrounged around and brought to church about a half a cup of lentil soup, some noodles and beef tip sauce—but there were only two pieces of beef in it—and the rest of some homemade guacamole. The guac was already turning brown on the edges, but I just mixed it in with the green. It was one of the most satisfying lunches I’d ever eaten. It feels so good to use it all up.

We have some good friends who are like extreme leftover eaters. We go on vacation with them every year and on the last day they’re always getting us to eat everything we’ve cooked and prepared through the week and shoved to the back of the fridge— They eat things way past the expiration date, which leftovers really don’t have, so you have to kind of guess. We kind of look at them in awe (and a bit of fear) as they make a sandwich with lunchmeat nine days old.

Leftovers for us and for our friends is something fun and enjoyable, but for a lot of people, it’s a way of life. There are people not only making one meal last for a whole week, but many people in many parts of the world are using food from other peoples’ meals and pantries and making that last throughout the week. They look at food from not the perspective of what do I have to eat but what do I get to eat.

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The Widow at Zarephath (Bernardo Strozzi, 1630s)

Like this widow in Zaraphath, for example. She’s an extreme leftover eater. It is a time of famine across the whole eastern Mediterranean, and she has nothing but this one jar of meal and one jug of oil. It’s enough for her to make some bread and then wait for death. And God sends Elijah there to eat leftovers. God could have sent the prophet Elijah to anyone of Elijah’s own people for protection and sustenance, but instead God sends him to this foreign widow. She does exactly what Elijah tells her to do even though it means she has to make a cake for him first. She shares what little she has, and it somehow becomes enough for all of them.

Have you ever noticed how almost all the heroes in the Bible are the most vulnerable people? Don’t go looking in Scripture for superheroes to look up to. You’ll find widows and foreigners and poor people are the typical role models. This is especially noticeable with Jesus. A day or two, perhaps, after he and his disciples enter the big, bustling and wealthy city of Jerusalem, he points out a widow giving two small coins as an example of faith, as if she is who someone should model their life on. She is probably an extreme leftover eater too.

The scene is captivating: he and his followers are standing there watching scenes that they, being basically bumpkins from small town Galilee, probably have never seen. Dozens of scribes are possibly walking by, going in and out of the temple in long, flowing robes practically designed to catch everyone’s attention. Scribes were religious leaders who held a lot of power in Jesus’ society. Long flowing robes, long prayers, prominent seats in worship—wait, they sound a lot like a group of people I know!

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As Jesus and the disciples continue people watching, they see different people making their contributions to the Temple treasury. The system the Temple had set up for receiving offerings was very public. The collection containers were designed to make noise when coins were placed in them, and so it was easy to watch and hear how much people were giving. Jesus calls the disciples after this one woman walks by just so he can contrast her with the others who are giving much larger sums of money.

On one level, Jesus might be calling into question a corrupted system of the Temple religion that might be taking advantage of poor people. If it’s true that scribes would often devour widows’ estates, and that widows had almost no property rights in the ancient world, then here is a woman who is contributing to the same system that is perhaps oppressing her.

Regardless of what is going on here, Jesus is clearly pointing her out as something to behold, something honorable. She would have probably passed by unnoticed in the hustle and bustle if he hadn’t called their attention to her. Now, with no money left to her name, she might stop by the food bank before going home to eat someone else’s leftovers.

Yet in both stories we read this morning, it is not really frugality that is lifted up as the virtue, the ability to survive on so little. It is, rather, these individuals’ generosity. And in each case we do not come to see these women as examples of pity and charity, which is what society would normally teach us to see in them, but rather as people who save the day. They are the agents of grace. Just as the Zarephath widow teaches Elijah to trust God’s providence, the widow at the Temple shows the disciples how to “put in everything you have.”

To put in everything you have. Jesus wants us to see that’s what the life of trusting God means, and it really doesn’t mainly have to do with money or food. It has to do with one’s whole life, seeing it as a treasure, seeing that it has value, seeing it as a gift, especially once it is placed in the service of God.

To put in everything you have. Normally, eating leftovers, I’m thinking about taking out and saving and consuming everything I have. That attitude is probably not just how I look at my fridge, but at my entire life. How can I make the most of what I’ve got? How can I make this all benefit me and my objectives? What a contrast to the attitude of those we honor today who’ve served in our nations armed forces, many of whom have literally put in everything they’ve had to serve others through our armed forces!

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American soldiers in World War I

I’m inspired by the true story of one young single woman years ago who lived in a town in central Pennsylvania. Like the widow at the Temple, this woman was extremely devoted to the Lutheran congregation where she was a member. She was constantly thinking about how to put in everything she had in service to Christ. She was a Sunday School teacher, she helped at Vacation Bible School, she helped lead the youth group, she volunteered at just about everything the congregation was doing. She felt it still wasn’t enough. She had more to give. So one day she went to her pastor and said, “What else can I do?” It was the mid-1950s and the Korean War had just ended. The pastor, almost at a loss as to what to say to her, handed her a list of the congregation’s servicemen and said, “Write notes of thanks to these guys.”

So she did. She got to working on that list, reminding them of their congregation’s thankfulness for what they were doing, giving them encouragement. One of them she wrote a note to ended up writing her back. They had never met before, and she didn’t even know his name at first, but it stuck out to her. He was stationed in Okinawa, across the globe. When he came home, they ended up getting together just to say “Hi.” This past March Dale and Donna Raubenstine (who attend our first service) celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.

Putting in everything we have. We never know how much we really have until our whole life is in service to the Lord. We never know what amazing discoveries are wrapped up in faith and in following Jesus until we come to understand the waters of baptism are still drenching us, still dripping down on everything we are and everything we’ve got.

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copper coins from the time of Jesus

Putting in everything we have. We never know the richness of our lives until we start to give ourselves away. You have your own stories of looking at your life’s leftovers and seeing ways to hand them over in service and generosity, off hearing the call of Jesus not so much telling you what you have to do, but what you get to do.

For, as you might have guessed, it is not only to a widow that Jesus is pointing that day by the Temple, but to himself. The true superhero of grace finds his role model. The widow puts in everything she has, right there, out in the open, and so soon will he. He will put in everything he has on the cross because he treasures us. He will be the offering, and none will be held back. He loves us—both the scribe in us and the poor, both the taker and giver, the faker and the true-life-liver. Jesus loves us and he hands over all that he is so that his Father may continue to use us in his kingdom work.

And like Elijah and the widow who served him, we find that it somehow lasts. His love lasts and lasts and lasts, never gives out.

I realized not too long ago that there are really no such thing as leftovers. Just plenty. One loaf. One cup. You and me, claimed for him, and put all in to his body, given to the world.

Mo-o-o-re than enough to go around.

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Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Valley of Sorrows

a sermon for All Saints Sunday [Year B]

Revelation 21:1-6a and John 11:32-44

All Saints Sunday, to me, is like a little re-run of Easter. The browns and grays and oranges of late fall may be all around us, but the church is dressed in Easter white. We sing Alleluia over and over, and we’re rejoicing that Jesus, our Savior, is risen! He has fought the battle against death for us and in him we are promised life. The Lamb who was slain has begun his reign, and “See,” says the one seated on the throne in John’s vision in Revelation, “I am making all things new!”

And yet we are still sad. Even today. Even on this mini-Easter we find ourselves blotting at tears with our shirtsleeves and Kleenex, we glimpse the names on the back of the bulletin, and we are sad.

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Martin Luther, in his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism, talks about this life as a “valley of sorrows” and I remember when I was younger not knowing what to make of that. I suppose I was the victim of a happy childhood, unaware of the great griefs around me, but as I grow I’m coming to understand them more. Living in a valley of sorrows means that weeping is a part of the human experience for now, as much as we dislike to do it. It means there is, as Isaiah describes it, a “shroud cast over all the peoples,” that there is a lot of brokenness in the world that manages to creep its way into our own hearts and bring us sorrow.

It means, for example, I found myself shedding tears with someone in the columbarium just this week, as I heard them reflect on the beauty of a marriage cut short by death. It means I listened in a hospital room where a voice I normally associate with laughter broke as it told of growing frustration with the healing process. The valley of sorrows means our hearts ache as we learn more details from the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, like the simple but moving funeral held Monday for the two special needs Rosenthal brothers who were integral members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and had lived their whole lives as a blessing to that congregation.

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On Twitter last month Sandi Villareal, the web editor of Sojourner’s Magazine tweeted, “What line of a hymn makes you tear up every time you sing it?” Dozens and dozens tweeted their responses, and while it was beautiful to have the vanity and gossip of social media broken up a bit with a long thread of hymn verses, many of which I recognized, it was also revealing to see how many people will admit they often can’t finish certain hymns without crying. Young Phillip thought hymns were hard to sing because they could be boring. This Phillip finds some hymns hard to sing because of this lump in his throat. Hymns feature one of the great tensions of faith—we know and trust God makes all things new in Christ, the Lamb on the throne, but sometimes the tears of grief are hard to stop.

I remember distinctly one funeral I officiated in my early days in Pittsburgh. The middle-aged adult son of the deceased woman came up to me there in the cemetery once we had concluded the committal service, and he was clearly fighting back tears with all he had. “I know I’m supposed to be happy today,” he said, “my pastor told me this is the day of my mom’s victory, that she is now in Jesus’ arms, but I am still feeling sad. What is wrong with me.  Do I not believe?” It was like he needed an OK from me to weep, but I stood there most likely unhelpful, unable myself to articulate the mix of emotions we humans often undergo.

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Mary and Martha speak for us. They are us. They come running up to their dear friend Jesus knowing that he makes all things new, knowing his presence is something special, and yet still disappointed and overcome with sadness because their brother Lazarus has died. Their hope is mixed with frustration and regret and we know we have been there, too.

And look at what Jesus encounters as he arrives at the tomb—it’s that valley again! People are crying everywhere, all around him. They’re probably doing what people now call the “ugly cry”—that uncontrollable visible contorting of the face that you’re unable to hide. It used to be more OK to do that sort of thing in public.

What’s most fascinating is how Jesus responds to all of this. In so many Scriptures, the vision of God’s eternal kingdom involves no tears. Isaiah mentions it. So does John in Revelation this morning. When God finally has God’s way and everything is put right, one of the ways we’ll know we’ve arrived there is that there is no more crying. All the tears are wiped away, all the reasons ever to weep a thing of the past.

And yet, we don’t get a Savior who comes wiping away Mary’s and Martha’s tears. When God’s Word finally becomes flesh and dwells among us, he comes weeping himself. At least three different times we are told about Jesus’ emotional turmoil as he approaches Lazarus’ tomb. And as Jesus, dabbing at his shirt sleeve, face grimacing with the ugly cry, nears the entrance to the cave where they’ve laid the dead man, the crowd whispers, “Look at how much he loved him!”

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(James Tissot)

This is how much he loves us. Jesus descends into this valley where people mail pipe bombs and cancer is diagnosed, where wars and substance abuse take the lives of people in their prime, where humans visit all kinds of pain on each other. This is how much he loves us! He descends into this valley and feels first-hand, for all its beauty and splendor, how strange and uncomfortable it can often be.

There’s a prayer that we say once the family has all gathered at the graveside for a committal. It is an ancient prayer, but one strikes at the core of what we believe and understand as people of the cross. It begins, “Almighty God, by the death and burial of Jesus, your anointed, you have destroyed death and sanctified the graves of all your saints.” That is, through his crucifixion, Jesus has claimed and made holy all who have died. By weeping, by arriving in Bethany amid all the weeping people, Jesus also makes holy all our tears. All our ugly cries? He’s OK with them, too. We could say he makes them beautiful. We have a God who is honest with our pain, who ventures into each dark corner of this valley, and our sorrows is not a sign of faith’s absence at all. They are a sign that we’re human. They are a sign that we are beloved creatures fashioned in the image of a complex, loving God.

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“The Raising of Lazarus” (Giotto)

For several years now, certain theologians and teachers of the faith have been listening to the faith of people in our churches, especially the faith of young people, and they have been concerned that this is not the God of our worship and message. What these experts and scholars are saying is that it appears we in the church are more likely to conceive of a god who is more or less distant, who exists mainly at the edges of our life, who stands there, wanting us to do better and treat each other nicely, who just wants us to be happy and feel good about ourselves. They’ve paid special attention to how church youth describe their faith and this is what we, the adults, have somehow taught them: that god is concerned about our morals, but in the end god functions as little more than a divine therapist, a being we consult when we’re down or in trouble. By contrast, the belief that God is transcendent—that is, can enter our lives and change things and actually cause new life to occur—makes too many of us uncomfortable. It often can make me uncomfortable to talk about that God.

And yet that’s the Jesus that shows up at Lazarus’ tomb that day. That’s the Jesus who cries alongside Mary and Martha, who sees the tumult of emotions they feel and then makes those emotions holy, and who eventually looks into the dark and commands Lazarus to come forth out of the dead. That’s the Jesus who prays to his Father  that they will see what he is able to do—transcending their weeping—in order that they may believe. That’s the Jesus who goes to the cross, so that all may understand the glory of God is not just in being nice to one another, holding hands and singing harmonies, but in being merciful even when it’s hard. That is the Jesus we trust is here today, who doesn’t just show up to wipe the tears from our eyes and tell us just to be happy but who hears us and then weeps alongside of us.

A group of us this summer went to a showing of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the film about the life Mr. Fred Rogers. Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and although he didn’t explicitly mentioned God very often on his T.V. show, he was expert at weaving the message of this emotional, bold Jesus into his themes. There is one scene in that film that features an episode where Daniel Tiger, a simple puppet that often served as Mr. Roger’s true identity, sings a song about not being happy, of not feeling like he is enough. When it’s Mr. Roger’s turn to respond to his sad friend, he reminds him in a beautiful melody that Daniel Tiger is enough, that he is worthwhile and cherished and has many gifts to share.

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But that’s not how the scene ends, with Mr. Rogers just wiping the proverbial tears away and Daniel Tiger being cheered up immediately. The scene continues with one more verse  that weaves the two lines together, and we’re left with two songs intertwining—the sad song offered by Daniel Tiger, echoing up from the valley of sorrows, and Mr. Roger’s song of courage and hope.

As one of the men who joined us that evening pointed out over ice cream afterwards, that scene illustrates the life of the Christian perfectly, that we had just watch Fred Rogers present to the viewer one of Martin Luther’s best descriptions of the gospel. For now, we are in the same song both Daniel Tiger and Mr. Rogers. Luther called it “simultaneously saint and sinner”…people who weep, and who at the same time have joy. We dwell in a valley of sorrows, but assured of a loving God who comes to dwell in it too. Sinful, we are a cause of God’s weeping. And yet we are still made new.

And one day we are promised the sad tune we sing will finally run out of words, either because we die or because the King arrives. And on that day all that will be left is the King’s glorious song. The one seated on the throne who is making all things new will once and for all keep all things new—all of us—and this valley will be overcome by his love and the promise made in our baptisms will be complete.

We will rise, reborn and truly happy for one never-ending rerun of Easter.

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Jesus and the Rich Man

a sermon for the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23B/Lectionary 28]

Mark 10:17-31

As the gospel-writers are telling us about the life of Jesus, we notice things start to take a very serious turn about halfway through. All the fun things he was doing in the beginning of his ministry—things like healing people and casting out demons and feeding large crowds—basically come to a stop and he gets heavy and stern. With somewhat severe tone he pulls his disciples aside a few times and predicts his suffering and crucifixion in Jerusalem and even scolds them now and then for “not getting it.”

We’ve been steadily reading through Mark off and on since January, and this is the part of Mark’s gospel we’re in right now. He knows what’s coming down the road, so it’s suddenly no more fun-and-games Jesus. Two weeks ago he told us in exaggerated terms about how to address the reality of sin in our lives by cutting of our hands. Last week he had his debate with the Pharisees on divorce and adultery, and today he gets very blunt about wealth. We were discussing all of this in our staff meeting this past week and somebody said, “It’s kind of like when you’ve already read your kid 3 stories before bedtime and they keep wanting another one, but at some point you’ve just got to put your foot down, stop reading stories, and turn out the light.”

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Jesus and the rich man

This week Jesus kind of ends up putting his foot down on this man who runs up to him and wants to know what to do to inherit eternal life. We don’t know a lot about this man. We eventually find out he is wealthy and apparently has led a fairly upright life. Many of this man’s peers, and probably even the disciples, would have assumed his riches would have come as a result of his moral life, since a common belief back then was that God rewarded moral people with worldly wealth.

We also know he admires Jesus, calling him “Good teacher,” when he first approaches him. Even though Jesus basically rejects that term, the man must want to seek wisdom from him badly enough to walk up to Jesus on the road. He is a go-getter. Whether he’s inherited his money and managed to keep it or whether he’s earned it himself, he’s no doubt a confident seeker of the good life.

It would be nice for him if gaining eternal life were also something that could happen by checking off things on a list, by chalking up the perfect experience, by designing another spreadsheet. If he can just go do something—read another book, climb another mountain, achieve another goal, sign up for one more committee at church, he would be complete.

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The problem for him is that he wants eternal life, and apart from Jesus that just can’t happen. Entering the kingdom of God must be done like a child, with trustfulness that allows you to stay near Jesus. Receiving the God’s life-giving mercy involves being like broken soil which takes in a seed and then nourishes it over time so that growth is sustained. Recognizing the grace of God’s presence and forgiveness is something that comes through a relationship with Jesus. It is not a transaction. It is an ongoing thing. It is more like a journey that the man must walk or a way of life that the man must adopt than a particular activity that he can add to his resumé.

What Jesus knows is that the fewer possessions and wealth one has, the easier it will be to undertake that journey and receive that relationship. We tend to think of money and property and financial resources as things that enable and empower us to do things. Jesus, like the prophets before him, typically see wealth as a hindrance to faith and as a barrier to understanding others’ suffering.

Just last week after worship I helped one man who came by the church looking for assistance. He met me at a nearby grocery store and said he needed a few things like laundry detergent and food staples to get him through a couple of days. He was going to be getting on a Greyhound the next day and said that they’ll kick people off the bus if they smell too bad. Now, normally I don’t do this but that day, instead of getting him a gift card and leaving, I decided to help him shop (the church has funds for this kind of thing) and so I took off looking for the detergent and the Hostess cupcakes he really wanted and let him pick out his food.

 

We met several minutes later in the checkout line, which was really backed up. So we made small talk for a while, and I learned he was a really kind man with an interesting story, somewhat of a vagabond. But because neither of us had been able to find a basket when we walked in he was standing there with his arms full, bottles and bags of different things perched precariously on top of each other. A bead of sweat dripped down his brow and formed on the tip of his nose, but with full hands he was unable to catch it before it dropped onto his container of chicken wings. I was still holding the detergent and something else for him.

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When it came time for us to put our things onto the conveyor belt, there was this definite sign of relief at letting them go for a minute. I thought about how, for all I knew, this was all this man had—all of his food and worldly items were right there on the conveyor belt. I envisioned myself trying to hold everything I owned, my greedy arms extending out to fill the whole store to grab all my stuff at home. He had declined my suggestion that he get some fruit, I realized later, not because he didn’t like it, but because he knew it wouldn’t travel well.

Jesus calls this man who approaches him to travel well. To be nimble and unencumbered. Jesus doesn’t curse his wealth or chastise him for it, but Jesus knows the life of the kingdom he brings will require mobility, it will require freedom, it will require hands and feet free for serving and understanding what it’s like to be vulnerable. The man can’t handle that. He is shocked that eternal life will be a future without his many things, and so he turns away.

There is a lot of anxiety these days about the perceived decline of the church in the United States. Like most Christian denominations, our own, the ELCA, loses members every year. The percentage of people who claim to be affiliated with a church or who claim to attend worship regularly also declines with each subsequent year. People are turning away. So many times we in the church blame ourselves. We say things like our worship is boring or hasn’t supposedly kept up with changing trends. Some people suggest it’s because the church has been behind or tone-deaf on important social issues. Others have blamed the decline on becoming too much like culture.

To be sure, there are probably several factors for all of this change, many we have no control over. I never hear anyone, however, link the decline of the church’s membership to our society’s relative wealth. Personal disposable income in the United States has increased with almost every year since 1959. In fact, it has multiplied by almost four times since then, adjusted for inflation. What if the call to follow Christ and to join with his band of followers is simply being drowned out by a very consumerist society awash in options for how to gain and spend money? Maybe there are some connections there that we don’t even investigate. Even Jesus had a hard time convincing certain people to follow.

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This man who approaches Jesus but then turns away finds it too difficult to release his goods onto the conveyor belt, so to speak. The fact of the matter is that the more buffered someone is by their affluence, social status, education, or race, the more difficult it will become for that person to look for hope and salvation in something else outside themselves, including in God’s kingdom.

Interestingly enough, we know something else about this man, something we know about no one else in Mark’s gospel. We know Jesus loves him. He is the only person we hear that Jesus specifically loves in the entire journey of Jesus, from beginning to end and there’s nothing to suggest that love is withdrawn as he turns away. All this is to say there is nothing he or we can do to make God give us eternal life or earn Jesus’ love. Jesus has brought us God’s kingdom and loved us even before we start to follow and he puts his foot down to go to the cross where he will lay the whole of his life down on the conveyor belt so that the rich grace of God’s love will come to all. Rich, poor, powerful, weak, well-connected, anonymous…Jesus has called us all into his kingdom, welcomes every single person into the journey.

And once we’re on the journey all kinds of worlds and new realities open up. We realize we receive each other as brothers and sisters, new family members who share the struggles and joys of life with one another.

We receive property! The individual homes where our Seedling small groups are meeting are real extensions of the kingdom’s ministry throughout the Richmond area, and the LAMB’S Basket Food pantry is part of our household too.

And it goes beyond Richmond! Just last week a staff member of Lutheran World Federation drove from Baltimore to Richmond just to meet with me after seeing how many contributions Epiphany has made to their work over the years. Our quilting ministry makes hundreds of quilts every year for distribution to their outposts, and most recently our Lent donation of $2000 for life-saving medical centers in South Sudan had caught her eye.

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There was I was sitting in my office with a young, articulate millennial woman who kept saying things like, “our presence, our work in South Sudan is linked with IMA World Health, an international organization devoted to projects in earth’s most remote and poverty-stricken areas.” In fact, I was moved to learn from her that the money Epiphany gave went to helping alleviate diseases related to acute malnutrition primarily in children under 5 and pregnant or lactating women and aimed to help almost 100,000 people.

That is, of course, impressive, but the fact that she kept using the pronouns “we” and “our” instead of “they” and “their” was most moving to me. She meant that Epiphany was actually a part of that ministry—that we, through our fellowship in Christ, we have an outpost in the bush of Africa. We, through our faith and generosity, are a part of that group of disciples way over there. As Jesus promises, we have gained fields abroad where healing work is being done!

Jesus loves us and calls us into service to the world. God’s kingdom breaks in and through his grace we are made mobile, agile, ready to serve. He does put his foot down, oh so thoughtfully, to release us from the things that bind us, to put the first things last and the last things first. To give us more life that we’ll ever imagine.

What a serious turn of events in Jesus’ message, but what a amazing one for us! With God…all things are possible!

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

Technicalities

a sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22B/Lectionary 27]

Mark 10:2-16 and Genesis 2:18-24

There are so many technicalities when it comes to religion, aren’t there? Even for those who are good at making things simple, religious matters still somehow become barnacled over with all kinds of do’s and don’t’s. Some of the technicalities we come up with in church are a bit harmless, like which order the acolyte is supposed to light the candles in. We know it doesn’t really matter in the long run, but I’ve talked to a lot of 4th and 5th graders and their parents who are honestly worried they’ll get it wrong.

And things like this: just this week I got on an elevator in a hospital with a woman who instantly pegged me for what she called a “reverend.” I pointed to my white collar and said, “What gave you that impression?” But as we continued to talk I realized it was not my collar that indicated to her whether I was a reverend or, as she ruled out, a Roman Catholic Priest. As it turned out, it was the pants I was wearing. “I can tell you’re not Roman Catholic,” she asserted in all seriousness, “because you’re not wearing Catholic pants.” I had no idea what she meant. Apparently I skipped seminary the day they covered that! As I looked down at my dark gray houndstooth patterned slacks, I was just glad I still managed after all these years to pick out Protestant pants accidentally.

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Protestant pants?

As funny as they may be sometimes, the technicalities of religion often seem frivolous and pointless and can be a real turn off for some people, especially to people who are distanced from organized religion. However, there are other kinds of technicalities that really demand our attention. We may not even think of them as technicalities in many situations, because they seem to deal with such harder questions and thornier issues. The farther along Jesus gets in his ministry he seems to get more involved in trying to navigate these types of technicalities. When Jesus finally leaves Galilee and comes into the region surrounding Jerusalem Pharisees approach Jesus about the technicalities of divorce and remarriage. Forget the type of pants the pastor is wearing—I want to know what God thinks about divorce? What does the faith community say about it, especially when a person remarries? What is allowed by Scripture and by God’s standards?

Having never personally been through a divorce, I want to speak with great care and sensitivity at this point. I would imagine these are the kinds of questions that can keep some individuals up at night, the kinds of issues that can gnaw at the gut and create real crises of conscience. Even long after the judge has granted her decision and the custody and financial arrangements have been worked out, many people years later still struggle with guilt and shame. And for people who, for whatever reasons, have remained in marriages that are abusive or irreparably broken, the specific, technical questions about how God looks at it—or what constitutes abuse and neglect, or what is right for the children—are probably ever in the forefront of the mind. In some Christian denominations, those who are divorced and remarried are no longer able to receive Holy Communion, a type of “technicality” that no doubt is tough to live with. And as a pastor who presides at wedding ceremonies, I can say that many of the marriages I’ve been a part of where one or both people are re-marrying have been some of the most joyful and life-giving occasions I’ve been a part of. But have I, technically-speaking, abetted adultery?

We may make light of things we consider technicalities, but suffering is real and in the end we must realize that for some people these questions are loaded. The issue with the Pharisees’ question is that they are re not really dealing with a real person in a real case of suffering at the moment—they mainly want to see if they can catch him saying something blasphemous. Jesus threads their needle, responding with a quick reminder that God’s law does allow for the dissolution of marriage. That is, technically-speaking, it is not against God’s law for a man to divorce his wife. They can look to Moses to find that out.

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But then Jesus goes much further than the Pharisees and his disciples are prepared for: by quoting Genesis, he reminds them of the indisputable equality and mutual dignity of male and female. Jesus refers to both creation stories in Genesis to make his point—that male and female were created together, that they are fundamentally different but also equal, that in marriage they become one unit, that the family and subsequent generations of human beings are built on this relationship that God has ordained.

In fact, one popular song late this summer has helped drive this home for many of us. It’s a well-known song whose message is timeless, instructive. It has over 1 billion views on YouTube. From the beginning of creation, Jesus seems to say,  “Baby shark, do-do-doo-doo…Mommy Shark…Daddy Shark…” Mommy and Daddy shark—there’s no inequity mentioned there! It’s a harmonious shark unit.

But, you see, in Jesus’ time, marriage was mainly about the clever consolidation of property and power. Women didn’t have a whole lot of say in the matter. They were often like chits in a transaction as families formed alliances and did whatever they could to increase their social standing. Men, who had really nothing to lose from these situations, often used divorce to go from one wife to another and therefore to greater and greater wealth in society. This is why it can be tricky to read this conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees at face value and think that it speaks the same to our situations of divorce and remarriage today.

Jesus points out that marriage is a blessed union intended for much simpler but at the same time much greater function than all of that. One couple in our congregation just recently passed their 67th wedding anniversary. The last few months, however, have seen each of them struggling with illness off and on. Those close to them have noticed that, without fail, whenever she becomes ill and requires a hospital stay, he soon starts to decline too, almost for unknown medical reasons. When she comes home, he starts to slowly improve. Then he falls ill and has to receive treatment in the hospital. She, left alone, can barely can get out of bed. While in many ways it is sad to see them struggle at this time, there is also an undeniable beauty in seeing how their well-being has become so tied to each other’s. Years of cooperation, forgiveness, and shared struggle have intensified their one-ness. We can see in real time that what God has brought together only death will be able to break apart. This is the vision for creation that God has in mind.

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Since we’re talking about technicalities here, it is important to note that I did not technically choose these Scriptures for today. The Scripture texts we read in worship are from a lectionary, a cycle of readings that is laid out over a three-year period and this section of Mark 10 just happens to fall today. I can imagine it is a bit jarring to come into worship and hear about this debate about relationships between male and female on any week, but particularly after the week we’ve just had in American politics and the past year of #metoo movement.

Yet on the other hand, I’m glad that the Bible doesn’t only talk about things like which pants pastors wear (and just to be clear, it doesn’t). Life is full of these technically difficult and meaningful questions, and the Word of God always builds us up. And, as it happens, Jesus message to the Pharisees is only secondarily about marriage and divorce and adultery. Technically-speaking, they are really about power, who often has it, how it gets misused, and how God corrects that. Through time people—most often men—have used power to warp relationships like marriage. Pharisees and religious professionals have used power to categorize people as pure or defiled. Government leaders have used power to sow division and discord among the people they serve in order to seize more power. And all of us are guilty of misusing power to make the kingdom of God about rules we need to follow and rules in our hearts.

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Jesus comes to teach us and show us with his eventual death that the kingdom of God is known by and in the absence of power over any other human. The kingdom of heaven is like an equally-yoked marriage, just past its 67th anniversary, or it’s first, where male and female treat each other with mutual love. As Jesus buts heads with the Pharisees and then in private explains this all to his disciples, he is probably searching for something he could use to show what he means by the absence of power.

Just then, some people start bringing him little children, which in Jesus’ day were people who had no power at all. Even lower on the social ladder than women, children could only depend on others to take care of them. Jesus’ own disciples are trying to move them out of the way. He becomes angry and annoyed. Even they aren’t getting it.  It is only in our human powerlessness that we can have access to God. And he takes the little children on his knee to prove his point. The kingdom of heaven is like that moment, Jesus, in love with our simplicity. It is only when we realize our weakness, when we come to terms with our brokenness that we realize just how near mercy has come to us.

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Because, while there may be technicalities about religion and laws, there are no technicalities at all when it comes to faith, to God’s love for us. Jesus loves you…and the less power you feel you have, the less worth you feel you have in the world’s eyes, then the more God pulls near you. The more disposable you think you are, the more insistently God wants to remind you of your value, that you are just a little lower than an angel. The more broken you are, the more God wants you to know his forgiveness. In fact, he will die in order to get that point across. He will offer himself up after a sham trial in front of government officials who won’t know how to listen to him.

And then he will rise again—rise with strong arms that can reach out bless us all. That is the community of disciples we are to be, children on his knee. That’s the children’s sermon we receive in order to pass on to the world, wearing any kind of pants you want.

Thanks be to God, there are no technicalities there.

 

A-a-men, do, do, do doo doo do.

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Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Wenzel Peter)

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

A turner and the cross

a sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [proper 19B/Lectionary 24]

Mark 8:27-38

sanctuary Epiphany

Just a couple of years ago one of our youth, Turner Barger, was serving as crucifer in worship one Sunday. He carried the processional cross, like the crucifer is supposed to do, right down the aisle, leading the choir and the worship leaders. He stopped and turned around in the chancel, just like crucifer’s supposed to do, while the choir members filed into their seats.

And that’s when something kind of funny happened. He approached the altar to place the processional cross in its brass stand, but the stand wasn’t there. Someone had, for whatever reason, moved it from the week before. And so there was Turner, bearing the cross in front of God and everyone else, with no logical place to put it down. Turner knew that the stand probably just got shuffled around and was somewhere else up here in the general vicinity, but he couldn’t exactly lay the cross down to look for it or, worse yet, prop it upside the altar, he had to look for it with the cross in his hands.

So while we were still singing the last few lines of the first hymn, Turner proceeded to march around with that cross all over the place up here. He took the cross behind the altar to see if it was there. He marched over to the piano to see if the stand was lurking over there somewhere. Then went over to the other side where the choir sits to see if it was there. All in all, he crisscrossed the chancel several times (see what I did there?) looking for where that stand might be, and when it wasn’t found, and the hymn was almost done he just…walked right out of the side door into the hall and disappeared, cross and all.

Those of you who know Turner know it couldn’t have happened to a more appropriate person. He literally knows where everything in this church is. I still have visions of Turner faithfully wandering the halls of the church, still lifting that cross high, looking for a place to let it properly rest.

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Easter procession with the cross in Croatia

Following Jesus means walking the halls of life with a cross we won’t be able to put down. To be one of Jesus’ followers, that is, and to continue on the road he is taking, we will need to be prepared to take on a new way of life, one where we’ll steadily learn to let loose of certain things so that we can grab hold of the divine things—divine things like serving our neighbor—that will give us life. There is no stand for this cross, no convenient little place where we can drop it off and resume whatever else we were doing with ourselves. Like the cross that is placed on our forehead at our baptism, it is really with us for good.

In Mark’s gospel we hit the halfway mark and discover Jesus needs to level with his disciples. It’s as if he says, “This has all been interesting up to this point, maybe even fun. The healings, the miraculous feedings, the debates with the stuffy Pharisees, the crowds that adore me everywhere I go, the anticipation about a kingdom coming. But I need to make sure we’re on the same page. It’s time to talk about this road we’re on.”

And to have this little come-to-Jesus talk Jesus has chosen a very appropriate venue. They are near the villages around Caesarea Philippi, a gleaming new city that was built by Herod’s son Philip as a testament to Caesar’s power and glory. Philip had chosen a location that had been the site of ancient worship to the god Pan. Multiple carvings of that god had been made in the rock face and together with the fancy city on top and all the monuments to empire it would have been hard to stand there and not think about the identity of these figures. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to stand there as Jesus’ disciple and not think about things like worship and allegiance and kingdom. And right there, with these things surely swirling in their heads, Jesus asks for the first time “Who do people say that I am?” That’s Caesar, up there. That’s the worship of ancient gods. Where do I fit in?

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The cliffs at the base of Caesarea Philippi where the altars to the god Pan were carved into the rock face.

 

After they share with Jesus some of the ideas they’ve overheard people in those crowds murmuring, Jesus turns the question to them. And Peter, the disciple who tends to blurt things out, the disciple who often serves as the group spokesman, gets the question about identity correct, but it’s clear he doesn’t know what he’s in for. In Peter’s mind the Messiah, or the Christ, would march into Jerusalem, bust some heads, and take names. But that is not how Jesus is going to be the Messiah, the one anointed by God to bring in his kingdom of justice and righteousness. Jesus is going to march into Jerusalem and let them bust his head. They will pull out his beard. He will not hide his face from insult and spitting (Isaiah 50). He’s going to hand himself over to human ways of power and control and self-assertion in such a way that we can finally, clearly see where those ways eventually lead. He will be a suffering Messiah, a humble and loving king who trusts not in himself and his own abilities, but in God’s power to set things right. Jesus will let himself be lifted up on a cross and never be set back down—they’ll carry him out of the halls of power, out of the temples of glory and beauty to a most inconvenient hill somewhere outside the city where he will suffer and die.

This is who Jesus is and this is how he comes to be God’s Son for us. He comes to empty himself for us. He comes to bear God’s love into all the dark hallways and pathways of our lives. He comes to set aside his own needs in order to give us the grace we need.

And therefore following this kind of Messiah, means lifting up this kind of leadership and this kind of self-giving life into the world, even though it will be unpopular. That is bearing the cross. That is denying the self. That is saying “I’m not going to lay down the chance to bring Christ into the world.”

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the crucifixion by Simon Bisley

And in a day and age when so much emphasis is placed on personal identity and crafting that identity, and putting it our self out there for people to see just how we want it, this is super challenging. Like builders of little Caesareas of Philippi all over the place, we construct all kinds of facades and monuments that we want people to think about when they think about us when really they should look at us and see someone carrying a cross. Because we don’t really find our true selves until we’ve lost ourselves in Christ, until everything we think we are has been offered up for who Jesus is. And not because we’ve been so wise or brave to do it, but because God has been so gracious to claim us.

Today our 9th and 10th graders sign up for another year of confirmation ministry. In the Lutheran Church, since we typically baptize infants, we provide young people the chance to be a Peter and publicly profess their faith and affirm the promises God made to them in their baptism. These young people will spend the next year looking more closely at certain foundational aspects of the faith of the church with the hope they’ll start to articulate that faith as their own. Now, I don’t know how this specific group of confirmands is approaching this task, mentally or intellectually. They’re bright and curious, though. At their age I just wanted it to be over.

One helpful way to think about it is to think that they will be learning to answer this question that stands at the center of Mark’s gospel: “Who do you say that Jesus is?” Or, as one of my theology professors from seminary put it, “Who is Jesus and why does he matter?” There are a lot of good and interesting questions that are taken up by Christian faith, but that’s that really is the question that stands at the center. That’s really the question that keeps us coming back to the basics: who is Jesus and why does he matter?

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youth performing service with their church at a shelter

And we’ll be surrounding these young people just as we always do, with our responses to that question, whether we realize it or not. When they see us give up our time to serve at LAMB’s Basket or the HHOPE pantry or CARITAS, up goes that cross we carry and we say Jesus is hope for those in need and he matters because God’s kingdom includes all people, especially those who often get overlooked. When they see us take the time to join a small group or attend a Sunday School class up goes that cross again, and we are saying Jesus is a teacher and he matters because we need more than bread to live. When they see us donate supplies to McShin Foundation or ACTS to prevent homelessness, we are saying Jesus is a healer and he matters because he shows us all people are given God’s mercy and forgiveness. When they see us come as often as we can to this place to worship him and give him praise we will be saying Jesus is the risen Son of God and he matters because he has brought us eternal life.

Whether we realize it or not, we are all given the chance to answer Jesus’ question about his identity through the everyday decisions of discipleship we make. God is gracious, and no matter how many times we set our minds on human things, Jesus gives us another chance to figure out who he is. God is so gracious—the formation of our faith doesn’t end at 10th grade! Daily we are given the chance to go through all kinds of confirmations, again and again—as if we are given the chance, over and over, to take that life-saving cross down the aisle, to be a Turner—that is, one who turns aside from the paths of selfishness the human things that point us inward and march instead across the chancel with the cross in front of all God’s people and out, out, out into the world.

Thanks be to God!

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a crucifer (but not Turner)

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

 

Faith Formation: a role model and a goal

a sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18B/Lectionary 23]

James 2:1-10, 14-17 and Mark 7:24-37

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It’s probably not the common answer, but a strong case could be made that no one in the entire New Testament displays greater faith than this Gentile Syrophoenician woman that meets Jesus in the region of Tyre. Most people would probably go for the apostle Paul, maybe, or one of the disciples, like Peter or John. They express faith deeply on many occasions.

It could be James, come to think of it, the guy who wrote the letter we read from this morning who, despite what Martin Luther thought, really nails it when it comes to describing faith. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” James asks. “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Martin Luther didn’t like those lines. It made it sound too much like you have to earn salvation, but James understands that true faith in God always leads to loving action for the neighbor.

I think you could put up any one of these fine people as an example of faith, but this unnamed, foreign woman still would beat them, and I think Mark wants us to know that. First of all, she comes to Jesus on behalf of someone else, not herself. Granted, the neighbor she seeks to serve is her own daughter, but she wastes no time in finding Jesus when he wanders into her town. Like every mother I’ve ever known, when it comes to caring for her child she will stop at nothing. She has faith in Jesus and she comes and bows down at his feet like he can do something about it.

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Second, she is the only person in all of the gospels who gets into an argument with Jesus and actually bests him. In that, she does what no Pharisee, scribe, no disciple is able to do. She asks Jesus for help, and when Jesus gives her a response about the mercies of God coming first to the children of Israel she says, “Yeah, well, even the dogs get crumbs.” Jesus immediately announces that her daughter is healed. You can see him sitting up a little straighter at the table, can’t you, astounded that such faith is coming from someone considered such a political, racial, and social outsider. Or maybe he already knows that about her, and this is a little conversation to emphasize to the others around him just how silly it is to try to put up barriers around God’s grace.

Third, and as if to underscore just how mighty her faith in that grace is, her daughter is healed before she gets home. In every other exorcism in the gospels Jesus comes face to face with the unclean spirit in order to drive it out. In this instance alone is Jesus able to heal the girl without confronting her. It’s as if the woman’s faith is so strong it can leap time and space.

To be sure, faith is not a competition, and we shouldn’t really compare and contrast something so personal, something we don’t really have control over, Nevertheless, this woman displays a profound trust that God can hear and help her, and so she becomes the perfect person to lift up as we celebrate Rally Day and begin a year in the life of this congregation focused on faith formation. Thank you, determined Syrophoenician woman, for inspiring us to build a community of Christ-followers who grow in our faith and equip us to be disciples in our homes, in our church, and in our world.

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a teacher with students in Vacation Bible School

What is faith formation? That’s a good question. Faith formation is a term the church has begun using in place of Christian Education, which is the term that was used throughout most of my childhood and the lives of generations before me. Christian education can sound too “school-y,” and so Faith Formation is a more expansive term, and really gets us to think of ways the church can intentionally build people’s relationship with God outside of the Sunday School classroom, although that is certainly part of it. This congregation has a rich culture of children’s Sunday School, for sure. I think of how Ms. Betsy has helped form the faith of countless children, as this year, at the age of 90, she begins a 66th year teaching Sunday School!

But faith formation is not just for children, and congregations can’t forget that. In fact, surveys of adults in the U.S. still reveal that the number one reason why people attend religious services at least once or twice a month is not because they find the sermons valuable or because they think it will make them a better person, or because they want to give children a moral foundation, but so that they can become closer to God.[1] And that is exactly what this Syrophoenician woman does. You can’t get any closer to Jesus than bowing at his feet.

How do you approach Jesus? What healing to you seek in your life or in the lives of those around you? How do you hope to be involved in God’s healing of the world as Jesus walks from the far reaches of Tyre and Sidon and the Decapolis—way outside his Jewish people’s comfort zone—back to Jerusalem and then to the cross, re-drawing the whole map of humanity into the embrace of God’s love? Is it something that you think “just happens,” or are their intentional practices and commitments you can undertake to nurture that kind of faith?

Holy Land at the Time of Christ
Tyre and Sidon (at the top) and the Decapolis (right) are outside of normal Jewish stomping grounds.

“To build a community of Christ-followers” is how our objective of faith formation begins, which means we at Epiphany recognize that faith is not ever meant to be a private, one-on-one affair with God, like it can be strengthened solely on one’s own. It is a community enterprise, where people gather and let their stories of sorrow and joy interweave and build one another up. I remember hearing one time that many American adults have about the faith level and biblical knowledge of a fourth grader because that’s about when they stopped attending church regularly as a child. God has created us as people who grow and learn and give at all stages of our lives, and faith formation in a congregation should reflect that.

People I see for home communion visits often remark on the little leather-bound communion set that I bring. I explain that is was a gift to me upon my ordination from my grandparents’ Sunday School class at Augsburg Lutheran Church in Winston-Salem. On the lid of the Communion set is a little metal plaque that reads, “The Sid Sowers Class,” named after one of the men who helped lead the group over 50 years ago. If you think about it, the body and blood of Jesus is literally brought to the coffee tables and hospital bedsides of people in this congregation by the faith of a group of 80- and 90-year-olds that have been meeting together for Bible study and life-sharing since the 1950s. We can all be so thankful for their faith formation.

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my home communion kit

If the Syrophoenician woman in the first half of today’s gospel reading is an example of faith, then the man in the second half becomes the perfect example of what faith formation looks like, of what it’s goal should be. Faith formation looks like being opened. Just as I open that little communion set to share the sacrament, just as Ms. Betsy opens her heart to 2-year-olds every week, just as Pastor Joseph opens his guitar case to lead the youth group in song, the hope in faith formation is that we are opened to the wonderful ways God loves us and cares for us. It is that we are opened to see new possibilities of service to our neighbors in need, opened to new relationships with others that are life-giving, opened to the renewing power of forgiveness.

The reason why Jesus’ healing of this man causes such a stir in that community is because the people of ancient Israel understood that one of the principal signs that God’s kingdom had arrived was when the mute were made to speak and the deaf were able to hear. To a God who creates the universe merely by speaking and who sends his Word to be flesh among us, the gift of communication—both receiving and giving—is what truly de-isolates people and brings people together, and when that communication opens people up, and opens up their world, instead of shutting them down, then God in Christ is truly present.

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When a congregation uses “opening up” as a model for faith formation it will do all kinds of exciting things. They will, for example, develop curricula for confirmation and Vacation Bible School that will allow children who are on the autism spectrum to participate more fully in the life of the congregation. This summer our faith formation director led a weekly evening VBS based on Legos which ended up being ideal for children with sensory and processing challenges, and over the past two years one of our confirmation mentors created lessons on the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer that can be used for students who are non-verbal.

Congregations who use opening up as an inspiration for faith formation also provide their youth groups with summer experiences in places like inner city Atlanta and the migrant worker communities of Eastern Shore (people who pick the food that goes on our tables) to learn about what life is like in places very different from where they are growing up in suburban Henrico and Hanover counties.

Congregations who worship a God who opens people up support and then also utilize things like Stephen Ministry. The also might even open themselves up to sending people to seminary. This congregation has sent four individuals to seminary for ordination in the past six years. And just two weeks ago I wrote a letter of recommendation for one of our members who serves in the Marine Corps who has requested to lead Bible studies for his battalion.

It is our hope also that Seedling Groups will be used by people of this congregation as a way to open up. Seedling Groups, which are open to any adult—don’t need to be a member!—will begin meeting in members’ homes this fall for a time of reflecting on the pastor’s sermons and the Scriptures those sermons use as a foundation to provide fellowship and spiritual growth. Leaders for these groups have already been trained and sign-up sheets for those Seedling Groups are now in the Commons for this Sunday and next Sunday.

small group seedling logo

The way Seedling groups will work is that they will meet twice a month. Some groups will be for couples, and others are for individuals, whether they be single or married but attending without their spouse. Other groups will be mixed. All of the discussion questions will be based on the pastors’ sermons (and the texts that go with them) and will be downloadable from our website each week.

Our Thursday morning Mom’s Bible study group will be one Seedling Group this fall. They piloted the Seedling group model last spring and really enjoyed it. We were hoping to create a Seedling Small group on Sunday mornings for people who don’t have a more convenient time to meet. However, all available spaces for meeting on Sunday mornings are taken. There is no place for additional adult faith formation to happen, which makes Brighten Our Light building campaign even more necessary. That will add some much-needed space for us to grow and do ministry. We need room like crazy.

We are hoping to have 20% of our worship attendance sign up for a Seedling Small Group, which is about 80 people. Once you sign up, the leader will contact you and bring you on board, and we ask that you stay committed for two meetings before you decide to drop out. In a widespread congregation like ours, small group ministry not only can open people up but also help bring us together, shrink our boundaries down from Tyre and Sidon to the cross, and build a community of Christ-followers who grow in their faith—faith just as strong, perhaps, as that of the Syrophoenician woman who is willing to live on crumbs from the table of Jesus.

 

Thanks be to God!

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Rally Day at Epiphany Lutheran Church (Ms. Betsy is on the front pew, left)

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Christian Century, August 29, 2018. P 9

Tough bread

a sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 16B/Lectionary 21]

John 6:56-69 and Ephesians 6:10-20

 

Chalice Of Wine With Bread On The Burlap

It was my first Sunday here at Epiphany, about ten years ago. I was still in the interview process to be the associate pastor and was here to preach and help lead worship, kind of like an audition. Everything went fairly well, but the thing that really stuck out to me that day was the communion bread. For whatever reason, the pita loaves had gotten left out of its bag the night before and by the time we went to serve it the next morning, it was all dry and hard and stale. When Pastor Chris Price and I worked our way down the rail for communion, each piece we broke off made this loud cracking noise. I kind of had to get my wrist into it just to tear them off. The pieces were very chewy and rough, like we were handing out crackers. People were crunching on them.

But I didn’t know any different, you see. It was my first Sunday here, and I just thought that was the way Epiphany Lutheran liked communion. They like their bread tough and hard to chew. No judgment here. It wasn’t until after the service was over when Pastor Chris Price, the senior pastor at that time, assured me that typically the bread they used was typically soft.

Be that as it may, I think Jesus is content to give us hard, chewy bread most of the time. I don’t think Jesus is bothered by how difficult it might be to break off, tear apart, swallow, digest. And I’m not talking about the communion bread, necessarily. I’m talking about his teachings, the things he says to us, the lessons he gives. Jesus works his way down the rail, down the paths of our life encountering us in his Word and in the communal life of his people gathered, and he doesn’t seem to be concerned if things are hard to choke down.

Is this your typical impression of Jesus? I’m not sure it’s always mine. I’m not sure I think often about this difficult Jesus, this content-to-be-offensive Jesus, this “take-me-or-leave-me” Jesus. I know I am usually most familiar with the easy Jesus, the chasing-after-lost-sheep Jesus, the boil-things-down-to-make-it-simple Jesus.

But today we see him standing there with a crowd of followers around him. He has just fed thousands with a few loaves and two fish—loaves that were probably fresh and soft—and he hears his disciples complaining about his teaching. They’re complaining because what he’s said is too hard to accept. It’s too hard to receive his lesson about his body, broken and shared for the life of the world, and how partaking of that flesh and that blood connects them to the eternal life that he has.

drinking the cup

We know this similar reaction occurs with any number of Jesus’ teachings, not just this one about his presence in the bread and the wine. We’re told many of them turn back at that point and no longer go about with him. And he doesn’t chase after them. Jesus doesn’t say, “Yikes! The numbers of religiously unaffiliated is on the rise in our culture today! People are leaving the church! Let’s do whatever we can to get them to come back with us!” Instead, he lets them turn back if they want to.

I’m not sure this impression of Jesus is always mine, but I bet it needs to be. It needs to be because I am so tempted to think God always agrees with me and what I think about any given issue or cause. I don’t know about you, but I am also often tempted to think the easy way, the easy answer, is the right one. I am so easily convinced that matters of faith and belief should never be difficult to digest, that they should instead be something I can figure out on my own, or fit in nicely with what I already know, and they’re especially useful if I can pick and choose what I want to believe. But perhaps most dangerously, I’m easily wooed into thinking faith is a kind of secret charm, that if I have it, that if I believe in God and do what I’m supposed to, I’ll escape or avoid all trouble in life.

The Jesus we encounter today, who gives us tough, chewy bread, flies in the face of all of that: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” That is, when it comes to a relationship with the eternal God, what we do on our own—muscle and will-power—aren’t helpful. Those things ultimately get us nowhere. What Jesus speaks to us and gives to us is what is life-giving, lasting.

“No one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” In other words, faith is a gift. It is a trust that God cultivates in us that gets us to follow and listen more closely through whatever comes our way. That’s the whole point of Paul’s conclusion to his letter to the Ephesians. God doesn’t outfit us with a parachute a magic wand or a secret tunnel to safety. God gives us armor because he expects us to withstand the trials we face, to stand firm and endure.

And tough, chewy words from Jesus are the kinds of things that sustain that kind of faith. They tend to last. They tend to stick with you, especially in the difficult times ahead.

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Epiphany confirmation classes

Our ninth and tenth graders are preparing in a few weeks to begin another year of confirmation classes. We’ll meet about every other Wednesday evening for ninety minutes, and I know that many of them will question, just like I did when I was there age, what is the point of all of this. Why does the church invite its young people to profess their faith publicly, and why do we have them come to classes and learn things like the Ten Commandments, the Sacraments, and the Creed? There are so many other things they could be doing with their time, and so many other ways, perhaps, to come at the faith. I can think of several reasons we do this, but one might be is to make sure we introduce them to this Jesus who hands out tough bread, to chew together on some of the life-giving things he says.

Interestingly enough, one of the stories that is being told about Senator John McCain in the wake of his death is of the “informal worship services he had with his fellow prisoners of war [in Vietnam], toward the end of the war when they were out of isolation. McCain [said he] was named room chaplain, ‘not because the senior ranking officer thought I was imbued with any particular extra brand of religion, but because I knew all of the words of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.’”[1]

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John McCain (1936-2018) as a prisoner of war

 

We live in day and age when people are geared toward this idea of self-fulfillment. I know I see myself in this culture’s values. Linda Mercadante, professor at the Methodist Seminary in Ohio author and expert on people who claim to be spiritual but not religious, says that our system of morality is geared towards making the most of it, of stacking our lives with experiences we won’t regret, of choosing adventure and accumulating our identity from the world of options around us. Our quests these days are for personal meaning. The questions revolve not around “Where do I belong?” for example, but “Who am I?”

In this kind of moral landscape, religions—and really any communal faith practices or wisdom—often appear to demand too much giving up of personal liberty and the center of authority has shifted from “out there” to “in here.” We view ourselves as the most authentic and most true judge of what we need. We even do this with Christian faith, adding what we like here, taking out what we don’t like over there, seeing time in church on Sunday primarily as something that fills us up, recharges our batteries, rather than worship of a higher power, something that joins us to a crowd that heeds an outside authority. And I suppose there is some good to this, some enjoyment to be had, ideas to be explored. God gives us a brain to be discerning and call out error when we see it. Besides, to some degree, there’s little we can really do about this individualistic mentality. It’s the era we’ve inherited.

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Into all of this, into all of this navel-gazing and skepticism, this confident Jesus strides just like he does after that miraculous meal of loaves and fishes and asks us, “Do you also wish to go away? Do you also wish to turn back, leave me here?” And with the faith of Peter may we say,  “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Because, truth be told, all other ways we might tread run dry and turn up empty. I don’t know how Peter knows that already, but he seems to. Usually after great heartache we see how those other paths end in emptiness, loss, isolation, failure. Jesus knows this. He knows that that all ways of humankind eventually lead to the cross.

And, as it turns out, there aren’t two different Jesuses—a hard-edged one and a gentle one. There is one Jesus—one who is always giving life, always reaching out, always extending that call to follow and take up the armor of faith. And that one confident, loving Jesus will be at the cross, too, at the dead end of all the other paths we might choose. For he…

suffered under Pontius Pilate
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
But on the third day he rose again.

This Jesus will be at the cross waiting, but he will be there with eternal life for each of us, defeating the harsh with the humble. There he will be with mercy and forgiveness and welcome. And there we will hear his Words and they will heal us, once and for all. And he will raise us up on the Last Day.

We come to the rail today, weary and worn, some of us perhaps a little testy, belligerent, doubtful, begrudging, selfish, wanting something easy. I can guarantee we’ll receive something good. And with bread between our teeth, we come and receive another invitation not to turn back and to keep on walking with Jesus now, the Lord of life, the one who conquers the grave. Might as well keep walking with him. Might as well.

 

Thanks be to God!

Lella giving communion

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2018/0825/Remembering-John-McCain-the-quintessential-patriot