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.

communion kit
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.

Ephphatha-be-opened-message-smaller

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]

john mccain
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.

man-praying-dock

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

Not a pizza party

 

a sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15B/Lectionary 20B]

John 6:51-58 and Ephesians 5:15-20

Emanuel's
Emanuel’s Lutheran Church (Bellevue, PA). The congregation closed those red doors in 2015.

The congregation I served back in Pittsburgh had a Wednesday evening Holy Communion service that had been started by the pastor just prior to me. It was an abbreviated worship service, designed only to last about 30 minutes or so. We often only read one Scripture lesson. It was also a spoken liturgy, meaning we typically didn’t have any music with it. It wasn’t a fancy worship service, by any means, but it was very intimate, kind of like the Sunday evening services we held here last year. When it came time to share the bread and the wine, there were typically so few of us that we could all gather shoulder to shoulder right in front of the altar. In fact, by the time I arrived our average attendance was around eight and it rarely climbed higher than that.

A more experienced and courageous pastor might have cancelled it right off the bat, but I was determined to give it a go and see if we could grow it. We tried adding music here and there. We tried worshiping outside in warmer months. We tried all sorts of various little alterations and innovations in order to appeal to more people but nothing seemed to work.

It happened that one Wednesday evening our women’s retreat committee was having a meeting at the same time as that Holy Communion service in another room elsewhere in the building. They had made it a dinner meeting and had ordered pizza to be delivered, but they mentioned to me right before worship that the delivery man might not know which door to come to. I told them not to worry—I would point him in the right direction if I saw him. We went forward with worship and they went forward with their meeting.

Then, right as I was standing in front of the altar about to bless the bread and the wine for Holy Communion, the large, heavy, red front doors of the church cracked open and the evening sunlight streamed through. My arms were spread open in prayer, but all of the worshippers were turning their heads, focusing on the person who propped open the door with his foot and started down the aisle straight for me with a stack of steaming hot pepperoni pizza. The timing could not have been better…or worse? Since there was no one else to receive him, he walked all the way down the aisle with those pizzas and met me at the altar. I eventually paused the service so I could show him out the side door, But for a minute or two there that guy probably thought this pastor will try anything to boost the worship attendance! Pizza for Holy Communion! Let’s party, everybody!

pizza-delivery

Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven, and whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” He means to tell us that the heavy door of heaven has cracked open and he comes down the aisle to give himself for the life of the world.

It’s so easy sometimes to miss this fundamental aspect of Christian faith among the rest of this conversation about bread and wine. The God to whom we pray, the God we worship, the God we call to for life and salvation is a God who comes down to us from heaven. The God who sends Jesus is not a God who asks us to be a certain way or do certain things in order to reach him, as if our task is to climb to his holiness. The living bread comes down from heaven to give life for the world. Let’s party, everybody!

Although those of us in the sanctuary that night didn’t get to eat it, the pizza made us think again how the whole story of Jesus is one about delivery. It’s not take-out. It’s not pick-up. It’s God delivering all of God’s fragile but might self into our midst, repeatedly—delivered into the manger, into the humble fishing life Galilee, into the suffering of ordinary human beings, delivered into our very hands to die on the cross. As the late, great Aretha Franklin once sang in one of her earliest gospel songs:

“Yes, I hear a voice pleading with me,
Quietly, quietly commune with me.
Just steal away in secret and pray
Quietly, quietly, come break bread with me.”[1]

In all honesty, sometimes we might wish Jesus had just thrown something like a pizza party with his disciples. It might make our faith a little more accessible to seekers and newcomers and get us out of this awkward situation where we eat a bit of bread and drink a sip of wine each week. Plus, given the way Jesus himself talks about that meal, it’s easy to see why early Christians were accused of being cannibals. As they wait for his return, as God’s Holy Spirit ignites faith in more and more people, his followers are not just going to gather to remember Jesus and his teachings, they’re not just going to “to sing hymns and psalms and make melody to the Lord in their hearts,” as the writer to the Ephesians says, but to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood.

communion

In fact, if that’s not graphic enough, the word for “eat” that Jesus uses is the English word “gnaw,” which indicates he is not speaking metaphorically here. He is not saying we just consume him and his words with our brain. He is talking about teeth and jaws. He intends for people to eat when they meet for worship. Holy Communion is Jesus’ way to prevent his followers from turning their faith into a head-trip, from making church into some form of a TED Talk or self-help seminar. It’s like God says, “Here. Here’s bread and here’s wine. Can’t avoid it. Real things. God loves created matter. And you are created matter, not just ideas. And you are sent to take care of created things.”

Jesus says these things right after he has multiplied the loaves and fishes and has gotten into an argument with the Jewish leaders about what is the living bread from heaven. They have already failed to grasp how Jesus will be the living bread from heaven, how his life will be even better than the manna that sustained their ancestors in the wilderness as it dropped each night from the sky. Now he takes it another step further by saying that his body will be that bread and that by eating it they will gain eternal life. The living Father delivered him to them, and so now they can take him and eat him and have the same life as the Father.

We think of bread nowadays as somewhat of an optional food, as something that can make some people ill, but in Jesus’ day, and still in many parts of the world, it is the main food. I remember growing up and going to Sunday dinner after church at my grandmother’s house out in the country. They always had fresh rolls on the table. I got the impression that you couldn’t really eat a full meal unless there was bread involved. Fried chicken or barbecue or short ribs might be the main course, but bread is what enabled you to eat it all because, you see, they taught me you eat everything by holding the roll in your left hand so you can sop up everything on your plate and leave it clean.

Easy-Dinner-Rolls1

When we eat of Jesus, we get everything God offers. We realize it sounds strange, and maybe even a little off-putting, but Jesus wants us to know that he comes to deliver God’s life all the way inside of us. When we partake of Jesus, it’s like we’ve got that roll in our left hand: we can sop up everything God offers. This meal embodies the self-giving and self-sacrifice that Jesus is sent to deliver. All of God’s forgiveness and mercy, all of God’s love and compassion, all of God’s justice and concern for those who don’t have enough, all of God’s grace is given to us in this meal. It is a visible, tangible reminder of what Jesus comes to do: give himself. Eating is necessary for life, and so if we’ve got a new life in Christ, it will require food.

Furthermore, if you think about it, and every act of eating anywhere involves a sacrifice somewhere, whether it’s the chicken that was slaughtered at the Tyson plant up off Staples Mill Road or the wheat that was cut out in Nebraska, or the labor of the grandmother that woke up early to get it cooked and arranged just right on the checkered tablecloth. It think most of the time we eat without thinking about that. I know I do. Food implies sacrifice, and this meal that Jesus gathers us around is no different.  The fact that Jesus spent his life coming down from heaven to be with you, to feed you, to heal you, to walk with you, is the reason why he gathers you around this table and break bread with you.

Eucharist-

A voice is pleading with you, says Aretha. Not just you, of course, but all of us—his body, blessed and broken, shoulder to shoulder we gather, and yes, at a dinner meeting (let’s call this what it is) where we sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs making melody to the Lord in our hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

On that note…I’ve heard many visiting pastors and other visitor friends of mine make comments about how well our congregation sings. I’m so thankful for that. It’s another strange, counter-cultural thing the Spirit has us do. In a day and age when singing is typically something we watch other people do for us (or at us), Christians continue to regularly sing together, make melody—and sometimes even harmony—in our hearts as we make a joyful noise to the Lord.

Let’s be real: we don’t need pizza.

 

Thanks be to God!

Bread and wine

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “You Grow Closer” Songs of Faith – the Gospel of Aretha Franklin

a meal to remember

a sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost [proper 12B]

John 6:1-21

days-suites-thunderbay-standard-room-lg

Three summers ago my family was making the long trek back across the country from visiting friends in Wisconsin. We stopped for a night in Chicago and ended up staying in a hotel on the far northern edge of the city. After spending a long, hot, and sunny day walking to different sites in downtown, we got back in our car and drove the thirty minutes north to the hotel. We were tired and hungry, and we didn’t want to spend more money and energy in a restaurant, so at about 7pm we stopped in Heinen’s grocery store, bought a rotisserie chicken, some small tubs of salads from the prepared foods counter, some fruit, and some Chips-Ahoy for dessert. We went back to our hotel room, spread out the food on the coffee table, which was small and unusually low to the floor, so we had to squish together on the sofa and hunch over to eat. And we sat there and ate our lukewarm and cold food while we watched the U.S. Women’s soccer team win the World Cup final.

My family still talks about that meal. In many ways, that supper still feeds me and Melinda. We remember it with such fondness, and not because the food was exceptional. It was an event where we had a clear need and discovered that somehow the Lord provided more than we were expecting. It was a surprise moment of unusual togetherness for us during a long trip home, a time of growth and opportunity—one daughter willing to try blackberries for the first time, all of us swept into the action of the game. It was a humble meal, kind of haphazardly put together. We didn’t have any plates, so we just ate right out of the food containers themselves, everyone with their own fork from the grocery store salad bar. Everything tasted so good, and while I don’t remember my belly feeling particularly full after we finished, I was satisfied.

Have you ever had an experience like that?—a time when food was shared and it created a life-giving moment but the food itself wasn’t really the centerpiece? Have you found yourself in a moment like that—a time of random ambush of God’s abundance, when there was what seemed like nothing…and then suddenly there was more than enough?

2014-01-023-the-feeding-of-the-5000-1920x960

 

There was an event in Jesus’ ministry like that. It was such a big deal— and people talked about it so much and, in a way, fed from it for a long time in their memories—that it ended up in every version about Jesus’ life that we have. In fact, no other event in Jesus’ life, outside of the crucifixion and resurrection, is recorded by all four gospel writers. We’ve come to call it the feeding of the 5000, and it is probably one of the most well-known stories from the Bible. The fact that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all get so many details the same suggests that this meal there beside the sea had a huge impact on how people understood Jesus’ presence in their life.

He has compassion for people in need.

He empowers disciples to do ministry of caretaking, just like he enlists Philip and Andrew in the problem-solving.

When we hand over to him what we have, he can make it more than enough.

A seemingly small gesture done in Christ’s service can have effects with infinite proportions.

That miraculous event by the Sea of Galilee that day was so impressive, so out of the ordinary, that it became one of the key ways to understanding what Jesus was all about.

For the last few centuries it has become custom to try to explain the miracle scientifically. Some have said that it is a miracle of sharing—that once the one boy had the courage to offer forth his food, suddenly everyone broke out his or her lunch and before you know it, they had a feast on their hands. While it might be hard to get my head around Jesus bending the laws of nature, feeding that many people with such a small amount of food, I find it even more difficult to believe that everyone shares and they all just happen to have brought the exact two same things that day: bread and fish! No stuffed grape leaves? No hummus? Come on!

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Jesus Feeds the Multitude (Victoria and Albert Museum). The boy on the right is handing fish to Jesus. The loaves have already been handed over to Jesus’ disciples on the left.

Others have tried to interpret this miracle as a relic of an ancient mindset that we don’t have anymore. They say that people were used to seeing ordinary things happen and then embellishing them as if something remarkable had happened, that they would tell these kinds of stories about people they admired all the time. However, as researchers and historians look more closely at that time period, we have found that there really aren’t many other examples of major figures performing feedings like this, not to mention stories about the same person doing other miraculous things along the way, too. Of course, as miraculous as this event is, it is just one of several that Jesus manages to pull off during his ministry, something mentioned in the passage’s opening sentence.[1]

No matter what Jesus wants you or me or those people to believe about how he pulls off the feeding of the 5000, the point he is trying to make with it is more important. As with so many things in life, we see something and become so fascinated with how it’s happening that we miss what is happening. And in this case, what is happening is that Jesus is showing us something about God. God’s grace towards us is not ever going to be bound by the laws of physics or the laws of attraction or the laws of the United States of America. God’s desire to care for us and look after us is sometimes—more often than not—just not going to make sense. It’s just too great.

And yet this feeding of the 5000 is still not just an event to tell those hungry people and these hungry people how gracious and giving our God is in general. If that were the case, then all of the attention afterwards would likely be focused on that little boy who offers up his lunch. He would become the hero, the example of how God opens his hand, as the psalm this morning says, and provides for the need of every living thing. And if this were just a lesson about how God is always going to provide ample resources, then it does kind of make sense to make Jesus king, and Jesus would probably accept that gesture. He might say something like , “Just trust in God and there will be enough. As long as you have faith, everything will work out in your favor. God helps those who help themselves.”

Feeding of the many. John 6:1-21. 1999 Mark A Hewitt. Lino cut & water colour.

But Jesus doesn’t say that and Jesus doesn’t want that, because that’s not what this miracle is about. And that’s not really grace, anyway. When Jesus multiplies the loaves and the fish that day beside the sea he is offering a sign not about how generous God is in general. It is about how generous God is with Jesus. At this meal, the food is not the centerpiece; the host is.

This is a story about how abundantly God provides for us through the life and suffering of his Son, even when we don’t deserve it (reality check: we never deserve it). It is a sign that the true needs we have as God’s children are being answered in the grace and mercy and astounding forgiveness of Jesus Christ. God has our true needs in mind, and there is enough love of Jesus to provide nurture for the entire planet. When he is at the table, when he is present in the conversations we have, when the ministry team gathers in his name, when the mission work crew labors for his kingdom, then we do not need to worry about ever going without. There will be enough to do, enough to be joyful about, enough to share with others.

And we know this foremost because there is another event in Jesus’ life much like this feeding. It is the crowning moment, the moment of total glory, even though it, at first, also looked like everyone was going to come up empty-handed. Around the cross a crowd shows up, hungry, disappointed, and eventually goes away because no one steps up with even a loaf or a fish. It is just loss and emptiness there. And yet God is at work, dying to our ways of hoarding and wasting, dying to our ways of worrying there isn’t enough. Christ is at work, and, lo and behold, he is being made king. In our rejection of him, he’s being made king of a kingdom that doesn’t operate by the selfish, competitive standards of this world.

Congregations do well to remember this, and pastors too, because every congregation I’ve ever been a part of at some point worries that it is deficient in some way. Either there are fears that there is not enough money or not enough Sunday School teachers or people for the choir, or there are concerns the congregation isn’t diverse enough or that we don’t sing enough of that kind of music.

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The fact of the matter is that when Jesus is present in the crowd, when the cross is the centerpiece, ministry will always be satisfying and there will enough to go around. The presence of Jesus, you see, is the only thing that ever makes a congregation worthwhile or sacred. He suffices. And over and over he has us sit down, then he takes himself, gives thanks, and breaks himself and distributes himself to each person in the crowd. And we are fed.  In fact, that meal is still feeding us. That is grace.

There is a table blessing they sing up in the dining hall at camp Lutheridge that helps drive this home. Maybe I can teach it to you now as a way to remind us of our king and the limitless capacity of his love for us and his call for us to share it with the world. Maybe it can be a way we prepare to receive his grace at his table again today.

 

Come and dine, the master calls us, come and dine.
There is plenty at God’s table all the time.
He who fed the multitudes and turned the water into wine
Come and dine, the master calls us, come and dine.

 

May we come to keep eating it. And to keep talking about it.

 

Amen.

 

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a mosaic on the floor of the Church of the Multiplication, Tabgha

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Jesus: A Pilgrimage. James Martin, S.J. HarperOne 2014. pp 257ff

rules and regulations for a mid-July evening

The storm has ended.
Listen to the crickets tell you:
The last leaden rain drops from the tree leaves
are fading into their chorus.

The petrichor was strong a moment ago
but it is giving way
to a night breeze
that is cooler on the face.
Breathe it in now
while you still can.

The moon will be out in a bit
but for now
the brightest glow is the from the porch light
where some bugs are beginning to gather.
Watch them; I’ve done this before—
None of them bite.

My children
if you want to come join me here
on the porch swing
no footwear is allowed

Do not pump your legs.
It is time for sitting
and moving if the swing moves us

Uncharted Territory

a sermon for the festival of Mary Magdalene, Apostle

Ruth 1:6-18 and John 20:1-2, 11-18

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This week at Vacation Bible School 145 children and around 75 volunteers all participated in a Rolling River Rampage. The theme of whitewater rafting was carried throughout the week, and each day, in order to enforce the day’s Bible lesson, campers “went to the river” and found something.

For example, on Monday we found adventure on the river, and we heard the story of Jesus’ calling his disciples. When Jesus tells them to fish for people he is preparing them for adventure. The life of a disciple contains lots of new tasks and not knowing what comes next. The second day of Vacation Bible School we found acceptance on the river, and that was tied in to the story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus in their home. On the third day we found joy on the river, on the fourth day we found rest on the river, and on the last day we heard the story that comes at the very end of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus tells his disciples he would be with them until the end of the age. On that day we found peace on the river. I thought this was a clever way to tie one of the main points of each Scripture lesson to the theme of river exploration.

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Well, July 22 is the church’s commemoration of Mary Magdalene, and if we were extend Vacation Bible School to today and tie the theme to her, would get on the river and find nothing. It would be an empty river. We would expect to find something, just like we had every other day before—we would walk down to the river with our paddles and our life-vests and be prepared to deal with another theme or lesson— but nothing would be there. That’s what happens to Mary Magdalene. She comes down to the cemetery outside Jerusalem not with her rafting gear but with her oils and spices for anointing the dead, and the body of Jesus isn’t there.

Mentioned at some point by all four gospel writers as a person involved in Jesus’ ministry, Mary of Magdala becomes the first person in history to show up at a tomb and find nothing there because the body has been brought back to life. Mary Magdalene, about whom we know so little but who is featured so prominently in Jesus’ life, becomes the first person to come face to face with the full force of the life-giving power of God in Jesus Christ.  As one poet once put it, “She, while Apostles shrank, could dangers brave/ “last at his cross and earliest at his grave.”[1]

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“Descent from the Cross” (Van der Weyden, 1435). Mary Magdalene is the figure on the far right, weeping.

At first, however, Mary Magdalene thinks Jesus’ body has been removed and taken to another place. When Jesus himself addresses her, she first mistakes him for the gardener. It’s fascinating that she confuses him with a gardener, for what does a gardener do but work to bring new life from the earth? When he finally calls her by her name, she recognizes him as her Lord.

It is so often the knowledge that Jesus knows us and calls us which brings clarity to whatever situation we’re in. In seminary we were taught by a pastoral care professor to make sure we placed a cross or a clear visual image of Jesus in our study so that people could see it when they came in. It was in Jesus’ name and presence that people would share things with us…and like Mary they may feel comforted by a God who addresses us so intimately.

Once she realizes who it is, Mary doesn’t want to leave him, and I think that sounds like a totally normal reaction. If I had lost someone close to me, especially in a terrible death like that, and I saw them again, I wouldn’t be able to leave them so easily. However, Jesus instead tells her to go to the disciples and announce that he is ascending to God, and astoundingly, she does. So great was her faith and devotion to Jesus that she immediately does what he commands. She goes to them and says, “I have seen the Lord” and in John’s gospel, to see something means to understand it, to know it, to perceive what is really going on. Mary Magdalene is really the first believer in the resurrection.

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“Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection” (Ivanov, 1835)

All of the disciples will eventually have to grapple with what Mary Magdalene saw because they will see it too, but right at the beginning—right there at the tomb before anyone else—Mary Magdalene finds herself in uncharted territory. It is a whole new rolling river rampage—one that rolls completely differently than anything that has come before it. Like Ruth before her, who ventures into uncharted territory by bravely and dutifully staying with Naomi her mother-in-law and going into a foreign land where she would be a stranger instead of turning back and staying in the land she already knew, Mary Magdalene is a pioneer for God’s kingdom. The territory that Mary ventures into is one where God is victorious over death. Is it a reality where the power of sin, death, and the devil are undone. God and sinners are reconciled. Weeping turns to rejoicing. The One who was crucified is now risen. The Gardener is always bringing forth new life.

She may be the first witness to the resurrection, and many Sundays during the year, her name is mentioned as a part of our Holy Communion liturgy from behind the altar, and yet the church has not always known how to handle Mary Magdalene, and has to some degree mishandled the truth about her. Because Luke tells us at one point that Jesus cast seven demons out of her, and because at least one woman by the name of Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with oil, it has long been assumed that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute whom Jesus redeemed from that line of work. There is nothing in the New Testament that tells us to connect those dots that way. Unfortunately, early on Mary Magdalene was so closely associated with Jesus that legends began to surface about the nature of her relationship with him. Movies and books have been written suggesting the two of them were secretly married or had children together. Again, all of this does nothing but to concentrate on Mary Magdalene in a negative way or mainly in terms of her sexuality which is unfortunately what often happens with a lot of women, both then and now. There are a lot of legends and traditions associated with Mary Magdalene, including a popular and ancient story that ties her to the creation of the Easter egg, which is why in a lot of ancient paintings and icons of Mary she is holding a red egg.

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What we do know from Scripture is that Mary Magdalene witnessed Jesus’ death, she was there at his burial, and she witnessed his first resurrection appearance. This puts her first into the uncharted territory where God is doing something brand new with creation. It is news that, if you believe it, changes your perspective on everything. God is re-making the world into a place where the holy can dwell forever. It is a place where compassion and mercy and love have the upper hand. It is a place where God promises to heal our brokenness and turn our weeping into joy. It is a creation where Jesus, the suffering and merciful Lord Jesus, is Lord of all.

Mary Magdalene, perhaps more than any other person, reminds us is first and foremost that Christian faith is about an event, a piece of news—that is is a message about something particular that happened. It is so tempting, especially in this day and age, I believe, to try to reduce Christian faith to just a set of values or ideals. We can catch ourselves saying things like “Christian faith is really, at its core, about peace or love or accepting others.” Or we’ll say it’s about following the Ten Commandments and learning what the Bible tells us to do, like Scripture is a just a self-help rule book. Or we’ll try to boil Christianity down to a philosophy or concept, like treat others the way you want to be treated. But Christian faith is not a concept or value system. It contains values and ideas, and good ones, at that, but Christian faith, the faith of Jesus, is inherently a message: Jesus is risen. The message is this: Mary has seen the Lord. She didn’t find his body. She found new life. And now the universe and everything in it—even everything that has been snatched away by death and sin—belongs to God again.

That is what’s so exciting about what happens to Caroline in her baptism this morning. She starts her life learning about this uncharted territory where death isn’t the end, where Jesus is risen, where God’s love reigns forever. And, like Mary Magdalene, it will be her turn to tell that message to others…with her words and with her life.

One of the other things I noticed during Vacation Bible School this past week was how excited the youth were to take part as leaders. Once you finish 5th grade here, you age out of being a Vacation Bible School student but you are eligible to serve as a helper, whether that be in one of the stations like crafts or science. And I could see this week that a lot of those youth took very seriously this role of helper. It’s like they’ve been hearing the messages of God’s love in VBS for years, and now they want to help tell it. They move from role of listener and receiver to role of proclaimer: from being a disciple (one who learns) to being an apostle (one who is sent).

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At one point on Friday I was speaking with a parent who was standing in line to pick up her young child. She was saying that next year her children would be aging out and I said to get them involved as helpers because we’ve found that when they’re young youth they love to take on that role of telling the story. And right at that point I felt this nudge on my leg—the nudge not of a human but of something metal, and then a hand on my side. I turned around to find that Ms. Sophie Wilson, age 96, was pushing me with her walker. She looked at me and said, “All of us young youth like to help out here!” This was probably her 60th Vacation Bible School.

How are you living into God’s possibilities of new life? I could ask you how are you living God’s adventure, acceptance, joy, rest, and peace as one of his disciples? But today a challenge for us all is: how are we sharing this message, reporting in our words and in our actions what Mary Magdalene did not discover on the river that morning? Because of Jesus’ cross, we are apostles, and this whole life is holy, gracious, exciting, and joyous unchartered territory.

Thanks be to God!

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Sara Bareilles played Mary Magdalene in NBS’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar LIVE” in 2018.

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Border crossings

a sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 8B]

Mark 5:21-43

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About fifteen years ago I got to attend a church conference in Cyprus, which is a small island in the eastern Mediterranean roughly about the size of Delaware. It is actually an island split in two with a wall running down the center of it, and it’s been split since about 1974 when the Turkish-leaning citizens of the north, feeling threatened by the Greek Cypriots in the south and concerned about where their country was going, declared themselves their own country. It is one of the world’s still-unresolved disputes, since only the country of Turkey recognizes that upper part as an independent country. In order to prevent further bloodshed, the United Nations set up an armed buffer zone between the two regions.

While I was there, my friends and I rented a car and drove around the southern part of the island for a few days and then decided we’d like to see the northern part. Americans were allowed to travel to the Turkish side, but we had to park our car in the parking lot and leave it there, walk through the checkpoint by the armed guards and leave our passports there. It was the authorities’ way of ensuring that we would eventually come back to the south side where we belonged. When I found out that I’d have to leave my passport behind, I suddenly felt a little nervous about the whole adventure. What if I didn’t get it back? What would they do with it while I was gone?

Eventually I overcame those fears and we walked on foot between the big walls of the buffer zone and through the checkpoint on the northern side. There we rented another car and drove off to see the sites we had in mind. But the clock was ticking because we had to be back by nightfall. As foreigners without passports, we weren’t allowed to stay in northern Cyprus. So, at the end of the day we dropped the northern Cyprus car off, walked back through the buffer zone, retrieved our passports, got back in our first rental car, and went along our merry way. It was like we had gone on a short detour in a very divided country.

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Me, standing atop the ruins of St. Hilarion Castle, Northern Cyprus (2002)

Jesus makes all kinds of tricky border crossings in his ministry, and today we see him go on one short detour in a very divided country. However, the divided lands that Jesus crosses in this event are not bounded by buffer zones or armed guards or tall walls with barbed wire. They are the divisions of culture that are set up all over his world. And while on a trip to help with the family of a man who you might say lives squarely on one side of the human island, he makes a quick detour to heal a woman who lives on the total opposite side, and who is separated by all kinds of barriers.

There is a lot to focus on in this account of Jesus as he gets off the boat after traveling to the land on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. It’s basically two healing stories rolled into one, and I suppose that’s where most of the attention immediately goes. It goes to the way that Jesus is able to heal even without coming into direct contact with people. The woman merely touches the cloak Jesus is wearing and her hemorrhage stops. Jesus is able to feel this healing power go out of him, almost like he’s got static electricity.

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Our attention also goes to the way that Jesus is really a master healer, popular throughout the land in a time when people sought out faith healers. But unlike other faith healers of Jesus’ day, Jesus doesn’t actively seek the healing, trying to make a buck, and—more importantly—he increasingly appears to be mentally moving on to something else, doesn’t he?

But perhaps our minds mainly focus on the way we identify, on some level, with each of these individuals. We know people who have dealt with some kind of medical condition for years that never goes away. It drains them physically, socially, and financially. They never seem to get the answers they seek and they end up just having to learn to live with it. I think especially of people who live with the disease of addiction, who often lose their friends and their other close relationships because they’re in the grip of something they can’t control. And yet God seeks to heal them. God loves them and they need our compassion, not our dismissal.

And then there’s Jairus, who is in a different kind of grip—the grip of worry for his child. I think anyone who’s ever cared for a child, or a loved one, whether their own or someone else’s, understands on some level what Jairus is going through, how you get to a point where you’ll do anything to help your child stop suffering. Your mind begins to go very scary places even when they just spike a fever. That’s where Jairus is, except he is already in the scary place with his daughter.

Long, Edwin, 1829-1891; The Raising of Jairus' Daughter
The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter (Edwin Long, 19th c)

It’s easy for our minds to focus on this miraculous healing of that daughter, too—how Jesus takes her by the hand, even though it was taboo to touch dead bodies, and says, “Get up, little girl!” In her case—as in the case of the bleeding woman—she is restored to life. Their faith and the faith of those around them play a part in this. They see Jesus as their hope and salvation.

Jesus doesn’t really perform either healing so that people around them may believe. Notice he asks everyone to leave at one point. Yet these people’s relationship to him is this critical component to being well.

Faith in Christ makes us well in the sense it makes us whole. In some exceptional cases, that means we are physically restored somehow. Maybe doctors, nurses, and pharmacists are able to touch our bodies or use medicines and make us well that way. In other cases, however, the healing may look completely different. Being restored to life might mean being at a deep peace with things, or reaching a new level of understanding about life.

I remember my last conversation with Dean Zellmer, which was only a few weeks ago. He was in the hospital after having struggled with dysentery for several weeks. He had also been struggling with multiple myeloma and had lost most use of his right leg because it had gone numb. He had heart problems and had suffered damage to a valve. He had also had to move out of his apartment into assisted living in another part of town, which is a transition anyone could find difficult. But I could only describe as a miracle the way Dean spoke about his life and how whole he felt—whole in thanksgiving for the gifts he’d been given, for the opportunities he’d had, for the things he’d been able to experience in his ninety-two years. He had plenty of suffering to concentrate on, plenty of physical healing he could pray for, but he could only talk about his blessings, and was more interested to know about me and my family. He was a person of deep faith in Christ’s love for him, and Dean was ready to continue that relationship, no matter what happened next.

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These are the places our minds go when we hear this story today, but perhaps the greatest healing Jesus is doing is actually the healing of those human divisions. While on the way to see Jairus and his daughter, He makes that short detour with the woman who is bleeding. And in one short day, Jesus engages both an important male leader and an overlooked outcast woman. He treats as equal a man with a given name, position, and authority and a woman with no name, no position, and no authority. He interacts with someone who is socially isolated, has no resources at her disposal whatsoever, who comes to him as she slips unnoticed through the crowd, and then he interacts with another person with a well-established support system by going into his house. He welcomes someone who grabs him in a clandestine fashion and someone who Jesus has to physically touch himself in order to heal. In just about every way imaginable, Jesus is able to span the divisions that separate people in society. Through faith, he is available and accessible to all. The healing and wholeness he embodies is for everyone, regardless of social status, gender, age, education level, nationality, or race. In spite of the sacrifice it means to himself and his identity, he is able to take the risk, cross the borders, and bring the kingdom of God and all its healing to all people.

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And if it sounds today like Jesus is starting to move on from performing so many healings, like he’s got something else on his mind, another horizon to meet, it’s because he does. He is moving on to the point of true healing, the real border of division that needs to be crossed. He is not just a physical healer, but he is among God’s people to heal the big division between God and us. He will die on the cross as a ransom for our sins, bringing us all back to God’s eternal care, to unite what has been separated, to restore us all to life through the power of faith.

I’m not sure I could have chosen myself a more fitting set of Scriptures for the weekend before our nation’s Independence Day. As you know, we just use the Revised Common Lectionary to provide our readings, and this just happens to be the lesson falling on this Sunday. It wasn’t selected by anyone with the Fourth of July in mind. But yet it is a good word for us. We are living in a society whose divisions seem to be very pronounced right now—at least that’s what I’m hearing people saying. Several people I’ve spoken with recently in this congregation have shared with me how they keep their opinions to themselves more than they ever have before because they’re afraid of how they will be perceived and interpreted, especially by people who disagree.

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photo credit: CNN

I don’t have any great wisdom to offer on how to span our divides, and I’ve certainly done my fair share of contributing to the divisiveness, I’m sure. But I do know Christ is walking among us, running back and forth between the different groups, seeking out those who are hurting, those who need life. We have faith that even if the flag cannot seem unify a country at a given time, our risen Lord will always seek to bring God’s people together. He will lay down his life at the crosspoint, and venture to the wilderness of death in order to get it done.

And as people who follow him, our mission is to do the same. In such a divided culture, the church may be the last place where people of all different kinds can be served at a table no matter what our opinions are, no matter how we vote, no matter what our citizenship status even is. That’s something. Healed by our faith, we are called to look into the world, maybe even lay aside some closely-held ideas of ourselves, and see people as Jesus does—that is, less in terms of their status and rank, name or label, and more in terms of where the suffering is.

I suppose then, my friends, we’ll find that may be the most exciting and healing journey of all.

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.