A Word from Our Sponsor

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year A)

John 11:1-45

I’m a radio listener when I’m driving in the car, and I jump around between a variety of FM stations each day depending on my mood. One thing this means is that I am subjected to a range of radio ads that aren’t crafted by some algorithm to suit my own preferences. In case you were wondering, the jingle is alive and well. I am used to so many by now, whether it’s O, O, O’Reilly Auto parts or (my personal favorite) Gillman Heating, Cooling, and Plumbing (“With the G Man on-site, you’ll know it’s done right!”). The other day as I was driving, however, I heard a new ad that really caught me off guard. I’ve been waiting for it to come up again,  but it hasn’t yet. It was a radio ad for, of all things, getting my burial plot. No jingle, just a calm and insistent reminder that now is never too soon to reserve a plot for me and even my loved one at the local cemetery. As I recall, they weren’t just limited to burial plots; they could even handle my cremated ashes, if that was how I was going to be prepared. And, just to add some urgency, the ad mentioned that prices are rising! “Lock in your burial plot now,” they insisted, “while prices are still cheap!”

I can’t remember which exact cemetery or memorial park made the ad, but in a way it doesn’t really matter. I was more struck that there, in the middle of the love songs and the ads for getting my oil changed was a blunt reminder of my death. Talk about hearing a word from our sponsors! It’s like bringing up the subject that no one likes to talk about, but what in many ways is the real matter at hand.

Today, on this fifth Sunday in Lent, we hear about the real matter at hand. At Bethany by Jerusalem we discover that Jesus mainly wants to address the matter of death. It’s not just an advertisement on the way to something more important. It is the main mission and purpose of Jesus. Death and dying is the thing God wants to talk about. God’s going to confront this issue head on and it is time to listen up.

And this is important to note because so often Christian faith comes across as being primarily about something else, like helping our neighbor or serving the community. We come away from worship or any other church activity (or at least I often do) most likely with thoughts about how to live better in the world. And if it’s not that, then the point of Christian faith often seems to be to look inward and improve ourselves there. We concentrate on things like forgiving our enemies and loving our enemies. We come away from worship encouraged about God’s unconditional love for us and a peace that surpasses all understanding.

tornado destruction in Rolling Fork, MS, March 25, 2023

Jesus does deal with both of these matters, and how they’re inter-related—that is, the pursuit of inner peace and making the world look more like God’s kingdom. But we can forget or even intentionally sweep under the rug the big issue of the messy end of our lives and that Jesus mainly comes to confront that. I wonder what the people of Bucha or Bahkmut could teach us here, if their experiences in the horrors of war would pierce our comfortable calm. I wonder what we’d hear from those waking up in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, as they survey the aftermath of a tornado’s destruction. And for the Reckenbeil family, gathered around the deathbed of their matriarch, Joan, as they were last Thursday, I suppose a hope built simply on good deeds and inner peace in this life might have rung hollow. Our mortality does interrupt life and pretty soon we realize we need a God who has something to say about it.

Jesus is living water, for sure, a source of hope that never runs dry. And Jesus is the light of the world who helps us see God as God really is. Chiefly, though, Jesus is the resurrection and the life who comes to stand at the door of death and speak into it. Jesus is the resurrection and the life who comes to confront the matter we all wish could get drowned out by the music of life.

That is precisely what Mary and Martha, Jesus’ besties in Bethany, discover when their brother Lazarus dies. And it starts when Jesus’ disciples bring him news that Lazarus is ill. Jesus decides to confront the situation, to see for himself what is happening, even though they advise him against it because his own life has already been threatened. But Jesus goes because he knows what they are struggling to believe: that death ultimately has no power over him. In fact, he even delays his arrival in Bethany by a couple of days. It’s unclear why Jesus waits, but maybe he’s doing it to add emphasis to his own confidence that death doesn’t ultimately deserve the anxiety we give it.

When he does arrive, Jesus finds anxiety all over the place. Martha runs to him in anguish, and then a little while later Mary comes to him, too. Both of them seem too distraught to fully comprehend Jesus’ power. I find that in many instances where I am emotionally drained by grief or fear that I can’t think clearly either. Everywhere Jesus turns there is weeping and sadness in people’s faces. Jesus is still undeterred even though he himself is beginning to reflect that grief in his own emotions.

Many people over the centuries find Jesus’ weeping to be very profound. It’s one of the shortest verses in the Bible, but it packs a big punch. People who can confront their emotions and even shed authentic tears with others display a kindness and strength that is rare and healing. But it is difficult to cry, especially in front of others. We’ve internalized so many unhelpful messages about weakness and gender when it comes to crying and sharing grief.

I remember one funeral I conducted in my first congregation. The deceased was an elderly woman who had two grown children who were in their sixties. At the graveside committal the son, who I didn’t really know, came to me with tears visibly welling up in his eyes. And yet his face muscles were tense in a fake smile. He pulled me aside for a conversation, utterly confused why he felt so sad when his faith tradition had always taught him only to be happy at someone’s grave because it wasn’t an ending but the beginning of eternal life. He had been taught it was a celebration of life and that any tears and any sadness was a sign of a lack of faith in God And he didn’t want to seen to have no faith in God, especially at his mother’s death. I wasn’t sure how to help him in that moment but I wish I had thought to tell him that Jesus is OK with tears. Jesus comes to bear our pain and feel our sorrow and also express it, legitimating the real emotions we feel and the real tears we shed.

“The Raising of Lazarus after Rembrandt” (Van Gogh)

But the tears don’t stop him. He continues in his confrontation of death, driving to the heart of his whole mission as he stands at the opening to Lazarus’ tomb. To everyone’s surprise, he calls Lazarus to come forth and to everyone’s shock, Lazarus comes walking out.

When we look at this event as a whole, we see Jesus seeking to inspire faith in everyone around him. In Martha and Mary, in the crowds that are supporting them, in his disciples, and through his prayer to his Father—Jesus wants us all to have faith that he has power over death, that he is the resurrection and the life. And this faith is not some reciting of specific beliefs or agreeing to certain creeds about him but a trust in God’s ability to bring life where we see death. It is not knowing the exact mechanics of how Jesus will bring about restoration but trusting that he will, even when it seems too late.

Confronting danger, confronting doubt, confronting pain, confronting death itself. These are the things God is really about if God is about anything at all. These are the things that try to separate us from the good God intends for God’s people. Jesus eventually goes to his own cross and his own tomb in order to interrupt once and for all the steady stream of selfishness and sadness the world plays for us. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He is God’s promise to put all the dry bones of our hopelessness and the world’s sorrow back together into vibrant bodies that will live forever in his presence.

Lazarus’ tomb in modern day Bethany

The last thing Jesus does as he stands at Lazarus’ tomb is to tell the people to unbind the man and let him go. This is our cue to be apart of Jesus’ resurrection and life now, to then go out and confront the things of the world that decay relationships and that are obstacles to goodness,  even when it is difficult. Jesus wants us to take part in freeing people from the forces that constrict them and keep them in the tombs. That may be a Stephen Minister sitting down with someone stuck in a situation with one of life’s problems to help them unpack what they’re feeling. That may be picking up a hammer for Habitat for Humanity work day on Saturday in order to help unbind someone from homelessness.

Yesterday a group of church volunteers collected the lunches that many of you helped make that were part of unbinding some of our Richmond neighbors from hunger. Moments of Hope is a ministry that confronts that issue directly by handing out lunches and other items directly into the hands of people each Saturday at a location near downtown. Our task was to assemble sack lunches. We needed 500 of them, but when the team arrived at the assigned location yesterday, they were greeted by 547 guests. As our team began to count (somewhat panicked), they realized some people apparently doubled up on their sandwiches, and one person who hadn’t signed up provided 10 lunches, and so they had enough to provide everyone with food. Working with the one who is the resurrection and the life will always involve surprises!

These things aren’t just about making the world a better place, or merely finding inner peace for our souls. This is the ministry of resurrection and life, pointing to the God who confronts death and overcomes it. This is being people who stand in awe of Jesus’ word, who feel the tears on their faces, and moving forward in faith. This is us, interrupting the world’s sorrow with a word from our sponsor.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Reading Water

a sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent [Year A]

John 4:5-42

A few years ago a friend gave me a book called How to Read Water by adventurer and nature enthusiast Tristan Gooley, a British man whose main claim to fame, among many, is that he is the only living person to have both flown solo and sailed single-handedly across the Atlantic. Gooley is an expert in natural navigation, which is the science or art—depending on how you look at it—of relying on cues from nature, rather than GPS or technology, to find your way around.

In How to Read Water, Gooley explains to the average person how basic observation of any kind of water, from puddles to the ocean, can reveal important information about the world around you. There is a chapter explaining in detail that there are different kinds of puddles and how they form, and another chapter unpacking how the different shades of blue and green and brown indicate things about the depths of the water. One of the most fascinating chapters is on the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific who have for centuries been able to sail back and forth with ease between small distant islands in primitive watercraft before the first European sailor ever arrived with their fancy sextants and telescopes and written maps. The Polynesians do it simply by understanding how the waves and ripples move over the surface of the deep blue ocean. If you’ve ever seen Disney’s Moana, you know what he’s talk about.

Gooley’s How to Read Water is a great book,one that when on my shelf makes me appear to be a lot more worldly and interesting than I really am. It covers every form of water in the natural world, but nowhere does it talk about living water. To learn about that, we’d have to talk to the woman at Jacob’s Well about whom we’re told in John’s gospel.

At first, she comes across as the expert in water, herself. Jesus approaches her and she lets him know that her ancestors have been coming to this place for water for centuries. She knows how the well works, what the water tastes like in every season, rainy and dry. She knows how it feeds their sheep and goats, just how far to drop the bucket. My people know how to read this water, she explains to Jesus. Where do you get off talking to me about some other kind of water? But slowly she realizes he is different.If we listened to her she would tell usthat we don’t read living water.Living water reads us.

That is one of the main messages of this encounter between Jesus and the person who has come to be known as the woman at the well. Jesus comes to read us—to know us and care for us and share the journey of life with us with all its ups and downs. Jesus comes to read us and the pain we experience and the suffering we encounter. And he finds us right in the ordinary, everyday places where we live and work and go about life.

Vasily Polenov (1900s)

Lots of people spend a lot of timesearching for wisdom and truth and transformationin far-flung places.Jesus walks right into our midstto transform us where we are.It may be in the loving words of someone we know,it may be in the comfort of prayer,it may even be in the community of a local congregation.The point is that Jesus crosses boundaries that we set upand finds us in our situationsin order to make that connection happen.

Jesus is Jewish, and this woman is Samaritan, a rival group. Doesn’t matter. He goes right to their well, a common community location that people would have visited on a daily basis. We should watch for how Jesus might find a way to show up in a grocery store parking lot, or the school lunch room, or the pew next to us, encouraging us to speak with the person who seems different. And while he’s with us, (the Samaritan woman would explain),this living water comes to read the paths we’ve walked and the wounds we’ve suffered so that he knows them and understands them. He comes to make sure God’s unconditional love flows over us like a stream of fresh water from a source that never goes dry.

A lot of the imagery and language in Scripture is a little inaccessible for us living in the United States in 2023and access to water is one of them. We can turn on a tap whenever we want to. Just outside of my office here, in fact, in this hallway that goes toward Price Hall the church installed a new set of water fountains when we did our construction project. One component of that water fountain is a spot where you can fill up a refillable water bottle. Above the waterspout is a little screen with numbers that count up every time you fill it which supposedly corresponds to the number of disposable plastic water bottles we’re saving. Right now we’re up to 2192 water bottles saved, although I bet at least two thirds of that has actually come from filling up our church’s Keurig reservoir, which is a bit ironic because every cup of coffee made sends a little piece of plastic to the landfill. My point is that for someone in Jesus’ time water that is that reliable and that plentiful would have been life-changing. You would never have had to live with thirst because you could always reach for a glass of water.

Jesus likens himself to that unimaginable scenario. He is reliable in a way that an ancient well can never aspire to. The little number counter on him goes to infinity. His mercy, his forgiveness, his understanding, his compassion for us will never run out. In a world that offers so many false promises of care and concern, any number of fly-by-night cures, Jesus never fails. And it gushes up not just for us but eventually within us. And it never runs out so we don’t have to be stingy with it or ration it out. We see this as the woman goes from the well back into her village to spread word of what he encountered in Jesus, a village of foreigners, no less, who had reason to distrust anything that would come from Israel.

Yes, if we want to learn to read living water,it would be good to start with this woman’s testimony.A lot of assumptions have been made through the yearsabout her past and the number of husbands she has had.People have read into this all kinds of things about her moral state,but Jesus makes absolutely no judgment or declaration about her characteror her decisions.Her witness to the love of Jesus—how he knows her story and does not judge her—teaches us a lot about how Jesus embodies God’s never-ending grace.He comes to know each and every story,eventually letting his own life follow the course of every human life,even into death.We will never be thirsty, not even when we’ve breathed our last,for the water he gives gushes up to eternal life.

It will be a long, long time—maybe never—before I hear this particular story in John 4and not think about the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Because we use a three-year lectionary cycle, this happens to be the exact reading we had in 2020on the first Sunday after the COVID shutdown. March 15, 2020, was the Third Sunday in Lent and we had made the decision to try to worship on-line rather than just cancelling church that Sunday altogether. None of us had a clue what we were doing. Except Turner Barger. Turner, our technology and media support person, always knows what’s going on (Hi, Turner).

We decided to cram into the parlor and set up a little altar thereand we used Facebook and Instagram Liveto broadcast a thrown together worship service.Kevin rolled one of the electrical pianos in there so that we could singand Beth Barger held the words up to the hymns,which we had written out on paper and an easel padMarkus Groener was there, and Matthew Barger and Mike Dunavant,and all of us were, as they say, flying the airplane as we were building it.

I don’t know about the rest of thembut I was operating out of survival mode and fearbecause at the time, even though we thought it would be temporary,I couldn’t help but think, “Well, this is it. There is no way we’re going to surviveshutting down for two Sundays.”And of course I was worried about the spread of the diseaseand who might be at riskand what kids were going to do about school.I had all the concerns that everyone else did.

But thank God that Jesus the living water comes to read us. Because it ended up being more than two Sundays. And we’ve thrived. He decided to show up over and over again in the only wells we had to meet at back then: online and the telephone. Council members had the idea to call everyone in the membership roster and check in on them. As we peered into our computer and phone screens, his water kept flowing. As we shared on Zoom and Facebook live he kept us connected and tempered our feelings of isolation. And this was going on in congregations all over the place: Jesus, the living water, reading us in our anxiety and fear, paying attention to our story, and mostly breaking down barriers. And suffering produced endurance, and endurance produced character, and character hope…and hope did not disappoint us.

Nowadays, three years after all of that, we are joined in worship by people in Texas, Connecticut, Florida, Long Island, some of whom hope to catch a glimpse on the screen of their relatives sitting here coming back from the communion rail. One of our regular livestream worshippers calls it “Virch Church,” and I’m kind of overwhelmed by it, to be honest. Our statistics suggest that around 120 people worship with us this way each week. I have no clue who they all are, but I’m thankful they’re here at the well with us.

Did the Samaritan woman know them all back in her village when word of Jesus got out?

Maybe. But probably not. I suppose that wasn’t the point, to revel in numbers themselves, to boast in the success of her testimony, or we in ours. The point is she was overwhelmed—as in by a flood—of grace and acceptance. It is a flood of living water that gushes up and always, through whatever faces us, gives life.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Nagging Questions

a sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent [Year A]

John 3:1-17

Nagging questions. John’s gospel essentially begins with one person’s nagging questions…nagging questions about life and faith and the reality of God. That person’s name is Nicodemus, and we don’t know much about him except that he is one of the Pharisees, which means that he is well-versed in what the Scriptures say and well-informed about what God is like. But Nicodemus has heard about Jesus and apparently listened to Jesus and now he has some nagging questions.

Nagging questions keep us up at night, which may be one of the reasons Nicodemus comes to Jesus to discuss things at night. Nicodemus can’t sleep! He lies there on his bed, eyes wide open, mulling over everything in his mind—you know what it’s like—and he can’t make Jesus’ words fit. They raise all kinds of issues for him. He tosses and turns, lights a candle, writes a little in his journal. Finally he just decides to go and pay Jesus a visit and ask him the questions himself. These nagging questions can’t wait and he might as well get them addressed now.

Or, maybe Nicodemus goes to Jesus by night because he needs anonymity. Nicodemus wants to know some things and have some facetime with Jesus, but he doesn’t want his Pharisee buddies to see him because that could get awkward. He lurks in the shadows until the town gets quiet and dark and then he goes to knock on the door in secrecy. This is the conventional theory about Nicodemus’ night visit. He is on the edge. He wants to have a deeper relationship with Jesus and know more, but he can’t do it openly for he is a leader in the Jewish faith.

Nowadays we would take these concerns into cyberspace. There’s a lot of darkness there. We’d find a community that discusses our issues and ideas and we’d create an avatar, something like a “finsta” that would mask our identity and ask our questions that way.

I like either of these theories for Nicodemus’ night visit, and I think both are plausible because no matter why Nicodemus chooses the night Jesus is open to whatever. Jesus is always open and ready to serve, like a Waffle House. Jesus graciously receives his guests, rubbing the sleep out of his own eyes, leaning in a bit closer hear our questions when we’re ready to ask them, always ready to greet us when we knock, always ready to receive us when we’re looking. He is on our schedule, not his. And he will meet us where we are, even if it is in fear and embarrassment. For God so loves the world.

so many late night conversations of deep meaning at this place

It is good that John’s gospel begins this way, because so often Christian faith is presented as set beliefs and rigid conformity. In culture and even in a good number of churches Christianity comes across as a list of things you have to be for or against. Come to think of it, it ends up sounding like the Pharisees that Nicodemus hails from, never wanting to question too much and really liking when people fall in line. I have to check myself at times when I teach things like confirmation class or Bible studies so that I don’t sound like I’m just laying out a bunch of assertions and positions about everything.

There are truths, of course, and there are statements we hold as certain. Even in Jesus’ life there are beliefs and there is some degree of conformity, but this interaction with Nicodemus shows that those things are not the core of Christian faith.  The core of faith is a gift of life, to be born anew. The core of faith is a relationship that brings life and honors our fears and our dreams and our ability to reason and change our minds.

For Nicodemus, the nagging questions center around this new life. Jesus is performing signs that indicate God is at work in Jesus in a new way. He has turned water into wine, he has cleared the temple and declared that it will be torn to the ground. Nicodemus wants to understand how this all can be: how can the work of God be centered in Jesus? How can the kingdom of God be coming in him? What is the crux of Jesus’ mission? And to address Nicodemus’ questions, Jesus talks about the work of the Holy Spirit and how, like the wind, it blows where it chooses.

I don’t know about you, but I find this to be a disconcerting aspect to life with God. I find that, like most humans, I tend to like certainty. We like important things to be pinned down, summed up, and made to order. Paying attention to the wind is much harder to handle. And yet whether it is regarding the answers to our nagging questions or just the basic facts about what is required of us in faith, Jesus doesn’t want things to get too concrete, like there is information we need to download for a test later.

Jesus is more about inviting us into an ongoing dialogue, a life where we will be able to continually discover new things about him. God knows we grow as we go through life and we can be open to new understandings and experiences with his grace. We can be closed off to that dialogue at our own peril, because that dialogue leads to a new birth, or being having a birth from above. Scholars and historians have often been puzzled with how to translate that word, whether Jesus means one must be born a from above or born again. Regardless of which word we choose, the point is that Jesus’ word and Jesus presence brings about new life in a person similar to the way a woman miraculously brings a child into the world from her womb. Just as Jesus is always open to us as we learn and ask our questions, so we too are pushed from darkness into a new faith when we are open to the movement of God’s Spirit.

About a year and a half ago I was approached by a middle aged man and his wife who had some nagging questions. They were looking for a new community of faith, and had been worshiping with our on-line worship services for a while. This particular individual had a background and story that caught me a bit off-guard. It turns out he was a leading infectious disease specialist on faculty at a nearby medical school. He was a very humble man, and as we talked, I learned that the pandemic had been particularly grueling for him professionally, which I could understand. There was not just the overwhelming amount of new data for him to wade through, the statistics to sift out, the comparisons here and there to previous diseases to discern. (These tasks were exhausting on a physical and intellectual level). But there was also, he found, an exhaustion from the ways people were treating each other, and the exhaustion from having to make so many heavy ethical decisions so rapidly.

What brought him to our church and my office was the fact that he had come to understand the need for a deeper faith to anchor him. He had been raised in the Lutheran tradition but had wandered as a young adult. What he shared with me was a yearning to be assured of a love that was at the center of the universe. He felt the need to be rooted in a concrete love, not just some vague idea of morality that everyone can ultimately interpret their own way. Having come through a crucible of an intensity I could never imagine as a public health worker during a pandemic, I think he was experiencing that new birth Jesus talks about. He was sensing the importance of personal love rooted in a story of God reaching out to help humankind with wisdom and sacrifice and judgment. And he wanted this for his children too, two young girls who were growing and likely already dealing with their own nagging questions.

This man and his family ended up attending here for a while and attending Sunday School, too, before he ended up moving out of state to accept a new position elsewhere. But I’d like to think that while they were here we were able to welcome his nagging questions and walk the journey of faith with him.

I think about that man and his bravery a lot, his bravery to seek out and turn over new stones (and old ones), his bravery to admit not know it all. I think about his desire to seek that love and learn from it. And on closer listen, if there’s anything important for us to take away from this encounter this morning between Nicodemus and Jesus is that love is already seeking us. As Jesus listens to Nicodemus in the dim night and invites him to undergo that new birth, to wait for the Spirit to move him like the wind, it is actually love that is speaking to him.

And we hear that is not for God so tested the world, or God so validated the world or God so judged the world. It is not for God so ruled the world or God so overpowered the world and it most definitely is not God so condemned the world. It is God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. The birth that comes through faith is to a life that is rooted in the love of God, a love that has lifted up the Son on the cross so that all people may be saved. It is a new life that stretches beyond the grave into a future with God.

And so if Jesus’ begins by listening to our with nagging questions he is also makes sure he begins with his love, too. He gets that fact out there right at the beginning so that it’s loud and clear from the start. That, friends, may be the best way to look at baptism. It’s not simply a religious ritual or a way to become a member of the church or even a promise of heaven’s joys. It is a visible acknowledgment that we’re always going to begin with God’s love, not our love towards him. That the wind does blow to include us us at some point. Before we have our first nagging question, or even simple question, we already are living in a world that Jesus has died for.

Life may end up being a puzzle for us, or a valley of sorrow, or a series of joys for which we never have words to describe, but the water and Word assures us of this: God is ready to receive and ready to embrace and ready to root our lives in his forgiveness before we even know it.

And there is no question at all about that.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

“Who Are We Now?” Images for the Church’s Life – Lent Wednesdays 2023

We Are a Body

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

When I was a young child there was a character on TV named “Slim Goodbody” who would occasionally make appearances on the kids’ show Captain Kangaroo. Slim Goodbody was played and is apparently still played by a guy named John Burstein. Known as the Superhero of Health, Slim Goodbody would come on children’s shows and give brief and engaging lessons about health and human anatomy.

And the thing about Slim Goodbody was that he wore a peach-colored unitard to do it. This outfit was extremely form-fitting and it was painted with the internal organs of the human body. You could look at Slim Goodbody and clearly see the heart with its red arteries leading out of it and its dark blue veins feeding into it. Half of his rib cage was painted on there, along with both beige-colored lungs, his entire squishy digestive tract with the liver and intestines. A basic bone structure was included—femurs in the legs and the humerus in the arms. Thankfully the pelvic bone was the only thing painted below his waist. In the areas left over on the suit there were the red and pink stripes of muscles and tendons. Burstein’s character was so educational and so popular that he went on to win awards for Slim Goodbody, and he is apparently, at the age of 75, still performing. You may have seen him in a Super Bowl commercial in 2014.

NEW YORK – OCTOBER 1: CAPTAIN KANGAROO. John Burstein as “Slim Goodbody” on Captain Kangaroo. Image dated October 1978 (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

But the thing about Slim Goodbody, as I said, was that unitard. I was so embarrassed for him. Everyone else on set was wearing regular clothes, but he was walking around like he was completely naked. There was nothing indecent about Slim Goodbody at all. but he just looked so terribly exposed and vulnerable. I could barely even watch him.

When the apostle Paul is searching for ways to describe how his churches are supposed to relate to one another, it may surprise us that he chooses the vulnerable, awkward human body.           It is as jarring to come across this section of 1 Corinthians as it is to realize the episode of Captain Kangaroo you’re watching might have a guy in a peach unitard strutting around.         Paul’s knowledge of human anatomy was nowhere near as sophisticated as Slim’s or ours, but his intuitions about how the body works together and how we often react to its different parts was spot-on. Some things should be covered up. And some parts we bestow with more honor than others. Some body parts get a lot of attention. Some body parts don’t seem to have a function or a purpose we can immediately figure out but which are still indispensable. And so the body happens to be a great analogy to use for an organization, especially when that organization seems to be having repeated problems with getting along and working together.

And that was certainly the case with Paul’s congregations. All of the letters we have from Paul’s hand came out of his need to address issues and conflicts that communities were experiencing together. Christian faith is not a solitary endeavor even though our relationships with God may be personal. This is really interesting when you think that the overwhelming share of Christian literature written today— devotional books and the like—are addressed to solitary individuals and how they are to live their own lives.

We today are primed to think of Christian faith and live our faith in many ways entirely differently than they first did after Jesus’ resurrection. It is probably not too much of an exaggeration to say there was almost no concept of private devotional life in Paul’s day. Christian faith was experienced and lived in community, which is why the body metaphor works. No part of the body can exist on its own, not even for a little while. It can only do what it needs to do when it is connected in a real and meaningful way to the other members. As social activist and author bell hooks observed, “I am often struck by the dangerous narcissism fostered by spiritual rhetoric that pays so much attention to individual self-improvement and so little to the practice of love within the context of community.”[1]

As it happens, for the people of Corinth, there was a lot of narcissism going on, and the body imagery would have had special significance. In their city was the great temple to the pagan god Asclepius, the god of healing. People who had an ailment would travel from far and wide to seek healing for a body part at this temple. And a big part of that ritual was to go to a special potter and have a clay version of whatever body part you were experiencing trouble with. You would then take that clay finger or clay knee or clay eye and lay it at the feet of Asclepius in the temple.

Historians suspect that if you had visited the temple of Asclepius during the time of Paul you would have found dozens, if not hundreds, of disconnected clay body parts lying around everywhere. That visual would have been in the minds of Paul’s Christian congregation as he mentioned this image of the body of Christ. Paul emphasizes how connected the body is meant to be. Below the figure of Asclepius  lay a disorganized hodge podge of body parts.

Below the figure of Christ, the head, breathes an intact body, each person with different gifts joined together.

But just stating that and drawing that mental image is not enough for the body of Christ. Paul goes further to explain that the members of the body cannot start determining amongst themselves who is more valuable and who is less valuable. That is a dynamic of human community that happens whenever people are together long enough.  Certain qualities begin to be emphasized and given special status. It may be gifts that people bring to the table, it may be intellectual ability, it may be popularity, it may be skin color or language or school district.

This is a lesson that the church continues to learn and struggle with, even though the days of ancient Corinth and Asclepius are long behind us. We constantly fight against the urge that is always there to glorify certain people and their gifts while ignoring others. It is the urge that ends up creating in-groups and outsiders even without knowing it, the urge to view people only through the lens of what they can offer, not what their needs or inherent human value is. It leads to the urge to make the church sleek or popular or culturally relevant so that we can be competitive in a culture that idolizes things like athleticism and beauty and innovation and business acumen. This is the church that will eventually leave its members scattered all over the place and hurting.

When I was in my church’s youth group we had one or two adult leaders who were always spending time talking to the new kids or the kids who didn’t seem to know many people. We really liked these youth leaders and were often frustrated that whenever the group sat down to eat or had free time, they seemed to go to the people on the margins rather than hanging out with us. It took a long time for my teenager brain to realize that these leaders were modelling 1 Corinthians 12 for us. They were giving greater honor to the weaker members. For without intentional acts of including people at the margins, communities will always naturally become slanted in favor of the most powerful. My youth leaders had recognized them as indispensable, even as many of us youth had not. Our whole group was made richer by their presence and their gifts regardless of whether or not we could acknowledge it all the time.

I often wonder what the apostle Paul would have thought about organizations like the Special Olympics or the L’Arche Communities, places where people with disabilities are given clear respect and places of honor. It is doubtful that those kinds of groups existed in ancient times. Would Paul have found them to be metaphors  for how the church can function at its best, where success is based less in what you accomplish and more in how everyone can find their function within a greater whole?

But no matter what Paul may have thought about those things, it is peculiar that nowhere in all the images for Jesus’ followers in Scripture are we compared to another human organization or institution. For in the end, we are not just an organization or institution. We are God’s own people, called out to testify by our very life together that Jesus, who was crucified, is risen. We are called out to give glory to a God whose kingdom of peace and justice has begun to arrive in our very midst.

And, much to our chagrin, that may actually involve looking like Slim Goodbody than we realize. For what is a human body if it is not inherently vulnerable, exposed? This how Christ intends for us to be in the world—not sheltered from harm, not indestructible, but out in the open, for all to see. He allowed his own body to be vulnerable and exposed on the cross.

And so we admit: bodies bruise and bleed. Bodies become infected and weak. Bodies need to wear masks from time to time. Bodies develop wrinkles. Bodies hurt and bodies need care. Bodies constantly humble us, from the moment we’re born to the moment we die.

Maybe the most obvious point about the body is the greatest lesson Paul intends. In a world of all kinds of individuals and communities, our transparency is our strength. The more open we are in our internal life with our plans, our goals, even our conflicts, and especially with our forgiveness, the more clearly we witness to the One who saves us.

That is, God’s Spirit does not form us as the church to make us invincible, or even so we may encourage others in their ideas of invincibility and glory, but to show the world through our weakness and our awkwardness—and even somehow in our conflicts—that Jesus is Lord. We allow our mistakes and foolishness to be revealed, confident that God’s grace will overcome it. We do not have to win or dominate, we do not have to figure out the meaning of life. We do not have to secure our immortality or get everything right. Because Jesus it for us. Jesus,who willingly takes our lowly body, has conquered the grave in it. And we have faith in the resurrection of the body, in our own future of Christ’s glory which will be bestowed on every last member.

So, then, who are we now? Jews or Gentiles, slave or free: we are one real goodbody—the best!—drinking together from one Spirit.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin. Jr.

[1] All About Love: New Visions, by bell hooks

Up the Mountain and Back Down

a sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year A]

Matthew 17:1-9

Just outside the venue of Melinda’s and my wedding reception in downtown Pittsburgh was the entrance to the Monongahela Incline, a 153-year-old funicular railway that scales Mount Washington. The first funicular built in the United States, the Monongahela Incline was initially designed to transport coal workers from the neighborhoods on the back side of the mountain into downtown Pittsburgh. It climbs an elevation of 367 feet along a 635 foot track, meaning it rises at a pretty steep 35-degree grade. As you can guess, it no longer transports coal workers to and from the mills, but it does offer rides to over a half a million people a year. Some of them are commuters, but most are tourists who come to enjoy the city in a unique way.

Melinda and I thought it would be fun on the day of our wedding to ride to the top with our wedding party. So at one point when the party was still going on in the reception, we and our families and wedding attendants slipped across the street to ride the incline to the top. The ticket teller must have been surprised to see a woman in her white wedding dress and several guys in tuxedoes coming his way, so he didn’t even charge any of us for the ride. He just opened the door for us and said, “Enjoy the view.” And there, on the top of Mount Washington, we did—just a small group of us. The view over downtown Pittsburgh is breathtaking.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was like our own little transfiguration moment. Our heads were up in the clouds, we had taken a trip up a mountain with our closest friends, and there was Melinda, dressed in dazzling white. We had both been transformed into married people. And we couldn’t stay there forever, on the Mount of Washington. The photographer snapped a few pictures of us before we all got back on the incline and went back down the hillside into the city.

I think about that moment whenever I recall our wedding day. I think about that unique view, and the closeness of the people I love, and the symbolism of starting a marriage journey from a mountaintop assuming that, like for any couple, there would be days for us too in the valley to come.

Jesus’ transfiguration moment comes as his ministry in Galilee is winding down and he is close to Jerusalem. He has just explained to his followers that he will undergo great suffering at the hands of the religious authorities, and be crucified, and on the third day be raised. In other words, his own days in the valley below are just around the corner. So before that happens he grabs a few of his closest friends and takes them to the top of a mountain where his clothes become dazzling white and he is transfigured before them.

Some of us may read this and wonder what is the point of this event. What is Jesus up to here? We wonder those things, but then think about how many times we take special trips to distant places in order to gain clarity about something or to shift our perspective. Synod youth events take high school or middle school students to the side of a mountain outside of Lynchburg for a time of prayer and reflection on faith and life. They ponder questions together away from the hustle and bustle of school and stressful relationships. One of my pastoral colleagues here in Richmond just booked a pilgrimage to the monasteries in Iona, Scotland, with a prayer group in her church. One young adult in our congregation has now completed two trips along the Camino de Santiago in northwestern Spain. The transfiguration of Jesus isn’t all that different. It’s like the disciples’ and Jesus’ own version of a pilgrimage or youth event.

So here, on this mountain, away from the crowd, the disciples are supposed to learn something important about this man they feel drawn to follow and learn from. They take time to ponder his identity more intentionally. Jesus is not only a great teacher who can explain and interpret God’s law for the common person. He is not just a sharp rabbi who can successfully take on the rigidity and self-righteousness of the Pharisees. He is on par with the greatest prophets and leaders the people of God have ever seen! But more than that, Jesus is the Son of God with whom God is well-pleased.

There were a pair of commercials that ran during last week’s Super Bowl that have been getting a lot of attention. These commercials were ads that didn’t really attempt to sell anything, but they showed provocative images intended to draw you in. Eventually each ad ended with the simple words “Jesus: He Gets Us.” One of the ads had images of people arguing and yelling at each other. The point was that when it comes to the struggle to love our enemies, Jesus gets us. Another had images and video clips of immigrants and foreigners. The message was supposed to be that when it comes to the suffering that refugees go through, Jesus gets us. He understands what we, as humans, go through.

The controversial method of advertising and authenticity of the campaign’s origins aside, the overall concept of the message is pretty solid. Jesus does “get us,” so to speak. I think that’s why he’s attracted a following in the gospel stories to begin with. He speaks to ordinary people in a way that assures them he understands. He get us…but I’m not sure we always get him.

And that is what happens on the mountain of transfiguration. We see that despite the bright, flashing lights and the booming voice of obviousness from above, we still don’t often get who Jesus is. We want to mold him to fit our agendas and shape him in such a ways that he is convenient to follow. Peter offers to build three dwellings right there on the mountain, as if they’ve reached the pinnacle of Jesus’ mission. The dwellings are something that observant Jews would have used during their festival that marked Moses’ giving of the law. It was a throwback to the temporary shelters that the Jews used for housing as they awaited Moses’ descent from Sinai. Peter wants to camp out here. Peter wants to extend this holy mountaintop experience, maybe indefinitely, circumventing any bad things that may come in Jerusalem.

It’s clear that Peter doesn’t really get Jesus. He doesn’t get that the point of Jesus’ love is not to remove us from reality, to create rituals of escapism, but to embrace our real existence. He will endure suffering on our account and rise victoriously on the other side of it.

 After the voice comes down from the cloud, all three of the disciples fall on the ground and are overcome with fear. This is precisely the time they should be filled with joy and wonder. Again, it looks like they don’t get Jesus. Jesus is nothing to be afraid of, for he is God’s pledge of undying love. Jesus is not hear to scare any of us. We can trust him, and not just to be a great teacher, but to be a Savior, to be our redeemer. Jesus is the person who reveals to us our true value in God’s eyes.


And at that moment on the mountain, Jesus comes over to the disciples and touches them in order to reassure them and comfort them. He gets us. He understands the power of simple touch and a word of encouragement. So often we find ourselves in a time of terror or confusion and we need someone to break through our feelings with their word and their presence. Jesus will be this for the whole human experience. God the Father has sent him to come alongside all of us so that any frightful and despair-filled situation may be interrupted by grace. God has sent Jesus to reassure us that God is in control and that eventually good and order will have the final word.

Jesus’ transfiguration, then, is kind of like the photo shoot of glory at the top of the mountain. He prints it out on his Polaroid and gives them the image. With it God gives the disciples a vision of what will come down the road, past all the valleys, past all the darkened ways and woodlands that are part of the human journey. It’s a flash-forward moment where, just for a brief moment, they will be able to see Easter’s brightness. They continue down the mountain, then, confident that Jesus travels with them, confident that his light will guide them.

When it comes to trudging through the valleys of this world with faith in a transfigured Jesus and seeing him for who he really is, I would imagine the experiences of our brothers and sisters of color could teach us a lot. Their stories of survival and perseverance in spite of the odds their heritage has faced through slavery, the Jim Crow era, and the Civil Rights struggle are inspiring and deserve to be heard and listened to. In fact, when the voice of God tells the three disciples on the mount of Transfiguration to “Listen to Jesus,” I often wonder how that might mean for me to listen closely to the cries of suffering and struggle in people I encounter now. Do I embrace things like Black History Month as a time of intentional listening? Their experiences are a gift to us—their songs and their stories—for surely we can hear Jesus, in them, crying out like Jesus does on the cross.

Jesus identifies with Moses and Elijah on the mountain, two figures of power and wisdom, but Jesus also repeatedly tells us he is present in the lowly, the hungry, and the impoverished.  Can we hear him in the voices those at the margins, in the everyday, when the bright light fades and we have no choice but to walk into darkness?  Jesus gets us—always and forever, no matter what, and if we are ever to get him, I suspect that is where we start to tune our ears.

Sheryl Lee Ralph sings “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at Super Bowl LVII

And when the Holy Spirit grants us that grace, perhaps we’ll even find the words of the Black National anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” found on our lips. Also a part of the Super Bowl show last Sunday, tt will be sung by all disciples of all colors because we will trust that the Transfigured Jesus urges us all on with a glimpse of God’s glorious light. In the words of James Weldon Johnson over 100 years ago:

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
out from the gloomy past,
till we now stand at last
where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Quite a Referee

a sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A]

Matthew 5:21-37

So for the Super Bowl LVII we have the Kansas City Chiefs versus the Philadelphia Eagles. Or, as one of my friends put it, barbecue versus cheese-steaks, which, as far as food match-ups go, is a win-win. No matter what is being served for your Super Bowl shindig, or whether you may be watching it alone, everyone who cares about it is hoping for a good game between two good teams. They are two teams that each clinched their conference championship and was at the top of the rankings as they went into the playoffs. They are also two teams led by two quarterbacks of color, the first time such a face-off has happened in a Super Bowl. Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts: two young stars who will steer these two teams today in a great American standoff.

Suffice it to say there is one team today that no one really wants to see or hear much of. In fact, many say that the sign of a great game in any sport, not just football, is when that third team is barely noticeable. That, as you well know, is the team of referees. Necessary for any game to be played and played fairly, referees call penalties, keep their eye on the boundaries and determine ball placement. But at the same time, it’s best if they’re basically unnoticeable. No one wants the whistle to blow too many fouls, and, if so, they want the fouls to be clear and obvious infractions, not ones called by suspected favoritism or ineptitude. “Just let them play ball,” comes the cry from the stands when it feels like the referees are too influential or too involved in the outcome.

In the gospel lesson this morning, Jesus sounds an awful lot like a referee, and I’d bet most of us would rather hear less of him. He keeps stopping the play, reminding us of the rules, practically reading off all the infractions we could ever possibly make, never just letting us play ball. He’s there, whistle in his mouth, pointing and assigning penalties. Pardon me for saying it, but this is not a fun side of Jesus. It reminds me of a curious comment that my 6-year-old son made two weekends ago when both of his older sisters were away at a youth group event. He was out playing on the porch when he suddenly turned to me and said, “You know, dad, there’s a lot of things we can do as a family with no girls.”

Although they bring life, God’s standards for us can seem restrictive, and this morning Jesus seems to take everything to a new level. We can’t help but thinking there’s a lot of things we could do as a people with no Jesus and his interpretation of the law. Murder is not just murder anymore. Now it’s anger too, and insulting someone can get you hauled before a judge. Adultery isn’t just adultery anymore. It’s lusting too—just looking at someone in the wrong way. And swearing isn’t just swearing anymore. No more bringing God’s name into anything we do. Just a simple “yes” and “no” will suffice. All the penalties and infractions we’d just rather not have to deal with—the ones that make us really uncomfortable—Jesus goes ahead and brings right into the room with the Kansas City barbecue and the Philadelphia Cheese steak.

As you may have already figured out, this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the portion where Jesus’ does a little teaching on the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments form both the backbone and the foundation for the whole of Israel’s Torah, or holy laws. Here, in his first public address, Jesus appears like Moses 2.0, giving a fresh interpretation of God’s law from up on mountain. He wants to lead God’s people into righteousness and freedom. And to do so he doesn’t just reiterate the commandments that Moses did, but unpacks them, one by one, to get behind what God’s will really is with each one.

When he talks about the fifth commandment, for example—you shall not commit murder—he shows how even words and anger amount to killing our neighbor. Anyone who has been a victim of cyberbullying or who has had a child who has been cyberbullied knows exactly what Jesus is talking about. God doesn’t just want to stop us from shedding one another’s blood. God wants to point out the ways in which we tear each other into a pulp from the inside. God cares about the things we post, especially about others, on social media. It is shocking how quickly even Christians will defend anything, even hateful, insulting comments or Tweets, simply because of a concept of “freedom of speech.” This morning Jesus reminds us that people who’ve been claimed by his love really don’t have freedom of speech. Jesus has not set us free so we can say whatever we want and in whatever manner we want unless, of course, we like the freedom of being burned by what we say. We have been freed to speak the truth in love, which is really a lot better than just freedom of speech.

From the fifth commandment Jesus moves onto the sixth: you shall not commit adultery, and from there to a brief teaching on divorce. His unpacking here is more subtle, and is very tied to the specific practices of marriage in his time. Jesus is not just criticizing marital unfaithfulness but reminding his followers that God’s intention for human marriage is based in mutual respect, love, and a fundamental understanding that men and women are equal partners, equal beings. God does not create women as property for men to trade and later toss to the side, and neither are women to be viewed as objects of sexual desire. This particular teaching was clearly very liberating for Christ’s first followers as we have loads of evidence that in the early church women were not seen and treated as temptresses or baby-producers, but as sisters, people who worked side by side with men.

In his last segment of this teaching Jesus focuses on the eighth commandment, which is “Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.” This is the commandment that reminds us that our neighbor’s name and our neighbor’s reputation is basically as important in the grand scheme of things as God’s name and reputation. Our neighbor, after all, as a fellow human being bears God’s image.

Marc Chagall

In Jesus’ time it was customary for people to sprinkle in references to God when making oaths or trying to complete a business transaction or just in trying to make a point in regular conversation with their neighbor. This would easily become manipulative, because if I can somehow through my religious words convince you that God is on my side to get you to believe me or do something, the actual truth of the matter quickly becomes less important. I just want to control you. With his teaching, Jesus reminds us that God’s intention with this commandment is to let integrity speak for itself. It would be wonderful if we could get our political parties to hear Jesus on this. State your promises to us in your platforms and leave God’s name out of it.

I remember having a great conversation with Lee Nye one time not too long before he died. Lee was a member of this congregation who worked in insurance and he helped our congregation negotiate insurance coverage for years. He also was instrumental on Council and in our service ministries. Once he told me about two different men he often had to do business with. One had an office where he had taken effort to place religious paintings on the wall and put religious books like the Bible prominently on his desk so that people would see them when they came in. It seemed to be a stage as if to say to people who came in, “Look, I’m a believer in God and therefore you should trust me.” The other fellow Lee knew had a very spartan office. He had no books other than a few accounting books and business magazines left out. He had no overtly religious art on the walls.

Interestingly enough, Lee said he learned after a while that the first man wasn’t always forthcoming about everything, and could be hard to nail down. The second man never let on whether or not he was a churchgoer or a believer in God. But Lee learned he was an honest man, good on his word all of the time, even when it meant a business loss for him.

I think Lee had really seen up close what Jesus was teaching—that we shouldn’t hide behind our faith or God’s name when forming relationships with people. Be wary of groups and political parties that claim God’s name in conveying a promise. Just be ourselves, and be honest, even when it’s hard, and God is glorified.

Jesus’ treatment of these commandments show us his Father’s true intent in them, but they also point out that our sin, our human brokenness, causes us to turn into objects things that God never meant to be objects. In some way, each of these rules drills down to remind us of the gifts God has given us in each other and how easily we resort to taking the easy way out when relationships get tricky, whether it’s through resorting to murder, or marital infidelity, or the manipulative words we use to coerce our fellow human. Referee Jesus comes not to blow the whistle and make us feel penalized, but to remind us of the value of the people around us and the beauty of our relationships with them. He comes to stop the game temporarily, and for as many times as he needs to, to let us try again, to let us rediscover joy in one another.

Like many others, I have been shocked and saddened by the amount of suffering and loss experienced in the earthquake this week in Turkey and Syria. As it stands, it is already the deadliest earthquake the world has seen in a decade. But also like many others, I am moved by news that some are still being rescued. One simple image that went viral this week seemed to capture the desperation of the moment. It is an image a photographer captured of a young girl, about seven years old, trapped beneath a big concrete slab. She’s on her stomach, maybe slightly twisted to one side, and her left arm is lifted up as if holding the concrete slab from falling any further. And under the crook of her little arm is her little brother’s head. Her name is Mariam and his is Ilaaf, an Islamic name that means, of all things, protection. For 36 hours they waited for rescue, Mariam consistently keeping her free arm in an upward position that would protect him. Instinctive care, instinctive sacrifice, instinctive love. Down in the dust and rubble. That’s what we all saw in that photo.

At some point, the law and all its expectations of us and its reminders of our shortcomings begin to feel like a concrete slab that is crushing us and suffocating us slowly. But Jesus isn’t only a referee, calling us out. He is also instinctive love, down in the dust and rubble with us, and he is this most of all. He is love most of all, and it is clear to him that we need some kind of rescue, and he’s willing to let the weight of God’s expectations crush him rather than let us die losers.

He won’t just unpack the commandments and let us be. Remember: he’s leading us into freedom and righteousness. Jesus comes to lift his arms on the cross and protect us, and in so doing, he lets that kind of love loose in the world. It’s a self-giving love that shows up in all kinds of people in all kinds of situations and often when we’d least expect it. In the rubble of earthquakes, the rubble of hurt friendships, the rubble of broken marriages, in the rubble of all the messes of the world.

As it turns out, there’s not a lot we can do, or would do, as a people with no Jesus. There’s not a whole lot we would want to do without God’s instinctive, protective love, a love that comes to make its home here. It’s a love that sees us hurting, that sees us failing over and over and still picks us up, dusts us off, pats our back and says, get back out there, strong one. Give it another go. I love you. Let’s play ball.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Ground-breaking Blessings

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A]

Matthew 5:1-12

The first congregation I served was in a borough of Pittsburgh that had a large Roman Catholic church in it and therefore a fairly heavy Roman Catholic presence. Pretty soon after arriving there I got used to being mistaken for a priest whenever I was wearing my collar out in public. To be quite honest, this really didn’t bother me, and in most cases I could get by with just a wave and a smile on the street without being drawn into a longer conversation where I’d have to explain myself. Occasionally I would end up saying a quick prayer on the sidewalk for healing or something of the sort, and those were holy moments.

But one day I was drawn in and unable to escape or explain myself. I was at lunch with my new bride, Melinda, at one of our favorite places to eat: an authentic Neapolitan pizzeria that was rather new to our little borough and trying to get established. The owner was a first generation Italian who had learned his craft in Naples and had originally owned a shop in Manhattan. That day during lunch, before our meals had arrived, a young man working there apparently caught sight of my collar and bolted out from behind the counter and came right up to our table. He said, with eyes wide with hope and expectation, and in broken English with an Italian accent in front of all of the other guests, “Dear Father! Today is my first day on the job here. Will you please bless my pizza-making career?!”

Frozen, I couldn’t get out of it, especially because he was most likely going to be making our pizza. I thought to myself: I must have been absent on the day in seminary when they taught us that prayer. I didn’t know if I was supposed to stand up and put my hands on his head or if I was supposed to go back in the kitchen and bless him there. I didn’t want to let the young man down, and I didn’t want to get drawn into a long dialogue about how I wasn’t technically Roman Catholic and so he might be mistaking me for someone, so I took one of his hands, and I said something like, “Dear Father, please bless this man’s pizza making career. May he toss the dough with ease, and make many delicious pizzas that are very round and hearty. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” He seemed satisfied, and went back behind the counter.

I don’t know whatever happened to that guy. The pizzeria closed about a year later, never to reopen. I hope he is out there still making pizzas somewhere. I can’t say I’ve ever blessed anything like that before or since. On his first day in the neighborhood, Jesus goes to the top of a mountain before a huge crowd and blesses people who have never been blessed before. The poor in spirit. Those who mourn. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The peacemakers. I mean, if I thought it was awkward to come up with a blessing for a pizza career in front of a whole restaurant, think about how strange it must be for Jesus to stand in front of hundreds and bless the meek and the merciful. These are the types of people who never get blessed, who labor away in the soup kitchens funeral parlors of the world, who suffer often silently in the margins and rarely see their names in lights. Think how strange it must be for the crowd around Jesus to hear things like this, to have these particular words be the first things that come from his mouth in his much-anticipated first sermon.

A few years ago during the pandemic we were looking for a children’s book on the birth of Jesus that we could give to kids who came to our live nativity. Tricia Stohr-Hunt helped us narrow a few options down, but we looked at dozens. One in particular stood out mainly because of the illustrations, and I went ahead and ordered it. It’s just called Nativity by Cynthia Rylant. Unlike many of the other selections, its text is taken straight from Scripture, using the birth story that everyone knows from Luke’s gospel. What’s so peculiar or unique about it is that it doesn’t end in Bethlehem. After we are told Mary ponders these things in her heart and after the shepherds leave, glorifying God, you turn the page and read, “When the babe, who was called Jesus, became a man, he stood one day on a mountain before a great multitude of people and he said, ‘Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And the book continues with most of these blessings from Matthew’s gospel.

I have never seen any type of literature tie the birth of Jesus so directly to this first teaching of his, to see a natural culmination of his birth in what we call the Sermon on the Mount. But perhaps we should. For those who first heard Jesus’ sermon, and for those who first shared news of it, I bet there was a clear line connecting his humble birth to these words. A Messiah who was born to an unwed mother and laid in a manger and visited by shepherds would be the one who could bless the overlooked and undervalued.

That’s just how ground-breaking these blessings are. With them Jesus literally breaks ground on a new creation where everyone, and especially with those starting with those at the bottom, has a place. This is a new world brought about by his love, by his mercy, by his sacrifice for you and for me. It will be born as Jesus teaches us to treasure and value people differently than what the world tends to. It will be born as Jesus acknowledges that those who are farthest away from power and privilege almost always have the best understanding of how God is a true help. This new creation will be born by Jesus’ unquenchable desire to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. It will take shape in our very midst. Like the enchanting illustrations in Cynthia Rylant’s Nativity book, his word brings life to this new world, and he invites us to live in it too.

There was a story in the news just a couple of weeks ago about some young school children in Minnesota who looked around and saw that during recess time their classmates in wheelchairs and mobility assistive devices had nothing to do. The playground wasn’t accessible to them because it had no adaptive equipment. This bothered some 5th graders at the school who asked their teacher why they couldn’t just buy better equipment. How could their disabled friends be included in the fun each day? She told them the price tag was staggering: $300,000 for playground equipment that could safely accommodate wheelchairs and scooters.

You can probably guess what happened. The 5th graders were seeing and understanding the new creation that Jesus spoke about, where the mourning are comforted and the meek inherit the earth and the children left on the sidelines inherit the slides and swings. The 5th graders themselves raised all $300,000 within a matter of months. The children in the wheelchairs love playing on their new playground but say it was the seeing the loving effort their classmates made in order to obtain the equipment that was best of all. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness like a kid at Glen Lake Elementary, for you will be filled.

You see, the poor in spirit, those who are mourning, like the family and friends of Tyre Nichols, the people who strive for peace when the world wants strife, the meek, the gentle, those who are harassed for standing up for what is right—these kinds of folks all have one big thing in common. They are more prone, because of their position in the world to have a better concept of just how powerful and loving God really is. People in their positions are more liable to have an honest assessment of their own weakness, their own foolishness, their own lack of agency unlike those who have lots of wealth, or status, or health, or power. And it is a blessing to know you need God! It is a blessing to understand and believe that Jesus speaks for you, that Jesus has come to die for you. It is a blessing to know and receive that love.

I received a letter this week from a former Epiphany member who moved away last year to a new city in a distant state. She was writing to send greetings and to let me know how she was adjusting to her new home and that she had finally found a new church after much searching and prayer. She was writing to request that we transfer her membership to that new congregation there, even thought it is hard, she said, because she loved Epiphany so.

She said the first Sunday she finally geared up to worship there they happened to be paying off their mortgage and were preparing to call a permanent pastor. The lady behind her in the pew greeted her warmly, then asked her to join them for coffee hour. She was then introduced to a woman who headed up the congregation’s sewing ministry. Of all people to meet Caroline Wake, who was a faithful member of our sewing ministry! And, wouldn’t you know it, Caroline had loaded her car that Sunday with fabric donations. The women helped her bring it in to the church where they will meet on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month to make items for Newborns in Need and quilts for Lutheran World Relief. Caroline, apprehensive about a new worshiping community, but bringing donations with her anyway. Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” If you know Caroline, you know how that fits.

So as we walk the streets, may we all carry around with us with donations of some kind at the ready—donations of extra kindness, mercy, justice. May we all look to the newcomer, the stranger, and introduce ourselves with warmth and welcome. May we all look to the edges of the playground, or the lunchroom, the neighborhood, and notice just who Jesus has started to pull front and center.

May we all, blessed with love and forgiveness by this new preacher from Nazareth, run back to the counters where we work and play and live with our hands ready to make peace and beauty, and ready ourselves for the new world that is taking shape.

Blessed are you.

Blessed are you.

Blessed are you.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Come. And You Will See.

A sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A]

John 1:29-42

I have no plans whatsoever to read it myself, but I have been intrigued by the all of the hoopla and fanfare surrounding the book by former Prince Harry, now Harry, Duke of Sussex. It is simply called Spare, in reference to the fact that as second-born child to the first-in-line to the throne, Harry was once called a “spare” heir The book, which is a more of a tell-all, from what I’m hearing, was just released this week and has broken all time sales records. On its first day, in fact, it sold 1.43 million copies. The hype building up to the arrival of the book has been thoughtfully orchestrated, and that’s what’s been so interesting to me. The Duke has given juicy interviews on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and just prior to Christmas Netflix aired a 6-part series about Harry and his wife, Meghan, for which they were paid a whopping $150 million.

But all of that was prologue for the book, and now that we have it, or can have it, we can reportedly hear Harry speak for himself. Up until now, as we are to understand it, we have largely heard about Harry from other people. Now we can know what Harry stands for, what his real story is, what he really wants the world to know.

At this similar critical intersection between what is said about someone and hearing their story from their own mouth is where we find Jesus this morning. He is an heir too, of course, though not a spare. He is the heir to God’s kingdom, the one people have waited so long for to reveal what God is about. And John the Baptist is the publicist, arranging Jesus’ P.R. campaign. John the Baptist tells us key things we should now about Jesus as we hear about Jesus and meet him.

In many ancient and medieval paintings, in fact, John the Baptist is depicted with an exceptionally long pointer finger lifted in the direction of Jesus. It was kind of like a Snapchat filter designed to accentuate certain features for painters in earlier centuries. John’s elongated pointer figure made you look at Jesus instead of John. It is emphasizing that John the Baptist is not the promised holy One, but rather Jesus is.

Grunewald’ Issenheim Altarpiece. John the Baptist points at Jesus and the Lamb of God is to his left.

Biblical scholars and historians have long suspected, that John the gospel writer was writing his gospel and letters from a place of conflict and pressure because some were still preferring to worship and follow John the Baptist over Jesus. These are two different Johns, so it gets confusing. John who writes this gospel and tell us this story is being especially careful to remind his readers that John the Baptist did everything in his power to introduce Jesus properly and throw his support behind him. John the Baptist was no longer trying to recruit his own followers and perhaps getting them instead to follow Jesus.

And so John, in no uncertain terms, tells his disciples and apparently everyone else who would hear that Jesus is the Lamb of God. If we can’t see the long pointer finger, we can at least hear his pointed words: Jesus is the one who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is the one who ranks ahead of John himself. Jesus is the one on whom the Spirit of God descended. And eventually it works with at least two of John the Baptist’s disciples. They turn and leave him to start following Jesus.

People in the business world talk about having an elevator speech. An elevator speech is how you would explain what you do and what you are all about in the time that it takes to ride in an elevator with someone from one floor to another. John the Baptist has an elevator speech for Jesus. What’s yours? Can you explain who Jesus is to you for someone else—and not in an off-putting way that makes you sound like a salesperson, but in a way that might convince someone they’d be interested in knowing why Jesus matters? What would you say that might make someone pick up the book and read Jesus in his own words? Do you understand Jesus as the person who takes away the sin of the world? Said another way: do you see Jesus as the person whose way of living releases us from our inherent inwardness, who takes dead ends and creates new life? Where does Jesus rank for you in terms of influences? Can you share how we rank at the center of his love and forgiveness?

“Agnus Dei” (Fransicso de Zurburan)

If you’re like me and many other Lutherans I know, perhaps words are not your strong suit here. How then does your life communicate the impact of knowing Jesus in other ways? How do your choices, your actions serve as P.R. for Jesus’ movement of justice and peace and mercy? In what ways does your life become that elongated pointer finger of John the Baptist that directs the world’s attention to Jesus?

I was happy to see that one priest I follow on social media, Kenneth Tanner, happened to post this week what sounds like his John the Baptist-like elevator speech: Tanner says, “God makes the world. God loves the world God makes. In becoming human God becomes what God makes—[which is] what God loves. God cannot become what God hates. God cannot become what is not good. God does not give up on what God becomes. This” concludes Tanner, “is the simplest way I have found to say what Christians trust.”

You may come up with something even simpler than that, but “God does not give up on what God becomes” sounds really good. John the Baptist seems to understand, even if he can’t see that a cross will eventually lie in Jesus’ path, that Jesus means that God is not giving up on us, no matter what lies in our path.

Once those disciples leave John, though, the attention is focused on what Jesus is going to say about himself. He can share his own story and define himself on his own terms. And the first words out of Jesus’ mouth are so very interesting. He doesn’t confirm what John the Baptist has been saying. He doesn’t really promote himself at all, ask if anyone wants autographs, or anything like that (“It’s me! Hi! I’m the Messiah, it’s me! At tea time everybody agrees.”) All he says to the guys running along behind him is “What are you looking for?” and then, “Come and see.” It’s so inviting, so unassuming, no unpretentious. It expects us to be curious.

One of our new Adult Sunday School classes offered right now, led by Jim Huddle, is called “The Difficult Words of Jesus.” They’re using a book by Professor Amy-Jill Levine from Vanderbilt that unpacks some of the really thorny and touchy things Jesus says at times—things like “Hate your mother and father” and “Sell all your possessions.” My guess is that “Come and see” is not considered one of the more difficult sayings of Jesus.

And yet it probably should be. “Come and see” is an invitation to change, and, well, we all know how well most of us love change, right (myself included)? Change is difficult. Change is scary, even when it is change that we welcome. Change involves leaving behind certain values and judgments and loyalties, just like those disciples, Andrew and Peter leave John the Baptist behind. It’s important to note that Simon receives a new name—a new identity—in this process. Jesus doesn’t give an elevator speech about himself and list off the things that are good about him but “Come and see” does sound difficult because it may take us out of our comfort zone.

“Come and see” is also difficult because it’s not immediate, and most of the time we like immediate and instant. Even if it is change we’re looking for we prefer it to start now and make itself known. I’ve had a chance over the past several weeks to observe the process of physical therapy up close as my young son recovers from a surgery he underwent. All is going well, I’m happy to report, but progress and growth takes time and perseverance and a bit of curiosity. It takes patience and a healthy bit of curiosity—curiosity to try something that may seem uncomfortable or strange at first. Physical therapy, I’ve learned, is a “come and see” vocation. Come and see what this particular exercise will do. Come and see how your body will respond to this motion. The patient can’t really see what might occur unless the patient comes and tries.

Jesus right off the bat presents us with a faith journey that is more like physical therapy and less like taking medicine. Taking medicine is typically quick, immediate, and doesn’t require quite the same commitment level. But Jesus calls us to a relationship that resembles therapy: We involve ourselves in prayer, we stick to the church or service commitments that seem awkward and inconvenient at first. We show some curiosity in what the next step may be. And God will surprise us. God’s Spirit sustains us and promises us amazing new life.

Three years ago we were poised at the precipice of a pandemic that no one saw coming. By the end of January 2020 we were starting to hear about a mystery illness that was making people sick in China. By the end of February it was here in the States and by mid-March everything was shut down. It was bewildering, it was frightening, it was frustrating. None of us had ever been through anything like this before, so we weren’t sure about the next steps. No one had been through it…except for Jesus, who on the cross endured all kinds of isolation and depression and rose again to defeat it all.

pre-recorded worship, October 2020

And in mid-March, as things were going on line and Zooming like crazy Jesus said, “Come and see.” “Don’t give up, don’t turn back. Just come and see how I will guide and provide through this.” And this congregation did just that. Committed to Jesus’ “call over the tumult” you stepped into the weird, maddening COVID unknown and followed Jesus’ voice. I still remember Amy Boyle and Tatter Hartmann and others out in the parking lot that very first weekend collecting food for children at Ridge Elementary because no one could figure out how children would eat if school was shut down. And they were all trying to do it while standing 10 feet from each other!

Through weeks of no in person worship, to weeks of worship with no singing and sitting three pews apart to weeks of signing up for worship spots…to weeks of singing but with masks God kept leading. And we came and saw what might be next. There were some very interesting steps along the way.

Last Sunday, January 8, 2023, our in person worship attendance was 334. The attendance on the second Sunday of January 2020 was also 334. When we add those who join us on-line each week, our worship attendance is now 33% higher than it was pre-pandemic. Now I’m not declaring the pandemic over and there is still reason to be cautious and to support those who don’t feel comfortable yet without a mask or joining us in person. But this does feel like some important milestone. I am also saying I would have never, ever have predicted this is where we’d be at the start of the pandemic 3 years ago. We had to come and see it happen ourselves.

I guess that’s what happens, my friends, when you pick up Jesus’ book, when you take hold of his gracious invitation to come and see and hear him speak, in his own voice, for himself. In the bread, in the wine, in the word spoken and shared. May that be what you discover in your own path as the Lamb of God, the Messiah, the Son of God calls you again today.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

What’s In a Name?

a sermon for Name of Jesus

Luke 2:15-21 and Galatians 4:4-7

It seems to me that for most people this particular time of year—the time around Christmas and New Year’s Day—involves following more traditions than probably any other time of the year. Is that so for you? One day this past week my family was reflecting on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and sharing what our favorite moment was, both of my high school daughters said that their favorite part of Christmas each year was the beef stew that Hanne and Rob Hamlin make for the church staff to eat between services on Christmas Eve. Over the years Melinda and I have developed all kinds of traditions for our family that take us through December and into January, but the one ritual that routinely stands out for them is having the chance to gather with other staff kids and adults in the office and shovel down beef stew while we’re figuring out who the crucifers and torchbearers are for each worship service. For me the beef stew is a way to get food during a busy night, but for my children it is a valuable tradition that has meaning. Hanne and Rob’s generosity is something they will always associate with this time of year, and I think that’s fantastic.

I bet most of us today will sit down to some kind of special New Year’s meal: pork of some sort, with a side of greens and cornbread. It’s the one time of the year I get black-eyed peas. Traditions don’t have to center around food, of course. People have a tradition of making New Year’s resolutions or ringing in the new year a certain way. Traditions anchor us. They help set our wild and chaotic lives into some type of story. They help us measure time and how much we’re growing and aging.

The gospel writers want us to know that Jesus comes from a family that is anchored in tradition. Luke, especially, seems to be keen on getting this point across. Jesus is born into a family and a community that chooses mark time and meaning and growth by following their Jewish rituals and customs. Jesus comes to us anchored in story, and one of the reasons we know this is because the first thing we’re told about Jesus’ life is that Mary and Joseph have him circumcised on the eighth day.

Now, I don’t feel the need right now to get into the details of that procedure, but suffice to say that it was a centuries-old tradition that linked Jesus all the way back to Abraham. Abraham was the person God called forth to claim as God’s own people, the father of the Israelites. This ritual was a sign of the covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendants that God would be their God, no matter what. In the midst of their own chaos, Mary and Joseph want this to be their child’s story. God calls people forth into new adventures and promises to be with them.

As strange and ancient as this ritual may seem to us now, we have to remember that this would have been very ordinary and customary for Jesus’ family. In fact, this would likely have been a public event, under normal circumstances. Who knows who was there for this event. It may have even had an atmosphere like one of our baby showers, where people brought gifts and other items that would have helped Joseph and Mary take care of a baby. And a central part of this tradition was announcing the son’s name. Their child’s name was Jesus, a name they did not get to choose themselves but which had been announced to them by an angel.

We often use different methods when naming someone or something. Typically the names we choose have a formal definition that may or may not tell you something about that person. One of the Sudanese tribes I worked with in Cairo had the tradition of naming a child after one of the first things the mother saw after giving birth. One of the girls in my class went by “Akuol,” which was a beautiful name, and later I found out it just meant lizard. There had been a lizard crawling on the wall in the hut when she delivered her.

Jesus’ name actually has a meaning that will tell people something about his identity. The word Jesus, or Yeshua in Hebrew, means “He saves.” It was the same name of Joseph in Genesis who helps save his family in Egypt, so this story of saving people and being a savior would have been connected to Jesus’ identity right from the beginning. Jesus, however, would go on to save people from the powers of sin and death. Throughout his life people would watch Jesus save people from all kinds of things. His name becomes his identity and his mission, all rolled into one. He saves people from disease by healing them. He saves people from hunger by feeding them. He saves people from social ostracization by restoring them to community. And eventually Jesus offers his own life as a way to save humankind from their separation from God.

We talk about Jesus so freely now that we can forget the name of Jesus was so powerful and so revolutionary that early Christians would get thrown in prison and thrown to the lions just by mentioning it or being associated with it. Ancient Romans believed that Caesar was who saved people—and followers of Christ contested that simply by saying the name of their Savior, “Jesus.” The symbol of the fish came to be a way early believers could mention Jesus’ name and the community he had created without directly mentioning him. The Greek word fish, ichthyus, happens to be an acronym for Jesus: “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” If a Christian approached someone else in public and wanted to know if that person was a fellow believer, they would draw an arc on the ground. If that person was a believer, they knew to draw a connecting arc underneath it to finish the fish picture. Nowadays we just buy a fish symbol and stick it to the back of our Honda. But for centuries, Christians would look at at that fish and see “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” and immediately think of the Savior’s name. Furthermore, it wasn’t an ideal or value that would unite the two of them, but a real person’s name.

Even more important than knowing the actual definition of Jesus’ name and purpose is the fact that God gives us his name to begin with. This is something I think we can take for granted: that God has actually revealed this name to us. A name is the most intimate, integral aspect of a person’s identity. That’s why we work so hard against identity theft these days

and we fear it happening to us. We don’t want anyone else out there walking around using our name and pretending to be us and doing things that we’re not actually doing. A name is precious. A name is a reputation. It’s a person’s “handle” in the world, and so in giving us Jesus God is putting flesh and blood on his reputation.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I have a concern or a complaint or especially a compliment to voice with a certain company or institution I hate having to write “To Whom It May Concern.” That address feels so distant and unreliable, and I just hope that whoever is supposed to be concerned with the thing I’m concerned with will actually end up hearing it…and being concerned about it. I always like having a name of someone I can speak with, get a hold of. Now that God has given us Jesus, there’s no need of prayers that feel something like, “To Whom It May Concern, out there in the universe.” We can call directly on the Son ourselves and know that the Creator is listening. We can know that because that name is Jesus and he has walked this earth as one of us, he is concerned with what we are concerned with and does hear us.

There is no secrecy about our God. There is mystery, but no secrecy. That is a tension built right in to our faith. God is always mysterious, never able to be contained or fully explained or understood and yet God is not secretive. In Jesus God has let us know what God is really about: saving.

But even more than that—even more loving and daring than just revealing his name and letting us use and misuse it as we may—God puts his name on us. God places Jesus’ mission onto our lives and encourages us to go out in the world and do things bearing Jesus’ name. Several years ago I had dropped off the church van at West Broad Honda for a routine inspection or something. When I went to go pick it up, they asked for the name. I told them “Phillip Martin.” They looked in their records and said no car was in the service shop with that name. I knew I had dropped the car off! They had me describe the car and then finally they found it. The technician looked at me and said “Are you Mr. Epiphany?” Could you imagine? Me, out there acting as if I’m “Mr. Epiphany,” representing this church all the time?

In Galatians Paul says that Jesus was sent into time to be born of a woman so that we might be adopted as children, as heirs of God. In a way it is like we are each named “Jesus” and let loose in the world to continue the tradition of saving. Wherever we go, and whatever year or day it is, we announce the grace of Jesus. In many different ways we lay our lives down at the feet of those looking for salvation—from hunger or loneliness or grief or despair.

The end of each worship service includes a blessing, or a benediction. Sometimes it uses the form of Aaron’s benediction from the book of Numbers. Sometimes it uses words that the apostle Paul used. Typically that blessing and reminder involves the pastor making a cross-like motion with his or her hands. It’s a clear gesture of Christ’s identity. And sometimes, in addition to that, the pastor forms his or her fingers into the actual first two letters of Jesus’ name, a chi and a rho. Another reminder.

We go forth from here not only as ourselves, you see, but as people who have learned the name of Jesus and who now bear it into the world. This is our true tradition. We are anchored in Jesus’ story, whether it is a new day or a new week new year. Jesus has already ventured into it to meet us there. And he beckons us to venture with him. For we are no longer slaves, but children of God, and if children, heirs. May that anchor you in your fresh start of 2023: you have been saved by The Savior Jesus and made heirs. Heirs of God.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Where Is That Manger?

a sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

“So [the shepherds] went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger.”

Several years ago we went with haste to find the manger. It was just before the pandemic and construction on our new entrance and gathering areas was still underway. Christmas was only a week away and we couldn’t locate our church’s manger. In the great upheaval of moving things around and removing cluttered items and sifting through storage areas that year lots of things had gotten displaced, including the manger we use every Christmas Eve. And so with haste the office staff sorted through every closet and dumping area we could think about. Trying to imagine how strange and sad it would be to celebrate Christmas Eve without the manger made us search all the more diligently.

In a moment of panic I even called Chris Price, our pastor emeritus, to see if he had borrowed it from usto make one for the church he was serving that Christmas. And as the words left my mouth a burst of fear shot through me: had I just accused my predecessor of making off with a manger??No, he gently assured me—but I had texted him photos of what it looked like for that purpose. So it was here! Photographic evidence! And unless that manger had unknowingly been thrown out it was still here somewhere on site.

As the days ticked down I got really desperate: I started Googling patterns for making another one. Eventually someone had the bright idea to call some of the volunteers to see if they’d seen it. Sure enough, like she always does, Stephanie Hamlett came through. At the time she was a key member of our HHOPE food pantry, a ministry which distributed food straight from our building to people in the neighborhood. She told us had spotted the missing manger way, way, way back in the far corner of the food pantry closet, in the part that goes under the balcony staircase. It was scooted so far back there, past the shelves of pasta and cases of canned vegetables that none of us had seen it.

Go figure that a food pantry volunteer knows where the savior of the world would be laid. Go figure that the manger, itself designed in its original form to hold hay for eating, would be hiding among stacks of food. Go figure that the sign of God’s birth among us is found in the place where hungry are fed and the weary find rest. I came to appreciate the manger a bit more that year.

And so tonight make haste with me to the manger again to remember this is how our God works: he comes to feed and nourish all of humankind through the life of his Son Jesus. Come with haste like the shepherds and find that God, indeed, comes among us, into the deepest, darkest corners of where we shove him to offer life to all of creation. He comes there to strengthen you and me with forgiveness and mercy. He offers his life to nourish us with love that never ends. Find the manger, then, and in so doing find the first sign that with Jesus there is great joy, for God intends to bring life to all people.

Did Jesus’ manger look like this? Very likely!

But what exactly is a manger? The ones used in Jesus’ time most likely looked nothing like this one. There’s a chance Jesus’ might have been made with wood, but more likely it was something just carved into the floor or hewn right into the wall,  like a little ledge with a slight depression in it to hold hay and other food for animals. The word “manger” is rare in the New Testament, so there are not many other clues in deciphering what it actually was. Other than the three times it is repeated in this story, which should tell us something, it only occurs one other time, and there it appears in plural form when Jesus is talking to the Pharisees about helping a woman on the Sabbath. Jesus talks about leading a donkey away from its mangers to get something to drink. This seems to indicate that a manger and the stall or room where it lived were connected in some way. It was a place for animals, and that’s about it.

There is an ancient tradition, going all the way back to the first centuries of the Christian faith, that claims Jesus’ manger was actually a particular rock formation in a cave that was well-known to locals in that area. In fact, some of the oldest manuscripts of this story never say that Jesus was laid in “a manger,” but in “the manger,” suggesting that Mary and Joseph may have been in some cave somewhere at the edge of Bethlehem, perhaps, giving birth at what was essentially a local tourist attraction, like the Natural Bridge of Virginia.

Who really knows?But whatever your imagination lands on,we can all still see them there,Mary and Joseph forced into a moment of extreme resourcefulness.We see them there, huddled in the dark,using what was on handas a place to nestle their young newborn,even if it was intended for livestock.It certainly isn’t perfect as entrances go, you might say,but God is happy to be there and make it his sign.

So much of human progress, you see, has been to go in the other direction for signs—you know, toward the shiny, the advanced, the high-falutin’. We make haste to the moon, to Mars, to the metaverse. We are so driven to better ourselves and our societies, to worship at the altars of technology and expertise and celebrity, Artificial intelligence is on the rise, and soon, they say, robots may run everything. It makes you wonder: where is God in all of this? Where is God making haste these days?

I came across an article this week about the platform Chat GPT and how it’s raising eyebrows, especially in the academic community. I haven’t tried it myself, yet, but some colleagues have. Chat GPT is an AI tool that writes like a human being. Authors are amazed at how fluently it can compose. Preachers have been astounded at how it creates sermons. Professors and teachers are amazed in a bad way at how easy it is for students to get it to write essays for them. A document composed with artificial intelligence not technically plagiarism, because the essays and papers it generates are original (and can’t be caught by plagiarism detectors!). Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom shared this week that she finds the compositions written with AI impressive, almost identical to something a real student of hers might write. The main difference, she says, is that essays written with Chat GPT is always grammatically correct, and ones written by humans usually aren’t. The indicator of humanity, that is, is the error—the imperfection, the mistake, the thing we’d just as soon hide.

Technological progress is not bad, but no matter the age, we will always try to deny our humanity, our vulnerability. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human.” On the first night of God’s personal introduction to humankind, God chooses a manger as a sign. Dirty, simple, makeshift: “Why lies he in such mean estate?” It’s as if on this night God acknowledging humankind’s natural imperfections and is choosing to embrace them. And God is! God on this very night looks at our innate, undeniable humility, our crude intelligence and makes haste to love it, to shelter himself there.  It is a trajectory that, when we have faith to see it, will bear itself out over his whole life. From manger, to simple fishing village at the edge of the empire, to the cross. God is there, recognizing our brokenness, our simplicity, and yet loving us anyway. God is there making a way, offering his own body to feed the world with love.

It occurs to me that God has been using a lot of mangers among us over the past couple of years. Now that the COVID pandemic is largely past, families and individuals look back and find that God was there, in fact, often in the way, way back, accommodating our resourcefulness, nestled among the small and unbecoming things we dismiss. We have heard countless stories of people learning that disappointment was temporary, and how joy could be birthed around a simple dinner table with loved ones. Or connecting through a Zoom call.

Our Vacation Bible School this past summer, for example, only drew 21 children, which is about one-tenth of what we used to have before the pandemic. We were kind of downcast about that, to be honest, at first. But, as it turned out, because there comparatively were so few of us, everyone one of us could fit together nestled up here in the chancel area instead of spread out in the pews. It was another manger! Joseph here with his guitar, Sarah leading the songs, all close together. And because of that, we think the kids who did come may have learned the VBS songs better than ever before.

Whether it was holding a small smartphone up to a homebound member so she could see her congregation’s worship through YouTube or just dropping off altar flowers to someone in the hospital…or whether it was giving up our previous Sunday School class structure because of a lower number of volunteers and children, in favor of a simpler curriculum and setting, God was acknowledging our simplicity and feeling right comfortable there.

You, no doubt, have your own examples of God making haste to be found in the mangers you’ve had to provide. Tell those stories! Let them ring out! And tonight, let those be your signs again that to you is born this day, in the city of David, your Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Make haste, yourselves, to claim him as your King, for you are being embraced just as you are, imperfections and all, once again. And take heart, you not just of real intelligence, but real giftedness and, most importantly you of the real ability to love: you are always going to be fed with forgiveness, nourished with grace by the one who arrives away in the food pantry to feed the whole world.

Merry Christmas!!!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.