The Good Shepherd vs. the Wolves

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter [Year B]

John 10:11-18 and 1 John 3:16-24

All year, it seems, we’ve been aiming for what they call herd immunity. Herd immunity is what the scientists and doctors say will enable us to live with a sense of freedom from a disease. Herd immunity comes when each individual realizes their personal immunity is only a part of a bigger whole. Herd immunity protects those who are especially vulnerable and can’t, for whatever reason, receive a vaccine. It essentially asks those who are healthy, who would probably whip the virus if they got it, to roll up their sleeve and, in some small way, lay down their life for others, to love “not in word or speech but in truth and action,” as the writer of 1 John tells us this morning. That is how we get to those greener pastures in the future. Because of distrust of the COVID vaccine, because of misinformation and conspiracy theories, and because of how the pandemic itself has become politicized, some are saying we may never achieve herd immunity against COVID. Time will tell.

Sisters and brothers, whether or not our herd achieves that status, today we are reminded that we are a flock, and that ain’t changin’. And we’re not just any flock. We’re Jesus’ flock. He knows his own and we know him. He has laid his life down for us. He leads us beside still waters. He restores our souls even as our bodies face harm and hardship. He walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, through all kinds of harmful and frightful scenarios, through the isolated stretches of pandemic life, and we don’t get worried about what might happen to us because he is with us. He has already been there and he comforts us. Our Good Shepherd prepares a meal for us in the presence of people who might be contagious, he gathers us together with strangers and friends alike over Zoom and Facebook and YouTube so that we may be fed with the word. He showers us with blessings that we don’t expect even in the midst of this crazy time, and our cups still manage to run over. They have run over here with record charitable donations for our community. Our cups can’t contain all the thoughtful gestures and extra-mile actions that people have given one another to get through this. Yes, we are a flock, and Jesus our shepherd has power—power to lay down his life in love for us.

Images and lessons about sheep images are everywhere in Scripture. Sheep farming was a main source of livelihood in ancient middle eastern times, and people interacted with sheep almost on a daily basis, even if they lived in cities. One time when I was living in Cairo, Egypt, I remember sitting in my apartment and hearing a bleating over and over again. This went on for a day or two. There I was in my apartment on the fifth floor of a downtown high rise, trying to figure out where this out of place animal noise was coming from. Finally I realized it was from a ram that a family beneath me had brought in and tied to a post in the small inner courtyard. It stayed there for a few days until it was slaughtered for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha. along with all the other sheep that had been brought into the city—a densely packed metropolis of about 16 million people.

With so many sheep around everywhere, Jesus and the people of his time could relate to what shepherds go through and could often see themselves in the lives of the sheep, themselves. They could see how sheep were not armed with much in the terms of natural defense and so they needed to stick together or get protection from a higher power—a shepherd of hired hand. They could see how they were extra vulnerable if they ever got separated. People also knew that sheep learned the voice of their shepherd and could follow just by gentle commands. They could see that sheep held all of their resources in common and that pastures and streams were for the livelihood of all. Overall, though, it was probably that communal nature of sheep that stood out the most.

Jesus understands that about us. He sees us in our need for shelter and protection, in the fact that we thrive more when we’re together, no matter the circumstances. He knows we need freedom, that we can wander at times, that openness is good for us, but that we also can’t completely overcome the dangers of life by ourselves. He knows wolves will come and devour us, scatter us about. And there are also people sometimes in charge of us, people we give authority to, who don’t have our best interest at stake. They are like hired hands that run away at the sight of danger. They may stick by for a while, but at the end of the day they are only in it for themselves.

Jesus, however…he’s the good shepherd. He cares about the flock more than the flock may ever know. Unlike the hired hand, he seeks his own welfare last. Jesus has power, and he uses it for the good of others. He gets his power not from taking up arms against the wolf. Jesus does not derive his power from lording his authority over the sheep. Jesus does not demonstrate his power by dazzling the sheep with his masterful knowledge of the science of sheepherding. Jesus gets his power from his love, from laying his own life down for the sake of the sheep. In fact, there are others not in the fold he is seeking to bring together. Everything Jesus does is to group together, to round up, to gather in. His Father aims to have the flock as one.

However we want to describe or define who Jesus is and however we may understand what he’s up to, we have to come to terms that being with him is not an individual enterprise. Jesus does love me, the Bible tells me so, as the song says, but there are others on the journey with us. And Jesus loves them too. Our togetherness with them is an unmistakable part of faith. Jesus doesn’t like the wolves because the wolves snatches and scatters them. Being apart is not how they are supposed to live. Jesus doesn’t define who the wolves are in this lesson to his disciples. They may be corrupt kings or the leaders in the Temple who thrive on corruption, those who would eventually lead him to be killed on the cross.

However, as I reflect on this past year and the challenges of living as a flock that you have overcome, I wonder if the wolves that Jesus has in mind aren’t actually people at all, but other things that devour the sacredness of community. A coronavirus may be one example. It certainly has snatched some of us and scattered the rest. But I’m also thinking things like selfishness and self-righteousness. False information and gossip. Apathy and complacency, stealth wolves that eat us from within. I wonder if Jesus means things like the wolves of individualism and idealism, things that are not necessarily bad, but when they’re turned loose to the extreme, the almost always damage the way we travel together.

Against all of these things Jesus offers his life. He puts the flock behind him and stands in the way, knowing that all of those wolves of sinfulness and pride will tear him apart on the cross. Jesus is the good shepherd. He shows us the power of love, and how the love from his Father radiates out through his life to you and me. Because of that powerful love we learn a new and better way of being community.

Last week our 9th and 10th graders in confirmation class hosted a panel discussion on vocation and baptismal call. As they prepare for affirming their baptism, they are thinking through the promises they’ll make—promises like serving all people following the example of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of Christ through word and deed, and striving for justice and peace in all the earth. Members of our congregation from various careers came in and spoke about the ways in which their faith impacted their job on a daily basis. One school administrator, for example, spoke about her goal of increasing racial representation among school teachers. The former magistrate regional supervisor spoke about treating all people, even those accused of crimes, with respect, and of the importance of listening to everyone’s story. It was fascinating to hear how each of them, from such a wide range of careers, could articulate how their livelihood in some way was where their faith was at work.

The woman who teaches special education preschool in the public school system gave a memorable answer. Many of her students are developmentally delayed and most are unable to use speech to communicate. When she was asked, “How does your faith impact your daily work?” she did not speak in terms of broad, overarching concepts and goals that guide her, but instead gave a very specific instance, one that really stopped me in my tracks. She explained how back in the fall she received a letter from stating that their work was essential, that the preschool services could not be shut down, and that if employees still wanted their jobs they had to show up for work. Every day she teaches kids by holding them in her lap, wiping their noses, holding their hands. Her kind of special education could not be done over Zoom. Scared of working in an environment where she might easily contract COVID, but also not wanting to forfeit her job and leave her students, she told the confirmation class that she really struggled with what to do. How did her faith impact her job? Well, she told us she stopped and prayed that day. She thought, “My Lord is a Good Shepherd. He has always led me well. He won’t stop now. No matter what happens, he will take care of me.” And so this woman reported for duty and held those kids in her lap, kept showing them how to communicate, how to live, in the midst of a pandemic. In her own way, she laid her life down, or was at least willing to, in order to shelter and teach her little preschool flock.

I’m thankful those confirmands heard that witness that night, glad for all that they heard. But I’m grateful I heard it too. A real-life shepherd in our midst, she was. Not a hired hand. Because more often than not our faith isn’t made known in some grand overarching narrative that links everything together, but in everyday situations wherein we’re called to trust the Shepherd and love. It was a good reminder of what we are all called to be all the time—people called to love in truth and action, not giving in to the wolves. We are each one of the flock that has been named and claimed by an uncommon power of humility…sheep of a Good Shepherd who always chooses to hold us in his lap—who always reads that letter from above and chooses to hold us close. no matter the danger, no matter the loss.

Thanks be to God.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

No “Ghosting” Allowed

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter [Year B]

Luke 24:36b-48

One of the pleasures of expanding our in-person worship offerings and the rising vaccination rates in our area has been seeing more people venture back to church for the first time since the pandemic started. Early on I imagined that COVID would be like a big wave and then once it subsided, we’d all be back for the first time together in one big group. We would sing all again and pass the peace and hug each other like the old days.

That’s not how it’s going at all. Our return has been much more gradual, and probably will drag on for months this way, if not years. People are coming back, family by family, individual by individual, more like a trickle and less like a flood. Nevertheless, it is fun to receive them and see them again, and it’s particularly fun to see their reactions to our new spaces. Since construction was completed last summer, in the middle of the shut-down, many folks haven’t even walked through the front doors, but when they finally do, they often say, with a wide smile and opened eyes, something like “This is a totally different church!” And, in some respects, it is. Almost everything about the entrance to the church has radically changed. The parking lot, the sidewalks, the doors themselves, the interior spaces—they’re all extremely different. And you can see those differences on paper and the architect’s plans and construction blueprints, but until you physically walk through the doors and stand by the walls and look through the windows yourself you can’t appreciate the full difference.

And, just so you know, we’re feeling the same on our end, as we sometimes, I must admit, have to stop for a few seconds to identify someone we haven’t laid eyes on in thirteen months or more, especially when a third of their face is covered by a mask. And, let’s be honest, many of you have different hairdos. And if I see you for the first time and you’re wearing sunglasses, don’t be surprised if I need to hear your voice before I can figure out who you are!

Silliness aside, the good news is this is not a different church, and you are not different people. The pandemic may have changed us in some ways, and we certainly have evolved over the past year or so, but this is still Epiphany, the building, and we are still Epiphany, the people.

But this happens in faith over the passage of time. Jesus’ very own disciples have a hard time figuring out what they’re looking at when they see him for the first time after his resurrection. It’s not really his new hairdo, or something about his outer appearance, but the fact that, you know, he should be dead. Maybe he looks a little different, too. Whatever the case, they think he’s a ghost. You would think they’d be excited to see him, but they are scared of what they’re seeing, for who is not a bit taken off guard by the thought of a ghost? This is a common theme in Jesus’ first resurrection experiences, isn’t it? Fear where there should be joy, doubt where we think there’d be faith, misunderstanding where we’d expect clarity. The new can often throw us off, even when it is hopeful and life-changing in a good way.

Jesus wastes no time in trying to put them at ease, however. He meets them in their doubt. Immediately he offers his hands and his feet. He gives them something to grab onto. They could stand back and look at the blueprints of the resurrection, they could ponder God’s mighty acts on paper, consider the plans in the prophets’ words they could envision what the Great Architect’s salvation might look like, but until they touch it, it’s not fully real to them. Ghosts don’t have real bones and skin. This is a real person standing in front of them, a person they saw die an ugly and gruesome death just a few days before. And if being able to touch his feet and hands isn’t enough to convince them, he asks for something to eat. They bring him some fish they’ve just cooked on the fire.

One of the all-time best things I’ve ever had to eat was, in fact, a piece of broiled fish. I was at the beach with my extended family and there was this hut right on the water where a local guy was fileting fresh-caught grouper and mahi-mahi and searing them over some charcoal. It was so tender and light, flaky but juicy. Pieces would sometimes fall off as I was biting on it and I’d pick it them up and blow the sand off just so they wouldn’t get wasted. Maybe that’s how good this fish is that day when Jesus is with his disciples. It’s fresh and delicious, and Jesus is making a subtle statement about how good and rich the resurrected life is. He drops some and blows the dirt off. Savor every morsel!

And yet Jesus doesn’t seem to be eating that day in order to enjoy it. He is eating simply to show them he is fully there. He is eating to show them God’s power of forgiveness and redemption  is so real and so true it comes back with flesh and bones. Death has really been defeated. God’s love in Christ is not a figment of our imaginations. We can touch, see, and taste it. It isn’t until this moment happens that Jesus’ identity becomes clear. Once his physical presence with them is demonstrated then he is able to explain who he really is, that the law and the prophets and the psalms all speak about him. Then he opens the Scriptures while he’s with them and the words there start to make sense.

Oh, how we’ve found this to be true this year. Things like on-line teaching and on-line worship are wonderful for what they are—the technology has provided us ways to impart information to students and share the Word of God when we’ve been prevented from being physically together. But things are so much clearer when we are fully present with each other, when we can see lips and eyes and facial expressions. When we can hug. Teachers teach so much better when students turn their cameras on, and I would imagine students also learn better. It’s so much easier when facemasks and plexiglass barriers are removed and we can communicate openly.

The other day a gentleman came into the office looking for a particular book. Through his facemask I thought I heard him say he needed a copy of the roof book. Knowing we had just finished this construction and that this person was one of our building trustees, I figured he was going to help with something regarding the roof. But as we kept talking I realized he was getting ready to join our new Adult Sunday School class and they are studying Ruth. He was looking for the Ruth book, a small but important difference from “roof” that is obscured when you can’t see someone’s lips.

The hands, the feet, the delicious broiled fish—it’s all about getting rid of the obscurity. God is really present with the disciples. These are physical things that serve to prove his resurrection is not just an act. The Christian life can be confusing and complicated, but perhaps our first task in any situation is just to grab hold of those things that clearly communicate Jesus. Grab hold of the lessons, the moments that truly embody Jesus’ selfless love for us, that proclaim grace and mercy and compassion.

By the same token, we are not called just to love people figuratively or metaphorically. Words are important, words create possibilities and give hope and point people in the right direction, but our task as Jesus’ followers is not to be about words only, to make social media posts or be a source of inspiring quotes. Jesus wants us to be people with feet and hands, a presence people can grab hold of in their fear and grief. Jesus tell us to be present for the world, beginning from Jerusalem. When we are witnesses to the new life in Jesus, when we proclaim the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name it requires us to be present and hear our brothers and sisters, to see their faces contorted in grief and sorrow, to hand them them a Kleenex to wipe their tears. In many cases, far more than we’re ready to understand or commit to, it will mean sacrificing a bit of our own energy and life. It is saying to our fellow humans as clear as is possible, “God is here for you. This is really me and God really loves you and this life we are experiencing is something we are supposed to do together, even if your suffering affects me and mine affects you.”

Earlier this week I was doing some cleaning out of a file cabinet at home. I couldn’t tell you the last time I had opened those drawers, and I was positive there was nothing in there that was of any use to me. I was just going to get a garbage bag and transfer everything straight to the trash can. Then I ran across a Ziploc bag with some papers and photos in it. I opened it to find some pictures from about 20 or so years ago from the time right after I graduated college. In and among them was a greeting card that I didn’t recognize still in its original envelope. As I opened it, the thing almost came apart. There, on the inside of the card, were dozens of signatures. It took me a second to realize I was holding the card that was sent to me by the people in the first congregation I served in Pittsburgh to congratulate me for my ordination. They were signatures of people I ended up living alongside, some of people I eventually would buried. Many of the names on that card are of people who are now no longer with us.

I had thought about those dear people many times, and still do, but something about physically holding a card that had actually been signed by them made their memory take on powerful new meaning. I could remember details of their stories, their appearances, that I had long forgotten. And I could remember their love and vulnerability, how they ended up presenting themselves to me in ways I could hold on to. I could imagine them passing that card around, signing it, saying “God bless,” before they even had met me. I was overwhelmed with how God had been present for me in their witness when I eventually arrived there. I’m sure you have had similar experiences with objects given to you by your loved ones.

            Jesus comes so that God’s real, loving presence is in all the dark and forgotten places where people’s lives get filed away. Jesus is crucified and people all but forget him, going on with their life as normal…or they try to. But the grave is opened and he returns, full of life, full of joy. Jesus comes back, ready to be grabbed onto again, ready to let his love be real. And he has signed his name on you. Now, go be witnesses of these things.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Jesus, Ever Given

a sermon for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Sunday [Year B]

Mark 16:1-8

The question that began our week, the question that almost the entire world was asking together as we peered at our phone screens and our televisions on Sunday and Monday was, “Who will move away that gargantuan cargo ship from the middle of the Suez Canal?” There it was, one of the largest watercraft ever built—maybe in the universe—lodged diagonally, all but immovable, cutting off all traffic through one of the world’s most important waterways. Boats were backed up for miles and miles. Each day it sat there meant a $9 billion delay in trade revenue. Who could move such a thing? And we all probably saw the unforgettable photos of that single, small excavator with his one little shovel, looking like one of my son’s toys, working as hard as it could to free the hull of that enormous ship. And then, one day, long before it was predicted, the freighter almost miraculously gave way from the silt and sand and everything started flowing again. Life as it was intended resumed.

The question that begins today, the question that a small handful of women are asking together as they hurry with their spices, is “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” There it was, a large boulder, the kind that typically marked the entrance to ancient tombs, chosen for its size and weight to deter graverobbers and keep in the smell of decomposing flesh. Don’t you like how the Easter story begins with a question, a question that rings with immense practicality, a question that sounds like anything anyone might ask when trying to solve a problem? “Who will roll away the stone for us?” “How are we going to get inside there and do what we’re supposed to do?” “How long will we be blocked from delivering this special myrrh and aloe to our destination?” The news of Jesus’ resurrection, the news that will shake the world, starts with people going about their business, thinking about the next step in the tasks of daily to-do lists.

But we know how the story goes. No need to call in an excavator this time. Or Joseph of Arimathea, the guy who put the rock there in the first place on Friday evening, however he managed it. The women arrive to find the stone has already been rolled away. That which was immovable has already been moved. Life has already begun to flow again, the power of death broken through, the resurrection already advancing as Jesus, the risen, awaits them in Galilee. What questions are you asking today? What problems seem to have no solution? What is blocking you from living the abundant life God intends? Don’t be surprised if the stones start to be rolled back. Because Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Of the four resurrection stories we have in the New Testament, the one written by Mark is the shortest. It starts with this question from the women delivering the spices and ends rather abruptly. After encountering this mysterious man in a white robe in the tomb and learning from him that Jesus is not there, they run from the scene in terror and amazement. In fact, Mark is more vivid than that. He says that the terror and amazement had seized them. We may expect joy at this kind of news—joy because if Jesus, who was crucified, is not there but alive and ahead of them in Galilee, then they will be able to see him and resume life with him—but the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection are to be gripped with fear and awe. And they are so afraid and bewildered that they end up saying nothing about what they discover that morning.

The man that they see at the tomb gives them one job. He says, “Go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus is already out of the tomb and waiting for you.” The man gives them one simple job and they don’t do it. Mark says the women say nothing to anyone. Again, Mark’s Greek is even more descriptive. He uses a type of double negative, which, of course, is a big no-no in English and Greek unless you’re trying to overemphasize a point. Mark writes that the women “didn’t say nothing to nobody”…just to make sure we understand. It looks like the message of the resurrection is going to die with them. No stone blocking the tomb that morning, but the witnesses still find a way to stick a sock in it.

And that is irony, my friends. Because all along Jesus, all through his days of healing and driving out demons and teaching his disciples about the kingdom of heaven, Jesus has told them to be quiet about him until he rises from the dead and in all those times they can’t keep their trap shut. They go blabbing all over the place. But the time when the word finally does need to get out, the time when Jesus finally accomplishes that which he was sent to do, which is to suffer and die and rise again, the everyone clams up.

Jesus is our savior. Jesus is the One who was crucified so that power of death might be broken forever. He is not just a healer or a teacher. He is our Redeemer who suffers and dies for us. That is what we can say without holding back today. It is what we need to say today in a world that has, for example, pandemics. In a world that has people locked up in concentration camps. In a world where demons like narcissism and addiction and idolatry still enslave people, in a world racked by grief from tragedies that are senseless and tragedies that are ruthlessly planned out and executed. God has burst through the stone of the tomb to let eternal life flow for all of humankind. Easter means the kingdom of heaven will now come to all earth’s dark corners. Easter means we have communion with God forever. This is unbelievably wonderful news, and yet the women don’t say nothing to nobody about it.

In a way, then, the resurrection story this morning not only begins with a question—the one about the stone—but it ends with a question. It’s an unwritten question, one that the reader or the hearer of the story can’t help but ask as we envision the two Marys and Salome running off into the dawn light. If they didn’t tell anyone this news, then how in the world did we find out about it? If the last emotion we are left with that morning is fear, then how do we live in such joy and boldness now? A stone doesn’t block the entrance that morning, but doesn’t their lack of action block the news?

Of course, we have the other gospel accounts. Matthew, Luke, and John, fill in the picture for us with what happened in the days following. So, on one hand we are thankful that God placed this message in the hands of more than one evangelist. But if we didn’t have those, if, for example, we were in Mark’s original community, the congregations and people for whom Mark was writing this story, how would we know that Jesus is risen? How did the word eventually get out?

You see, this is, I think the bigger miracle of Easter, or at least an extension of the miracle that happens when Jesus steps out of that grave alive. Somehow the word gets out. Somehow those women must have found the resolve to follow the man’s instructions. God will not be delayed by a cross, a stone, or our inaction and fear. Nothing can block the good news of Easter.

There have been many times during this past year when we have felt isolated by fear and inactivity. Locking down has been hard. Learning to Zoom and connect with people in safe ways is frustrating and sometimes we just give up. I still loathe that stupid mute button most days. Schools, churches, community groups, families wonder are our messages getting through? Is the love and concern I have for my loved ones and friends being communicated? We long for the days when we can see faces and expressions of emotion, realizing we’ve taken for granted the flow of friendship and familiarity in human relationship.

Congregations and communities of faith have felt no different. Even as small groups began regathering, even as vibrant online communities have formed and prayed together, even as we watch our YouTube statistics and try to form strategies about our message, there has still been a tomb-like quality to ministry. This past week, though, I was reminded in another powerful way just how persistent God is in getting his word, even when we feel isolated. The UPS truck pulled up one day and delivered a package that none of us was expecting. We receive packages all the time for the nursery school and the cleaning crew, for example, but this particular package was unannounced and, to my delight, deposited on my desk. I did not recognize the return address, which was from a location over three hours drive from Richmond. I unwrapped it with much curiosity. Inside I found a letter, a check for a donation, and this remarkable, handmade cross.

Here’s what the letter says,
            “This cross was made from the branch of a cedar tree which grew from a seed to a mature tree in my neighborhood. We have lived in the neighborhood for nearly 46 years and the tree was small when we arrived. Unfortunately the wind blew the tree down. I used some limbs from the tree to make this cross. Perhaps you can use this cross in your children’s ministry. My wife and I have watched your online morning services every Sunday since you started the services last year. We have enjoyed the services very much. We have enclosed a donation for the church to be used for whatever purpose you decide.”

So thank you, Mr. and Mrs. White, for your generosity and your Easter reminder this morning, and proof that the word does get out. God rolls away stones, God grows trees from seeds, wind blows them down, and dead branches take on new life. A new beginning comes from death. The kingdom of heaven is here among us, and the one who was crucified is ahead of us, always ahead of us, making new life happen. Thank you for carrying on what those first women saw and heard when they were seized with terror and amazement. In spite of our isolation, it appears God still gets the word out.

Interestingly enough, I can’t help but think about the name of that cargo ship stuck in the Suez: Ever Given. Stuck for a while, but still the Ever Given. Blessed Easter, everyone, and blessings of new life and faith from Jesus who is Ever Given, ever giving. In bread, in wine, in words that never die, that never get muted, that never get blocked. Jesus the Ever Given for you, for me, for all who hear it. This day and every day.

Thanks be to God!!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

God Grief

a sermon for Good Friday

We are grieving. That is the explanation I’ve read in several places now for the general feeling of malaise, anxiety, and irritability that many of us have or have had over the course of the past year. Unable to gather like we want to, unable to work and play and do school like we’re used to, and constantly bombarded with loss and death and bad news we are dealing, many experts say, with a big whopping and prolonged case of grief. Lost jobs, lost loved ones, lost learning, lost gatherings. The loss has been intense, and the darkness we sit in tonight as the candles are extinguished, is symbolic of the darkness we’ve been sitting in all year, a darkness that has only intensified after the mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia and the death of Lucia Bremer here in Henrico County. You probably don’t need another sermon that lists all the heavy things that we’ve been dealing with, but it still is worth remembering that the fog many of us are walking around in is actually grief.

Tonight, we see that God takes on the grief of the world. On this holy day, we hear that God confronts suffering, confronts hardship, confronts the unfair, inexplicable violence and torture that visit us all too often and hangs there with us. On Good Friday, we remember that God did not hold back in offering his own Son into a world darkened by human sin. The temptation is always there to skip ahead to Easter, to leapfrog to the bright lights and happy morning, but Good Friday always comes first, and that is a good thing. We need Good Friday to come first because the griefs of this world needs to be named and seen, and Jesus on the cross lets us do that. God intends Good Friday to come first so that we may see that God wants to meet us where we are, no matter the cost to him.

Unfortunately, religion can so often go off on a tangent. That is, religion can get overly complicated about things, waxing poetic at best, getting manipulative at worst. It can form in-groups and out-groups, it can make us feel that there are easy answers and explanations for everything if we just search hard enough. Religion can make us think if we’re not happy and joyful all the time or not all put together then we’re not doing things right. Good Friday comes to stop that nonsense, if we’ll let it. Good Friday says life’s problems often doesn’t have easy answers or secret short cuts. Good Friday says it’s OK not to feel happy and joyful all the time. Good Friday prevents us from going off on a tangent to figure God out so we can instead realize God is just one of us, God gets scared like us, gets wounded like us, bleeds like us.

And to notice that, to notice how plain and open and vulnerable God is for us, we take special note of what we hear from God’s Son tonight. You know, the core of most religions and self-help programs consists of deep and profound sayings that convey some rarified knowledge, usually spoken by some old man or woman who seems really intelligent and wants to dazzle you with their experience. But none of the words Jesus says from the cross is really philosophical in any way. Rather, their power is in their brutal humanity. Their meaning is in their simplicity. These are not phrases you would want embroidered and framed, drawn in calligraphy and placed on a card. Jesus does say those kinds of things, plenty of times. He says “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.” He says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” He says, “You are the light of the world and the salt of the earth.” Jesus says so many things that are beautiful and enlightening but tonight, in his supposed finest hour, when he is being glorified, he is succinct, he is earthy, he is inarticulate. He coughs out very basic, very short sentences and questions:

“I’m thirsty.”
“Mom, disciples, take care of each other.”
“God, where are you right now?”
“Father, forgive these people.”
“It’s over.”

These are words uttered in grief, in pain, which, if we’re honest, also often leaves us unable to form profound thoughts. Here is God as a human, in a moment of total weakness, just struggling to get words out, but still wanting us to hear something. Yet for centuries we have found life in these words. Is there wisdom, too? As soon as his first followers could collect themselves and remember who Jesus was these words and this death formed the backbone of their understanding of God.

Why? Because we realize there is love behind it all. Love doesn’t try to offer some witty or wise saying to package the pain or explain it away. Love doesn’t ignore the realities of suffering. Love, at least the wonderful kind of love we hear tonight, says, I will sit in the darkness with you. Love says I will go through all the horrible loss for you, I’ll take the brunt of it on your behalf. The love we encounter in Jesus says I will suffer in your place so that you may be forever free. This love dies in order to release us from our constant efforts to reach God on our own terms. This love says weakness is where God will make his home.

I bet if you look over the events of the past year and think of the people who have helped you the most, the people who have offered you the most hope or the best comfort, the people who have shined the brightest light, it is the people who were strong enough to let you voice your pain. They are the people who were vulnerable enough themselves to listen your frustration, to validate it, who sat down and commiserated with you from time to time rather than offering some profound wisdom or solution to deal with it.

That, my friends, is the God of the cross who has been present for you. That is the saving action of the crucified One still meeting you in the darkness and knowing what it means to grieve. Those voices were the echoes of the one who spoke bare, human phrases from the cross.

So tonight, we let those final words echo again—we let them echo into a world that still grieves even if it can’t come to terms with it. Let them echo through our faith into a world that needs to be reminded it has a Creator that loves it, a Savior who loves it so much it will be thirsty for it, bleed for it, be weak for it, cry for it, offer up its spirit for it.

And then, in the darkness we can safely wait for the brightness of Easter. Because that will come next. Without a doubt.

Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

God in the Ditch

A sermon for Palm Sunday [Year B]

Mark 11:1-11

Several years ago I pulled up at the gym to find a brand new, top of the line, shining and sparkling Cadillac CTX-V. The gym I go to is on a back road, has a gravel parking lot, and is never crowded, so the car stood out immediately. I had a never seen a car like that. The Cadillac CTX-V is the most expensive Cadillac you can buy. This one was white with gold metal trim and tires that looked like they hadn’t been driven 25 miles. The person driving the car was inside the gym working out. I had never seen the guy there before, and, as I quickly discerned from the loud conversations he was having, he was not the owner of the car but someone who was borrowing the car from an affluent friend. As I suspected, it was brand new, and he had stopped in basically just to show it off, hoping to get some attention.

After a few minutes the man got his things and left, but then I noticed something was going on, a little commotion. The few other people in the gym ran to the window to see what was up, but no one was brave enough to go outside. Apparently, as he tried to drive the parking lot, the young man with the extremely sweet, expensive ride had misjudged the road and the driveway completely. There was that $110,000 car, nose-first in the ditch. He couldn’t have been going more than 5 miles per hour! But he had wrecked it so badly that the back end and wheels were off the ground, sticking up in the air. He was pacing around and running his hands through his hair nervously, waiting for a tow truck to arrive. I wanted to offer pastoral care, but decided better of it. He needed to be alone. I just kept thinking about what that conversation was going to be like with the owner of that brand new car. There was a good chance it had been totaled.

not a photo of the actual event, but close!

Jesus makes his entry into Jerusalem on a borrowed vehicle, turning heads, and by the end of the week, his whole life is in the ditch. It is a catastrophe of monumental proportions. Of course, the vehicle Jesus borrows is not a top-of-the-line, fully tricked out model. It is a humble colt, which was most likely a young donkey, small but sturdy, a beast of burden used to carry farm produce or building materials. But regardless of what the animal was, that is the plot of Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Jesus rides into town with the attention of everyone, making a buzz, but before you know it, he is deserted and everyone’s embarrassed. It looks as if God has handed the keys to a guy who clearly doesn’t know where the road is.

The crowd that meets Jesus on the day he enters Jerusalem on the back of that donkey to shouts of “Hosanna!” was probably the most public event in Jesus’ entire life. Jerusalem was the capital and most holy city for the Jewish way of life and although it was not nearly the largest city of the Roman Empire, it was a major crossroads for the region and strategically-speaking it was an important military post. And that was just Jerusalem on any old day. When Jesus comes into the city, it’s time for the biggest Jewish holiday, Passover, to start. Tens of thousands of extra people would have been there. There was also an old rabbinical tradition that appointed the weekend before Passover as the time when all the lambs were brought in to the city from the surrounding farmlands to be readied for slaughter.

“Jerusalem” (Hyppolite Flandrin, 1842)

There are several places in Scripture where Jesus is surrounded by large crowds, but it’s probably a safe bet to say that more people see him on this day of his life than on any other. This looks like and feels like Jesus’ moment. The people are excited and anticipating a lot from him. The things they say about him and to him make that even more obvious. Things like “Hosanna!” which is an old Hebrew or Aramaic word that means “Save us,” or “Rescue us!” or “Save now!” They expect Jesus to do something in Jerusalem in those days that will save them. They also call out for the kingdom of their ancestor David. David was the ancient King who had, at least in their memory, issued in a reign of prosperity and stability that they had long wanted to have again. All of these expectations are foisted onto Jesus on that little tiny donkey. With every wave of the leafy branches they had cut down to greet him, they let him know they are ready for rescue and they are ready for stability for dignity, for victory. Wouldn’t you be?

Palm Sunday is a good time for us to address our own expectations of Jesus and of the God who sends him. Who do we really expect him to be? What exactly do we expect him to do? Where exactly do we want things to end up? Do we want a Lord who aligns with or validates all our political agendas, whatever they may be? Hold up the status quo? I don’t know about you, but I like that kind of Lord, one who doesn’t really challenge me on anything. Do we anticipate a Savior who will remove from us everything that’s uncomfortable or hard? Are we expecting a Redeemer who will just pep talk us through life, like a personal coach? I think there are any number of ways that we still project onto Jesus our definitions of what he needs to be and what Jesus needs to do, and, truth be known, those are the things that end up in the ditch by the end of the week.

And that is good for us. It is good for us, even though it is disappointing, and it is bloody, because none of those Saviors and Jesus’ are eventually going to do us any real good. We need a love and mercy that we don’t expect, a compassion and a forgiveness that we haven’t predicted or earned. We need grace, not a governor. Not a genie.

I think this has been a year of managing and readjusting all kinds of expectations. We have repeatedly had our hopes lifted only to have them dashed to the ground a little while later, whether we’re talking pandemic, politics, or personal goals. We have struggled with expectations for school, with what we can accomplish through learning and teaching on-line, with what worship can be like and when. We have struggled with expectations in our politicians and other leaders who are no more experienced in navigating a crisis like this than anyone else. We’ve had failed expectations with our pastors and our congregations who are not bold enough with returning to in person worship or, on the other hand, who are not strict enough with the guidelines. Even as our vaccination rates climb, we are hearing about dangerous new coronavirus variants that threaten to keep us in lockdowns longer.

I came across an article in the Associated Press this week[1] that addressed the growing sense among us all that even the pandemic will not come to an end like we have long thought it will. It stated that we are a people who have been fed a long and steady diet of Hollywood endings where we subconsciously expect every period of hardship to be somehow be turned around by the end with a wonderful, clear outcome. Many of us have just assumed, maybe without even realizing it, that there will be a point in time in the future when everything just suddenly resumes, when we take off that mask for the last time. But that may not happen with this pandemic at all. The writer of the article likened it to the end of a war where the end drags on and on, skirmishes popping up here and here, but eventually people look about and say, maybe much, much later, “We’re safe now. It’s time to celebrate.” I don’t know about you, but I find the constant up and down of failed expectations to be exhausting.

Palm Sunday comes along to remind us this year that God knows all about failed expectations. His Son ends up dying because no one wants the kind of love and the kind of mercy that he offers, but he offers it anyway. Our celebration of this day is a perfect opportunity to remember that God rides into every human story. God chooses to empty himself and ride into every human story, even when we don’t know how it’s going to turn out or when it will feel like it’s over. That is the kind of love and mercy God comes with, the kind of love he borrows a humble beast of burden in order to bring.  He comes to carry us, to carry the sorrows of the world, to carry the sufferings and shortfalls of everyone who cries out for rescue from some other kind of savior, one who will fight and just violently overthrow what we don’t like. For his is a kingdom where glory to God is first and most clearly given in actions of compassion and self-sacrifice. Coming in the name of the Lord means doing things in humility and servanthood.

Palm Sunday comes in 2021 to recall our thoughts to our own place in that crowd and take stock of just who we expect this God to be for us. And then, with a morning on next week’s horizon that will surpass all our imaginations, shout out with joy and thanksgiving to learn that God is present when things don’t pan out like we thought. God is not just a God of Hollywood endings. God is God also of things that run into the ditch. God is mainly God of things—and years, and plans, and lives—that sometimes run into the ditch.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


[1] https://apnews.com/article/americans-coronavirus-ending-e311cadbb86f7165e7d21498548c1768

“Dangers, Toils, and Snares”: a Year of Pandemic

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent [Year B]

Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21

It has been one year since the novel coronavirus COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and life as everyone knew it changed. It’s been a year of worshiping on-line, learning how to live-stream, hook up microphones to our smartphones, and upload videos to YouTube and Facebook. One member sent me a couple of photos from a year ago this weekend that showed a group of us crowded into the new parlor holding worship on Instagram Live and Facebook Live around the makeshift studio altar we had thrown together. We weren’t even wearing face masks back at that point because we weren’t even sure how this virus really spread. Little did we know that Joseph’s and my televangelist careers would begin that day. I don’t know how he feels, and please don’t take this personally, but I’m ready to have my televangelist career come to an end. The blooper reel alone from this past year provides enough comedy and blackmail material to bankroll a capital campaign.

This week one colleague of mine posted on Facebook the following question: “If you could go back in time one year from right now, what would you tell yourself?” I was amused at some of the answers people gave. Several people said they tell themselves to buy stock in Zoom. One person said, “Move to New Zealand right now.” Another said, “Get a massage. You won’t be touched for a year.” Poignantly, one person said, “Go visit grandma in the nursing home.” What would tell yourself as you launch into a process of lockdown measures that dragged on longer than most of us expected?  What would you tell yourself knowing now that a year of all kinds of tumultuous social changes would occur and the political divisiveness would get worse?

I can think of several things that might have bolstered me through all that would come, but I try as I may I can’t come up with anything better than the third verse of the hymn we just sang, which, ironically, is not even one of my favorites:

“Through many dangers, toils, and snares we have already come;
’tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.”

It is God’s grace that has allowed us to continue to have a congregational life together without really being able to be together as a congregation. It is God’s grace that sent us numerous people who had the right skills to guide us through this time—those with computer and technology skills, those with creative ideas and energy, those with the far undervalued gift of patience. It is God’s grace that sent us things like parents who called the church saying, “I know it’s a pandemic, but we want our child baptized and however you think we can do that, we’re on board.”

It is God’s grace that has provided a way through the wilderness of disappointment, pain, cancellations, and complaining that we’ve all faced and, if we’re honest, taken part in. Yes, I would have told myself “Look, remember that God’s people have come through so many ‘dangers, toils and snares’ before. Phillip, trust that God’s grace will lead you through.” That is what we sing to ourselves today, for, sadly, this time of wilderness is not yet finished.

It sounds like the Israelites could have used a little reminder of that in the middle of their wilderness, which is where we find them this morning. There is disappointment, there is impatience, and there is complaining. And this is epic complaining. This is far worse than complaining that we can’t sing in church or that facemasks make it hard to breathe. Worse than complaining that the school board made a decision we disagree with. Or complaining that the vaccines are being rolled out quickly enough. I mean, we’ve complained a lot this year, myself included, but the Israelites take it to the extreme.

For, you see, God has delivered them from their hellish existence in Egypt. God has given them manna to eat each day and quail, too. God has found water for them in the middle of the desert. God has brought them through life-or-death toils and snares, but they seem to have already forgotten that and just want to mumble and grumble. They start taunting God, almost. One modern paraphrase of Scripture has the Israelites asking God, “Why did you drag us out of Egypt to have us die in this godforsaken country?”[1]

And I don’t know if it’s that God has had enough of their attitude or what but he sends snakes to start biting them. At least, that’s how the Israelites remember it. The point is, there’s a snake infestation at this point and people start dying.

A culture of complaining is venomous. It starts to poison everyone—the people who make the complaints and the people who hear them. It slithers around and finds its way into the cracks and crevices of every situation. Studies have actually shown that complaining—or being complained to—for thirty minutes or more physically damages the brain.[2] It also releases the stress chemical cortisol into our bloodstream, which impairs our immune system and can lead to other problems like diabetes and heart disease. Venomous snakes are probably an effective way to have the Israelites reflect on their behavior and what’s really killing them. Horrified, they come to Moses and confess their complaining and ask for the snakes to be removed. But God doesn’t remove them.

It may be, at first read, the most baffling story we ever read. Snakes are killing people and God doesn’t just simply take them away. But God does find a way to save them from the snakes. Moses is told to make a bronze version of the snake and lift it up on a pole high enough so that everyone will be able to see it. If they get bitten, they can just look at it and the power that the snakes have to kill is taken away. The people still get bitten, and I assume the venom still hurts, but the control it has over them is removed.

It’s not too different from this COVID vaccine and how it works. It’s pretty evident that we can’t eradicate this coronavirus. Like these snakes, it will lurk in our midst probably for the rest of time, or at least for the foreseeable future, infecting us and passing from one person to another. But thanks to science and medicine, whose very symbol has roots in this story, we’ve found a way to lift up a little version of it inside our bodies so that if we get bitten by the virus, COVID won’t kill us.

This event in the history of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness might have become one of those lesser-known stories you never hear about if not for the fact that Jesus uses it to describe his own reason for coming. One night a leader among the Jews named Nicodemus comes to him to learn more about who Jesus is and the things he is doing. They have a conversation about how to perceive the kingdom of God in the here and now, and about being born from above, or born again, and about having a relationship with God that gives eternal life.

All of these things are interrelated, Jesus says, and critical to having any of it—the ability to live in God’s kingdom now and to be born anew—is being able to look at Jesus as he dies and see life, see salvation. Jesus will be lifted up on a pole just like that serpent in the wilderness so that people who see him will have a life that conquers death.

It’s a seeing that is more than just looking with the eyes. It is a seeing with the heart and the mind—understanding that in Jesus’ death on the cross God is doing something save the world from all the venom and poison and sinfulness that infects us. Because when we see Jesus, the Son of God, dying, we see the harm that our sin does to God and to others. It’s laid bare for us to deal with, lifted high so that everyone can see. God doesn’t just take sin away, but in Christ he gives us the way through it. And that’s important, for in order to be saved, we need to be honest about what is really killing us, what we’re being saved from.

When we look at the cross of Christ, with Jesus hanging on it, we see the evil of violence, the damage it does. We see the wickedness of hatred and bigotry and the way they corrupts who we really are. What else do we see? We see the dead end road of trying to justify ourselves before our Creator, that we can sacrifice something or stake the blame on someone else in order to clear our name. None of it works. All of it is worthless, and it’s painful to be bitten by that realization but God wants us to see that in his dying Son so that we can come to terms with it. It will help save us.

When we think of racism, to use an example that has bitten us quite a bit this past year, we have learned will not find a way to heal from it if we keep ignoring it or complaining about it or justifying the stances of our past. We have to confront it, especially in ourselves. I can lament the political divisiveness in our country until the cows come home, shake my fists at the media or the politicians, but the division not going to miraculously disappear. I have to look at how I actually might be participating in it, unawares, and how my comments or apathy contribute to the decay. That will be the way through it.

And so forth and so on we go about all that poisons us until we realize that also hanging there in the loss and the death is God himself. There, present in the wilderness, all along, present in the decay and despair, present in the hunger and the thirst—present, faithful, steadfast, in spite of our complaining is God the Son, given—always given—never, ever taken away. There, never letting us go, in a place where everyone can see, is love. Love that will heal us, love that will forgive us, love that will let us lament all that we’ve lost this year and love that will persist with us until the end. Love that will never condemn. Love that will be sign that God will always deliver us to the other side.

This miracle, my friends, is not on us. We alone will not find the way out, we alone will not brave the dark of sin and triumph over it—but God, stooping low to be lifted high, will do it for us and with us through every danger, toil, and snare…and every online worship video too.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr


[1] The Message. Eugene Peterson

[2] https://www.cnbc.com/2019/05/06/stanford-researchers-says-30-minutes-of-complaining-makes-you-dumber.html

Where to Find God

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

John 2:13-22 and Exodus 20:1-17

When Moses comes down Mt. Sinai after the Israelites have been released from bondage in Egypt, and before they begin a forty year journey in the wilderness he bears in his hands a list of laws that would come to be known as the Ten Commandments. Read aloud as our first lesson this morning, they form the backbone of how God wants his people to navigate the complexities of life. They are a hard-and-fast, unchangeable rules that are not supposed to weigh them down with duty but actually lift them up to create an environment for a good, safe, and prosperous life. The Ten Commandments are a gift, even though the people pretty quickly reject them.

It got me thinking, we’ve kind of had a very similar experience over the past year when it comes to navigating and living safely as a human community during this pandemic. We’ve watched so many officials coming down out of governmental institutions bearing clipboards we probably could compile a list of the Ten Commandments of COVID. What do you think they’d say? Here are some I’ve thought up…

Thou shalt wear a facemask.
Thou shalt remain six feet or more from other human beings.
Thou shalt wash your hands fastidiously.
Honor thy doctors and nurses.
Thou shalt not go anywhere if you have a fever.
Thou shalt not sing in public.
Thou shalt learn how to unmute yourself on Zoom.
Thou shalt not hoard toilet paper.
Do not covet thy neighbor’s vaccination. Or thy neighbor’s ox’s vaccination. Or donkey’s.

Things seem fairly set in stone about it all now, but it wasn’t always so clear what we were supposed to be doing. Remember when we were still leaving our groceries on our doorsteps for 48 hours before bringing them inside? I know some of you are still doing that—not judging! And we still have governors and other officials rescinding orders and backtracking on health guidelines. It’s all so confusing, even if we were to have them listed out like Moses’ Ten Commandments.

One of the main benefits to having these rules from Moses in Exodus listed so concisely and so systematically and engraved in stone is that it leaves no question as to how God speaks to us and how God wants us to be together. The law comes across so self-explanatory. “Do this and don’t do that.” God’s presence and God’s goodness are going to be really clear and obvious whenever and wherever people are obeying them and putting them into practice.

We do this kind of thing with God’s laws and God’s words all the time. We basically roll into one the rules and God himself, and as long as we’ve got the rules down pat—so we think—as long as we know what’s expected of us and do our best to meet those expectations, we’re on God’s side. It’s like God is in the rules and if we do the rules then hunky-dory and if we don’t do the rules, then there’s probably some way we can make it up, or just try again.

It’s kind of like COVID. We think as long as we follow all the main rules and trust Dr. Fauci or Michael Osterholm or whichever official we put on the pedestal we will keep the virus at bay and live in safety.

Except we don’t. Some of us still get sick, even though we follow all the COVID commandments. I can’t tell you how many people I know, some in this congregation who have gotten the virus, and they don’t have a clue about how or where they picked it up. A safe life was never supposed to be guaranteed with the COVID commandments, and a relationship with God was never guaranteed by following the law. God meant it as a tool for living in that relationship, but eventually even those who love God distort its use.

This distortion of the law and the overly corrupted systems of religion is what we see Jesus confronting in bold fashion as he comes into the Temple of Jerusalem. The tables and booths where people were selling cattle and other livestock were taking up precious space in the temple’s interior. People were so convinced that by just keeping the law, by fulfilling whatever sacrifices the religious authorities interpreted the laws to require, that they had found God and God’s favor.

Christ driving moneychangers from the Temple (El Greco)

In Jesus’ eyes, the Temple looked like a market. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a middle eastern market before. They look similar to one of our flea markets or maybe a farmer’s market—narrow rows that take you by table after table where people have set up their wares for you to see and buy and maybe barter for. Could you imagine coming to worship and finding that, people barking over tables at you, trying to get you to come closer? I would imagine that most people back then, if they just stepped back and looked at what had become of their Temple, would have been shocked at it. Jesus sees it with fresh eyes, a Nazareth guy from way out in the country, disgusted that the Temple had become this.

He takes a whip of cords and drives them all out. It’s like Indiana Jones Jesus. It’s a famous scene and one of the first things we actually see Jesus do in John’s gospel. He changes water into wine at a wedding, and then he immediately goes to Jerusalem for Passover and confronts the religious system of sacrifices and this misguided understanding that following the law gets people closer to God.

One thing this scene should make us stop and think about is what our own churches and religious buildings look like and what their interior and exterior communicates about God and our relationship to God. This week I stepped outside briefly because the weather was so nice and found Mike Long, one of our members, thinking through our new signage. As you know, the entrances to our building have changed drastically, and it’s not immediately clear where people are to come inside to find the sanctuary or the office, for example. Something as basic as a sign shouldn’t be so complicated, but he and I walked around for a good bit talking about where we’d place it and what it should say and where the arrows should point.

I admire him because he clearly thinks about this kind of stuff all the time and is good at it. You don’t want to put up a sign at a church that is going to confuse people about where they’re supposed to go, no matter how obvious you or I may think the path may be! By the same token, houses of prayer should communicate above all things that God is worshiped here, not something else. Churches and sanctuaries and common areas and the art and furnishings and decorations in them should point a clear arrow to God’s grace.

But no matter how good the signs are, they don’t—and they can’t—point an arrow to where God may be found. And that is really the message Jesus is driving home when he makes the whip of cords and overturns the tables. God can’t be found in building or a temple any more than God can be found in following rules.

And so when Jesus overturns the tables he is doing more than redecorating the Temple narthex. He is overturning the way of thinking that says the commandments contain our relationship with God.

He is overturning the beliefs that say as long as you’re at church you are holy and sacred.

He is driving out the wrong idea that we can build a building to contain God or write him down on pieces of paper.

God is not located in a sanctuary and God is not found in the law or in Holy Scripture. God is found in Jesus. And even more amazing than that? If God were to make a sign about how to enter relationship with God, the sign would say, “Wait! Stay where you are. I’m coming to you.”

Just as Jesus changes water into wine and flips tables, Jesus also completely changes our whole stance toward God. Gone are the days where we need to search or change or sacrifice something in order to get to God or grab God’s attention. In the cross of Jesus, God comes to us. “Destroy this temple,” Jesus says, “and in three days I will raise it up.” He’s not talking about the building. He’s talking about himself and the incredible lengths he himself will go to in order to prove that God loves and reclaims every aspect of the human experience. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God reaches out to all of humankind and to all lonesome paths that humans walk, even the walk of the grave.

this overturns everything we might assume about God.

That kind of grace can’t be contained in a list of laws or in a structure or institution. It is made known each time selfless, sacrificial love is shared with someone else. God’s love seems foolish to the world, which almost equates force and violence with strength. And God’s self-giving ways are a stumbling block to systems that say we have to be wise or clever to know God.

When I sat down with the Nass family to prepare Alice for her baptism a few weeks ago, I was slightly aware of our language barrier. Being from Brazil, her parents speak Portuguese. They are much better at speaking English than they think they are because I have no problems understanding them, but sometimes they are worried they misunderstand me. I noticed that they had taken our baptism preparation packet, all four pages of it, and entered it into Google translate so they could really read and understand it and know they weren’t missing anything.

their delightful surprise, everything said exactly what they were expecting it to say. There were no differences, as it turns out, in how a baptism in their old church in Brazil would go and how a baptism here in Richmond would go. And furthermore, there was no difference in what the baptism would signify. Two different cultures, two different languages, two different countries, but one clear sign that pointed to grace: Jesus has torn down the temple of his body and raised it back up to cleanse Alice of her sins and claim her forever as God’s child. And how she will be a little arrow that points people to Jesus.

That, my friends, is the action of a God whose grace is now unleashed in the world, a God who likes and uses commandments, a God who likes and uses buildings for worship, but ultimately a God who will not be contained by culture or language or privilege or sacrifice systems or human wisdom or human strength or time or place or death. That, my friends, is the God who loves and claims you.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

From Wilderness to Paradise

a sermon for the First Sunday in Lent [Year B]

Mark 1:9-15 and Genesis 9:8-17

Like many other people, my family decided to get a COVID puppy last year. That is, in those early days of the pandemic lockdown, when there was no school and no going out and we were all stuck at home we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to get our first family dog. We would be able to devote the necessary time things like housetraining and crate-training. Always around and playing nowhere else but in the backyard, we would give it plenty of love and socialization so that eventually (we thought to ourselves), we would have a nice well-adjusted animal companion. Joy, as we named her, is a sweet, loving pet. She is soft and affectionate and playful. She is a wonder to watch run and catch a Frisbee in mid-air.

our friendly beast

But—I have to be honest with you—most of the time we are also asking ourselves, “What, in God’s name, have we done? There is a wild animal living with us!” She has chewed up three pairs of our son’s eyeglasses, one of our daughter’s retainers, and a brand-new ottoman in our family room. There have been countless nights when she cried and howled most of the time, and we’re still not able to let her loose in the kitchen for long because she knows exactly how to grab our food when we turn our heads away. I know they say dogs are man’s best friend but at this point it feels like we are in constant conflict about who really controls the house. When will we find lasting peace? Are people really meant to live in complete harmony with these creatures? Our puppy-trainer is excellent, but even she explains how the secret to success of raising a good dog companion is to establish and maintain your dominance (which she calls leadership) and get them used to being out of your bubble. Harmonious relationships between humans and people doesn’t just automatically happen.

In that case, we should notice that something special is up when Jesus is driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness after his baptism. There he is, forty days in the harsh environment, with all kinds of wild beasts happily in his bubble. These aren’t puppies or dogs, either. These are all kinds of fearsome and dangerous animals that would have normally devoured a lone, unarmed person like Jesus—wolves, leopards, wild boars. Ancient Israel even had lions! It’s kind of funny, if you think about it. We sing all kinds of hymns and carols at Christmastime about the friendly beasts who come to tend to Jesus at his birth in the manger, but the only time that Scripture ever talks about animals being with Jesus is at his temptation in the wilderness.

Christ in the wilderness (according to Mark’s gospel)

We may see this as a strange and endearing feature to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, an easy to overlook aspect of Jesus’ very first steps, but for those who have ever longed for a broken world to be put to rights, this is the first powerful sign that day has arrived. He is with the wild beasts. A wilderness is being turned into a Paradise. God had once before cleansed the wicked world through a flood, giving Noah and all the animals of the earth a new beginning. The heavens had opened and hope had shone through in the form of a rainbow. A dove had gone out and hovered over safe ground. Now, once again, water is bringing about a new world. The heavens open and a dove hovers over someone steady and sure, a new foundation.

In the baptism of Jesus and his subsequent temptation in the wilderness, a brand new day has begun. God has boldly announced a new chapter—the final chapter—in God’s plan to reconcile the entire cosmos to God’s self. And, strangely, before Jesus has called even his first disciple, the wild beasts are gathering around him as a sign of the peacefulness and promise to come. He doesn’t even have to enlist an expert puppy trainer. They just know. Eden, at long last, has been regained.

How about you? Do you feel the draw to gather around Jesus, to respond to his announcement that God’s kingdom has come near? Do you, too, long for a fresh beginning, a total do-over in life, or maybe just today? Have you ever been adrift like Noah on the ark, searching the skies for a sign of hope? The good news from the gospels is that in Jesus this fresh start, this new beginning, is always possible, for each and every one of us. Your age does not matter. Your background does not matter. Your past choices do not matter. In Jesus, God has come to contend with the fears, the temptations, the dark forces that estrange all people from God and the good God desires for us. This new day begins that moment by the Jordan River and reaches its conclusion at the cross in a new flood of grace where God’s own Son takes all the sin of the world and drowns it in love. Jesus goes into our most godforsaken territories and turns them into a Paradise.

“Noah’s Thanksgiving prayer” (Domenico Morelli)

For the sinner, for the person who is seeking, this is made real in the waters of baptism. Whether we were a tiny infant or a college student or an older adult, our baptism is a sign that we’ve been forever included in this new covenant established by Jesus’ life and death, a promise that Jesus goes into every breast-haunted wilderness we may ever find ourselves in. God has guaranteed our place in that new creation even if we wander from its promise or were just too young to remember what it meant—even if we, at times, behave or carry on as if that new birth never happened. Out of God’s grace we are chosen and gathered as children from all ends of the earth. Each time we reflect on our own baptisms we are reflecting on just how powerful and permanent God’s love for creation is: Jesus has himself driven to the wilderness to save it. Jesus will die on the cross to restore it and rises again from its darkness to show its power. And so baptism is a chance to begin again. Even the act of remembering it, as Martin Luther says, is a chance to start our lives anew and, once again, take part in the kingdom of peace and righteousness that Jesus has begun.

One Easter in the first congregation I served we baptized a man who was in his fifties. He had first ventured into our congregation with his wife earlier that year, in January, after having driven by the front door regularly for about six months. It took him that long, I later found out, before he finally got up the nerve to come inside. I think we church people can forget that. It takes many people a lot of courage just to enter church doors. We used that Lent as a time to have some intentional conversations about his life and his faith and where he perceived God’s presence in his life. We came to the conclusion that it was time for him to be baptized. For reasons unknown to him, his parents had never taken that step with him when he was young.

That Sunday, as the water was poured over his head, a new thing for that congregation occurred. He began to weep. It caught everyone by surprise, although perhaps it shouldn’t have. The people in the choir, who were standing nearest to him by virtue of the way our chancel was set up, were affected by his visible show of emotion. Some of them began to cry too, confronted with the seemingly un-Lutheran reality of a grown man moved to tears in worship, and in such an open way. I’ll never forget a comment one of them made after worship was over and she reflected on the event. “It was like it meant something to him,” she said.

Indeed, something had happened. There was a new creation. We watched over the next months and years as the splash created by his baptism rippled throughout the entire congregation, just as the same grace ripples throughout any congregation whenever a pastor cradles a new baby in his arms at the font. People began sharing a bit more about their own faith, their own God-given chances to start over. Something is happening in the life of Jesus Christ, the likes of which this whole world has never experienced or seen before. No matter how or when we travel through the flood waters of baptism, God’s purposes are made clear: Jesus is on the scene. He has come to gather us.

And even when powerful emotion is not there in our faith, even when we traverse the long days of wilderness when we doubt and wander, it is still true that the days when sin and death have the final word are now behind us. That time is no more. God has claimed us for his grand new restoration project on earth, and each person—be they young or old, be they intimidated by the front doors of church or as comfortable in a pew as on their family room sofa—each person has the Spirit-given gifts to join in on the effort.

This does not mean, it should be noted, that the Christian life will be easy, that taking part in this restoration flood will be free of tests and trials. After all, once his own baptism happens, Jesus is driven by the Spirit not into a field of daisies, but straight into Satan’s tests. As member of his body, we should expect the same type of experience, for we are subjects of a kingdom whose existence and goodness is not yet completely acknowledged by the whole world. Temptation is a regular part of the baptized life.

And we should also note that our gatherings will be gatherings of different-minded people, with different backgrounds and sometimes conflicting points of view. But because Christ is a new creation, the church can be together as diverse people who don’t devour each other like wild beasts. We learn to see those different from us not as threats, but as beautiful creatures of God who add to our human experience, who help populate a kingdom that includes all kinds. This is what the world will seek and be drawn to.

In one of his books, former Divinity School professor and United Methodist bishop Will Willimon tells the story of a newspaper clipping he once read about a woman somewhere in Louisiana who raised somewhere around a dozen foster children despite her low, meager income as a domestic worker. Why did she do it? Why did she suffer so? She responded, “I saw a new world a comin’.”[1]

A new world is comin’.  As far as Mark is concerned, the animals might already know it. It starts with a splash, then forms a ripple, until all of creation is caught up in the flood. Get ready. Turn around! And believe in the good news!”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


[1] Will Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002. P127

Over the Top

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

Mark 9:2-9

Two friends of mine who are married to each other have a competition every Valentine’s Day to see who can find the cheesiest, tackiest, most-over-the-top Valentine’s Day card. In the early days of their life together they used to purchase these cards, sign them and give them to one another and then circulate them among their friends and family so that we could vote on which one we found the sappiest. Nowadays, my friends upload them to their Facebook page and let dozens of people weigh in, and at the end of the day they reveal who won the most votes. The whole event is a lot of fun, and it’s really generous of them that they’ve allowed so many other people to join in the love they have for each other this way.

Whose will win 2021??

Let me tell you, there are a lot of doozy Valentine’s Day cards out there—ones with cutesy poems, ones with obscene amounts of glitter and shine, ones that have surprise sound or music coming out when you open them up— but my friends really have a knack for finding ones that really go over the top. I can’t wait to see what they’ve come up with today.

In the transfiguration of Jesus, God really goes over the top, you might say, to get the message across. It’s flashy, it’s bright, there’s a lot of shine. There’s even a surprise sound coming out of the clouds at one point. And, quite literally, he takes them over the top—over the top of a mountain somewhere in the region of Judea. Some people say it was Mount Carmel, but others point out that Jesus may have taken them up Mount Hermon or Mount Tabor. Regardless of which specific peak it was, that this happens on a mountain is important because in Scripture mountains are places where people traditionally receive messages from God. Jesus selects just three of his disciples, likely his closest friends, and goes out of his way up on this mountain, away from the crowds, in order to reveal something about himself.

Mountain peaks usually have this type of mystique about them. They offer perspective. Sometimes people go on retreats on mountains for this reason. The air is thinner and feels cleaner to breathe. We feel above the fray, away from it all. The views from the tops of mountains also often give us a sense of where we are in relation to everything else. This past summer my family got to visit the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado. At 14,415 feet it is one of the highest drivable summits in the U.S. We were there on a crystal clear day—spacious skies— and it was easy to see why the view inspired Katherine Lee Bates to write “America, the Beautiful” after she visited there in 1893. We couldn’t linger and admire the view for very long because our son passed out from lack of oxygen, but we were so high up that it felt like we could see half of the country up there, the fruited plain stretching out endlessly one way and the purple mountain majesties the other.

On the mount of transfiguration, the disciples get perspective on Jesus, the beautiful. It is not so much the view from the mountain that God focuses them on, but the view on the mountain. Jesus changes somehow. Maybe his face is different, or the shape of his body, but what the gospel writers remember most is that his clothes become dazzling white. The Greek word actually means “glittered.” He stands there, so bright to look at, too much to take in. This is over the top already, but then suddenly Jesus is joined by two of Israel’s all-stars: Moses on one side and Elijah on the other.

These are two figures that loomed so large in ancient Israel’s history and mindset that their presence would have immediately raised Jesus’ street cred in the eyes of the disciples. Based on Peter’s reaction, we can tell that suddenly they think Jesus is a bit more important than they had probably up to this point. Moses represents the beauty of the law, that long and holy tradition of following God’s commandments. Elijah represents the beauty of the prophets, that long and holy tradition of hearing and heeding God’s Word among in community. Flanked by these two, Jesus is seen in a new perspective, and this is the message of God’s over-the-top card: Jesus is not just some guy who comes to heal the sick and teach Scripture. Jesus is not just a Messiah who will march onto the scene and violently overthrow the powers-that-be. He is at least as great as Moses and Elijah, at least as beautiful as the two ways God has, up to this point, related to God’s people.

J Nance

In fact, by the end of the transfiguration, God’s message is even clearer. Jesus does shine fairer, Jesus does shine purer. A voice thunders from the midst of the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Moses and Elijah mysteriously disappear. We are left with only Jesus.

How often do we place Jesus just on equal level with so much else in our lives, as just another commitment in our calendar, just another authority among many? I think that is a temptation, even for people who follow Jesus, maybe especially for those who follow him. Jesus means to be everything for us because we are the ones he loves. Richard Graham, former Lutheran bishop of the Metro-DC Synod once said, “Jesus is the light of the world. Christians don’t advance the conversation [in a helpful way] when they say to the world, ‘Jesus is just an interesting option.'” The transfiguration is the over-the-top message that says Jesus is more than just an interesting option. There is no one equal to him.

Therefore, we listen. We listen to the way Jesus speaks to us, the way Jesus reaches out to people. We listen to the way he speaks to people who are hurting, the way he speaks truth to those in power, the way he calls out the hypocrisy of religious leaders. We listen to his invitations to children and others who are often overlooked. And foremost, we listen to his words about what’s going to happen to him, the very message he has already tried to get across to his disciples, although they don’t seem to hear it. He tells us that he will go into Jerusalem and be handed over to the chief priests and elders suffer, and die, and then rise again on the third day.

In fact, he commands Peter, James, and John not to mention this transfiguration until after that point, until after all that hard stuff has happened and he’s risen from the dead. He has given them on the mountain a glimpse of the final glory promised in him. They will need that glimpse as they traipse with him through the grueling road of suffering ahead. It gives them the perspective they will need—that the love of God in Jesus will be victorious over all the dark and devious things the children of God encounter. Jesus will once again shine purer and fairer after the tragedy of the cross.

The Transfiguration (Raphael)

This pandemic feels like we’re all in a deep valley. It’s like the opposite of a mountaintop, the air is stifling here, and I’m not sure any of us have any real perspective on how it is changing us as a society and as individuals. People talk about how it will leave a permanent mark on us, what we’re learning. Maybe it will change our lifestyles in certain ways for a long time to come. There is a lot of speculation about this, lots of predictions about how this time will affect us all. I’m not sure we can really say anything about that yet with any certainty. It’s fun to predict and say international travel will never be what it once was, or that facemasks will always be part of our wardrobe, or that people won’t use office buildings anymore. But I have a sneaking suspicion we won’t really know what that future life will really be like until we actually up from this valley on the other side. It would be nice to have a vision of that post-pandemic life, so we could plan an all, but until then we just trudge through. Perhaps the end is more near than we realize.

Jesus’ transfiguration is a vision of that final, future life, when he is finished with the suffering and the dying. when the cross and the nails are behind him. This shining moment in the thin mountain air is the vision of that distant time when we are all finished with our grief and our sorrows, when we’ve come out of this long valley of confusion and death to a new summit we will never leave. Perhaps that glorious end is more near than we realize, too.

This is the time of the year—the Sunday of the Transfiguration—when Pastor Joseph and I fulfill a yearly Epiphany tradition. We haul out the big ladder and climb to the top of things to hang the purple drape on the cross for Lent. Thankfully neither one of us is really afraid of heights, so we’re not against doing it, but there is a bit of danger involved so we try to be very careful. My ears don’t pop as I go up, and the oxygen isn’t thinner, but the middle of the cross is the highest point in the sanctuary, higher even than the balcony. Every year I am taken aback by the view from up here, the perspective from this cross in this particular room.  From here, as I hang this drape and try not to fall, I can look out and imagine all the people of God’s kingdom, all the people who sit in these pews and in churches across the world and be reminded of the long vision of hope Jesus gives us.

May you stand here, just for a moment, and take in with me this year that God really goes over the top in his love for us. In his transfiguration, on the cross, Jesus, the beautiful—the most beautiful—goes totally over the top. And all of us win.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

By What Authority?

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

Mark 1:21-28 and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Just the other day my 4-year-old son and I were waiting in my wife’s car for her to get finished with work and take him home. I was sitting in the passenger’s seat and he had gotten out of his car seat and was climbing around the front pushing different buttons and flipping switches. He has recently become enamored with the sun roof, especially, and at one point he reached up to open it but, unsurprisingly, it remained closed. He looked at me matter-of-factly and said, “It’s not working right now because mommy’s not in here.”

In fact, the sunroof was not working because the car was turned off and the key was not in the ignition but his assessment of the situation was clearly an indication of who really has authority in our household. I’ve known this for years, of course, that mommy’s authority in most matters outranks mine, and I’m OK with that. Mommy is a good authority, but this was the first time her authority was so great that her presence on its own could open a sunroof. We didn’t even need a car key. We just needed mommy to show up.

As soon as Jesus shows up in Capernaum at the beginning of his ministry, people are impressed with his authority. It has power that no one has really seen before. When he teaches the Scriptures in the synagogue, people listen. They are impressed. They had been hearing teachings from the scribes for years and years but Jesus is different. His authority has some new power.

The scribes, by contrast, were the people who just occupied leadership roles in the synagogue and in religious life of the Jewish people. They were educated. They were experts in the law and in interpreting Scripture. They had been approved by the various religious leaders to do their jobs, but in many ways they were just in the passenger seat. They were just occupying a spot of leadership they had received from those who had gone before them. Jesus arrives and it’s clear he’s a driver. Whatever he says  leaves no doubt in their mind that he is someone to be listened to, someone to be followed.

And if that weren’t enough, he also has amazing authority over unclean spirits. While Jesus is in the middle of his teaching in the synagogue, a man wanders in who is possessed of something that has control over him. Even though he is interrupted, Jesus doesn’t barrel through with his teaching, trying to shout over the man. No, Jesus immediately turns to deal with him and rebuke the spirit.

And as it turns out, it is not just the people in the synagogue who recognize Jesus’ authority, but the unclean spirits. In some ancient versions this is translated as “demons,” and we probably shouldn’t get too worried about the man’s precise medical diagnosis. We may say they are forces of the world that stand in the way of God’s goodness, dark powers that corrupt God’s children and their thinking and how they go about world. Whatever they are, they too show up to challenge Jesus as soon as he is on the scene, even calling him the Holy One of God.

Isn’t it true that just the presence of good things brings out the haters? You can find an article about something so lovely and pure on the internet— a piece that talks about children sacrificing their allowance to donate food for the hungry, or a story about a police officer who goes the extra mile to help a victim—and if you read the comments below the article there is inevitably someone  being needlessly hateful and critical about it all, calling into question the good of the story. Jesus’ goodness and authority is never going to be well-received by the unclean spirits of the world. In fact, many times they seek him out and try to bring him down.

When Jesus deals with the haters, though, he first tells them to be silent. This is not the last time that Jesus is going to keep his identity secret. We may think it is strange that Jesus rebukes and tries to silence anything or anyone that would declare him for who he really is, but Jesus doesn’t want to primarily be known for these acts of authority, no matter how good he is. He does not mainly come to be a teacher about Scripture, and he does not mainly come among us to cast out demons. He knows his authority is going to be rooted in something more significant and far more powerful. Jesus is going to express his authority in self-sacrifice. Jesus is going to show the depth of his authority through service to others. Jesus is going to truly demonstrate the kind of authority he is by giving himself on the cross in love and mercy. It is one thing to show people how much you know and how strong you are. It is a totally different thing—and more powerful thing—to show how much you love them. And that is where Jesus’ authority is rooted.

What will truly drive out the unclean spirits that possess us—that is, the spirits of pretentiousness and pride, the demons brought about by individualism and self-righteousness? We must also consider the forces of false information and fake news, the desire to control other people with our viewpoints and prejudices or, at the very least, to have our biases confirmed? Only Jesus’ love will do this. Only the kind of self-giving and humble spirit that Christ possesses and which he lavishly pours onto each one of us will be able to accomplish that. And as these things are driven from us they are going to cause convulsions, especially depending on how firmly embedded the uncleanliness is. It is hard to let go of prejudices, especially when they’ve brought us power. Did you look along Monument Avenue this summer and fall? Convulsions.

Driving out the unclean spirits of our culture

As it happens, this was Paul’s very message to his beloved congregation in Corinth. These were people who were very enamored with things like status and knowledge and credentials. They were giving a lot of authority to these things, and it was a like an unclean spirit infecting the church. The particular case we hear Paul mention this morning has to do with how certain mealtime practices were causing division in the community. In Corinth, the main way you could come by meat was at temple where people would sacrifice animals to foreign gods, or idols. Butchers in the temple would then sell the remains so as not to waste it. Some early Christ followers in Corinth did not want to be associated with those temples and those idols in any way so they would not buy meat there, which meant they were effectively vegetarian. They just went without meat as a sign of their faithfulness to Jesus.

Some Christians, including Paul, felt that eating meat from these places did not automatically make you an idol-worshiper. You could in good conscience buy meat from those butchers and still eat it and be a faithful Christ-follower. But, Paul says, if his eating of meat might lead one of the weaker members into eating meat and destroying their faith, to fall back into their old idol-worshiping ways, then he would rather abstain. Paul says, he knows it’s absolutely fine from a faith standpoint to eat meat sacrificed to gods that don’t even really exist—one, you might say, has the freedom to do it—but he is willing to go without for the sake of the love he has for his fellow believers who still have problems with it.

The authority they are to follow, you see, is not the knowledge of what is or what is not theologically correct, or their rights to do this or do that, but the respect and compassion one has for one’s neighbor. Paul demonstrates a spirit of self-sacrifice and humility, meeting other people in his community where they are. It is one of the many ways he says that love builds up the whole, sometimes at the cost of the individual’s freedoms.

If we’re listening, we can hear Paul talking to the church today about how to live and worship in a pandemic, racial change, and political tension. He might talk about facemasks, and how some people don’t feel it’s necessary to wear them. They themselves are not afraid of catching COVID, or maybe they just don’t think it’s a very big deal. That is an authority based on knowledge, which only puffs those people up. Even if someone feels that way, the loving and Christlike thing to do, Paul would suggest, is to go ahead and humble oneself and wear a face mask for the sake of those who are afraid of catching COVID. Some people are strong in their faith and are not afraid of worshiping in large groups during this time, even if it causes the disease to spread. Paul would say, the authority of love would instruct us to refrain from doing that for the sake of those who are not as confident in that knowledge or in their faith.

Paul would probably be concerned that we Christians have on the whole not come to be known for the authority of love during the past year. In many cases we’ve been unwilling to make personal sacrifices for the good of others and for the glory of God. He’d warn us that it seems we’d rather be known for standing up for our supposed right to worship however and whenever we want, than tp be known for the ways we show humble, Christlike concern to others, even it means scaling back worship. One article in Christianity Today this week reports that half of Protestant pastors in America have encountered conspiracy theories in their congregations. That is, half of the pastors in Protestant churches have heard people in their parishes espouse things promoted by QAnon or other right or left wing groups. Conspiracy theories, by definition, are based on authority of knowledge and secret wisdom that tries to control other people, not release them in love and openness in the way of our Savior. Paul might say too many of us are concerned about the freedom of our speech and not concerned enough about the truth and love of it.

socially distanced, silent worship

Jesus has made it his plan for us—he has nothing to hide, no confidential story to keep in the dark. He lays himself out there in full, arms open, and we can pick him apart as we will. As the psalmist says this morning, “the works of your hands, O Lord…stand fast forever and ever because they are done in truth and equity.” Jesus’ truth is based on coming to where we are in our weakness, not demanding we come to where he is. And his equity is in making sure everyone is together. And now we can do the same for the rest of God’s people, as we are ruled by the authority of love.

That is a tricky, tricky witness, and these are certainly stressful times to do them in, when all kinds of demons are all up in our grill. I heard someone say recently, “I’m tired of living in unprecedented times. I’m ready to live in some precedented times.” Amen to that, but may we never tire of living in God’s unprecedented love, a love that arrives on our scene, in our heart, and is ready to be the driver—a love that says, from the center of the cross “I am in control and no matter what you will always ride with me.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.