What the Kingdom is Like

a sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 12A/Lectionary 17]

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 and Romans 8:26-39

Jesus’ string of parables today reads like one of those children’s riddles, doesn’t it? What do a seed, bread dough, a field, a pearl, and a fish net all have in common? Anybody got a guess?

Each of those things is so different and they don’t seem to be sewn together by any common thread. A seed of a mustard bush, a lump of leaven, a treasure in a field, a pearl of great value,  and a net thrown into the sea that catches all kinds of things. Well, here’s a hint: it is something that starts small but grows to have unimaginable impact—it seems like nothing at first but gives shape and substance to everything around it—its discovery brings about a complete reprioritization of values—it involves an imperative sorting out of what is worthwhile and what is useless? Any clue?? Jesus gives the answer to the puzzle: the kingdom of heaven. Each of these things, and each of the scenarios in these parables are, in some way,  like the kingdom of heaven.

I like to imagine some of Jesus’ lessons went like that. Kind of fun. Kind of off the wall. One thing we are learning that Jesus is teacher. He spends a good bit of time gathering with crowds and offering lessons and illustrating important topics about God’s Word. I think a lot of us have been thinking about teachers lately, especially as we look at a school year that will be very different from ones anybody has ever known. I follow a few teachers on social media and I can tell that they are going to miss being with their students face to face. So much happens in that interaction in the classroom. In the past some of these teachers have blown me away with their creative lessons and interesting ideas that bring a complicated subject down to a level I can understand. I’m sure trying to figure out how to adapt that kind of energy to an online format is going to be a challenge.

Jesus is a gifted teacher, too, even if he does offer confusing and challenging lessons. He is able to use metaphor and simile with ease, helping his disciples, you and me, step into lesson about very complex subjects, life or death subjects. He is gifted and knowledgeable, and that is going to be important because the kingdom of heaven is a tricky concept. He spends so much time offering lessons about it and trying to explain it because it’s kind of his main point. We may remember: announcing the kingdom of heaven’s arrival is now his whole ministry begins and it quickly becomes the main expectation people have when they encounter Jesus.

But here’s what makes it so challenging: when they hear and discuss “kingdom of heaven” they think of something entirely different from what Jesus intends. They bring to these lessons all kinds of preconceptions about what “kingdom of heaven” means and what it will look like.

One of the things I’ve been doing almost every day for about four months is going to this website where I can check the latest statistics about the spread of the coronavirus. You’ve probably visited a site like it.  There are several of them. It lists all of the data by country, and so you can click on “USA” and see the numbers for our country, which are then broken down by state. Although it’s not always peaceful, for the time being it’s pretty convenient that we’re broken down by these geographical regions with defined boundaries and governments, especially at a time like this.

The people Jesus was originally speaking to probably thought of the term kingdom of heaven in that sense. When he came proclaiming repentance for the kingdom of heaven was near, they probably assumed kingdom with boundaries and some kind of government. That’s what King David had had.  And King Solomon, the wise. It was something that clearly made sure certain people were in and others were out. It was defensible, you guard it with an army and weapons. You could stand on it and feel safe or proud.

But, as Jesus keeps speaking more and more about the kingdom of heaven and, more significantly, as he starts doing things that are rooted in that kingdom, like healing people and driving out demons, people start to wonder if he is talking about the same thing. It’s like that famous quote from The Princess Bride, when Inigo Montoya confronts Vizzini about his overuse of the word “inconceivable.” Montoya says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Jesus, you keep using that word kingdom of heaven. We do not think it means what you think it means.

So what does Jesus mean? What is this kingdom of God? For Jesus, it is any time and any situation where God’s mercy and peace and freedom rule. It is any place and any scenario where the compassion and the holiness of God make inroads and reign. If a regular worldly kingdom claims us by borders, the kingdom of heaven is wherever and whenever we are claimed by Christ’s love. It is vision God has for all of creation which God intends to make real and lasting. These are, of course, things that Jesus’ people hoped for, but they didn’t realize it was going to be quite as far-reaching. And they probably were expecting a sword to back it up. This vision acts differently from a kingdom or a republic or a sultanate. We experience it differently—with our hearts and souls more than with our feet or passports—and so Jesus will need different illustrations to make it come alive.

Initially we said what all those images have in common is that they are like the kingdom of heaven. But there’s one more thing they have in common: they are all ordinary scenes from first century peasant life. The kingdom embraces first the people at the bottom, the everyday women and men who are not part of the elite, people who work with their hands and don’t have much privilege, people like farmers, fishermen, women who maintain the sourdough starter to feed the family even if they can’t explain the chemistry of how it works.

I’ve long had this theory that if Jesus were speaking today, he’d use Waffle House as a metaphor for God’s kingdom. He’d gather his disciples around a table with some hash browns that are smothered and covered and point out that when he’s in charge all are served equally, out in the open. There are businessmen in suits sitting next to truckers taking a break from the highway sitting next to college kids just finishing a night of partying. There are people just scraping by and people who own their own businesses. Servers and patrons often share stories and joys in an unpretentious way. The place never closes, and in times of natural disaster and suffering it becomes a hub of refuge and nourishment. And no profanity or abusive language is allowed on premises! Do you understand? And all the disciples nod with grits on their chin.

There is an ancient school of thought in church theology, developed by church father named Origen of Alexandria, that says Jesus himself is the kingdom of God. Wherever Jesus is, there is the kingdom. Where his presence is named and honored, there God is reigning, full of justice and love. In a way, each of these images and scenes from the parables is talking about him.

He is like a mustard seed—he seems small and insignificant, but his life will grow and become refuge for people beyond our imagination.

He is like this lump of leaven—a total mystery, but able to add dimension and flavor and bring true life to everything it soaks into.

He is a treasure in a precious field—pure grace. Never earned. Only given and when discovered, worth drastic measure to keep.

He is pearl of great price—enough on his own, and yet still causing us to re-prioritize everything else in our lives in comparison to its value.

He is a dragnet. He is tossed into the world, tossed from a boat, tossed from a cross to pull in absolutely all kinds. Not just those we would choose, but the whole of the world. He is tossed out into the dark, into the pain to bring everything back, and everything will be sorted in us and among us and around us. It all will be filtered according to his grace and love and that which stands in God’s way will be burned away forever. His is a reign which, like branches, like leaven, like the Waffle House empire, eventually extends to every corner and every tucked away backroads highway exit. It will have no boundaries because not even death will keep it in. Not even death will be a border. Not life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God’s reign.

And even when we’re not seeking him, we will stumble upon him, treasure that he is, outside of the tomb we buried him in. He will be there, tallest of trees, ready for us to make our home within him. He will be there, with bread, asking us to sit down. Maybe for breakfast over waffles and eggs and letting us know and see the grace of his kingdom with our own reborn eyes. And at long last we will understand it means everything he thought it meant.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Wheat, Weeds, and Cancel Culture

A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11A/Lectionary 16]

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Psalm 86:11-17 and Romans 8:12-25

Two years ago I got sick of trying to deal with a vegetable garden in the backyard and decided to switch to a flower bed. I just wasn’t getting any veggies. The first few years we planted them we enjoyed the cucumbers and the tomatoes and the green beans and the strawberries—and I know strawberries aren’t a vegetable, but the point is that animals and insects and soil fungus discovered them and it quickly became a fruitless task. And a vegetable-less task.

So we switched to flowers and we’ve really grown to enjoy them, but every year, right at the height of the summer, right when things are really starting to bloom, we tend to go away for a few weeks, and when I come back there are weeds everywhere. It is amazing how fast weeds can grow. And it’s disheartening how quickly they ruin the look of a flower bed.

I don’t know if Jesus ever had a flower bed or a vegetable garden, but he sure knew how to talk about them. He sure knew how frustrating it was to find weeds in them. In explaining what the kingdom of God is like, he uses the story one time of a field and a farmer where the weeds go wild right at the time when the wheat is heading out. The farmer in the parable, interestingly enough, doesn’t seem all that concerned about them. But his slaves are really confused by it. At first they wonder if he, the master, might have accidentally or purposefully planted the weeds. When he points out they came from an enemy, they want to know how they should handle them. Pull them up? Get out the Round-Up? Nope, says the farmer. Just let things grow together for a while. At the right time I will tell the harvesters to pick them separately.

I don’t know if this is actually how you run a real garden or a farm. I know that when I come home to a weedy flower bed, I immediately get down and start pulling up the weeds, carefully, of course, one at a time. There is some satisfaction in pulling a weed out and getting all of the roots with it. Maybe the master’s slaves knew about that. Maybe they knew it looked good to have a field of only wheat grains blowing in the wind and that it felt good to rip out what didn’t belong.

This is one of the few parables we have that also includes Jesus’ explanation for it. On one level that makes it a bit easier for us to understand what Jesus was trying to teach with it. This parable, like the one that comes right before it about the sower who flagrantly spreads seeds on different types of ground, is an allegory. That is, all of the characters and objects in the parable stand for something.

Overall the parable illustrates something that we probably don’t need to have illustrated for us. The world is a field where good and evil are mixed in together. In fact, they are so mixed together that it is actually very difficult to uproot one without harming or uprooting the other. It’s almost impossible to separate the complicated mixture of how human lives and decisions good and bad have risen and grown together.

We don’t necessarily need a parable to illustrate this because we have Monument Avenue. Look at the debates and the arguments that arise around the removal of Confederate statues. Some people claim that by doing so we’re erasing history. Look at the protests and movements advocating for justice for people of color. Some only see riots and destruction. Others see only positive change. Look at the complicated and thorny path forward regarding plans for school in the fall. We cast opponents plans in terms of hatred. It’s got to be either all or nothing.

J.E.B. Stuart statue is removed in Richmond, VA

On a more directly church-related level, news broke a few weeks ago that the writer and musician who composed some of our most beloved contemporary hymns has been accused of sexual assault by several women. Immediately there have been calls for justice, and rightly so, but some are going so far as to say we remove that composer’s hymns from our publications and worship repertoire. Should we do that, then, for Martin Luther, who is on record of making horrible, violent comments about Jews and other religious groups? Do we need to rename our whole denomination?

Yes, the master in the parable knows more than his workers. Each of these situations that are ever before us involve aspects of humanity and culture that are clearly evil and in opposition to God—and we know that—but they’re also mixed together with the fruits of good and righteousness. And they’re mixed with potential for good that we haven’t even seen grow yet, potential for people even to change and be reborn. And these situations are all mixed on levels below the surface we aren’t able to comprehend, especially in the heat of the moment. It doesn’t mean we just don’t do anything, for our baptismal vows do call us to strive for justice and peace, but it does suggest we need to be careful and nuanced in our quests for justice. And a more than a bit humble as we go about it.

Perhaps this parable, among other things, serves as a cautionary tale about cancel culture or call-out culture. Cancel culture, which is very prominent these days, involves the outright boycotting of a person or a company that has acted or spoken in questionable ways. I don’t believe removing Confederate memorials qualifies as cancel culture, but there are ways we’ve run into the world today ready to rip up and burn whatever we think is wrong. It is satisfying to do that, right? To rip that weed out by the root and toss it away.

The issue is that if we are so driven to cancel others for things they’ve done or said, if we are so eager to point out where others are on the side of the enemy and how they need to be silenced or omitted from the garden of life, then we also need to be aware of what needs to be canceled within us. None of us is a pure garden. The writer of this morning’s psalm makes that clear, words that we prayed together just a few minutes ago. He says, “give me an undivided heart to revere your name.” Yes, our own hearts are divided between good and evil, and the cries for a field clean of weeds is actually a cry for our own hearts to be cleansed.

And that, as it turns out, is what Jesus, the Master, is here to do. He comes not just to sow seeds of good in a world of bad—a daisy here, a lily there. He comes not just to remind us of how to live with such a mixture of scenarios, like a self-help coach might do. He comes to offer his own life up for the hope of all on the cross. He comes to be God’s harvest, to lay his perfect goodness down before the enemy and let the enemy do his worst. Let the enemy try to eradicate him. And then God the Father will raise him up to say, “Enough of that.” Evil will not conquer. Evil always heads towards a dead end. It will not shine in any way in the vision God has for the world. Even the evil within ourselves will be purged away.

What’s most interesting to me about this parable is that the nature or the origin of the weeds is not really dealt with. There is no big discussion about who this enemy is, what the enemy is like, or even why the enemy exists and plants weeds. The master and Jesus both are more focused on what we do now that we’ve acknowledged the presence of the weeds.

I typically have the confirmation students take a test at the end of each semester to review what we’ve learned about basics of the Lutheran faith. In reality the test is more a chance to let them share their thoughts with me to see how they process matters of faith and belief in a complicated world. Unfortunately, because we could not meet in person at the end of this spring, I had to administer the test through email and they had to mail it back. One of the questions I asked them this year was “Has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your faith in any way? Has your faith in God influenced your understanding of the pandemic?” I wasn’t sure what kinds of responses I’d get, but I do know that for many centuries Christians interpreted events like pandemics to mean that God was bringing judgment on the world or that there was no God at all because this kind of suffering can’t be matched up with the existence of a loving God. But here is some of what they told me:

“I still believe in God and love him. God is providing health care workers.”

“My faith in God has allowed me to understand other people’s situations and allowed to have hope during this hard time.”

“My faith has improved in the way I see the earth changing for the better when people are compassionate. Asymptomatic people are staying at home to protect others.”

Those words and that faith gives me hope. These young people are seeing a world filled with suffering and even evil, but still concentrating on the good of the wheat that is there. These are young people living, as St. Paul says, by the Spirit. They are living by the Spirit and seeing that this whole creation, with its movements of justice and violence, with its desires for a cure from disease and its restless longing for peace, is really just groaning in labor pains. The whole creation is groaning, heaving, working hard as God pushes through a new world where the wheat and the righteous ones shine with the light of Jesus forever. They are young people who sound as if they already know the world has too many people who want to be weeders and not enough who want to be wheat planters. They know that we have enough who say, “Boy do I have something to teach people,” and too few who have “I have something to learn.” They know we have far too many who say, “Those people are the problem. They need to be uprooted” and we could use more who say, “The weeds are also inside me. Make me clean, Lord.”

So, what to do, as the weeds and wheat intermingle? Twentieth-century theologian and author Henri Nouwen once said, “Those who choose, even on a small scale, to love in the midst of hatred and fear are the people who offer true hope to our world.” There is a song on country radio right now that that essentially says the same. It’s a song by Thomas Rhett, but Reba McIntyre and Keith Urban sing with him. “In a time full of war, be peace. In a time full of doubt, just believe. Yeah, there ain’t that much difference between you and me. In a time full of war, be peace. In a time full of hate, be light.”

That may sound trite or oversimplified for some. But, then again, parables often are too. And sometimes Jesus even needs to explain them. But when you’re groaning in hope for a new world to be reborn, simply shining you light and sowing seeds of humble goodness will always find good soil somewhere. Guaranteed. And those will bring a harvest that will shine like sun in the kingdom of the Father.

Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

In the Welcome

a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 8A/Lectionary 13]

Matthew 10:40-42

We hear in today’s gospel lesson the final part of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples as he sends them out into the world to do and speak the work of God’s kingdom. For the past two Sundays we’ve heard the earlier parts of his instruction, and, to be honest, they’ve been a bit hard to swallow. He’s told them they will be sent like sheep into the midst of wolves. That doesn’t sound too fun. He’s told them that what they say and do will cause division and confrontation, even among their friends and family. That, also, doesn’t sound like a walk in the park.

Christ commissions his disciples

Today, however, he ends on a bit of a high note. I imagine that’s a good thing, because many of them are probably wondering what on earth they signed up for. He tells them, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” And just like that, Jesus places their presence in the world—their actions, their faith, their ministry—on the same level as God.

It makes me think of my wife’s final words to our daughters from the front porch every morning that they have left for the bus stop to go to school. After the bookbags have been situated on their backs, the proper musical instrument placed in their hand, after the last hugs and kisses, and they’re making their way across the yard, Melinda chimes out, “Make good choices!” They already know they are loved, for sure, but I suppose Melinda wants the last thing that rings in their ear to be something that might guide their actions, a reminder that they have power and agency and responsibility in the day ahead. “Make good choices!” is what should ring in their ears as they get on that bus. And, so far—I’m happy to say—it seems to be working.

So it is with Jesus, standing on the front porch there. Just when they may have started to think they’d been given thankless tasks, just when they are starting to tighten those sandal laces and the belt around their waist and wonder if it will be worth it Jesus assures them that they will be doing God’s very work. They shouldn’t just regard themselves as Jesus’ representatives, but as if they were Jesus himself, and since Jesus is himself on par with the Father, then they would be welcomed as God should be. It sounds a little crazy, but it makes sense, because Jesus’ followers understand themselves to be Jesus’ body. And those who would receive them well  would receive the reward of hosting God himself. All this would certainly make me think about my decisions and responsibilities and the choices I’d make. What about you?

It is helpful and encouraging on some level to think that Jesus’ words place me and you, as his disciples, on par with God’s own actions. It certainly puts some pressure on those who may receive us when we go there in the name of Jesus. But the reality is that followers of Christ operate from a very different standpoint today. We’re have to turn this around in our heads a bit. In Jesus’ day, there were no church buildings. The message of Jesus was spread by followers who were itinerant; that is, moving from town to town and house to house. They may have operated in proximity to synagogues for some time, which were buildings, but for many decades the church really didn’t have stationary structures where ministry was based. They spread the word by visiting new cities and new homes and hoping they’d be find a good reception there.

Jesus spoke to his followers about others welcoming them. We tend to think more about how we welcome others among us. Jesus was sending people out, seeing the church on foot, a traveling group. We more often think about people coming to us, seeing the church in a specific place. Of course, we still represent Christ everywhere we go. And in many ways the church of the future, especially in our culture, will need to reclaim this missionary spirit and venture more boldly into the world—boarding those busses, so to speak—sharing our faith with those we meet.

But now it would seem we also must think of how we receive people, how are our congregations places of peace and forgiveness. This work of hospitality, of welcoming and being welcomed—of starting off as strangers to each other and then becoming friends—is the kind of the core of the church’s reality, isn’t it? It’s being at the border between God’s care and the world’s chaos, the unknown wilderness and the Promised Land, the threshold where grace greets each person. Seeing those spaces and this work as holy ground is crucial to what we do.

In ancient societies, hospitality was a life or death matter. Harsh desert environments were threatening to human life, and so one cold cup of water could make all the difference in the world. Offering someone something to drink wasn’t just a nice, friendly gesture. It literally meant you valued their life, you wanted their life to continue. Nowadays it might just be one smile. Or one holding of a door. These interactions are where Jesus’ love and mercy get rooted and grow.

How is the church presenting itself in the world? Are we going as Christ himself goes, leading with our vulnerability and humility, asking others for a cup of water with the hopes conversations may ensue? Or do we more often barrel in, like a bull in a china shop, demanding attention, expecting people to get on board? “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” Jesus reminds us. Jesus wasn’t always welcomed, of course, and one important time when he did ask for a cup of water he was given sour wine. Those boundary zones of welcome, the spaces between the wilderness of the world and the haven of God’s grace can be daunting, but it is where new and profound relationships are made and communities are reborn.

ready to welcome people

As many of you know, our congregation recently completed a very extensive expansion and renovation project. One of the main objectives of that project was to create more space that would enhance our ability to welcome and receive people. If we take Jesus at his word this morning, we would understand that the most significant interaction that will happen in our church building will not happen in the sanctuary, but here, in this space. This is our newly designed welcome desk, on wheels so it can be conveniently moved and with a lower top so as to look less imposing.

The architect who designed this space, a Christ-follower who attends another Richmond congregation, included as many windows as possible in this gathering area. A couple of years ago, when he was presenting his plans, he explained that this decision to use so many windows had less to do with the beauty of natural light and more to do with what it communicates about the church and Christian faith. As we move into the future It was his strong belief that the church must communicate openness and transparency in any way it can. Churches that look like fortresses, with thick walls and small windows, may be beautiful, but they suggest secrecy and an inward feel, like only certain people may come in.

Our new area is so open that people driving up Monument Avenue on Sunday mornings will be able to see us in here. It may seem like a fishbowl, but Jesus’ life was a fishbowl, remember. He commissions his disciples to a life of sharing and openness, of being humble enough to venture into the neighborhood with a hand outstretched for water. We are the vulnerable ones now, for a spell, but God is protecting and watching over us, and we take heart that in Christlike humility there is victory.

We’ve been giving tours of this new space over the past two weeks. Since it will still be a few more weeks before we can gather in person, we figured people might like an up-close view of what has changed. And a lot has changed. Overall people’s reactions are one of surprise and delight and amazement. The reconfiguration of space is so different, in fact, that many people can’t remember where the old front doors used to be. There is one chandelier that catches everyone’s attention, but it’s actually been hanging from the same spot since 1992. It’s not new, but the new design refocuses people’s eyes and makes people notice it for the first time. Maybe that’s how we’ll be with people, too. We’ll notice ones who often get overlooked.

More than one person has noticed something we didn’t intend. It is a large crack on the floor in the newly poured concrete. It happened the day after they poured it several months ago, and the contractor said that’s a common problem with concrete floors. They crack right away.

It’s nothing to be worried about. In most cases you never see the cracks because you quickly cover it with carpet or tile. But we have opted for exposed concrete floors, so there it is. I doubt when the room is full of people that anyone will notice it.

And yet, one person had keen insight when he saw the crack. He said, kind of tongue in cheek, that it sends the message to all who enter here that we’re not perfect. It is a feature of our brokenness right out here in the open, in the threshold where stranger meets friend, where member will meet guest—a few feet away from where a cup of cold water would be given to someone—or because we’re Lutheran, a cup of hot coffee.

I think he’s onto something. The cracks of our sin are real and we can’t cover over them. But Jesus has welcomed us just the same. We are here because of his grace, no matter our race, our economic background, our ethnic origin, our gender, our sexual orientation, no matter how long we’ve been searching for God or how long he’s been our BFF. We are here because of God’s grace. And we’re here not because we’re so deserving of it, but because God has sent his Son to welcome us, to spread out his hands with a hospitality so expansive we’ll never fully understand it. His good choice is for us.

And the brokenness is healed and the divisions are brought together and strangers turn into friends and lives overlap and people see God in one another because whoever welcomes you welcomes Christ and whoever welcomes Christ welcomes the one who sent him.

That’s what you call a welcome that is also reward at the same time. A reward of grace that can never ever be lost.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

A Sword We Need

a sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 7A/Lectionary 12A]

Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:1b-11

Today we hear Jesus tell his disciples that as they undertake his mission, they need to be prepared for discord, that, in fact, he has not come to bring peace, but a sword, a sharp-edged weapon used to divide.

Huh! Isn’t that interesting? We probably feel like responding, “You come to bring division, Jesus?? We already have plenty of it. We don’t need any more! Facemasks have brought us division! Symbols and hashtags of racial justice and equality have brought us division. In many cases we are divided on when and how to restart the economy and even how and when to resume in person worship! We are divided about kneeling or standing for the National Anthem at sporting events, which, thank goodness, isn’t a problem right now because we don’t have any sports, but we’ll probably be divided about how they should resume, too. We are divided between those who’ve watched Tiger King on Netflix and those who haven’t and which fast food chicken sandwich is better! Men are set against their fathers and daughters against mothers. Facebook friends are set against each other, and our foes are people we’ve known and loved our whole lives!”

 I’ve noticed that even Instagram stories, which used to be a place people only shared birthday greetings and photos of food, have become increasingly used for making hard-edged statements about politics and social matters. I must own that I have posted a few things lately that have probably alienated more than a few people.

A recent study out of Penn State has revealed that political polarization may be at its all-time worst in America. There has always been some degree of disagreement on certain issues, but apparently we are now divided over things that historically we tended to agree on, that a middle ground is a thing of the past. The study has found that “If two people can’t agree on one issue, they’ve never been more likely to disagree on all issues.”[1]

So then…about that division, Jesus. I think we have that covered. No need for you to pile on.

And yet…at least he’s honest with us, right? At least Jesus is up front right here as his disciples really get started that sometimes following him will put us at odds with the world around us. Sometimes people will give Jesus’ followers a hard time because they feel compelled to say and do things that aren’t popular. To speak out against white supremacy, to proclaim it from the housetops and from the confederate monuments of Richmond, still causes division in our culture, even on the week we remembered the 2015 horrific massacre of the Emanuel 9 by a self-professed white supremacist. To speak critically about abortion or the meaning of religious freedom or immigration brings a divide for people of faith. Even when followers of Jesus may find answers to come easy on certain issues, there is rarely an easy path forward when it comes to putting them into practice. They risk ridicule and rejection.

But if we’re honest, we feel even in ourselves a division between ideas and opinions we used to hold dear, soapboxes we’ve preached from before, and new thoughts and considerations that lead us in a different direction. That is what is liable to happen, though, when we find ourselves bound to Jesus rather than bound to ideologies or agendas. Jesus always leads us further and further into love and service to our neighbor in a world that is always putting new ones in our path.

So, as much as it feels like Jesus’ words are a bit off the mark today because we’re needing to hear about unity and harmony, it’s helpful to be reminded about the reality of bearing a cross. Because, ultimately, Jesus means to free us. That’s the real division he comes to create with his sword. Jesus comes to divide us from the sin and brokenness that holds us back from being anything less than who God creates and redeems us to be. Jesus’ division isn’t just division for division’s sake, to get us riled up about culture wars or politics. It is really my self-centeredness and my arrogance and my sense of entitlement that Jesus needs to slice and slay out of me. It is really my need always to be right, my need always to speak rather than listen, my need to surround myself always with like-minded people, my need to prove my own worth that’s going to require a sword—not tweezers, not a scalpel—but a sharp and powerful sword to whack away. To have those kinds of things removed will really put us out of sync with the world around us.

Different deirection concept with arrow shaped crowd of businesspeople going in one direction and just one person walking away on blurry cityscape background

This is precisely what Paul is talking about to the Romans when he talks about baptism. There are parts of us that need to die, that need to be whacked away, as Jesus claims us for his kingdom. Instead of an image of the sword, however, Paul talks about burial and crucifixion. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Those happen to be the very first words spoken at most funerals and memorial services. As the pall, which represents the waters of baptism, is placed on the urn or coffin, we make it loud and clear at the beginning of our worship: Jesus’ sword has swung down and sliced the sin and death of our loved one away. Because of Jesus’ love, nothing within their life or around their life will hold them back from the kingdom of God.

One of my colleagues who serves a congregation in another state held his first in-person worship service this past week. They did it outside on a Wednesday evening, and they figured out a way to celebrate Holy Communion too. It was the first time since March he’d seen any of his parishioners in worship. They, like us, have been using pre-recorded worship services to reach people, which is, as you know, a bit artificial and disembodied. As convenient as it may be under these circumstances, it’s hard to know, from our perspective, if anyone is really tuning in. My colleague shared that as worship was finished this week and they were beginning to put chairs away, a man he’d never seen before, who had been sitting among the parishioners on the lawn, approached him with tears in his eyes, holding the baptism form from their website, and asked if he could get baptized. The man said it was time for him to get right with the Father. My friend said he broke physical distance just to hug the man and assure him it would happen. Jesus has made him right.

I’m sure there’s more to that story, but I believe my friend that day embraced a man who is joyfully aware that Jesus brings a sword, a sword that causes division from his dark and broken self. And he’s right. It is a sword that does set us at odds with our past, with the world we live in, as we stand up and bring to light what has been whispered in secret and told to us in the dark. It is a sword that causes us some pain as we may even let go of relationships that bring out the worst in us.

That man wanting baptism this week no doubt feels the release of all of that, but also will learn a new path of justice and peace and service stands ahead. A path of love and costly discipleship that eventually gets our master crucified. They destroy his body, his disciples scatter, and he lies broken in a borrowed tomb. Jesus himself feels all of the pain of the sword he brings. But in the midst of this suffering, in the midst of the division and hardship we should not be afraid, Jesus says, even the hairs of our heads are counted. He says it three times, in fact. Have no fear.

At least once a year, in the spring, I get an email or a text message or Facebook post from someone who has come across a baby bird and is afraid of what might happen to it. They come across it in their yard or maybe on their front porch, and there are few things that look as fragile and helpless as a baby bird. I don’t have a clue why people keep asking me bird questions. But, be that as it may, I try to assure them that it is an old wives’ tale that a bird will be abandoned by its mother or father if a human touches it. It’s probably not really abandoned at all, just momentarily flushed into the open. They should just pick it up and place it back in a bush.

This year, the baby bird experience happened to me. Or rather, to our son. We were in our own backyard playing and he came across a baby cardinal hopping along the ground in fright. Word has traveled fast even in nature to beware of him. But he was curious and careful and I scooped up the little guy and held it close for him to see and admire. It had the little cardinal mohawk already even though it couldn’t fly yet. And then the mother swooped down on us. My son keyed in immediately, felt a bit threatened by this angry bird and wanted to leave the scene. She was making a racquet and demanding we leave her little helpless baby alone. So we did. He and I stood to the side and, sure enough, she came in to shoo him into a bush for safety.

It wasn’t a baby cardinal, but a sparrow for Jesus, the cheapest form of meat in the ancient world, common and ordinary birds that were a dime a dozen, a defenseless little thing that could be scooped up or trapped rather easily. When trying to remind his disciples that the life of baptism might be tough-going at times but that they will be OK, Jesus reaches for the most vulnerable, most insignificant image he can find.

For there’s God, the mother bird who swoops down in power, who has this whole situation more under control than we could know. Don’t be afraid. Even in the midst of a fast changing and crazy divided world, God is the protector who is ready to take it all on to guard us and save us. That line from our first hymn says it so well: “This is my Father’s world, and let me not forget that, though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

We may be vulnerable, but we are not sparrows. Have no fear! Shout it from the mountaintops. We are children of the living God. Some of us are black lives that matter. We are disciples who are like the teacher, servants who are like the master, we are lives that have been declared valuable by the One God and Father of us all. “The Lord is king, let heaven ring; God reigns, let earth be glad!”

Thanks be to God!!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


[1] https://www.studyfinds.org/political-polarization-peaking-in-america-voters-embrace-all-or-nothing-mentality-along-party-lines/

Let Those with Ears

The way I figure
things were too fast before:
now we notice the song of each and every—
Amtrak, Norfolk, CSX,
Southern serves the South
ones even without names
graffitied and empty
rattling as they pause, sending
their vertebrae shocks
up
the
line
at nightfall
or whistling out in the afternoon
one mile away as the crow flies
(we notice them too)
over the houses and trees
the backyards and living rooms
with children derailed
from schoolsoccerdancedrama
now at long last
in one place long enough
to listen to the world
around them

Apostles’ Creed: First Article

Ms. Spainhour, first grade,
Bolton Elementary,
she wore lots of shiny rings
she’d say Hey kids
circle up on the floor
and then hold out a wooden globe—
The memory is too ancient
for me to know the lessons
or even her voice
But I do know when I sing
“He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands”
I see dark smooth coffee colored hands
cradling this creation,
the clicking and clicking
of bejeweled fingers
holding us all in the air
and this is most certainly
true.

“O Holy Trinity, What now?”

A sermon for The Holy Trinity [Year A]

Genesis 1:1–2:4a and Matthew 28:16-20

It’s something many know in their hearts, and something many more of us struggle to realize, but on this Holy Trinity Sunday, the Scriptures proclaim it loud and clear: From the very beginning up until whenever the end of the age comes, the work of God involves all people and involves all people on equal footing. From the first chapter of our creation story to the final commission of Jesus to his disciples, God’s vision for humankind makes no space for racial supremacy or segregation, and the abundance of his mercy is meant for all.

It happens to be an especially important message for the times we live in right now, as you know. And here we have yet another example of how the uncanny Holy Spirit plans timely messages through the tool of our lectionary readings and church year. For the past two weeks our nation has been embroiled in often violent but mostly peaceful protests following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died under arrest in Minneapolis. Our own governor has proposed the removal of one monument to the Confederacy that stands in our own city and our mayor has declared intention to remove the others. Debates about the effects of racism and inequality have already been raging for a while, and I suspect in our lovely city they may get more intense yet.

Laws may change and leaders may get removed from office, but today on Holy Trinity Sunday we contemplate that one thing that is eternal: God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And today God’s Word reminds us, with clarity that would be difficult to misunderstand: God makes humankind in God’s image and God unifies humankind in the same tasks and joys of prosperity. And as Jesus prepares his followers to carry on with his mission, he says, “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

Some are saying that we’ve been here as a country before and that things will simmer down and return to the ways they always were. Some are saying that maybe our collective wounds are open enough now that we that we can see the benefit of moving forward in new way of healing, whatever that is. No matter what happens, those who have been baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can confess the truth of our faith: God creates, redeems, and keeps all of humankind holy as a perfect outpouring of God’s own self. And those who have been claimed by the Risen Lord Jesus have been sent into the world as he would himself go: with love, with mercy, with an eye to those who feel marginalized. When Jesus says he will be with them to the end of the age, that means he is somehow going with them as they go to teach and baptize. We shouldn’t forget that. Jesus himself is there as we go, through the power of the Holy Spirit, leading, directing, and correcting.

A lot of times I think this passage from Matthew’s gospel only gets read as instructions for some grand-scale enterprise, like the church going into different foreign countries and fulfilling the Great Commission by building new churches, that it’s something missionaries do, out there on the frontier. That certainly is part of it, but making disciples of all nations and teaching them to obey Jesus’ commandments is something we do on an individual level, too, each and every day, on the frontier of each relationship. Undertaking Jesus’ mission seriously here means treating each person with respect and dignity, as a bearer of the divine image.

Speaking of being made in someone’s image, I am actually the proud owner of a coffee mug that someone made in my image. One of my friends in Pittsburgh was a very gifted potter and when I left the church I served there he made me this mug. It typically sits somewhere in my office. I’ve never used it because I’m afraid it might damage it somehow, or that it wouldn’t clean very easily, but I’ve also never used it because…look…that probably would freak people out. Makes me look a little vain. I am, however, seriously impressed with how great a likeness this thing is. This potter has talent. The eye color, the brooding eyebrows…he even got the slant of my nose correct.

a mug of my mug

In all seriousness, though, being made in God’s image isn’t like someone making a coffee mug or a statue or a portrait. It doesn’t mean that we physically resemble God. It means that unlike other parts of God’s creations, humans have been bestowed with qualities that are godlike. Our presence in creation should remind others of God, like God has taken a selfie and dropped it in among the rhododendron and the zebras. Color of skin or eyes and levels of ability or disability, slant of nose…they are just factors that give diversity to humankind. What bearing God’s likeness means is that, like God, we can choose between right and wrong. We can reason and contemplate and solve problems. We can create things ourselves. And we can love.

Something interesting here that needs to be pointed out: We may throw that phrase around an awful lot—being created in God’s image—but the understanding that all humans are little snapshots of God was and is revolutionary. We know that other ancient cultures who existed at the time of the Hebrews, tended to say that only their rulers bore the divine image. The king or queen of their land was the representative of God. Regular people, those outside the royal quarters, never bore that special designation.

By contrast, our faith from its beginning claimed a God who did not discriminate when stamping the divine qualities on humankind. No person walks this planet who is not a snapshot of God. Not one. Every member of the human family shares the label “very good.”

“The Creation of God” by Harmonia Rosales (a re-imagining of Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel)

The question is: What do you do with that? What do you do with that knowledge, that glorious label? That’s the main thrust of all of these stories and Scriptures. They give us great wisdom about the who and why of God and creation, but the next question they answer is “What now?” Do you take this all to heart for yourself, especially when you are feeling lowly and worthless? Do you extend that view to others, to your neighbor, to the person who has a different story from you?

Because when we do that, when we are cognizant of God’s image in us and in each other, we are making a statement about God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. We are making a statement about how the Holy Trinity is alive and active in the world today.

When we when we go into all nations and to all peoples with the same kind of humility and healing presence Jesus comes to us, then we are making a statement about a God who creates us, redeems us, and loves us to the end.

We are making a claim that God is a Father who loves his Son in the power of the Spirit that binds them together. Charles Octavius Boothe, a man born a slave in Alabama, who went on to become a pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, and one of the influential black theologians and workers for racial uplift in the time following Reconstruction, wrote a little book called Plain Theology for Plain People. It was his attempt to help a church membership who was slowly becoming more literate and therefore less dependent on interpretations of the Bible that had been influenced by white supremacy. At one point he describes the Holy Trinity a “happy, eternal, almighty, and glorious companionship!” That is, God contains within God’s self a community, even without us. The Creator’s love has spilled out into the world so that we all may be fruitful and multiply. That redeeming love has been lavished on the world with such force that it brings life out of death, and joy out of suffering. That love which can make all of us holy has been poured out with such grace that everyone will be part of that happy and glorious companionship.

In one of our new members’ classes a couple of years ago, one man shared that he had grown up in a small town in a northern state where almost everyone was the same race. As a child and a youth he had come to be proud and thankful that he had been created a white male because things seemed so easy for him and people like him. No one had intentionally taught him this; it was just a mindset that he developed over course of his childhood that was reinforced by what little he saw from the rest of the world. Then this man shared that when he left the town and began to have more life experiences, enter the military, travel the country, he met many of the kinds of people he used to be thankful he wasn’t—people of different races, different ethnic backgrounds, different economic levels—and he shared that he found them actually to be wonderful people. Friends. He said his feelings about his own worth didn’t change, but that God opened his eyes to the worth of others. He had to die a little to do so, had to give up some of his former viewpoints, let go of some safe feelings of superiority, but that seeing the beauty of the whole world and the value of its people was totally worth it.

This is an unbelievably kind and thoughtful man, and I was so thankful he shared that with us. I’m thankful because I think he was a wonderful example of the “What Now?” of faith and the “What now?” that the Triune God pushes us toward.

It seems we’ve got a lot of “What nows?” to answer, I believe. What now, people of Richmond, that you’ve been claimed by this great God who himself is a community of three in On who has invited you into his companionship? What now as we learn that God has given us the ability to explore and create the way the Father does?  What now as we wake up to our mission to love and forgive the way the Son does? What now as we grow in life and holiness the way the Spirit nudges us to?

And, most of all, what now?—as we remember that above all of the wild and tumultuous world, the building and the toppling of monuments to men and women until the end of the age, stands the authority of Jesus, crucified and risen, the authority of compassion and mercy and grace? What now? God made us just a little less than divine. Will the Trinity be glorified?

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you.

Amen.

The Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, VA, on June 5, 2020
photo by Jessica Hendricks

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Pentecost-iest Pentecost

A sermon for the Day of Pentecost [Year A]

Acts 2:1-21

“When the day of Pentecost had come,” goes our first reading from Acts, “they were all together in one place.”

Ouch. That hurts this year: “They were all together in one place.” And we…well, we aren’t at all. It’s like the Scriptures are rubbing our faces in it! The beginning of the church, the arrival of the Spirit of God which will enliven the faith of all people and bring Jesus’ ministry to life begins as a real, physical gathering.

“Where is everybody??”

This is significant. When the Holy Spirit makes its big entrance, it is not first to individuals with their Bibles laid out on kitchen tables or to people in their homes with their heads bowed in prayer but rather to a group of disciples gathered as one, breathing the same air, hearing the same words, bumping elbows and shaking hands in the same rooms.

It is hard for me to read this story—and really almost any story of God’s people in Scripture, but especially this one—and not be struck by the differences to our current time. For one, we’re watching this worship on a screen. It’s not even live.  I’m at home with my family on the couch in the weird position of watching myself deliver this sermon and trying not to cringe too much. For once I may actually get to leave and use the bathroom during my own sermon!

The governor of Virginia has declared in his Phases for reopening that houses of worship may gather physically according to certain restrictions, and yet many, including ours, are still assessing the risks of doing so. Nowhere in the Pentecost story does it explicitly mention what the church should do in a pandemic.

So hearing this story of the church’s beginning makes me miss so much about our physical gatherings when we’re all in one place. They have become the things I associate deeply with church nowadays.

I miss the crucifer leading us down the aisle and then turning so Joseph and I can bow before we go to our seats and trying to make sure we bow at the same time.

I miss Ms. Betsy perched at the end of a low wooden table holding court with a gaggle of two-year-olds.

I miss having my blood pressure read by Carla Schwertz or Carolyn Kronk and then hearing them say, “Wow, that’s pretty good considering it’s Sunday morning for you.”

I miss Dan Byerly getting there almost as early as I do and filling up the big coffee urn and then hearing it groan and gurgle as it gets ready like the rest of us.

I miss Gail Lyddane and Allison Worth hitting the high notes on some of the special hymns. I miss passing the peace with the Hammer family because they always sit close to the back where we’re getting ready to come down the aisle.

part of my church family

I miss the sun coming through the stained glass window at just the right angle during the 8:30 service so that the Sizemores, sitting on the opposite side of the church, have to squint through parts of the service.

I miss the acolyte and an acolyte parent in the sacristy furiously searching for a robe that will be the right length and then the click-click-click of the lighter not working right just before they go out.

I miss Matt Greenshields shouting “Thanks be to God” at the end of the dismissal.

I miss getting the church giggles and not being able to stop them. Oh, the church giggles! That might be one of the reasons why onlookers on that first Pentecost thought those first believers were filled with new wine.

Perhaps more than anything else, however, I miss the unique way each person approaches the communion rail and kneels or stands and sticks out their hand to receive the bread. This strange separation, this strange way of worshiping apart from one another, so unlike that first Pentecost, has dragged on much longer than any of us probably anticipated, and we’re not finished with it yet. We long to be gathered again in one place as the body of Christ and the vessel of God’s Holy Spirit that can move in and through us.

And yet, in some ways, this may be the Pentecost-iest Pentecost of our lifetimes. Our inability to gather because of the spread of a virus places us literally out in the world, which is precisely where God’s Holy Spirit first drives the first believers. They begin together, but then they separate. They start in one place, in Jerusalem, but within months, if not weeks, they are all over the place, in Judea, in Samaria, in Asia Minor and beyond. Fast forward several centuries and the believers are here, in the Piedmont of Virginia, setting up churches, starting ministries, and proclaiming through word and deed that the kingdom of heaven has come near.

And the believers begin as a microcosm of the known world at the time. That’s the meaning behind that laundry list of difficult Bible names that we hear in the Acts reading. Luke, the writer of Acts, is making sure his readers understand that the church, at its start, was a diverse, multi-racial and multicultural community. It may have been born from the unique story of Jesus’ people, the Hebrews, but the Spirit intends to gather and involve all of God’s people. The Elamites, the residents of Mesopotamia, residents of Egypt, and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene—these are all ways of saying that at its birth the church contained people of every skin color in the same room and there was no indication they viewed each other as anything other than equal—equal in God’s eyes, equal dwelling places in which God’s Spirit of freedom and life could reside and breathe.

Today we are reminded that those are our roots. As much as we may miss all the things about 1400 Horsepen Road and long for them to return, we should miss even more the things about that day of ours in Jerusalem when God’s Spirit was poured out upon all flesh, and the young men and women saw visions and the old men and women dreamed dreams. We should miss that legacy we were given that put all colors of people on an equal playing field, where God’s image was acknowledged to the same degree in each person. Our own city, of course, has complicated and sensitive issues surrounding race and culture and history that we need to confront. May the Spirit lead us through those conversations with humility to the image that God provides for the church.

Members of the church don’t need to be in the building to do that work. Quite frankly, that work might happen better when we are out of those walls, learning to lay our prejudices down and sometimes our sacred cows for the sake of the one who laid his down for us. As the words of our middle hymn this morning put it, “where deceit conceals injustice, kindle us to speak your truth!”

And that is the reason why fire is such a compelling image for the Holy Spirit, why fire is seen on that first day and as people told the story later they remembered the fire on people’s heads. We should take to heart that fire can rarely be controlled, especially in the ancient world before running water and fire engines. Fire, once loose, spreads and goes wherever it wants, wherever there is oxygen to inhale.

So it is with Christ’s church. No one can close the church because the church can’t be closed. No one needs to re-open the church because the church is always going to be open. And our ministry is and has always been essential because through the Spirit’s power we embody the crucified and risen Savior to the world, and that is the only life that is life. Our buildings may be temporarily unusable for worship, but the church itself is always on fire.

And this is not the first time the church has found itself in this situation, which is something I think we in our era have forgotten. Just several hundred yards from here is the site where Chimborazo Hospital stood. Built by slaves during the Civil War, Chimborazo went on to become the largest hospital in the world during its time, treating tens of thousands of soldiers.

Chimborazo Hospital, Richmond, VA

It was a cutting edge facility. But many hospitals up unto that point were in other buildings, including churches. Several churches in Richmond were converted to hospitals during the Civil War. And we could never count the number of church buildings in Europe or Africa or Asia that have temporarily halted worship so that the sick and wounded from wartime or plague could be treated.

When those times arose, the church did not understand itself to be closed. The church was just at work in a different, special way. And I’m not just playing with words here. When Jesus greets his disciples after his resurrection, he doesn’t say, “Go build a church building.” He says, “Forgive. Go forth with peace.” I see the church in a similar way in the current circumstances. I know that there are differing viewpoints as to the level of crisis this coronavirus may eventually be, but right now our church buildings are not unlike the hospitals of previous eras and our approach toward worship is not unlike worship during those other special times. The Spirit will gather us back, but for the time being we are the church being the church outside of the church building.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the account of Pentecost but never have the divided tongues of fire stood out to me so much. The sign of the Spirit’s presence that day was not in one large fire, or like the bush that Moses saw, but in individual flames. Each person had his or her own. The Greek word for “divided” here is “to be cut into many pieces” in the way that a butcher cuts meat. So from the beginning, the church is gathered together and meant to gather as one, but within that unity is a breaking apart. We are each a part of that glorious, creative fire of God’s love whether we are physically in one place or whether we’ve been divided up for the world to have. Like a loaf of pita bread, which starts as one on the altar, but then is broken into parts and handed out at the rail, the church is constantly being gathered up and then broken up for service.

icon of Pentecost

And this is when we’re broken up for service now—a little longer than we had hoped, perhaps, but no less bright. No less powerful. Putting on a facemask may control the spread of a virus, but it can’t do anything about the spread of the church, the movement of the gospel.

This is where I’m going to ask you to do something that may seem a little out of the ordinary, but go ahead and use the template we sent you, which is also downloadable from the front page of our website, and make your own divided tongue of fire handband. Get your children to make one.  You can either cut out construction paper or color the pattern we sent you. Once you have it made, put it on and take a selfie or have someone grab a photo of you out and about or even in the comfort of your living room, and post it on social media or send it to our church office and we’ll do it for you. Use the hashtag “churchneverclosed,” and let’s see those tongues of fire, divided, but yet united, throughout the region. And then, more importantly, may God give us the humility and courage to enter into the conversations about racism and privilege and unity that need to happen in our country and to work toward that first reality of the church, our family. Together let’s make sure the world knows that Pentecost 2020 may, in fact, be the Pentecost-iest Pentecost we have ever experienced. Who knows? We may even give someone a case of the church giggles.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Preparing Rooms

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter [Year A]

John 14:1-14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says,“believe in God, believe also in me.” My guess is that most of us have heard these words before while we’ve been standing at a gravesite or as a part of a funeral or memorial service for someone we loved. When our hearts are troubled, it is good to be reminded that Jesus recognizes our sadness and that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us in God’s eternal care. In my seventeen years of serving as a parish pastor, I can say that when families ask for a specific gospel text to be read at a funeral, this one is mentioned more than any other. It is such a good one. People find great comfort in these words of Jesus as they say farewell at death. I do too.

Graveside

As it happens, these are the words Jesus himself uses as he begins his own farewell to his disciples. It is the night before his crucifixion and he has gathered his closest followers. Judas has already left to betray him. Peter has already been informed by Jesus in front of everyone that Peter will deny Jesus three times before the rooster crows in the next day. Things are heavy and things are strange and things are somber. We can imagine there was a sense of dark unknown and looming disaster in the air that evening. And the first thing Jesus does is acknowledge their misgivings and their troubled hearts. His first words of good-bye are of hope, of comfort, focused on them and their fears. What he’s saying in this farewell talk is something like, “Yes, this is hard. Something really bad is about to happen. Your sense of looming disaster is not unfounded. It’s going to be horrific, and you probably aren’t going to know what to make of it. But God is nevertheless going to be with me. Trust me on this. God, our Father, will see us through and his glory will shine.”

It occurs to me that these are good words for Jesus to speak to us now. We may not be at a graveside or a funeral, but many of us are living with a sense of that dark unknown and maybe even looming disaster. People in authority give us information, but so much of it seems to be conflicting or incomplete and there doesn’t seem to be a good way forward, let alone a clear one. We wonder and worry about so many things related to this virus. Conspiracy theories are on the rise.

Into the midst of all this dark unknown Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Into the helplessness of not knowing what to do or whether our actions matter, Jesus says, “The one who believes in me will do the works that Jesus does and in fact even words that are even greater!” Into the blur of information Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.”

http://www.wga.hu/art/v/valentin/lastsupp.jpg
“Last Supper” (Valentin de Boulogne, 1625-26)

A lot of us are used to living our lives on our terms, on looking at big chunks of time, knowing—or assuming with a fair amount of accuracy what’s coming down the road. This virus has shortened all of our perspectives. Each day and each week is about all we can concentrate on. That is disorienting and troubling. And just as Jesus’ first disciples had to adjust to a change in plans for what kind of leader Jesus would be and how his kingdom would come about, so do we need to hear that God shows us the way. No matter what the phases of reopening bring, no matter what we discover about this virus, nothing will change the way, the truth, and the life that we have come to know in Jesus.

Jesus describes the next days in front of him, the days of his suffering and death on the cross, in terms of preparing rooms. You know, we at Epiphany know a bit about preparing rooms. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last year here with our construction, and for the two years before that as we dreamed and prayed about how God is calling us to new ministries and relationship-building. I’m standing in one of those new rooms right now, in fact. There are lots of new rooms! And refurbished ones! This is our administrative suite, where the staff will work.

commons

It takes a lot of work to prepare rooms, and it also takes time and certain skills. Members like Bill Hockman and Carole Alfriend and Linda Swartz have helped us figure out how to use space and furniture to make things welcoming and inviting. For most of the past week Stephanie Hamlett came in and volunteered her time to help pack up our church offices so that we would be ready to move into these new rooms this coming week. And our construction manager, Steve Collins, has spent incalculable hours on-site making things move along well. Everything looks so new and fresh, but behind these walls are hours of electrical work and HVAC duct work and security wiring and plumbing. And before that there were walls studs and a foundation. Within a month, all of the work will be done, we’ll hang a few pieces of art on the walls, and God will help us, at some point, welcome everyone back and new people into our community. And because we’ll have so much more space, both inside and out, and more rooms, we’ll be able to socially distance like we never before!

The dwelling places and rooms that Jesus talks about preparing for us are not physical spaces with walls and electrical outlets but a place within God’s love. He goes to create a spot for us within the relationship that Jesus shares with his Father. That’s what’s been so hard for the disciples to grasp but which they are coming to trust: God the Creator of all is present in a new and powerful way in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and knowing Jesus is the same as knowing God. And that’s not all. The Father and the Son have such a deep love for one another that eventually the whole world will find home within it. That’s preparing rooms.

At one funeral service of one of our members several years ago the son of the deceased gave a brief talk, and as he talked about his mother and what she was like he realized he had to talk about his father also, because the two of them loved each other so much. To know one was to know the other. He shared one of his fondest memories from growing up was when he and his siblings would come into the kitchen and happen upon their parents in an embrace in front of the sink or table. It was just a typical love of a married couple, perhaps he had just gotten home or work or they had just been talking and decided to share a hug and maybe a kiss. The kids, when they were young, thought it was gross or awkward so, being silly, they’d wedge themselves between their parents legs and try to push them apart. But instead of relinquishing, their parents would hug and kiss even more, and it became this playful, boisterous scene each time it happened, where mom and dad would try to get closer together with their embrace at the same time as all three children would squeeze within it, trying to spread them further and further. I love that image. I can imagine why that was a great memory for that son as he said goodbye to his mom.

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Jesus says, you can’t talk about me without talking about my Father. You can’t know my Father without knowing me. You get one of us, and you get the other. We’re that close, Jesus says, and the love and devotion we have for one another isn’t going to be just for my Father and me. It’s going to have space inside for all of you. Rooms upon rooms in this love. Let’s get another kid in here. The love that Jesus shows for his Father in offering himself on the cross and the love that the Father has in raising him up is the embrace that envelopes all of humankind no matter how hard we try to deny it or push it away.

You and I have room there. Our loved ones who have already died have room there. People who come to worship here at Epiphany and people who worship at other churches have room there in the love of God. In fact, there is room there for people who haven’t come to trust Jesus or God yet. That’s how large and amazing this love is, and how tight the Father’s embrace of his Son is. Nothing can tear them apart. They receive all.

So when Jesus says no one comes to the Father except through him he means that this outpouring love is the key to understanding how God functions, how God is experienced. Sometimes these words come across as sounding exclusive to us, but Jesus is not making an evangelism statement here. He is not making a comment about what other people of other faith traditions believe or what their ultimate destiny might be. Jesus is speaking to a group of followers who are already persecuted for trusting Jesus and who are about to witness God act in a completely new way and he wants to reassure them of his mission.

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We know that Jesus never shames people for not following him or believing him. Jesus never forces people to come to faith. Jesus never excludes anyone on account of who they are. His love is never forced on anyone or turned into an argument because it is built on self-giving. He is the way, and to take that way will involve offering one’s self for the sake of others. He is the truth, and he comes that we may know the heart of God is love. He is the life, and in the embrace of God we will always be alive, and now that death has even been embraced by Jesus on the cross, then we shall live forever in him.

It seems all our questions right now center on the way, the truth, and the life. We want to know the best way forward—how to open up, how to resume some sense of normalcy. We want to know the truth—the truth about coronavirus statistics, the truth about “what works” in terms of prevention. And we want to know what is life going to be like in the future. Those are great questions, and I don’t have any specific answers. But we do know that Christ has prepared a room for us, and that Jesus says we will do greater works than he did, and that if we ask for anything in his name, he will do it.

The best way forward, then, is to offer ourselves to our neighbors. The most reliable truth is given to us in Jesus’ words. And the life is found in trusting in God and sharing the gifts he’s given us. It is in squeezing more people into the wide rooms Jesus has prepared that are so numerous they could never be counted.

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Good Gate

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

John 10:1-10 and Acts 2:42-47

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says to his disciples, “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.”

 I am standing here by the new gate at our house, finished by some excellent handymen just last week. When we bought this house eleven years ago, a fence already enclosed the entire yard except for this section here and another one like it on the other side of the house. With a four-year-old who likes to go on many adventures, we decided it was time to keep him safe (and us sane) by finishing off the fence and making a gate that we could shut securely. Last Friday, when the last nail was driven in and the gate was ready to be tested, our son managed to find a way to climb up the back of the gate door, open it, and get out…while the construction workers were still here!! Needless to say, it was one of those moments where we all felt completely helpless. The workers eventually found a way to make sure the gate stayed fastened shut, but for a while there we were absolutely astounded at his abilities, and, considering Jesus’ words, a little concerned about our son’s future career path.

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What I’ve learned over the past week is just how tricky a gate actually is. I can’t tell you how many gates I’ve actually passed through in this life, but I can bet you I’ve taken every single one of them for granted, along with the work it has taken to build a good gate. I’ve learned a gate has to do two things and do both of them well. A gate has to let people or animals in and out. And a gate has to keep people or animals inside and safe. Really a gate just has to do those two things, and do to them there will need to be things like hinges and latches and level ground involved. It sounds basic, but these two things are actually difficult to get right, and a good, solid working gate is something to treasure. And being a good gate is hard work. It gets a lot of use. And a lot who pass through it probably take it for granted.

I believe these are precisely the things Jesus is talking about when he compares himself to a gate. He sees himself as that important combination—a person who can open up and lead people to abundant life and someone who can keep people safe and secure.

The kind of gate Jesus has in mind would have been readily accessible to the imaginations of his followers. He is talking about a gate of a sheepfold. In the morning, when the shepherd comes to take the sheep out to pasture, the gate of the fold needs to open easily. The sheep go out and find grass to eat and water to drink and exercise for their legs. Jesus calls this abundant life. When they’re in the fold, the sheep are still alive, of course, and could stay there for a while, but to live the way they were intended, to really flourish, they need to be out in the open, out where food is plentiful. That is abundant life, life in its fullest sense.

Of course, right now a lot of us are probably thinking: if I could just leave my house I would live life in its fullest sense! In a way, we’re waiting for the gatekeepers of public life to say, “Open up! Go be out in public again,” even though we know resuming some sense of normal pasture life will likely take a long time and different complicated phases and stages. Families and individuals look to these people in authority to offer guidance on sheltering at home and aspects of social distancing just as business owners wait for governments to give a pathway for greener pastures.

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But that’s not mainly Jesus is really talking about here. Jesus isn’t talking about the life afforded to us when we get to gather in large groups or go out to graze in restaurants. Life in its fullest sense is that life we experience in God’s kingdom, in each and every moment when God’s glory in Christ is revealed. There is something about Jesus’ relationship with us, whenever and wherever we are, that lets our hearts roam free to love, that lets our minds explore ideas, that lets our relationships with others develop and grow through forgiveness and reconciliation.

The grace of Jesus is a gate—it opens us up to faith when we encounter doubt and despair. The compassion of Jesus is a gate—it hinges on self-giving and empathy. The risen life of Jesus is a gate—it breaks open the great reality that there is more beyond this life. This is abundant life, and any good shepherd wants this for his sheep.

Last week in our Coffee and Doughnut Time one of our homebound members who is on complete shutdown in her living facility on the Southside logged on through Zoom and shared with us that one of our college students had sent her a letter and how much that had meant to her. And this woman also shared how nice it was to be able to worship with us on-line from the confines of her apartment. That was a taste of the abundant life—Jesus, the open gate, allowing the compassion and service of a college student to find her and make her feel part of our flock.

 

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And likewise, the gate sometimes must be shut. The gate keeps the sheep—the vulnerable, easily scattered sheep—safe from forces that would bring them harm. I think of ways that people’s faith have been helping them in this time when we all feel so vulnerable. Many of you have shared stories about how prayer and regular devotional time or meeting on Zoom with a Women’s Circle or a small group have helped give a sense of safety and solidarity with one another. Some families with young children have shared how they sit down at the dinner table each evening or the breakfast table each morning and watch video devotions together, and I bet for just a few minutes the crazy, dangerous world feels shut away. Or perhaps the crazy, dangerous world feels a little more understandable. That is Jesus, the gate, the one who with his words gives us life who keeps us sheltered and safe from those who would climb in and try to take us—things like anxiety and fear and loneliness.

A large part of being safe is being together, especially if you are a sheep. Safety is found in numbers, in being with the flock. We hear in Acts how at its infancy the church thrived on gathering as a body. Each of the four main things to which they devoted themselves were all community-based activities: fellowship, breaking bread, sharing prayer requests, and listening to the apostles’ teachings. Those still form the core of the church’s life today, and it is hard to do them in social isolation.

Safety—physical safety—isn’t in numbers now. For a while safety is in isolation, and so there is this tension in our faith. I can give thanks for the ways our digital communications are bringing us together but I am also in mourning because there are uniquely ways God shepherds us when we’re physically together that we’re not experiencing now.

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Regardless of our separation and the loneliness of little individualized pastures we’re grazing on now, the one who stands by the gate does call us by name. We are each known to the shepherd and as we go out and come in, as we venture into new and renewed relationships and as we find shelter from forces that would harm us, we are greeted and called by the God who knows our stories, knows our identities, knows who and whose we are.

This week I got to speak on the phone with George Allan, a member of our congregation who is still hospitalized with COVID-19, but who is improving. He was telling me about the night he was taken by ambulance to the hospital. He had fallen in the night and wasn’t able to get back on his feet. Alone and weak, he inched himself near to his Alexa device and said, “Alexa, call 9-1-1.” Alexa said, “George, I cannot call 9-1-1.” Apparently Alexa devices are prevented from making emergency calls. (I was not aware of that, but it’s good to know). So George said, “Alexa, call Steve.” Steve is George’s son, who lives in Oregon. Alexa said, “George, do you want me to call Steve’s home number or cell phone number?” George told him to call Steve’s cell phone number, Steve answered, and was able all the way from Oregon to get George the help he needed. Because Alexa knew the sound of George’s voice, and because Alexa was so near that George could call out and be heard, George was able to be helped. In fact, his life was probably saved.

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I’m glad to say George is able to laugh at it now, but that is like the relationship we have with our God, who stands by the gate and loves each of his sheep. And saves them. One by one he calls them, and they come to know his voice because they are near him and trust him. You see, at some point faith is more than knowing about God and is more about stepping into a relationship with God. It is about sharing the experiences of faith with other sheep of the sheepfold and figuring out ways the same God has been active in all our lives. This is how we learn the voice of the shepherd who saves us.

May you know his voice as you walk with him and talk with him under quarantine. May you rest in the confidence that on the cross, Jesus truly opens the gate to every bit of abundant life you need even in the valley of the shadow of death. The thieves and bandits have already killed and destroyed him. And all of us have taken him for granted, to some degree or another. But he has come back for us, risen and alive, to claim us and call us by name.

May you be safe—safe in the security of Jesus’ eternal words and within a love that will never let you go.

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.