A Better Freedom

a sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 8C]

Luke 9:51-62 and Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Christian writer and homelessness advocate Kevin Nye remarked on Twitter this week that in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) Jesus is asked a total of 187 questions. Nye says Jesus answers (maybe) eight of them, a fact which suggests that maybe faith isn’t about certainty, but learning to ask and sit in the complexity of good questions. I haven’t tried counting all the questions myself, but it is a credible estimate, especially when we consider that in Jesus’ Jewish religious tradition, the typical practice was to approach one question with another one right behind it (much like, I hear, a Supreme Court hears an argument).

As it happens, one of those eight questions that Jesus does answer occurs in this morning’s gospel text from Luke, and Jesus doesn’t appear to give any time for reflection and pondering. His own disciples, worried by the threats of the local Samaritans and frustrated by the Samaritans’ rejection of their message, ask Jesus point-blank, if they can ask God to rain down fire upon these half-breed, no-good people. It is a logical request, actually, and the disciples probably figured Jesus would approve, because their well-known ancestor Elijah had once done the same with his enemies. Bringing destruction upon those opposed to the mission of God’s prophets was not unheard of.

But Jesus doesn’t allow it at all. Without hesitation, without prevaricating, Jesus says, “No.” Interestingly enough, one ancient manuscript of Luke’s gospel inserts an additional line here. In that textual variant, Jesus says “No,” and then adds, as if to clarify, “for the Son of Man didn’t come to destroy souls, but to save them.”[1]

So there we have it: one of Jesus’ few direct, unambiguous answers, and it should make us at least stop and think about where Jesus would stand when it comes to any of our efforts of violence against our enemies and those groups of people we care less for. It should make us stop and think about forcing any religious viewpoint on a whole group of people, much less a whole nation, even when you are convinced Jesus is on your side.

Jesus and his disciples are in the land of the Samaritans in the first place because they are traveling to Jerusalem. Luke says that Jesus has “set his face to go there,” which is another way of saying that Jesus has programed Jerusalem into his GPS and it is going to take the quickest route, not necessarily the easiest. He needs to get to Jerusalem because that is where the power is and therefore where he needs to take the movement of justice and mercy and cleansing that he has begun in Galilee.

So often our journeys of faith don’t take the easiest route. Have you ever noticed that? In my experience, more often than not, following Jesus leads me down a complicated path through obstacles and into places outside my comfort zone where answers don’t seem to be cut-and-dry. Following Jesus usually involves the disorientation of new ideas and the awkwardness of having my mind changed and adjusting to new scenarios.

This isn’t the same as being wishy-washy. It’s the reality of ministry on the move, of seeing that Jesus does not come to put roots down in one place or one country or one culture or one set of laws but comes to free God’s people for one life. What is that one life? It is the life of compassion and forgiveness and love for the glory of God.

So we see that as Jesus travels he doesn’t just encounter stubborn Samaritans. He comes across these other people who want to fall in line with him, and his responses to them may seem grumpy to us, but they indicate that this one life he calls us to does cause a break from some of the other commitments that bind or distract us.

It’s interesting that he uses foxes and birds in his analogy, because we happen to have both right here on our church property. I’ve never given much thought, to be honest, to a fox’s hole until we realized we had a fox last summer underneath the ark toy in our pre-school playground. I saw him go under there one hot summer day and we called animal control to help us remove him before the children began school that fall. As it turns out, removing a fox from his hole is really difficult. The expert set a trap, but that proved unsuccessful. The animal control officer said we could call in a professional exterminator, but that they, too, would probably not be able to remove him. Evidently foxes really like their homes.

And as for birds, I think we have all been impressed somewhere along the way at how un-picky they can be about where they build their nests. The women of the Sleepy Hollow Garden Club included a bluebird house in their new natural habitat garden that they planted for the congregation on the other side of the parking lot. Within two days a pair of bluebirds had already moved in. But it appears they built a dummy nest with no intention of raising chicks there, which many bird species do every year. They build one and, if it doesn’t feel right, they choose somewhere else.

By using these two animals for comparison, Jesus shows just how transient and fast moving this mission of his one life can be. Foxes choose specific, hard to reach homes that they defend fiercely. Birds show up and, without much obvious discernment, build quickly, and then abandon it once the babies are raised. How often do we cling to our ways like a foxhole, refusing to budge or change strategies even when presented with something new? And how often do we rush to establish something permanent only to abandon or discard it once we’re ready for something new.

How do these scenarios inform a congregation that is trying to figure out a ministry plan after a two year pandemic? Do we wait for people to return and restart what we used to do in the ways we used to do them? Or do we just move forward with new ministries and vision and if you’re here with us, then great! It’s hard to know the right answer, but we do know the Son of Man doesn’t lay down his head anywhere. That is, he tends to be moving onward. With his love to save all people and not to destroy them he is moving onward. He is, in a word, free.

And he calls us to this freedom with him. Jesus calls us from our foxholes and our comfortable birdnests to respond to this freedom and claim it. It breaks us free even of certain traditions and responsibilities that we often idolize.

Another person on the road who hears the call of that one life is told by Jesus to leave funeral obligations for the family patriarch and go announce God’s kingdom instead. Another person wants to tie up loose ends, have a good farewell with people back in her village. That’s an honorable request, really. Jesus suggests there is not even time for that.

Any excuse, I imagine, could be offered for delaying the call to be Christ’s people in the world, to put off embodying God’s love here and now and Jesus would probably not allow it. There are people who need to hear that Christ has set us free, that his love on the cross has named and claimed all people as God’s beloved children. There are people who need to know the good news that Christ’s sacrifice has opened us to a life where fruits of the spirit are always in season.

I wonder if, amid all our talk about American freedom and what the Constitution says or doesn’t say, amid all our arguing about our freedom to bear arms or our freedom to say whatever we want we can forget that Jesus actually calls us to a greater freedom. This freedom—Jesus’ freedom—is the freedom that releases us from having to prove ourselves to God and releases us from the trap of living for ourselves and instead is a freedom that binds us to our neighbor.

It’s freedom that makes us a slave, and that’s a bit of an oxymoron when you hear it. For the apostle Paul, though, it is very obvious. Because of Jesus, we are no longer slaves to God’s law, which is the notion that God has some ideal for us to attain and if we’re just good enough at following God’s rules and doing what we’re supposed to, we’ll be in the clear. Christ on the cross set us free from all that. Now he sets us firmly at the needs of the people around us, a slave to them, free to stop worrying about ourselves and our rights in so many ways and free to care for those around us.

This is why Jesus tells his disciples so clearly that they can’t rain down fire on the Samaritans. Surely they could do it, and are able, and they may even have the right. They could go register for the AR-15 and pass the background check, comply with the waiting period and then walk through Samaria with the thing cocked and loaded, but that’s not the freedom that Jesus calls them to. This is not a military march, you see, but the road to Jerusalem, where life is laid down for the freedom of God’s good kingdom. It is movement of a strange kind of freedom and moving forward in a kingdom where the path is always service to those who need it and the goal is abundant life for all.

The challenge with Supreme Court rulings and other legislation is often that we get an answer or a verdict even when we might rather sit in the complexity of good questions. Some people of faith are rejoicing this week while other people of faith are in a state of despair or anger. Some people of faith are mortified by what the January 6 hearings are revealing about the previous administration and others in power, while some people of faith are convinced it is nothing more than a partisan show. Our political positions have become foxholes from which we dare not budge. Even so, Jesus’ hand is on the plow and he will move on and leave the dead to bury their dead, and we can assume he might mean any one of us.

What if, instead of attitudes of defeat or victory about whatever political issue we instead remember Jesus has called us to this strange freedom? What if, after glancing at the flag and Constitution and giving thanks, we remember to walk by the font and recall the covenant that claimed us there? What if, in the midst of all the pompous talk of American freedom we can remember that on the cross Christ has given us a better one—that Christ has actually bound us to each other and freed us to take care of all neighbors, especially those who will be most affected by these decisions.

And with the Spirit’s power, then, we will walk through the land with open hearts and ears, not waiting for God to reign down fire but as the strange liberating presence of love, and joy, and peace, and patience, and kindness, and generosity, and faithfulness, and gentleness. Ah yes…gentleness. (Gentleness, anyone?) And self-control. That is the one life Jesus calls us to.

It is the only one worth living.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


[1] The Gospel of Luke: Sacra Pagina. Luke Timothy Johnson. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN 1991

God’s Nametag

a sermon for The Holy Trinity [Year C]

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, and John 16:12-15

As many of you all know, about two months ago our Evangelical Outreach Team finished making nametags for everyone in the congregation so that we could wear them when we worship and gather. Lots of congregations have nametags, and we’ve used paper ones from time to time, but the team felt it would be helpful for us to have official nametags as we reacquaint ourselves with each other as the COVID pandemic subsides. It was a formidable task, because we have close to 1000 people on our books, and the team didn’t want to leave anyone out.

What I appreciated most about this project was out conscientious they were in getting everyone’s name exactly right. When I got my nametag, not only was I thankful that my name hadn’t been shortened to Phil, which happens quite often, but both Ls were in there, and they’d also included my suffix with the comma! No one can wear this nametag correctly but me, even if another Phillip Martin walks in here some day, including my father! It’s a very specific nametag that helps people know me. Funny enough, another person who has the junior suffix, Frank McCollough, had his first nametag incorrectly printed as “JR McCollough.” They printed him a new one.

This Sunday in the church year is basically meant to be God’s name tag Sunday. We call God by name every Sunday, of course, and the name is not ever a secret but today, on the Sunday of the Holy Trinity, we take intentional time to give thanks that God has given us his name and remember that it is good to be conscientious with it: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is good to be conscientious with God’s name because it is connected to God’s unique story and it is a story of deep love for us. God has commanded that we not take God’s name in vain, which means talking about our God with respect and as much clarity as we can will inevitably help others understand that deep love too.

When we come to experience that love we arrive at the conclusion that God is a Trinity—God is one and God is three all at the same time. God reveals that identity to us in Holy Scripture, and we see examples of it from Genesis all the way to Revelation. Sometimes God is referred to as Father, sometimes God speaks to us directly as his Son and at other times we hear that God is Spirit. Precisely how these three persons relate to each other is never spelled out neatly and in an organized fashion in the Bible, but it is there nonetheless. In fact, explaining how Father, Son, and Spirit are yet one God is something big church nametag committees of previous centuries hammered out. We called them Councils, funny enough (Nicaea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, to name a few), and they gave us things like the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed to help us articulate the Holy Trinity.

Over the years people have tried to come up with analogies to describe the Trinity and make it easier to understand. Some of these analogies have been helpful, to a certain degree, but all of them eventually fail in some way because God’s nature is something we’ll never fully grasp. This name of God we use doesn’t say absolutely everything we can ever know about God, but it is enough for us to base our faith on. The fact is this: God’s identity is about nothing more and nothing less than the rich love that the Father and the Son have for each other in the bond of the Spirit. This love between then is so powerful and gracious that it eventually draws us in, too. Since it is the Sunday of the Holy Trinity, I thought it might be helpful to focus briefly on three things about God as a love-based Trinity that arise out of this set of texts today.

The first is that God is the source of all things. All things come into being through God, whether they are things we can see with our eyes, like puppies, or things we “see” with our heart, like joy. They all must have a source, and that source is God. I think we’ve all had the experience at some point of just sheer wonder at the world that surrounds us. That was the point of that hymn we just sang, the one that names all the different kinds of animals.

There was one father on the camping trip last weekend who had to get up in the middle of the night and make the trek to the bathhouse. He said that once his eyes adjusted to the darkness he looked up and there above him were uncountable stars. It just made him stop and stare. This happens to be a gentleman who has his own telescope and knows quite a bit about space and he still hasn’t lost that wonder of how immense it all looks.

We don’t get that particular opportunity very often in a time and place with so much light pollution, but the night sky is always a mind-boggling way to think about the vastness of creation and the grandeur of everything around us. Voices of the Bible reference it all the time in the same way, like this writer of Proverbs who looks at the heavens roughly about 2500 years before the concept of relativity and light years come onto the scene and he almost instinctively understands he is looking back in time to the very beginning of creation. Woven into all of this universe is a wisdom that makes it all work together. In his wisdom, God creates this all—time, space, stars, this planet, all the ways in which we make a living from the earth, human community, the shoes on our feet and wine and bread on this altar. All of it comes from a God who wants to provide things for his creatures. All of it comes from a Creator who weaves it together with a purpose we often miss. All of it for us to enjoy and marvel and steward as God’s representatives. So, first thing: God is the source of all things.

The second thing: this God, who is the source of all, comes near to us. That is a crazy thought, but the Holy Trinity says it’s true. God has created all of this—the stars in the heavens, the unfathomable diversity of this earth, and still finds humans something special. The writer of today’s Psalm says, “I look at the heavens, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, who are human beings that you should care for them?” I think at some point we have all been made aware of our smallness. We have grappled in some way with our limits as humans. We may be small in the grand scheme of things, but to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we are not insignificant. God comes to dwell with us, and doesn’t just stop there—God comes so be so near to us that he becomes one of us.

And this is all the more wonderful considering what a mess we make of everything. And that goes beyond pollution and climate change and littering. We’re quite unlovable in a lot a of ways. We make a mess of each other and our relationships because of our sinfulness and self-centeredness and all the ways in which we deny the image of God in one another. And in spite of all of this, human beings matter so much to God that Jesus even says that everything the Father has given him Jesus will give to us.

And that brings us to the third thing: God’s love lives through us. It doesn’t stay distant in the heavens, or in books, like a theory. Because of God’s Holy Spirit, all of the love that the Father has poured into his Son has been poured into us to know and share. Our relationships with God will deepen as we live in that love, and we come to know God better the more we love.

One of my good friends recently lost his father to a long battle with cancer. My friend is an only child and was really close to his dad and the loss has been really hard for him. He texted me a photo the other day of what turned out to be his father’s final minutes. He snapped the photo as he was sitting in his chair by the hospital bed because his mother and father looked right then. She was exhausted, having kept vigil for days and nights as he slowly succumbed. She had wadded up his dad’s Snoopy PJs that he didn’t need anymore and had placed them on his father’s body as a pillow. Even though she needed to rest and take a break, even though her energy was giving out, she couldn’t bear to leave her husband. There was a bond there that could not be broken, even as death closed in.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul says that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us. When I saw that photo and heard the story behind it, I thought of the kind of love that God pours out for us. I thought of Jesus, doing whatever he can for us to make sure that bond is never broken.

I would venture to say that you have experienced this kind of sacrificial love in your own life, the kind of love that does not turn away, the kind of love that is so strong it can take a situation of suffering and make it produce endurance. And then the endurance creates character, and character produces hope, and is a hope of things that will be that does not let us down. Hope: one of those unseeable gifts that God has created for us. Formidable stuff. God pours that transforming love into our hearts so that we can pour it out in the world, so that we can boldly go to where there is suffering and fold up the PJs, so to speak, to stay there and be hope. God’s love lives through us.

To say it differently, we get to wear God’s name tag when we go forth from here. In our baptism this Triune God has claimed us—that is, the God who has created all that is, the God who draws near to humans in all their messiness, the God whose love lives through us.  This God sends us out with that name on our foreheads in the shape of love as we know it best: the cross.

We’ve planned next Sunday to be “nametag” Sunday here. We’ll do it once a month. Check to see if you have one already. However, every day is a chance to bear God’s name. Each day God strengthens us to bear his name so that all may come to know this God who is Father, Son, and Spirit and who has given all for the life of this creation.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Put Your Face out of the Window

a sermon for Day of Pentecost [Year C]

John 14:8-17 [25-27] and Acts 2:1-21

When we were children, my parents did not let us chew gum very often and so it was a bit of an illicit treasure if we ever got our hands on any. One time on a particularly long road trip when I think my parents were happy to let my sister and me be entertained on our own in the back seat my sister and I got a pack of bubble gum and had fun blowing bubbles and popping them. We had to be discreet with it, of course, lest things get out of hand and the ban on gum be reinforced.

As it always does, the bubble gum eventually lost its flavor and its tenderness and I wanted to get rid of the tough wad in my mouth. Figuring that a discarded piece of bubble gum left in the car somewhere would end up somewhere it shouldn’t, I decided to roll down the window and spit it out at 65 miles per hour. So I did, with all the force I could muster. I stuck my face out as far as I felt comfortable and—p-tooey!—I launched it. It wasn’t until the next time we stopped at a rest area that my mother looked at me and saw that the gum had not gone far. It was lodged like cement in the hair on the top of my head. To get it out we first tried ice but then we ended up having to stop at a grocery store and get peanut butter to massage it out of my hair. It was messy. I was embarrassed. And it was my first personal lesson that wind is unpredictable and in certain circumstances can make us feel like a fool.

It was a lesson that has born out repeatedly throughout my life, including even last weekend when a large group of us were gathered for a wedding rehearsal dinner in a fancy dining room. A tornado touched down nearby, forcing us all into the basement of the country club. There we were: a bunch of relative strangers in dressy clothes (and some in golf clothes) huddled randomly through nervous chatter in close proximity as we waited it out.

Wind is unpredictable. That is the experience of the disciples gathered together in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. I’ve often wondered: did a violent wind actually rush through the room where they were hanging out, or is it just how they remembered it? Was whatever they experienced so suddenly wind-like that they used it to describe their experience as the Spirit of God is poured out upon them?

It was unpredictable. They hadn’t known this would occur. They were just in one place in order to celebrate the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot was the yearly festival that marked the historic moment when Moses received the Torah, or the stone tablets of God’s law, on Mount Sinai. It was used as a kind of harvest festival because typically wheat was planted around Passover and it was ready for harvest about seven weeks later.

But like wind that blows wherever it wants, God’s Spirit had other plans. That day they were going to receive a new kind of law that would be written on their hearts. And instead of celebrating a harvest of agricultural goods, they would be seen as workers in God’s harvest of all creation where people of all kinds and all nationalities and all languages would be gathered into one kingdom.

The whole event is a bit embarrassing and humbling. Not only do people who witness this event from the outside and see their behavior think that the disciples are drunk, but they themselves aren’t sure what is going on. They can understand one another even though they know they all come all over the known world.

We speak of the church as a body—the body of Christ. It’s like on Pentecost we get our body’s first results from a “23 and Me” test, those tests that take a bit of a person’s DNA and determine what their genetic background really is. The church body’s “23 and me” results show  that the body of Christ has a bit of everyone in us. Of course, we have some Parthians and Medes and Elamites in us. At some point. But we also have some Germans and Danes in us. And also some Chinese and Armenian and Tanzanian and Papua New Guinean. And also some American. The community of Jesus that is born on Pentecost with the unpredictable movement of the Holy Spirit that acts like wind blowing where we never can predict includes a bit of every kind of people on earth. Therefore the Christian faith doesn’t belong to one country or one denomination or one congregation but to all of humanity. God pours his Spirit upon all kinds, making us all heirs, as Paul says, of God, members of the same household..

This kind of unpredictability can be embarrassing. It can be embarrassing for us, for example, when we think we can control the movements of God or when we think we alone have all the right answers about faith. This unpredictability is frustrating for the church, for example, when we think we should praise God with the old hymns of our youth, written in the style we are familiar with. And also when we think we should phase those golden oldies out, that there’s no way the Spirit can use them today.

This habit of the Holy Spirit is extremely frustrating to those who think only true Christians are Republican or only true Christians vote Democratic, or that the main purpose of Christian faith at all is to hitch our faith to politics. The Spirit gathers us all and teaches us the words of Jesus and the ways of the Father, since the two of them are one. Do we realize, in a time of increasing political polarization, how critical this work of the Holy Spirit is? From what I understand—and I could be wrong—people are often more likely to change their church membership based on what their political beliefs dictate rather that change their political party based on what their faith teaches. The Holy Spirit helps tear down all the silos and echo chambers we create.

Lastly, the unpredictable nature of the Spirit is humbling to anyone who tries to keep people outside of the faith or deny them full inclusion based on their gender or their race or their sexuality. From the beginning God’s Spirit is all about reaching and lifting up those who are marginalized by the world. Immigrants, women, those of differing sexual identity like the Ethiopian eunuch that Philip baptizes in Acts chapter 8—these are all some of the first people in the church’s family, the people who built the faith and handed it on to us. The Holy Spirit reminds us that if we think we can keep our Christian faith discreet or control where it goes or restrict it to certain people then it will come flying back at us and make a mess like bubble gum in the hair.

Another important and interesting thing about wind is that we can’t see it but we can be aware of its presence because of the things it does. We can’t see the air that blows through a windmill but we can see the blades move around in a circle. We can’t see the wind that fills the sail, but we can tell its there because the boat takes us further out to see. This is the same with God’s Spirit. Even though Jesus had ascended to the Father the disciples would eventually be able to tell that Jesus was still with them, and they would figure out they were encountering Jesus in the world because they would be able to do the things he does. And they would see other people doing things that Jesus would do.

This is how the Holy Spirit works—it comes among us and yet we can’t see it like the disciples could physically see Jesus, but lo and behold we see people affected by him. We feel compelled to feed the hungry through our own service and we collect food for them and distribute it, setting up permanent food pantries, if need be. We feel compelled to pray for the people who are suffering from war and displacement and so we gather supplies together and send them off. We don’t know these people. They aren’t members of our families or our personal close networks. We may never even really meet them, but we feel Jesus move us toward them with compassion and mercy. This is the work of the Holy Spirit among us, giving us not a spirit of fear, but that spirit of adoption to see all people as beloved by God, even ourselves.

I can imagine that Jesus’ disciples would have been shocked to hear that they would do greater works than Jesus did. I’m shocked to hear that. Jesus fed 5000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. He cured a man of blindness and raised Lazarus from the dead. What could we do that is greater than that?

Just in the years following Pentecost, the church expanded and fed far more than 5000. We hear that deacons were set aside right away to see to it that orphans and widows, especially.

In the next few centuries the church would invent hospitals and build them in different cities, and right this very minute in health clinics and hospitals across the world help people regain their health and walk out of the tombs of illness.

Previous to the gospel, death was greeted with shame, and those who were dying often cast aside (unless they were in the upper 0.01%). But moved by their faith in Jesus’ own suffering and his bodily triumph over the grave, early Christians would sit by the dying, offering prayers and comfort. And, when their patients died, they would offer a burial of dignity and respect, even when they didn’t personally know them.

These were all new traditions to the human community, new gestures of dignity and compassion that often went against the prevailing customs and beliefs of the time. They came about through the work of God’s Spirit dwelling in his people and leading them to be Christ’s body. Greater things that Jesus did while he was with his disciples.

We can’t see God, but we know of God’s presence with us and in the world because we see things happening that Jesus would have done. And, in fact, he is doing them. Through the power of his Spirit given right now, Jesus is still accomplishing them through you and to me. He promised he would give us what we need when we undertake things that line up with his mission.

So let’s stick our faces out of the window, especially as we work rebuild our ministries after this pandemic. Stick our faces out of the window, and feel the rush of air on our face and be prepared. Be prepared to let it take us where it does and be a part of God’s unpredictable force of love and forgiveness in the world.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Whenever a Door Closes…

a sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter [Year C]

Acts 16:9-15 and John 14:23-29

In my office I have a small blanket—more like a throw for a sofa or chair—that was given to me by a member of the first congregation I served. Woven into its pattern is a picture of a big window surrounded by a bunch of rose blossoms and at the bottom is a quote that you have probably heard before: “Whenever God closes a door he always opens a window.” Confirmands each year are asked to pick a Scripture verse that means something to them and their faith, but I notice that no one ever picks that one: “Whenever God closes a door he always opens a window.”

Well, that’s because—you probably guessed it—it never appears in Scripture! Plenty of people think it does, and we do find several examples of that sentiment in Scripture, I suppose, but those exact words are never found anywhere. In fact, I think more correct version of this beloved quote on the blanket would be, “Whenever a door closes, God opens a tomb.” Because the life of faith is not so much about new possibilities as it is about new life. God’s relationship with us is not just about opening windows but rolling away stones. It is not just about turning corners and trying harder but about God raising up new life where we least expect it. As the confirmands stand up to profess their faith today, I hope they can hang on to that idea—that God brings new life—always—even when life hands us a Good Friday.

The reason why I bring this up is that this morning’s lesson from Acts is a prime example of God creating new life and opening windows when a door closes. The church in this story is still young. We find some of the earliest apostles, Paul and his comrades Timothy and Silas, working their way through cities and regions in present-day Turkey. They’ve traveled through several places there, preaching the message of Jesus, but they’ve kind of reached a dead end. We find out just before our episode today that the apostles want to go into a place called Bithynia, but they are prevented by the Spirit of Jesus. It’s unclear to us what exactly that means, but suffice it to say they feel that a door has been closed to them. They are kind of stuck, re-routed back to a place called Troas, and they may even be wondering if this is the end of the road or whether they’ll have to backtrack somehow.

But then something interesting happens. Paul has a vision during the night that tells him to leave and go into Macedonia.

Some basic geography is helpful here. Macedonia is across the Aegean Sea from where they are. That means it is in Europe, a completely different continent. Up until now the Christian movement had been something happening in Asia, in the areas around Jerusalem and Israel and modern-day Syria and Turkey. It would be like sitting in Henrico County, having plans to head north to pick some tomatoes in Hanover County or Caroline County and then someone saying, “Pick up your things and go to Venezuela.” For Paul to hear a vision tell him to go to Europe must have been a shock. That’s a whole new culture and new geography, a different part of the Roman Empire with different customs and languages. It was going to involve getting in a boat and learning the lay of a new land.

And then when we hear that Paul arrives in Philippi, a city bustling with commerce and politics, there are more surprises. Nothing happens right away, but eventually they begin conversations with a group of women who were gathered just outside of the town. A particular woman named Lydia starts to listen to Paul and his companions. As it turns out, Lydia is kind of an influential and well-connected person. Furthermore, she is probably not Jewish. She is likely Gentile, a Greek by culture, who is involved in the trade of purple cloth. The purple cloth trade in ancient times was only for the wealthy. Purple dye, the most difficult of all colors to procure, was obtained by crushing the shells of a particular species of mollusk found in a certain area of the Mediterranean Sea. Those who controlled the trade of those mollusks were the ones who could dye fabric and sell it to the royal courts who needed it for robes and cloaks. After listening to Paul and his companions, Lydia ends up becoming a Christ-follower and getting her whole household baptized.

So, see?  Whenever a door is closed, God opens a tomb. The message of hope and new life in Jesus comes to Europe and the first person who receives it  is a person with power and influence. Here, in a new foreign culture, God first trusts a woman to hear a message and make a choice with what to do with it. As the story of Acts continues, Lydia is seen as one of the most giving and generous of believers. In fact, she lets her house be used for worship services and as a wayfaring station for missionaries and we can be pretty certain that the congregation in Philippi was built on her conversion and from her resources. Two of our confirmands, J.T. and Ryan Mertz, selected Scripture verses from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We can thank Lydia and her household, in some way, for that.

Paul and Lydia meet in Philippi

It is my hunch that Paul and Silas would never have initially guessed that they would so soon be called to a new continent. And that they’d have such success! But that’s how the Holy Spirit works. The Holy Spirit pulls together a community of people that otherwise would have no cause to be together doing things they, by themselves, could not do.

We hear Jesus tell his own disciples these kinds of things the night before he is handed over to the authorities and put on trial and crucified. They are gathered in a room together and he has celebrated the Passover meal with them and washed their feet. I can imagine that their anxiety would be through the roof. Judas Iscariot has gone off to betray Jesus. Things don’t seem to be going well at all. They probably can’t explain all the details, but it certainly seems like a huge door is about to be slammed shut—slammed shut on their mission as disciples, slammed shut on their hope for a new regime in Jerusalem, slammed shut on their fledgling community.

But Jesus explains in very loving and calming words that the Father in heaven will be sending them the Holy Spirit to lead them and teach them. They don’t know what’s coming next, and they never really will.

At some point or another, most of us find that is one of the most frustrating aspects of life. We just don’t know what is going to happen in the future. It can be exhilarating, but it can also produce anxiety. It is tempting to believe that there is a specific precise plan out there that God has charted out for us that we just have to figure out. The Christian writer Donald Miller says that when a lot of people think about God’s plan for their lives they tend to think of a road map that has clear signs showing them where to turn left or turn right. Which major in college should I choose? Which career am I made for?

But even in Scripture are people’s lives and missions rarely laid out in such a detailed way. Donald Miller says that it’s better to think of God’s plan not like a map but more like a blank coloring book where God gives us certain crayons and says, “Start drawing.” The different crayons are our gifts and skills, and we may mess up, but there’s always more room to draw and experiment, and things may go any which way at any given time.

And into the midst of the anxiety that closed doors and unknown futures gives us, just like on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus promises God will still be with us.

Jesus promises the Advocate

The Spirit of God will be guiding and leading as we explore the possibilities of life and faith, coloring as we go. Jesus uses an interesting word for God’s Spirit. He calls the Spirit the Advocate. An advocate is someone who can speak for you and knows what your best interests really are. Jesus promises that even though we’ll occasionally feel alone or frustrated, God will be coming along to open windows or open tombs in order to bring our best interests forward. And so Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid. There is no reason to fear when God has your best interests at heart.

He also tells his disciples that we don’t know everything yet. As time moves on, as life moves on, they will learn more about faith and about God’s grace. It is a journey, a relationship, and the Spirit comes to reveal more and more to us about who Jesus is and why he matters to us. We don’t ever have it “all figured out,” so to speak—not even about our own faith.

As he departs Jesus also reminds his followers that he doesn’t give as the world gives. The world, we learn, will always give us what we’ve essentially deserved, and a lot of times less than what we’ve deserved. The world works on giving people what they earn, or by what they’ve got on their resume, or what comes to you by virtue of our skin color or where we were born. Jesus does not give like that. Jesus will give his grace and his mercy simply because Jesus loves you. Jesus gives his encouragement and his attention just because that is what he came to do. That’s what he’s here for.

The other evening the confirmands were all here and we were running through the worship service and where they would be standing and the parts they would be responsible for speaking. I explained to them that they’d be speaking the Apostles’ Creed all together, but they would have one line to say by themselves out loud. That line is “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.” They all went around the line and practiced saying the line. But one of them—I won’t tell you who it was—messed up that one line. Instead that one said, “I do, and I ask God to help and find me.”

As you might imagine, there was some snickering and some ribbing of this young person. And he blushed and wanted a re-do. But I got to thinking later that, in way, his mistake was a better response, especially as we prepare to send them all out into the world at some point. An Advocate doesn’t just speak for people, and advocate is someone looking out for you. An Advocate is someone who can find you when you’re looking for the next open window. Jesus himself compares himself often to a shepherd who seeks after every sheep.

So, yes, may God help and find you. That’s the peace Jesus leaves with you today. May God the Spirit always find you.  Like he found Lydia in Philippi and Paul in Troas. Wherever you are. All of you.  And all of us. Over and over again,

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr. 

A meeting of Deniers Anonymous

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

John 21:1-19 and Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]

“After he appeared to his followers in Jerusalem, Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.”

And so begins one of the few accounts we have of Jesus after his resurrection. We don’t have a whole lot of these particular stories, which has often been a bit of a downer. Mark, with its original ending, doesn’t really have any stories of the risen Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus gives a very short message to his disciples, and then it ends. Luke and John both have a bit more with the resurrected Jesus, including this story today, but even their stories paint a picture of Jesus that is constantly appearing and reappearing to them out of nowhere, almost like most of the time he’s off doing something somewhere else on his own. You would think that if someone rose from the dead for the first time ever, we might get more stories of what that person was like and what he did. But, as it happens, Jesus was only around for 40 days after his resurrection, according to Luke, and so I guess we should be grateful for the half of dozen or so that we do have.

And based on this one that John includes, we come to learn that the stories we have are plenty. Like the fish that the disciples don’t expect to catch that just keep coming up out of the sea and into the boat, the messages about Jesus and who he is for us seem skimpy at first but end up becoming a load that will feed us from now until he returns. Like the meager meal that once ended up feeding five thousand by the lake, these few stories will miraculously provide more than enough for us as we continue as his disciples.

The first thing we learn about Jesus after the resurrection is, simply enough, that he eats. The other day there was a crane fly in our bathroom and our son wanted to catch it and keep it as a pet. So we managed to get it into a bug keeper and then we figured we’d better find something for it to eat. Melinda and I thought crane flies preyed on mosquitos, and I wasn’t particularly crazy about having to catch mosquitoes, but when we asked the authority in our house—Alexa—what crane flies ate we learned, to our surprise, that adult crane flies actually don’t eat anything. They emerge from their pupa form without mouth parts. They have enough energy stored up in their bodies to continue their life for a few days, lay eggs, and then die. So as it turned out we ended up finding one of the easiest pets to keep ever. No cost to keep a crane fly!

crane fly

Jesus, however, is different, and his community is too. He emerges from the tomb hungry. In fact, about half of the stories that include the risen Jesus, he has a meal with his disciples. In this one that John tells us about, Jesus is on the shore of the lake and there is a campfire there. He apparently has already been preparing this meal because when the disciples get off the boat from fishing and walk ashore, there are already some fish and bread on the fire. Jesus asks them to bring more from what they’ve caught and he invites them to breakfast. And taking the bread from the fire, and then the fish, he shares it with his hungry disciples who are still trying to understand how to live into this new reality of a risen Jesus.

Eating together will be central to the life of Jesus’ disciples after his resurrection. It seems so ordinary and un-mysterious—you know, sitting down for a bite to eat—but as it turns out gathering regularly for a meal will help Jesus’ friends understand how to make Jesus’ presence real in the world.  I think this is an aspect to our faith that we can take for granted, because it’s easy to make faith into a head-trip. I think we can easily turn worship into little more than a seminar with music, if we’re not careful. We come so often to worship to be moved by the things we hear and sing and read that we can forget that Jesus’ risen life for us is about community and sharing. A meal gets us to do that, perhaps more than anything else.

In Jesus’ time, of course, sharing a table with someone else was one of the most intimate things you could do with them. Eating together put people on the same level and almost made them family. In a time of drive-thru service and Door Dash we probably don’t think a whole lot about the power of eating together. That said, studies done recently on international diplomacy have shown that summits and meetings between national leaders that include a meal are more successful in accomplishing their goals of peace and understanding than meetings that do not have the principal players gathered around common food.

Jesus knows this, so when the risen Jesus gathers his disciples for a simple breakfast that morning, he is not just starting the day right. It’s starting their new life right. He is showing his followers that taking time to share his meal of bread and wine will help keep them united to him and to each other.

The second thing we learn about life with the risen Lord is that it revolves around second chances. The first lesson this morning, the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus as told in the book of Acts, may be the most dramatic example of that. It’s the story of how a man goes from a life of persecuting the church and happily watching Christians killed to founding and nurturing Christian churches throughout the known world.  The man we know as Paul, the one who wrote most of the letters of the New Testament and helped train numerous disciples for Jesus, started as Saul, a man who had an intense hatred for Jesus. As cruel as Saul was, Jesus turned his life around toward good.

And the life of the risen Jesus is about giving people second chances even before Paul. That day by the lake as the disciples share a meal together Jesus approaches Peter and asks him three times if he loves him. Just as Peter had denied even knowing Jesus three times on the night of Jesus’ death, now Peter has three chances to profess his love for Jesus.

The Conversion of Paul (Caravaggio)

God is full of grace. Jesus rises from the dead and immediately wants his life of new beginnings to resurrect Peter’s faith. Jesus doesn’t rub Peter’s nose in what he’s done. Jesus doesn’t toss Peter to the curb and move on to the next disciple instead. Jesus invites Peter back into a relationship of love and trust. Since we’ve been embraced by this relationship too, we must watch and tend how it then creates new beginnings in our relationships. This is the power of God’s forgiveness—to wipe away past wrongs and move forward with new possibilities.

Church can so easily become a type of society or club, with all its committees and its business features, but we do well to remember that at our core we are a just a weekly meeting of D.A.: Deniers Anonymous. Peter’s denial did not cause him to lose his spot in Jesus’ disciples. Jesus immediately found a way to bring him back in. People show up for worship and other ministry activities each week in the shoes of Peter, wishing for a new start, a new crack at God’s grace. And that is good, because Christ’s risen life revolves around infinite second chances.

The third thing we learn from these post-resurrection stories, and particularly this one this morning, is that we receive tasks. Faith in Christ is not just going to be something we reflect on intended to make our lives better. We feed Jesus’ lambs. We tend his sheep. Jesus calls Peter to nurture the life of his flock and, through them, the lives of the sheep in the whole world around him.

When I look back on the past two years of ministry in our congregation, and especially 2020, the first year of the pandemic, I realize that this aspect of Jesus’ risen life was especially important to this congregation. It was probably true for many congregations. For obvious reasons, it was difficult for us to gather and share Jesus’ meal, since physical presence is required for that. And although virtual ministry allowed us to continue to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, living together as a reconciled second-chance people and sharing our stories was tricky too. But the congregation really felt called to feed and tend the needs of those around us. The serving ministries of this congregation never faltered, and, in fact, in 2020, they set records in many areas. In a time of stress and disorientation, you heard Jesus calling us to continue feeding his lambs through support of our food pantries and to tend the Christ’s flock at St. Joseph’s Villa and Encircle through special drives at Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year’s Lenten Wednesday offerings raised over $6000, which will be split between our denomination’s assistance to people fleeing disaster and war and Safe Harbor, a local program that provides assistance to people experiencing domestic violence and human trafficking.

A meeting of the Micah Ministry Team at Epiphany

One day this week I happened across the members of our Micah Ministry meeting in our parlor. Micah Ministry is our outreach to Southampton Elementary School, a Richmond City Public School just south of the river. The team was planning activities for Teacher Appreciation Week there, tending to the needs of educating sheep who have certainly had a challenging last two years.

Sharing Jesus’ meal periodically in a life of endless new beginnings as we work to tend to the needs of the world: all of this crammed so lovingly into just a handful of experiences after Jesus rises from the grave. Jesus knows it will be enough for us to go on, keep us busy for a long time. It’s as if he knows—it’s as if he knows he will be somehow present with us as we continue, in our forgiveness of one another, in his Words, through the Holy Spirit.

The thing is: we never know exactly where this path will wind, where it will take us— the joys, the pains, the tragedies, the triumphs…the weeping that spends the night and the joy that comes in the morning. That can be the scary part. But Jesus knows we can do it. He believes deep down we can walk this journey of faith. He says to us, as he says to Peter: Follow me.

And so we do. With God’s help and guidance, we follow, knowing that through all the twists and turns the path eventually leads to the place where “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them—even the crane flies without their mouth parts—will be singing to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb. To him be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

Amen!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Remembering to Move Forward

a sermon for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Day [Year C]

Luke 24:1-12 and 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

The women were terrified, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

In all seriousness, I actually had an experience almost like this the other day. The staff and I were trying to find one of the church’s crosses to get ready for Good Friday. We have several large crosses people have made and there was one in particular that we thought might work. However, no one seemed to remember where it might have gotten stashed, so I just started looking in some of the most logical places. I went out to the garage and snooped around. Not there. So then I looked in the storage room inside the Star Lodge. There are a lot of things in there, for sure, but a cross wasn’t among them. Finally I checked the new storage units that Tod Mitchell built a couple of years ago on the back of the Star Lodge. It’s not a place people go very often because you have to have a special key and it faces the back of the property and is a bit creepy.

What I didn’t know what that the big mannequins that we use on our front lawn for the Christmas display were stored in there. I unlocked the padlock on the door and slowly opened the door to the darkness inside, and—hiya!—there they were, these huge towering faceless figures right in front of me My heart about stopped and I jumped back a foot or two, especially because their arms are all bent upright and for a split second—a very short split second— I thought was being jumped by some tall dudes in sequined outfits. When I came to my senses, it was like they were asking, “Phillip, why are you seeking the Easter props among the Christmas decorations. The cross is not here. It is in some other location.”

The whole incident was pretty funny, but there was no one there to laugh at it. But it did get me thinking about how much of what we’re doing right now revolves around remembering how we used to do things. It has been three years since we’ve had an Easter like this. The other night on Maundy Thursday we distributed Holy Communion at the altar rail for the first time since March 2020. It felt a bit like the Keystone Cops up here. I couldn’t exactly remember which side we were supposed to go to and which direction we served. I thought I’d skipped someone with the bread; a worshipper, still chewing his morsel, kindly pointed to let me know I needed to keep going down the line. At one point Joseph asked me, “Psst. Is there another chalice bearer?” even though Matt Greenshields was standing right behind him, exactly where he was supposed to be.

I take comfort in the fact we’re all in that place, to some degree, these days. The COVID pandemic disrupted so many aspects of life. Teachers are trying to remember how to run a classroom in person. Students are trying to remember how to be in a social educational setting again. Some experts say that we were all living in crisis mode, more or less, for two years. Even thought life is moving on we find ourselves also looking back, trying to remember. As you move farther into a more open 2022, what kinds of things have you been trying to think back on?

That is where the women at the tomb find themselves on that first Easter morning: having to remember. They come to the tomb with their spices, the props of death. We can imagine they are still very much in crisis mode. As torturous as the events of Friday night had been when Jesus had been crucified so hastily because of the anger of the crowd this was still the thing you did when someone died. You gathered and prepared the spices to anoint the body in the tomb. You instinctively grab the facemask when you go into the store. You back away from the stranger who gets a little too close. You douse yourself in hand sanitizer when you get back in the car.

The stone is rolled away from the tomb when the women get there. That should have been the first clue that things had changed, that their spices might not even be needed. But they go into the tomb anyway, the darkness most likely overpowering them at first as their eyes get adjusted to the dim, damp space. They walk around, unable to locate Jesus’ body. Historians tell us tomb-robbing was a problem in first century Israel, but it wasn’t all that common for people in this socio-economic bracket; plus, the day before had been a holy day and therefore not much activity had been going on anywhere. The stone rolled away, the empty tomb—there are two very peculiar and out-of-the-ordinary occurrences that might have tipped them off to what really was going on.

Then suddenly there are these men in dazzling, maybe even sequined, clothes in front of them. The women bow down in fear and terror. It is not until the men encourage them to remember that they begin to understand what has happened. Not until these mystery figures tell them to think back to life before the great crisis of Holy Week, to cast their memories back to the more pleasant days in Galilee, that the women start to realize that the stone is rolled away and the tomb is empty because Jesus is risen from the dead.

To remember. It’s funny, isn’t it, that they find their faith in what God is doing now in Jesus doesn’t take shape until they think back to what has already been said. The men in dazzling clothes say, “Remember, women, how Jesus told you that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again?” This, itself is significant because Jesus had only shared that kind of information with his inner circle of disciples. If women at the tomb were being asked to remember something like that, then clearly women were part of Jesus’ inner circle.

The point is that long before this morning on the first day of the week, Jesus had been laying the groundwork for his resurrection. Long before the cross, long before the suffering, long before the ridiculous trial before Pontius Pilate, long before the donkey ride into Jerusalem when things start to go off the rails, Jesus had been lovingly and openly sharing with them the truth about his life and mission. All along he told them that he had come to be handed over to the authorities and be crucified. They had heard it, and now they remember it, and they are ready to understand and believe that Jesus is risen, that death has been conquered and creation is released from its bondage to sin and free to live a new life. The terror and the chaos of the crucifixion had caused them to forget, but God is always moving creation towards freedom and life.

We can think about all the times we have been told things that don’t make much sense in the moment, that don’t fully register when we hear them, but that later become crystal clear. It’s information that stays lodged somewhere, insignificant at the time, like a seed in the soil that later germinates and blossoms into faith that forms your future. Or maybe like an anchor that the sailor tosses into the sea but then forgets is there, keeping him steady all along when the fear of the rough seas takes him over. These are the words of Jesus for those first believers at the tomb.

I wonder how often someone has had to remind me, in a moment of fear and frustration, things that a teacher once told me, or a camp counselor, or one of my parents. Indeed, this is the promise of our baptism that anchors our lives. Words spoken over us by the water become the anchoring memory which guides our lives. In the crisis of faith or identity we have this moment of which we may be reminded where God claimed us with his unconditional love and spoke promise over our lives. Maybe it didn’t mean much to us at the time; maybe we don’t even remember it. The world makes us feel we are worthless, our failures make us feel we are hopeless, and our griefs make us feel we are loveless. But God thinks and knows differently, and our baptism assures us of that. It tethers us to Jesus, and Jesus is risen and God will bring his promise of new life through any thing that currently seems insurmountable.

Newborn baby baptism in Holy water. baby holding mother’s hands. Infant bathe in water. Baptism in the font. Sacrament of baptism. Child and God. Christening candle Holy water font. The priest baptize

As the apostle Paul says, reminding his Corinthian church in much the same way that the men in the tomb remind the women: “for as we all die in Adam, so we all will be made alive in Christ, but each in his own order.” And since Christ is like the first fruits of the eternal kingdom, the first return of the harvest that indicates more will come, we can be reassured that we will, in our time, die and then find ourselves awake in the presence of the living God forever.

All this is to say that God is always, always, moving things forward into new life. From the beginning this has been God’s plan—to bring the fullness of life to all to unleash each of us in service to one another. Pandemics will not stop it, chaos will not stop it, death will not stop it, and our lack of faith and memory will not stop it either.

So I don’t know what you are trying to remember from two years ago. But don’t seek the living among the dead. Christ is risen, and God gives us the courage to step out of the fear and fog and into the freedom of God’s future which he has claimed through the cross. Remember who and whose you are: forgiven and loved. Even death cannot take that away.

And then go forth like those women disciples did, to remind others who may still be in their darkness. Remind them of what Jesus has said, that they too are free to move forward into this great new life. You won’t even need to jump out of a storage shed to do it.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Made to Look Ridiculous

a sermon for Good Friday

Psalm 22

“But I am a worm, and not human. Scorned by others, and despised by the people.” Psalm 22:6

Pastor Karl-Heinz Nickel, the long-time pastor of Trinity Church in the small eastern German town of Gommern, presided over a very small parish whose numbers had dwindled almost to nothing during the years of the Communist Party’s dictatorship. Once the Berlin Wall came down and the two Germanys—the open west and the closed east—were reunited, Pastor Nickel had hoped that the church would experience some type of revival. Slowly, over the years, some people did come back to the congregation—some that were reacquainting themselves with a faith of their grandparents, others who were just curious. But overall things stayed fairly quiet.

St Trinity Evangelical Church, Gommern, Germany

I got to know Pastor Nickel during the year I lived in Gommern, and I was interested to know just why the Christian church in the former East Germany had fared so poorly compared to the church in the free west? Why had so many people essentially left the faith in the years of the communist regime? He and I had several discussions about it, and he tried to explain that communist rule implemented certain policies that made it almost impossible for the church to survive. For example, if one decided to be confirmed, which typically happened at age 15 or 16, then that person could not become a legal member of the Communist Party, which was the only ticket to most careers in adulthood. Understandably, that turned a lot of young people off to faith in general. The government also enacted many policies that made it difficult for congregations to raise funds for upkeep and for staff, and since people didn’t have a lot of personal disposable income anyway, as a result of the command economy, churches fell into disrepair.

But I remember that Pastor Nickel said that despite all of these official governmental obstacles to the flourishing of the church, the thing that probably was the worst to deal with was that Christian faith was, by and large in society, “lӓcherlich gemacht.” That is, Christian faith was made fun of, or, more accurately translated, made to look ridiculous. It wasn’t a formal policy—it was just the way faith in God was treated by people in common society. People were seen as simpletons and idiots for actually believing in things God and worshiping on Sunday and professing the power of sacrificial love. I think could detect in his voice a slight sadness and resignation as he told me. Being made to look ridiculous proved to be the biggest burden of faith. And yet they persisted.

The trials of Pastor Nickel and his flock are an extreme example, but even today in America we can feel shame for our beliefs. Even being made to wear a face mask can be humiliating.  And yet tonight we all gather to remember that the defining moment of Jesus’ life was being made to look ridiculous. How can Jesus’ followers in this life ever really expect to be the cool kids, the admired and strong, when the head himself is wounded at the pinnacle of his ministry? He hangs naked in a position of complete humiliation, hands nailed outstretched. He needs water to slake his thirst; his tormentors give him vinegar.

And that’s just the ending of it. The moment he is brought before Pontius Pilate and the soldiers it is one moment of embarrassment after another. The scarlet robe they put on him is meant to be joke. The crown of thorns is a cruel trick by his bullies. When they cast lots for his clothes as he dies, it underlines how weak and insignificant he is. He didn’t even have enough property to divide, and what he had wasn’t large enough to rip in two. Could you imagine what it would feel like to watch people you didn’t know, your haters, try to divide your belongings while you were still alive?

What a strange way to be a God. What a peculiar way to show your divinity, your dazzling other-worldly strength—to let yourself be mocked and derided when it would be completely in your power to silence them all, when it would be completely within your power to flash across the earth in a blaze of glory and amaze them all. The Tuesday morning adult Bible study this spring is reading a book together called Making Sense of the Cross by former Philadelphia Seminary president David Lose. It’s a great title, but I think the cross is hard to make sense of,  and this is one place where I’d want to start. How does humiliation really accomplish anything good? The East German rulers figured out that it is an effective way to crush a religion.

Even if he is not delighted with it, Jesus himself understands that humiliation is part of God’s plan to restore humanity to God’s love. On the cross many of Jesus words are prayers that come straight from Psalm 22, an ancient prayer of the Hebrew Bible that articulates what it’s like to be totally rejected. As he dies it’s like he’s saying his prayers:

For dogs are all around me, a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled.
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me.”

If we must make sense of the cross, then it starts by understanding God does not send Jesus simply to be mocked and tortured and encircled by evildoers. God sends Jesus to be human in a pure and selfless way. God sends Jesus to love in the way all people were created to love. And once that gets going in this dark world, the cross becomes inevitable. That is, it becomes clear pretty quickly that God’s love in Jesus must come down to meet us where we are, to search all of us out, to stand with humanity wherever humanity is found. Even when it is found in shame. Even when that shame is death.

It doesn’t feel like victory tonight. I realize that. But it truly is the best victory the world can ever hope to make sense of: the cross. To all those who have ever been made fun of, to all those who have been mocked for who you are and where you stand, to all those who haven’t fit in, to everyone who hasn’t been selected for the in-groups, who has been left behind by popularity and success, who have been enslaved, discriminated, tonight should feel really good. Because tonight God says, “I see you.” God says, “I know you feel ridiculous. But you are holy stuff. God says, “My Son, by evildoers encirled, stands with you, and he will not leave.”

So just wait a little bit, just wait with me, and see what happens next.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Even the Rocks

a sermon for Palm Sunday [Year C]

Luke 19:29-44

In the summer of 2020 when the congregation’s construction project finally came to an end and all the inspections had been passed and we were finally able to use our new front doors and patio, I took one walk out the new front entrance on that first day and realized we might have made a terrible mistake. The river rocks in the landscaping out front looked fantastic on the blueprints and the designs, but once I saw them lying there I knew they would instantly become projectiles. In fact, I remember talking with our building manager Steve about it, and we thought that those rocks would be very tempting for small children to reach down and launch them through one of those windows.

What in the world had we been thinking? I called the architect it and he reminded me that in the meetings leading up to the project approval, we had all agreed that rock beds right there would, in the long run, be much neater and much, much easier to maintain and keep weed-free than regular mulch beds. Now that I saw them, thought, I was having second thoughts. Sure enough, a week or so later I watched as my own son, age 4, on his first visit to the new entrance, walked over, reached into the bed, pulled out a rock the perfect size of his hand and launched it into the grass before I could stop him. It will be a challenge, I think, to keep that from happening, because the rocks practically cry out to be thrown. They have no real voice, but they scream in tones grown-ups can’t hear.

Jesus talks about rocks that cry out on his way into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey—they would cry out in tones that many disciples wouldn’t be able to hear. His point is this: even if the parade had been carefully crafted to minimize impromptu outbursts of excitement—even if people had stayed home that Palm Sunday for fear of being caught on film and later targeted by the state police—even if people had for some reason decided to respectfully golf-clap like the crowds at the Masters instead of shouting—the rocks themselves would have come to life to cry out “Hosanna! God save us!”

This is not just a provocative image that Jesus uses, as if we are supposed to imagine rocks with little eyes and mouths. This was a statement that all of creation had been waiting for this moment. This was a declaration by Jesus that his arrival in Jerusalem was not just the conclusion to his own personal faith journey that began in the River Jordan, but the culmination of the hopes and fears of all the years of humankind. The whole universe awaits redemption. There is a new heaven and a new earth underway, and this moment, this arrival of a new king in Israel, is the moment it begins to reach a climax. The arrival of the one “who comes in the name of the Lord” is no small thing. Even Jesus can sense, before the palm branches wave and before the people pour out of the their homes to greet him, that his mission is going to have far-reaching ramifications.

Of course, the rocks that day do not need to cry out because the people do. They do come out of their homes and they do wave the branches. They do cry out for a king who at long last, they thought, would get something done. They see a ruler who would finally stand in the shoes of the great King David and bring them respect and honor among the nations. And they see a man who is ready to take on their oppressors, throw them out, and establish peace in the land. These are their hopes, and they pin them to the male on the donkey that day.

Do the rocks of today still cry out? By that I mean do you get the impression that the world still longs for things like peace and justice? I know that those who mark Palm Sunday as holy claim to want these things, but even if our voices were silent today, even if we were to find other things to do than worship, would others somewhere take our place? Or have people settled into a scary rhythm of war and hardship because that’s what they believe all life really holds? Have people lost hope in leaders? In the power of forgiveness and reconciliation? What about the cobblestoned streets of Bucha and Irpin? The rocky pathways of Kabul?  The gleaming stone buildings of Washington, DC? Are they crying out?

What about you? Do you find yourself crying out for anything these days? What kinds of hopes and dreams do you pin on God? What expectations do you have of your relationship with God and with the things God promises? Is there some way all of the these things become centered and focused on the man who comes riding into Jerusalem. How can he be an answer to these prayers and hopes?

Luke is the only one of the gospel writers who tells us that the multitude of disciples on that day as he rode in began to rejoice and praise God for the mighty works that they had seen. The other gospel writers record the shouts of the crowds, but here in Luke we are told that his disciples—those who had been in ministry with him over the past few years—are thinking about the great works they had witnessed. They know a leader who has reached out to heal the suffering. They have worked with a teacher who has emphasized the least and the lowly in his lessons. They have eaten with a deeply religious man who has still shared his table with tax collectors and sinners. And they have watched in awe as he took fish and a few loaves and fed thousands of people. I wonder what those disciples think Jesus is here in Jerusalem to do. What particular dreams and hopes have they focused on him as he rides in? Will they feel let down as the week unfolds and it seems he does no miracles like these at all?

Hearing the events of Palm Sunday this year makes me think of how we tend to adore leaders, and place them on pedestals. And it makes me think about how all too often our expectations of leaders don’t line up with what they actually end up delivering. Jesus is no exception to this, as it turns out. He doesn’t hold anything close to his vest, and he doesn’t try send mixed messages about his agenda, and yet he still ends up ruining most people’s dreams of him. We know this because by the end of the week the crowds are eager to free an insurrectionist named Barrabas (and look past Barrabas’ crimes) rather than follow Jesus into the love of God’s kingdom. So if you cry out for a leader today, if you pin your hope on a savior on this Palm Sunday, which leader is it for?

Over the past several months one of the most popular and successful local non-profit organizations, Shalom Farms, has been very carefully searching for a new Executive Director. This Executive Director will lead Shalom Farms in its mission, which is to provide free farm-grown produce to alleviate food insecurity and address food justice issues in the greater Richmond area. As it happens, when it began out in Goochland County in 2009, the Epiphany Youth Group was one of the first volunteer groups to work there, and we’ve continued that relationship to today. In 2021 they produced over 700,000 servings of food.

members of the Epiphany Youth Group working at Shalom Farms in 2009

One of Epiphany’s members, Johanna Gattuso, is the current chair of the Board. She shared with me that the Board made the conscious decision in their search that one of the criteria of the new Executive Director was that at some point in their life they needed to have experienced food insecurity. They still received over 100 resumes for the position. Some of the letters that accompanied these applications spoke movingly of what it was like to grow up going to bed hungry,or foraging in fields for greens, or having to watch their parents eat nothing for dinner so that they, as kids, would. The idea, of course, is that the new leader of Shalom Farms would lead from a position of solidarity and familiarity with the organization’s mission. Anna Ibrahim was hired and began her tenure as the Executive Director this month. Hailing from farmers who toiled on the prairies of the Midwest and the valleys of the Levant, Ms Ibrahim looks forward to continuing Shalom Farm’s ministry with renewed energy.

In our search for that leader who can rescue us from our brokenness, who can release us from our captivity to sin and selfishness, who can free us to a life of forgiveness, perhaps we should cry out for one who has walked that road. If we seek mercy, perhaps we should cry out for one who is willing to be broken, one who has a track record in eating with the sinner, in seeking out the lost and lowly. In our hope for one who can conquer death, why don’t we look for one who will die himself? For a leader has been given to us, and that is his mission: to love us as we are, to free us with forgiveness, to heal us with humility.

Back in 2020, as the construction was being completed, and the doors were open to receive people who couldn’t come because of the pandemic, a family in our congregation with young children decided to paint rocks with Easter messages as a faith formation activity at home. They didn’t just cover these rocks with color. They inscribed little messages on them—things like “Happy Easter!” and “He is Risen!”—and then they came by and placed them along our sidewalk with the hope someone might see them. Two years later and some of them are still here, lying around underfoot, like petrified Easter eggs, still just waiting to be seen now that the people are returning. I leave work each day, and, if I’m lucky, my eyes will fall upon one, crying out, saying He is Risen. reminding me that if I don’t learn to shout Hosanna!—“Hosanna, My leader, my savior has come—has come and loves me to the end!” well, then a rock will take my place.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

We Had to Celebrate

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

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

“But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

When was the last time you had to celebrate something? When was the last time something happened—or something was about to happen—that was so important that it actually needed a party to acknowledge it? Was it a major birthday? A retirement? Spring Break? There have been stories in the news over the past week about just how much college students are letting loose on Florida beaches this year. Two years of a pandemic have bottled up the intense desire to release a little school stress. Miami Beach actually had to institute a nightly curfew last week amid a rise in violence and if Miami Beach has a curfew you know things have gotten out of control.

Not too long ago my family felt we had to throw a party for one of my children upon their successful achievement of potty-training. I had never even thought of such a party, but after a long, long, arduous process of cajoling and coaxing, Herculean levels of patience, and countless loads of dirty laundry, my wife Melinda looked at me one day and said, “We have to do something big to mark this moment.” So we did. The whole affair was a mixture of carrot-on-a-stick reward for him and a chance to let loose for us. He got to choose the menu. Melinda made cupcakes. We used toilet paper rolls as centerpieces. His grandparents got to be guests, and he even got presents, including a Spiderman puzzle. We took photos. It seemed outlandish, but all of us were into it.

Jesus tells a story about a party that just had to happen and it’s outlandish too. There was a moment that needed to be marked. After—who knows?—months, maybe years of Herculean levels of patience a son had finally returned to his father after having squandered his whole inheritance. There are creative table decorations. Not toilet paper rolls, but something elaborate, for sure. Mom goes all out. There’s a huge calf on the spit over the fire, drinks flowing, and apps for everyone! The guest list includes anyone the son can think of—first and second cousins, guys he went to high school with, people from church, next door neighbors. The father sends him out to the mall with his credit card beforehand so he get a whole new wardrobe just for the party. Talk about letting loose! There will be no curfew here! They will carry on as long as they want and as loud as they want and the dad is happy to watch from the patio as the DJ kicks it old school.

It’s the party that had to happen. The whole parable Jesus tells is quite a doozy—the boy mouthing off to his dad at the start and then eating with pigs—but the party at the end was the part that would have stood out the most. Everyone who heard the story would have gotten stuck on that particular part. Why in the world did this father, who had just doled out a good portion of his legacy to this son and then watched him throw it all away feel like rewarding him with a big blow-out? Why go over-the-top? Why not just quietly and peacefully bring him back in, discuss it all as a teaching moment over a beer?

The Return of the Prodigal Son (Rembrandt)

Why? Because that is how glad and thankful this father is. This father loves it that his child has come back to where he truly belongs. This father is elated that his family is whole again, that the kids are safe and sound. This is how God thinks of us.

Jesus tells this story because he needs certain people to hear that. The Pharisees and the scribes need to understand that this is how God feels about people who return. Call it extravagant, call it prodigal, call it elaborate, but it is a fundamental aspect of God’s character, and some people just don’t seem to get it. God loves his children and this is how he feels about then when they wander and come home. This is how God feels about people who make huge mistakes, who are hurtful and wasteful and ungrateful.  This is how God receives those who come to themselves even after making terrible, destructive choices.

There’s an old hymn that goes, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” God’s mercy is wider than we can imagine. It’s like standing on the sand down at Virginia Beach and trying to see Morocco or whatever is straight across. God’s love is like that. There’s actually a website you can go to that will tell you what is exactly across the ocean from where you’re standing and apparently if you go straight out from the coastline at Virginia Beach you actually won’t hit land until the southern coastline of Australia because of the curvature of the earth, which is an interesting bit of geographic trivia that actually makes the old hymn even better. God’s mercy is so wide, and all too often people like the Pharisees and other really religious folk like to draw the lines closer in.

Website is here

Sometimes Jesus tells parables to illustrate a point about God’s kingdom. Sometimes Jesus tells parables to warn people about certain kinds of behavior. Everyone once in a while Jesus tells a parable specifically so that one of his listeners might hear themselves in it. This is one of those times, and Jesus is hoping that the Pharisees and the religious leaders hear themselves in that older son, the one who didn’t wander and eat with the pigs, the one who didn’t insult the father by leaving. Often the younger son gets the attention, but in fact Jesus is really driving home a point to that older son—that one child found really is beneficial to the whole house. Being in the father’s care is life itself, something that older son still has and never lost.

What’s interesting to me is how easily this father leaves the safety of his estate to reach out to his kids. He leaves not once, but twice, in order to draw his sons into his love. A lot of the attention falls on that first son as he comes home on the road. The father rushes out to greet him and throws his arms around him. But again, the Pharisees need to hear that the father comes out of the house again—he even leaves the party he’s throwing, in order to have the son feel and understand his love and what the heart of this faith is. The heart of faith is joy, not getting everything right all of the time, not wagging fingers at those who trip up. The heart of mercy is focus on the other, not self. It is about remembering the embrace of the Father is always wider than the sins of the son.

I wonder if it might help to hear this parable as the difference between the concepts of equality and equity. The older son is very focused on both sons being treated equally, but the father knows he needs to treat them equitably. Equal treatment means each son gets the same, no matter what. Young son gets a big party, older son deserves at least a small party, right?

But God is more concerned that each son get what they need. The young son needs a big party to contrast just how far he strayed and how great it is to have him back. The older son doesn’t need that because he has always had the life of his father’s house.

Likewise, when the Pharisees see Jesus hanging out with the sinners, that is a case of God giving them what they most need. They need to feel and know that God still considers them children of the house. The Pharisees should see them as brothers or sisters and their own experience of God’s kingdom would be enhanced. Jesus wants those who maybe haven’t wandered as much to have some compassion, which is exactly what moves the father to embrace the son on the road. Episcopal priest and author Fleming Rutledge says in her book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ says, “Trying to understand someone else’s predicament lies at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.”[1]

Jesus wants all of his disciples—the Pharisees, the wandering, you and me—to see another’s predicament, to see God as running to give people precisely the forgiveness and grace they need and to rejoice with one another as we each receive it. Because one day he runs to us. He runs out to where we all are, at whatever point on the road as we limp along in shame, to have us home.

Eventually, Jesus will run so far and so hard that he will run right into death for us. He will run until they nail his hands and feet so that the wideness of God’s mercy  will stretch all the way across to hell and bring us back. Because a household where we all rejoice and suffer together is such a blessed place to be. Younger and older, dead and alive, lost and found.

This week our friends from Hanover Adult Center were over here making sliders with Rob Hamlin for lunch one day. They worked hard in the kitchen putting together three different kinds—ham and mustard with poppyseed, Philly cheese steak, and pepperoni pizza. After they were done, they invited all of us in the office into the conference room to enjoy lunch with them. It was kind over the top. I wasn’t expecting such a decadent lunch that day, but I’m glad they compelled me to come.

While we were hanging out, having a great time, one of the Adult Center folks named Franklin wanted to tell us something. As it turns out, Franklin is completely deaf, so he started signing to us excitedly, spelling out words and phrases faster than we could understand. Greg Claud was the interpreter, and he said that Franklin was telling us that his birthday had been that Monday and the friends in his group home had blown him up a big balloon and had made him a birthday cake. Franklin is unable to read lips, so he depends a lot on facial expressions and vibrations in communication. So when his friends made things he could see like balloons and a cake and when they clapped really loudly on his birthday and smiled really big with clear eye contact it was more obvious to him that they were celebrating him and that made him so happy. So happy he was still telling people about it Thursday over sliders.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, however you are—hear this, please: God is clapping for you, smiling for you, making eye contact with you. Balloons, cake, bread, wine. Forgiveness with no curfew. It’s all here. For you. And God is sooo happy.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


[1] The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge

An Answer to the Puzzle

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

Luke 13:1-9 and Isaiah 55:1-9

What is your Wordle score today? Have you posted it, with its cryptic little pattern of green and yellow squares? One of the biggest trends to hit the world in the past several months, the Wordle game, which is now posted daily, like a crossword puzzle, by The New York Times, allows you to guess a five-letter word in six attempts. Getting the right word in four attempts is pretty good. Three is above average. And getting it on your second or even first attempt is really blind luck. You may be proud to know that our very own Richmond ranks in the top ten cities in terms of Wordle scores. Based on what I see on Facebook, I think some of the members of this congregation are helping us get there.

The growth in popularity of Wordle is staggering, and if by now you haven’t given it a shot, chances are you know someone who has. At the beginning of November 2021 the game had 90 players. By the start of February it had grown to over 2 million, and I’m sure there are even more now. Its popularity has spawned countless offshoots of Wordle, all built on the same premise of guessing something each day with only a few attempts. Quordle lets you guess four five-letter words simultaneously, which is like Wordle on steroids. Worldle gives you a silhouette of a country each day and six attempts to guess it. Heardle, a sound-based game, lets you guess a song each day, but it only gives you about a second of it at a time. There is Birdle, Lewdle, Bardle. Taylordle is for Taylor Swift fans. Perhaps the one for the biggest nerds of all: Tradle, which lets you guess a country based on the breakdown of its total exports.

Whether it’s Wordle or something else, all this is to say, we humans love our puzzles. We love riddling things out and finding patterns in things. And we’re generally good at it. It’s one of our greatest strengths, one of the hallmarks of being made in the image of God. The keen ability to discover patterns and tease out methods to the universe’s madness is what allowed us to put men on the moon and create a COVID vaccine in less than a year.

But the natural urge to find meaningful patterns in things does more than that. Sociologists and psychologists know that humans have an inherent need to “storify reality,” as Joe Pinsker writes in the Atlantic this week.[1] That is, we instinctively look at things that happen in the world or that happen to us and we try to make sense of them by mapping them into a narrative. We look for those patterns, those causes and effects, ups and downs.

That is what is happening when Jesus is approached this week by people wondering about a recent tragedy in the news. They are trying to storify their reality. Background details are fuzzy, but apparently some Jews from Galilee had been murdered by Pontius Pilate and then, as if that weren’t barbaric and mean-spirited enough, he had mingled some of their blood with the sacrifices to a pagan god. Everyone would have probably been talking about this, kind of like how many of us are talking about some of Vladimir Putin’s brutal attacks on civilians in Ukraine. These people talking about it with Jesus  and their little brains have been going and they wonder if there might be a pattern. Did these people die this awful way for a reason? Is there some method to this madness? Were they, for example, somehow worse sinners than other people and they were just getting their due?

destruction in Mariupol, Ukraine

And Jesus responds to that question by citing another recent tragedy in the news— the tower over in Siloam that fell unexpectedly and killed some people. It was a cruel, unexpected event—so cruel and saddening that there must be a reason behind it. But no, he says, they weren’t any better or worse than anyone else in Jerusalem.

He doesn’t say it specifically, but the message is there for us to hear: sometimes bad things just happen. Sometimes tragedies occur—whether the big, momentary ones like a tower falling or the long-drawn out tragedies like a virus that spreads and mutates and takes out lives and changes others over a long period of time. There are some things that just don’t have an underlying pattern, and human suffering is often one of them. Even with a loving, active God at the heart of the universe, human suffering is, for now, a part of our existence, and no matter how many attempts we’re given we won’t solve its riddle.

This is hard. I can imagine that the people who asked Jesus that question were a bit perplexed, if not terribly disappointed, that day. After all, if anyone could riddle out those tragedies, it would be him. Knowing that there is grand reason behind something, hoping there is a greater design behind all the hardships we face, might help us live our own lives better or face the inevitable dark day. This is why conspiracy theories are so popular. They offer some kind of plan or system for chaotic and troubling times.

There have been times when I’ve been especially unnerved by other people’s suffering, and have wondered, as I’ve pondered their situation from a relative distance, how there could even be a loving Creator. A story is told of a young Steve Jobs, founder of Apple products, who once, at age 13, asked his Sunday School teacher about the starving children on the front of a Life magazine cover. “Does God know about this,” he asked, pointing to the photo, “and what’s going to happen to these children?” Apparently whatever the pastor said did not satisfy the young Jobs and he left church and God, never to return again. That seems drastic to me, especially because he didn’t ever seem to give his life to helping those children, but I can understand that frustration.

suffering that is very hard to understand

That’s what Jesus is dealing with this morning. Questioning things about our faith is OK, for sure, but in the end we are in really tricky territory, he says, when we start riddling and postulating things about God and suffering especially when it’s suffering we’re not directly involved in. Because when we do that we’re essentially just using other people as bullet points in our internal debates about God. And people, Jesus reminds us, aren’t bullet points. They are people we draw near to, to listen to, to pray with, and when we do, we find we are changed. We often find they actually have a deep and abiding faith in a God who loves them in spite of what we perceive they are going through.

That’s the gist of this parable of the budless fig tree that Jesus tells which is intended to nip any conspiracy theories about God in the bud. It’s a fig tree that hasn’t produced anything in three years. Maybe it’s because he’s planted it in a vineyard rather than an orchard, but who knows? In any case, this landowner is tired of its lack of fruit and so he wants the gardener to cut it down. It’s wasting space. It’s wasting nutrients in the soil. What it is is a suffering little fig tree.

But the gardener steps in and says let me take care of it. The gardener is merciful. He sees potential in the tree. He is not as concerned about the soil or even the grapevines it shares it with as he is with the tree itself and its value and the fruit it may give. The gardener wants to give it some more manure, to put a little more effort into it, irrigate around the roots, let the water drip down some more.

Good gardeners, I’ve noticed are like this. I’m not. I have a garden plot at home and it’s about this time of year when I’m wondering what needs to be dug out and what needs to stay. What I’ve learned is that sometimes it’s really hard to tell, especially early on, which perennials are going to send up shoots this year and which ones aren’t. Or which ones might be dormant now but shoot something up next year. To know I have to get really close, or just be patient. I have to dig around, be willing to get my hands dirty, something that landowner is not really willing to do but the gardener is. It’s a gardener willing to get up close to the suffering tree.

The parable is Jesus’ lesson that when it comes to God and God’s interaction with the world there is no pattern other than God wanting to be near it and see potential where we often don’t. Human suffering cannot be calculated or mapped out or placed into any grand story or theory that will make sense. I’m not even sure it makes sense to God. That is, God seems less concerned with giving us a grand explanation about why bad things happen as he is with just experiencing bad things with us. God is a gardener who wants to be close to the suffering. He wants to give another chance for growth and fruitfulness even when things have not gone well. He wants to shift our question from “Why has this happened?” to “How can I grow from this now that it has happened?”

That is the act of repentance, and to do that he will provide us with whatever we need, even when our branches are bare to help us grow and survive and give something back to the world. On the cross he shows his awesome commitment to this, his commitment to enter and be with unjust, inexplicable suffering of the world. We stand before his cross as we stand before God. That is, we stand before God primarily not as people who need answers but as people who need mercy, as people who need healing, as people who can turn and repent because we are broken too.

Productive fig tree, (Jasper Martin, 2022)

And God loves broken people. God loves situations that feel drained of life and hope. There is no pattern to it, no logical reason for that. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are God’s ways our ways, the prophet Isaiah reminds us this morning. He says come to the waters everyone who thirsts, You don’t even need money! Come and have wine and milk without a price! God just loves broken people, seeks them out—people who feel they can’t grow, people who feel they have little useful to contribute, communities who feel they’re banging their head against a wall, families who feel they’re a lost cause. God believes in the fig trees no one else does.

And if God does, then the church should too. In all our ministries, outreach, conversations, relationships, we imitate that gardener, getting close to those who need some care and attention, not judging them, not approaching them as puzzles to solve but as people to love. Like the way our Stephen Ministers sit and listen attentively to people who are hurting. Like the way our confirmation mentors offer an ear and maybe some lived experience now and then with no other goal but to accompany them the confirmand on the faith journey. And we approach ourselves that way too, as a fig tree that needs a bit more time, a bit more TLC.

Because at the end of the day, the way God approaches us is not some hidden discovery we have to ponder and decipher. It’s not a secret, it’s not a mystery but it’s always a surprise, like a cross that stands open to the sky. You see, when it comes to how God deals with us and what Jesus’ love is like, the answer comes down to one five-letter word each and every time. I’ll give it to you now, with the letters in order. Make sure you share it with everyone. Are you ready?

It’s G-R-A-C-E.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


[1] “Our Brains Want the Story of the Pandemic to be Something It Isn’t,” in The Atlantic. Joe Pinsker, March 10, 2022