Ground-breaking Blessings

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

Matthew 5:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed are you.

Blessed are you.

Blessed are you.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Come. And You Will See.

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

John 1:29-42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Agnus Dei” (Fransicso de Zurburan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pre-recorded worship, October 2020

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

What’s In a Name?

a sermon for Name of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Where Is That Manger?

a sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Jesus’ manger look like this? Very likely!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!!!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Rooting for the Anti-Hero?

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent [Year A]

Matthew 11:2-11

Let me tell you: when you go visit Ms. Betsy Williamson in her rehab room at Beth Sholom, expect to be grilled. It’s a friendly grilling, of course, but she will for sure want to know what’s going on at church, and the more details you can give, the better. Ms. Betsy, you see, is our congregation’s sole remaining charter member. At age 94, she has been here for the length of its life. She has watched it grow from just a handful of families back in 1951 to what it is today. She has been here to work with every pastor the congregation has ever called and has contributed to each of the building campaigns. Ms. Betsy has greeted hundreds of first-time visitors at the front doors and has sung with the choir for countless worship services. More than all that, Ms. Betsy has taught Sunday School to just about every 2 year old who’s ever come through this congregation.

But now, even though she is getting great care in rehab and is slowly healing she can’t help but feeling a little bit imprisoned by her circumstances. If you go visit her, Ms. Betsy will expect you to fill her in. She’s going to want to know what’s happening at Sunday School and how many kids are coming to the children’s sermon. She’s going to wonder about plans for Christmas Eve and what the youth group has been doing lately. Your report to her reassures her that people are tending to the newcomers, the children, the vitality of worship. Your report to her comforts her in her concern that the congregation is still going strong, a community and a mission that has been near and dear to her heart for 70 years even though she can’t be with it at the moment.

We meet John the Baptist this morning in a very similar situation. He is in a special 1st century “rehab,” if you will, for people who speak out in critique of the king and powerful people. John’s detention there is keeping him from the community and mission he has been a part of for his whole career. That career has been to announce and prepare people for the arrival of God’s chosen Messiah, the long-awaited leader who would bring about God’s kingdom on earth. He has nurtured this thing from the ground up, taught some disciples, baptized people to get them ready. And John is dying to know how it’s going. And so from his prison cell John sends some of his disciples to Jesus, who is out there in the world with the movement to grill him.

We can’t tell exactly why John is getting anxious or doubtful about Jesus, but he clearly is wanting some assurance that Jesus is keeping the movement going. Has he been pointing people to the right person, especially since John’s own days seem to be numbered? John wants to know if Jesus is the real deal, or do they need to wait for another? John, you see, doesn’t want to put his faith and energy behind the wrong Messiah, the wrong leader, because, as you know, it must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero.

John’s questions, and even to a degree Ms. Betsy’s, speak to a deep concern we all have about Jesus and our expectations for how God is going to move and act in the world. Is Jesus the hero or is he an anti-hero, a bust, an also-ran? As we look at the world from our various prisons—be they prisons of despair or poverty or regret or fatigue or apathy—do we get a sense or anxiety or hope from Jesus? Can Jesus lead us to a future of possibility, a future of prosperity for all people, a future of peace and forgiveness for all sins?

One of my colleagues this week posed a question people of faith have wondered for years. That is, is John’s concern about Jesus evidence that John had things wrong?   Even though he was close to Jesus, in fact related to him, was John’s understanding of what the Messiah would be like slightly off? It’s a valid question for the scholars to ponder, but it’s also one I actually think we could turn on ourselves. Do we often get Jesus’ movement wrong? Is our understanding of how God acts in Jesus slightly off sometimes?  

John seems to be hoping for a leader who will seize the reins of the revolution John helped spark and use force to overthrow the powers in Jerusalem and send them away. John appears to be looking for big, sweeping, political and maybe even militaristic changes that establish dominance for a new regime up top. John is looking for Jesus to take that chance, and sometimes we are too.

But God’s kingdom isn’t about taking that kind chance. God’s kingdom is about giving people second chances. God isn’t going to come through and use Jesus to banish the bad people to the wilderness. God is going to make the wilderness break forth in blossom. The good news of the Messiah doesn’t come with fear and fire but with the excitement of joy. And perhaps most surprisingly, the work of Jesus often doesn’t come about through top-down, grandiose maneuvers, but by bubbling up from the bottom through the actions of people like Mary, some disciple fishermen, ordinary tax collectors, a meal of bread and wine.

There is a poem from 20th century Canadian writer Alden Nowland that resonates. It is called, “Great Things Have Happened” and it goes:

We were talking about the great things
that have happened in our lifetimes;
and I said, “Oh, I suppose the moon landing
was the greatest thing that has happened
in my time.” But, of course, we were all lying.
The truth is the moon landing didn’t mean
one-tenth as much to me as one night in 1963
when we lived in a three-room flat in what once had been
the mansion of some Victorian merchant prince
(our kitchen had been a clothes closet, I’m sure),
on a street where by now nobody lived
who could afford to live anywhere else.
That night, the three of us, Claudine, Johnnie and me,
woke up at half-past four in the morning
and ate cinnamon toast together.

“Is that all?” I hear somebody ask.

Oh, but we were silly with sleepiness
and, under our windows, the street-cleaners
were working their machines and conversing in Italian, and
everything was strange without being threatening,
even the tea-kettle whistled differently
than in the daytime: it was like the feeling
you get sometimes in a country you’ve never visited
before, when the bread doesn’t taste quite the same,
the butter is a small adventure, and they put
paprika on the table instead of pepper,
except that there was nobody in this country
except the three of us, half-tipsy with the wonder
of being alive, and wholly enveloped in love.

John’s worry in prison tells us something about our ourselves. The human brain naturally looks for the great things to be the most noticeable things, the flashiest, most spectacular things. Jesus’s response says, don’t look in the halls of power for where Jesus first shows how he will transform the world with his love. Look in the wilderness, or at the mustard seed, or in the life of a young pregnant middle eastern mother in an unusually vulnerable position. Look in the faces of the poor who’ve realized they can go on another day. Look to the children my family saw in the Children’s PICU this week who have miracles of medicine turn their circumstances around. Look for ways people are half-tipsy with wonder of being alive and enveloped in love, wherever that may be.

ca. 1850 — An illustration from a mid-19th century copy of Grand Catechisme des Familles (Christian Doctrine for Families). — Image by © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

This is the message that Jesus sends back to John in prison to comfort him. Jesus doesn’t talk about himself, and strangely doesn’t rush to stress his own ideas of his identity. Jesus simply points to the ways that God’s promised kingdom is bubbling up in the wilderness. Yet, on second thought, is it really that strange that Jesus doesn’t just point to himself and seize the title of God’s chosen one? After all, he will eventually go on to hand over his very life and let his identity be determined by love stretched out on a cross. That is where love will truly envelop us all. A moment of such total humility and vulnerability will be the greatest of all great things that has ever happened.

Even though John may have the wrong idea about what Jesus is about, Jesus does not throw John under the bus. Jesus lifts him up and sets him back on track with reports of the lame walking and the blind seeing. He assures him the movement is still going, just as God planned. Maybe we shouldn’t underestimate how much we need that same message too. Things at the top rarely change, whether it’s Jerusalem or Washington or Moscow. But there are loads of examples of the joy of God’s kingdom springing up everywhere.

I often listen to the Bobby Bones Show on K95 in the mornings. They have a segment called “Tell Me Something Good” where they offer up a story of hope and joy to change the mood. Typically bad news sells the newspapers, so this radio show scours their sources to flip that script. So, in the spirit of Bobby Bones and John’s disciples, here are a few Something Goods I ran across in just the past month that might have gotten overlooked:

Two weeks ago it was announced that Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, one of the advocacy and public justice arms of our denomination, the ELCA, received a $15 million gift from MacKenzie Scott, former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. This gift is the single largest in the organization’s 83-year history. LIRS President and CEO, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, explained in a press conference that the unprecedented funds come right as they are resettling loads of Afghan refugees, people fleeing the war in Ukraine, and asylum-seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Here’s another: a Christmas tree went up on the town square in Bucha, Ukraine, this week, not far from the site where a mass grave created by invading Russians was discovered earlier this summer. Their spirit is indomitable.

And another: Barna, a research group that concentrates on data regarding religion, reports that Christian philanthropy accounted for 70% of all American philanthropy in 2022 at a total of $330 billion. Christians also out-gave the U.S. government in addressing global poverty.

And this congregation, right after donating a record 120 Thanksgiving dinners to people in our community, turned around and provided 96 Christmas gifts to children at a local elementary school, which were delivered yesterday.

Joy is among us, my friends. Christ is on the move. Great things are happening all over the place. The truly great things: cheer for the imprisoned, something good for the disheartened hope for those who wonder what’s coming.

And you are some of the blossoms in the wilderness. and I…I have some more things to report to Ms. Betsy.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Getting Transferred

a sermon for Christ the King [Year C]

Colossians 1:11-20 and Luke 23:33-43

During my seminary internship at St. Andrew’s United Church in Cairo, Egypt, I spent a great deal of time working among the large and diverse refugee community that our congregation served. At that time many of the refugees were coming to Cairo up the Nile from Sudan, Egypt’s neighbor to the south, where government-backed armies were ransacking villages and slaughtering people by the thousands. Over the course of that year I got to know a good number of these brave individuals as their pastor and as the music teacher in the school the congregation was running for the refugee children.

These are some of the best memories of my life, and at the same time some of the most difficult, for that year I came to appreciate more fully just how precarious a refugee’s life is. There is nowhere on this earth where a refugee truly feels safe, and the place where she feels she belongs is off-limits—two fundamental aspects of life that I, as a white, affluent American, take for granted every single day. The hope of every refugee is to find a place on this planet where they can live without fear of being killed, where they can raise their families with a hope of a good future. They wait and wait and wait to be transferred to a country that will give them that, and usually that country is somewhere in Europe, Australia, or North America.

Imagine what it’s like to live in that kind of treacherous limbo and then finally one day receiving word that your request to be transferred to a new, peaceful country has been approved. I got to witness that a time or two that year. One day we had a special assembly in the children’s school in order to say goodbye to two young siblings whose parents had received word that Canada had finally approved their transfer. I’ll never forget the feeling in the room—the joy of all those assembled, the relief of the parents, and the bewilderment, too, on the faces two young children as they contemplated being transferred overnight from one of the hottest, dirtiest, and most crowded cities of the world, a city that subjected black-skinned Africans to discrimination on a daily basis, to Manitoba, Canada. This, by the way, was in February. Can you imagine?

Apparently the writer to the Colossians can. In an attempt to describe the power of Jesus Christ, a power of love that transcends anything we have ever known, he says that Christ “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” It’s not going from Cairo to Canada, but we do get word of a transfer to a reality no less contrasted to the world we live in now, a world we know that is filled with sorrow and violence and mistrust and brokenness of all kinds. Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, has come to find all of us refugees, all of us pilgrims, all of us wanderers, and through his own death and resurrection receive us into the realm of God’s eternal peace. Jesus Christ, born among us to heal and to comfort, breaks the power of sin over our lives and makes himself our king.

That is our message: no matter where we’ve come from and no matter what we’ve gone through, Jesus’s grace is our new home and we can never be taken out. To get us there, God becomes fully present in Jesus Christ. As the writer of Colossians says, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in the crucified nobody Jesus of Nazareth. That is, the fullness of God didn’t just find a home in Jesus, but it was pleased to dwell there, it was pleased to be so humble, so commonplace. God happily moves in to the rough and tumble places here. And he does this in order to reconcile himself to all things. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the person in whom all things hold together.

If we want to see God, if we want to know how all of the universe makes sense and what the meaning of life is, we look at the person of Jesus Christ. If we want to know how to treat one another in all circumstances, we look to Jesus, for in him all things hold together. And if we wish to know what the Creator of all things thinks of us, we see how Jesus looks to us. And we find he look to us with eyes full of mercy and a heart full of compassion.

That is, after all, what Jesus does in his finest moment there at Golgotha where he looks on everyone with unfathomable forgiveness. To the people driving nails into his flesh he says, “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.” To those who insult and mock him, he refuses to lash out in defense, preferring to let their ugliness and meanness echo out into nothingness. To those he dies between—just common criminals—Jesus looks with pardon and solidarity, even promising one of them that day a place in his kingdom. At the precise moment at which anyone would excuse him of any behavior that would alleviate his suffering, Jesus refuses to show any sign of self-preservation. With Jesus of Nazareth, in whom all things hold together, there is absolutely no abuse of power.

This is what his kingdom is made of. This is where we have been transferred by the power of his love and relationships based on this kind of humble authority is what God builds through us. This is how we live, upstream against the flow of hatred and apathy and spite we experience around us.

That disconnect probably presents the biggest challenge to living with Jesus as king. His reign is not always evident to us. Colossians says we need to be prepared to endure everything with patience. No kidding! Greed and war topple the peace and prosperity which people have so carefully built over time. The shooting tragedy at the University of Virginia this week becomes just another example of how quickly one senseless act shatters so many lives. People promote conspiracy theories that try to convince us that dark forces rule the world and are holding all things together, rather than Christ. The rise of Christian nationalism even here in the U.S. distorts the power of Jesus’ gospel and attempts to align one kind of faith with power in government. If Christ really is King, and if his reign is our true home, then how can these things keep getting in the way?

We hear this morning that the place in this world where Jesus dies is called the Skull. In Aramaic that is “Golgotha.” It has often been thought it got that name because of the way it looked. Maybe some boulders protruded from the landscape in the form of a skull. But theologian and teacher Chad Bird, points out that there is an ancient church tradition which maintains that it was called “The Skull” because people believed that is where Adam’s body was buried. Adam, the first person God created, according to Genesis, is the person in Scripture by which death comes to be. Adam’s disobedience to God, and his primal act of self-preservation and wanting to be like God symbolizes our own rebellious nature. It leads Adam to the punishment of death and is a reality that we all must bear. But Jesus, the second Adam, is the one whose obedience to God’s love brings life and immortality to all.


It is just a tradition, of course, but there is something deep at work here: the very place that speaks of death and reminds us of human brokenness becomes, by God’s grace, the very place where Jesus’ redemption and life makes a new beginning. This is how a humble God works: a cross becomes the place where we are transferred from sin into forgiveness, from loneliness to community, from this land to our eternal one.

And therefore the places where we would least expect to encounter God’s grace become the places where Jesus’ new life rises up most clearly. The moments when we hand ourselves over in service to our neighbor become those moments where selfishness begins to lose its grip. The times when God moves us to forgiveness rather than revenge are the times when healing comes to even the deepest wounds. The occasions when we release long-held prejudices and stereotypes come the occasions when dialogue and relationship finds new solid ground. Acts of humility and love strike fear into the rule of the proud and bold new life takes root. “Today,” Jesus tells the humble criminal beside him, “you will be with me in Paradise.”

One of our adult Sunday School classes has been watching and discussing the recent Emmy-winning documentary Heard, which was filmed right here in some of the public housing projects of Richmond. The movie is literally an attempt for some of the residents just to have their stories heard because they are profoundly beautiful stories—stories of remarkable grace and bravery, stories that many of us would not hear because of the stereotypes we assign to the projects and people who live there. It is true that poverty sucks people in and drugs and their accompanying gangs cause all kinds of dark problems for the people in the film. Yet one by one in Heard you hear examples of amazing redemption and the message is clear: God is still at work at Golgotha, raising up new life in the darkest of places. You watch the movie and can see that the transfer is happening, over and over again. People go from a land of despair and brokenness to a place where Christ and his goodness reign.

Where are the places in your life where Christ’s kingdom has been realized, where his goodness has been seen and heard? What are the places of darkness where you’ve buried your skulls of despair where Christ’s reign of forgiveness and mercy still need to be acknowledged? May his mercy reign true for you, for with God’s power Christ is promised to be first place in everything.

Last week we took the second year confirmands up to Roanoke to visit several places where the Lutheran Church has established ministry sites over the years. We saw Roanoke College, of course, but we also stopped at Brandon Oaks, a Lutheran retirement community that is part of Virginia Lutheran Homes. At one point Charles Downs, the CEO of Virginia Lutheran Homes, took the confirmands over to the edge of a bluff overlooking a big four lane road and gestured to another building across the street. It was the rehabilitation and nursing care facility component of Virginia Lutheran Homes, a place where many patients often enter hospice to die. To our back was the planned retirement community, complete with its swimming pool and dining room, where people were very much alive.

Beside us was this small replica of the original Lutheran Church that stood on that location built by settlers back in the 1800s as they came into the valley. Mr. Downs then proceeded to gesture to all of it in one big swoop with his arm, explaining how all of it is all a part of Jesus’ ministry. And then he pointed to the confirmands, who are in the spring of their young,        and said that we, too, are connected through it by our faith and our work together as a synod. He said those sitting in those pews at that church over 100 years ago never could have imagined that all of this would come from their vision to extend Christ’s kingdom in their work. It stretches across the highway, across the world, back in time, and into the future—a home of life and care and mercy for all.

So it is with all of us who’ve been transferred to Christ’s kingdom. It happens to us now, but it stretches back to claim those who came far before us and those who will come after. It claims those who are close to us and those we’ve never met. It draws us all in to one land, one reign where Jesus always remembers us with a mercy and love we cannot resist, refugees that we are.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

What an Inheritance

a sermon for All Saints Sunday [Year C]

Luke 6:20-31 and Ephesians 1:11-23

Children’s literature often has a way of taking complex topics and presenting them in a way I can understand with as few words as possible. About fifteen years ago actress Jamie Lee Curtis came out with a children’s book that was given as a gift to our oldest daughter by someone in the congregation I served in Pittsburgh. Our daughter, Clare, was only two at the time, and we had fun reading it to her. When Laura came along not too long afterwards we read it to her, and the other night I dusted it off to read to our 6-year-old as I tucked him into bed. The illustrations are as colorful as they are entertaining, but the rhyming text of the book is really what stands out.

The name of the book is Is There Really A Human Race? a question that perhaps we all wonder at some point along the way, what with all of our competing and our resume-building jumping through the hoops of life. The text, together with the pictures, illustrate humans racing against each other, breathless and exhausted, as if we’re all on a lifelong wild goose chase:

Is there really a human race?
Is it going on now all over the place?
When did it start?
Who said, ‘Ready, Set, Go’?

Did it start on my birthday? I really must know.
Do I warm up and stretch?
Do I practice and train?

Do I get my own coach? Do I get my own lane?
Do I race in the snow? Do I race in a twister?
Am I racing my friends? Am I racing my sister?
If the race is a relay, is Dad on my team?

And his dad and HIS dad? You know what I mean.
Is the race like a loop or an obstacle course?
Am I a jockey, or am I a horse?
Is there pushing and shoving to get to the lead?
If the race is unfair will I succeed?
Do some of us win? Do some of us lose?
Is winning or losing something I choose?
Why am I racing? What am I winning?

Does all of my running keep the world spinning?

With question after rapid question the book continues, wondering aloud with the reader what is this world really all about, what is the goal and how do we achieve it?

Today we gather to be reminded once again, thank God, that Jesus narrates and illustrates a completely different world from that. Today the church is gathered—just as Jesus gathered the large crowd on the Plain in Galilee one day when he spoke to his disciples—to hear once again that Jesus has come in order to bring an end to a world where everyone races against one another, a world of pushing and shoving, a world where we believe our progress is somehow what keeps the world spinning.

Today, All Saints Day, we recall the lives of those who have gone before us, but not in a race, but in grace. They have lived lives that touched us with compassion, selflessness, and joy. And each of them bore through the course of all their years that tension that exists between the world we feel we live in, where we’re constantly in a competition, and that eternal world that Jesus has given us, where community is built on forgiveness and love even of the enemy. We give thanks for them and for the ways they demonstrated in their own ways their trust in that new and coming world, which the apostle calls our inheritance.

I think at some point each of us has probably received something from a loved one who has gone before us. We’ve inherited something that that person intends for us to cherish and use. That’s the point of an inheritance—it is something we did not earn but which we deeply value because it points to a relationship. I remember when my great-grandmother died in 1996 she left me a big silver punch bowl. I was twenty-two at the time, still in college, living in my fraternity house, with nowhere to put the punch bowl and no one to serve punch to. I didn’t know how to value it, how to care for it, what its story even was. But Grammy wanted that bowl, for whatever reason, to fall into my hands.

Through Jesus Christ this pledge of a world redeemed and whole has been placed into our hands, and like the saints before us, we work to learn about it, treasure it, and serve the world from it. On the cross, Jesus has handed over all that he is so that we might have all the life that God gives. Our task, as we serve from this priceless bowl of grace and mercy, is to seek out and find those who right now seem to be the losers in the race of life.

And if it happens we have a hard time remembering who they are, Jesus names them for his disciples this morning. The poor seem to be the losers, especially if you listen to the news and the way we talk about them as people who haven’t worked hard enough or who have been born in the wrong neighborhoods, or who haven’t taken the chance to better themselves. The hungry are definitely losers, and their ranks are growing as grocery prices rise and supply chains are blocked. Those who are weeping often feel like losers, finding it difficult to get beyond their grief, which sneaks up and grabs them when they least expect it. And then there are those who are rejected and reviled for exemplifying Jesus in their actions and words. But Jesus calls them blessed, not losers.

In his new kingdom all these are the ones who get preference. The poor, for example, have been promised the kingdom of God. Because they have nothing else to rely on, no power that comes through wealth or privilege, they are bound to fulfilling experience of relying on God before anything else. We find the poor and learn what they have to teach us. We find the hungry and we give them reason to trust that in Jesus’ kingdom they are filled. We collect bags of Thanksgiving food, we serve at the pantry, we work for just and equitable distribution of resources. We come alongside the mourning and the weeping, singing the hymns for them at the funerals (because the words catch in their throat), and volunteering at the receptions in the fellowship all afterwards—all as an assurance of the laughing that will one day come. And learning from them the value of being vulnerable, ourselves.

Jesus continues with even more instructions for living this new world he has created by his death and resurrection we give generously, bless those who persecute, respond with nonviolence, and do to others as we’d have them do to us.

And I have to be honest and say that these are things that are difficult. They do not come naturally for me, not in the slightest. It is hard to trust this way of Jesus. It is hard to believe in this inheritance we’ve received when the world is so harsh and hard. It takes courage to inhabit this way of Jesus when we can’t fully see it implemented just yet. We see glimpses every now and then, but the full glory is still hidden.

The Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, lays out in a chronological format the history of the bus boycott that kickstarted the civil rights movement in the 1950s. The bravery and ingenuity of the people of color in Montgomery is on full display as you wind your way around the different exhibits. It becomes clear that Ms. Parks and her community were reviled for working for justice and peace to overturn the system of domination and racial oppression.  

One sign in the museum asks the question: “Do you have the courage to treat people fairly?”  What a pointed question—like a rephrasing of the Golden Rule Jesus tells his disciples. Living in the world Jesus dies to create is not just a matter of education or wokeness or cleverness. It is courage that we need for that, for our default setting is mistrust and prejudice. It is courage that allows us to view this world not as the rat race of competition it appears to be but according to the upside-down values Jesus names in his vision. It is courage and faith—and Jesus gives us both, over and over again, flowing from the waterfall of our baptism our whole life long. And we know so many examples of  this courage from the lives of those who’ve gone before us and in the lives of those who are sitting next to us today.

It was about two years ago, in the height of the COVID pandemic, when I spoke with Sonya Fluckiger on the phone instead of going to her house for her Christmas visit. She was just a few months shy at that point of her 100th birthday. The news was out that the first COVID vaccines were going to being distributed to senior citizens and people who worked in health care Sonya assured me in no uncertain terms that she was going to direct that her vaccine dose be given to a young woman or man with a family. “I understand that what they’re doing,” she said, “is the Christian way, but they’re wasting it on us old people.” I assured her there would be plenty to go around, but then I paused. It took me a second to recover once I remembered that I was a young person with a family: Sonya, age 99 ¾ trying to remind of the world Jesus empowers me to live in.

It is courage we give thanks for in the lives of the saints, in the lives of all us sinners, living and dead, who have been claimed by the grace of Jesus. It is their courage we praise as they and we turn this world of self-proclaiming on its head. Courage and faith to receive the inheritance that Jesus has bestowed upon us that we may know the hope of the calling to which he has called us.

So that night when I was I reading this book to Jasper, I remembered the ending sounds a lot like Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain:

Sometimes it’s better not to go fast.
There are beautiful sights to be seen when you’re last.
Shouldn’t it be looking back at the end
That you judge your own race by the help that you lend?
So take what’s inside you and make big, bold choices,
And for those who can’t speak for themselves, use BOLD voices.
And make friends and love well, bring art to this place
And make the world better for the whole human race. (“Is There Really A Human Race?”)

What a goal to tuck someone to bed with: Wake up tomorrow, little kiddo, and live into that inheritance that Jesus has given us. Life is no wild goose chase!

And so now we’ve tuck our departed loved ones for their final sleep with the hope they will soon open their eyes to the full inheritance prepared for them.

Rejoice in that day and leap for great joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Set Free

a sermon for Reformation Sunday

John 8:31-36

If we had wandered into church 505 years ago today, on October 30, 1517, suffice it to say our experience would have been wildly different from our experience today, on a number of levels. And that would not be just because a half-millennium has gone by and humankind has made numerous technological and scientific developments since then (Hi there, Livestream crew!!) Some very basic things would seem foreign and bewildering.

For one, we would have heard nothing during worship in our own language. Everything that the priests would have said and read would have been in Latin, and by 1517 nobody was speaking Latin outside of some academic and church-related settings. We would have probably known on a general level what the priest was saying because someone at some point had explained it to us, and some of the repetitive parts we might be able to mouth along with, but overall it would still have been unintelligible to us, whether we were worshiping in Germany or France or Norway or England. In fact, there is a large probability that the priest himself would not have understood what he was saying. He was just repeating back verbatim what he had memorized in seminary.

The town church in Wittenberg, the congregation of which Luther and his family were members.

Secondly, we would not have received the wine at Holy Communion. We would have most likely just watched the priest up at the altar—and maybe even with his backs turned to us—drink from the chalice by himself. There were a variety of confusing theological reasons they did it this way, but essentially the priests would drink the wine on behalf of the people they served. Let me tell you, I’ve tried to use this approach with some of my kids’ Halloween candy and it doesn’t go over well. (“I am eating this Reeses Peanut Butter Cup for your own good.”). This practice was also already receiving a good deal of pushback by 1517 and about a hundred years before Czech man named Jan Hus had campaigned for letting everyone receive both elements, but he had been burned at the stake for it.

Another big difference we would have noticed between then and now is that there would have been nothing for us to sing. There was music, but it was something we, as worshipers in the pews, passively consumed rather something that we participated in ourselves. Music in the medieval church was mostly chanting, all Scripture-based, although there were some choral pieces that a designated choir would often sing on some occasions. But again, everything would have been sung in Latin and it was not really written in a style that would invite people to join. The music sounded nothing at all like the music people would have heard elsewhere in society, around their tables in their homes or in the public places where they gathered.

There would have been countless other differences, of course, between worship in at the start of the Reformation and worship in 2022, but those three things would have really caught our attention. They also would never have called up third graders and placed a Bible in their hands in front of everyone with the expectation they would read it. They wouldn’t have had people read the daily Scriptures from the lectern or hold a baptism during the worship service. They would have had beer and bratwurst after the worship service, for sure. We won’t be having beer today, but we will have lots of other German goodies. So I’m glad all the really important things stay the same!

Talking about these differences is not an attempt to slam the medieval church, or to act like we’ve got it all figured out now. We today aren’t any better people or more moral than they were. However, it is noteworthy that within just a few years at the beginning of the 1500s all of that began to change. For Martin Luther and the other reformers, the church had one main duty: to let the Word of God set people free. The church, primarily in its worship, has been given that sacred and vital task: to talk about God’s grace before and above anything else so that people could be free—free from their sin, free from their inherent inward focus, free from the harmful labels society had placed on them and most of all, free from their tendency to prove their own worth.

And as Martin Luther look out at the state of things around him, he realized that church  was more often than not getting in the way of that first and most important task. Whether it was from the outdated language that made worship inaccessible and mysterious, or the distance of the sacraments from the people that placed priests here and the people down here, or the hard to sing and peculiar music of worship, or a combination of all of it, the church was not doing its best. The Protestant Reformation was about so many more things, of course, but in the end Luther’s reforms ended up touching on all of those matters, and that is a large reason why so many churches have the type of worship we have today. The church exists to proclaim God’s Word, which is about a love that sets you and me and all people free.

That is the foundational issue in the conversation between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day, part of which we hear this morning. He encounters some Jews who had believed in him but who still apparently cling to this idea that their kinship to Abraham, their great ancestor, has kept them free from any kind of slavery.

Just as an aside, because it’s in the news these days, this Scripture is actually a good example of a passage that has been twisted to encourage anti-semitism to take root in Christian faith, even though it is not anti-semitic and was never meant to be read that way. There are several times, especially in John’s gospel, where Jesus’ words seem, to some, to be derogatory toward the Jews in a way that spurs Jesus’ followers to hate and persecute them. Martin Luther, in fact, for all the good he did for the Christian witness, also left a terrible legacy of hating the Jewish and the Jewish faith. That is never Jesus’ intent, not even here when his words seem to linger with a taste of derision. Jesus is not hating Jewish people, for he is a Jew himself, and we have a responsibility to denounce hate of anyone whenever we encounter it. Here he is just reminding them that God is present in himself, the Son of God, in a new way that completely reorients everyone’s relationship with God, even theirs.

I mean, these are people, after all, who had, in fact, been slaves at one point in their history. They seem to have forgotten that. Jesus comes to love us and make us all children of the same heavenly Father, Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white.

And so all of Luther’s reforms were pointed at that message, to center the worship and teaching of the church on grace. Everything about using the vernacular language, letting everyone share the chalice, and providing music that all could sing were all ways to get God’s love to the people where it was supposed to be.

It may be obvious to most how those first two things set people free, but that third one—the one about how the church uses music to proclaim the gospel—may seem less obvious to us or maybe so obvious that we actually take it for granted. Luther knew that group singing, as opposed to listening to someone perform a song like we do at a concert, was a fundamental way to join many people together as one, to help their faith take root in their hearts. Each person has a voice, no matter how “gifted” at singing they may be, and using that voice in concert with others gives us a basic way to practice our faith, because faith involves risk, it involves getting outside of yourself, and what is opening your mouth and trying to make a beautiful noise if not risk? And it’s more risky for some of us than others, but that’s the wonderful thing about it!

One of our members here has shared with me that several years ago in his mind he made a shift from thinking of Sunday mornings as going to church to attending worship. For him there is a distinction—going to church sounds passive, whereas attending worship sounds more participatory. Luther would have agreed, and he wrote hymns in order to increase our feeling of doing something, of literally leaning into one another during the act of worship and he often used the styles of music he was hearing out in public, in secular spaces.

I was listening the other day to a young immigrant who was raised in another culture—I am pretty sure it was a south Asian country—share what he finds to be the main hallmarks of American culture. The very first one he mentioned was hyperindividualism. American culture, he remarked, is so focused on the uniqueness of everyone, almost to a fault, that it’s like we’re afraid to be a part of a group. We always want to set ourselves apart from everyone else, which is actually what those Jewish leaders are doing in this morning’s text. This man’s birth culture, by contrast, was more about collectives. Your family, your village, was your identity.

Celebrating individuality may be important, but it can be overemphasized to the point it becomes a prison. The Word of God sets us free from that, too, joining us to one another in ways we can share our joys and our sufferings in deep and real ways. Worship and theology that makes the space for this, where participation trumps performance where our gathering feels more like community and less like a concert—is freeing in ways we often take for granted.

I know Kevin doesn’t like to hear himself talked about, but this is one way in which he has served us better than I think we realize. Over these 25 years he has reformed us, letting the Word of God set people free to use their gifts and bring us together. I remember one of the first Christmas Eves I was here he had a young Amelie Bice, who was probably 5 or 6 at the time, play the piano for the prelude. She was just a beginner. She plunked out “Amazing Grace” with one hand, which I assumed might have been the only song she had learned. It maybe wasn’t your typical Christmas Eve fanfare, but it was just one of many examples of how our music director Kevin has created a worship environment where we all enjoy making music to praise God. She had gifts to share, and Kevin encouraged it. Amelie is now a high school senior, by the way, and plays like a pro with both hands.

What a way to understand faith, and to have it modeled in worship! We go forth from here not to perform our faith for others in the world, as if they can see what virtuosos we consider ourselves to be, but to participate in the suffering and joy of the world. We go forth from here set free, our gifts and voices tuned to his grace so that we may use them in our service to others.

We go forth chosen not because we’re so good, but because God, who is good, has chosen us. We go as people who have heard in our language, who have tasted on our tongues, who have sung with our voices: we are justified by grace, apart from works of the law!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Are You Ready to Rumble?

a sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24C/Lectionary 29]

Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8

The night was dark. Melinda had picked up me and our oldest child at church and driven us home after a late evening meeting because my car had been in the shop. The three of us came home to find there had been a scuffle between the other two kids, who had been left at home, we had thought, in a peaceful way.

The details of what had actually transpired were hazy. It involved some kind of rough-housing over a stuffed animal and a 6-year-old who wouldn’t go to bed. In an attempt to gain authority over him, his sister had somehow wrenched the toy from his clutches and, in so doing, had had dislodged one of his top front teeth. We found them both in the bathroom. He was bloodied, scared, and defiant, She was apologetic, confused, and worried. We found the tooth on the floor, calmed the opponents down, and moved them along to bed. But now a huge, empty tooth socket punctuated his smile. We had expected it would fall out eventually, but now a night of adversity and struggle had left its mark.

It is also dark the night of adversity and confusion that leaves Jacob forever changed. It is not an empty tooth socket he stands there with on the banks of the Jabbok River, but a busted hip socket, an injury that will mark the way he goes through life from then on. Jacob, too, had wrestled with an opponent, a mystery figure who refuses to be named, who appears in the middle of the night and catches Jacob when he’s alone.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (Marc Chagal)

What a strange scene—there is nothing like it! It’s dark, the two men can’t really see each other, and perhaps most peculiar of all: Jacob actually seems to have the upper hand. He has lived a life of perpetual deal-maker, a swindler, and here he forces a blessing out of his wrestling opponent. You can’t get much more earthy, more intimate and shocking than this scenario, especially when it seems the mystery wrestler is God himself—or at least Jacob comes to understand it is such a divine experience that he feels this what living with God must be like, especially after a life of constantly tussling with almost everyone he knows. It’s so significant of an encounter that Jacob claims his new name, Israel: “He who wrestles with God.”

Let me ask you: have you ever thought of God as a wrestler, someone who comes into the ring looking for a fight like Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, or the Nature Boy Ric Flair? It’s quite the image for God for us to contemplate, especially when so often God gets cast in the movies or in books or maybe in our mind as some aged figure with a long white flowing beard, or sitting aloft some clouds like the actor Morgan Freeman. But if the name of your people, your tribe, if the core of your identity was literally “One who wrestles with God” it would probably be difficult for you to picture God as a fragile, distant, elderly man. If would be tough to imagine God as a shapeless, formless entity. You would think of God as someone you strive against. You would think of Jacob by the Jabbok, never giving up against his opponent, and how in the midst of being given a blessing you were changed.

At some point in his ministry as they near Jerusalem where Jesus will face his own dark hour of struggle, Jesus tells this story about another person who never gives up against her opponent.  This time it is a widow who comes to berate a judge to bless her with justice that she deserves. Wrestling on a riverbank may be a bit out of our frame of reference, but this parable of Jesus’ certainly paints a relatable picture, doesn’t it? Every day there are people enmeshed in our nation’s legal system pleading for justice and mercy—tenants doing everything they can to prevent from being evicted by landlords, parents fighting for custody for their children in a series of court appearances. On TV Judge Wapner and Judge Judy listen to countless tired arguments from people who just want someone to hear them out. And even our former President this week, no stranger to judges and juries, tried another last-ditch effort to have the Supreme Court overturn a case that would help give him some time to reframe his argument.

In Jesus’ parable, the widow is relentless with her arguing and eventually the judge grants her request mainly because he doesn’t want her to give him a black eye with her persistence. By the end of Jesus’ lesson we know that the judge in the parable is not a stand-in for God because God is merciful and compassionate and this judge is a jerk but nevertheless we are left with this heroine who just doesn’t give up.

In both cases—Jacob by the river and the widow by the judge’s bench—we are presented with the reality of what life with God is like. God is there to be wrestled with. God is there to hear our cries. God lives in order to engage with us, to get dirty with us, to be a hotline where some compassionate expert is always waiting to pick up the phone and listen to our emergency.

I don’t know about you, but I find these to be extremely challenging images and scenes. The way God appears in the psalm this morning is usually more my style—that is, the powerful but removed God who never slumber nor sleeps, who keeps watch over me like the policeman patrolling our parking lot this morning. God is always looking out for me, but he or she is over there, at a distance, between me and the sun and the moon, letting me do my thing over here. Too often I am tempted to let my relationship with God become passive like that.

But in actuality God sees a wrestling partner in us. God wants to get on our level, down in the mud, even. God is expecting us to turn to him, to plead if we feel like it, to open up and let loose with what’s bothering us. God might want me to demand a blessing or justice, but ultimately God wants to be engaged all the time. These stories, and plenty others like them in Scripture give us the strong sense that God wants to be near us and know what we know. As Jesus says, we are to pray always and not lose heart and this is challenging to me because I often just take prayer for granted.

In the book H is for Hawk, British writer Helen MacDonald tells the story of how she turned to falconry after her father’s death as a way to help her grieve. She chooses a goshawk to rear from infancy to adulthood, realizing full well that goshawks are the toughest type of raptor to train and live with. She struggles mightily with the hawk, whom she names Mabel, and her friendship with it takes her on many hikes and adventures across England’s fields, but she makes an astonishing discovery about her grief process when she rides the train home from the memorial service held for her dad. By training the hawk she had tried to seek solace in nature,  and had tried to make sense of her father’s memory in solitude, but she finds the true healing came when she forced herself to take part in the community at prayer together and as people wrestled with their grief before God and one another. “Hands are for other human hands to hold,” she writes, confessionally. “They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much air can corrode it to nothing.”

Two years ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic had already been raging for six months and the promise of a workable vaccine was still not on the horizon, I found myself in a really dark night. Unsure of how much longer we could continue as a congregation that couldn’t do much of what kept us alive, I became angry, sad, and bitter. Eventually I sought counsel with a therapist, and our conversation proved very enlightening to me. She helped me see that in the scurry of trying to keep things going at church and at home I had inadvertently laid aside my regular practice of writing in a journal for thirty or forty minutes at a time. “I’ll get around to it when I need it and when I have time for it,” I had told myself at the beginning of the pandemic when there were so many other pulls on my time and energy.

But I had only gotten around to it occasionally, and in piecemeal fashion. The counselor suggested I go back to a set time each week, which is what I’d been doing for 20 years or more. My journaling, I remembered, was intense prayer. It was my wrestling with God, my showing up at the judge’s bench each week to air my concerns. It wasn’t a chore or a luxury. It was the way God had been blessing me in much the way he’d blessed Jacob and refraining from it had left me lonely. And that week I restarted that blessing. It put a limp in my week, for sure, because I had to take the time to do it, but it was amazing how quickly my mindset changed and how closer I felt to God.

And then I thought of all of the people in the congregation who had seen the early days of the pandemic as a time to pray like never before. So many of you found ways to wrestle so faithfully, whether it was in your private lives or through online prayer moments or worship gatherings. In fact, the habits became so beneficial and well-formed that we included livestreaming to our Sunday options and many more of you join us in prayer each week, some while we’re doing it, and others save it for viewing later.

Hands are for other hands to hold. Indeed. It sounds so obvious, and yet we forget it, even as Jesus hangs there on the cross, still in prayer, still pleading with God because he loves us so much, receiving in his dialogue much worse than a busted hip. Prayer should be our first language, and yet we put it off or resort to it only when we need something. But both wrestling and court petitions are something that take constant work if they are to change anything, and the anything is typically us.

When Jesus wonders aloud with his disciples that day about how the Son of Man will at his return be aware of the presence of faith on the earth, he doesn’t suggest that it’s by all the large church buildings they’ve constructed, or by how fun and attractive their youth programs are. Neither does he initially link it, surprisingly, to the number of people who’ve been served and definitely not to which political party is in power or what laws have been enacted. Jesus links the presence of faith on earth to the amount of wrestling he finds. He links the vitality of faith to the number of people who walk differently each day with that out-of-socket hip. Or with an empty tooth socket, as the case may be.

Whatever your blessing of choice—God is here, always ready to listen, always eager to meet us face to face.

The question is: Are you ready to rumble?

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Saying Thanks

a sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23C/Lectionary 28]

Luke 17:11-19 and 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

All this talk about thankfulness makes me think about a curious news article a couple of weeks that ago caught my eye. Its headline was: “Voice assistants Siri and Alexa are Making Kids Rude and Antisocial, Scientists Fear.” The article makes the case that with assistive voice technology “youngsters are not taught” [the importance of manners and courteous responses] nor how to read body language.” The piece even quotes a Cambridge University doctor who says, “With digital devices there is no expectation that polite terms, such as please or thank you should be used.”[1]

Well, isn’t that interesting! If so, then I’m afraid my family is doomed. We boss Alexa round on a daily basis—to put things on the grocery list, to play music, and perhaps most of all, to use the “announce” feature and relay messages instead of yelling through the house. She never corrects our grammar. She never tells us to lower our voice. She never criticizes our music selections. She is the unobtrusive, demure presence in every room who never asks for anything in return.

Those researchers at Cambridge may or may not be on to something, but I think this morning Jesus would chime in to let us know people have had trouble saying please and especially thank you long before there were ever Siris and Alexas. After cleansing ten people with leprosy one day while he is traveling on the way to Jerusalem through the border regions of Samaria and Galilee only one had the decency to return and say thank you, and he was a foreigner, of all things. What happened to the other nine? Why didn’t they come back to give Jesus some respect, or even just turn around on their way to the priest and give Jesus a thumbs up?

The text doesn’t tell us the answers so Jesus’ question just kind of hangs out there for us to ponder along with him. And in doing so, my mind starts to reflect on my own shortcomings in the “thank you” department. It would be nice if I could just blame my own periodic forgetfulness or outright rudeness on things like Alexa or technology, but the truth probably lies somewhere else. Sometimes I probably conclude the person wouldn’t notice or care if I sent word. Did this gift or this gesture which I received reach the threshold of something I should say an intentional “thank you” for?

Maybe sometimes I don’t say thank you because I think my gift was actually deserved. That is, I was just getting was I think I’m due, and so saying thanks is not warranted. Maybe the nine lepers felt their ostracization from society due to their condition had been cruel and unnecessary. Forced to live at the edge of society and beg for a living, which were the rules of the day for many people who were sick, perhaps they felt they had deserved someone’s mercy and that being restored to community was a justice long overdue.

Or maybe they didn’t return out of shame or embarrassment, and they ran on, wanting to put that old life behind them. I’ve felt that, too, before. I know that in my case, it is usually forgetfulness. Life gets busy, I move onto the next thing, and the task of writing a thank you note just slips through the cracks.

Whatever the case, the nine’s lack of thankfulness to Jesus doesn’t change the grace God had conveyed upon them. Those nine are still cleansed. They are still healed. They are still free of the bonds their condition had placed on them, free to run into the future that is open to them.

God is like that: gracious and full of compassion, never revoking his gifts to his children. The lepers cry out to Jesus for mercy, and he responds with healing.

Like the venerable old apple tree in Shel Silverstein’s classic children’s book, The Giving Tree, God is a natural giver. The Giving Tree tells the story of a tree who watches a boy grow up and who constantly wants to help him however he can. First he offers the boy all his apples to sell, and then a few years later his leaves, then his branches, and finally his trunk to make a boat. The selfish boy keeps coming back for more until, when he is a very old man, all the tree has become is an old stump to sit on. God is like that tree who keeps giving and giving even when we fail to say thank you or recognize the suffering that our taking causes him. Indeed, God is a tree—a cross-shaped tree—who keeps loving and dying and forgiving so that we may have life, whether we fully acknowledge it or not.

Today, in the shadow of that tree, we do find ourselves a thankful congregation. To be sure we are always a thankful congregation, but today we are especially grateful for the ways God has looked on us with mercy through the challenges of the last two and a half years when we’ve felt, in many ways, pushed to the edge. We praise God for the ways the Holy Spirit has kept our community of faith together and even expanded it, even as we have felt the strain and pull of controversial discussions and decisions.

Today we are a thankful congregation because we get the chance to call Pastor Sarah Lang our pastor. We are grateful that God has led us to this point so that we could fulfill a vision of leadership from six years ago. We are thankful for Sarah’s gifts of wisdom and experience, for her skills in teaching and administration, preaching and worship leadership. We are thankful for Sarah’s keen ability to see the people on our margins and draw our attention to them.

And with Sarah on staff we now have four married couples on staff together, and we’re thankful for that too, even as it feels like the elephant in the room. It is an unusual arrangement, and for the record we did not seek it out and orchestrate it this way. It just kind of fell into our lap, and it takes some careful minding of boundaries to make it work. You know, it might not be everyone’s ideal staff situation, but, I’ll tell you, we could lead one heckuva marriage retreat!

Today we are thankful people—thankful that God has given us a faith that saves us. And we are thankful to be in a position to call Sarah, who will help continue to form that faith among us. That is the key here with this one Samaritan leper who returns to give thanks and worship Jesus by falling on the ground. His faith saves him. All ten of the lepers are healed of their disease but only this one is truly saved (also translated, “made him well”), and we hear Jesus tell him it is his faith that makes him so.

Faith saves us. It is core Lutheran belief, a foundation of how followers of Christ say God works in our lives. However, when we say “faith saves us” we don’t just mean that one day our faith will provide us entrance to heaven. It means faith has the power to rescue us now. It is an invitation to live a life of change now. I would imagine that everyone who professes a faith in Jesus would describe it in some way as beneficial to them. They could talk in a real way about how their faith at some point, or at many points, has liberated them or freed them from something. Maybe from despair or grief or a feeling of meaninglessness. Maybe, in some cases, from addiction. Faith is good for us. It improves our life, it brightens our outlook, it gives us hope for the journey.

And, by the grace of God, faith is not just something that benefits us. Faith in a risen Christ naturally overcomes boundaries. “The word of God is not chained,” says Paul to Timothy. Just as the Son of God emerges from the tomb, our faith flows from us into the life of the whole world. Just look at how the faith of one enslaved girl serving wife of Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army, ripples from the very bottom to the top of the chain of command! She’s there in the tent—we’re never told her name—but she has an understanding of her God’s goodness and she the sense of mind to share that. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!” she says boldly to her mistress, “He could cure him of his leprosy!”

Naaman (Pieter de Grebber)

It makes me wonder who formed her faith, who made her so sure? She was a little girl at the Sunday School table with Ms. Betsy and Amanda Mertz one Sunday. Or studying the Ten Commandments as a fifth grader with Matt Greenshields and Rob McClintock. Or it was the conversation she had with volunteers Faye Coppage or Chris Crouch during the service project one day. Someone somewhere along the line must have opened her eyes to the power of God to heal and that faith made her well. And that faith in a living God, which meant something to her did not stay there. Eventually it makes its way to the King of Aram and then the King of Israel, whose bluster and pride get in the way, and then to the prophet Elisha, who convinces Naaman to wash himself in the river Jordan where he is saved from his leprosy. And like the foreign Samaritan, Naaman returns to praise God and exalt his name.

The psalm this morning is also found in Proverbs, a book of wisdom: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” To say it differently, our worship is where faith formation starts. Our relationship to the living God—the giving God of the cross-tree—grows from the act of stopping and returning and intentionally sacrificing some bit of ourselves to offer thanks for what God has already done. The Samaritan prostrates himself—an act of humility and vulnerability that shows respect for Jesus. Naaman the Syrian, for all his initial pride, humbly returns to stand in front of the prophet Elisha to profess his faith in Israel’s God.

Now we, standing before our merciful Father, cleansed of our sin and receiving his body and blood in our hand, say thank you. And as we do, we can sense the wisdom growing within us:

Thank you for the beauty of a crisp fall day, for music, even when it’s from Alexa, but especially when it’s from Kevin or Mr. Scott. Thank you for football games and homecomings and weddings and baptisms and funerals. Thank you for this day we’ve been given, these very breaths we are taking, and this voice that allows us to speak to you, and especially when we can join with others. And for all that we’ve ordered you around to give us and for all you’ve given us anyway.

“Thank you, O Lord, for this good life, and forgive us if we do not love it enough.”[2]


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


[2] “State Fair,” Garrison Keillor in Leaving Home. Penguin Books. 1987, p 118