a meal to remember

a sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost [proper 12B]

John 6:1-21

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Three summers ago my family was making the long trek back across the country from visiting friends in Wisconsin. We stopped for a night in Chicago and ended up staying in a hotel on the far northern edge of the city. After spending a long, hot, and sunny day walking to different sites in downtown, we got back in our car and drove the thirty minutes north to the hotel. We were tired and hungry, and we didn’t want to spend more money and energy in a restaurant, so at about 7pm we stopped in Heinen’s grocery store, bought a rotisserie chicken, some small tubs of salads from the prepared foods counter, some fruit, and some Chips-Ahoy for dessert. We went back to our hotel room, spread out the food on the coffee table, which was small and unusually low to the floor, so we had to squish together on the sofa and hunch over to eat. And we sat there and ate our lukewarm and cold food while we watched the U.S. Women’s soccer team win the World Cup final.

My family still talks about that meal. In many ways, that supper still feeds me and Melinda. We remember it with such fondness, and not because the food was exceptional. It was an event where we had a clear need and discovered that somehow the Lord provided more than we were expecting. It was a surprise moment of unusual togetherness for us during a long trip home, a time of growth and opportunity—one daughter willing to try blackberries for the first time, all of us swept into the action of the game. It was a humble meal, kind of haphazardly put together. We didn’t have any plates, so we just ate right out of the food containers themselves, everyone with their own fork from the grocery store salad bar. Everything tasted so good, and while I don’t remember my belly feeling particularly full after we finished, I was satisfied.

Have you ever had an experience like that?—a time when food was shared and it created a life-giving moment but the food itself wasn’t really the centerpiece? Have you found yourself in a moment like that—a time of random ambush of God’s abundance, when there was what seemed like nothing…and then suddenly there was more than enough?

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There was an event in Jesus’ ministry like that. It was such a big deal— and people talked about it so much and, in a way, fed from it for a long time in their memories—that it ended up in every version about Jesus’ life that we have. In fact, no other event in Jesus’ life, outside of the crucifixion and resurrection, is recorded by all four gospel writers. We’ve come to call it the feeding of the 5000, and it is probably one of the most well-known stories from the Bible. The fact that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all get so many details the same suggests that this meal there beside the sea had a huge impact on how people understood Jesus’ presence in their life.

He has compassion for people in need.

He empowers disciples to do ministry of caretaking, just like he enlists Philip and Andrew in the problem-solving.

When we hand over to him what we have, he can make it more than enough.

A seemingly small gesture done in Christ’s service can have effects with infinite proportions.

That miraculous event by the Sea of Galilee that day was so impressive, so out of the ordinary, that it became one of the key ways to understanding what Jesus was all about.

For the last few centuries it has become custom to try to explain the miracle scientifically. Some have said that it is a miracle of sharing—that once the one boy had the courage to offer forth his food, suddenly everyone broke out his or her lunch and before you know it, they had a feast on their hands. While it might be hard to get my head around Jesus bending the laws of nature, feeding that many people with such a small amount of food, I find it even more difficult to believe that everyone shares and they all just happen to have brought the exact two same things that day: bread and fish! No stuffed grape leaves? No hummus? Come on!

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Jesus Feeds the Multitude (Victoria and Albert Museum). The boy on the right is handing fish to Jesus. The loaves have already been handed over to Jesus’ disciples on the left.

Others have tried to interpret this miracle as a relic of an ancient mindset that we don’t have anymore. They say that people were used to seeing ordinary things happen and then embellishing them as if something remarkable had happened, that they would tell these kinds of stories about people they admired all the time. However, as researchers and historians look more closely at that time period, we have found that there really aren’t many other examples of major figures performing feedings like this, not to mention stories about the same person doing other miraculous things along the way, too. Of course, as miraculous as this event is, it is just one of several that Jesus manages to pull off during his ministry, something mentioned in the passage’s opening sentence.[1]

No matter what Jesus wants you or me or those people to believe about how he pulls off the feeding of the 5000, the point he is trying to make with it is more important. As with so many things in life, we see something and become so fascinated with how it’s happening that we miss what is happening. And in this case, what is happening is that Jesus is showing us something about God. God’s grace towards us is not ever going to be bound by the laws of physics or the laws of attraction or the laws of the United States of America. God’s desire to care for us and look after us is sometimes—more often than not—just not going to make sense. It’s just too great.

And yet this feeding of the 5000 is still not just an event to tell those hungry people and these hungry people how gracious and giving our God is in general. If that were the case, then all of the attention afterwards would likely be focused on that little boy who offers up his lunch. He would become the hero, the example of how God opens his hand, as the psalm this morning says, and provides for the need of every living thing. And if this were just a lesson about how God is always going to provide ample resources, then it does kind of make sense to make Jesus king, and Jesus would probably accept that gesture. He might say something like , “Just trust in God and there will be enough. As long as you have faith, everything will work out in your favor. God helps those who help themselves.”

Feeding of the many. John 6:1-21. 1999 Mark A Hewitt. Lino cut & water colour.

But Jesus doesn’t say that and Jesus doesn’t want that, because that’s not what this miracle is about. And that’s not really grace, anyway. When Jesus multiplies the loaves and the fish that day beside the sea he is offering a sign not about how generous God is in general. It is about how generous God is with Jesus. At this meal, the food is not the centerpiece; the host is.

This is a story about how abundantly God provides for us through the life and suffering of his Son, even when we don’t deserve it (reality check: we never deserve it). It is a sign that the true needs we have as God’s children are being answered in the grace and mercy and astounding forgiveness of Jesus Christ. God has our true needs in mind, and there is enough love of Jesus to provide nurture for the entire planet. When he is at the table, when he is present in the conversations we have, when the ministry team gathers in his name, when the mission work crew labors for his kingdom, then we do not need to worry about ever going without. There will be enough to do, enough to be joyful about, enough to share with others.

And we know this foremost because there is another event in Jesus’ life much like this feeding. It is the crowning moment, the moment of total glory, even though it, at first, also looked like everyone was going to come up empty-handed. Around the cross a crowd shows up, hungry, disappointed, and eventually goes away because no one steps up with even a loaf or a fish. It is just loss and emptiness there. And yet God is at work, dying to our ways of hoarding and wasting, dying to our ways of worrying there isn’t enough. Christ is at work, and, lo and behold, he is being made king. In our rejection of him, he’s being made king of a kingdom that doesn’t operate by the selfish, competitive standards of this world.

Congregations do well to remember this, and pastors too, because every congregation I’ve ever been a part of at some point worries that it is deficient in some way. Either there are fears that there is not enough money or not enough Sunday School teachers or people for the choir, or there are concerns the congregation isn’t diverse enough or that we don’t sing enough of that kind of music.

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The fact of the matter is that when Jesus is present in the crowd, when the cross is the centerpiece, ministry will always be satisfying and there will enough to go around. The presence of Jesus, you see, is the only thing that ever makes a congregation worthwhile or sacred. He suffices. And over and over he has us sit down, then he takes himself, gives thanks, and breaks himself and distributes himself to each person in the crowd. And we are fed.  In fact, that meal is still feeding us. That is grace.

There is a table blessing they sing up in the dining hall at camp Lutheridge that helps drive this home. Maybe I can teach it to you now as a way to remind us of our king and the limitless capacity of his love for us and his call for us to share it with the world. Maybe it can be a way we prepare to receive his grace at his table again today.

 

Come and dine, the master calls us, come and dine.
There is plenty at God’s table all the time.
He who fed the multitudes and turned the water into wine
Come and dine, the master calls us, come and dine.

 

May we come to keep eating it. And to keep talking about it.

 

Amen.

 

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a mosaic on the floor of the Church of the Multiplication, Tabgha

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Jesus: A Pilgrimage. James Martin, S.J. HarperOne 2014. pp 257ff

rules and regulations for a mid-July evening

The storm has ended.
Listen to the crickets tell you:
The last leaden rain drops from the tree leaves
are fading into their chorus.

The petrichor was strong a moment ago
but it is giving way
to a night breeze
that is cooler on the face.
Breathe it in now
while you still can.

The moon will be out in a bit
but for now
the brightest glow is the from the porch light
where some bugs are beginning to gather.
Watch them; I’ve done this before—
None of them bite.

My children
if you want to come join me here
on the porch swing
no footwear is allowed

Do not pump your legs.
It is time for sitting
and moving if the swing moves us

Uncharted Territory

a sermon for the festival of Mary Magdalene, Apostle

Ruth 1:6-18 and John 20:1-2, 11-18

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This week at Vacation Bible School 145 children and around 75 volunteers all participated in a Rolling River Rampage. The theme of whitewater rafting was carried throughout the week, and each day, in order to enforce the day’s Bible lesson, campers “went to the river” and found something.

For example, on Monday we found adventure on the river, and we heard the story of Jesus’ calling his disciples. When Jesus tells them to fish for people he is preparing them for adventure. The life of a disciple contains lots of new tasks and not knowing what comes next. The second day of Vacation Bible School we found acceptance on the river, and that was tied in to the story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus in their home. On the third day we found joy on the river, on the fourth day we found rest on the river, and on the last day we heard the story that comes at the very end of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus tells his disciples he would be with them until the end of the age. On that day we found peace on the river. I thought this was a clever way to tie one of the main points of each Scripture lesson to the theme of river exploration.

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Well, July 22 is the church’s commemoration of Mary Magdalene, and if we were extend Vacation Bible School to today and tie the theme to her, would get on the river and find nothing. It would be an empty river. We would expect to find something, just like we had every other day before—we would walk down to the river with our paddles and our life-vests and be prepared to deal with another theme or lesson— but nothing would be there. That’s what happens to Mary Magdalene. She comes down to the cemetery outside Jerusalem not with her rafting gear but with her oils and spices for anointing the dead, and the body of Jesus isn’t there.

Mentioned at some point by all four gospel writers as a person involved in Jesus’ ministry, Mary of Magdala becomes the first person in history to show up at a tomb and find nothing there because the body has been brought back to life. Mary Magdalene, about whom we know so little but who is featured so prominently in Jesus’ life, becomes the first person to come face to face with the full force of the life-giving power of God in Jesus Christ.  As one poet once put it, “She, while Apostles shrank, could dangers brave/ “last at his cross and earliest at his grave.”[1]

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“Descent from the Cross” (Van der Weyden, 1435). Mary Magdalene is the figure on the far right, weeping.

At first, however, Mary Magdalene thinks Jesus’ body has been removed and taken to another place. When Jesus himself addresses her, she first mistakes him for the gardener. It’s fascinating that she confuses him with a gardener, for what does a gardener do but work to bring new life from the earth? When he finally calls her by her name, she recognizes him as her Lord.

It is so often the knowledge that Jesus knows us and calls us which brings clarity to whatever situation we’re in. In seminary we were taught by a pastoral care professor to make sure we placed a cross or a clear visual image of Jesus in our study so that people could see it when they came in. It was in Jesus’ name and presence that people would share things with us…and like Mary they may feel comforted by a God who addresses us so intimately.

Once she realizes who it is, Mary doesn’t want to leave him, and I think that sounds like a totally normal reaction. If I had lost someone close to me, especially in a terrible death like that, and I saw them again, I wouldn’t be able to leave them so easily. However, Jesus instead tells her to go to the disciples and announce that he is ascending to God, and astoundingly, she does. So great was her faith and devotion to Jesus that she immediately does what he commands. She goes to them and says, “I have seen the Lord” and in John’s gospel, to see something means to understand it, to know it, to perceive what is really going on. Mary Magdalene is really the first believer in the resurrection.

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“Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection” (Ivanov, 1835)

All of the disciples will eventually have to grapple with what Mary Magdalene saw because they will see it too, but right at the beginning—right there at the tomb before anyone else—Mary Magdalene finds herself in uncharted territory. It is a whole new rolling river rampage—one that rolls completely differently than anything that has come before it. Like Ruth before her, who ventures into uncharted territory by bravely and dutifully staying with Naomi her mother-in-law and going into a foreign land where she would be a stranger instead of turning back and staying in the land she already knew, Mary Magdalene is a pioneer for God’s kingdom. The territory that Mary ventures into is one where God is victorious over death. Is it a reality where the power of sin, death, and the devil are undone. God and sinners are reconciled. Weeping turns to rejoicing. The One who was crucified is now risen. The Gardener is always bringing forth new life.

She may be the first witness to the resurrection, and many Sundays during the year, her name is mentioned as a part of our Holy Communion liturgy from behind the altar, and yet the church has not always known how to handle Mary Magdalene, and has to some degree mishandled the truth about her. Because Luke tells us at one point that Jesus cast seven demons out of her, and because at least one woman by the name of Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with oil, it has long been assumed that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute whom Jesus redeemed from that line of work. There is nothing in the New Testament that tells us to connect those dots that way. Unfortunately, early on Mary Magdalene was so closely associated with Jesus that legends began to surface about the nature of her relationship with him. Movies and books have been written suggesting the two of them were secretly married or had children together. Again, all of this does nothing but to concentrate on Mary Magdalene in a negative way or mainly in terms of her sexuality which is unfortunately what often happens with a lot of women, both then and now. There are a lot of legends and traditions associated with Mary Magdalene, including a popular and ancient story that ties her to the creation of the Easter egg, which is why in a lot of ancient paintings and icons of Mary she is holding a red egg.

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What we do know from Scripture is that Mary Magdalene witnessed Jesus’ death, she was there at his burial, and she witnessed his first resurrection appearance. This puts her first into the uncharted territory where God is doing something brand new with creation. It is news that, if you believe it, changes your perspective on everything. God is re-making the world into a place where the holy can dwell forever. It is a place where compassion and mercy and love have the upper hand. It is a place where God promises to heal our brokenness and turn our weeping into joy. It is a creation where Jesus, the suffering and merciful Lord Jesus, is Lord of all.

Mary Magdalene, perhaps more than any other person, reminds us is first and foremost that Christian faith is about an event, a piece of news—that is is a message about something particular that happened. It is so tempting, especially in this day and age, I believe, to try to reduce Christian faith to just a set of values or ideals. We can catch ourselves saying things like “Christian faith is really, at its core, about peace or love or accepting others.” Or we’ll say it’s about following the Ten Commandments and learning what the Bible tells us to do, like Scripture is a just a self-help rule book. Or we’ll try to boil Christianity down to a philosophy or concept, like treat others the way you want to be treated. But Christian faith is not a concept or value system. It contains values and ideas, and good ones, at that, but Christian faith, the faith of Jesus, is inherently a message: Jesus is risen. The message is this: Mary has seen the Lord. She didn’t find his body. She found new life. And now the universe and everything in it—even everything that has been snatched away by death and sin—belongs to God again.

That is what’s so exciting about what happens to Caroline in her baptism this morning. She starts her life learning about this uncharted territory where death isn’t the end, where Jesus is risen, where God’s love reigns forever. And, like Mary Magdalene, it will be her turn to tell that message to others…with her words and with her life.

One of the other things I noticed during Vacation Bible School this past week was how excited the youth were to take part as leaders. Once you finish 5th grade here, you age out of being a Vacation Bible School student but you are eligible to serve as a helper, whether that be in one of the stations like crafts or science. And I could see this week that a lot of those youth took very seriously this role of helper. It’s like they’ve been hearing the messages of God’s love in VBS for years, and now they want to help tell it. They move from role of listener and receiver to role of proclaimer: from being a disciple (one who learns) to being an apostle (one who is sent).

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At one point on Friday I was speaking with a parent who was standing in line to pick up her young child. She was saying that next year her children would be aging out and I said to get them involved as helpers because we’ve found that when they’re young youth they love to take on that role of telling the story. And right at that point I felt this nudge on my leg—the nudge not of a human but of something metal, and then a hand on my side. I turned around to find that Ms. Sophie Wilson, age 96, was pushing me with her walker. She looked at me and said, “All of us young youth like to help out here!” This was probably her 60th Vacation Bible School.

How are you living into God’s possibilities of new life? I could ask you how are you living God’s adventure, acceptance, joy, rest, and peace as one of his disciples? But today a challenge for us all is: how are we sharing this message, reporting in our words and in our actions what Mary Magdalene did not discover on the river that morning? Because of Jesus’ cross, we are apostles, and this whole life is holy, gracious, exciting, and joyous unchartered territory.

Thanks be to God!

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Sara Bareilles played Mary Magdalene in NBS’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar LIVE” in 2018.

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Border crossings

a sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 8B]

Mark 5:21-43

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About fifteen years ago I got to attend a church conference in Cyprus, which is a small island in the eastern Mediterranean roughly about the size of Delaware. It is actually an island split in two with a wall running down the center of it, and it’s been split since about 1974 when the Turkish-leaning citizens of the north, feeling threatened by the Greek Cypriots in the south and concerned about where their country was going, declared themselves their own country. It is one of the world’s still-unresolved disputes, since only the country of Turkey recognizes that upper part as an independent country. In order to prevent further bloodshed, the United Nations set up an armed buffer zone between the two regions.

While I was there, my friends and I rented a car and drove around the southern part of the island for a few days and then decided we’d like to see the northern part. Americans were allowed to travel to the Turkish side, but we had to park our car in the parking lot and leave it there, walk through the checkpoint by the armed guards and leave our passports there. It was the authorities’ way of ensuring that we would eventually come back to the south side where we belonged. When I found out that I’d have to leave my passport behind, I suddenly felt a little nervous about the whole adventure. What if I didn’t get it back? What would they do with it while I was gone?

Eventually I overcame those fears and we walked on foot between the big walls of the buffer zone and through the checkpoint on the northern side. There we rented another car and drove off to see the sites we had in mind. But the clock was ticking because we had to be back by nightfall. As foreigners without passports, we weren’t allowed to stay in northern Cyprus. So, at the end of the day we dropped the northern Cyprus car off, walked back through the buffer zone, retrieved our passports, got back in our first rental car, and went along our merry way. It was like we had gone on a short detour in a very divided country.

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Me, standing atop the ruins of St. Hilarion Castle, Northern Cyprus (2002)

Jesus makes all kinds of tricky border crossings in his ministry, and today we see him go on one short detour in a very divided country. However, the divided lands that Jesus crosses in this event are not bounded by buffer zones or armed guards or tall walls with barbed wire. They are the divisions of culture that are set up all over his world. And while on a trip to help with the family of a man who you might say lives squarely on one side of the human island, he makes a quick detour to heal a woman who lives on the total opposite side, and who is separated by all kinds of barriers.

There is a lot to focus on in this account of Jesus as he gets off the boat after traveling to the land on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. It’s basically two healing stories rolled into one, and I suppose that’s where most of the attention immediately goes. It goes to the way that Jesus is able to heal even without coming into direct contact with people. The woman merely touches the cloak Jesus is wearing and her hemorrhage stops. Jesus is able to feel this healing power go out of him, almost like he’s got static electricity.

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Our attention also goes to the way that Jesus is really a master healer, popular throughout the land in a time when people sought out faith healers. But unlike other faith healers of Jesus’ day, Jesus doesn’t actively seek the healing, trying to make a buck, and—more importantly—he increasingly appears to be mentally moving on to something else, doesn’t he?

But perhaps our minds mainly focus on the way we identify, on some level, with each of these individuals. We know people who have dealt with some kind of medical condition for years that never goes away. It drains them physically, socially, and financially. They never seem to get the answers they seek and they end up just having to learn to live with it. I think especially of people who live with the disease of addiction, who often lose their friends and their other close relationships because they’re in the grip of something they can’t control. And yet God seeks to heal them. God loves them and they need our compassion, not our dismissal.

And then there’s Jairus, who is in a different kind of grip—the grip of worry for his child. I think anyone who’s ever cared for a child, or a loved one, whether their own or someone else’s, understands on some level what Jairus is going through, how you get to a point where you’ll do anything to help your child stop suffering. Your mind begins to go very scary places even when they just spike a fever. That’s where Jairus is, except he is already in the scary place with his daughter.

Long, Edwin, 1829-1891; The Raising of Jairus' Daughter
The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter (Edwin Long, 19th c)

It’s easy for our minds to focus on this miraculous healing of that daughter, too—how Jesus takes her by the hand, even though it was taboo to touch dead bodies, and says, “Get up, little girl!” In her case—as in the case of the bleeding woman—she is restored to life. Their faith and the faith of those around them play a part in this. They see Jesus as their hope and salvation.

Jesus doesn’t really perform either healing so that people around them may believe. Notice he asks everyone to leave at one point. Yet these people’s relationship to him is this critical component to being well.

Faith in Christ makes us well in the sense it makes us whole. In some exceptional cases, that means we are physically restored somehow. Maybe doctors, nurses, and pharmacists are able to touch our bodies or use medicines and make us well that way. In other cases, however, the healing may look completely different. Being restored to life might mean being at a deep peace with things, or reaching a new level of understanding about life.

I remember my last conversation with Dean Zellmer, which was only a few weeks ago. He was in the hospital after having struggled with dysentery for several weeks. He had also been struggling with multiple myeloma and had lost most use of his right leg because it had gone numb. He had heart problems and had suffered damage to a valve. He had also had to move out of his apartment into assisted living in another part of town, which is a transition anyone could find difficult. But I could only describe as a miracle the way Dean spoke about his life and how whole he felt—whole in thanksgiving for the gifts he’d been given, for the opportunities he’d had, for the things he’d been able to experience in his ninety-two years. He had plenty of suffering to concentrate on, plenty of physical healing he could pray for, but he could only talk about his blessings, and was more interested to know about me and my family. He was a person of deep faith in Christ’s love for him, and Dean was ready to continue that relationship, no matter what happened next.

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These are the places our minds go when we hear this story today, but perhaps the greatest healing Jesus is doing is actually the healing of those human divisions. While on the way to see Jairus and his daughter, He makes that short detour with the woman who is bleeding. And in one short day, Jesus engages both an important male leader and an overlooked outcast woman. He treats as equal a man with a given name, position, and authority and a woman with no name, no position, and no authority. He interacts with someone who is socially isolated, has no resources at her disposal whatsoever, who comes to him as she slips unnoticed through the crowd, and then he interacts with another person with a well-established support system by going into his house. He welcomes someone who grabs him in a clandestine fashion and someone who Jesus has to physically touch himself in order to heal. In just about every way imaginable, Jesus is able to span the divisions that separate people in society. Through faith, he is available and accessible to all. The healing and wholeness he embodies is for everyone, regardless of social status, gender, age, education level, nationality, or race. In spite of the sacrifice it means to himself and his identity, he is able to take the risk, cross the borders, and bring the kingdom of God and all its healing to all people.

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And if it sounds today like Jesus is starting to move on from performing so many healings, like he’s got something else on his mind, another horizon to meet, it’s because he does. He is moving on to the point of true healing, the real border of division that needs to be crossed. He is not just a physical healer, but he is among God’s people to heal the big division between God and us. He will die on the cross as a ransom for our sins, bringing us all back to God’s eternal care, to unite what has been separated, to restore us all to life through the power of faith.

I’m not sure I could have chosen myself a more fitting set of Scriptures for the weekend before our nation’s Independence Day. As you know, we just use the Revised Common Lectionary to provide our readings, and this just happens to be the lesson falling on this Sunday. It wasn’t selected by anyone with the Fourth of July in mind. But yet it is a good word for us. We are living in a society whose divisions seem to be very pronounced right now—at least that’s what I’m hearing people saying. Several people I’ve spoken with recently in this congregation have shared with me how they keep their opinions to themselves more than they ever have before because they’re afraid of how they will be perceived and interpreted, especially by people who disagree.

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photo credit: CNN

I don’t have any great wisdom to offer on how to span our divides, and I’ve certainly done my fair share of contributing to the divisiveness, I’m sure. But I do know Christ is walking among us, running back and forth between the different groups, seeking out those who are hurting, those who need life. We have faith that even if the flag cannot seem unify a country at a given time, our risen Lord will always seek to bring God’s people together. He will lay down his life at the crosspoint, and venture to the wilderness of death in order to get it done.

And as people who follow him, our mission is to do the same. In such a divided culture, the church may be the last place where people of all different kinds can be served at a table no matter what our opinions are, no matter how we vote, no matter what our citizenship status even is. That’s something. Healed by our faith, we are called to look into the world, maybe even lay aside some closely-held ideas of ourselves, and see people as Jesus does—that is, less in terms of their status and rank, name or label, and more in terms of where the suffering is.

I suppose then, my friends, we’ll find that may be the most exciting and healing journey of all.

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

“What then will this child be?”

a sermon for the Nativity of John the Baptist

Luke 1:57-67 [68-80]

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“What then will this child be?”

That is the question all the neighbors and relatives of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth ask and ponder as they marvel over the birth of their miracle baby and receive him into their midst. Zechariah was so surprised and doubtful about it that he has his voice taken away for a while, like some sort of punishment for not trusting the miracle could happen. And now that the child is born,  Zechariah can finally ask aloud with the others as he cradles him in his arms, “What then will this child be?”

“What then will this child be?”

 I suspect that’s the question asked by anyone who has ever held a baby or met a young child or spent any time in the presence of a kid. You look into their eyes, observe their behavior as they play with their toys, maybe, if you’re lucky, you have a conversation with them, and can’t help but wonder what they’re going to grow up to accomplish. Those who, like the village friends of Elizabeth and Zechariah, are privileged enough to receive a child—whether their own or someone else’s—can’t help but be filled with hope. They could turn out to be anything, perhaps.

As it happens, I just spent a full week in the midst of a place that all about receiving children. I’ve been up at Lutheridge, a Lutheran outdoor ministry in the mountains of North Carolina, serving as a Bible study leader for 3rd-5th graders. I know that this congregation is helping to send several children there as well as to Camp Caroline Furnace, one of the Lutheran camps here in Virginia, this summer. Receiving children and nurturing them well is the reason any summer camp exists whether its faith-based or not. Every Sunday a new group of children arrives at the gates, and you can feel the excitement in the campers as well as the staff.

All the counselors have at that point is the campers’ names. At least at Lutheridge, they’ve received those names on little printed-out sheets of paper from the registrar. One of the first things—and most important things—a counselor does to set the stage to receive their campers and make them feel at home is to take a plain, old piece of white poster paper and make a sign with their names on it and then hang the sign on the front of the cabin. When I worked on staff there, we often got a little competitive in our sign-making, seeing who could come up with the most creative signs. This week there were some amazing signs (I wouldn’t be able to hang) like one counselor who look the first letters of the names of the campers assigned to her and matched them with elements from the periodic table. Making a sign with names is such a basic task, and it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but it communicates to each kid, “We are ready for you. We’ve been expecting you. We are glad you’re here.” And the counselor thinks to herself as she writes out their name, “What then will this child be?”

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The villagers make a sign for this child, too. It’s because Zechariah is still unable to speak, of course, so they look for a writing tablet and he writes, “His name is John.” This is a big deal, and would probably make people wonder more than usual about what the child would become, because John is a somewhat of a strange pick. John is not a family name in a time when family names were the standard custom. It would be especially odd for him not to receive the name of, say, his father, considering the circumstances of his birth.

However, Zechariah had received a visit from an angel who had told him a bit about the child and that his name was to be John, and as it turns out, John means, “God’s gracious gift.”

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One of the prophecies about this gracious gift which the angel announces to Zechariah is that John will cause the hearts of parents to turn toward their children. John will bring about a time of possibility and hope, a time when people will begin to look forward again, open to what God is doing in their midst. John’s life and ministry will bring people out of this idolatry of the past and usher in a time of change and new perspective. They’ll think a bit less on what has already happened and a bit more on what’s to come. I suspect Jessie’s and Matt’s hearts are turned today toward Elaina, as she is baptized, and turned again to Leo and Jacob, her older brothers. And as the water is poured over her head, we all can once again turn our hearts towards the future as it unfolds and we are remade in Christ.

When John finally comes back from the wilderness as a young adult, we find him at the river Jordan as the Baptist, washing people in the water for the repentance and forgiveness of sins. He is involved, you see, in helping people start over. Giving people a chance to be washed of their past and step into a new future.

And as we know, the whole surprise about John the Baptist is that who he turns out to be ends up being far less important than the person he comes to pave the way for. What John ends up becoming is focused on preparing the world to receive an even greater gracious, gift. The hope and possibility that John represents is no less and no more than the real dawn from on high, the light for those who sit in darkness, Jesus Christ.

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Saint John the Baptist Pointing to Christ (Bartolome Murillo, 1655)

And this is a very important point we cannot overlook, especially in this day and age. John the Baptist is not special in and of himself except for the ways in which he prepares the way for Christ to come. We eventually hear this from John’s own lips, himself, who says at one point, I must decrease so that he, Jesus, must increase. As it turns out, that’s why the church, so early on, placed this festival at the end of June. We’ve just passed the summer solstice, so the hours of sunlight are decreasing. They will finally increase once again in about six months, in late December, which is when we’ll be celebrating the birth of the light of the world.

Jesus’ life is woven together with John the Baptist’s like no one else in the gospels. One theologian I read pointed out how every time John the Baptist appears, Jesus’ ministry makes a significant turn, eventually getting us to the cross. When Jesus is conceived, John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb. We learn that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise of a savior. When Jesus is baptized, John is there, and we hear that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. When John is arrested by Herod Antipas, Jesus begins preaching about the kingdom of God. And when John the Baptist is beheaded, Jesus doubles down on his ministry of feeding and healing, eventually embracing the fact that God’s love for the world will require his own suffering and death.

There is such an emphasis on “making a difference in the world” these days, such a desire for our lives to mean something, to create change, a lasting impact. We hear it in our politics, in the way that candidates speak about the problems we face and in the idealistic slogans of our education systems. I hear it in the way we speak to our youth, even in youth ministry settings. A group of our high schoolers will take off this week for the ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston, and I’m sure they’ll hear it there, like they have before. In a world filled with so much tension, so much division, it is hopeful to see so many people giving their lives to bring about change, to see people respond to our challenges not by withdrawing but by rising up.

And yet from John the Baptist we hear the reminder: our lives are only important insofar as they reveal Jesus’ light to the world. Our impact on others (and the world) will be beneficial only insofar as it leaves the mark of Jesus on them. Because what Jesus does is the only thing that it ultimately eternal. All else fades away.

When Zechariah finally speaks, he sings, and the song he sings is a prayer that points not to John primarily, or to Zechariah’s future. He sings about what John’s birth means in the ongoing work of God for the world, how holding John is holding an eventual deliverance from sin because John will point us to Jesus. Our prayer for the youth gathering in Houston this week…our prayer for those who’ve prepared these beautiful quilts…our prayer for those who are awaiting a new round of campers at Caroline Furnace or Lutheridge…our prayer for those who are mobilizing for justice and compassion at the US-Mexico border…is not that people they serve will have an encounter with their own greatness or our effectiveness or wisdom, but that they and we will encounter and receive the mercy of Jesus. For it is never ourselves who can make a difference, but Jesus within and through us. Like John the Baptist eventually teaches us, (and I paraphrase), “It’s not about me. It’s about God.”

One of the activities Melinda and I planned for our Bible studies with the 3rd and 4th graders last week was to make simple crosses with them. They were the most basic craft of all time (mainly because I was involved): just two sticks tied together in the middle with twine or yarn. Basically we just needed them as a time filler at the end of the session, and we were a bit embarrassed we couldn’t come up with something better. The crosses weren’t intricate and wouldn’t take the kids long to make them. She and I hunted around camp and along the roads for about an hour gathering up about sixty sticks that we could use.

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When the time came, the kids rooted through the pile of sticks of various lengths and thicknesses, fumbling them as best they could to get the yarn to hold them tight together. Time came for the session to be over and pick up their things and leave, and I turned around to find the eyes of one young blond third grade boy looking up at me with tears in his eyes. “What then will this child be about?” I caught myself thinking. He had been struggling with homesickness the whole week and was ready to go home to see his family. He said, “If there are any sticks left, I’d like two more, because I really want to make a cross for my sister.” He said she was in high school at a cheerleading camp, and he wanted to bring something home for her because he missed her.

So, of course there were sticks. And suddenly they didn’t seem so plain anymore. We put one together, and he ran off to stick it in his luggage.

The kid’s name was Alden, but it could have been John. He purified me! Like fuller’s soap. He reminded me: Don’t ever be ashamed of the cross! What a gracious gift from God he turned out to be, thinking less of himself and more of the cross he could share with someone else, turning my own heart to the message of children.

May each child of God—young as well as old—reveal to you and me our own gifts in service to nothing more and nothing less than the cross of Christ.

 

Amen.

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

stretch out your hand

a sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost [Year B]

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and Mark 2:23–3:6

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As some of you may know because I’ve mentioned it before, our 4th graders planted wheat from seeds back in March as a part of their Holy Communion instruction. It was the first time any of us had ever tried growing wheat, so we didn’t know what to expect. I was thinking the stalks would grow somewhat slowly and give us some grain by mid-summer. I don’t know if it’s all the rain we’ve had or just what wheat does but, lo and behold, we’ve got amber waves of grain already. Actually, they’re still green waves, and it’s more of a ripple than a wave, but each stem is topped by 9 or 10 kernels of wheat bobbing in the wind.

The thing is: I don’t have a clue about what to do with them. We had a great time that day planting them, and I was excited to see them sprout perfectly in time for Easter, but I’ve never harvested wheat, so I don’t know when to pick them or how to do it. Therefore, I figured that maybe we planted the wheat just so that I’d have some grain to pick on a Sabbath, which is what I did this morning before I came in to worship.

I picked this grain of wheat and I doubt anyone is going to get after me for doing it, except for maybe the 4th graders, and even they wouldn’t be upset because I’m picking it on a Sunday. However, as we hear in this portion of Mark’s gospel this morning, Jesus didn’t get off so easy. As he and his disciples are walking through grainfields on their way through Galilee, they begin to pick the heads of grain and, I assume, eat them. Some religious officials catch them doing this and immediately want to know why, if he is a follower of the Jewish faith, he would allow his disciples do something that is not allowed on the Sabbath Day. Why is picking grains of wheat not allowed on the Sabbath Day? Well, as far as they and their religious laws are concerned, picking wheat is one of the long list of things that qualify as work, and as any law-abiding Jewish person would know, work is strictly prohibited on the Sabbath Day.

Now, this may sound really silly to us (what is picking wheat?), even though we are still, as a culture two thousand years later, are still a bit unclear about what the days of the week are for. It wasn’t too long ago that most of the country had blue laws, restrictions about which businesses could be open and which goods and services could be sold on Sundays and weekends. Most of those have been repealed now, probably to our detriment, even though we wouldn’t like to admit it. I know most people would probably expect a religious leader like me to be in favor of blue laws because it might lead to better worship attendance, but that’s actually not my concern. I wonder more about how things like a common day of rest across a whole culture might actually strengthen families and contribute in some way to making us less divisive overall, a problem we are clearly dealing with in all kinds of ways now. I just know that whenever Chik-Fil-A decides to open on Sunday there’s going to be a lot of happy people…except for people who wear Chik-Fil-A uniforms.

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Whatever your stance on blue laws is, honoring the Sabbath Day in Jesus’ culture was not just a minorly annoying little law the religious leaders had made up. It was one of the Ten Commandments; that is, one of the ten core, foundational rules of the faith given by God for God’s people to have a life where they would flourish, the life that God intended for them. In fact, the real name for the ten commandments is actually the Ten Words. These commandments are so basic and so intrinsic to everything about life with God that they are like words are to a thought or a sentence. They speak life and hope into the life of the people of God, giving them purpose and identity, and one of the first words, depending on how you number them, is to take a break. One: You’ve got a great God and remember to obey him. Two: Take care of that God’s name because that name is directly related to God’s particular story and identity, and you don’t want to treat the name so carelessly that it gets mixed up with other gods’ identities. Three: Now you need to remember those two things, so set some time aside for it and make it a priority. Time, which is truly our only non-renewable resource, is necessary to be reminded of those first two things because we’re terribly forgetful. Too much time goes by and we’ll forget.

There’s a key in there about these ten words that the religious authorities seemed to have forgotten. The key is that these words were never meant to be viewed as restrictions, as “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” but as gifts. There is an inherent promise in each of the commandments, like a kernel of grain inside a hard husk, and focusing only on what it prohibits or does not allow is actually a warping of them.

What then is the promise in keeping the Sabbath Day, of refraining from certain things that could involve work? It is to allow our attentions to focus on the life-giving work of God (who accomplishes more work for us than we ever could). It is to honor the fact that built into creation itself is renewal and restoration. It is to recognize over and over that fundamental to human creativity and ingenuity and industry is rest. Taking time away and time off is not an interruption of work. It is a part of it. Sabbath-keeping, you see, helped instill that in people’s faith, but the Pharisees had taken it to an extreme. They would not even allow feeding the hungry or healing to occur on the Sabbath day because it looked like someone was working.

Then along comes Jesus doing those things. Along comes Jesus who allows grain-picking on the Sabbath because disciples are hungry, who sees a man in need of healing and says, “Stretch out your hand” just so that the Pharisees can hear it. And it’s not because Jesus is a rebel and disliked religion. It’s not because Jesus goes around looking for ways to tick off religious leaders. It’s because Jesus, unlike anyone else, could understand what the point of that commandment was, just like he could embody what all of God’s words meant. He could see that it’s work to go through life with a withered hand, or any disability, for that matter. Or in grinding poverty. Jesus could see that holy time was not holy simply because you were following God’s rules and being good. Holy time was holy because it was blessed by the presence of God’s Word, and God’s Word has always been that which truly gives life. Keeping the Sabbath preserves a time where God’s word can be heard and seen and then let loose to do its thing, which means it makes absolute sense for someone to have their life restored and withered hand stretched out on the Sabbath. It isn’t work at all.

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That’s why when Martin Luther gives an explanation for the Third Commandment in his Small Catechism he does not relate it to taking time off, per se, but in taking time with God’s Word. He says, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

Church and worship is not just another activity, even though pastors often make it seem like that, and there’s nothing inherently more holy about Sunday than the other days. Time with God’s Word is always life-giving, no matter when it happens. Our time here, the day the Word rose from the dead, is a weekly reminder of who and whose we really are. It’s a weekly identity check that our life depends on.

Once when I was in high school I attended a week of Rotary camp with kids from several different high schools. On one of the first days there I ran into this one girl who knew me from another camp somewhere, but she had mis-remembered my name. She walked up to me and called me “Peter,” and because I was flustered and giddy around girls at that age I was too shy to correct her right off the bat.

Well, the next time she walked up to talk to me, sure enough, she yelled out, “Hey, Peter,” and I was even more embarrassed to correct her because there were other people around. Thankfully, none of them heard her say it. For the rest of the week, however, whenever I saw that girl wanted to talk to me I would try to walk away from earshot of everyone else so I could be “Peter” to her, even though, of course, I was really Phillip.

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Here God wants to remind us of our real name each time we hear his Word, drink of the cup, eat of the bread. One study in 2015 showed that the average American is exposed to somewhere between 4000 and 10,000 ads a day. That is 4000 to 10,000 daily suggestions of who someone thinks you are or what someone thinks you need to be, essentially calling you Peter when you know you are someone else. And that’s before we factor in the messages we receive from social media that try to tell us who we are supposed to be friends with or what label we’re supposed to be comfortable with.

Youth, in particular, these days are under unbelievable stress to “form an identity” and choose a label and I worry about that pressure in their lives. It’s unfortunate this all coincides with a time when there are so many more options for activities on Sundays and every other day of the week, too.

In this city, just driving up and down Monument Avenue we find reminders of a certain identity and history that authorities want us to remember and adopt for ourselves, whether it’s true for us or not.

In this midst of all this, in the midst of the misnaming and the mistaking, we have a God who gets honest with us. He doesn’t need a monument or memorial or place for this honesty; just time with his Word. We have a God who knows we’re not perfect even when we’re pretty sure we’re “all that,” and so time with his Word will remind us of our brokenness, our need for forgiveness. We have a God who understands our inclination to turn into Pharisees, demanding holiness from everyone else, and his Word knocks us down a notch or two to where we belong.

But we also have a God who knows how to heal, who knows we’re wandering, who knows it’s hard to know who we really belong to in this world. We get to follow a God who loves us and has offered himself on the cross for us, who knows we’re worth a lot even when we don’t feel it. And in those times, when we’re not too busy, his Word gathers us in and lifts us up. In those times we realize that we get to follow a God who says, “Stretch out your hand.”  And then into our open, stretched out hand—wonder of wonders—he places his very life.

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Holy God, the Humble God, and the God Who Holds them Together

A sermon for the Holy Trinity [Year B]

Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8: 12-17, and John 3:1-17

Several years ago my family took a trip in central Kentucky, and while we were there we visited Mammoth Cave National Park. I did not know what to expect entering a cave. All I knew is that all the facts and information about Mammoth Cave were impressive. For example, I knew that Mammoth Cave is by far the longest cave system known in the world, almost twice as long as the next longest known cave system. It’s enormous, and people are not even sure they know everywhere it all goes, even though people have been using it and visiting it since before European settlers came to this country.

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The staircase that brings you into the main entrance of Mammoth Cave

I was a little anxious about approaching the cave, but the tour guides gathered us all above-ground as a group for a little pep talk and information session before we went down in it. Then we started off down this inconspicuous trail in the woods before meeting a large staircase that abruptly descended from the forest floor into the earth.  Cold drafts of air arose out of it, hitting our faces. It was 90 degrees and sunny up the surface but they said it would be 58 degrees in the cave. I should have brought the jacket they suggested.

As we walked down those stairs I was perplexed and amazed at what I was experiencing. Daylight dimmed and we wound through damp passageways. Eventually we gathered with our tour guide in the middle of this wide, large chamber of the cave that is called the Rotunda. And there, in the midst of this great big cavern almost seven stories underground, they turned out all the lights. I wasn’t able to see my hand in front of my face. It stayed like that for a few minutes and then the tour guide struck a match and light filled the entire chamber, and if I had all the time in the world and all the words in the world, I don’t think I could describe to you what that was like.

If we had all the time in the world and all the words in the world we couldn’t describe what God is like. God exceeds any human capacity to define and describe. We stand up on the edge, creatures of the surface, beings of finite time and space, with no way of truly explaining the mystery that lies beyond us.

And yet we have encounters with God, and in moments of greater faith we know there is this Being who has created us and who loves us and has called us to be images of the divine in the world. There is no way to fully explain who God is or what God is like, but the Holy Trinity gives us language to approach the mystery of God in our thoughts and in our words based on what has been revealed through Scripture. Thinking about God as the Holy Trinity is like building a staircase right into the heart of a cave—a cave that actually stretches for untold miles beneath the surface of the earth—so that we can talk about who it is that has created and claimed us. So, on this day that the church celebrates this Holy Trinity, I’d like to offer up three points about God that arise out of the texts this morning that may help us build a staircase into this unfathomable mystery.

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The first is that God is inherently unapproachable. And by that I mean that we mortals can’t really come to God in the first place, especially in our sin. That’s what Isaiah struggles to explain in the story of his call to be a prophet which is essentially what a few others before him in Israel had discovered, too. God is so glorious and so holy and so totally “other” than anything human and anything created that none of us really has the faculties to perceive God as God is.

When Isaiah is brought into God’s presence he finds he can only use words and images that people use to describe the most royal of kings and queens. God is sitting on a throne and the robe he is wearing is so immense that just the edge of it fills the entire temple. There are beings that he can’t fully describe tending to God in God’s majesty and they sing constantly about how holy God is. There was smoke all around, which was symbolic to Israel of the prayers ascending to God, but I can’t help but think of a fog machine in the background somewhere when I read it. And as he stands before all of this, Isaiah feels completely unworthy and unprepared, just as I know many of us feel each time we approach the altar of God here. God is so good and so powerful that we don’t really have any business being near him.

This aspect of God reminds me of one congregation I served near up in Pittsburgh. It was St. Michael and All Angels Lutheran Church, set down in the valley of the Spring Garden neighborhood near downtown. Spring Garden was historically a very working class area, and the immigrants who moved there from Europe found employment in the local slaughterhouses and rending factories, although by the time I lived near there the population had all but emptied out. The pastor who served there for 39 years, the Reverend Paul Kokenda, developed a worship liturgy that was so ornate and so “high,” as we say, that, I’m told, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic seminaries often sent students there in order to learn how to lead worship.

 

Pastor Kokenda used incense every Sunday, filling the sanctuary with smoke. There was no part of the worship service that wasn’t chanted, except for the sermon. Worship leaders wore elaborate robes and vestments, and gold-embossed icons were paraded around during the worship service. When you worshiped there you definitely got a sense that God was holy and full of glory. and I imagine that if you were one of the factory workers of Spring Garden, or one of the children of a factory worker, you got the feeling each week in worship as you left the gray, sooty neighborhood behind and entered the door of the church that God’s presence was utterly different than you and everything else you knew. God was ultimately unapproachable, and one was grateful just to be ushered into God’s presence for an hour or so. That was the feeling Paul Kokenda had curated with his worship in that little urban valley.

God is unapproachable…and yet God approaches us, which is the second point to be made. It’s what Isaiah discovers as he admits that his lips are unclean, and that he comes from a people of unclean lips, and then one of these heavenly beings comes forward with a coal and touches his lips to cleanse him. It’s what Nicodemus struggles to understand when Jesus of Nazareth comes into his town, a story that John relates in his gospel this morning. Nicodemus is a wise man, a leader among the Jewish people, and so he understands on a gut level that God is somehow present in Jesus even though it makes little sense. It seems strange that a God who is so holy, so perfect, would just walk around among us as a human being.

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Nicodemus and Jesus on a rooftop (Tanner)

And as it turns out this God doesn’t just approach us. God lets loose of the holy robe and angels and the fog machine and becomes flesh like one of us. God so loves the world that he gives his only begotten Son and even has him lifted up on a cross so that those who believe in him may not die but have eternal life…the same life as God. Here we have a God who by nature wants to approach us, come to us, reduce himself down to the darkest parts of our own lives so that we can know him and know we’re loved by him.

Here I think of a photo that was texted to me yesterday by one of the people on the camping trip with Pastor Joseph. It was a photo of the campfire they’d built with a small altar table next to it and on the altar was a simple loaf of bread and a chalice. The ground around it was uneven and covered in dead leaves and small rocks and twigs—the kinds of things you’d expect to see out in the wilderness. It was an utter contrast to the fancy worship spaces like Pastor Kokenda’s church, and yet we are able to worship this God in such a place and in such a way because we know God approaches us. God seeks us out in the wilderness.

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So just as we find that God’s holiness is an essential part of his character, so do we find that humility is, too. God does not withhold himself from us and so God approaches us in love, broken and imperfect though we are.

Therefore, with one person of God so holy and another person of God so humble, there must be a mighty strong force holding them together! And that’s what we find with God’s Spirit. Flowing between the God who is Father and Creator of all and God the Son who dies on the cross we find this intense, burning love. We could say there’s the Holy God and there’s the Humble God and the God who holds them together, moving mysteriously like wind that blows wherever it wants, bringing life as it goes. This Spirit embraces you and me as we encounter the living Christ and draws us into the life of this holy and humble God. But it does not keep us there, withdrawn from the world, and that is what you and I probably struggle with each and every day.

That’s the third point to make on this Holy Trinity Sunday. Now that the unapproachable God approaches us in love through Jesus, we are sent to approach the world as this God’s children. We do not hold back, we do not keep it a secret, we do not try to be selective in who we bring his grace to. We do not worship the days of our past, we do not grow timid about the days ahead. As the apostle Paul says, we do not “receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but a spirit of adoption,”—of a future moving forward. When Isaiah is cleansed by the coal that touches his lips, he hears the voice of God say, “OK, Now whom shall I send to approach others with this?” and Isaiah says, “I’ll do it! Send me!”

The Triune God, the one who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the one who is Holy and the one who is Humble and the one who is Holding those together—sends you and me to bear this love to the world. We approach others in places like Spring Garden and by campfires in the wilderness. We approach the world in gentleness and boldness, through things like feeding the hungry and building homes for the homeless, but also in patiently listening to a care-receiver’s needs. And as we approach this beautiful world, we trust that it is the very spirit of God bearing witness with our spirit that we are God’s children—that others may come into contact with us and know that God’s love is approaching them.

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a traditional symbol for the Holy Trinity

And one day we won’t have to worry anymore about how to approach this unapproachable God or how to approach others, for we will be there. We will fully know him, just as we are fully known. Things will be dark, really dark, but then the light will go on and it will never go out. That light will fill all in all, shining with the glow of the risen Jesus, and the whole earth will know what Isaiah hears and what we sing each time we gather around this table—that the earth is full of God’s glory.

And on that day—on that great day—we will have all the time in the world to talk about that glory and all the words in the world to tell His story.

 

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Long prayers

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

John 17:6-19

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Our two-year-old is starting to grasp the ritual of prayer, and it is exciting to watch. Around our supper table we typically hold hands for the mealtime prayer, but he also knows that putting his hands together is a way to pray. The other night before anyone had picked up a fork he put his hands together for the prayer and then bowed his head. We followed his lead and prayed one of our quick rhyming prayers—“God is great, God is good, let us thank him by our food…”—and then, for some reason, after we said “Amen,” our 9-year-old daughter looked across the table at him and said, in an all-knowing tone of voice: “Jasper, as you get older,  the prayers get longer.” It was almost like a warning or something. And I immediately thought to myself as I looked at her, about to hit her 10th birthday, “Girl, you have no idea how long they get.”

Isn’t it the truth, though? As we move through life, there seems to be more to pray for. In my Facebook feed this week appeared a photo of two 16-year old twin boys—the photo taken by their mother—who were sitting in the front of a car, one of them behind the wheel, as they drove off together without an adult for the first time. That mother probably prayed from the moment she snapped that photo until the moment she saw the headlights appear back in the driveway. Long prayer.

This week and this weekend I saw all kinds of posts and photos about college and graduate school graduations. There is a lot of joy and pride in these celebrations, but likely some anxiety, too, as these young people prepare to be thrust out into a sketchy job market, carrying some debt, wondering what they’ll find. Yes, the prayers get longer.

And as we look at the state of world events with alliances between world powers shifting and talk of the nuclear threat again, all our prayers should be getting longer for the world to value peace and prosperity for all.

The same goes for Jesus. The farther along in ministry he gets, the longer his own prayers become, especially in John’s gospel. In fact, the portion of the gospel lesson we have today is from one long prayer he says the night before he is tried and then crucified. It’s a prayer that lasts for one whole chapter. He certainly has a lot to pray about. He has just spent his last evening with his disciples. He has shared a Passover meal with them, he has washed their feet as a sign of the new commandment he has given them to love one another, and he has promised they will receive from God the Father a special Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will lead them into the truth. These have been precious final moments with them when he almost seems to be pouring as much information into them as he can before he leaves to be “glorified.”

It is likely that the disciples haven’t got a clue what Jesus means by that, but they will eventually come to see that love is the glory of God. When he goes to the cross to offer his life for them, and when on the third day God raises him up, and when after that he is taken up into heaven at his ascension they will come to understand how God’s glory is made known in Jesus. And so he prays like crazy as all this begins to happen.

The day of Jesus’ ascension was just this past Thursday. We celebrated it a week earlier because it worked better in our schedule, but at the end of the day’s events we gathered in the columbarium for a worship service and read the story of Jesus’ ascension. At Jesus’ ascension, when Jesus goes up, his love goes out. He is able to fill all in all, as the writer of Ephesians says at one point. And the disciples, as his followers, as his body, were the ones who would take this on, the ones who would embody this love of Jesus spreading out in the world. It seems to me that when the disciples would look back on their time with Jesus, then, when they would stand on the other side of all of this they would look back on this prayer—this long, deep prayer—where he prays for them.

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Jesus’ Ascension to heaven (John Singleton Copley, 1775)

I remember spending time with one of our members several years ago who was in the final months of his life. He knew it. His family knew it. They were all trying to come to terms with what it meant. One day when I was out at his house he spoke about how he had been carefully lining things up for his family after he left them. He was disappointed he was going to miss watching his two children come into adulthood, but it was moving to hear about how proud he was of them and how confident he was that they would both excel in their endeavors. It was very humbling to speak with someone who was at the end of life who wasn’t in reflection-mode or replaying the past but who only wanted to talk about the future, a future he wasn’t really going to be a part of. That day happened to be Ascension day, of all days, and I had brought along by Bible to read that passage as a type of devotion, but I realized I didn’t need to. This gentleman had already covered anything I could hope to say.

In many way, that is Jesus as he prepares to leave his disciples. Wanting to focus more on the future than on the past. Preparing his disciples to go out with his love into the world. Of course, Jesus will not be totally gone from his disciples’ forever, and there will be ways in which his real presence will be with them as they wait for him to return—in the reading of his Word and in the holy meal of forgiveness they will share whenever they gather. And they will have the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit with them as they go, teaching them the truth, giving them a voice.

This is Jesus’ prayer for them. He wants them to know we are protected, that not one of us will be lost. Jesus received the responsibility to care for us from his Father, God the Creator, and he has worked like a shepherd to seek us out and keep us. All Jesus’ ministry is centered on this task of searching for the lost, the lonely, and the little, and even now that is his what he is doing.

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Many leaders take this part of their role seriously. I think today especially of mothers and other mothering figures in our lives who sacrifice so much to keep little ones in their care, constantly counting their children in public places to make sure they’re near, who never want to lose that connection with their children. To say that he has protected and guarded us and that none will be lost means even more coming from Jesus once has entered even death to make sure we remain the Father’s. He protects and guards us even after we die.

Jesus also prays that his followers will remain one. It will do no good for his mission if his followers begin fighting with each other or working against each other or dividing and separating after he ascends. Just as God’s love is made known in him and he and God are one, so is the unity of his followers important on earth.

One young man who worships with us very often and volunteers along with his wife to lead our 5th and 6th grade youth group has taken Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers very seriously, and the Holy Spirit has moved him to try to foster some new relationships specifically between Christians of different races in Richmond. He has worked with several African-American congregations and the predominantly white congregations he worships with to organize a cookout together, a chance break bread together and hear about one another’s witness in the community. They’re calling it a “family reunion,” (a wonderful title) and as it happens, it is next Saturday at 4pm at Charlotte Acres in Mechanicsville. Who knows what kind of shared endeavors may come of that, but even a meal in this city between people of different races but of the same faith is a meaningful expression of unity.

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It is impossible to overstress the importance of Christian unity. Following Jesus and worshiping Jesus are not Lone Ranger enterprises. It is easier nowadays than it used to be—or, I should say we think it’s easier—to live individual lives in the West, to forge our own ways forward. But in terms of our faith in Christ, that’s just not the case. Our togetherness is the crux of who we are in Jesus. It is not incidental to our faith. The hard part of being together and working as one is fundamental to our identity, Jesus prays.

Lastly, Jesus prays we understand that we are sent out just as he was sent out into the world. We do not retreat from it. Ours is not a faith that withdraws from the realities of the world, as much as they worry us or make us angry. Ours is a discipleship that listens to the needs of the world and, like Jesus, puts itself at the service to our neighbor. It is one thing to grasp this on an individual level, to understand that I go into the world as a follower of Christ, loved and set free, ready to serve. But Jesus is not talking about individual service at this point. He is talking about our collective witness, the things we will be able to do together through the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is where things can get really interesting, because Jesus can lead us into places and give us tasks and abilities that no one else can. He fills all in all, after all. It is one thing when one of us feels empowered to go out and make a difference, and that is a great thing to lift up. But how we are sent like Jesus together enables us to do amazing things.

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For example, I learned this week that Lutheran World Relief, one of our ministry partners that this congregation regularly supports, is on the ground in Syria even as war rages on there. Support in finances and in prayer and personnel from Lutheran congregations like ours has enabled Lutheran World Relief to rebuild two bakeries in the most heavily-bombed region of that country. These bakeries have fed over 80,000 people at a time when access to basic foods is hard to come by. The bakery is employing people at a time when many people have no jobs, giving them hope they can rebuild their own country. That is just one example of how the church as a whole, as a body, is going into the world as Jesus did. It is just one example of thinking of the future, as Jesus did, and not dwelling on the past, or being content with how things are.

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Youth assembling personal hygiene kits for LWR (2011)

 

As we get older, do our prayers get longer, more involved? I suppose it’s true, but more important than the length or the depth or the complexity of any of our prayers is the fact that our risen and ascended Lord is still praying for us. From his place at the right hand of God, he leans into the ear of his Father and says, “Let’s protect them. Let’s keep them together. And let’s use them to spread our love. That’s their glory…the glory of this love.”

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

Getting along

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

1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8

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There is a new Kenny Chesney song that just came out on country music radio that has caught my ear. The song is called “Get Along,” and it’s not a terribly deep or profound song, but it’s catchy and fun to sing along to, and the message is wholesome. It’s about getting along—not just getting along down the road, but getting along with one another, giving love the upper hand, which is certainly something the world and definitely our country can hear more of at the moment. When I see images of the leaders of South and North Korea shaking hands, and smiling and stepping over the border into one another’s countries, it makes me hopeful for others’ learning to get along. And it makes me think about how the effort and importance of getting along seems to be underrated these days. We’ve focused more on getting ahead, and I think that’s what Mr. Chesney’s song tries to get us to see.

In any case, the lines in the song that bridge the last verse to the chorus are the ones I keep noodling on. He sings, “We find out when we die the keys to heaven can’t be bought/we still don’t know what love is, but we sure know what it’s not.”

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I bet that resonates with so many of us. What is love, really? We seek and are offered so many definitions and versions of it that it leaves us confused. And it’s true that in the English language we have one word for a concept that other languages have several. There’s romantic love, and brotherly and sisterly love, as well as love for your homeland, like a feeling of patriotism. And we can experience any of those, sometimes very deeply, and still not be able to articulate exactly what their essence is. We know love is important, that it is somehow the key to heaven, and we know enough to be table to tell when love is lacking, but we’re left speechless when we have to sum it up.

But then along comes the writer of 1 John, who has no such trouble at all, with all due respect to Mr. Chesney: “God is love,” and “in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be a sacrifice for our sins.” For John, the writer of this letter that comes near the end of the New Testament, it is very easy to define and describe the essence of love. As he explains, it is found in the gift and the act of Jesus, the offering of his life so that we may be forgiven and made one with God. To know what love is in its purest, most powerful form we look to the cross of Jesus, look to the God who pours himself out for humankind.

In fact, John cannot talk about God without talking about love, over and over again. In the fifteen verses of chapter four we read this morning, the word love is used twenty-four times. Everyone who loves, he says, is born of God and knows God. One paraphrase of these verses put it, “you can’t know God if you don’t know love.”[1] Furthermore, we can’t even know or practice love ourselves, he goes on to say, until we have experienced it first, until we have realized how much God has loved us.

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This, I find, is very easy to understand, even when faith in God is difficult. Love is only something we can give when we’ve first received it. This is an overly-simplified example, but it’s kind of like those long Starbucks lines where everyone pays for the person behind them in line. Once you realize someone has paid for your drink, your gratitude spills over into paying for the next person. Somewhere, someone early on started it all, but once you’re caught up in it, it just kind of flows along. John would say the first lover was God, and in Jesus God’s love for us has spilled over, like an overloaded latte, each gesture of self-giving and sacrifice producing more and more so that it may continue to abound, intertwining us all, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, casting out fear, placing us at the feet of another neighbor, just like he did on the night he first gave us that commandment.

Love and God are intertwined. Love always grows, increasing, producing more, seeking another person down the line, including new folks, which is probably why Jesus reaches for the image of the grapevine when he’s talking to his disciples about it. In Jesus’ day, grapevines would have been a very common sight, covering a great deal of the countryside.

Of course, I believe that in this country, when most people think of vines they think of tomato vines. Because of the way that vines grow, no matter what variety, they need support and attention. There’s always been a bit of a debate in my family about that. I prefer to stake my tomato vines and let them form one long main vine, if possible. To do this I have to constantly snip off the suckers, the little branches that grow between the stalk and each leaf, and I also have to repeatedly fasten the stalk to the stake as it goes up. My wife, on the other hand, grew up a tomato-cager. Caging tomatoes lets the vines grow a little more liberally. You don’t have to prune quite as often, but you have to make sure that the cage stays upright. I’ve never scientifically tested the difference between staking and caging in my own garden, but my experience is that staking gives you bigger tomatoes, but not as many as caging.

What has been surprising to see is that sometimes the weight of a tomato or bunch of tomatoes will cause a branch to twist or even break. Sometimes I’ve worried that I’ve lost some tomatoes when a storm comes along, but as long as a branch of tomatoes is connected to the main vine, they grow and ripen just fine. That is, they “get along” just fine. That is the beauty of vine-tending.

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Jesus wants his followers to know that they can produce fruit, that they will be able to “get along” in love because he has first loved them. He is the vine, and they are the branches. The heartbeat, the essence of what we are as disciples, is the love we have for each other. Sometimes that finds expression in the ways we serve and love our communities through projects and works of charity. Sometimes that love shows itself through the music and art we are able to make together through our worship of God. But more often than we probably realize the fruit of love we produce comes in the ways we listen to each other, learn about each other, practice patience with each other, and care for one another, especially in times of need or times of grief. We glorify God and we produce good fruit, sometimes big and sometimes lots of smaller ones, when we abide with one another just as Christ abides in us. In order to abide in one another members of a community need to be together and be intentional about interacting with one another on a regular basis. Roman Catholic social worker Dorothy Day put it very bluntly when she said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

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In child development there is a concept called parallel play versus interactive play. Young toddler start to engage in parallel play, which means they will play at the same time and sometimes in the same activity, but not really with each other. As they grow older, though, they begin to interact with one another as they engage in the same activity. Sometimes congregations can essentially arrange and accomplish parallel play pretty well. We organize all kinds of group activities that point us in the same direction and accomplish a lot. Integrative play and integrative activities, though, are ones where we actually learn about what one another is struggling with in life, to get over that fear of sharing, to ask for and practice forgiveness when needed, and see where God has overlapped our lives in ways that may not appear evident on the surface. They provide the chance to abide with one another and abide in Christ the vine, who has taken the time to twist himself around us, and intertwine his body and heart into our relationships, to know us and love us to the point of offering his own life. After all, when the writer of 1 John is trying to explain the essence of the community’s life, he does not say, “Beloved, let us do amazing peace and justice stuff together.” He says, “Beloved, let us love one another.”

Abiding allows us to be pruned, too, without any harm to us in the long run. When we are connected to the vine and growing alongside other branches, we can become aware of the parts of us that aren’t producing much fruit so that they can be removed to let those areas which are doing well to thrive even more. This is a natural part of any congregation’s growth and expansion. As we consider what fruits of love God has called us to produce in the coming years at Epiphany, we must be ready for Him to prune our ministries, which means, of course, some things won’t stay the same. But we know that as we abide, as we dwell with the risen Lord, new life will always be possible.

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Several weeks ago my family gathered for a birthday party for my parents at a winery down in North Carolina not too far from where they live. Our daughters were very interested in how grapes were grown and what a winery is, and as we drove in, winding our way on the road through the vineyard itself, they kept asking, “Where are the grapes? Where do they grow?” It was early April, and things were still dormant. Expecting lush growth, I suspect, they were unable to recognize the grapevines, themselves, as they passed within a few feet of the window of our car. And I had never noticed it before until they asked me, but grapevines in the off-season are shaped exactly like crosses. Pruned back to their core, to their absolute essence, they come up out of the ground with their gnarled, brown trunk and then branch into two perfect branches that are parallel to the ground. They look dead. There is not a green part on them, in fact, but yet they must be full of life, those vines.. All the leaves, all the flowers, all the grapes, and all the wine that will come from Jones von Drehle Winery this year and next…all the bottling and drinking, all the winery tours, all merriment at the special events, the late afternoon conversations with friends on their winery patio, all the surprise birthday parties gathering friends from near and far will come from those dead-looking crosses that we could see on that hill.

May it be so with Christ’s followers, and for Epiphany. We can’t say for sure what love is for each of us in every situation. But we know that all our life, all our real future growth, our desires and our need just to get along, all our truest love will come from nowhere else but the one and only vine, the ever-growing love of Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Message, Eugene Peterson

Sheep is sheep are sheep

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

John 10:11-18

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Today, since we are a flock, and since the Good Shepherd has gathered here as one, I’d like to reserve several minutes here at the beginning of the sermon for us all to share some pasture time with our fellow sheep. If you could, please find a worship bulletin and turn to the Question for the Car Ride, which you’ll find on page 11. The question is “If you were to be a hired hand on a farm, which task or type of work would you choose to do and why?” Spend a few seconds thinking that over to yourself. I won’t give any examples because I don’t want to limit anyone’s imaginations. And I’m going to set aside several minutes for you to introduce yourselves to the people sitting around you—on your pew or maybe just behind you or in front of you—and to share your answers to that question. Get to know one another, move around a bit if you need to.

[pause for conversation to happen]

Just this past Monday I was visiting with someone in a nursing home and several of her family members were already there. Four generations, in fact. They all happen to be members of this congregation and so it was good to catch up with them, and as we were talking one of them, a young man, explained that he had the day off because he had been in class all weekend long. Knowing this young man was a firefighter, I assumed he meant some type of continuing education course where they were catching up on new codes or new equipment guidelines.

“No,” he informed me, “we were out in the field for this class. It is called ‘Rescuing people from confined spaces.’”

“Oh, yes, that class,” I retorted.

Interested, I asked him to tell me a bit about it, and he said, “Well, we actually practiced rescuing someone stuck in a silo. We had a dummy placed inside a tight silo compartment high off the ground and we took turns climbing up there with a harness on, hoisting it out, fastening it to a zip line structure we had set up and lowering it to the ground that way. It’s all very technical and very dangerous.”

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He said each scenario is different because no one gets stuck the same way. The rule or procedure, if there is one, is to figure out how to perform the rescue as quickly as possible while maintaining a level of safety for the rescuer. Although we often hear about those things on the news pray those kinds of risky things go well for everyone, there is always the realization this young man or another firefighter like him may end up laying down his life for another.

If I were to be a hired hand on a farm, I don’t think I would choose to work in the silo, but I’m glad there are people getting trained to put their lives on the line if I did.

This morning we hear about the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus is speaking with his disciples and the other people who have begun to follow him and he is setting himself as an example against the other caretakers of the people of God through the years who had been reckless and neglectful of their needs. Jesus says he is the good shepherd—the noble shepherd, the genuine shepherd, which are two other meanings of this Greek word translated as “good,”—because he lays down his life for the sheep.

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According to Jesus himself, that right there alone is what makes him good or noble or genuine. We know does a lot of things we would call good—he heals people, he extends God’s embrace and is sure to include in God’s love and forgiveness those who’ve been marginalized, he’s got solid teachings about how to live. But in the end his goodness is not based on any other quality or trait other than the fact he will offer his life for the sake of the sheep. He is selfless. He will sacrifice his own well-being. Other people who watch the sheep, the hired hands, tend to look out for themselves. They don’t look the wolf in the eye. They don’t climb the silo to pull someone out.

Jesus’ followers would have known that their people had a long history of those kinds of leaders, the leaders who really looked out only for themselves, who thought of ways to enrich themselves on the backs of the people they were supposed to be serving. Jesus will not respond to leadership and responsibility that way. He recognizes that those in his care are his own. There is a connection there between him and us that he either can’t or won’t ignore or deny. He says, “I know my own and my own know me.”

There are two main ways you can know something. One way is to learn information about it through seeing or hearing it. Babies come to know their mother and father by seeing their faces over and over again. We come to know a lot of information in school through seeing words and notes and diagrams our teachers give us.

But there is also the knowing that we get through experiencing something, through actually being a part of it and doing it. People learn to perform rescues from confined spaces this way. When the firefighters have classes all through the weekend they aren’t sitting in a classroom reading about the technical aspects of it or looking at pictures of silos. They are actually experiencing it. Climbing up and climbing back down.

To match INSIGHT-In would-be Palestinian state, a dose of reality
a modern-day Palestinian shepherd

Jesus’ knowledge of us comes from being made flesh and dwelling among us. He doesn’t just look from afar at what we go through, or study some textbook about what it’s like to be a human in a broken world. Left to die on the cross, abandoned by his friends, and feeling forsaken by God, Jesus experiences a life that needs rescue. He knows his own people because he’s in some way been there with them in it all.

It stands to reason, then, that part of our knowledge of Jesus will come through experiencing that relationship. We can learn facts about Jesus in Sunday School. We can chew on words of sermons. We can read theology and read Scripture and come to know Jesus that way. But sheep know a shepherd by getting up and following, by moving along, by experiencing his loving leadership. That is, at some point, our faith in Jesus must become more than just knowledge about God. It is stepping into relationship with him. It may mean involve saying to ourselves in some way, “I am one of the people Jesus laid down his life for. I don’t understand it the way I’d understand algebra or the Civil War, but it sounds good and I trust it and I will continue to walk and talk with him.”

Of course, the issue is that walking and talking with Jesus is not something we do alone. A group of rescued individuals all with their own privatized relationships with their Creator is not what he’s going for. It’s not what any shepherd goes for. The good shepherd works to keep his flock together, and this part is vitally important. The laying down of his life and taking it back up again is not done primarily for you and for me, but for the sake of all us—a community, a whole.

Interestingly enough, there is no difference between the singular and plural words for sheep. In both Greek and English, the word sheep is used both for one and for many. All other livestock I can think of have different words. One cow, many cows. One horse, many horses. One pig, a bunch of swine. One ox, many oxen. But sheep is sheep are sheep, and it’s true that sheep do naturally flock more than most other livestock. I don’t think it’s an accident of language. It’s plausible to me that the ancients didn’t really conceive of sheep as single animals, really.  I think it indicates there is something fundamental about our identity as God’s people that comes from realizing we’re all one. Jesus has laid down his life because we belong together, not scattered. In fact, research shows that even singing in groups, like choirs and in congregations, is good for one’s mental health, regardless of one’s own singing ability!

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[image by Carmen Doherty Photography]
We essentially live scattered lives nowadays. Single congregations situated in suburbia, pulling from multiple municipalities, have an especially challenging time embodying the one flock nature of following Jesus. Few of our lives overlap in meaningful ways throughout the course of the week. Typically we don’t even see each other. We spend a large portion of our lives in work situations where speaking about faith is either looked down on or even illegal. We gather for an hour or two on Sunday mornings and that’s about it, and so it’s very easy to begin thinking our spirituality is individual, that as long as we are tending to our relationship with God, we’re doing our part.

But sheep is sheep are sheep, and entering into meaningful relationships with each other here is part and parcel to what the Good Shepherd lays down his life for. We are one flock.

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The “Good Shepherd window” at my home congregation, Augsburg Lutheran Church in  Winston-Salem, NC

Furthermore, there are even others out there, Jesus says, not of this fold that are being brought together with us. Early on, Jesus’ followers may have interpreted that to mean the Gentiles or the Samaritans or others that were not part of the household of Israel, but now Jesus may mean anyone not of our Christian flock.

We may not always know how to interact with others not of our fold—people who don’t acknowledge the lordship of Jesus, people who don’t believe in God, people of different faiths and religions—but Jesus clearly sees himself as their shepherd too. Who knows which folds he is talking about? But he is in the process of leading them into some kind of unity with us. We may not understand how or when, but it does mean that our stance toward others, even those who seem to be outside our household of faith, should likely be one of love and patience and dialogue. Even as we trust in the name of Jesus, even as we gather and help grow our congregation or our outreach and service ministries to the community, even as we grow in our love for God’s creation, even as we grow in our singing, we know that others who do not share our specific beliefs are still in a fold that Christ cares for.

Because to the Good Shepherd each sheep is one of many sheep. Each person is someone for whom Jesus has died, whether they know it or not, and each person is one of a group, no matter how lonely they feel. He has laid down his life for them. On the cross he climbs up into your silo for the rescue and leaves himself there so that we can be free. You are his own. He knows you.  And he hasn’t just learned your face. He is walking with you, with us…because we are his flock.

It is we who he loves.

He is the good shepherd.

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.