How to say “Cappadocia”

a sermon for the Day of Pentecost [Year C]

Acts 2:1-21 and John 14:8-17

There was a lot of talk in the church office this week about the Parthians, the Medes, and the Elamites. There was also a lot of talk about the residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia…or is it Cappado-sha? Or Cappado-kia? And don’t get us started on those Phrygians and Pamphylians! We were talking about them because, you see, Hanne Hamlin, our Office Administrator, knew she had drawn the lay reader “short straw” and was scheduled to read the Acts lesson this morning that tells the story of Pentecost. And Turner Barger, the son of one of our office staff members and who serves as the president of the Synod’s Lutheran Youth Organization had also been assigned to read this Acts lesson at the big worship service at Synod Assembly Friday night in front of a group of 300 people which contained at least two bishops and dozens of pastors…as if we know how to say these words. I don’t really know how to say these words. I’ve always just made a guess on all those Cretans and Arabs and proselytes from Rome, which is what we all told Hanne and Turner to do. We told them just to launch forth with confidence no matter how they say it. No hesitation. Power through. Everybody will think they’ve done it correctly. And, to be honest, Turner and Hanne and Pamela all rocked it. Take that, Cappadocians!

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If you like a good case of irony, this Pentecost reading is a perfect example of it. It is ironic that the Scripture lesson that tells us about how clearly understood the first disciples were on Pentecost contains itself so many words that are impossible to say! It is ironic that the Bible reading that is meant to show us how easy it was for those disciples to proclaim the gospel is one of the toughest for people to get through. For you see, the main message conveyed by this reading, once you get passed all the strange names, is that the gospel is no longer a mystery, no longer a complicated, hard-to-put-together message that only a handful of small-town disciples were entrusted with. The main message of Pentecost, the giving of God’s Holy Spirit, is that the love of Christ and his death and resurrection is now something everyone can grasp and not just grasp, but share!

And that message is for all people, no matter how hard it is to pronounce the country they come from, or how uncomfortable the color of their skin may make us, or how easy it is to drive around their impoverished neighborhood, or how tough it is to sit at their table in the lunchroom at school. The message of the gospel—that Jesus loves us and that the Spirit draws us into one body for God the Father—has been given to us to share and celebrate with all people. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved! And we are the ones to let that good news be known.

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The congregation I served during my seminary internship  felt like a mini-Pentecost just about every Sunday in that several languages and ethnic groups were always present in the congregation. St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo is an international, interdenominational congregation supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that sits in the heart of Egypt’s capital city of about 16 million people. It has long been one of the few Protestant churches that offers English-language worship services in a liturgical format. As a result, the congregation is made up not just of American and British and Canadian expats, but also a large number of folks from other countries who happen to speak English. There were Dutch families, German families, as well as several families from various African countries. The congregation also hosted two Sudanese refugee congregations, each of which spoke a different native tongue.

On Christmas our worship tried to gather all of those different peoples together for one service, so we had to make sure the bulletin contained a print version of a lesson in the languages that were being spoken. If the Old Testament lesson, for example, was read aloud by one of the Sudanese worshipers in Dinka, then we’d print the lesson in English, Arabic, and Nuer. If we sang the first hymn in English, then the second one would be offered by one of the refugee choirs. It was a challenge to pull off, but the end result was that each received the message of Jesus’ love in their own tongue.

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the beautiful St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo, Egypt

I was glad for that experience, but I’ve since learned that congregations that speak one language have to be no less intentional about communicating the message of Christ. We may all speak English here, but none of us is exactly the same. We’re all walking the journey a bit differently with our own scars and wounds. We end up hearing things and experiencing matters of faith a bit differently. The Holy Spirit helps bring us overcome those barriers and brings us together in a way that makes us one. The Holy Spirit is that person of God that binds us in mission, so that when we perform an act of mercy or compassion, when we share a word of kindness, we will see the face of God revealed and the world will come to see the face of God in us. Jesus says to his disciples, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” As we, in spite of our differences, live out Christ’s command to love one another, we become the way the world sees God.

Diversity seems to be a big topic church these days, and for good reason. Even in 2019 we are still trying to overcome the divisions of race and gender and economics that have kept our unity less than what it could be. We celebrate that now there are more women and more people of color serving as bishops in our Lutheran denomination than ever before. Three congregations in the Virginia Synod (out of about six) are led by senior pastors who are women, which is sign that the stained glass ceiling is breaking. One day we won’t even count or take note of those kinds of things. They will just be the way the church in America is.Church-Diversity-640

And yet one thing I struggle with my tendency to make the concept of diversity into an idol, as if that idea of many differences is what I worship, not the God behind it. The people on Pentecost were surprised at their diversity and glad for it. Their diversity language and culture is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s activity. And yet the diversity never becomes the focus of their message. It just happens.

We would do well to remember, then, that the only thing that keeps the church true and interesting and powerful is the presence of Christ abiding through the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells his disciples on the eve of his death to keep his commandment of love. Diversity alone does not alone make the church rich. God’s love in Christ does. When it is proclaiming Jesus, crucified and risen, a small congregation of farmers on the plains of North Dakota is just as true a church as the congregation I served in Cairo with its many languages and ethnic groups. A new group of Christians worshipping in a grass hut in Papua New Guinea is just as valid in their discipleship and as a sign of God’s kingdom as we are here with our Brighten Our Light campaign and groundbreaking.

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It is important that we not get too taken away with ourselves, too fixated on our tapestries of diversity—or apparent lack of it—for our task as church is never to proclaim ourselves. It not to point ultimately to how special we are, even though true diversity is very special. Our task is always and only to do the works that Jesus’ love produces in us, which are the works of God the Father. Our task is to point the world to the One who has claimed us and made us his own. It is to lift up the love of the God who has adopted us and made us children, and if children, heirs.

And yet…that is never an excuse just to be content with whoever is here at Epiphany at the moment, as if we’re complete. The Spirit always bringing new people to each church event, to each Sunday worship service. The Spirit is always placing new people in your path out their in your daily lives, people who long to know the love and forgiveness of Jesus. And the Spirit always calls us to be aware of how unintentionally unwelcoming we may be to newcomers, or how confusing our ways may be to those trying to find their way in.

That’s one reason why all the images for the Spirit in the Bible have to do with air. A dove, fire, rushing wind—God can’t be controlled, and be prepared for what can happen when you open up a window and let the air in. The Venerable Bede, an English saint of the 8th century who the church commemorates today, once said, “Unfurl the sails, and let God steer us where he will!”

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The groundbreaking last Sunday was an exciting day in the life of this congregation. We’re getting ready to open a lot of windows. And walls. Literally. They’ll be knocked down and rebuilt. Last week during one of the children’s sermons, as I was showing the architects’ drawings to make a point, one young child spoke up and said, “But I don’t want our change our church.” That wasn’t exactly the direction I wanted to go with the children’s sermon, but, then again, you never know how the Spirit is going to move. In that moment I gave God thanks that the Spirit has developed this congregation in such a way that young children are welcome in worship and are nurtured in their faith in such a way that they can use their voice and respond openly and honestly to what they hear.

And I also gave thanks for that particular boy’s prophecy, because, if I’m honest, a part of me fears what these changes will bring to Epiphany, too. A part of me always fears change a bit, fears the air that blows in the window. I suppose the church is always being changed in some way, not just here at Epiphany, but the world over. If you like a good case of irony, there you have it. The church can always depend on the fact that things are changing. In our sin we consider them too young to do so, but the young men and women are prophesying. And in our sin we often paint them as stuck in their ways, but old men and women do have visions and dream dreams for what the people of God can be doing.

We can fear it, have our misgivings, and yet God still pours himself out for us. God still entrusts to us this powerful message of Christ for the sake of the world. So even when we’re not quite sure how we’re supposed to say it…or share it…how to pronounce it…how to be it…at some point God’s Spirit moves us to launch forward with confidence. No hesitation! Power through! People will see us and see the Father.

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

In the right hands

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

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

The other day I stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few items, and as I made my way to the stack of baskets something caught my eye. One of the cashiers, in her green Publix vest, was walking around the flower department and then the produce section with a young girl who was clutching a stuffed animal. As they passed in front of me, I clearly heard the cashier, a woman who could have easily been the age of the young girl’s grandmother, ask the girl, “Now, where did you last see him?” The woman had her hand gently placed on the girl’s shoulder and was guiding her around the store but at the same time looking up, scanning the scene, as if she was intently looking for something.

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I was witnessing the other side of every parent’s nightmare—the little girl had been separated from her father, or maybe it was her brother or her uncle. In any case, my heart immediately went out to the girl, however, when I looked at her face it did not look frightened in the slightest. There was something about the way this cashier was taking control of the situation that must have calmed the girl and made her feel safe. I watched the two of them meander through the vegetables and fruits before I lost sight of them. It was not clear to me where the girl had last seen the adult she had come in with. It was not clear to me if he was looking for her, too. But what was clear to me was that for the time being, the girl was in the right hands.

On the evening before his death, Jesus assures his disciples that they will always be in the right hands. Even though they will likely feel lost, maybe even abandoned, even though their hearts will be troubled within them, even though they might be afraid, Jesus promises that someone will be there to place a hand on their shoulder and guide them along. At the time that Jesus is saying these things, it is pretty clear the disciples have no idea what he is talking about. The events of that evening have been very strange. He’s just finished washing their feet…of all things! And Judas Iscariot has run off to turn Jesus in…of all things! They are asking all kinds of questions about what’s about to happen and they’re confused.

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But after his resurrection, after they see him die and then rise again and after they spend some time with him these words may start to come to them. As he says, Jesus is not always going to be with them in the same way. He is going to the Father. The disciples will continue in the way of love he has taught them, but he won’t physically be with them like he was when he multiplied the loaves and fish by the sea or the way he was when he broke bread around the Passover table. His community of followers will need to find their way around the grocery store of life without his physical presence. They’re going to have to imagine a life on their own without having him at arm’s length. They’re going to have to make decisions without his direct leadership, without being able to turn to him and say, “Hey, Jesus. What would you do in this situation? I’ve got this bracelet on my wrist that says WWJD. Help me out, dude.”

Does the life of faith ever seem like that to you? Hazy? Open-ended so much of the time, a bit like shooting in the dark? Maybe even a bit frightening, if not frustrating? If it makes you feel any better, it certainly seems the early disciples felt some of that too. Just look at what happens in this morning’s Acts lesson. Paul is stuck in Troas, and he’s not sure where to go next. His original plans had been to go elsewhere and preach and spread the gospel there, but that way for some reason had been closed off to him. So, as a result of a vision, he and his crew wind up in a totally new and foreign place. In fact, it is the first time the message of Jesus comes to a new continent. Macedonia is in Europe, and up until this point the church had only been an Asian thing.

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Even when Paul and his crew finally get to the city of Philippi, they still seem a bit perplexed as to what to do. In other places they had found the synagogue in order to launch their ministry, but here they find nothing like that right off the bat. So they just go to one of the main public areas and start talking to some of the women they find there. That’s how they end up getting introduced to a woman named Lydia, who is likely fairly wealthy and influential. She ends up getting baptized, along with her whole household. More than that, she offers Paul and his people a place to stay. What would Jesus have done? Hard to say, but they were guided in the right direction after all.

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St. Lydia of Thyatira

On a much, much smaller scale I think about how directionless I felt during one point in college and how some simple advice from my grandmother one day over Christmas break ended up leading me down the path to where I am today. She wasn’t by any means insistent in encouraging me to return for a second summer as a counselor, but at a time when I felt a bit troubled and unsure of what to do, she and my grandfather were like a hand on the shoulder giving me permission to take another step.

The point is, the life of faith is rarely clear cut, and Jesus knows this. His own life was full of twists and turns, some of which were terrifying and which involved a good bit of suffering.  But in some way, a part of his Father was always there with him, and Jesus promises that same part will be with his followers, too. The name he gives that part is Advocate, or, in Greek, Paraclete. If you think about what an advocate is, wou realize it is a person who can speak on your behalf, someone who can understand and articulate your needs often better than you yourself can. The image that Paraclete or Advocate would have given Jesus’ disciples is a person who would come alongside you, kind of like how an advocate in a legal setting sits down at the table with you to help you make your case. Jesus means to say that it is the Spirit of God that will come alongside them, gathering them together and speaking to them and reminding them of that love that we’ve come to associate with God.

I’ll never forget the children’s sermon a bunch of youth once did on this Scripture for youth Sunday several years ago. They called the children forward, and it was clear they were going to play the part of Jesus’ anxious disciples while some of the high school guys put on a skit. At the time we had a set of identical twins in the youth group, Matthew and Stephen von Schmidt-Pauli. They were so similar-looking that most people couldn’t tell them apart unless you got really close to them. Stephen played the part of Jesus in the skit, and he told his disciples, “In a little bit I won’t be with you. I’ll go to the Father, but it will be OK because I’ll send someone who will remind you of me.” He left out the side door and then in comes Matthew, who says, “Hi there. I’m the Advocate. Do I remind you of anyone?”

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That’s the role of the Spirit: to remind us of Jesus, to bring us into places where we will experience him. Just as the Father and the Son share this special bond of love, that bond will now be shared with those who have been claimed by Jesus.

The promise of Jesus is not that we will always know what decision to make, or which path to choose or how to solve a particular problem. The promise Jesus makes to his disciples as he prepares to leave them is not that life will be easy or that there will be no hardship. The promise is that we will always have the love of Jesus assessible to us. The promise is that we will always be able to count on God’s presence to be with us in some way. We will always be able to look at the cross, to encounter God’s Word at worship an in study, to receive the bread in our hand and wine on our lips and hear Jesus speaking to us that we are forgiven, we are loved, we are treasured. God will always be seeking us out when we’re lost putting his hand on our shoulder, and finding a way to guide us, comfort us, and give us peace in the same way that God found a way to raise his crucified Son to new life.

On this weekend we remember those who served our country and who have died in combat.  These men and women saw something greater worth giving their lives for. They followed through on a mission, whether or not they may have personally believed in it, and never had the chance to see how it all turned out. In many ways, their dedication to a cause and their willingness to move forward in bravery in spite of fear or apprehension can serve as an inspiration to our mission as Jesus’ people of peace. Because of the freedoms we have in this country, it is unlikely we will have to offer our lives for God’s kingdom in the same way that a soldier does, but we do die to self every day in Christ’s venture. Whether we’re speaking as a congregation getting ready to embark on a bold and exciting new construction project or we’re talking about our own personal faith journey, there are always opportunities to move forward by letting familiar ground give way, ground we may have unknowingly become too attached to. In a world where so much is changing, one constant is that Jesus grants his followers peace. People of a nation can sleep in peace knowing their servicemen and women are on the front lines offering their lives. Jesus’ people can live in eternal peace knowing he has offered his life on the cross.

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A few weeks ago the confirmands (those 10th graders who professed their faith last weekend in worship) attended a council meeting where they shared a Bible verse that was important to their faith. Each of them had selected a different verse, and all of them did a great job of explaining what that meant to them. There was one young man who had chosen Psalm 31:7, “I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction, you have taken heed of my adversities.” He then very honestly and open shared how in an especially dark time in his life when we wasn’t sure of anything else, even how to move forward, he felt sure of God’s presence. It was the gentle hand of God, the God who conquers death and darkness, who reminded him of who and whose he was. That is a powerful testimony to the Spirit Jesus promised us.

That Spirit is here, and that Spirit gathers us in spite of ourselves to hear the words of Jesus  and to take his body and share his peace. In fact, the Holy Spirit just gave me those words, put them together. And it is the Holy Spirit who, perhaps, helped those words make sense to you just now.

That girl in the grocery store was eventually reunited with her father. As I was checking out, right there in front of me I saw the kindly cashier present her to a man holding groceries, the three of them forming a little trinity. Father, girl, and holy Publix employee, bringing them together. There was a huge smile on the girl’s face, and of relief on the father’s. It had been several minutes. He thanked the woman, and as I handed my cashier my card, I heard the him say to his daughter, “I don’t know how we got separated, but I knew I’d find you.”

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Peter’s Big Day

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

John 21:1-19, Acts 9:1-6, Psalm 30, and Revelation 5:11-14

I do not fish, but I do go birding, and I’ve long thought that the two have a lot in common. Both activities consist of going out into nature, into the world, (even suburban and urban locations!), and hoping that you find something that you really don’t have a lot of control over.

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Right now happens to be peak migration season for many birds species that come from the south to North America to breed and raise their young. I’ve been going out almost every day to some of my well-worn nature trails with my zoom lens hoping for what they call in birding circles a “big day.” I crane my neck into the trees. I get really still and listen all around me. And, suffice it to say, so far it’s been pretty disappointing. Either the birds are just not out there, or I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, or they see me coming and they all say, “Shh. Let’s all be real quiet for a sec.” Sometimes you have such long stretches of nothing exciting that you start to wonder if they’re conspiring against you.

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I’ve talked about this with some of the people in our congregation who fish, and they say that’s what fishing is like sometimes. Will Willimon, a bishop in the United Methodist Church and professor at Duke Divinity School says that if you’re going to get into fishing, you’d better be good at failure. It is just part of what happens, and quite often.

That’s what happens to Peter and his fishing buddies a few days after Jesus’ resurrection. This might be the best-known fishing expeditions of all time, and it starts with total failure. They go out with all their nets and their boats and they fish all night, which is when lots of fishing happened back in those days. They work hard, because, after all, this is how they make their living, and they come up with nothing. Next thing they know a mysterious visitor along the shore recommends they do something a little different and—voila!—it’s a big day! Suddenly they have more fish than they know what to do with. Then, one by one, they come to the realization that the mysterious visitor on the shore is none other than their risen Lord. His presence turns their failure into success. They eventually all get to shore and there they find that Jesus has prepared them a meal and he invites them to join.

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The Appearance at the Sea of Tiberias (William Hole)
The Scripture doesn’t say this, but I bet the failure that is looming in Peter’s mind is not the fact they worked all night to catch fish and came up empty. The failure that is likely on his mind is the one from several nights before when Jesus had been arrested and was getting ready to be crucified. That’s when things had really gone south. He had always been the eager beaver disciple, quick to promise Jesus that he would never desert him, but at Peter’s first chance to say something and prove himself, he had denied even knowing Jesus. Three times he had been given a chance to identify himself as one of Jesus’ followers, to prove his love for his Teacher, and all three times he had been too frightened or nervous to do it.

That’s got to hurt, both from Peter’s perspective and from Jesus’. They both probably feel like failures, to some degree—Peter for denying and Jesus for choosing someone so unreliable. But then Jesus does again what he just did with the fish: he gives another chance. He turns emptiness into abundance. He transforms the situation with his grace. And just as Peter denied knowing Christ three times on Good Friday, Jesus gives Peter three chances to profess his love. He gives Peter a new vocation, a new call—to tend the faithful, to feed the church, to follow Jesus.

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The call to follow Jesus is to know the story is not over until Jesus says it’s over. To know Jesus is to realize that this is the kind of thing God is always up to: looking at our failures, looking at our shortcomings, looking at our brokenness and ultimately not being deterred by them. God’s mission in Jesus will find a way. He is great with turnarounds. It’s kind of God’s “thing.” As the psalmist says this morning, “you have turned by wailing into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” Sackcloth is what people wore when they were mourning or repenting from something shameful. God in Christ is always moving things in that direction—from weeping to dancing, from sorrow to joy—and typically in the bleakest of situations.

Peter learns this by the lake that day eating fish and bread with his risen Lord. Saul learns this, too, which we hear about in our first lesson from Acts. Ruthless and tenacious, he is extremely successful in his career of attacking Christ’s followers. Christians far and wide fear him. Saul is probably the last person anyone might suspect to be transformed by grace, and yet Jesus is able to find a turnaround for him, too. On the way to Damascus Saul encounters Jesus in a type of intense vision and receives a new direction. When Saul eventually regains his sight and receives care from a kind Christian named Ananias, Saul becomes Paul. And instead of using a sword to fight against Jesus’ kingdom, which is what he used to be known for, he takes up a pen and fights for God’s kingdom, writing letters to churches across the ancient world that still teach people of faith today.

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Yet as powerful as the turnarounds are of Peter and Paul, the place where you and I learn about God’s knack for gracious, surprising turnarounds is the cross of Jesus. There we see and call to mind each week in worship that God can step into the most broken of circumstances and bring about life. As the writer of Revelation puts it, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered to receive power and wisdom and might.” Or, as we sing each week on most Sundays of the year, “For the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign.” It’s not the Lamb who climbed his way to the top through popular opinion, who beat everybody else, who had the most power. It is the Lamb who gave his life in the most humiliating way. That Lamb is the one God raised to become Lord of all.

Over and over again we re-learn this story every week so that, in part, we can see God’s work in our lives. So that we can hear the promise that our wailing will turn into dancing, that our denials of Jesus’ love will turn into chances to say, “I love you.” To have our lives of anger and disappointment and bitterness be turned around to gentleness and peacefulness and love. Because that’s what God does.

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All too often we’re prone to take too short of a view of things, especially in times of tragedy or hardship, in spells of doubt or anxiety. We get tempted to think that whatever situation we’re in is irredeemable, there’s no way it can get better. Or that what we’ve done is unforgiveable. Or that a certain relationship is irreconcilable. But there is nothing irredeemable for Jesus. There is nothing unforgiveable to Jesus. And there is nothing God’s love in him eventually can’t reconcile. As one person put it, our worst day is never our last day. Because of Jesus, even in our grave there is a gate to eternal life.

Last week our Question for the Car Ride, which is printed each week in the bulletin, asked if there was an occurrence or conversation that led you into deeper faith in God. For a meeting this week we shared our responses to that question and I learned the most amazing things about people on that team. One person’s response was so simple and yet so insightful. She said it wasn’t just one conversation she can remember that deepened her faith, but the cumulative effect of all the dinnertime conversations she had at home with her family. Her mind couldn’t pull just one topic or epiphany out and settle on it as eye-opening, but just the repeated sitting down with her parents, who were comfortable talking about matters of faith when they arose, slowly over the years built her a strong foundation in a God who is loving and dedicated to turning around the world’s wailing.

It is by God’s great design that when Jesus encounters his disciples that morning on the beach he offers them food and gets them talking. That’s what he does for us each week. He gets us talking as a family around this table where Jesus once again gives us himself. We have conversations. We have them in the Commons, in Sunday School classrooms, in the pews before church begins, in the narthex and parking lot. Sometimes these conversations are profound, but more often that not they are just regular conversations. They are regular conversations that that little by little open us up and lay the groundwork for God’s big transformations to take place.

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I don’t think anyone can predict exactly where Epiphany Lutheran Church will go in the coming years, just as no one could have predicted several decades ago that we’d be here today making the decisions we have at hand. Some people are excited about the direction implied in today’s vote and the opportunities for future ministry that it will lead to. Others are anxious about it, and still others, I imagine, have misgivings. No matter where things go today, or tomorrow, or the next, Jesus will still be gathering us around this table and inviting us into conversation. That we can count on. We can count on the fact that he will be there to meet us in the midst of our failures and disappointments, in our endeavors that don’t pan out like we think, and in those that go perfectly.

We would well remember that it is the life of turnarounds and transformations our baptism has signed us up for. Never stop the story at today because with Jesus it goes on. You never know how God will find a way to turn wailing into dancing.

At this point I’d love to say that one of my birding misadventures has turned into an epic big day. And even if it happens, I know I have something far better: fellowship with you and with a Lord who gives Peter new chances. With the God who turned Paul to love and peacefulness…With One who was slain who has begun His reign.

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Time for doubt, time for praise

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

John 20:19-31

A man in the congregation who has a young daughter, about 5 years old, told me a few weeks ago that she had sat down at supper time and asked him, “When are we going to sing ‘This is the Feast’ at church again?” Evidently the long Sundays in Lent when we remove festive songs containing Alleluia and replace them with the more penitential “Kyrie,” (which means “Lord, have mercy,”) had gotten a little long for her. She was eager to rejoice and sing “This is the feast of victory for our God.”

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And so we should. Alleluia! but we also shouldn’t forget that the first reaction to Jesus’ resurrection is fear. If we somehow were to decide to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection according to the timeline that is presented in each of the gospels, kind of like the way we re-enact and dramatize the events of Holy Week, we would probably not sing any songs of praise right off the bat. We would instead do things that communicate that it all still feels like a tragedy. Even after the women share the news that the tomb is empty. Even after Mary Magdalene tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” The message of the first Easter is tragic and frightening and confusing. The disciples have just witnessed a gruesome execution of their leader…in public! At least two of them have been possibly identified as members of his inner circle. As far as any of them know, the religious authorities, which is basically what is meant here by “the Jews,” want to do away with the movement Jesus has begun. One really natural reaction to all of this is to hole yourself up somewhere in a saferoom, some pre-assigned meeting place, and lock the doors. Who knows what’s going to happen next? How could this have happened?

Last Sunday, as Christian worshippers gathered in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to celebrate Easter, maybe even with trumpets and drums, suicide bombers from a little-known terrorist group detonated themselves in their sanctuaries, and in luxury hotels in other parts of the city. It was an unspeakable, horrible tragedy, and at last count officials estimate 253 people were killed and many more wounded. One article about the event I read this week discussed the various reactions to this event in Sri Lanka. There are many religious groups living together in that country, and now many are worried about how they will trust each other. The article included the reactions of some who are wondering openly, “Where is God?”[1]

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the aftermath in one church’s sanctuary (Sri Lanka)

I found that to be a refreshingly honest response, and I’m thankful they included it. Too often we rush past that part of a tragedy. We hurry to tell people to look for examples of God in the rubble, in the people who are helping and the stories of kindness and heroism that emerge. And those things are important, but often we go all “This is the Feast” without making room for the fear and questioning. And the fear and questioning are real and they’re natural and that’s where the disciples are on the evening of Jesus’ resurrection. It is hard to figure out where God is in all of this when you’re still in crisis mode.

What about you? Do you make room for the wondering, the questioning? Do you understand the urge to lock the doors and hunker down when disaster strikes?

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Of course, Jesus’ death was a tragedy, but the resurrection isn’t, and before things get too carried away Jesus finds them. Isn’t that wonderful? Jesus finds them, because locked doors don’t mean much to the risen Christ. Just as before, he tends to break down barriers and find ways to bring people together. Whether it is through doors that try to lock out the world or communities that try to lock out certain people because they seem different, or hearts that try to lock out love and compassion because of anger and bitterness, Jesus will find a way to enter. It’s usually mysterious how he pulls this off. We are all wound up in our grief or panic and then next thing we know he is there.

When Jesus comes to his disciples behind the locked doors he transforms them almost immediately from people who don’t know what the future holds to people who have purpose and mission. And he does it without shaming any of them even after they’ve demonstrated a lack of faith. He gently and graciously includes Thomas, too, who is bold about his doubt. The first thing Jesus says is “Peace be with you.” He had told them before his crucifixion that he gave them a peace that the world could not give. Peace that comes from someone who has died in order to show God’s love for you is a peace like no other.

Here Jesus basically sets the tone for everything that comes after the resurrection. I know at other churches where the worship service includes the sharing of the peace they often place it more in the middle of the liturgy, right before Holy Communion. That’s how they do it at Synod Youth events. That is a valid option. Here at Epiphany, though, it comes right after the confession and forgiveness, near the beginning, and I’ve come to appreciate that. Right from the beginning we say, “Peace be with you.” Right from the beginning we acknowledge Christ is risen and that he has shown up, regardless of whatever concerns we carry here.

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Jesus transforms them with peace and then Jesus transforms them by sending them out. He re-focuses their attention from themselves and their own inward-facing community to risk themselves in the world. He doesn’t just release them from their locked room to go back to things as usual. He sends them as he was sent, and that is a lot to chew on, if you think about it, considering where he’s just come from. It means he send them out to serve in the manner he serves, and to love others in the way he loves…to die to yourself as he died. To be sent as Jesus is sent is to lead with compassion and humility. It is to stop and be more cognizant of the situation of others rather than yourself.

One colleague of mine says that when he gets bogged down with decisions of leadership and fears of self-doubt creep in, lots of times he just drops everything and goes on visits to people on his homebound list. He literally sends himself out of the building and into the lives of people who knows will bless and minister to him, and immediately the anxieties fall away.

The third thing Jesus does with his disciples that evening is give them the authority to grant forgiveness and withhold it. This is key. Right from the beginning, the life of Jesus’ followers will be linked to reconciliation, to healing the brokenness that can be done by human sin. Christ-followers can be known in this world by so many good things: wonderful architecture like the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Beautiful music by composers from every century. We are recognized by our acts of service and justice, especially in times of disaster. Some are known for their potlucks! But Jesus places how his followers deal with sin at the top of that list. The quality of their relationships with each other, among their community, will lead the way in who they are as God’s people. It will be clear to future followers that Jesus is still among us when we deal with sin honestly and lovingly.

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Of course, Jesus demonstrates this kind of graciousness immediately in the way he treats Thomas, the famous doubter. Jesus doesn’t chastise him or alienate him from the community. He even offers Thomas the chance to poke those wounds in his hand and side in order to show that he is real. It is a gesture of remarkable vulnerability. Jesus ends up including Thomas by opening himself up, by allowing himself to be touched if Thomas needs it. And Thomas goes from being one who doubts  to being the first person in John’s gospel who proclaims that Jesus is Lord and God.

Oftentimes when this story comes up there is so much focus on Thomas, and I suppose that is helpful. He becomes a type of hero for people who struggle with belief, who are honest with their doubts and suspicions about the resurrection, or even about the existence of God. It is easy to put ourselves in his shoes, and perhaps we should from time to time, but maybe Thomas’ shoes aren’t the main ones we should be wearing. Maybe it would be better to place ourselves in Jesus’ shoes. Since we are his body on earth now, it makes sense. And especially since he sends us like he was sent, it really makes sense. Maybe our best witness is to offer our woundedness to the world so they might become ways to faith for them, to practice transparency and vulnerability especially in our weaker places, to let people even poke into our scars if they need to so that they may better understand the nature of our faith and calling and our presence in the world as Jesus’ people. If we let ourselves as individuals and as church be open to share where or how we’ve been hurt or how we’ve hurt others it will give us an opening to talk about how Jesus has led us through.

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Last Sunday while we were all in here with our Easter bonnets and lilies and loud, trumpet music, members of our Safety Team were keeping a lookout around the building and in the parking lot. One of those volunteers, Lyle Gleason, rounded the corner from between the main building and columbarium and was stopped in his tracks by what he saw. The sun, still relatively low in the sky as it was mid-morning, was directly above our cross out front. A long and very distinct cross-shaped shadow was stretching directly toward where Lyle was standing. It was like the cross had become a sundial and the cross’s shadow was giving the time, and the perspective of the photo puts you at the tip of that cross shadow, as if you are standing at the time it has landed on.

Lyle grabbed his phone and snapped a photo very quickly. We ended up sharing it on social media and people immediately reacted to it. One woman made the photo her profile photo. In texting about that photo later that day, and about the message of Easter, one gentleman in the congregation wrote, “All that I have seen teaches me to trust my Creator for all the things I haven’t seen.” I happen to know that this man and his family have been in constant crisis mode for much of the past five years. What a witness for me to hear him share his faith that way. “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

From behind the tomb’s stone to behind locked doors, Jesus moves us from doubt to faith, from shadow to sun, from fear to mission. What time is it? I wonder. The sun has risen over the cross. Death has been vanquished, the dark lies behind. We have peace, we have purpose, we have the promise of forgiveness.

What time is it, O Son-dial?

It’s time to sing “This is the feast of victory for our God!”

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

 

[1] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/-where-is-god—-sri-lankans-stunned-after-deadly-blasts-11467340

The Story at the Center

a reflection for Good Friday

We’ve now arrived at the very heart of Christian faith, the main event, the well from which all else springs. Suspended for the moment in the dark, we find ourselves in the middle of the three days where everything about what we believe and about who we follow comes into focus. This is the core of it all, and one thing we might notice—one thing we might even find odd—is that there is no moralizing. There are no “Do’s and Don’ts,” no life lessons listed for us, no philosophies to ponder, which you might be looking for if you’re looking for a religion. On Good Friday, it can be said we are at the center of what makes us who we are as Christ-followers and yet we find no bullet points that succinctly explain what we’re all about.

About thirty years ago there was a really popular book by the title of  All I Really Needed To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Written by a minister named Robert Fulghum, the book became so beloved because it essentially contained convenient rules to live by, philosophies that he boiled down from the kindergarten environment that could be applied all through life. We get nothing like that. We don’t get nice essays or nuggets riffing on the basics like “All I Really Needed To Know I Learned at Golgotha,” the name of the hill where they crucify Jesus.

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Instead, we get a story. Instead, we get to hear about something that happened. And what happens is a man comes bearing good news and compassion and life and seems to be terribly misunderstood. Before things really get off the ground the authorities have arrested him, put him on a sham trial and execute him like a common criminal. It doesn’t take him too long to die. As people scatter, the kind of life he lived for, the kind of vision he wanted to give us seems to die with his last breath. He does manage to speak and say a few important things as he hangs dying that may sound like things we’d live our life by, but overall this is just a story that gathers us here tonight, a story that will send us out in silence. Here we are at the center of our faith and that’s the story we get.

Maybe, though, this is what makes it all so compelling, so…true. After all, our lives don’t unfold like a series of bullet points, do they? Our lives are stories. They happen…they are uncontrollable, to a larger degree than we like to admit. They go up and down, around corners with surprise and heartache. When, at our funerals, people will speak, they will not so much talk about who we were from a philosophical standpoint as if we were a concept. They will tell stories about things we did.

And so this is the story we hear of our God. We hear it, we struggle with it, and whether or not we believe it we come away with a God gives himself fully to us. We come away with a man who submits the lies, the denials, the betrayals of his enemies and his friends, whose dreams go up in smoke (for the time-being). We come away with a cross, and for a religion that’s a strange thing to come away with. It says to us, “This happened. Will you see how it speaks to your story?”

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The Flogging of Jesus (Carravaggio)

A few months ago a cross was placed unexpectedly on the edge of our property. It was a tall, heavy cross—two bulky timbers nailed and screwed together, painted bright white and fitted with a stand that helped it stand upright on its own. Visible as you drove into the parking lot but not really in a central location, it was easy to overlook or forget. It stood there through wintry weather for several weeks. I just assumed it was someone’s property or project. Eventually staff started to talk about it. We tried to find who it belonged to, but no one claimed it. So, we had to deal with it, that is was now in our story. We took off the stand and painted it brown. Tonight we brought it into the sanctuary and it is lying on the altar. (By the way, if you recognize it as yours, we’ll give it back.)

The cross happens in God’s story. Jesus doesn’t choose it, but it chooses him. It may not appear randomly, but it is certainly sudden. The cross of Jesus means that God is a gift to us, no matter our story, no matter our background. God simply takes on our brokenness, our sin, our tendency to turn to other gods and just dies for us to see ourselves in his story. This means God is in your story, no matter where it goes or how it turns out. God is there to love you and to forgive you. The cross means that our faith is based not on a set of principles, but rather a trust that God never lets go of us, a trust that God has dropped himself into our lives, a trust that frees us to live and follow him.

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Tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. I was listening to a series of interviews of the survivors of that tragic event, which at the time was the worst school shooting in America’s history. Twelve students and one teacher died from the bullets shot by two students who felt like they didn’t fit in. Twenty years later many of the wounds are still hurting, but, miraculously, many have healed. Many survivors and their families have been moved to forgiveness, and a remarkable number of former students who were there on the day of the shooting have returned as teachers to Columbine. Most of them credit the steadfast love and Christlike compassion, Frank DeAngelis, principal of Columbine High School back in 1999, with the new life they’ve been able to experience.

In the interview I watched, he talks about how he bears guilt and pain of what happened that day, how the nightmares used to keep him up, but that he made the promise to stay at Columbine until everyone who was in kindergarten in 1999 graduated. He stuck with them. He placed himself in the middle of their suffering in order to lead. He refused the opportunity to remove himself from their story. That is the work of a God who gives us a cross, who doesn’t hand out rules to live by, but just lives, in spite of the suffering.

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Isenheim altarpiece, (Matthaeus Gruenewald)

As much as we might like to come away from today’s events with a handful of nuggets to live by, with a philosophy to debate, with a core idea, we really come away with the story of a God who gives himself to us, who enters our story, who stays in our story…who saves our story. On second thought, maybe all we really need to know about God we do learn at Golgotha.

 

Amen.

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Charity Walk

A sermon for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion

Luke 22 and 23

Today, at the same time that we gather here in our sanctuary to read together and reflect on the events of that first Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, when the people lined the streets and formed a kind of parade to welcome Jesus as king, a group of people from our congregation is gathering in Virginia Beach with the family of our congregation council president, Rob Burger, to take part in the PurpleStride. PurpleStride is a walk to rally awareness for pancreatic cancer and raise money for a cure. Rob was diagnosed with a pancreatic tumor in February and has been undergoing treatment for two months. Today is a joyful pause in the grueling rounds of chemo to gather and walk with survivors, family members, and others who have been touched by the disease. A few families from Epiphany have driven down to participate with the Burgers and the Westins and several members of our youth group have joined them, too.

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Rob and his rebels at the PurpleStride in Virginia Beach, VA

The choice of Palm Sunday for the walk, as far as I know, was not intentional. These things are held on various weekends throughout the year. But Rob liked the connection. His team, Rob’s Rebels, is named after the Star Wars characters who fight against the evil Empire. They are wearing purple shirts—purple is the color for pancreatic cancer—and, at his request, a member of their team came by late this week and grabbed some of our palm branches to take with them. So it can be said that this morning, a group from our congregation, waving palm fronds and wearing the color of Lent, is participating in a procession of life. They are walking in hope. They are walking with a united purpose. They are walking because they love Rob.

Palm Sunday aside, walking or running for a particular cause or a cure is a trend that is about 50 years old. It is generally accepted that this idea got off the ground in the 1960s with some very successful walks to highlight causes related to hunger. The March of Dimes got in early on the act and helped popularize them and expand their focus to medical issues. Now tens of thousands of so-called charity walks are held every year. In fact, in 2012 it was estimated around 72 charity walk events were held every day! If you ran or walked in the Monument Avenue 10K yesterday here in Richmond, you were part of an event that was partially sponsored by the Massey Cancer Center.

Why are charity walks or runs so popular? They actually aren’t the most economically sound was to raise money for a something. Psychologists have actually studied this and say it’s because they give people an opportunity to suffer or work for a cause. People are more willing, it turns out, to contribute financially to a cause if they have to exert some kind of effort. If they sweat, if they get blisters, if they run the risk of getting a sunburn, if they P.R. in a race, if they get “palm branch elbow”—they feel joined somehow to the people who are actually suffering from the cause. I think many of us already are aware of some of the suffering of Rob and his family, but much of what they’ve gone through is personal. The PurpleStride gives his friends a way to join in and walk by his side—even if their sacrifice is only small by comparison.

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That happens to be how we think of our Palm Sunday and Holy Week rituals, isn’t it? We come today and to the extra worship services this week not just to remember and reflect but in some way to pay really close attention to Jesus’ suffering. We come to read scripture slowly and dramatically to hear how it all plays out for him. We come to walk with our Lord on his purple stride: the gospels note that at some point during his ordeal the soldiers mock Jesus by arraying him in brilliant scarlet or purple, which was the color of royalty in those days.

All of this—palms, the music, the special readings, the darkened sanctuary during the evening services on Thursday and Friday—all of this adds to our experience in some small, small way to what Jesus endured, and figuring out where, if anywhere, we might fit in. Are we a palm branch waver? Are we one of the loudest ones choosing anyone—anyone, even Barabbas—to be freed over the innocent Jesus? Are we a disciple who betrays him in the garden? A member of the crowd who watches silently by the cross? I mean, that’s the point of that almost haunting hymn we sing, right?

“Were YOU there when they crucified my Lord?
 Were YOU there when they nailed him to the tree?”
Were YOU there when they laid him in the tomb?”

With questions that are left to be answered in the mind of whoever sings or hears it, we wonder: are we going to walk with Jesus too? It’s good and right to think on those things, and to “do” Palm Sunday with those questions, but there is something greater going on we don’t want to miss. The greater point is that Palm Sunday and Holy Week are, in fact, Jesus’ commitment to walk with us, God’s desire to join in our suffering. And that’s not to say that we or our lives are the most important things here, or the center of the universe—far from it! It is rather to say this day and this week are about God’s decision to walk along the paths of human life. All of them.

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Christ’ Passion is about God’s close attention to the ever-sinking lows of what humans can put each other through, about how cruel and dark things can get on this planet. It’s about God looking at his creation and wondering where he’s going to fit in, what role he is going to play and, by golly, God is going to fit right in along those who are suffering. That’s the speaking part God winds up with today, and every day. It is God singing, “I WAS there, I AM there”— with those who are abandoned, those who are hurting, those who are rejected. This is God’s charity walk for us.

And therefore if God is with us today and in the midst of the events of this week, if God finds a part to play among the lows of human existence, then we have more opportunities than just during Holy Week to listen and be committed to his cause. Any time, in fact, we see our neighbors hurting, God is there—not because God is causing it, but because God wants to heal and bring life where its needed. Any time there is pain and loss in the lives of those around us, any time there is loss, God is walking. He sees a place go grant charity. God is walking and we can sign up and join right in with him.

And walk with hope, because Jesus will be victorious.

And walk with united purpose, because the cross is carried for all.

And walk because his love is poured out for everyone, come what may—for Rob, for those in the PurpleStride, for you and me.

With Jesus the loving rebel, we walk from death to new life.

 

Thanks be to God!
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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The fragrance that lingers

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

John 12:1-8 and Philippians 3:4b-14

One time when we were horsing around on the bus as sixth-graders some mean older kid poured an entire bottle of Polo cologne on my head. Back in those days Polo was considered top shelf stuff, so I don’t know why the kid did it, or even why he had it at school. Seemed like a waste to me, and even with the all the windows open zooming down the road in the cool North Carolina spring we were practically choking on the smell. It permeated the entire bus, and I was the epicenter of it. I washed my hair the moment I got home and I still smelled like Polo for days. For days and days. And to this day, a whiff of Polo gives me some powerful flashbacks. Makes me almost gag.

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I think about that event in my life every time I hear about Mary pulling out a bottle of top shelf perfume and anointing Jesus’ feet with it. This was potent stuff, a precious oil-based substance from a plant that grew thousands of miles away in the Himalayas. The fragrance fills the room, and I wonder how long afterwards Jesus still smelled like it.

This happens just one day before his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when the crowds sing Hosanna and proclaim him king. So I wonder if Jesus is still that epicenter of perfume, the fragrance from his feet overpowering any barnyard animal scent the donkey has as he rides it in. And given how quickly things then unfold for Jesus, I wonder if the odor of Mary’s anointing manages to fill the room that night before the Passover when he kneels down to take his own disciples’ feet to wash them. Maybe it was Mary who gives him the idea to do that—a sign of humility and servanthood, since kings were normally anointed on their heads.

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And to think that maybe that perfume is what his disciples sense in the air as he teaches them that he is the vine and they are the branches, as he prays for them to remain one and love each other as he had loved them. And then I imagine those feet, still giving off that sweet aroma, walking him out into the dark night of the garden where he is arrested. Maybe he still smells good while the soldiers are beating him, flogging him, making him bleed. I’ve always imagined Good Friday to have a dark smell to it, one of sweat and dirt and wood, but maybe his feet still bear a trace of Mary’s devotion as he hangs on the cross to die. And perhaps as they take him down to bury him they all get a whiff—maybe just a slight whiff, but enough—not of death and decay, but of beauty and thankfulness and life.

Do you ever think of that? Mary used a whole pound of it, after all. It was equivalent in today’s calculations to about $40,000 worth of perfume. And since we’re told it is purchased for Jesus’ burial, it stands to reason the odor lingers from that Saturday night party at Mary’s house until the end—until the women arrive with reinforcement spices and perfume on the Sunday after Good Friday…perfume they ended up not needing, after all.

This is Mary’s act of faith. It may not be how you or I would choose to honor our Savior, and it’s obviously not how Judas would do it, but it is an expression of her devotion to Jesus and it shows, as one of my colleagues says,  that Mary “gets it.” Mary gets who Jesus is—she gets what he is about. She gets that he is worth even more than a cause, no matter how noble. He is worth more than her savings account, more than her reputation. She gets somehow—maybe it’s the fact that he raised her brother Lazarus from the dead—she gets that the weight of God’s love and power is focused in this actual body of this actual person in front of her, and that he is going to love the world so much that no amount of beating or nailing or dying will turn him away from it. And that those who cling to him in faith receive the eternal life he comes to bring. So she pulls her hair pin out and lets it down so it can cling to his oily ankles. He is the resurrection and the life, right there in her living room, and so it’s time to give whatever she can and do whatever she can to adore him.

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I used to visit one homebound member who had hanging over her fireplace a large version of Da Vinci’s famous “Last Supper” made out of some dark wood like ebony or mahogany and inlaid with mother of pearl. It was one of the first things you noticed when you walked into her house. When it came time in the visit for us to have Holy Communion, she scurried off and got her offering envelope. She reappeared from another room and then, before she handed it to me to bring back to the church, she walked into the middle of the room, faced that picture over the fireplace and then, with hands and arms extended and head bowed down like she was straining ahead, she lifted her offering over her head, silently for several seconds, as if Jesus were really in the room and her gift was intended for none other than him. It was an act of devotion that temporarily halted what was happening and focused our attention on Jesus.

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this is not this woman’s piece of art, but similar to it

It is the same thing that Paul is talking about in his letter to the Philippians. Paul tells his beloved congregation that that nothing in his life measures up to the value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. And Paul has quite the laundry list of things to be proud of, quite a list of statuses that would open doors and turn heads. He can check all the boxes on the list of privilege and honor: the right religion, the right tribe, the right family, the right school district. Yet he, like Mary, understands that the value of Jesus, even sharing in his sufferings, surpasses them all. He forgets whatever lies behind and strains forward to what lies ahead, hands and arms extended and head bowed down. I imagine that’s similar to the mindset a college basketball team has to adopt in a tournament. Always think ahead, strain ahead to the prize. Even if you won last night’s game in a squeaker, it’s now behind you. Think of what’s next.  Survive, as they say, and advance.

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The future Jesus opens for Paul is so new and so exciting and so valuable that all he really wants to do is think about what’s there, where that path is leading, where his faith may take him. And this is all new and exciting and valuable because, Paul says, “Christ has made me his own.”

In his death on the cross, Jesus has claimed you and me forever. He has made us his own. We no longer belong to the forces of this world that tempt us to put ourselves first, that trick us into devising or creating our own worth. Jesus has anointed us. He has poured his life out for us so that we may live as God’s redeemed children forever. Jesus’ love has made us treasures.

We are coming into the final days of Lent, and it strikes me that it’s kind of like an Antique Road Show. Do you know that program on public television, the one where people go into their attics and basements and see if they have anything secretly hidden away that is actually worth a lot of money? They sit down with an antiquities expert and learn about the item they’ve got they didn’t really know much about.

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In the life and death of Jesus it is clear that God treasures us and now it’s time to turn and reflect on how much we treasure Jesus. We bring out our faith, our relationship to Jesus, which we’ve likely stored away somewhere, kind of neglected for a while. Mary and Paul are the experts who have us set it out and dust it off and tell us that for all these years we’ve been sitting on something that’s actually priceless, something that opens infinite possibilities for life, something that will really tell us who we are.

What Paul and Mary give us are challenging questions for us all to confront, for we realize there are other things we tend to adore and treasure too much—other activities and allegiances we prioritize—even when they seem to be good things. Acts of service in the community: do we do them mainly because of the impact they make, because they make us feel useful, or do we do them out of gratitude to the Savior who loves us? Our worship and music: do we love them for how beautiful and inspiring they can be, how they make us feel, or do we love the God at whom they’re directed? Our involvement in church: do we treasure it because of how holy it might make us look to others or the connections it brings us, or do we treasure this time together because it provides us opportunities to praise God?

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I don’t know about you, but sometimes I think I fall into the trap of believing that the church needs to legitimate its existence through the service it does. I start to think we’re only worth our salt if we’re chalking up acts of justice and mercy in the world, taking the right stances on the social and political issues. It’s so tempting to think that the best thing we can be doing as Christ-followers is making a difference in the lives of those around us, but what a cynical and self-serving way to boil down Christ’s sacrifice!

Mary’s act of faith and Jesus’ scolding of Judas challenges that way of thinking in the same way that the homebound parishioner drew the focus from what I was doing to whose picture was over the fireplace. The only thing that makes us legitimate or valuable in the eyes of anyone is the love God has for us in Jesus. He prays for us, he washes our feet, he endures the grave for us. He is the epicenter of what God is doing to fashion everything new: “Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19).

The best we can truly do is whatever reflects our gratitude back to God, and no one can really judge that but Jesus. It is our adoration of Jesus, crucified and risen—our sacrifices of suffering and joy—which will draw everyone’s attention to the God who dies to save, which will wake the world up to the fact as it zooms in the bus down that road of life that there is this beautiful rare aroma, this beautiful heavenly fragrance of life lingering around us that, no matter what—thanks be to God!—just never goes away.

 

Thanks be to God!

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“Teach us to Pray” – a reflection on prayers of supplication

using Psalm 143 as a guide

Even before he really began to form words, we began trying to teach our son, who is now almost three, to say “please.” He was still not forming many consonants correctly, which was normal for his age, but he tried to imitate us the best he could. It first came out as “beef.” He’d motion for something, or grunt for it, and we’d ask, “What do you say?” and he’d say, “Beef.” That was well over a year ago. Now he’s pretty conversant and able to express himself very well, but he still reverts to saying “Beef” when he wants something. We’ll say something like, “Do you want more chicken?” and he’ll say, “Beef.” But we know what he means. It’s an ongoing process.

Whether it comes out “beef” or “please,” what he’s learning is supplication. Supplication isn’t one of those words people use very often, but in a way they do,  because it comes from the same Latin root word as “please.” Both words relate to asking for something from someone and being pleased or soothed by the receipt of it. So if last week’s Lenten worship emphasis was on saying “Thank you” for what God has done for us, then this week we take a closer look at saying “please” for whatever we might want God to do for us.

I would say that if we’re honest, we all arrive at supplication at some point when we’re talking about our relationship with God. In fact, “please” is probably our most instinctual prayer, a place where a great many of us go when we pray, especially when things aren’t going our way. You may have heard the saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, and I’m sure that’s not entirely true, but it is a way of acknowledging that even those who may not normally express any kind of belief in a Creator or a Higher Being often find themselves on their knees asking for help or guidance when things get really tense.

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Jesus, in his final hour, offered prayers of supplication. In the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross he prays for forgiveness for those who kill him, for a drink of wine, for the cup of suffering to pass from his lips. We, too, come before our God in our times of need. And just as a parent teaches a child to say “please” or “May I?” even though that parent would still give her child whatever he needs without it, it stands to reason that God might give us ways to offer our supplications that could deepen our relationship with him and may help us grow.

Psalm 143 is one of many psalms that gives us language for how to say please to God. In it we hear the psalmist asking for protection from some kind of enemy, although that enemy is never named or described fully. Perhaps it’s a military enemy or a personal enemy who is threatening recrimination of some sort. This foe has chased him and crushed his life to the ground, his heart within him is desolate. That may be all we need to know in order to envision any enemy we face in the words of this prayer, whether it be a diagnosis we’re fighting, that sciatic nerve pain, a tough life situation that won’t leave us alone, or even lingering consequences from a decision we’ve made. Regret and shame can feel like enemies, can’t they? They can leave our hearts desolate within us. Naming those emotions within us and the threats from outside is a good first step to coming before God in supplication.

The psalmist then continues by acknowledging how broken he is standing in God’s righteousness. He asks for God not to judge him and instead to listen to his prayer with God’s own faithfulness in mind. We may not always come to God feeling broken or torn down, but it is good to remember that God is faithful and abounding in steadfast love, and that God acts justly but with compassion. We make our appeals to God not only on the basis of how we are feeling or what our condition is, but on how wonderful and gracious God is.

It is helpful to remember that God has a track record with us of being gracious, which is where the psalm takes us next. “I remember the days of old,” he sings, “I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands.” Saying “please,” then, could start with naming our need, re-stating God’s goodness and the things God has done in the past. This is good for us, too, a way of calling to mind even the seemingly little things we might have forgotten that have been like manna in the wilderness for us. I know that when I am broken down nowadays, I still recall the random phone call from a camp counselor co-worker that lifted me out of a dark time in my young adult years, or the email that a high school teacher didn’t have to send me but did that cleared up a lot of questions I was struggling with right after high school. God provides in ways that are often only clear to us in hindsight because the cloudiness of the current moment is too overwhelming.

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But there is still the issue of what we need and how to ask God for it, and, of course, we can form our prayers however they come to our lips and God hears even things we don’t say, but it is interesting to notice the particular way the psalmist words his requests for help and deliverance. “Show me the road I must walk,” he says, and later: “lead me on level ground.” Those requests are both precise and open-ended. They paint the picture of a God who is committed to walking with us, who is not just a wish-granter, but someone who comes alongside of us for the long haul.

At another point the psalmist says, “Teach me to do what pleases you,” which suddenly lifts him into a new kind of relationship. It is not just God who is expected to please me, but there is this suggestion that I have a part to play, too, that this dialogue is not one-sided. Theologian and writer C.S. Lewis says at one point, “What we do when we weed a field is not quite different from what we do when we pray for a good harvest.”[1] That is to say, asking God for something—either for ourselves or someone else—invites us further into action,      and that action leads to growth, which is really what God is about to begin with—growth in faith, growth in love towards our neighbor, growth in wisdom and understanding.

I see that a new version of Disney’s Aladdin is coming out in the theaters again this spring, and I can’t wait to see it, but based on what we hear in Psalm 143, and what we see in the life of Jesus as he prays, too, I doubt God wants to be turned into our genie, a being that we call on just to grant us favors whenever we find ourselves in a pinch. The message is that our overall relationship with God is more important than our specific request in any given moment—it’s about the whole road, not the momentary vista—as hard as that may be to stomach sometimes. That is, God’s overarching goodness to us and fatherly care of us and God’s desire that we grow until our final moment is the reality that shapes our supplications.

It is no accident that when Jesus’ disciples ask him about how to pray, Jesus gives them a prayer that focuses on the things they will ever truly need: daily bread, forgiveness and relationships of reconciliation with others, help in times of trial and temptation, and deliverance in that final hour of ours. So, when we pray for what we need, when we find ourselves chased down by enemies and crushed to the ground, all is framed by God’s graciousness to us in Jesus’ cross. We can trust we have a God who is walking the road with us, who is just, and we can use language like, “teach me,” “lead me,” and “remind me of how good you are” and then prepare ourselves to weed the field.

For me, one of the most helpful teachers of prayer is a woman I’ve never met who has been a guest at our HHOPE pantry over the past several years. Since its beginning almost 10 years ago, HHOPE has placed a small box for prayer requests on the table with the food, so that clients who come for distribution can also leave their prayer requests anonymously, if they’d like. They write them on little yellow Post-It notes and the HHOPE volunteers read them aloud as they circle up for prayers at the end of the distribution. Afterwards they place those Post-It notes in my box so I can pray them, too.

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This one client is a single mother of a teenage son who has special needs due to an autism diagnosis. She shows up just about every distribution, often with some new challenge or obstacle they’re dealing with, whether it’s finding good living arrangements or proper care for her son. She spreads out her hands, soul gasping like a thirsty land, and for ten years this woman’s request has been the same, scribbled in pencil:

“God, please make a way out of no way for me and my family.”
“God, please make a way out of no way for me and my family.”

What a witness to see her faith that God will walk and teach and make that way—and to see that God’s good Spirit has led her on level ground, time after time!

Lord, “beef,” oh, “beef,” teach me to trust you like that. After all, it’s an ongoing process.

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

[1] God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis

Time to bear fruit

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

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

There is a door frame in our kitchen where we keep measurements of our kids’ growth. You might have one, too, or had one when you were growing up. At each kid’s birthday we get out a pencil and have the kids stand with their backs against the molding (no cheating!) and we strike off how tall they are. Today is our son’s third birthday and he’ll finally be old enough to stand still and have his growth measured. On earlier birthdays he was either too squirmy or he couldn’t stand yet, so it’s going to be a big day. Our girls have been partaking in this little tradition for a while, of course, and I think it might have become the favorite part of their birthday’s events, outranking even cake and presents. I think it’s become so beloved because they can see visual proof that they’re growing. It’s hard to feel that you’re making any progress in that department day by day, but when you do something that makes it clear it becomes exciting.

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And, of course, a bit competitive. They like to take note on things like who grew the most in the past year, or who was taller at a certain age. It’s such a big deal that a few years ago when we had the kitchen redone we knew we would be painting over all the hashmarks, which had become kind of smudged over time, so Melinda and I painstakingly measured off each of the hashmarks—four for every year since 2009, because we also measure on half-birthdays too—so we could transcribe them onto the new paint.

Growth is exciting, isn’t it? We want our children to grow, we want our gardens to grow we want our bank accounts to grow, we want our congregations to grow, we want our chances of winning a March Madness bracket pool to grow. And when they do, we get a sense that they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. We get a sense that whatever effort we’ve put in (which, admittedly, sometimes is minimal) and the time we’ve waited (which, admittedly, sometimes feels like eternity) has been worth it.

God wants us to grow, and it’s exciting to him when we do. God wants us to grow because God intends his kingdom to grow and flourish in our lives and on the earth. God has created and redeemed his people for growth, for abundant life, and this growth is not the kind that is really measurable by pencil on a door frame. It is growth in righteousness, love, mercifulness, compassion, and wisdom—all things that his Son, Jesus, embodies. And we all have the opportunity throughout our life to keep growing in these ways when we turn to the Lord and receive his mercy, when we, as the prophet Isaiah says, “seek the Lord where he may be found and call upon him while he is near.”

That’s what’s at the heart of Jesus’ conversation with some of his listeners this morning. They come to him with some questions about a recent tragedy in the news wanting to know if those people had died as some kind of punishment for some sins they had committed. We aren’t given the whole backstory, but it involves Pontius Pilate and his decision to murder some Galilean Jews and then mingle their blood with some of the pagan sacrifices. To an observant Jewish person of the day, it was an awful, exceptionally offensive way to die, and people probably would have been talking about it. One of the common assumptions back then would have been that those people must have done something to deserve it.

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Some of the destruction from Cyclone Idai in southern Africa, March 2019

Jesus brings up another sad event they probably would have heard about—the collapse of a nearby tower that killed eighteen people—because no doubt people would have wondered if they had had it coming to them too. There’s this sense among these people that the universe and even God works on some system of you get what you give, that you are eventually repaid for whatever you put in—like divine Social Security—that there’s this cosmic accounting system of right and wrong and if you wind up empty-handed with tragic suffering or untimely death, then somewhere along the way you must have gotten your columns of good and bad out of balance. Jesus makes it clear in no uncertain terms that he does not believe in karma, and he doesn’t want us to either. Life in God’s kingdom is not about making sure you make all the right decisions, or ticking all the right boxes, and doing enough good works so that people will label you a certain way or, even more, that God will give you a gold star and save you from hardship.

This way of thinking to tough get out of our systems because we are pattern-seeking organisms. We are good at finding meaning and connections in a lot of things. It’s one of our gifts as human beings. It was just posted on March 14, a week and a half ago, that Emma Iwao, a woman who works at Google in Seattle, set a new world record for calculating pi to a trillion digits.  So it stands we naturally want to find a deeper meaning or underlying pattern behind life’s tragedies and triumphs, especially when they seem so unfair and random. This week at one of our men’s lunch groups one gentleman expressed thanksgiving but also sheer bewilderment at how wonderful his life had been how he had always been in such good health, while others younger than he were struggling with life-threatening illnesses.

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Emma Iwao

Jesus doesn’t offer a hidden pattern for life’s ups and downs He doesn’t calculate life’s intricacies and beauties out to a trillion digits for us or give us a particularly satisfying answer to these questions, and that can be frustrating. As we deal with that frustration and bewilderment, we must also remember that God’s Son himself is going to live a life that seems unbelievably unfair and tragic, a life shortened by false friendships even though he is always kind, a life shortened by violence even though he always peaceful, a life that ends on a cross even though every time he touches someone he heals them. God learns up close what it’s like to deal with these tragedies and feel things aren’t right. His followers are going to figure that out later when Jesus has his own blood-mingling incident with Pilate.

For now Jesus tells his listeners who question him about these events that God is not really like a big accountant or computer (and no offense to any accountants or computer programmers. Jesus also never says God is like a pastor). Jesus says God is more like a landowner who just wants his fig tree to produce one little fig. God is more like a gracious gardener who is willing to give a dormant fig tree one more year to do its thing. Because that’s what fig trees are for, whether it’s one year old or three years old or eighty years old. The fruit will all be the same, and it will all be good. So, just a little more digging around the roots here, and a little more fertilizer there. And wait for another year with the yardstick and see what happens.

fig tree
artwork: Nancy Nye

As harsh as it may seem to our ears, Jesus says reflecting on these tragedies that are brought up is a chance to think about our own limited lifespans—regardless of their specific length—and how none of us has forever for growing and enjoying the bounty of God’s kingdom. That particular thinking, that personal reflection, is one way to think of repentance, which is a concept central to Jesus’ preaching from day one.

A lot of us struggle with that word “repentance” because it sounds like making a correct decision. It sounds like choosing, about not doing bad things, and in some sense that’s part of it, but the parable helps us see that it is more about realizing our potential for growth and how God is always graciously providing us good soil. Repentance, unpacked, is understanding how God, as the prophet Isaiah says, “is always providing wine and milk without price.” God is always working to renew us with his constant forgiveness and unconditional love and therefore we always have the potential to grow and be renewed. Interestingly enough, when the landowner wants to cut down the fig tree the gardener convinces the landowner to “let it alone” for another year. The Greek word for “let it alone” comes from the same root word for “forgive.” God forgives us and renews us each and every day. His favor toward us is rooted in his mercy. The wine and milk of his grace is there for the taking. “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come and get it!”—again, the words of Isaiah. Like Martin Luther says in the first of 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

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A year or so ago a gentleman, a member of our congregation, made an appointment to update me on some medical news. After he was finished explaining what the latest tests had shown and what the next round of treatments would entail, we got to chatting. That’s when he shared with me that every night before he goes to bed he clears his desk in his office at home to make a fresh start the next day. However, he always leaves one thing on it so it greets him first thing in the morning. I asked him what it was and he said it was a little piece of one of our worship bulletins he had torn out one day. As it turns out it was from one Sunday we’d had a baptism. The three questions that we ask parents before a child is baptized about renouncing the devil and all his empty promises just hit him as direct and intriguing. The one that apparently really caught his attention was the one where the couple is asked, “Do you renounce the powers of his world that rebel against God?” He says it made him stop and think: “What do I really do each day to stand up to the powers of this world that rebel against God? That sounds like a big task, but clearly it’s being asked of us at our baptism.” And so he took it home and thought about it, ripped it out and threw the rest of the bulletin away because he still was thinking about that call, and realized he wanted to start each day with that task on his mind.

Now, that’s what I call a recipe for growth in the grace of Jesus. Take that approach and, well, I suspect you’ll need to hunt for a door frame that’s pretty tall.

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Jesus: Mother hen, mobile nest

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

Luke 13:31-35

Today is the feast day of Patrick of Ireland, but we’re still in Lenten purple. This has never been a major commemoration on the Lutheran calendar—or even in Ireland, I’m told—and yet I feel like he and his holiday have become somewhat larger than life in recent years. Our kids are expecting leprechauns to show up today and leave evidence of their antics by leaving behind something green, and for one school project a few years ago our girls had to construct a leprechaun trap using their knowledge of simple machines. There are parties and parades in many U.S. cities this weekend. Rivers are died green. Krispy Kreme doughnuts are frosted green. Milkshakes are colored green (while supplies last!) and someone even bought me a green wig and dared me to wear it today knowing St. Patrick’s Day would fall on a Sunday.

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The thing is, there is an awful lot of legend surrounding Patrick, most of which is probably not true. The part about his use of a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity is just a legend. Turns out the story about how he drove all the snakes out of Ireland is not true, either. There have never been any snakes in Ireland. What we do know for sure about Patrick, though, is very interesting. He was raised in England in the 5th century and was kidnapped by Irish pirates when we was about 16. The pirates took him to Ireland where they kept him as a slave for about six years. During that time he became a man of prayer and deep faith in God. He managed to escape and make it back home, but then he entered studies to become a priest and then heard a call to go back to Ireland as a missionary and bring the gospel of Jesus’ love to the very people who had enslaved him. He felt compelled to head right into a land and a people who did not know his God, who had a proven track record of hostility toward people like him. He believes that if the gospel of Jesus is true, then God has reconciled him to his former captives. In one of his letters Patrick writes, “If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples, even though some of them still look down on me.”[1]

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That does not sound like a person who is concerned with pots of gold or trapping leprechauns, or making sure things are green enough. That sounds like a person bound to the mission of a loving God. That sounds like a prophet bold in faith to share God’s word of promise, even in the midst of hostility.

In fact, Patrick sounds a whole lot like Jesus as Jesus heads to Jerusalem. We hear him this morning leaving Galilee, the territory of Herod Antipas, who the Pharisees say is out to get Jesus. This is the Galilee of Jesus’ hometown and early days of ministry, the places where his family resides and where his disciples come from. Even with Herod on his tail it could have been easy for Jesus to stay there, but he heads on to Jerusalem, a city, yes, that has a track record of hostility towards prophets like him.

Jerusalem in Jesus’ day was a relatively cosmopolitan town, full of people from all over, but it was still the central city for the Hebrew people. It basically served as a capital of sorts, kind of like New York City is for artists and Nashville is for country musicians. They used to say in eastern North Carolina you learned three “R’s” in school: reading, writing, and the road to Richmond, because that’s where the jobs were. If Jesus is to bring the message of God’s kingdom to God’s people, he knows he is going to have to make it in Jerusalem. If Jesus is going to complete his mission to bring peace on earth and goodwill to humankind, he is going to have to get on the road to the city where the temple is. And yet Jesus all but knows they will not receive him well. He expects to be treated in the way they’ve treated others who go there because he’s got a message they don’t want to hear, a message of dying to self and loving the neighbor.

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a depiction of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus

That’s where get this wonderful image of Jesus as a mother hen. He thinks about Jerusalem, the place he is compelled to go even though he knows it won’t go well, and he sees himself like an everyday barnyard animal that wants to shelter its young. So many times prophets can come across as firebrands and judgmental preacher-types who go around telling everyone what they’re doing wrong, but Jesus sees his actions among God’s people as a mother, as a soft, feathery, delicate bird who can open up her wings and shelter her babies, always finding room for one more.

Not every bird is like the chicken in this respect. Most birds spend a good part of their reproductive energy constructing nests, some of them very elaborately. Their young hatch from their eggs without feathers and with eyes still closed. They need to have a place that is secluded and safe and out of harm’s way where those babies can grow and develop. Maybe it’s a tree, maybe it’s the edge of a cliff, maybe it’s your mailbox. But some species of birds, like chickens, have chicks that are born fully feathered and basically ready to go from the start. They can peck on the ground and eat, they can run around, they can get into trouble, and get easily eaten up by predators. In those birds’ situation, the hen is the nest. She is the mother and the place of refuge at the same time. So wherever she goes, there is safety. It’s like a mobile home-base, accessible anywhere, always nearby. And, as most people would have known in Jesus’ time, hens will often mother their babies so much they will offer their own life keep them safe.

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Wherever Jesus is going to go, then, he will be a place of rest and refuge—even when it means he will be heading into danger, into a threat. Wherever Jesus takes himself, people will be able to run to him, will be able to find God’s sheltering presence. And there will be nowhere that is off-limits for him. He’s not going to stay outside the city that kills its prophets and hope they come to him. He’s not going to build another temple somewhere else and declare God’s presence and safety there. He’s going to be instinctively accessible and raise his armspan for all of God’s people to find refuge, even when it means he will give his life.

The question he has is: will they come to him? Will the people of God recognize their inherent vulnerability in the world, their need for that guardianship, that care? Will God’s children understand it’s so easy to be gobbled up, soul and all, by all kinds of tricky, fox-like false ideologies before you know it?

One of the focal points of Lent is taking stock of ourselves and the overall human condition and our place it and realizing we’ve always got God with his wings open, waiting. We can return there, no matter how old we are or how far we’ve wandered. But part of that taking stock means recognizing our inherent vulnerability. It involves appreciating our own fragility, our own susceptibility to forces in the world and inside ourselves that will do us harm. It means realizing in some sense we’re all a part of Jerusalem, a headstrong city that thinks it has it all figured out.

I recently watched that movie Free Solo, about Alex Honnold, the first and only person ever to scale El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California, without any ropes or climbing gear. El Capitan is a 3000 foot sheer rock face that is widely considered among serious rock-climbers as scary, daunting, perhaps the most dangerous rock-face in the whole world. Somehow Alex Honnold pulls it off, climbing from the bottom to the top in just under 4 hours one day back in October, and they caught it all on camera. It’s been called the greatest human athletic achievement of all of history. And yet what makes the achievement so remarkable, the film so gripping (pun intended) is that Honnold is so vulnerable as he does it. One little slip of a toe and he’s a goner.

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I highly recommend the film, and I personally think that what Honnold did is amazing, but I do find it interesting as a way to reflect on the human fascination with pushing the boundaries of our vulnerability, of living on the edge, not just in a physical or athletic sense, but in any sense: socially, emotionally, spiritually. There is always going to be this innate captivation with our supposed invincibility, with this tendency toward individualism and self-sufficiency.

We get enamored with our ability to go it alone and we feel as though we’ve “made it” only when we’ve severed all the ropes and ties to the supporting things around us.

What’s worse is that relative privilege, whether it comes from race or social class or wealth or education, really adds to that tendency of masking our vulnerability. The people of Jerusalem were certainly susceptible to the false security that privilege affords. They were the temple city, the center of trade and commerce, the place where big things happened and important people gathered. But at their core they are just as vulnerable, too. I know when I’m forced to look closely at myself, I think of the ways that I, at 45 years old, am still so vulnerable to other people’s opinions, to the power of my own privilege, to letting the media in all its forms influence my views, words, and actions when I could just let Jesus rest his wings above me.

Because he is the mobile nest. He’s everywhere, wings up, ready to receive me, all around me. Like Patrick’s own words, which we will sing this morning: “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me…” He doesn’t want to trap anyone like they’re a leprechaun. He wants us lift up those arms so we know how safe we really are there. How much refuge we will find, even in death.

This past week I visited Ms. Betsy in the hospital after her fall. Ms. Betsy is 91 and has been teaching the 2-year-old Sunday School class for something like 65 years. Even though her fall left her with one broken hip and another dislocated one, she was characteristically upbeat. Every Easter she holds an Easter Egg hunt for her class at her house over on Sleepy Hollow Road. It’s been called the social event of the spring, all these little kids running around on her yard looking for eggs and then gathering for ice cream and cake in her basement. I’m here to tell you Ms. Betsy’s goal in therapy is to have that Easter egg hunt.And on Monday when we were visiting, her daughter-in-law, Traci, was trying to brainstorm other options. Maybe they could find a way to host the egg hunt at her house, or maybe here at church. And Betsy interrupted her and said, “Oh, no, doll, they come to me.”

So, there you have it, from St. Patrick to Jesus outside of Jerusalem to the gospel according to Ms, Betsy. Jesus has gone everywhere, everywhere, so that we can come to him. Quite simply, like an egg hunt at Betsy’s house, he’s where we belong.

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[1] Letters to the Soldiers of Coroticus. Patrick c. 450