a meal to remember

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

John 6:1-21


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

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

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



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

He has compassion for people in need.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

quilts 2018

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

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


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


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




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

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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

rules and regulations for a mid-July evening

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

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

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

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

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

Uncharted Territory

a sermon for the festival of Mary Magdalene, Apostle

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Rolling River Rampage_Day One_Adventure (13)

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

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

Thanks be to God!

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


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Border crossings

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

Mark 5:21-43


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

photo credit: CNN

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

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

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



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.