Let Earth Receive Her King

a sermon for Christ the King [Year B]

John 18:33-37

“Joy to the world! The Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!”

There’s a good chance that if you know any hymn by heart, it’s that one. And there’s also a good chance it makes you think of think of Christmas. It may make some of the more liturgically-particular people among us think of Advent, since that’s actually the section of our hymnal it is listed in. Whichever the case may be, it makes us think of this time of year as we round the corner of Thanksgiving and set our sights on the birth of Christ, and all of that is understandable since “Joy to the World” was the most-published Christmas hymn of the 20th century.

Isaac Watts (July 17, 1674 – November 25, 1748)

However, the writer of “Joy to the World,” an 18th-century English clergyman by the name of Isaac Watts, might be surprised to learn that because he did not write it as a Christmas hymn. He did not write it as an Advent hymn, either. Watts just wrote it as a hymn that could be sung at any and every time of the year. He based it loosely on Psalm 98, and the note he included just under its title and before the first line says, “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” Although it’s become for us the quintessential Christmas carol, “Joy to the World” was probably never intended to focus us on a baby in Bethlehem, but the final arrival of Jesus and his eternal reign over all things. When we sing about every heart preparing room we’re not primarily singing for a child who’s looking for a room in the inn but rather for a King who has lived through Good Friday, a King who has tried with everything he has  to surround us and infuse us with God’s love.

In fact, that’s really the underlying message of everything the church says and sings and does, not just Isaac Watts’ hymn. We wait for and place our hope on a kingdom that is coming where Jesus’ reign will be received and acknowledged by all “as far as the curse is found.” That is, we expect Jesus love and mercy is able to advance and conquer wherever human brokenness is present—the brokenness in our hearts, in our relationships with others, and in our relationship with creation. There is no place that is off-limits for the love of Jesus.

X Abside

You could say that’s really our main task right now, in fact: to get the world ready to have Jesus as its King. The challenge is that Jesus’ kingdom has some very peculiar qualities about it. For one, Jesus is not going to force anyone to know about his kingdom or force anyone into his kingdom, at least for now. He’s not even going to force his reign on Pontius Pilate, who holds Jesus’ very life in his hands.

Unlike all the authorities of this world—all of the monarchies and democracies and chiefdoms and homeowners’ associations—the authority that God establishes in Jesus never resorts to coercion or violence or financial penalties. Jesus invites people to live under his authority. Jesus performs loving and life-transforming acts in order for people to receive the truth about him. Pilate and the other empires of the world fundamentally don’t understand this because, at the end of the day, they need to back up their authority with a weapon.

We may grow frustrated that Jesus never lays down the law, so to speak, with Pilate—that he never consents to being defended violently by his followers. He’s so close to the throne there in Jerusalem, so close to where he needs to be in order to take over and rule the land. So close! I mean, if there ever were a time for a Second Amendment it would be now, right?—as Jesus is about to head to the cross, as he and his disciples are about to watch it all come crashing down? But in Jesus’ kingdom there is apparently no right to bear arms. Arms don’t even exist where Jesus reigns, so people can’t have a right to them.

Christ before Pilate (or Pilate before Christ?)

The empires of the world don’t comprehend the kind of power that Jesus wields and neither do we, truth be told, until that love envelops us and transforms us with its forgiveness and grace. It’s not like that we’ve got it all figured out and Pilate is the dummy. To some degree, we’re all Pilate, unwilling to see and make sense of this pure gift of love standing right in front of us. But when it does envelop and transform us, we begin to see that it is something to be shared and spread. If there is a force behind Jesus’ authority, it is the force of self-giving, the force of handing over oneself in love.

Last weekend I was with our 7th and 8th graders at the Virginia Synod Youth Event called “Lost and Found.” The theme of the event was “Lost Hate and Found Love,” and the Bible verse they used as the anchor was the part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he talks about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. The way they laid out the presentations for the theme was genius because they based it on a roll-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons. The small group presentations featured a group of bitter rivals playing against each other in cutthroat fashion until one decides to set herself back so that all can win together. It takes them all a while to catch on.


At one point in our small group discussions, we had to pretend that we were in a fortress surrounded by an army and that our commanders had told us they were enemies and needed to be destroyed. However, we knew they could be made into friends, and so our quest was to cleverly come up with a secret plan to turn them into allies. Let me tell you, 7th and 8th graders can be very creative with loving enemies if it’s turned into a fantasy quest and no limits are placed on imagination! One small group decided to complete the quest they’d tell their commanders they were going to poison the enemy but then organize an airlift of fried chicken to the battlefield so they could all eat together and have a dance party. (Fried chicken always gets the job done).

The group I worked with ended up suggesting the more practical ways of turning enemies into friends—things like learning to understand your enemy’s point of view, that the people persecuting you may be lonely or hurt. I came away wondering how Christ-followers might help hearts prepare room for Jesus if we all tapped into the creativity and energy of our inner middle schooler.

Jesus’ love is still transforming people and inviting people to live under his authority, and it happens when people listen to Jesus’ voice. It is a voice that calls us to follow and lay down our lives for the other, to lay aside our goals of winning and conquering and seeing instead that God is concerned with all of us being together, all of God’s children crossing the finish line as one. Even Pontius Pilate.

This past week there was a feature article in a regional publication about two local-area school principals. The article discussed the many challenges of serving in the role of public-school principal these days, of the demands on personal time and the crazy amount of creativity and problem-solving skills that school administrators need. It became clear as the article unfolded that the best way for those principals to run their school communities, the best way to establish their authority was through open communication, honesty, and vulnerability. They have found that being open to understanding students’ real problems, being willing to listen and listen some more, and being ready to lead by example is absolutely critical as a leader. Effective principals don’t lord themselves over people in the hallways or lock themselves up in a fortress office.

Mills Godwin High School

One of the more poignant parts in that article was when the reporter and the principal are making their rounds through the school and they stop at a student table where stickers that say, “You can sit with me” are being handed out by a student organization created to combat some of the social issues teens face today. The principal herself stops, gets a sticker, and slaps it on herself so that kids can know they can sit even with her if they need a buddy or listening ear in study hall or the library.[1]

As it happens, that principal is a member of this congregation and currently serves on our council. In fact, she grew up in this congregation, learning about Jesus kingdom here every Sunday. She’s out there in the world, along with you, along with countless others like her, figuring out ways to spread the selfless love of Jesus, preparing room for him to come and reign. This is how it will happen, folks, as the Pilates of the world interrogate and bully. Those who know Jesus’ love will respond by saying, “You can sit with me.” Because at this table the King has said, “You can sit with me.”

One of the things we try to do every night around our dinner table is take turns sharing our highs and lows of the day. We go around the table and interrogate each other, “What was your high? What was your low? What are you thankful for today?” Our daughters always want to include our 2-year-old in this ritual, and they’re really persistent and creative at phrasing those questions in ways that a 2-year-old might understand. They’ll say things like, “When did you smile today?” or “What made you happy today?” and each time they ask him  he looks at us and says, “Umm…Jesus!” And then they’ll ask him, “What made you sad today?” and he will reply, “Umm..Jesus!”

Granted, it’s probably a stretch to say the kid knows what he’s saying. He’s just giving the answer he thinks we want to hear because he’s heard it somewhere and he’s learned it means something.

Christ our Redeemer statue, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

And yet, in some ways, we all await the the time when that’s the only worthwhile answer any of us will be able to give. We will no longer pace back and forth indecisively like Pontius Pilate, wondering what to with this love that covers all sin as far as the curse is found. We will no longer see enemies as enemies but see the cross has made us all friends. And the only truthful answer we’ll be able to give for anything is “Jesus”—the way he’s been reflected in our lives, the way he was present in our good times, the way he held us in the bad, the way his self-giving authority has held sway over our self-serving one.

At the end of the day, only the things of us and our time here which speak of King Jesus will be what remains. And we’ll be so fully transformed by him we’ll be able to answer by heart. And on that day, my brothers and sisters, there will be joy. Joy…to the world.


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.



[1] “Under Pressure.” Jack Cooksey in Richmond Mag, November 12, 2019

Thanksgiving as refugees

a sermon for Thanksgiving Day [Year B]

Matthew 6:25-33

Everybody probably has a Thanksgiving that stands out in their memory. After all, the whole premise of this day rests on a gathering around food that stood out to the pilgrims and their descendants to such a degree that Abraham Lincoln proposed a national holiday around it in 1863. For some of you it might be the Thanksgiving when someone had returned home from military service, or the first thanksgiving with a new child or in a new home. Maybe this will turn out to be the Thanksgiving you will talk about for years to come.

One of the Thanksgiving meals that stands out in my memory was one that our congregation in Pittsburgh organized jointly with the Muslim and Christian Burmese refugee community we had helped resettle. They had only arrived a few months earlier from one of the refugee camps in Myanmar, and I’ll never forget what they looked like standing in the airport when they deboarded, each one holding a white plastic Ziploc bag that contained everything they could call theirs. They were put up in an urban neighborhood in some affordable row houses we had furnished with donated furniture.

Ah Pi family
The Ah Pi family (ignore the photostamp date)

By late November that year they were still getting their feet under them, but we invited them over to a meal in our church basement one Sunday evening to celebrate this traditional holiday in their new country, but we didn’t have a way to get them there, so a member of our congregation figured out a way to borrow a public school bus and a school bus driver. We had also helped them do all of their food shopping earlier, so when the time came they grabbed all their grocery bags and boarded this big yellow bus and rode over to our church and started fixing their food in the church kitchen right alongside our members.

We made turkey with all the trimmings that, according to tradition, were eaten by those original pilgrim refugees from England in the 17th century, and they made traditional Burmese dishes, which, we quickly learned, contain a whole lot of hot spicy peppers. They spoke no English at all at that point, so there wasn’t a whole lot of talking going on, just chopping vegetables and boiling big vats of water. The refugee children were fascinated with the deep fryer some of our guys were using to cook one of the turkeys. I can only imagine how gross and bizarre that process must have looked to them. It kind of looks bizarre to me.

Our church women, by contrast, were fascinated with the fact the refugees didn’t wash any of the veggies they were chopping up. All clumps of dirt that were caked onto the onions and peppers went straight into the pot like everything else. After all, they had lived in a refugee camp without running water for 18 years. Washing produce was a waste of resources, especially since the boiling water and the acid from peppers kills germs anyway.

To help drive home the idea of thanksgiving, which none of us could figure out the Burmese word for in a way we were sure they could understand us, we decided to take large pieces of newsprint and tape them to the wall and spread out magazines and scissors and rubber cement on tables in front of them. The idea was we’d all make collages together on that newsprint with images of things we were thankful for. It took some prodding and some jerky sign language motions, but we think we got the point across. We ended up with four or five posters of random pictures cut out from People and InStyle Magazine, which was all we really had.

Unfortunately none of the photos in the magazines resembled anything remotely similar to the culture they came from. So in the end we had collages of Taylor Swift’s hair and jewelry and Will Smith’s clothes, piles of colorful food stacked perfectly on white plates, and the mansion-like homes pictured some Nationwide insurance ad, which didn’t look like any of the houses or apartments that any of us actually lived in. We think the refugee families understood what the point of that task was, but to this day I worry we may have given the impression that our little craft was an American tradition and that wherever they happen to live nowadays there’s a little community of Burmese people cutting up magazines on Thanksgiving while the food cooks.

When the food was finally ready we all ate and cautiously but smilingly tried one another’s foods, but they thought ours was too bland and none of the Americans could really handle the level of spiciness in their food, so we both more or less stuck to what we had made ourselves. The Americans were actually gulping full glasses of water to wash their dishes down.

Oh, the risks we took that evening! The risks our guests took—boarding a bus going to a place they had no idea of, preparing food and eating it with people they didn’t know and couldn’t speak with who ate strange, tasteless food and who plunged whole birds into tubs of boiling oil. And the risks we took—toward friendship, risks in hospitality across cultures, in possibly being misunderstood, in swallowing things that could make us sick—all for the notion of giving thanks, for including newcomers in a tradition centered around a trust in the abundance of God. We had no idea how we would pull off such an evening, but in the end it went perfectly. To be honest, it went better than any of us imagined.

Indeed, how the act of giving thanks slices right into anxiety, like a knife-blade going through a dirty onion! How the act of pausing to remember God’s provision for all of life boils all the germs of worry and doubt away! One cannot be grateful and worried at exactly the same time. It is mentally impossible.


And how much we do tend to worry! We worry about our whole lives, planning them out with careful precision, avoiding risks when possible. We habitually check the stock market, the values of our 401K, or we add another extracurricular to our high school resume with the hopes it will get us into the right college, Ever focused on the future, we position ourselves and our children in all sorts of ways for a track to success. And while we know none of those things is intrinsically bad, it does seem to go against the life of vulnerability and fragility that Jesus calls us to. A life that is ever focused on the future—on what we need to do next to make us ready to respond to what might be coming down the road—can cause us to miss the moment of service and humility as well as the neighbor Jesus has placed in front of us now. When we concentrate chiefly on what might be coming and how it might affect us, we end up taking our mind off of the opportunities to seek God’s righteousness this very moment.

Why, in fact, just this week a member of the Men’s lunch group asked me to give him a ride to the restaurant and back while his wife ran errands. We had a great time at lunch, enjoyed the conversation, but towards the end of the meal I received a text that immediately refocused my attention on what might happen that afternoon. My anxiety went up, my brain conjured up all kinds of different scenarios and how I might respond, and I got up from the table, paid my bill, jumped in the car, and made it all the way back to church before I realized I had left my passenger back at the restaurant. I didn’t even realize I’d ditched him until I met his wife when I came back in the door and she said, “Where’s my husband??”

Jesus lays down this principle right at the beginning of his time with his followers. Like my Burmese friends, they are discovering they are embarking on a journey seeking a new kingdom—carrying only what they need in their hands, left to the care of people who might extend charity. They discover they are being called to take a risk, a big risk. It is the risk of being a trusting disciple in a world that doubts God’s ability to provide, in a world that believes of gospel of There Is Not Enough and This Will Never Work Out. And instead of obsessing about what they’ve left behind or what they still lack or how it’s all going to be enough they are to venture forth in faith. Can any worrying, in fact, add a single hour to your life?

And, as if to make sure they get the point, Jesus himself will lead the way. He is prepared to show God’s abundance throw in the whole of his life—to become the epitome of vulnerability and fragility—and plunge it all in to death on a cross. In a risk that demonstrates just how powerful God is in overcoming doubt and fear and anything that could separate us from him, Jesus offers himself up. Because of his love for us, we will find that even death becomes a place where we can say thanks be to God.


If for whatever reason this holiday is painful for you, of if you find you don’t have a Thanksgiving memory that stands out or is fun to recall, may this meal be that for you. This is a Great Thanksgiving, the chief reminder that God has provided all we really need, that those who sow with tears reap with songs of joy. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.” Here is where the Lord of a new kingdom in which all are welcome, where all have a home, offers himself up again. He hands over his life in forgiveness and mercy and takes a whole bunch of strangers and makes them friends.

Have courage to step forward and receive it. It’s all been washed. Lay aside your fear of risks, your worries, your hesitations of food that has a kick to it. The kingdom of God and all its righteousness is given to you.



Happy Thanksgiving!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

No Leftovers

a sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 27B/Lectionary 32]

1 Kings 17:8-16 and Mark 12:38-44


One thing I realized not too long ago was how much I love leftovers. I used to hate eating leftovers as a kid. When my parents decided it would be leftovers night I was always upset. I thought I deserved fresh food every night. I didn’t want to revisit chilled food, popped in the microwave oven, unevenly warmed up. I especially didn’t like leftover nights when it was leftovers of something I hated the first time. That was the worst!

But now, as a grown-up, leftovers are the best! There’s something challenging and satisfying about rummaging through the refrigerator and scraping together enough partial dishes to make a whole meal. Just this week for lunch I scrounged around and brought to church about a half a cup of lentil soup, some noodles and beef tip sauce—but there were only two pieces of beef in it—and the rest of some homemade guacamole. The guac was already turning brown on the edges, but I just mixed it in with the green. It was one of the most satisfying lunches I’d ever eaten. It feels so good to use it all up.

We have some good friends who are like extreme leftover eaters. We go on vacation with them every year and on the last day they’re always getting us to eat everything we’ve cooked and prepared through the week and shoved to the back of the fridge— They eat things way past the expiration date, which leftovers really don’t have, so you have to kind of guess. We kind of look at them in awe (and a bit of fear) as they make a sandwich with lunchmeat nine days old.

Leftovers for us and for our friends is something fun and enjoyable, but for a lot of people, it’s a way of life. There are people not only making one meal last for a whole week, but many people in many parts of the world are using food from other peoples’ meals and pantries and making that last throughout the week. They look at food from not the perspective of what do I have to eat but what do I get to eat.

The Widow at Zarephath (Bernardo Strozzi, 1630s)

Like this widow in Zaraphath, for example. She’s an extreme leftover eater. It is a time of famine across the whole eastern Mediterranean, and she has nothing but this one jar of meal and one jug of oil. It’s enough for her to make some bread and then wait for death. And God sends Elijah there to eat leftovers. God could have sent the prophet Elijah to anyone of Elijah’s own people for protection and sustenance, but instead God sends him to this foreign widow. She does exactly what Elijah tells her to do even though it means she has to make a cake for him first. She shares what little she has, and it somehow becomes enough for all of them.

Have you ever noticed how almost all the heroes in the Bible are the most vulnerable people? Don’t go looking in Scripture for superheroes to look up to. You’ll find widows and foreigners and poor people are the typical role models. This is especially noticeable with Jesus. A day or two, perhaps, after he and his disciples enter the big, bustling and wealthy city of Jerusalem, he points out a widow giving two small coins as an example of faith, as if she is who someone should model their life on. She is probably an extreme leftover eater too.

The scene is captivating: he and his followers are standing there watching scenes that they, being basically bumpkins from small town Galilee, probably have never seen. Dozens of scribes are possibly walking by, going in and out of the temple in long, flowing robes practically designed to catch everyone’s attention. Scribes were religious leaders who held a lot of power in Jesus’ society. Long flowing robes, long prayers, prominent seats in worship—wait, they sound a lot like a group of people I know!


As Jesus and the disciples continue people watching, they see different people making their contributions to the Temple treasury. The system the Temple had set up for receiving offerings was very public. The collection containers were designed to make noise when coins were placed in them, and so it was easy to watch and hear how much people were giving. Jesus calls the disciples after this one woman walks by just so he can contrast her with the others who are giving much larger sums of money.

On one level, Jesus might be calling into question a corrupted system of the Temple religion that might be taking advantage of poor people. If it’s true that scribes would often devour widows’ estates, and that widows had almost no property rights in the ancient world, then here is a woman who is contributing to the same system that is perhaps oppressing her.

Regardless of what is going on here, Jesus is clearly pointing her out as something to behold, something honorable. She would have probably passed by unnoticed in the hustle and bustle if he hadn’t called their attention to her. Now, with no money left to her name, she might stop by the food bank before going home to eat someone else’s leftovers.

Yet in both stories we read this morning, it is not really frugality that is lifted up as the virtue, the ability to survive on so little. It is, rather, these individuals’ generosity. And in each case we do not come to see these women as examples of pity and charity, which is what society would normally teach us to see in them, but rather as people who save the day. They are the agents of grace. Just as the Zarephath widow teaches Elijah to trust God’s providence, the widow at the Temple shows the disciples how to “put in everything you have.”

To put in everything you have. Jesus wants us to see that’s what the life of trusting God means, and it really doesn’t mainly have to do with money or food. It has to do with one’s whole life, seeing it as a treasure, seeing that it has value, seeing it as a gift, especially once it is placed in the service of God.

To put in everything you have. Normally, eating leftovers, I’m thinking about taking out and saving and consuming everything I have. That attitude is probably not just how I look at my fridge, but at my entire life. How can I make the most of what I’ve got? How can I make this all benefit me and my objectives? What a contrast to the attitude of those we honor today who’ve served in our nations armed forces, many of whom have literally put in everything they’ve had to serve others through our armed forces!

American soldiers in World War I

I’m inspired by the true story of one young single woman years ago who lived in a town in central Pennsylvania. Like the widow at the Temple, this woman was extremely devoted to the Lutheran congregation where she was a member. She was constantly thinking about how to put in everything she had in service to Christ. She was a Sunday School teacher, she helped at Vacation Bible School, she helped lead the youth group, she volunteered at just about everything the congregation was doing. She felt it still wasn’t enough. She had more to give. So one day she went to her pastor and said, “What else can I do?” It was the mid-1950s and the Korean War had just ended. The pastor, almost at a loss as to what to say to her, handed her a list of the congregation’s servicemen and said, “Write notes of thanks to these guys.”

So she did. She got to working on that list, reminding them of their congregation’s thankfulness for what they were doing, giving them encouragement. One of them she wrote a note to ended up writing her back. They had never met before, and she didn’t even know his name at first, but it stuck out to her. He was stationed in Okinawa, across the globe. When he came home, they ended up getting together just to say “Hi.” This past March Dale and Donna Raubenstine (who attend our first service) celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.

Putting in everything we have. We never know how much we really have until our whole life is in service to the Lord. We never know what amazing discoveries are wrapped up in faith and in following Jesus until we come to understand the waters of baptism are still drenching us, still dripping down on everything we are and everything we’ve got.

copper coins from the time of Jesus

Putting in everything we have. We never know the richness of our lives until we start to give ourselves away. You have your own stories of looking at your life’s leftovers and seeing ways to hand them over in service and generosity, off hearing the call of Jesus not so much telling you what you have to do, but what you get to do.

For, as you might have guessed, it is not only to a widow that Jesus is pointing that day by the Temple, but to himself. The true superhero of grace finds his role model. The widow puts in everything she has, right there, out in the open, and so soon will he. He will put in everything he has on the cross because he treasures us. He will be the offering, and none will be held back. He loves us—both the scribe in us and the poor, both the taker and giver, the faker and the true-life-liver. Jesus loves us and he hands over all that he is so that his Father may continue to use us in his kingdom work.

And like Elijah and the widow who served him, we find that it somehow lasts. His love lasts and lasts and lasts, never gives out.

I realized not too long ago that there are really no such thing as leftovers. Just plenty. One loaf. One cup. You and me, claimed for him, and put all in to his body, given to the world.

Mo-o-o-re than enough to go around.



Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Valley of Sorrows

a sermon for All Saints Sunday [Year B]

Revelation 21:1-6a and John 11:32-44

All Saints Sunday, to me, is like a little re-run of Easter. The browns and grays and oranges of late fall may be all around us, but the church is dressed in Easter white. We sing Alleluia over and over, and we’re rejoicing that Jesus, our Savior, is risen! He has fought the battle against death for us and in him we are promised life. The Lamb who was slain has begun his reign, and “See,” says the one seated on the throne in John’s vision in Revelation, “I am making all things new!”

And yet we are still sad. Even today. Even on this mini-Easter we find ourselves blotting at tears with our shirtsleeves and Kleenex, we glimpse the names on the back of the bulletin, and we are sad.


Martin Luther, in his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism, talks about this life as a “valley of sorrows” and I remember when I was younger not knowing what to make of that. I suppose I was the victim of a happy childhood, unaware of the great griefs around me, but as I grow I’m coming to understand them more. Living in a valley of sorrows means that weeping is a part of the human experience for now, as much as we dislike to do it. It means there is, as Isaiah describes it, a “shroud cast over all the peoples,” that there is a lot of brokenness in the world that manages to creep its way into our own hearts and bring us sorrow.

It means, for example, I found myself shedding tears with someone in the columbarium just this week, as I heard them reflect on the beauty of a marriage cut short by death. It means I listened in a hospital room where a voice I normally associate with laughter broke as it told of growing frustration with the healing process. The valley of sorrows means our hearts ache as we learn more details from the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, like the simple but moving funeral held Monday for the two special needs Rosenthal brothers who were integral members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and had lived their whole lives as a blessing to that congregation.


On Twitter last month Sandi Villareal, the web editor of Sojourner’s Magazine tweeted, “What line of a hymn makes you tear up every time you sing it?” Dozens and dozens tweeted their responses, and while it was beautiful to have the vanity and gossip of social media broken up a bit with a long thread of hymn verses, many of which I recognized, it was also revealing to see how many people will admit they often can’t finish certain hymns without crying. Young Phillip thought hymns were hard to sing because they could be boring. This Phillip finds some hymns hard to sing because of this lump in his throat. Hymns feature one of the great tensions of faith—we know and trust God makes all things new in Christ, the Lamb on the throne, but sometimes the tears of grief are hard to stop.

I remember distinctly one funeral I officiated in my early days in Pittsburgh. The middle-aged adult son of the deceased woman came up to me there in the cemetery once we had concluded the committal service, and he was clearly fighting back tears with all he had. “I know I’m supposed to be happy today,” he said, “my pastor told me this is the day of my mom’s victory, that she is now in Jesus’ arms, but I am still feeling sad. What is wrong with me.  Do I not believe?” It was like he needed an OK from me to weep, but I stood there most likely unhelpful, unable myself to articulate the mix of emotions we humans often undergo.


Mary and Martha speak for us. They are us. They come running up to their dear friend Jesus knowing that he makes all things new, knowing his presence is something special, and yet still disappointed and overcome with sadness because their brother Lazarus has died. Their hope is mixed with frustration and regret and we know we have been there, too.

And look at what Jesus encounters as he arrives at the tomb—it’s that valley again! People are crying everywhere, all around him. They’re probably doing what people now call the “ugly cry”—that uncontrollable visible contorting of the face that you’re unable to hide. It used to be more OK to do that sort of thing in public.

What’s most fascinating is how Jesus responds to all of this. In so many Scriptures, the vision of God’s eternal kingdom involves no tears. Isaiah mentions it. So does John in Revelation this morning. When God finally has God’s way and everything is put right, one of the ways we’ll know we’ve arrived there is that there is no more crying. All the tears are wiped away, all the reasons ever to weep a thing of the past.

And yet, we don’t get a Savior who comes wiping away Mary’s and Martha’s tears. When God’s Word finally becomes flesh and dwells among us, he comes weeping himself. At least three different times we are told about Jesus’ emotional turmoil as he approaches Lazarus’ tomb. And as Jesus, dabbing at his shirt sleeve, face grimacing with the ugly cry, nears the entrance to the cave where they’ve laid the dead man, the crowd whispers, “Look at how much he loved him!”

(James Tissot)

This is how much he loves us. Jesus descends into this valley where people mail pipe bombs and cancer is diagnosed, where wars and substance abuse take the lives of people in their prime, where humans visit all kinds of pain on each other. This is how much he loves us! He descends into this valley and feels first-hand, for all its beauty and splendor, how strange and uncomfortable it can often be.

There’s a prayer that we say once the family has all gathered at the graveside for a committal. It is an ancient prayer, but one strikes at the core of what we believe and understand as people of the cross. It begins, “Almighty God, by the death and burial of Jesus, your anointed, you have destroyed death and sanctified the graves of all your saints.” That is, through his crucifixion, Jesus has claimed and made holy all who have died. By weeping, by arriving in Bethany amid all the weeping people, Jesus also makes holy all our tears. All our ugly cries? He’s OK with them, too. We could say he makes them beautiful. We have a God who is honest with our pain, who ventures into each dark corner of this valley, and our sorrows is not a sign of faith’s absence at all. They are a sign that we’re human. They are a sign that we are beloved creatures fashioned in the image of a complex, loving God.

“The Raising of Lazarus” (Giotto)

For several years now, certain theologians and teachers of the faith have been listening to the faith of people in our churches, especially the faith of young people, and they have been concerned that this is not the God of our worship and message. What these experts and scholars are saying is that it appears we in the church are more likely to conceive of a god who is more or less distant, who exists mainly at the edges of our life, who stands there, wanting us to do better and treat each other nicely, who just wants us to be happy and feel good about ourselves. They’ve paid special attention to how church youth describe their faith and this is what we, the adults, have somehow taught them: that god is concerned about our morals, but in the end god functions as little more than a divine therapist, a being we consult when we’re down or in trouble. By contrast, the belief that God is transcendent—that is, can enter our lives and change things and actually cause new life to occur—makes too many of us uncomfortable. It often can make me uncomfortable to talk about that God.

And yet that’s the Jesus that shows up at Lazarus’ tomb that day. That’s the Jesus who cries alongside Mary and Martha, who sees the tumult of emotions they feel and then makes those emotions holy, and who eventually looks into the dark and commands Lazarus to come forth out of the dead. That’s the Jesus who prays to his Father  that they will see what he is able to do—transcending their weeping—in order that they may believe. That’s the Jesus who goes to the cross, so that all may understand the glory of God is not just in being nice to one another, holding hands and singing harmonies, but in being merciful even when it’s hard. That is the Jesus we trust is here today, who doesn’t just show up to wipe the tears from our eyes and tell us just to be happy but who hears us and then weeps alongside of us.

A group of us this summer went to a showing of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the film about the life Mr. Fred Rogers. Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and although he didn’t explicitly mentioned God very often on his T.V. show, he was expert at weaving the message of this emotional, bold Jesus into his themes. There is one scene in that film that features an episode where Daniel Tiger, a simple puppet that often served as Mr. Roger’s true identity, sings a song about not being happy, of not feeling like he is enough. When it’s Mr. Roger’s turn to respond to his sad friend, he reminds him in a beautiful melody that Daniel Tiger is enough, that he is worthwhile and cherished and has many gifts to share.


But that’s not how the scene ends, with Mr. Rogers just wiping the proverbial tears away and Daniel Tiger being cheered up immediately. The scene continues with one more verse  that weaves the two lines together, and we’re left with two songs intertwining—the sad song offered by Daniel Tiger, echoing up from the valley of sorrows, and Mr. Roger’s song of courage and hope.

As one of the men who joined us that evening pointed out over ice cream afterwards, that scene illustrates the life of the Christian perfectly, that we had just watch Fred Rogers present to the viewer one of Martin Luther’s best descriptions of the gospel. For now, we are in the same song both Daniel Tiger and Mr. Rogers. Luther called it “simultaneously saint and sinner”…people who weep, and who at the same time have joy. We dwell in a valley of sorrows, but assured of a loving God who comes to dwell in it too. Sinful, we are a cause of God’s weeping. And yet we are still made new.

And one day we are promised the sad tune we sing will finally run out of words, either because we die or because the King arrives. And on that day all that will be left is the King’s glorious song. The one seated on the throne who is making all things new will once and for all keep all things new—all of us—and this valley will be overcome by his love and the promise made in our baptisms will be complete.

We will rise, reborn and truly happy for one never-ending rerun of Easter.




Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.