If God Will Send His Angels

a sermon for the festival of Michael and All Angels

Luke 10:17-20 and Revelation 12:7-12

My wife and I took our middle child this weekend to Staunton, Virginia, for a visit to their huge Harry Potter festival. Called “Queen City Mischief and Magic,” the street festival is a very family-friendly event that their downtown area has hosted over the past few Septembers. There are booths for playing games, winning prizes, painting faces, that kind of thing. There are some entertainers, many of the merchants open their shops to sell homemade Potter souvenirs and trinkets, and Mary Baldwin College even hosts some academic lectures on the fantasy genre for the more literary guests.


It’s a lot like a regular street fair, except that loads of people dress up like characters from the series, so there are all kinds of mystical and magical creatures walking around, some friendly, some menacing. We saw dragons, elves, witches, wizards, and even mermaids. And He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named is actually He-Who-Doesn’t-Mind-Having-His-Picture-Taken. I got a photo op with Voldemort!

I actually never finished the Harry Potter series and I’ve only seen one of the movies, but I have to admire the imagination and detail that has gone into the world that British author J.K. Rowling created. I can see its enduring appeal and widespread fascination. I was once a bit suspicious of Harry Potter, but I see it as really no different from the kind of entertainment that Walt Disney or Marvel Comics offers up. It can be fun to imagine the existence of outlandish creatures, characters that take the sides of good and evil, that fight epic battles against demons and spirits which determine the fate of the universe.

We might be surprised that every so often even Holy Scripture sounds like something out of Harry Potter. Look at the selection of today’s readings: angels, demons, mysteriously disembodied hands…there’s even a dragon on our bulletin art this morning! It’s like Harry Potter’s world got hold of our worship! Or, as is more likely the case, our scriptures got a hold of Harry Potter! In fact, each of this morning’s appointed Scripture texts mentions some kind of cosmic warfare, and it gets pretty graphic. For many people, things like angels and demons don’t factor into daily faith very often. Most of us, in fact, usually leave that stuff up to the theme parks and Hollywood. For whatever reason, it often doesn’t suit our worldview to allow for beings that are invisible.

an icon of Michael, the archangel

Yet we know that our reality is governed by things that can’t be seen, by forces no human can touch. We know the earth spins because we notice it in the sun and seasons, but none of can put our hands or our eyes on its axis. We know are feet are practically glued to this planet and that all the other planets are kept from hitting one another by this thing called gravity, and it’s super-strong, but no eye can see it. We are pulled with a force towards our families and friends and fellow citizens that is sometimes so fierce it causes us to sacrifice our own lives, but none of us has ever seen love. And while science and technology have enabled us to see and perceive many things that were mysteries to people who came before us, we must admit there are plenty of questions worth asking that science and technology can never answer, nor do they particularly want to. The point is, when we claim in the Nicene Creed that we believe God is the maker of all things, seen and unseen, we are acknowledging that there are parts of creation not visible to mortals, parts of creation we haven’t fully explained and may never explain.

That is probably where angels fall. Scripture speaks of angels on several occasions, although they never really become central to God’s story. They are beings that show up every once in a while like when God promises to send Michael to protect God’s people in a time of great turmoil; or God needs to send a message of hope in a dark time to a young virgin woman  in the town of Nazareth. In several other places they are described as constantly gazing on the face of God, doing his bidding night and day.

The Annunciation, depicting the angel Gabriel visiting Mary

In the Revelation text today, the archangel Michael throws the dragon and his angels out of heaven. That may sound completely fanciful to you and me—like, what do we do with that?!—but you and I are relatively powerful and comfortable in the grand scheme of things. We have to remember Revelation was written when followers of Christ were under intense persecution. Describing sin and threatening forces as a dragon or a terrible beast is totally logical to people who are suffering oppression at the hands of evil that is so abominable and so out of control that no human can put a dent in it. This ugliness reaches way beyond them.

It’s like that final, most difficult character you encounter in the original Super Mario Brothers—Bowser is his name, I think.  I never could beat that guy. Ever. I could get all the way to the end most times, but Bowser would always crush me. I always had hand the controller to my cousin Tim to get him to do it for me. If you’re a Christian in the early centuries and the emperor is throwing people like you to the lions, you want some assurance that the Empire won’t have the final say. If you’re a person of color in the 1700s, then a slave-based economy probably seems like a unbeatable Bowser to you. If you’re a Jew in Europe in the mid 20th century, the Nazi regime probably feels like an awful, terrible beast that can’t be brought down.

Bowser, the Terrible

When you and your people are being dehumanized, when your daily existence is always in question, when it seems evil is so large it reaches right up to the face of God you want word in no uncertain terms that God and heaven are good and are on your side. You find hope knowing that God is ultimately victorious, that someone powerful has thrown the dragon down and heaven doesn’t have evil in it anymore.

To get too specific about angels and what they are like probably misses their point. Overall they are protectors, they are messengers, and they are worshippers, and we give thanks on this day that God’s imagination and God’s creativity is far beyond J.K. Rowling’s, and yours or mine. We give thanks that God protects us from evil in ways beyond our understanding, that God sends us messengers of hope and peace, often when we least expect them, and that we, too, get to worship God and one day will see God’s face.

In fact, we know that one day Jesus sends his own disciples out as angels. He appoints seventy of them and they go into the neighboring towns and villages as protectors, messengers, and worshipers of the one God. They heal people who are sick, they bring tidings of peace and joy to the people they encounter, and they even have power over demons. They come back to Jesus pretty enthralled with their abilities, in fact. They were really able to defeat the little Bowsers they encountered.

I hear people of faith talk like this all the time. Our Stephen Ministers, for example, share stories about how just listening to someone who is suffering and praying with them drives out demons of shame and confusion. The people who deliver altar flowers each week talk about how they feel like they’ve defeated demons of loneliness and despair just by showing up in a hospital room or nursing home for a conversation. I hear folks share about how Kevin Barger and his corps of musicians have helped them experience the divine in the way they lead our worship and provide music.

Cherub Choir 012013

And there’s a reason why our youngest children’s choir is named after cherubs, one of the ranks of angels mentioned in Scripture. In their youthfulness and in their desire to sing loudly without embarrassment they connect with us on a deeply joyful level. From where I sit up front I can see your faces when the Cherub Choir sings, and I’ve always said I don’t who has the better view—the people who are watching the children sing or the people who get to watch the people who are watching the children sing.

Jesus rejoices that day when the disciples return to him with these stories. Jesus is excited for them, for they are experiencing the triumph of good over evil in God’s creation. But then he says they should rejoice even more that their names are written in heaven.

The other day when Joseph and Sarah got word that their baby was going to arrive, Joseph had to rush to the hospital and leave his children in the care of me. I was excited to do that for them, and we had done that before when Samuel was born about 4 years ago. So I went and picked up Samuel from pre-school and brought him home in our car. We came back and had a little snack, and then walked to Lucia’s bus stop where I was to get her off the bus. In the Henrico County Public School system, kindergartners are only allowed to get off the bus with approved guardians, and Sarah and Joseph had made sure that I was on that list of approved guardians earlier in the day. As we walked to the bus stop, Samuel told me that to get her off the bus I was going to have to hold up my “hold-up thingy,” by which he meant my photo ID.


But, unfortunately, as the bus doors opened, we learned my name was not on the list.  The bus driver asked who I was and how I knew Joseph and I thought, Well, I said, I’m his colleague… and his friend…and his neighbor…and his old camp counselor…and I’ve known him almost his whole life…please give me Lucia! But she was a steady protector. She flipped through the sheets of paper and there was no Phillip Martin listed there. So Lucia had to go take her seat again—she was very brave—and be driven all the way back to school where I then had to go pick her up.

As it turns out, it was a mistake by the transportation department. They had received the message from Joseph, but they had not updated their book of approved names that morning.

Jesus says to his disciples—to us—your name is approved. It’s on the list. And then he shows us that when God comes to fight the presence of evil in the world, when God rolls up his sleeves to fight the big Bowser that resides in you and in me, God sends someone not with a sword or magic wand but someone with a cross.


God sends Jesus who turns his life over to all the destructive and deadly forces of this world so that he can show them what a dead-end they really are. God proves that his goodness is in control of all things by raising Jesus up on the third day. God shows the ultimate power of humility and love, the authority of forgiveness in a world lacerated by revenge.

And all the angels do, all that any good messenger does, is hand over that message and testify to the glory of the cross of Jesus. That was, in fact, the power that Michael displayed when he overthrew the dragon: he conquered Satan with just the word of Jesus’ sacrifice. So let us hand over that message today to someone who may need to hear it, and sing like angels with the voice that has been given us:

“Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah who reigns forever and ever.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr

Survivor contestant

a sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 20C – Lectionary 25]

Luke 16:1-13 and Amos 8:4-7

The stakes of the game are clear from the beginning, and they are addictively intriguing. Even though about a twenty or so people start off on the island, or in the jungle, or marooned in some location far from civilization—but with plenty of television cameras and host Jeff Propst—only one of them will be able to go home with the prize money of one million dollars. They compete in several different challenges and games, sometimes for food and other privileges, but sometimes for something called “immunity,” which means they will not be eligible at the tribal council to receive the fate everyone is trying to avoid: to be “voted off the island.”Survivor_Island_of_the_Idols_logo

I haven’t watched the game show in years, but “Survivor” on CBS is now in its 38th season. The first time it aired I was in seminary, and a group of us would gather around the TV the night it came on. We’d all have our favorite contestants by the second episode, the people we were rooting to win it all. And usually by the second episode you could also see the rapscallions emerge, the double-crossers, the ones who would act one way in front of the whole group and then confess their crafty strategy on camera. Those were the ones who would gain ground against all odds. You didn’t ever really like those contestants, but you had to hand it to them. The stakes, after all, were clear from the beginning. It wasn’t about going home with the most friends. It was about going home with the most money. Every once in a while someone whose motives are always pure and self-sacrificing wins the money. But more often than not, the winner is someone who is, well, let’s say a little shady. I remember the first season came down to two finalists who were called “a snake and a rat” by some of their co-competitors.

At one point in his ministry Jesus tells a story about a survivor who is, by almost all accounts, a snake or a rat. He is a manager of a rich man’s property and has been accused of misspending the rich man’s money. The stakes are clear from the beginning: he’s fired and he’s going to be turned out with nowhere to go. He doesn’t want to get stuck digging for a living, which was considered the hardest labor in ancient times, and he definitely has too much pride to beg.

So he devises a plan. It’s a long-shot attempt at immunity. Since for whatever reason he still has all the books and ledgers, he goes to people who owe the rich man money and starts slashing their debts. One by one he does this. He doesn’t care that his master is going to lose money. Remember, this guy’s a rat. All this dishonest manager cares about is his own hide. When he finally hands the ledgers and accounts back into his master, the dishonest manager becomes the unlikely hero. His boss, the rich man, rolls back in his leather wingback chair, props his feet up on the desk, throws back his head in laughter and says, “I’ve got to hand it to you! You know how to play the game!” You see, the manager formed a good alliance. All of those people who now owe less money to the rich man will be obliged to take the manager into their homes, maybe give him a job!


The story might seem a little strange to us because it describes a world and an economy a bit different from our own. But here’s the bottom line: the dishonest manager knew what was at stake—his livelihood—and he came up with clever steps to ensure it. By putting himself, even with the little power he had at his disposal, in the favor of a whole bunch of people in the community, he was now guaranteed to avoid digging and begging. He was a survivor.

Jesus does not typically tell parables where a rascal, a swindler, is the hero, but then again, we a lot of us like Survivor, don’t we? It’s in its 38th season. We clearly have an appetite for these characters. We admire those who can think quickly, who can see what’s at stake, position themselves to get ahead, and land on their feet. There is a bit of behavior here  that Jesus wants his followers to imitate. Not the conniving, not the dishonesty, so much, but cleverness, the ingenuity, the grit. Jesus looks at the world and sees what we often do: people can be so laser-focused on getting ahead, excellent at arranging things to their own benefit, especially when money is involved. They quickly take stock of their own needs and get the world to revolve around them.

Jesus wants the same cleverness, ingenuity, and grit among his disciples but with a key twist: they should be focused on bearing Christ’s light, on advancing the kingdom. Like a shrewd “Survivor” contestant, the disciples should quickly assess what sacrifices are required in any given circumstance and readjust in order to get the world to revolve around Jesus. It shocks us a bit, but what Jesus is doing is piggybacking on one of the best motivators human beings have: the desire to get money. It’s like he says: “The same ingenuity that can fuel your greed—let it fuel your grace to others.”

Of course, the problem is that the force of greed is strong. Wealth, in and of itself, is not inherently bad, but it can become an idol just like anything else can. We can hear in the words of the prophet Amos, who speaks to Israel in the seventh century before Christ, what things look like when greed and love of money run amok in a society. The health of the community is in shambles. People fiddle with the exchange rates and tip scales in their favor. They think of time chiefly in terms of opportunities to make a buck. Those at the bottom of society really lose out. They just seem like property to everyone else, or they feel like interest rates in a system designed to keep them down.


I was listening to one of the gentlemen at one of the men’s lunch groups this week talk about the low-level tension that always existed in his small prairie hometown between the farmers and the grain elevator operators. The farmers brought their crops in to store in order to get paid for their work, but were at the mercy of the elevator operator as to what the scales said they should get paid. Another gentleman said that cattlemen would make sure their livestock had full bellies of water whenever they came into the slaughterhouse. That was just in a small town. Imagine that kind of behavior on a national scale.

God gives us wealth and property as tools for helping our neighbor, for building and enhancing relationships with one another, and yet it can so easily become something we worship. and that breaks down community. Jesus thinks: if only the church could be as clever as money worshippers are in how it spreads the message of the gospel…if only the church could be so crafty in how it goes about advancing the kingdom’s goals of love, justice, compassion, healing, then community here, there and everywhere would be built up.

I can’t help but think of that young man who stood in the background of College Game Day on ESPN last week with a sign that asked for someone to send him some beer money. He actually put his Venmo account on the poster, which was made very simply with a black Sharpie. People watching the broadcast saw his sign and actually wired him money—way more than he needed to buy a case of beer. Very quickly he decided to use all the extra money (after buying one case of Busch Light) as a donation to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital. By the end of the week, both Busch Brewing and Venmo had noticed the story, along with thousands of others, and they decided to chip in some funds too. At this point donations to the Children’s Hospital from his one handwritten beer sign total more than $300,000.


I’m watching the documentary on Netflix called “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates.” It’s about how the multibillionaire software developer, Bill Gates, who at one time was one of the most maligned people in the world, has shifted his attention, along with his wife Melinda’s, to solving some of the public health problems in the poorest parts of the world.    He is still the same focused, creative problem-solver he always was, but the object is different. Instead of amassing wealth through computer programming, he is sharing his wealth and ingenuity through the improvement of sanitation systems in slums, vaccines for children in developing nations, and the accessibility of AIDS medicine, just to name a few.


Some congregations in other states[1] have figured out how to relieve the medical debt of fellow citizens they will never meet by raising money for a non-profit that purchases medical debt for pennies on the dollar.

And I think of the pioneers of the Virginia Synod who, almost 70 years ago, decided to snag a piece of old farm real estate at the end of an unpaved Monument Avenue to start a congregation that might grow right at the time when people would be moving by the droves into the West End and beyond. And I think of the people involved in that congregation’s ministries now and how they’re always thinking, always solving problems—how can we reach more through HHOPE and LAMB’s Basket, how can we get more free material to make quilts for Lutheran World Relief, how they can pull of a VBS when half of the building is under construction, and so on.

So many of those examples involve money, which is a powerful influencer, but the resourcefulness and cleverness Jesus calls us to really involves our whole lives. One does not need to be financially wealthy to become shrewd. God has blessed us each with immense gifts of time and talent, and we can use them to the glory of God or to the glory of something else. As American author David Foster Wallace once said, “There is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice is what to worship.” We can’t choose whether or not we want to donate our lives to something. We only get to choose who or what receives our donation.

God’s donation, of course, to the life of creation, in the life of you and me, is not a just financial one, either. The Father gives us his own Son—“Himself human—as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6). The stakes are clear from the beginning. It’s about going home with all the friends, all the people. He is going to be a survivor, but first he is going to be a loser. He loses his life—his energy, his vision, his hopes—he loses it all—because he loves all the friends so much. He loves us so much he allows himself to get played, voted out, single-crossed all just to free us, to set us free from all the other gods who bind us so, the gods who will tie us down to death, including our own selves.

This is the truth, the force that lies at the center of all things: a Creator who gives himself up for his creation, a God who renews us everything with the gift of his own life. These, my friends, are the true riches, and they have been placed right in our hands. They have been placed right in our heart.


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Jesus survivor

[1] https://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/local/columbia-church-funds-purchase-of-million-in-missouri-medical-debt/article_8e619494-d314-11e9-a884-0b087f3757d9.html?utm_source=SocialNewsDesk&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=SND_scheduled_post&fbclid=IwAR29FEe8N9F1VIZZxxm1-aN3YqjnJ-g5FDVuIcfTlmOtbkU3kCOF23s4tmk

The Day Kitty was found

a sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19C/Lectionary 24C]

Luke 15:1-10

“Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”

Oh, man, if there is another part of the Bible that better fits the Martin household these days I don’t know what it is. With three kids under the age of 13 and with a father who is as scatterbrained as they come, it seems we are always in a state of losing something and finding something. It is never-ending. Coins. Keys. Retainers. Prized Matchbox cars, the new box of cat litter I know I bought and stuck somewhere—we live these parables, day in and day out.


The item we probably spend the most combined time searching for is the lovey that belongs to our middle child. She received it from a church member here when she was just a year or so old, and she has been connected to it ever since. It’s a small, gray, Beanie Baby kitten named Kitty. It’s a cute little thing, but it was practically designed to be lost. It camouflages with every environment, and it’s so floppy it can fit into any crack and crevice. In fact, we found this same Beanie Baby on-line a couple of years ago anticipating the day when the original Kitty would get lost and never return. Backup Kitty #1 and Backup Kitty #2 are waiting in the wings for that moment, which we thought had come just a few weeks ago when our daughters were in North Carolina visiting their grandparents.

Details surrounding the event are a little hazy. All we know from the string of texts that Melinda and I kept getting from my parents is that one morning our daughter claimed Kitty wasn’t there, and although they supposedly turned the place upside down, Kitty was nowhere to be found. “If it’s not in her luggage,” texted my father at one point, exasperated with the search, “Kitty has evaporated.” I kept texting my mother with pointers, as if she hadn’t been to that rodeo before: Did you make her retrace her steps? Did you check under the beds? Shake out the sheets? My mom assured me they’d looked everywhere. but promised they’d go back to their cabin and look again when they had more time. If Kitty were found, she’d have to be mailed. Or overnighted. Our daughter was beside herself when they had to leave North Carolina and come home sans Kitty. Backup Kitty #1 was called up from reserves.

But then one day last week I got another text from my mom: it was just a photo, and it was a photo Kitty, lying in the place where she had finally been found: squished under a chair cushion. A few days later a little box arrived in the mail. Our daughter ripped it open and immediately pressed Kitty to her nose, to her face, squeezed it tight. And then tears. From me. But first from her. We stood there in our kitchen and felt more relief and joy than a little gray beanbag should ever be able to give. And I was thinking, “What is wrong with me? Why am I getting emotional about this?” Because what was lost has been found. Because I’m typically the guy who just says, “Eh. It’ll turn up. Learn to live without it.” I have to admit it’s moving to know there are some folks—like my mother, like my wife, like the woman in Jesus’ parable—who will look and look and look until the thing is found.

That’s the thing that’s going on as Jesus tells these parables. He finds himself these days sitting more and more often with bunches of people who finally feel found. He finds himself surrounded by people who finally feel like someone has looked and looked and sought them out, who hasn’t written them off saying, “Eh, they’ll turn up. Learn to live without ‘em.” Jesus is welcoming and gracious to the sinners and the tax collectors, all those apparently forgettable folks who, for various different reasons, have fallen between the cushions of life and gotten stuck there.


In Jesus’ day they were the people who had fallen afoul of religious sensibilities. Perhaps they had gotten too cozy with the Roman oppressors. Perhaps they worked in professions that religious authorities had deemed unclean. It is really difficult to know all that might be comprised by the term “sinners,” but suffice it to say that they were the people who had been labelled either by a questionable moral decision they had made or, as is more likely, by a circumstance of life they probably had little control over, like a disease of some sort. Maybe they just had found little use for the day to day rules people were supposed to follow to be considered respectable. The point is, Jesus seems to be OK with these people in some way. He’s willing to eat with them and be associated with them, and I imagine if you were someone who had been written off by most of society, that felt pretty good.

The problem is that there were people, like the Pharisees, who did not feel good about this. They grumble and complain that Jesus is allowing God’s kingdom to be infiltrated.

Rather than just arguing with them, Jesus tells three stories to illustrate how he sees this situation. We read the first two this morning; the third is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In the first two cases, at least, we glimpse a character who is driven to return what is lost. One is a relatively wealthy man for he is a shepherd with what was, back then, a fairly sizeable flock. The other is a relatively poor woman, for ten drachma was not a great deal of money. Both go to extraordinary lengths to find what has been lost. In the case of the shepherd, the situation is probably a bit beyond his control. Sheep tend to wander. But coins do not wander. You can’t blame a coin for being lost, which suggests that sometimes being separated from where you really belong is not totally your fault. Sometimes people get lost from God not because of a decision they’ve made but because life has just taken them there.


The good news is that nowhere does in the parables does the character just say, “Eh, it’ll turn up.” It’s like Jesus finds three different ways to tell the same thing: God doesn’t ever give up looking for what’s his. Sorry, Backup Kitty # 1 and #2. The story is never over until that which is lost has been found. The chance for someone to repent; that is, to have a change in mind about faith, to have one’s perspective about grace and mercy changed, the opportunities to learn “Where God is in all of this thing called life” are ever before us. And they extend to everyone.  No one should be judging or worrying about anyone else’s faith journey or the timing or the depth of their turning around to God.

Today we enroll new candidates for confirmation, which is an integral part of our tradition’s faith journey. It’s a two-year commitment of re-learning some of the basics of Lutheran faith in preparation for the day they will stand before the congregation and profess their faith. What they’re going to say on that day, the day of their confirmation, is essentially they trust in a God who fundamentally finds us wherever we are, and that that’s our hope—not how wonderful we are, but how gracious and persistently loving God is.

Several years ago one confirmand decided not to continue his participation in the ministry. He had had one year of classes, decided it wasn’t for him, actually he wasn’t really sure church or God were for him at all, and decided to withdraw. His father emailed me to explain and said they didn’t want to push him. The lay catechist and I were fine with that. We figured it takes some courage to arrive at that decision. A couple of years went by and we never heard from him, other than a conversation I had with him about his Eagle Project idea.

Then one day right at the time he was about to graduate from high school he showed up in worship. And then he was here the next Sunday. And the one after that. He eventually went off to college, but even to this day, whenever he is at home on break, he worships with us. He is such a gracious, warm-hearted, and humble young man. I asked him recently about his journey of faith and he said, “[During confirmation and after I withdrew] I would have considered myself lost and searching at the time.” Now, he feels he has found his faith, or found his way, but even more than that, he feels he has been found. Not everyone knows his story—none of us know everyone’s story, quite frankly—and he’s got so much his left to discover and live, but, boy, does it feel good to see him here each week.

icon of Christ the Good Shepherd



That’s why it’s important to remember that Jesus tells these parables not to the sinners and tax collectors, to the people who are lost, but to the Pharisees and scribes who are grumbling over at their table, to the people who are always in church, to the ones who wear the robes and stand up and preach. Jesus wants them, the ones who may not feel particularly lost at the moment, to remember that this is the nature of God—that God searches out the lost and it doesn’t seem to bother God how far he’ll have to go to return them. That’s the theme and purpose of Jesus’ life, the message of the cross. God goes unbelievably far to return us home. No one, in fact, goes farther. The kingdom isn’t being infiltrated, by the way. It’s being expanded.

What Jesus would like the Pharisees to know and understand, as they sit there with their smug judgmentalism, is that God sees everyone as a sheep who has the capacity for the same kind of wandering. God sees everyone as a coin that needs to be swept out of the corner just as much as one of the nine that stays in the purse. God knows we all are prone to wander, we are all have this habit of getting lost or misplaced. But more than any of that, God is filled with joy when we’re returned.

For that’s the true surprise in these stories. It’s not so much the finding that is amazing, but the joy of the return. They don’t just stand there in the kitchen with Kitty in hand, embarrassed by a few tears in their eyes. They party. The shepherd doesn’t drag the sheep behind him to teach it a lesson. He puts it on his shoulders. The woman calls her friends and neighbors over, people who may not even really know her, to celebrate having all the coins back together again. They’re like, “Why are we going over to that woman’s house this time? Why does she have the fruit and veggie tray out? She found a coin??” The coin is valuable to her, for sure, but even more valuable is her reputation as a finder.


There is a hymn we sing that has a line,“God has made a new beginning from the ashes of our past, in the losing and the winning we hold fast.” We are not singing it today, but Cheryl Hamm did select it to be sung at her husband’s memorial service this past week as we commended him to God. The life of Christian faith, the life that has embraced us in water, wine, and bread, the life that encounters us on the cross of Jesus is this life of losing and winning, of being lost and being found, of withdrawing and returning, of being a Pharisee and tax collector, saint and sinner. This faith is ultimately about rejoicing, for while our lives are clearly valued in God’s eyes, of even greater value is the one who does the seeking, the one who makes the new beginning out of the ashes of our past.

As it was in the beginning, glory now resounds again in a song that has no ending, Amen.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

kitty and Laura

Getting a better seat

A sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 17C/Lectionary 22C]

Luke 14:1, 7-14

No matter what the circumstances are, I think everyone likes the feeling of getting a better seat somewhere than the one you were originally given. It could be a sporting event when you slip down to 50-yardline seats at halftime. It could be at the theater when they ask people to fill in empty seats up front at intermission. It could be at your elementary school student’s recorder concert when you get offered something close to the action. And, let me tell you, there’s nothing like attending an event in an elementary school auditorium for finding out just how cut-throat our society has become.

seating chart for a wedding reception

One time about twelve years or so ago I found myself in a situation where I ended up with a much better seat than I started with. I was serving a congregation in Pittsburgh, and one of my parishioners, who knew I had once lived in Egypt, sent me a newspaper clipping announcing that a Coptic Orthodox church in another community about 20 minutes up the road was going to be holding a special worship service to consecrate their new worship space. The Coptic Orthodox Church is the branch of Christianity “native” to Egypt. It is an ancient but thriving church with beautiful traditions and worship, dating probably all the way back to the Mark who wrote the gospel. One of their traditions is that any time a new church building is acquired or built, the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church needs to come and consecrate it, set it apart as a sacred space.

When I was in Egypt, I worshipped at a number of Coptic Orthodox Churches there. I also knew that they absolutely adored their pope, Pope Shenouda III, or “Baba Shenouda,” as they lovingly called him. He was a famous figure in Egypt, almost like a celebrity, but he was also very accessible to his people and to the people of Egypt. So this parishioner of mine saw this in the local paper and thought I might be interested in it.

As it turned out, this special service for consecration was going to occur on some random Tuesday morning that I happened to have free, so I drove down to the church in Ambridge, PA, parked my car on the street, and went inside. There I found a church full of dozens of people who looked like they were getting ready for a big worship service. Every single one of them looked Coptic to me, like the people I had known in Egypt, so I wasn’t surprised. I was just surprised that there were so many of them in that area of Pennsylvania. No one seemed to notice I was there, so I just went and sat in one of the back pews (Lutheran habits come in handy sometimes) and waited for things to begin.

I had only been sitting for a few moments when someone appeared at the end of my pew and asked me if I was their “distinguished ecumenical guest.” I suppose he had seen the collar I was wearing, along with my blonde hair and blue eyes, and assumed I was not a Coptic priest. Since the gentleman had made it sound like they had invited a specific ecumenical guest—a clergyperson from another denomination—and I had just shown up because I had seen the article in the paper, I politely told him that I was not their ecumenical guest. He wouldn’t accept my refusal. He said something like, “Yes, yes, you are our guest, and sitting back here is not OK.” He then escorted me all the way to the very front pew. Beside me was one other person—a local Episcopalian priest who was also there just because he’d read it in the paper. Suddenly we were both guests and we were both official, and we were both sitting about 10 feet away from Pope Shenouda. At the end of the worship service, the Pope called both of us up and presented us with a special token of friendship and honor, an icon of St. Mary bearing his signature.

A photo of that consecration service. Pope Shenouda III is on the right. Photo taken by Joe Appel, used with permission. For more of his photos (including of that day) visit www.joeappelphotography.com

It was really amazing. I felt honored and welcome, and I kept thinking about how I’d lived a whole year in Egypt and never once saw Baba Shenouda and here I am 20 minutes from my house and I’m shaking hands with him. And yet the whole time I was standing there I kept hoping that there wasn’t some other “distinguished ecumenical guest” who actually had been formally invited somewhere in the pews behind me thinking, “Hey…I’m supposed to be up there, not that guy!”

Even Jesus seems to understand the benefit of being asked to move up to a higher seat. We hear about this one time when he is invited to eat a meal at the leader of the Pharisees’ house and he basically gives that advice: don’t insert yourselves into places of honor and dignity. It’s better not to self-promote. Take a place lower than you may even think you deserve and let that be how you start relating to people.

To understand what’s going on here at this meal it helps to understand just how important mealtimes were in ancient culture. They were a vital and maybe even the central part of the honor-shame society that the people of Jesus’ time lived in. At whose house you were eating and in which particular spot you were sitting mattered a big deal. In an honor-shame society, everything someone did was to accrue honor for your and your family’s name and avoid shame. Honor only meant something if it was publicly recognized; that is, if other people saw you do something honorable or witnessed honor conferred upon you. Likewise, shame was so damaging precisely because everyone else agreed that you were of less value. It wasn’t just something you felt in your own heart.


It was kind of like an ongoing popularity contest on a large scale, except everyone believed that there was a limited amount of honor. That meant you and I were essentially competing over the same honor. If I did something that increased my standing in the community then everyone else’s honor went down just a little. That’s not really what happened to me that day in the Coptic Church. No one else’s standing was diminished because I was treated with honor. They were just being gracious.

We don’t really live in an honor-shame society anymore, but an argument could be made that social media is bringing it back. There is a lot of honor and shame involved in Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. When you put a photo or a thought on there, you are hoping that it gets lots of likes or retweets or comments. Comments, especially positive ones, are gold, and you’re almost instinctively prone to measure your own status on social media against everyone else’s. The point of social media for many people, especially celebrities, is to get as many followers or friends as possible.

One way we convey honor in this age

Honor-shame societies are really damaging and dangerous. People get shamed and shunned and shunted out of real community very easily. One expert in social media consumption in youth culture, Collin Kartchner, says that social media teaches young people that a person’s “worth isn’t inherent, but contingent.” That is, it sends the message I’m not enough as I am. I need to fight for value among by peers or among the public at large. Just ask a kid who has been bullied at school or cyberbullied. These wounds have lasting impacts on our identity, and there are lots of studies out there about the effects social media use is having, especially on our youth.

What’s happening to Jesus in this meal at the Pharisees’ leader’s house is that Jesus has just gotten a bunch of “likes.” Almost everyone would have known that he had received an invitation to this important person’s house. Jesus’ honor, in the sight of everyone, would have gone up. And so he’s sitting there with his newly-accrued honor, most likely in the midst of a bunch of new faces a lot more well-connected than the crowd he usually hung with, and he takes the opportunity to flip things.

He first gives this lesson about how to place yourself in relation to others. Don’t essentially be grabbing honor from others by taking something you may even rightfully deserve.  Humble yourself.  Don’t be confrontational or see yourself in competition with others. Let someone else have the honor that you might want to receive.

Then he takes his lesson one step farther, throwing the whole system of honor-shame on its head. He says, when you throw a party or have a dinner, specifically invite people who cannot give you any honor in return because they are not in a position to reciprocate. The blind, the lame, the poor—these are the folks in Jesus’ time who are always going to miss out. They are never going to receive any invitations anywhere. No one includes them, no one thinks they have anything to offer, no one gives them any value because they can’t give any value to anyone else.

Social media isn’t all bad, of course. For a while I’ve followed this one account called, “The Afghanistan you never see.” It is run by a photojournalist from Afghanistan named Bilal Sarwary who travels the country and showcases the raw, natural beauty of rural life and landscapes. He loves his native land, and so he expresses that by featuring the side of Afghanistan that never gets any mention because it’s not about war or religious extremism or the opiate trade. As it turns out there are wonderful stories to be told and beautiful vistas to see in Afghanistan if you just look beyond what grabs all the attention.

a post from “The Afghanistan you never see”

God loves this native land, his creation, and his kingdom, therefore, is going to be about the people you never see, the situations that never grab the attention, the stories that never get told. It’s about turning the honor and shame system upside down so that those who are always marginalized, those whose voices never get heard, those who are assigned minimal value get a place at the table. Jesus is going to believe in this mission so much, he’s going to be so confident in God’s love for all people, he’s so sure of the importance that the rich be sent away empty and the poor be filled with good things that he is going to give all his honor away. Every last bit of it. Jesus is going to take all the “likes” that people he has accrued and is going to give them away to us. And he is going to take the lowest seat possible. It’s called the cross. Suffering. Rejection. So that if anyone ever finds themselves in a place like that, they’re not sitting alone. And he does this to show that God’s view of his creation is one where people work together. They do not grade one another on shame or honor or beauty or wealth or status or popularity. The kingdom of new life, of eternal life, is the kingdom where everyone is seen.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this great thing in his little book called Life Together that my friend reminded me of this week. Bonhoeffer is talking about the community that is called together by Christ, with all of its diversity, and says, “I can never know beforehand how God’s image should appear in others.”[1] And he goes on to say that for many people we’ll never know how God is revealed in that person until we’re in real relationship with them. Until they are at the table with us.


So often I think we come to the conclusion that the way we help bring about God’s vision for the world is through grandiose things: build a hospital. Dig a well in a foreign village. Contribute a huge sum of money to alleviate poverty or hunger. Give countless hours of free time to volunteer. And while the church has done many of those world-changing things, and will continue to need Christ-followers to dream big, what Jesus says at that dinner in the Pharisee’s house is that the kingdom also comes just by seeing and paying attention to those we neglect in ordinary, everyday situations. None of us may ever do something like found an orphanage but we can commit to seeing God’s image revealed in others, especially those we tend to look away from. No matter where we are, we can find someone seated at the back, on the side, alone, swallow our honor, walk up to them and say, “I see you. Come sit with me. No, even better…let’s go sit up with him. There’s always enough room there.”


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.




[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p 93