God, the ventilator

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent [year A]

Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11: 1-45

Well, we’re two full weeks into a shutdown to curb the spread of a virus. What have you been doing? How have you been filling your time? For a few of you, I imagine, life continues pretty much as usual. You go to work and you come home pretty much like you always did. But for most of you, I bet things have changed drastically. We are no longer going to school, we are no longer playing on playgrounds, we are no longer eating in common dining areas. And for some people, especially those we know at places like a nearby nursing home, where the virus has already led to four deaths, life is now lonely and full of isolation. We are holed up in our homes, wondering how long this is going to last, what activities we can do to entertain ourselves.

I tell you what I’ve been doing a lot of. I’ve been watching a lot of the movie Cars, the animated Disney classic that came out in 2006. I’ve been watching the movie Cars, in fact, every single day of quarantine, which means I’ve seen it about fourteen times in the past two weeks. We normally limit the amount of time our children spend on screens, but these are not normal times, and the Cars movie is the only thing that will keep our 4-year-old son in one place for a period of time so that we can get other things done. He watches it every time like it’s the first time he’s ever seen it, but everyone else in our family can quote it line by line. We know all the characters, the songs, the subtle intricacies of the plot.

Ornament Valley, from Disney’s Cars

There’s one scene in the movie that really gets me every time. It’s the pivotal moment of the story, and I think it resonates with me so much right now because it reminds me a bit of our circumstances now as a country. It is the part when Sally Carrera, the charming but straight-talking Porsche girl car, takes Lightning McQueen, the vain and flashy race car, to the top of a high cliff and shows him the view. What he sees below him is the wide open, desert landscape. It is beautiful and breathtaking, but it is also almost barren. Down in the valley at the middle of this huge expanse is the little woe begotten and overlooked town of Radiator Springs.

The town, which is Sally Carrera’s adopted home, looks lifeless. Empty storefronts line Main Street, one by one. There is no business, no economy, and the remaining residents Talk mostly about the way things used to be. And off to the side of the valley lies the interstate highway, carrying cars and business and life with it right past the town of Radiator Springs.

Lightning McQueen is moved for the first time in the story. He wonders if the town could ever live again, if a spirit of new beginnings could blow there and bring it back to the bustling, thriving place it once was. At that moment the story becomes much more than a movie about cars and friends. It becomes a film about life and hope and community and history and promise.

Radiator Springs, before the bypass came

None of us knows where this quarantine and the effects of this virus are going to take us. We look at the numbers of new cases rising, we look at the economic numbers, we read the emails from the school systems. I stand here and look out at an empty sanctuary, pews that should be filled with people of all ages, connected in joy and faith. Most ominously, we look at the rising death toll, and things are starting to feel a bit bleak, woe begotten. We need a Sally Carrera to show us the beauty among the bad news. We need a Sally Carrera who can give us a broad perspective, who can take us even to the edge of what is frightening and fearsome and speak a word of hope and life, show us there are possibilities of rebirth.

I have good news, folks. That is our God. Our God, the one who has claimed us all in baptism, looks out on bleak and fearsome and even lifeless situations among humanity and speaks words of new life.

That is precisely what we hear in this prophecy from Ezekiel about the valley of the dry bones. God takes his servant to vantage point and they survey the scene: nothing but dry, parched bones. The bones represent the whole house of Israel, all the people of God who God loves and has called forth into being. But they are just bones, scattered about and left to dissolve into dust. We may think of bones as fossils and clues to a time gone by, but for the ancient Hebrews, this was about as bleak a scene as you could imagine. If there was no breath, then there was no future, there was no life, and bones with no sinew or flesh on them cannot hold any breath.


Ezekiel is a bit like Lightning McQueen in the Cars movie at this point. He surveys the scene and the Lord says to him, “Can these bones live?” And Ezekiel just responds in a statement of faith: “O Lord God, you know.” Then the Lord God says that he will cause breath to enter them, even when they are just parched and dry, and they shall return to life. The breath will come back into the valley, and God will bring his people back into Israel, the land where they thrive and grow and live as a blessing to others.

Then, sure enough, we witness one of the greatest scenes of rebirth in Scripture. Ezekiel prophesies as the Lord commands him to. The bones begin to shake to new life. There is noise—a rattling!—and they start to connect together like they’re supposed to. But even after all the bodies reassemble with new flesh and new sinew, they are still lifeless. So then Ezekiel summons the breath of God, and when the breath of God enters the people they finally come to life.

There is so much we don’t know about this coronavirus and the disease that it causes in some people. But what does seem to be the case is that people die from a lack of breathing. The virus attacks their lungs and respiratory system in such a way that they can’t get the oxygen their bodies need. This is why the need for ventilators has been so great. For many people, the only hope for life will be having air forced into to their lungs. God, as it turns out, is the great ventilator. We hear in this story that just as God’s breath first animated all creation, so will God be able to breathe his life into people who have already died and bring them to new life. God will breath and bring them out of their graves and all the way back home to Israel and into his presence forever.


This is the God we worship today, disconnected as we are from one another like bones scattered across the digital landscape. This God is the great ventilator, undeterred by anything like death or disease or decaying landscapes. This is the God who has claimed us as his own, who has called us forth to serve him through the waters of baptism. This is the God who nurtures us like a mother who pops another DVD into the DVD player to bring joy and peace to her quarantined, cooped up child.

It is the God who sends his son Jesus to the tomb of his close friend Lazarus four long days after Lazarus has died…four days after Jesus could have come to save him. It is the God who does not just confront death by the tomb there, but who also participates in the emotions of grief and sorrow and anger that everyone is feeling. Jesus comes into the scene of despair not wearing a cape, or with muscles flexed, ready to fight, or with a clipboard containing tons of answers, but with his tears. Jesus comes with his humanity on the surface, ready to feel and know what people are feeling and knowing.


And here, at his culminating moment of public ministry, at a tomb, Jesus defines himself as the resurrection and the life. He does not declare himself to be retribution or fear or power or even justice. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. The core of what God is about is bringing life from death, hope from despair.

Jesus does this because his Father, our God, doesn’t ultimately just peer at the valleys of death and darkness and quarantine from some distant vantage point. He enters it himself. He gives up his own body and his own bones and his own last breath in order to unite himself with the complete human experience so that we, then, may be united to God’s future life. Jesus carries that Spirit, that breath of God—the weeping, grieving breath of God—who can be resurrection and life in the face of death.


This week I was in the office—alone—and I fielded a call from a former member who now lives in another state. She was very distraught, and as I listened to her I could tell that she was safe and healthy, but that she was very lonely and homesick for Richmond and the community here. She got more and more emotional as the conversation continued, and I assured her that eventually she would feel more at home in her new surroundings and that new relationships would start to form. My words did not seem to help very much. Eventually she stated that she wanted to leave where she was living and come and stay…in our church building.  I thought I may have misunderstood her, but she really meant it. She was willing to leave her apartment and come to dwell in our church building in order to feel less lonely and less distance and less sad.

It was such a surprising and unorthodox request—to live in a church, especially when it is so dark and empty an almost unused. The fancy automatic lights don’t even have anyone to turn them on right now, and they turn off automatically, too, so we can’t leave them burning in the evening to make the place seem more alive.  Doors have stayed shut for three weeks now. But she clearly has memories of how alive and how filled with love this place normally is. She knows this is a place where live has breathed and will breathe again so much so that she’s willing to make it her home.

Friends, God will breathe new life here. God will call our names just as he called Lazarus’ from the tomb.  The pews will be full again one day, the children will stream forward to the children’s sermon. We’ll gather around the Lord’s table to receive our nourishment with his body and blood. The Spirit will blow and our community will be reborn.


And our schools will be full again, full of teachers teaching and students learning. Our parks and our public spaces will be filled with life and health, and there will be no fear.

And this will all be foretaste of that day when Jesus, the resurrection and the life, will call forth all of creation from the valley of death. And we will gather together in the presence of the Lord forever—those who’ve gone before us and those who will come after—because God, the Great Ventilator, knows these bones. He knows what they’re for, what they can be and do. God knows these bones.

And God knows these bones will live.



Thanks be to God!

dry bones

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The opposite of social distancing

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

John 4:5-42

We find ourselves today in an unprecedented situation. I don’t know of anyone who has ever been involved in such a wide-scale, long-term hunkering down as we are right now. Participating in this collective effort of social distancing in order to stem the outbreak of this coronavirus is both new and unusual. You, like I, have no doubt seen all of the memes and posts shared on social media about the empty shelves in the grocery stores and the crowds trying to get their hands on life’s bare essentials as fast as they can.

The only thing I have to compare it to is the last time we had to hunker down for a coming hurricane. I can’t remember now exactly which storm it was, but I know that it never ended up arriving and doing the damage we thought it would. I know this because we still have all the water we horded from that event. I brought one case of it today. It has been lying out in our storage shed for years. We followed the advice of “those in the know” who were telling us how to prepare, but we may have gone a little overboard. Having lived through a few hurricanes in my life, I know that you never want to be in the position of lacking drinkable water. What I find interesting is that this case of bottled water, which I estimate is probably from 2016 and Hurricane Matthew, actually has an expiration date on it. Did you know water had an expiration date? This one says—you may be interested to know—best if used by February 2020. Just missed the coronavirus by one month. We’re actually good on water this time, but apparently people are going overboard stockpiling other things: toilet paper. Go figure.

still drinkable?

This morning we hear the story about Jesus and a Samaritan woman and water that will never expire.  It is water that will never run out, apparently never needs to be stockpiled.

It’s one of the most provocative conversations in all of Scripture. First of all, Jesus is in foreign territory. He begins in Judea, which is Jewish territory, and needs to go to Galilee, but instead of going around Samaria to get there (most likely the typical path) he goes right through it. The Samaritans were a group of people the Jewish folk did not get along with. There are several reasons for that, but suffice it to say there was a long history of mistrust and animosity between the two groups even though they shared some of the same history lived geographically very close to one another.

Not only does Jesus go through this foreign territory but he visits this well and strikes up a conversation with a woman while he is there. At the end of the story this woman goes back to the village and ends up bringing everyone into faith in Jesus as the Messiah. It’s a powerful example of how Jesus has the ability to cross boundaries. It’s like the absolute opposite of social distancing! Jesus goes out of his way to connect people. Jesus goes out of his way to spread this life-giving quality that he has.


Now, a lot has been said about this particular woman throughout history, much of it made up, much of it kind of disparaging. All we know from what John tells us is that she is alone at this well during the heat of the day and that she’s had a number of husbands and is currently with a man to whom she is not married. I’m not sure we’re supposed to read too much into any of that. Perhaps she is a five-time widow. She clearly has some power and influence in her community and couldn’t have been all that shunned because her testimony alone is all her village needs to begin worshiping Jesus as the Messiah.

Whatever the case, it would have been a little unusual to be alone at a well. Wells were community places, spaces where people came together and their stories overlapped on a daily basis. This particular well had been used that way for centuries. I kind of think of wells like modern day cell-phone charging stations or maybe the counter at a pharmacy.

Recently I had to fulfill a prescription for one of our children and it required me to go to one of the few 24-hour pharmacies on our side of town. As I sat there waiting for the medicine to be ready I looked around and noticed I was sitting in the waiting area with all kinds of different people. I imagine if we had to go there every day or every week to get medicine we would end up getting to know each other pretty well. We would probably start to care about one another on a deeper level.


In Bible days there were few places you could get good water and so people tended to congregate there. When Jesus approaches this woman, he asks her for something to drink. Immediately she is aware of how unusual that is. There are at least two boundaries he is crossing he is a Jew speaking with a Samaritan and a man speaking with a woman. And throughout the course of their conversation it becomes aware that Jesus is non-threatening and that he wants to offer her a new kind of life—water that will never run out. Jesus gives living water, water with no expiration date, water that doesn’t require a continual traipsing somewhere to get, water that somehow gets in them and gushes up to life without end. Understandably, this woman wants this water always.


So, what could Jesus mean by this? Why would Jesus describe himself this way? First of all, just like water, Jesus gives life to all people. He is not just for this group or that group, for this kind of people or those kinds of people over there—the kinds who worship in Jerusalem or the kinds who adore Mt. Gerizim.  Just as need for basic water is common to all living things so does God give Jesus for nurturing all kinds of people. He does come from one particular group, the people of Israel. His story arises from their story, but he is a Savior, a Messiah, for all. No one can claim him only for themselves. His love is meant to be shared and shared abundantly. The kind of love that Jesus shares for us on the cross, this total giving of self, can only be extended others. I cannot save it up, stick it in some corner of my life just for me. If I try that, then it is not the love of Jesus I am talking about. Jesus love gushes up from within me and naturally is extended to others around me.


Another thing Jesus means by describing himself as living water is that he constantly refreshes and renews and gives life to people. By nature Jesus brings life, makes things new. He is like God’s big irrigation system for the universe. It’s not a stagnant pool of water but something moving, running, cascading in some parts. His words are always going to be a source of growth and vitality. We can hear them, read them again and again, and continue to have our lives pointed towards God.

I think how some of the oldest people in this congregation have helped me understand this better than anyone else. The way they speak about their faith and their relationship with Jesus shows me that it is alive, not something they do out of years of tradition and habit or because it reminds them of the good ol’ days. About a year or so ago we produced a short video for our faith formation programs. We went around one Sunday and just randomly interview people and asked them to share something brief about their faith and how it is shaped here. One of the women we got on camera, who is in her nineties, was sitting on her rollator and without any prompting, said, “I’ve been here since 1954 and I’m learning something new all the time.”

That is what living water is like. That is a source that never leaves you thirsty when you drink from it. That is a fountain of life that just doesn’t have an expiration date. And it is all because God decides not to stockpile his love for us. God’s not going to store it away and parcel it out, bucket by bucket, bottle by bottle. His Son will be lifted up on the cross for all people and the love will just flow and flow and flow right to this very day.

Enough food donated in one day to make 70 bags!

I can’t help but think that this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman comes at the perfect time. We can’t physically be gathering to hear God’s Word for the time being. It’s like we’re all sequestered in our own little Samarias while this pandemic cranks up. But Jesus, the living water, is still present through you, flowing into our community just like always.  No matter where you are in these days of social distancing, no matter what kind of necessities you have to venture out to find, Jesus is still giving living water. He is still crossing boundaries, still bringing people together, still showing up to comfort the lonely, still giving life without end through his words and his love. You can read Scripture, you can listen to a podcast, you can pick up the phone and call a friend, you can write a letter to someone you haven’t heard from in a long time. You can pray. And today many of you have brought in food donations that we are packing up to distribute to school children stuck at home during this time of physical distancing. The love of Christ flows to you and through you. To that I can say, “Drink up!”

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




Loved, Saved, and Wet

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

John 3:1-17 and Genesis 12:1-4a

Cleansing is all we’re doing these days. We’re washing our hands and singing “Happy Birthday,” we’re refilling Purell stations right and left, and we’re buying out all the Lysol wipes at Wal-Mart, but the cross of Jesus Christ is the only cleansing we ever really need. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Jesus is lifted up as he dies, and all who come to see that God is fully at work in him are rescued from the powers of death and sin.


It is right and good to follow the guidelines of our public health officials to keep people safe from illness, especially the vulnerable, but those who have been purified by water and the Spirit have the hope that no matter what happens, in this crisis or the next, we are born from above and the kingdom of God is where we reside.

It is right and good to put drastic measures in place, to sequester people or use social distancing to stem the outbreak of a disease, but also to remember that God so loved the world—which means God loves everyone, no matter where they live or where they’ve been, or what country they come from or what age they are or what gender they are or how often they go to church or what religion they are. God so loved the whole broken, quarantined, worn out, perhaps overly panicked world that God gave his only Son so that people can believe in and know that kind of love that has embraced the world and can live forever in that embrace.

That is the message that Nicodemus learns from Jesus when he comes to Jesus under the cover of night. That’s the answer Nicodemus gets when he sneaks off to ask some questions of Jesus, this new teacher in Galilee who performs amazing signs of God. Where do you go to ask your questions about life and about God, especially ones you might be a little embarrassed to ask? Nicodemus, as a leader among the Jews and probably a Pharisee, probably has lots of answers, himself, but something about the way Jesus is makes him curious, makes him think Jesus knows more. He can’t go openly, of course, because the others in his community might ostracize him. That’s why the night makes good cover. People need a place to escape, an atmosphere where it’s OK just to talk and start to open up.

“Study for Nicodemus and Jesus” (Henry Ossawa Tanner)

The church got an email this week from Chaplain Nate Huffman, a son of this congregation who is married to our former Director of Faith Formation Christy and who was ordained as a Lutheran pastor in 2016. Nate is now serving as a chaplain in the armed forces and is deployed somewhere in the world, working closely with service-men and -women on a tour. He was writing to thank us for the care packages—twenty-three of them—our congregation assembled last month. We sent all kinds of snacks and goodies and puzzles to work on while they are away. He said that he’s been able to use the things we sent him to stock up a workspace he has built where people can escape. Maybe somewhat like Nicodemus. He’s built shelves, video game stations, and libraries there. He says that many people don’t see his ministry at explicitly religious and that the gathering space isn’t explicitly religious, but that the men and women he serves gather there often and it’s always interesting to see where Christ enters the conversation. Nate also said that his tour will end soon, but the next chaplain will be set up nicely with what we’ve sent. Christ will continue to show up in conversations in that space with other people long after Nate comes home.


So much of Jesus’ ministry, especially in John’s gospel is about Jesus developing a deeper relationship with people through dialogue and understanding, not having people sit and receive and regurgitate what he says. And in Jesus Nicodemus finds someone who is very receptive to his questions and helps Nicodemus understand how God’s Spirit works. Turns out, it is like wind. It moves on its own and you can’t predict how strong it will be or what direction it will take or where it will show up. It cannot be bottled up in a church building or contained in a handy pamphlet you pass out to people or reduced to some succinct “Sinner’s prayer” but the Spirit is loose in the world and to some degree all you can do is try to harness it and be refreshed by it.

Through conversations, through his suffering, God works in the world because wants new life in the world. God wants people to be born again, or born from above. God wants people to be born of this Spirit, to be cleansed and renewed, to have new beginnings. We see that with Abram, who God calls even in his advanced age and to whom promises him new life, a new perspective on the world and a new perspective on himself as a father of nation through whom the whole world will be blessed. Like Abram, we learn to trust God and this new life and move forward into where faith leads us. It is not always easy, but God is always there.

For us, that new life and that new call begins at our baptism. The Spirit of God may have working in us before that moment, but at the waters of baptism we say we can be sure God’s conversation with us has begun. That is where the winds of grace begin to blow and be named as such. And for the rest of our lives we can look back to that moment and remember God is always open to conversation, available even in the dark, inviting us into his love.


This new life involves seeing things a different way. That’s what both Nicodemus and Abraham and any person of faith comes to learn. It involves, for example, seeing one’s self a different way: with God’s grace, you see yourself as a person who is not going to be defined by your faults or shortcomings, your’re not going to be defined by worldly labels and limitations like “too old” or “not the right race” or “not gifted.” Baptism allows us to see ourselves as people whose brokenness is always overcome by God’s love. We can always start over.

This new life also involves seeing the world a different way: as a place that is full of hope, a place where God is active and healing and opening us up to ever-unfolding opportunities to serve and create. The world is described these days as such a scary place, a place to wipe with Clorox and segment with walls and fences and separate with facemasks. To be sure, some of that may OK, for a time, but that is not all the world is. Abram goes forth into the unknown with faith and promise, not fear and hatred, because God has called him there. He ventures out not with a desire to conquer and exploit, but with the hope of experiencing blessing.

We see ourselves differently, we see the world differently, and over and over again we see God in a different way. This is how God changes us the most. It’s wonderful. We come to see that love is at the core of what God is always doing. God so loved the world. If it is not about love, it is not about God. Love is at the core of the room Chaplain Nate Huffman outfitted with the supplies we sent him. Love is at the core of the cross, the rescue effort God undertakes to unite us to him.


Speaking of baptism and rebirth and limitless second chances…we have a three year old at our house who is constantly playing in the water. He has done this since he could stand on two feet. He takes his toys and drops them in his water cup, or other people’s cups of water. He puts things in the dish water at the sink. He drops things in the toilet. I don’t know if he’s trying to see if things sink or float or what, but it is something we are constantly dealing with.

Well, he went missing this week. We were at the front door together and I turned back to get a jacket for him and a hat for me and by the time I returned, which was all of ten seconds…he was gone. He is a speedy little guy and I had no idea what had happened to him. For about thirty indescribably frightening thirty minutes he was gone. I thought I’d lost him forever. The police were at my house and a search had commenced.

And then as suddenly as it started, it was over. From the woods behind our house emerged a neighbor I’ve never met holding my son in his arms. He is shivering even though he was covered with the man’s fleece jacket. Soaking wet from his neck down, and still clutching a Matchbox car in one hand, our boy had clearly gone straight for the water in the creek behind our house, gotten lost, gotten wet, and wandered about 100 yards or more away. They said when they found him, he was standing at the edge of the water where it spills out of a culvert, holding the Matchbox car in the air, like he was getting ready to “baptize” it. We are now pricing out electric fencing.

We can run fast and we can run far in this life. We can thrill ourselves with all kinds of risky behavior, push too many boundaries, get in trouble, lose our way. And yes, there is peril. But if we’ve ever wandered at some point in our adventure of life to these waters of cleansing, these particular waters where we know God has met us, then we’re rescued. We’ve been rescued from the farthest we could ever go. Jesus has gone the distance, been there in the dark, died on the cross, and we rest in his grace. Even when we die.

God so loved the world, and no matter what happens Jesus will bring us home to God safely.


Thanks be to God!

Jasper saved 2

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.