In the Welcome

a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 8A/Lectionary 13]

Matthew 10:40-42

We hear in today’s gospel lesson the final part of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples as he sends them out into the world to do and speak the work of God’s kingdom. For the past two Sundays we’ve heard the earlier parts of his instruction, and, to be honest, they’ve been a bit hard to swallow. He’s told them they will be sent like sheep into the midst of wolves. That doesn’t sound too fun. He’s told them that what they say and do will cause division and confrontation, even among their friends and family. That, also, doesn’t sound like a walk in the park.

Christ commissions his disciples

Today, however, he ends on a bit of a high note. I imagine that’s a good thing, because many of them are probably wondering what on earth they signed up for. He tells them, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” And just like that, Jesus places their presence in the world—their actions, their faith, their ministry—on the same level as God.

It makes me think of my wife’s final words to our daughters from the front porch every morning that they have left for the bus stop to go to school. After the bookbags have been situated on their backs, the proper musical instrument placed in their hand, after the last hugs and kisses, and they’re making their way across the yard, Melinda chimes out, “Make good choices!” They already know they are loved, for sure, but I suppose Melinda wants the last thing that rings in their ear to be something that might guide their actions, a reminder that they have power and agency and responsibility in the day ahead. “Make good choices!” is what should ring in their ears as they get on that bus. And, so far—I’m happy to say—it seems to be working.

So it is with Jesus, standing on the front porch there. Just when they may have started to think they’d been given thankless tasks, just when they are starting to tighten those sandal laces and the belt around their waist and wonder if it will be worth it Jesus assures them that they will be doing God’s very work. They shouldn’t just regard themselves as Jesus’ representatives, but as if they were Jesus himself, and since Jesus is himself on par with the Father, then they would be welcomed as God should be. It sounds a little crazy, but it makes sense, because Jesus’ followers understand themselves to be Jesus’ body. And those who would receive them well  would receive the reward of hosting God himself. All this would certainly make me think about my decisions and responsibilities and the choices I’d make. What about you?

It is helpful and encouraging on some level to think that Jesus’ words place me and you, as his disciples, on par with God’s own actions. It certainly puts some pressure on those who may receive us when we go there in the name of Jesus. But the reality is that followers of Christ operate from a very different standpoint today. We’re have to turn this around in our heads a bit. In Jesus’ day, there were no church buildings. The message of Jesus was spread by followers who were itinerant; that is, moving from town to town and house to house. They may have operated in proximity to synagogues for some time, which were buildings, but for many decades the church really didn’t have stationary structures where ministry was based. They spread the word by visiting new cities and new homes and hoping they’d be find a good reception there.

Jesus spoke to his followers about others welcoming them. We tend to think more about how we welcome others among us. Jesus was sending people out, seeing the church on foot, a traveling group. We more often think about people coming to us, seeing the church in a specific place. Of course, we still represent Christ everywhere we go. And in many ways the church of the future, especially in our culture, will need to reclaim this missionary spirit and venture more boldly into the world—boarding those busses, so to speak—sharing our faith with those we meet.

But now it would seem we also must think of how we receive people, how are our congregations places of peace and forgiveness. This work of hospitality, of welcoming and being welcomed—of starting off as strangers to each other and then becoming friends—is the kind of the core of the church’s reality, isn’t it? It’s being at the border between God’s care and the world’s chaos, the unknown wilderness and the Promised Land, the threshold where grace greets each person. Seeing those spaces and this work as holy ground is crucial to what we do.

In ancient societies, hospitality was a life or death matter. Harsh desert environments were threatening to human life, and so one cold cup of water could make all the difference in the world. Offering someone something to drink wasn’t just a nice, friendly gesture. It literally meant you valued their life, you wanted their life to continue. Nowadays it might just be one smile. Or one holding of a door. These interactions are where Jesus’ love and mercy get rooted and grow.

How is the church presenting itself in the world? Are we going as Christ himself goes, leading with our vulnerability and humility, asking others for a cup of water with the hopes conversations may ensue? Or do we more often barrel in, like a bull in a china shop, demanding attention, expecting people to get on board? “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” Jesus reminds us. Jesus wasn’t always welcomed, of course, and one important time when he did ask for a cup of water he was given sour wine. Those boundary zones of welcome, the spaces between the wilderness of the world and the haven of God’s grace can be daunting, but it is where new and profound relationships are made and communities are reborn.

ready to welcome people

As many of you know, our congregation recently completed a very extensive expansion and renovation project. One of the main objectives of that project was to create more space that would enhance our ability to welcome and receive people. If we take Jesus at his word this morning, we would understand that the most significant interaction that will happen in our church building will not happen in the sanctuary, but here, in this space. This is our newly designed welcome desk, on wheels so it can be conveniently moved and with a lower top so as to look less imposing.

The architect who designed this space, a Christ-follower who attends another Richmond congregation, included as many windows as possible in this gathering area. A couple of years ago, when he was presenting his plans, he explained that this decision to use so many windows had less to do with the beauty of natural light and more to do with what it communicates about the church and Christian faith. As we move into the future It was his strong belief that the church must communicate openness and transparency in any way it can. Churches that look like fortresses, with thick walls and small windows, may be beautiful, but they suggest secrecy and an inward feel, like only certain people may come in.

Our new area is so open that people driving up Monument Avenue on Sunday mornings will be able to see us in here. It may seem like a fishbowl, but Jesus’ life was a fishbowl, remember. He commissions his disciples to a life of sharing and openness, of being humble enough to venture into the neighborhood with a hand outstretched for water. We are the vulnerable ones now, for a spell, but God is protecting and watching over us, and we take heart that in Christlike humility there is victory.

We’ve been giving tours of this new space over the past two weeks. Since it will still be a few more weeks before we can gather in person, we figured people might like an up-close view of what has changed. And a lot has changed. Overall people’s reactions are one of surprise and delight and amazement. The reconfiguration of space is so different, in fact, that many people can’t remember where the old front doors used to be. There is one chandelier that catches everyone’s attention, but it’s actually been hanging from the same spot since 1992. It’s not new, but the new design refocuses people’s eyes and makes people notice it for the first time. Maybe that’s how we’ll be with people, too. We’ll notice ones who often get overlooked.

More than one person has noticed something we didn’t intend. It is a large crack on the floor in the newly poured concrete. It happened the day after they poured it several months ago, and the contractor said that’s a common problem with concrete floors. They crack right away.

It’s nothing to be worried about. In most cases you never see the cracks because you quickly cover it with carpet or tile. But we have opted for exposed concrete floors, so there it is. I doubt when the room is full of people that anyone will notice it.

And yet, one person had keen insight when he saw the crack. He said, kind of tongue in cheek, that it sends the message to all who enter here that we’re not perfect. It is a feature of our brokenness right out here in the open, in the threshold where stranger meets friend, where member will meet guest—a few feet away from where a cup of cold water would be given to someone—or because we’re Lutheran, a cup of hot coffee.

I think he’s onto something. The cracks of our sin are real and we can’t cover over them. But Jesus has welcomed us just the same. We are here because of his grace, no matter our race, our economic background, our ethnic origin, our gender, our sexual orientation, no matter how long we’ve been searching for God or how long he’s been our BFF. We are here because of God’s grace. And we’re here not because we’re so deserving of it, but because God has sent his Son to welcome us, to spread out his hands with a hospitality so expansive we’ll never fully understand it. His good choice is for us.

And the brokenness is healed and the divisions are brought together and strangers turn into friends and lives overlap and people see God in one another because whoever welcomes you welcomes Christ and whoever welcomes Christ welcomes the one who sent him.

That’s what you call a welcome that is also reward at the same time. A reward of grace that can never ever be lost.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

A Sword We Need

a sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 7A/Lectionary 12A]

Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:1b-11

Today we hear Jesus tell his disciples that as they undertake his mission, they need to be prepared for discord, that, in fact, he has not come to bring peace, but a sword, a sharp-edged weapon used to divide.

Huh! Isn’t that interesting? We probably feel like responding, “You come to bring division, Jesus?? We already have plenty of it. We don’t need any more! Facemasks have brought us division! Symbols and hashtags of racial justice and equality have brought us division. In many cases we are divided on when and how to restart the economy and even how and when to resume in person worship! We are divided about kneeling or standing for the National Anthem at sporting events, which, thank goodness, isn’t a problem right now because we don’t have any sports, but we’ll probably be divided about how they should resume, too. We are divided between those who’ve watched Tiger King on Netflix and those who haven’t and which fast food chicken sandwich is better! Men are set against their fathers and daughters against mothers. Facebook friends are set against each other, and our foes are people we’ve known and loved our whole lives!”

 I’ve noticed that even Instagram stories, which used to be a place people only shared birthday greetings and photos of food, have become increasingly used for making hard-edged statements about politics and social matters. I must own that I have posted a few things lately that have probably alienated more than a few people.

A recent study out of Penn State has revealed that political polarization may be at its all-time worst in America. There has always been some degree of disagreement on certain issues, but apparently we are now divided over things that historically we tended to agree on, that a middle ground is a thing of the past. The study has found that “If two people can’t agree on one issue, they’ve never been more likely to disagree on all issues.”[1]

So then…about that division, Jesus. I think we have that covered. No need for you to pile on.

And yet…at least he’s honest with us, right? At least Jesus is up front right here as his disciples really get started that sometimes following him will put us at odds with the world around us. Sometimes people will give Jesus’ followers a hard time because they feel compelled to say and do things that aren’t popular. To speak out against white supremacy, to proclaim it from the housetops and from the confederate monuments of Richmond, still causes division in our culture, even on the week we remembered the 2015 horrific massacre of the Emanuel 9 by a self-professed white supremacist. To speak critically about abortion or the meaning of religious freedom or immigration brings a divide for people of faith. Even when followers of Jesus may find answers to come easy on certain issues, there is rarely an easy path forward when it comes to putting them into practice. They risk ridicule and rejection.

But if we’re honest, we feel even in ourselves a division between ideas and opinions we used to hold dear, soapboxes we’ve preached from before, and new thoughts and considerations that lead us in a different direction. That is what is liable to happen, though, when we find ourselves bound to Jesus rather than bound to ideologies or agendas. Jesus always leads us further and further into love and service to our neighbor in a world that is always putting new ones in our path.

So, as much as it feels like Jesus’ words are a bit off the mark today because we’re needing to hear about unity and harmony, it’s helpful to be reminded about the reality of bearing a cross. Because, ultimately, Jesus means to free us. That’s the real division he comes to create with his sword. Jesus comes to divide us from the sin and brokenness that holds us back from being anything less than who God creates and redeems us to be. Jesus’ division isn’t just division for division’s sake, to get us riled up about culture wars or politics. It is really my self-centeredness and my arrogance and my sense of entitlement that Jesus needs to slice and slay out of me. It is really my need always to be right, my need always to speak rather than listen, my need to surround myself always with like-minded people, my need to prove my own worth that’s going to require a sword—not tweezers, not a scalpel—but a sharp and powerful sword to whack away. To have those kinds of things removed will really put us out of sync with the world around us.

Different deirection concept with arrow shaped crowd of businesspeople going in one direction and just one person walking away on blurry cityscape background

This is precisely what Paul is talking about to the Romans when he talks about baptism. There are parts of us that need to die, that need to be whacked away, as Jesus claims us for his kingdom. Instead of an image of the sword, however, Paul talks about burial and crucifixion. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Those happen to be the very first words spoken at most funerals and memorial services. As the pall, which represents the waters of baptism, is placed on the urn or coffin, we make it loud and clear at the beginning of our worship: Jesus’ sword has swung down and sliced the sin and death of our loved one away. Because of Jesus’ love, nothing within their life or around their life will hold them back from the kingdom of God.

One of my colleagues who serves a congregation in another state held his first in-person worship service this past week. They did it outside on a Wednesday evening, and they figured out a way to celebrate Holy Communion too. It was the first time since March he’d seen any of his parishioners in worship. They, like us, have been using pre-recorded worship services to reach people, which is, as you know, a bit artificial and disembodied. As convenient as it may be under these circumstances, it’s hard to know, from our perspective, if anyone is really tuning in. My colleague shared that as worship was finished this week and they were beginning to put chairs away, a man he’d never seen before, who had been sitting among the parishioners on the lawn, approached him with tears in his eyes, holding the baptism form from their website, and asked if he could get baptized. The man said it was time for him to get right with the Father. My friend said he broke physical distance just to hug the man and assure him it would happen. Jesus has made him right.

I’m sure there’s more to that story, but I believe my friend that day embraced a man who is joyfully aware that Jesus brings a sword, a sword that causes division from his dark and broken self. And he’s right. It is a sword that does set us at odds with our past, with the world we live in, as we stand up and bring to light what has been whispered in secret and told to us in the dark. It is a sword that causes us some pain as we may even let go of relationships that bring out the worst in us.

That man wanting baptism this week no doubt feels the release of all of that, but also will learn a new path of justice and peace and service stands ahead. A path of love and costly discipleship that eventually gets our master crucified. They destroy his body, his disciples scatter, and he lies broken in a borrowed tomb. Jesus himself feels all of the pain of the sword he brings. But in the midst of this suffering, in the midst of the division and hardship we should not be afraid, Jesus says, even the hairs of our heads are counted. He says it three times, in fact. Have no fear.

At least once a year, in the spring, I get an email or a text message or Facebook post from someone who has come across a baby bird and is afraid of what might happen to it. They come across it in their yard or maybe on their front porch, and there are few things that look as fragile and helpless as a baby bird. I don’t have a clue why people keep asking me bird questions. But, be that as it may, I try to assure them that it is an old wives’ tale that a bird will be abandoned by its mother or father if a human touches it. It’s probably not really abandoned at all, just momentarily flushed into the open. They should just pick it up and place it back in a bush.

This year, the baby bird experience happened to me. Or rather, to our son. We were in our own backyard playing and he came across a baby cardinal hopping along the ground in fright. Word has traveled fast even in nature to beware of him. But he was curious and careful and I scooped up the little guy and held it close for him to see and admire. It had the little cardinal mohawk already even though it couldn’t fly yet. And then the mother swooped down on us. My son keyed in immediately, felt a bit threatened by this angry bird and wanted to leave the scene. She was making a racquet and demanding we leave her little helpless baby alone. So we did. He and I stood to the side and, sure enough, she came in to shoo him into a bush for safety.

It wasn’t a baby cardinal, but a sparrow for Jesus, the cheapest form of meat in the ancient world, common and ordinary birds that were a dime a dozen, a defenseless little thing that could be scooped up or trapped rather easily. When trying to remind his disciples that the life of baptism might be tough-going at times but that they will be OK, Jesus reaches for the most vulnerable, most insignificant image he can find.

For there’s God, the mother bird who swoops down in power, who has this whole situation more under control than we could know. Don’t be afraid. Even in the midst of a fast changing and crazy divided world, God is the protector who is ready to take it all on to guard us and save us. That line from our first hymn says it so well: “This is my Father’s world, and let me not forget that, though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

We may be vulnerable, but we are not sparrows. Have no fear! Shout it from the mountaintops. We are children of the living God. Some of us are black lives that matter. We are disciples who are like the teacher, servants who are like the master, we are lives that have been declared valuable by the One God and Father of us all. “The Lord is king, let heaven ring; God reigns, let earth be glad!”

Thanks be to God!!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


Let Those with Ears

The way I figure
things were too fast before:
now we notice the song of each and every—
Amtrak, Norfolk, CSX,
Southern serves the South
ones even without names
graffitied and empty
rattling as they pause, sending
their vertebrae shocks
at nightfall
or whistling out in the afternoon
one mile away as the crow flies
(we notice them too)
over the houses and trees
the backyards and living rooms
with children derailed
from schoolsoccerdancedrama
now at long last
in one place long enough
to listen to the world
around them

Apostles’ Creed: First Article

Ms. Spainhour, first grade,
Bolton Elementary,
she wore lots of shiny rings
she’d say Hey kids
circle up on the floor
and then hold out a wooden globe—
The memory is too ancient
for me to know the lessons
or even her voice
But I do know when I sing
“He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands”
I see dark smooth coffee colored hands
cradling this creation,
the clicking and clicking
of bejeweled fingers
holding us all in the air
and this is most certainly

“O Holy Trinity, What now?”

A sermon for The Holy Trinity [Year A]

Genesis 1:1–2:4a and Matthew 28:16-20

It’s something many know in their hearts, and something many more of us struggle to realize, but on this Holy Trinity Sunday, the Scriptures proclaim it loud and clear: From the very beginning up until whenever the end of the age comes, the work of God involves all people and involves all people on equal footing. From the first chapter of our creation story to the final commission of Jesus to his disciples, God’s vision for humankind makes no space for racial supremacy or segregation, and the abundance of his mercy is meant for all.

It happens to be an especially important message for the times we live in right now, as you know. And here we have yet another example of how the uncanny Holy Spirit plans timely messages through the tool of our lectionary readings and church year. For the past two weeks our nation has been embroiled in often violent but mostly peaceful protests following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died under arrest in Minneapolis. Our own governor has proposed the removal of one monument to the Confederacy that stands in our own city and our mayor has declared intention to remove the others. Debates about the effects of racism and inequality have already been raging for a while, and I suspect in our lovely city they may get more intense yet.

Laws may change and leaders may get removed from office, but today on Holy Trinity Sunday we contemplate that one thing that is eternal: God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And today God’s Word reminds us, with clarity that would be difficult to misunderstand: God makes humankind in God’s image and God unifies humankind in the same tasks and joys of prosperity. And as Jesus prepares his followers to carry on with his mission, he says, “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

Some are saying that we’ve been here as a country before and that things will simmer down and return to the ways they always were. Some are saying that maybe our collective wounds are open enough now that we that we can see the benefit of moving forward in new way of healing, whatever that is. No matter what happens, those who have been baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can confess the truth of our faith: God creates, redeems, and keeps all of humankind holy as a perfect outpouring of God’s own self. And those who have been claimed by the Risen Lord Jesus have been sent into the world as he would himself go: with love, with mercy, with an eye to those who feel marginalized. When Jesus says he will be with them to the end of the age, that means he is somehow going with them as they go to teach and baptize. We shouldn’t forget that. Jesus himself is there as we go, through the power of the Holy Spirit, leading, directing, and correcting.

A lot of times I think this passage from Matthew’s gospel only gets read as instructions for some grand-scale enterprise, like the church going into different foreign countries and fulfilling the Great Commission by building new churches, that it’s something missionaries do, out there on the frontier. That certainly is part of it, but making disciples of all nations and teaching them to obey Jesus’ commandments is something we do on an individual level, too, each and every day, on the frontier of each relationship. Undertaking Jesus’ mission seriously here means treating each person with respect and dignity, as a bearer of the divine image.

Speaking of being made in someone’s image, I am actually the proud owner of a coffee mug that someone made in my image. One of my friends in Pittsburgh was a very gifted potter and when I left the church I served there he made me this mug. It typically sits somewhere in my office. I’ve never used it because I’m afraid it might damage it somehow, or that it wouldn’t clean very easily, but I’ve also never used it because…look…that probably would freak people out. Makes me look a little vain. I am, however, seriously impressed with how great a likeness this thing is. This potter has talent. The eye color, the brooding eyebrows…he even got the slant of my nose correct.

a mug of my mug

In all seriousness, though, being made in God’s image isn’t like someone making a coffee mug or a statue or a portrait. It doesn’t mean that we physically resemble God. It means that unlike other parts of God’s creations, humans have been bestowed with qualities that are godlike. Our presence in creation should remind others of God, like God has taken a selfie and dropped it in among the rhododendron and the zebras. Color of skin or eyes and levels of ability or disability, slant of nose…they are just factors that give diversity to humankind. What bearing God’s likeness means is that, like God, we can choose between right and wrong. We can reason and contemplate and solve problems. We can create things ourselves. And we can love.

Something interesting here that needs to be pointed out: We may throw that phrase around an awful lot—being created in God’s image—but the understanding that all humans are little snapshots of God was and is revolutionary. We know that other ancient cultures who existed at the time of the Hebrews, tended to say that only their rulers bore the divine image. The king or queen of their land was the representative of God. Regular people, those outside the royal quarters, never bore that special designation.

By contrast, our faith from its beginning claimed a God who did not discriminate when stamping the divine qualities on humankind. No person walks this planet who is not a snapshot of God. Not one. Every member of the human family shares the label “very good.”

“The Creation of God” by Harmonia Rosales (a re-imagining of Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel)

The question is: What do you do with that? What do you do with that knowledge, that glorious label? That’s the main thrust of all of these stories and Scriptures. They give us great wisdom about the who and why of God and creation, but the next question they answer is “What now?” Do you take this all to heart for yourself, especially when you are feeling lowly and worthless? Do you extend that view to others, to your neighbor, to the person who has a different story from you?

Because when we do that, when we are cognizant of God’s image in us and in each other, we are making a statement about God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. We are making a statement about how the Holy Trinity is alive and active in the world today.

When we when we go into all nations and to all peoples with the same kind of humility and healing presence Jesus comes to us, then we are making a statement about a God who creates us, redeems us, and loves us to the end.

We are making a claim that God is a Father who loves his Son in the power of the Spirit that binds them together. Charles Octavius Boothe, a man born a slave in Alabama, who went on to become a pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, and one of the influential black theologians and workers for racial uplift in the time following Reconstruction, wrote a little book called Plain Theology for Plain People. It was his attempt to help a church membership who was slowly becoming more literate and therefore less dependent on interpretations of the Bible that had been influenced by white supremacy. At one point he describes the Holy Trinity a “happy, eternal, almighty, and glorious companionship!” That is, God contains within God’s self a community, even without us. The Creator’s love has spilled out into the world so that we all may be fruitful and multiply. That redeeming love has been lavished on the world with such force that it brings life out of death, and joy out of suffering. That love which can make all of us holy has been poured out with such grace that everyone will be part of that happy and glorious companionship.

In one of our new members’ classes a couple of years ago, one man shared that he had grown up in a small town in a northern state where almost everyone was the same race. As a child and a youth he had come to be proud and thankful that he had been created a white male because things seemed so easy for him and people like him. No one had intentionally taught him this; it was just a mindset that he developed over course of his childhood that was reinforced by what little he saw from the rest of the world. Then this man shared that when he left the town and began to have more life experiences, enter the military, travel the country, he met many of the kinds of people he used to be thankful he wasn’t—people of different races, different ethnic backgrounds, different economic levels—and he shared that he found them actually to be wonderful people. Friends. He said his feelings about his own worth didn’t change, but that God opened his eyes to the worth of others. He had to die a little to do so, had to give up some of his former viewpoints, let go of some safe feelings of superiority, but that seeing the beauty of the whole world and the value of its people was totally worth it.

This is an unbelievably kind and thoughtful man, and I was so thankful he shared that with us. I’m thankful because I think he was a wonderful example of the “What Now?” of faith and the “What now?” that the Triune God pushes us toward.

It seems we’ve got a lot of “What nows?” to answer, I believe. What now, people of Richmond, that you’ve been claimed by this great God who himself is a community of three in On who has invited you into his companionship? What now as we learn that God has given us the ability to explore and create the way the Father does?  What now as we wake up to our mission to love and forgive the way the Son does? What now as we grow in life and holiness the way the Spirit nudges us to?

And, most of all, what now?—as we remember that above all of the wild and tumultuous world, the building and the toppling of monuments to men and women until the end of the age, stands the authority of Jesus, crucified and risen, the authority of compassion and mercy and grace? What now? God made us just a little less than divine. Will the Trinity be glorified?

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you.


The Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, VA, on June 5, 2020
photo by Jessica Hendricks

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.