The Way Jesus Goes

a sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 17A/Lectionary 22]

Matthew 16:21-28

Have you ever had the experience of starting a story or a movie thinking that you know what it’s about as it starts only to find out as you keep watching that it’s not what you expected? Or have you ever heard a recommendation from a friend about a book or read the book jacket and make assumptions the plot will take a certain trajectory but then once you’re into it, it turns out to go in another direction?

These kinds of things seem to happen to me all the time, for some reason, and sometimes it’s an actual, physical trajectory. One time many years ago I was traveling abroad with a friend and we wound up in one town where we had reservations for the night but neither of us spoke the language there. Everything was a little disorienting, but we were well-worn travelers so we figured where we needed to go and jumped on the subway. Nothing was written in English and we couldn’t understand the subway commander, but we were pretty sure we had chosen the right one. SLowly, after several stops, and trying to match what we thought we were hearing on the microphone system to the strange words on the signs outside, it occurred to us both at the same time  that we were not on the correct train or line at all and we needed to disembark at the next station. Unfortunately we had only paid for a ticket in the direction we had initially taken, and we didn’t know if they’d let us back on the train going in the opposite direction. So we had to exit the whole system and re-board going in the correct direction, hopping over turnstiles and running up steps.

Well, that’s kind of what’s happening this morning with Peter and the other disciple as Jesus begins to show them he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering. They are realizing the subway they’re on is going in a totally different direction than what they thought when they got on. They are realizing the plot of the story they are in is quite a bit different from the jacket on the back. They assumed this was a Galilee uprising, one where the next Messiah, the next God-chosen leader, would drum up enough grassroots support to be swept into power and crush the authorities in Jerusalem.

But instead, Jesus is heading to Jerusalem on his own, and he is heading right into the hands of the people he would overthrow. He is not avoiding suffering and death. He is aware of it and accepting it. They assumed they had boarded a train bound for glory, but it is a train headed toward a cliff. In fact, it is bound for glory, but not in the typical ways the world pursues it or imagines it.

“Get behind me, Satan!”

We can hear Peter’s shock and disappointment as he tries to turn the train around. “God forbid it, Lord!” he bellows. “This must never happen to you!” But Jesus is determined. He is determined to overturn the powers of sin and death that plague God’s people by going straight into his crucifixion. And then Peter becomes the one who gets turned around. He goes from being called the Rock upon which the church shall be built to being the stumbling block of Jesus’ own mission.

The Greek word for stumbling block is “scandal.” We have seen some scandals in the news this week, and we can see how scandals trip people up—not just the people involved in them but all the people who look to a leader for guidance, counsel, and hope. Scandals make the way forward less clear, they chip away at clarity and vision. Peter’s insistence that Jesus not head to Jerusalem, that Jesus not accept this path of suffering and self-sacrifice immediately chips away at the clarity of God’s love and Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. Jesus does not need that kind of stumbling block in his way.

This is a critical moment in Matthew’s gospel. This is the point, quite literally, when Jesus leaves behind his Galilee home, the fishing and farming villages where he has made his name, and focuses on the seat of power in Jerusalem. But it is much more than a critical point in Matthew’s story. This is a crucial moment in understanding just who Jesus is. This is one of those moments where Peter and the gang and even the rest of us are going to have to decide whether we go ahead and finish the movie or read the book, whether we commit to the finishing point, even though it’s not turning out like we thought it would.

In his book Atheist Delusions, theologian David Bentley Hart explains that a suffering Son of God, a deity who dies, was a completely novel concept in the ancient world. I think two thousand years of Christian witness and singing about the cross has almost made the death of Jesus seem ordinary to us. We build churches and place crosses over the altar. We talk about his betrayal and death every time we gather for his holy meal. I hate to say it, but it almost feels old hat to us, but the idea that a divine power would stoop to this kind of self-giving was absolutely unheard of. Nowhere in the history of ancient religions and faiths, Hart says, was there anything like the path Jesus takes as a legitimate way of life, much less linked to God.

What we see in Jesus at this moment is a completely new and daring way to deal with the brokenness of the world. He’s not just going to patch things over with healings and new teachings. And he’s not going to enter Jerusalem and try to establish a benevolent regime through a people’s army or through pulling strings the right way, appointing the right allies, shoring up his defenses, and so on. Because no matter how well it might have turned out it would have just been a variation of all the other human ways that had already been tried. And ultimately it would have faded away until the next clever popular power came along. Jesus, rather, is going to try a divine way that involves handing himself over. Letting the suffering speak.

When we think about it, we realize the gift of Jesus is never old hat. The world still operates in the same old, self-proclaiming, violent, and hope-robbing ways. The cross of Jesus is still a new thing—always a new thing!—which is why in his call to his disciples he says they will take up a cross and follow. They will need to lose their life. This way of self-giving and unconditional loving happens now and it will always meet resistance. It meets resistance in ourselves, because we want an easier way that involves less pain. And it meets resistance from the world, because the world rewards self-promotion. To avoid being a stumbling block as this train moves forward, Jesus says to set our minds on divine things, not human things.

If you, like I, struggle to understand what that means, what setting my mind on divine things looks like, it helps to remember it actually means setting them on other humans; that is, serving them. We can see this pretty clearly if we look at Jesus’ life, but the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, gives us a wonderful list of diving things, one right after another.

As it turns out, setting our mind on divine things is not ultimately based in things like mindfulness or yoga or memorizing Scripture or contemplating nature’s beauty, as much as those things may help. It involves paying attention to our neighbor and our relationship with him. In the list that Paul gives the Romans about how to offer their bodies as living sacrifices to God in thanksgiving for Jesus’ love, there are very few that have a personal or private dimension. Almost every single one of them is about building and mending our relationships with others: Love one another with mutual affection. Contribute to the needs of the saints. Extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you. Weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice. Associate with the lowly.

When Jesus says we lose our lives to save it, it becomes clear that we are meant to lose ourselves at the feet of our neighbors. When Jesus talks about denying ourselves it’s not really some clever system of giving up this or that, but offering ourselves to the world’s service. When the Holy Spirit empowers us to do that, we truly gain our lives. They become full, full of life, full of meaning, full of grace.

Our quilting team was disheartened, like so many others, to learn that the explosion in Beirut last month destroyed shipping containers used by Lutheran World Relief. The containers that were lost held 22,000 quilts, 100 cartons of school kits, 300 cartons of personal care kits, and 150 cartons of baby care kits that were prepared for distribution to 24,550 men and women who were already in great need. That loss is staggering, but at the same time, it is a sign of countless people in our denomination who have denied themselves in service to the Lord. Think of all that work just out of love for neighbor! This week, you may like to know, thirty-three quilts made by our quilters just since July will make their way back into that supply chain to help cover the loss. That means they are stitching together quilts at a faster rate than they normally do.

In fact, even during this time of COVID shutdown, the quilters here have had to expand their ministry into new space at church, which has bumped elbows with the nursery school, which has expanded to create a program for virtual learning for school-age kids to get work done while parents are working. Our church has basically been empty for six months and we just finished a major renovation, and we’re still having to negotiate how to use space to service our neighbors because our ministries are going strong. Contribute to the needs of the saints, Paul says. Extend hospitality to strangers. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. In losing our lives to service, we gain them, and we continue with Jesus on the way to the cross.

For the truth is, my friends, Jesus has never questioned once whether he wants to be on the journey with us. Jesus has never looked at us and thought, as our lives take some crazy or dangerous turn, “You know, you’re not what I expected. I want off.” He never says that, never wants that. He is never scandalized so much by us that he leaves us behind. That’s the promise of our baptism. Never, ever is Jesus going to let us go.

And here’s the best part: the end is not the cross. The end is not the suffering, the end is never the denial and the self-sacrifice. This strange train goes through them, but it ends with resurrection. Its destination is glory in God’s loving presence forever and ever. It is victory and triumph and power and strength because Jesus rises on the third day. And there we find the story of glory ends much, much better than we ever could have imagined.

Thanks be to God.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Gates of Hades Don’t Stand a Chance

a sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 16A/Lectionary 21]

Matthew 16:13-20 and Isaiah 51:1-6

“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Those words of Jesus’, which we hear him speak to Peter this morning, may be the most important words for the church to hear at this time. The gates of Hades that Jesus is talking about was the gaping hole at the middle of the rock wall that the gleaming new city Caesarea Philippi was built on. Many people in Jesus’ time thought that it was the entrance to the underworld, the place from which evil and the powers of death emerged. There is no place like that underneath us or in the middle of the earth, but for many cultures and peoples, the Gates of Hades, or gates of hell as they are sometimes known, has become a metaphor for forces of destruction and darkness. It is a way of speaking about fearsome, unpredictable things that harm us and tear human community apart. When Jesus says it to Peter and his disciples, he means that there is nothing that will ultimately break his followers apart, nothing in the universe that will ever conquer and demolish the community that has been formed by the love of Jesus Christ, not even death.

The Gates of Hades in modern-day Israel

2020 certainly feels like something out of the Gates of Hades. The year began with some deaths in our congregation that took our breath away. Then the pandemic started. We thought would be a few weeks of shutdown. And now we are beginning our seventh month and there still is no end in sight. Looking back, there was something almost romantic about those first three or four weeks when we thought it would be short-lived. Baking bread. Writing letters long-hand. I don’t need to list for you the stress we are all under now—the effects on the economy and unemployment, mental health, the challenges of educating our children and college students. You can add to it the tumultuous social changes we are undergoing in this country, right in time for one of the most divisive election seasons this country has ever seen. And now two hurricanes are getting ready to hit the Gulf coast in one week. Don’t forget the murder hornets.

Human communities everywhere are dealing with unbelievable amounts of stress, and Jesus’ church is no different. The main things that tend to hold us together as our community are not available at this time. Group singing, kneeling at an altar together to receive Holy Communion, hugging and shaking hands, Sunday School crafts and youth group games—they are all on hold, and we’re feeling it.

Church growth consultant and expert Thom Rainer shared in a blog post this week he titles, “Five Ways Churches Will Have Changed One Year From Now,” that we can expect twenty percent of our members not to return, even after the pandemic is behind us. I don’t know how he arrives at that number, but it’s probably pretty realistic. Rainer also shares that more pastors will leave ministry altogether over the next twelve months than at any time in recent history. It’s just his prediction, of course, which means it may not come true, but he explains that most pastors and church leaders are receiving more negative comments and criticisms than usual at a time when face to face conversations, which is usually how conflict is best worked out, are not really possible.

Suffice it to say this is not my experience at Epiphany whatsoever. I think Pastor Joseph and Kevin and the rest of the staff would agree that we continue to feel so supported and loved and encouraged. But I think Rainer is likely correct about the church at large. I suspect many congregations will close or merge with others as a result of what we’re going through.

None of this mentions anything about those we may lose as a result of COVID-19 because they die. That is what truly brings us grief. To think of the people we have already lost and will yet lose during this pandemic is deeply saddening. We’ll never get to worship again with certain people this side of the resurrection, and the fact we can’t even gather to give thanks for their life in worship and song and prayer is like pouring salt in the wound. Funerals are some of the first Christian liturgies, and they’ve been taken away from us. As one bishop in our denomination said, it is like this coronavirus is designed specifically to damage the church. The Gates of Hades have been opened and hell is afoot.

at least 2020 has given us funny memes

But, Jesus says, we have a rock. Kind of like young King David standing off against enormous Goliath, we have a rock. It may seem insignificant, but it is a rock that will not falter, a foundation that cannot be shaken, a weapon of precision that brings down the terrors. Jesus looks at Peter, who has just confessed Jesus as God’s anointed Son for the first time, and says that the rock of faith will hold his followers together. Nothing that this world throws at us will be able to shake the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Nothing the church encounters will be able to overthrow the truth that God has come to live with God’s people and announce the forgiveness of sins and bring righteousness to the earth. There is no telling what life for us may look like once this exile of pandemic is over, but we know we will have a rock to rebuild on.

This morning Isaiah mentions a rock, too. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn,” the prophet says to a people who were worn down by life in Babylonian exile. “And to the quarry from which you were dug.” They knew they would eventually return to their homeland, but they couldn’t imagine it. In their despair and dejection and preoccupation with the desert around them they couldn’t envision it. They needed someone to remind them that there is rock—valuable, strong rock—there. And that they are made of the same rock as those daring and bold ancestors who were also called to live their faith into dangerous and uncertain times.

“Delivery of the Keys” Pietro Perugino (ca 1481)

The same is true for us. There is solid rock deep down inside this faith about Jesus that will anchor us and keep us steady. The church may not be able to gather in person as we like, but we have the internet to sustain some sort of contact. We may not be able to have Sunday School, but parents and grandparents can carve out time at home to teach Bible stories and read Scripture so that the faith is passed down. We may not be celebrate Holy Baptism and Holy Communion in the same communal, comfortable ways we used to, but the Holy Spirit has still provided us with opportunities to keep the water and the wine flowing, so to speak. These are just a few examples of how we know we’ve been called claimed by the Son of a Living God, not a lifeless or inanimate one.

But the greatest reason that we will survive this, and the thing that will prove that the gates of Hades won’t be victorious isn’t the internet and isn’t the creativity of the people of God. It is because the keys are in our pocket. We have been given the keys to the kingdom, which Jesus first imparted to Peter that day by Caesarea Philippi. Binding and loosing—the forgiveness of sins, the reconciliation of relationships in God’s name—that is what the forces of hell can do nothing about. They tried. They tried on the cross to stamp out a life given over to selflessness and grace. The forces of hell tried to silence the way of compassion and mercy. But they were not able to succeed. Healing people’s woes and forgiving people’s sins, bringing that which is broken apart back together again, is the heart of Jesus’ ministry and the foundation of God’s kingdom. In his crucifixion he brought heaven and earth together again, sinners and God together forever. This will never be taken away from us, and it is the foundation of everything the church is about. That is the rock from which we are hewn.

When we have the keys, the door is always open to us. Forgiveness and new life in Jesus’ name can be pronounced anywhere and at any time. And whenever that happens, well, there is the church, thriving and doing what it’s created to do. That’s what Jesus, the church best growth expert and consultant, knows.

Earlier this morning we witnessed the baptism of Spencer Wallace Jones, a child in our congregation who was born back before the pandemic began and whose baptism was originally scheduled for sometime in April. Then we rescheduled it for July. Then, finally, August. We were all set to perform the baptism outside where we’ve been holding our other pandemic baptisms, but it was raining like crazy, so we moved inside and everyone put on masks.

As you saw, all through the baptism Spencer’s two older siblings, Samantha and Wesley, kept running up to the baptismal font, then away from it, up the aisle, through the pews,  and then back to the font. Things like that typically don’t happen on a normal baptism on a Sunday morning here. Because we were recording, however, no one really wanted to say anything to the kids about it or redirect their attention because that could obviously get very awkward. So we just let them run to their hearts’ content. They were clearly having a good time. And it was perfect.

Once it was finished and we had stopped the filming, Spencer’s dad said, “You probably don’t want kids to get too used to running around in here.” And I said, “Oh it’s absolutely fine. The church hasn’t been this happy in six months!” And then he said, or maybe it was his wife, Megan, “Well, I suppose it is a sign that they are comfortable here in this place!”

Absolutely, I thought. Let them run all day, then. Let them reclaim this dark and dusty place for the kingdom with all their laughing and squealing and memories of Cherub choir and children’s sermons. Let them run through the pews for us, on our behalf, as we all run along the paths of forgiveness and righteousness we know as church, the rock that never falters. Let the walls resound with the silliness of children and the tenderness of parents along the shores of a baptismal day where a new creature is given the keys. Let them run and laugh. The Gates of Hades don’t stand a chance.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Canaanite Lives Matter

a sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15A/Lectionary 20]

Matthew 15:10-28 and Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

In this morning’s lesson to the crowds who are following him, Jesus talks about the sewage system and things that are unclean. Sounding a little bit like Captain Obvious teaching an elementary anatomy lesson, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” And so here I am at the sewage treatment facility of our city to see it (although I don’t want to get any closer than this front entrance). If I understand it correctly, and not to be too indelicate about it, all the stuff people put into their mouths in the city of Richmond eventually (ahem) ends up here. In fact, 75 million gallons of sewage and stormwater runoff is processed here each day.

I suppose this is a sewage selfie

I was curious about where this facility was located. They tend to be tucked out of the way, because, let’s be obvious, no one really wants these places in their backyard. I had to Google this place to find it, and I was somewhat surprised to discover that I’ve passed it dozens of times. Not too far away from the James River on the south side of downtown Richmond, the wastewater treatment facility is tucked down a road that has little else on it.

Yet every day, 75 million gallons of sewage and runoff water from Richmond goes through this plant, gets cleaned, and go right into the James River…fresh, I presume, as a daisy.

We live in an age of cleanliness, especially now. We live in the age of Purell and Clorox wipes, of operating room grade air filters in airplanes and hand sanitizer dispensers by every doorway. I haven’t ordered too many restaurant meals since the pandemic began, but in each establishment I’ve been in, there are now two little jars by the cash register: one labelled “clean pens” and the other labeled “used pens.” And when you sign your receipt, you pick up a clean pen out of the clean pen jar, use it, and then deposit it in the “used pens” jar. We know what “used” means. Just by touching that pen for ten seconds, you have rendered it unclean. And someone, presumably the serving staff, is ritually cleaning ballpoint pens now as part of their job and returning them to the clean pen jar.

It’s kind of ironic that Jesus says at one point this morning “that eating with unwashed hands does not defile a person.” Anthony Fauci would argue with that, I believe.

The point, of course, Jesus is trying to make is not really about public health. It is about the sources of the things that truly make us unclean, that make us foul and it’s not a pen. And it’s not our hands. It’s not even living near wastewater treatment plants.

Much like us during a pandemic, Jesus lived in a world where many people had become obsessed with this topic of being ritually clean or undefiled. For a large number of religiously-minded people, the world was sorted into jars of pens. There were certain things you could touch or certain activities you could do that you could do that could get you placed in the unclean jar. Many of these laws had some basis in the ancient Hebrews’ purity codes, some of which are found in our Old Testament. But some had been expanded on by religious authorities to such a degree that having a relationship with God seemed to come down to how pure you could keep yourself.

It was really about power. If you had the ability to avoid certain situations like particular sicknesses or body functions or keep yourself out of certain neighborhoods or professions, then you had an easier life. If you had the ability to declare who was clean and who was defiled then you had the ability to declare who was in and who was out. You had the authority to determine whose life or whose living situation was worth what. Some people, just based on things they could not control about their life, were considered to be permanently in the unclean jar. The Pharisees were law-enforcers, they had power, and in many cases when we encounter them in Scripture, they are overly concerned that Jesus and his followers abide by the clean and dirty jars.

Jesus basically tells his disciples not to worry about them in this regard. He seems to know already that trying to keep the whole world divided into neat jars of clean and dirty is going to be a pointless task leading nowhere. Jesus wants his followers to be aware of the things that originate from within us, the things that everyone, regardless of where they stand socially or racially or economically, is subject to. He names several of them, and they’re more or less based on the ten commandments—evil intentions, murder, lies, insults, misuse of sexual relationships and marriage. These things are inside of us and come out to defile ourselves and the world around us. They harm our relationships, they harm our communities, they harm the truth, they harm our faith. His point? Stop being obsessed about what might make you immoral if you touch it. Stop worrying about who might make you unclean if you hang out with them. Being sick or disabled doesn’t make you less-than. You know what—altogether stop dividing places and conditions and jobs and especially people into clean and dirty jars. How about that?

And then as if to show how serious this particular topic is, Jesus immediately ventures into Tyre and Sidon, a region outside of Jewish boundaries, a region filled with supposedly unclean people. It’s like he goes straight toward the neighborhood with the wastewater treatment plant. And the first person he encounters is a Canaanite woman. Racially she is an outsider to Jesus’ people. From a gender standpoint, she has much less power than a male and the fact that she confronts Jesus in public would have immediately drawn negative attention. Here is a person who is beyond the boundaries of clean who furthermore doesn’t seem to obey those boundaries.

She is in need. Her daughter is possessed by an evil spirit. Can you imagine? Can you imagine how desperate she must feel? Some dark force, some unnamed, hard to describe ailment is tormenting her child. All she must want is for that child to be well. And so she comes up to Jesus, who has ventured outside his familiar territory, and she sees her chance. She knows he could imagine, if he is of God. She comes up to Jesus, who clearly embodies more power than she does, and she asks for him to help.

And Jesus ignores her. His disciples ask if they can shoo her away. Eventually, after three attempts and even after being somewhat insulted by Jesus, after being told she is not of the right ethnic group, she reaches through to him. The crumbs of mercy are all she is after. She doesn’t want a full place at the table. She doesn’t want to barge in on the party. All she wants is some tiny word of mercy carelessly dropped from the feast. It will be enough.

It takes some monumental faith and persistence on her part, but Jesus eventually learns and then shows that Canaanite lives matter. After giving a lesson about systems of ritual cleanliness that have kept out certain people, Jesus demonstrates that Canaanite lives matter. Those who have been excluded from the tables of justice, those who have been systematically ignored and oppressed by rules and laws are people who matter to God. It’s not that all other Jewish lives don’t matter, or that this woman’s life is overall more special than others in Tyre and Sidon, but that those who have been disadvantaged need to hear in no uncertain terms that God’s mercy is for them, because they haven’t been hearing it or perceiving it from culture and religion. He says to her, “Woman, great is your faith!” He doesn’t mean other people don’t have great faith. But she does. And it’s worth saying it.

Why does Jesus take so long to come around to heeding this woman’s request? There have been books written about that. Perhaps Jesus was just off that day. Or perhaps Jesus himself was still learning what God was doing through him in a bold new way. Or perhaps Jesus was caught off guard by just how quickly the Spirit would take him into new territory and just how many boundaries would fall in his Father’s kingdom.

Whatever the case, Jesus is pointing us into our Tyre and Sidon now. Jesus is bringing to our feet and our doors and our streets people who have been judged and disadvantaged and left out of opportunities of prosperity solely because of their race or ethnicity. Can we bring ourselves to say and do things that say their lives matter?

WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 13: A black woman marches at the head of the group of members and allies of the LGBTQ community to the White House as part of the Pride and Black Lives Matter movements on June 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. The larger official Pride events have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic but people still showed up to lend their support for the Black Lives Matter movement following the deaths of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor by police. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Black Lives Matter is a social justice movement, for sure, with political goals and aspirations. As a phrase it can be confusing and divisive. People can decide on their own whether or not its official stances line up with their own. We do that kind of thing with political party platforms all the time. I’ve been doing my own struggling with it. Aside from being a social justice movement, it is a sentiment that communicates blessing and mercy and love to people who need to hear that, who deserve to. And Black Lives Matter communicates a truth that the speaker of it needs to hear, too.

We are people of a table, where all lives do truly matter. But when we come here to receive whatever crumbs are offered, we hear Jesus look at us and say “My body is given for you.” He doesn’t say, “This is my body, given for all lives.” Could you imagine if the pastor or person distributing communion said that to us as we came to the altar? She looks at you, hands you bread and in all seriousness says, “The body of Christ, shed for all lives.” No. The pastor breaks the bread and passes the cup and says, “This is my body given for YOU.” Because each of us needs to hear that. You and I need to know that on the cross Jesus has taken all the evil intentions, lies, insults, impurities of our hearts and sent them through his treatment plant of grace where we are made clean.

As we leave the table, then, people of faith can look at the Canaanite lives in our midst and say, “Yes, your lives matter. Your downtrodden lives matter. They are not unclean. They do not belong in the dirty jar. Ever.”

Samuel Wells, who serves as vicar of St. Martins in the Fields Church in London, tells the story of a time in his first congregation. When an 11-year-old boy began attending his church at the suggestion of his middle school teacher. The boy was clearly from rough circumstances, didn’t mix well with anyone and had some behavior issues that the congregation members struggled with. They took up money so the boy could attend a weekend prayer retreat and pretty soon Vicar Wells was hearing complaints about how rude he was, how greedy he was with food, how he bullied other kids. They had a meeting to decide what to do with him and, after a long discussion, decided they needed to be patient, as factors in his home life were working against him. He eventually found his feet and became more integrated with their community.

Nine months later at a special service he was baptized.  No one in his family came to support him. It was just the members of the small congregation. They had a custom at baptisms where members were invited to go around and share what it was they most valuved about the church. One said friendship. Someone else said acceptance. Wells reports that when it came time for the boy to speak, “his narrow, fixed frown broke, for once, into a smile, and he replied, ‘You didn’t throw me out after that weekend.’”

Thanks be to God who makes a house of prayer for all peoples, who gathers people to him besides those already gathered, who receives the Canaanite, the ruffian, the one from the neighborhood no one wants to live in.  Thanks be to God who doesn’t just say, blandly, that all lives matter, but who shows, on the cross, that each individual life matters, and shows it in a way that is personal, honest, and pointed directly at the people who are one the margins.

Thanks be to God for not throwing anyone out.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.