Boiling It Down

a sermon for Reformation Sunday

Matthew 22:34-46

Every year at about this time my family gets a bunch of apples and Melinda and the kids use them to make homemade apple sauce. Sometimes we go out to an orchard and pick them, but sometimes we just get some bags from the store. To make the apple sauce, Melinda removes all the skin and the core and then places them into a big pot on the stove with some water. I’m not actually certain about her whole process because I basically show up to partake of the final product, but I know it makes the house smell so good and it’s a fun activity for the whole family.

What always amazes me, though, is how many apples it takes to make one small batch of apple sauce. Melinda says that it’s not even worth it unless she has at least two dozen apples. That’s about 8 or 9 pounds of apples, depending on how large your apples are. The process of boiling down those apples is key. As they go in the pot and are heated up, the sauce starts to form. Boiling it all down makes it so rich and apple-y and helps it get that creamy texture which is so delicious. What you end up with is basically the pure essence of the apples.

This morning we hear Jesus boil it down for the Pharisees. They come to him one more time with a question that is a veiled attempt to test him on his knowledge of Jewish law. “Which commandment is the greatest?” they ask him. It’s a way of saying which commandment is the most important, which is the one that really needs to be followed most of all?

Jesus doesn’t just choose one as his answer. He manages to boil it all down for us—all the law of Moses and the words of the prophets, all the commandments that God has given God’s people, all the statutes and ordinances that the religious leaders hold dear can essentially be put in a pot and boiled down to love. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And, he quickly adds, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Religious scholars say that at the time of Jesus the law codes of the Jewish faith consisted of 613 different commandments, all covering a wide variety of subjects regarding morals and ethics and cases one might encounter in daily life. As you can imagine, it had become very complicated to follow all of them, to dot all your I’s and cross your Ts and make sure in each and every scenario you were obeying the law. And when it was thought that your ability or inability to follow God’s law was connected to God’s love of you, then the pressure is on, right?

In a way, we can’t fault the Pharisees for the thrust of their question. It is easy for religion to get barnacled over with a lot of extra provisos and conditions, like hauling around a whole heavy sack of apples when all you want is a bowl of the delicious, smooth sauce. For Jesus, as he responds to the Pharisees, the essence of it all is love. What’s more, Jesus says all the law and prophets hang on those two commandments. That is, everything in God’s word intends in some way to point to establishing and maintaining this relationship of love that God has for God’s people and that God’s people reflect back to God.

The command to love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind was undoubtedly something most rabbis in those times would have settled on as the greatest. When Jesus relates that love with love of neighbor, essentially linking them as one unit, he says something new. The bond of love between God and us is not all that different from our love of each other. In fact, the two cannot be separated. We can’t read God’s Word and come away with the impression that we can love God like crazy and treat our fellow human beings like trash. That is the essence of it all.

As it happens, Martin Luther found himself having to boil things down for the medieval church. Things had gotten rather complicated then, too, when it came to life before God. So much about faith had gotten convoluted, at least as it appeared to Luther and many of his contemporaries. He himself had struggled as a young monk with trying to follow all of the ritual guidelines and purity codes, keeping himself clean from impure thoughts and incorrect actions. It tore him up inside, because he was constantly worrying whether or not he was following all of the church’s rules and restrictions in order to receive the life that God promises in Jesus.

Along came a man named Johannes Tetzel in around 1517, an official of the church in Rome. Tetzel was selling indulgences, which were basically pieces of paper that guaranteed, for a certain price, the purchaser would get into heaven quicker. This was confusing lots of people and misleading them in their faith. Luther had had enough and decided it was high time to boil things down. That is one way to think of reformation and the act of reforming something. Boil it back down to its essence and, if necessary, get rid of the stuff that doesn’t matter, the peel, the seeds, and whatever else.

For Luther, the essence of Christian faith is grace. The core nature of God is unconditional love. At the core of God’s being is a desire to set us free from the sin that holds us back without requiring anything from us beforehand. This is why Jesus goes to the cross. He goes to lay his life down purely out of his love of God and love of us. We do nothing to deserve his sacrifice, and it is pointless to think we can do anything to earn it or purchase it or hoard it. When we boil it all down—all the thoughts and statements about what God is like and who God is—you get the cross, the forgiveness of sins, the compassion of sacrifice. We simply receive it. All the things that the church does and all the beliefs and doctrines that the church holds should and must proclaim that.

Martin Luther was willing to say that some things that the church was doing and saying, like the selling of these indulgences, had to go. They no longer upheld that notion that God was gracious. They didn’t fit into that essence that the gift of love in Jesus Christ—the love that involves all his heart and soul and mind to redeem us from sin—comes with no strings attached.

We can’t deny that there has been something very reforming about life over the past eight months.  Living during a pandemic entails a constant boiling down of everything, and it goes way beyond making apple sauce. My family and I are constantly thinking about what is really necessary for us to do, where are the essential places we need to go, and what are the essentials for us to have. Toilet paper, as it turns out, is high on that list.

The debates in society are at a boiling point over these matters too—we’re still arguing over essential businesses and what kinds of behavior we should be able to expect from one another at a minimum. I think many of us can say that although we’re ready for all of this to be behind us, we’re also undergoing many reformations. We’re learning what we really need to survive and what kinds of things are important, what we’re willing to sacrifice for.

Life in the church has been no different. Last I checked no one has gone around nailing 95 Theses to our doors, but we have had many conversations on staff and with groups in the congregation regarding what are we really about right now. We can’t get together like usual.  We can’t sing, which is particular difficult for Lutherans. What kinds of things should the church be doing in a pandemic that clearly communicate God’s grace and love?

Thanksgiving donations in a previous year

A lot of things have fallen by the wayside, at least for the time-being, but what I’m seeing is giving me great hope. This congregation has not stopped loving the neighbor. We have undertaken food drives, blood drives, and drives for household products. People are finding ways to bring in supplies for the quilting group and kits for Lutheran World Relief. We continue to house some community groups that need meeting space, and last month we opened up our parking lot to the Richmond Symphony Chorus so that they could practice in a socially-distanced format.

Our on-line presence has been a huge blessing, both for me and for many others, and we’ve found, like many other churches have, that people are eager to experiecne God’s Word through Facebook or Instagram or YouTube. The other staff and I have had conversations with and received contributions from people we’ve never personally met but who feel a part of our community because of our on-line ministries. And although we sometimes find it a chore to implement safety standards, we are encouraged by the fact there are many people who value gathering for worship in the sanctuary together. We’ve even added in a children’s sermon on Sundays now at our in-person worship because several children have been attending each week.

And people are craving the sacraments. We’ve had just as many baptisms this year as we ever do, if not more, And multiple parents have emailed me wondering how they we can arrange first communion for their children. These are essential things.

I’m not sure how this season will affect the church’s message and ministry long-term. The fact of the matter is we’re probably not even through it yet. Things may be very different on the other side. But I do know that in my life I don’t think there’s ever been a time when the words of the final verse of Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” have had such deep meaning. The other night when the Bargers and I gathered to record it for this worship service, And I thought of the trials of COVID-19 and the millions who’ve been affected and those who’ve lost loved ones, and the struggles of loneliness we’ve all had because of the shutdown, I felt the Holy Spirit was hurling our words out into an empty sanctuary and darkened world with the force of a choir of multitudes. It as is if we were saying “Hear this, O world, you stupid virus. This is the essence of Christ for us, boiled down:

‘God’s Word forever shall abide,
No thanks to foes who fear it.
For God himself fights by our side
With weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse,
Though life be wrenched away.
They cannot win the day.
The kingdom’s ours. Forever.’”

How ‘bout them apples?

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Dr. Luke’s Prescription for the Ages

a sermon for St. Luke, Evangelist

Luke 1:1-4; 24:44-53

We don’t know a whole lot about the people who first followed Jesus and the companions of the apostle Paul. They had stories, of course, very interesting lives, but in most cases we only have their names—names like Thaddeus, Judas son of James, Euodia, Clement—and that is all. But every once in a while Scripture gives us a little extra bit of information. We know, for example, that Jesus calls some disciples who used to be fishermen to follow him. He also calls a tax collector named Levi or Matthew, depending on which gospel you are reading. Lydia, one of the early Christians in the book of Acts, is a dealer in purple cloth. She is affluent and has some influence in her community.

When we add all of these little precious nuggets of information together, we soon get the picture that Jesus and the first Christians were a remarkably diverse group of people. They don’t all come from one class of people or from within one profession. Jesus appeals to all. Throughout the wide and fractured ancient world, the Holy Spirit was bringing together all kinds of different people and in that gathering God saw to include at least one physician, Luke. We know that Luke wasn’t one of the original twelve disciples, and he wasn’t even in the larger group of followers. He claims that he was not an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry, But Luke did travel with Paul, and he felt compelled to leave us with a powerful and detailed version of the events of Jesus’ life, which he follows up with a wonderful and exciting version of the early church’s life, named Acts of the Apostles.

the traditional symbol for Luke’s gospel is an ox (from references in Ezekiel and Revelation), an animal that represents sacrifice, service, and strength, themes present in Luke’s gospel.

We don’t know very much about what physicians were like in the time of Paul and Jesus. We know they didn’t carry around stethoscopes because those weren’t invented until 1816. They probably didn’t live soap opera Grey’s Anatomy lives. Hospitals, in fact, weren’t really even invented until around the fourth century by Basil of Caesarea when Christianity became mainstream. And although doctors may not have been quoted daily in the news like Anthony Fauci, we can assume that people came to physicians when they felt ill and needed healing. These were people with the knowledge and education to make careful observations about people’s health and diet and mostly likely give out medicines. We can see some evidence of that in the introduction to the gospel that bears Luke’s name. Like others he wants to give an orderly account of what he’s heard and learned about Jesus, but Luke adds that he has investigated everything carefully from the very first.

Don’t we still want doctors and therapists and nurses like that? Don’t we still expect pharmacists and other medical professionals to investigate things carefully, starting at the beginning? This is how Luke approaches his evangelism, his telling of Jesus’ story. He has been moved by Jesus’ death and resurrection and now wants to put it down for his readers. As it happens, Luke’s gospel is written with some of the most sophisticated Greek in the Bible, pointing to the fact that he was probably fairly educated. This is serious, life-changing stuff. It demands to be communicated with precision and taken seriously.

And thank God Luke did, because Luke’s gospel includes some of the stories and sayings of Jesus we probably can’t imagine Christian faith without. The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. Could you imagine our faith without those characters and those parables? They are only recorded in Luke’s gospel. Without Luke’s orderly account neither would we have the story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus, or know about the time Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree to see Jesus and wound up having Jesus for dinner in his home.

And because Luke clearly investigates everything careful from the very first, we have the stories of Jesus in the manger, and Bethlehem, and the shepherds’ visit, and the angels praising “Glory to God in the highest!” Luke also contains the forceful song Mary sings when she finds out she will be giving birth to the Son of God—a song that declares that God brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly. And Luke is the one gospel writer who remembers that, as he hangs dying, Jesus looks on the people crucifying him and says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke highlights the ministry and voices of women more than any other gospel and has a definite emphasis on social justice and the needs of those on the margins.

To a person whose vocation would have been related to healing and wholeness, maybe the story of Jesus feels like a diagnosis and a prescription. Maybe Luke is drawn to tell us this story because he hears in it an honest assessment of human nature. We are lost.  We are lonely. The world often treats us as lowly. We are like the child who has wandered far from their father’s home and can’t imagine how they’ll be able to return. We are like the tax collector who is despised and misunderstood by society who just wants a glimpse of a man who receives all kinds. We are like the lawyer who rises to ask “who exactly is my neighbor?” so that we can figure out who deserves our kindness and charity and forget about the others. We are like the young pregnant woman who is in danger of being labelled forever but who still carries within her very being the promise of God. In carefully investigating Jesus Luke has also carefully investigated us.

And Luke also sees a prescription, for God seeks out the lost, God cares for the least, and God lifts up the lowly. Time and time again, Jesus crosses boundaries of human making, Jesus disrupts traditional religious codes, Jesus reclarifies how God comes among us in love.

There are so many ways to experience healing. So often we focus on just the physical side of it—that which can be addressed with a First Aid kit or MRI—but the gospel of Jesus shows us that healing comes in so many ways: Being included in a group after years of being ostracized or overlooked. Learning the truth about something that confused us. Achieving equality and having a playing field leveled. Being heard. Persevering through suffering. Allowing the stages of grief to unfold as they come. Experiencing empathy from someone. Jesus brings all of these to you and to me and to each person of the earth, and through each way God makes his creation whole again.

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” (Pompeo Batoni, 1773)

They are all in some way a part of the greatest healing force Jesus brings, which is the forgiveness of sins through his name. The power of forgiveness and reconciliation to transform human community and open up new paths of life has no equal. Jesus is killed in an unspeakable act of cruelty. He becomes lost, least, and lowly himself on the cross. But his resurrection assures that even that kind of brokenness can be healed by God. Even that kind of brutality and violence can be overturned by love and grace. “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Luke is a physician of the Great Physician, and he’s still writing a prescription the world desperately needs. When I see our church parking lot, as I did this Thursday, lined up with cars of people waiting to be tested for COVID, I know our world is feeling anxiety. When I speak with a son of a member in our congregation who is concerned about his parent’s isolation and loneliness in the nursing home, I know there is a longing for community and personal purpose. When we hear that teenage suicides are at an all-time high, even before the pandemic outbreak, we sense a culture among our youth that is abused and confused. When discussions about politics are more divided than they ever have been, we know that common ground and compromise would bring relief and growth. The story that Luke tells, the life that Jesus lives for us, has some good news to say about each of these situations.

A recent article in The Christian Century talks about how we are living now in an “environment of widespread and collective trauma…Whether it is due to the pandemic, the social unrest, or the election tension, or all of the above, people are experiencing a disruption in their fundamental sense of safety and questioning assumptions they previously held,” with no seeming end in sight.[1] The author suggests several ways to address it. Her last point is the most compelling to me. “Christians,” she says, “have some practice in waiting for a far-off resolution].” Because we have heard the news that the end of all things is ultimately in the hands of a loving and healing God who has already raised Jesus from the dead, we have learned wait in hope with one another, to know things take time. We can tell our story, persist through the grief, reach out to the person left for dead by the side of the road. As it happens, it is Dr. Luke’s prescription for a world lost in its own brokenness. Stay the course. Be clothed with power from on high.

I don’t know about you, but I often don’t get my prescriptions filled. I feel a bit ashamed admitting that in front of all these doctors and nurses on here today, but sometimes I come home and start feeling, I can do this on my own. I don’t need the medicine. The drawer in my bathroom vanity has more than one old doctors note that has gone unheeded. This is one prescription we fill and we take and we share with others. When Jesus gathers his disciples together at the end of his ministry, just before he ascends to his Father in heaven, he says: proclaim repentance and forgiveness in Jesus name to all peoples. “You,” he says, “are witnesses of these things.” So, go and heal. Go and forgive. Go and tell. Go and be a blessing.

Sounds like we’ve all been made doctors of the gospel, too.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “We’re All Traumatized Now,” in The Christian Century. Danielle Tumminio Hansen. October 7, 2020.

Quite the Love Song

a sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22A/Lectionary 27]

Matthew 21:33-46 and Isaiah 5:1-17

Let me sing for my beloved congregation a love song concerning my daughters’ carrot garden. My middle school daughters had a carrot garden in a four-by-four plot of our backyard this year. They themselves mixed the soil with manure and tilled it, they chose the packets of carrots from the hardware store rack and planted them in April.

They did not build a watchtower in the midst of it, but they did watch over those little tufts of green furry leaves like hawks and when their dad tried a time or two to pull one up for a taste test he was rebuked and scolded multiple times and told to stay far away from the carrot garden, Daddy, and tend to your own flower garden over there!

me singing the love song of the carrot garden

The daughters expected their carrot patch to yield dozens of plump, succulent carrots but instead it yielded, in most cases, barely visible micro carrots, too small really to do much with. What more could they have done for their carrot garden, after weeding and watering in the dry weeks of July? They expected it to yield thick, substantial carrots. Why did it yield little shrimpy carrots? Probably the soil quality and the lack of sunshine, but it was still determined to be dad’s fault anyway for messing too much with them and trying to dig them up to early.

Such is the lament of the prophet Isaiah, except it’s not a carrot garden, but a vineyard. Isaiah looks out at God’s people and sees none of the fruit that God expected God would see. Who is to blame? What is to blame? Even with all the effort of a watchtower to keep lookout for predators and poachers, even with soil cleared of menacing stones, God got nothing like he imagined. God planted and tended justice among his people, things like concern for the poor and peacefulness and harmony but instead they gave him bloodshed and discord.

How many of us have known this song? How many of us have labored and labored on the lives of our own children, or our work colleagues, or our friendships, or our marriages, our communities, within the gardens of our own hearts, only to have things turn out unpleasant and disappointing?

As it turns out, God feels that, too, with his people ancient Israel. It may be a sad song, a sad feeling, but it is sung in a song of love. It is a song of truest love—love that keeps at it, love that thinks of everything it can do to save things…and does all of that and more. It is a never-tiring love that is rooted in the very heart of God, who has created these wayward people and redeemed these wayward people and brought them out of slavery and made them his prized possession.

It is this song and this never-tiring love that Jesus tries to explain to the Pharisees and chief priests as he faces off with them in the Temple in Jerusalem. Borrowing from this love song from Isaiah about the vineyard, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who plants a vineyard and does all the things. Fence, watchtower, wine press in the middle of it. It is deluxe. It’s doing so well, supposedly, that he lets some tenants come in to manage the grape-growing process.  But when the time comes for the landowner to get some of the fruit he’s planted, the tenants turn ugly. They kill the first set of slaves he sends to receive the produce, so he gets nothing. So he sends another group of slaves, and they, too, get executed by these tenants.

Eventually the landowner just decides to send his own son. In those days, sending a son, provided you had one, was essentially just like going yourself. Today it just as well could be a daughter. The child doesn’t just stand in place of the parent but is seen as a real extension of that parent and that parent’s authority. This really makes no difference to the tenants. They see taking the son as a way of claiming ownership of the vineyard. Then it will be their vineyard! They throw him out and kill him. Who is to blame for all this bloodshed and injustice, for not giving the landowner the fruit of the vineyard he deserves? Clearly it is these wicked tenants!

Some love story, huh? Jesus, though, is reaching the end of his road. He is doing all he can to explain and show that God’s kingdom is built on things like love of neighbor, and that God’s righteousness is not known by how well you follow all the religious rules but by how compassion rules your faith. But no matter how much he talks about and displays this compassion the religious authorities feel threatened and angry. By the end of his parable, they realize it is really a story about them and about how they are eventually going to reject Jesus and have him arrested.

Yet for all the violence there is love here, for the landowner is not willing to hold back anything to tend to his vineyard and gather the harvest he desires. But more interesting than that is that Jesus doesn’t seem to want to make this love song about blame, about who is going to get what they deserve. At the end of the parable he asks his listeners a question: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They respond that those wretches will be put to a miserable death. But Jesus does not affirm that. God will not respond to all this tragedy by killing anyone. In fact, it seems that the son’s death puts an end to this cycle of violence in the vineyard.

“The stone that the builders reject has become the cornerstone.”That is to say, Jesus, the son, will be arrested, thrown out of the garden and crucified, but God will raise him up to make him the foundation of a new creation—a new creation that we have faith will bring justice and righteousness and beauty and mercy to all people everywhere. This song tells of a love so strong and so deep and so true that it can look the most awful death and tragedy right in the eye and still be triumphant. This love is so pure and so powerful that it can venture into our violent and corrupted world and redeem it and make all things new. God never holds back in loving us.

This is the love that brought us out of the waters of baptism, that has cleansed us of our sin and granted us freedom in the Spirit to love and serve our neighbor. And now we are those who tend the vineyard of God’s kingdom. We are the tenants who work the fields and do what we can to make sure that the good things of God’s harvest come to fruition in the world around us.

Last Sunday in this very location we saw five young tenants of God’s vineyard publicly profess their own faith by affirming their own baptism. Doing anything publicly in these times is challenging. For seven months we have been isolated and to varying degrees shut down. But these young men and women of our congregation—Riley, Ryan, Matthew, Joe, and Cole—had completed confirmation classes last spring and wanted to find a way to make their confirmation happen. Rather than staging the confirmation indoors, they opted for something outdoors. We ended up, as you will see, holding the ceremony right in front of our giant cross, each of them facing in the direction of Monument Avenue as they say the Apostles’ Creed and ask God to help them and guide them in their faith.

We knew it was a bit of a risk to hold the confirmation service right there because, as you probably know, Horsepen Road and Monument Avenue can be rather noisy. We weren’t sure how clear our audio would be and if it might get overpowered by something loud that drove by. There is a point, as if on cue, where someone paying really loud rap music descends on the intersection right as we are praying for the Holy Spirit to be present in their lives. (Bonus points if anyone can tell me what the name of the song was). In any case, we took any interruption and any noise around us as a blessing and a call.

Where does God give us faith to practice but in the world, in the midst of the sirens and shouts and songs of humankind? Where does God ask us to tend to the fruits of his vineyard but in the everyday lives of people and communities around us? Where else does God send us as his servants, often into situations where we’ll lay down our lives, lay down our agendas, lay down our privileges, but the harvest that is literally all around us?

This was part of Francis of Assisi’s story. Son of a very wealthy and powerful businessman, Francis originally thought of becoming a knight. But after some experiences with God Francis felt drawn toward a life of faith and service to the others through the church. This caused friction with his family, and he was rejected. In one dramatic point, brought before a bishop’s court by his father and accused of squandering money, Francis renounced worldly wealth by stripping off all his clothes and giving them back to his father. From that point on he took on a vow of poverty, becoming a Christlike ambassador of kindness and service and charity for thousands of communities across the world.

“Scenes from the life of St. Francis” (Benozzo Gozzoli)

As we pray again for those young people today, let us add in that their lives will continue to be built on nothing other than Christ the cornerstone that was rejected. It is on Christlike compassion that the arrogant and prideful ways of the world will ultimately fall and be broken to pieces. It is the grace and mercy of Jesus that will crush the hurtful and hateful hearts we often bear.

As we pray for them let us also then recall our own part in the love song that God sings. Let us pray that God make us good tenants who give thanks and praise in all our days for a God who holds nothing back to make his kingdom’s heirs bountiful and beautiful again. And let us pray for a field of fruit in us that is exactly what our vineyard owner wants to see.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.