God in the Ditch

A sermon for Palm Sunday [Year B]

Mark 11:1-11

Several years ago I pulled up at the gym to find a brand new, top of the line, shining and sparkling Cadillac CTX-V. The gym I go to is on a back road, has a gravel parking lot, and is never crowded, so the car stood out immediately. I had a never seen a car like that. The Cadillac CTX-V is the most expensive Cadillac you can buy. This one was white with gold metal trim and tires that looked like they hadn’t been driven 25 miles. The person driving the car was inside the gym working out. I had never seen the guy there before, and, as I quickly discerned from the loud conversations he was having, he was not the owner of the car but someone who was borrowing the car from an affluent friend. As I suspected, it was brand new, and he had stopped in basically just to show it off, hoping to get some attention.

After a few minutes the man got his things and left, but then I noticed something was going on, a little commotion. The few other people in the gym ran to the window to see what was up, but no one was brave enough to go outside. Apparently, as he tried to drive the parking lot, the young man with the extremely sweet, expensive ride had misjudged the road and the driveway completely. There was that $110,000 car, nose-first in the ditch. He couldn’t have been going more than 5 miles per hour! But he had wrecked it so badly that the back end and wheels were off the ground, sticking up in the air. He was pacing around and running his hands through his hair nervously, waiting for a tow truck to arrive. I wanted to offer pastoral care, but decided better of it. He needed to be alone. I just kept thinking about what that conversation was going to be like with the owner of that brand new car. There was a good chance it had been totaled.

not a photo of the actual event, but close!

Jesus makes his entry into Jerusalem on a borrowed vehicle, turning heads, and by the end of the week, his whole life is in the ditch. It is a catastrophe of monumental proportions. Of course, the vehicle Jesus borrows is not a top-of-the-line, fully tricked out model. It is a humble colt, which was most likely a young donkey, small but sturdy, a beast of burden used to carry farm produce or building materials. But regardless of what the animal was, that is the plot of Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Jesus rides into town with the attention of everyone, making a buzz, but before you know it, he is deserted and everyone’s embarrassed. It looks as if God has handed the keys to a guy who clearly doesn’t know where the road is.

The crowd that meets Jesus on the day he enters Jerusalem on the back of that donkey to shouts of “Hosanna!” was probably the most public event in Jesus’ entire life. Jerusalem was the capital and most holy city for the Jewish way of life and although it was not nearly the largest city of the Roman Empire, it was a major crossroads for the region and strategically-speaking it was an important military post. And that was just Jerusalem on any old day. When Jesus comes into the city, it’s time for the biggest Jewish holiday, Passover, to start. Tens of thousands of extra people would have been there. There was also an old rabbinical tradition that appointed the weekend before Passover as the time when all the lambs were brought in to the city from the surrounding farmlands to be readied for slaughter.

“Jerusalem” (Hyppolite Flandrin, 1842)

There are several places in Scripture where Jesus is surrounded by large crowds, but it’s probably a safe bet to say that more people see him on this day of his life than on any other. This looks like and feels like Jesus’ moment. The people are excited and anticipating a lot from him. The things they say about him and to him make that even more obvious. Things like “Hosanna!” which is an old Hebrew or Aramaic word that means “Save us,” or “Rescue us!” or “Save now!” They expect Jesus to do something in Jerusalem in those days that will save them. They also call out for the kingdom of their ancestor David. David was the ancient King who had, at least in their memory, issued in a reign of prosperity and stability that they had long wanted to have again. All of these expectations are foisted onto Jesus on that little tiny donkey. With every wave of the leafy branches they had cut down to greet him, they let him know they are ready for rescue and they are ready for stability for dignity, for victory. Wouldn’t you be?

Palm Sunday is a good time for us to address our own expectations of Jesus and of the God who sends him. Who do we really expect him to be? What exactly do we expect him to do? Where exactly do we want things to end up? Do we want a Lord who aligns with or validates all our political agendas, whatever they may be? Hold up the status quo? I don’t know about you, but I like that kind of Lord, one who doesn’t really challenge me on anything. Do we anticipate a Savior who will remove from us everything that’s uncomfortable or hard? Are we expecting a Redeemer who will just pep talk us through life, like a personal coach? I think there are any number of ways that we still project onto Jesus our definitions of what he needs to be and what Jesus needs to do, and, truth be known, those are the things that end up in the ditch by the end of the week.

And that is good for us. It is good for us, even though it is disappointing, and it is bloody, because none of those Saviors and Jesus’ are eventually going to do us any real good. We need a love and mercy that we don’t expect, a compassion and a forgiveness that we haven’t predicted or earned. We need grace, not a governor. Not a genie.

I think this has been a year of managing and readjusting all kinds of expectations. We have repeatedly had our hopes lifted only to have them dashed to the ground a little while later, whether we’re talking pandemic, politics, or personal goals. We have struggled with expectations for school, with what we can accomplish through learning and teaching on-line, with what worship can be like and when. We have struggled with expectations in our politicians and other leaders who are no more experienced in navigating a crisis like this than anyone else. We’ve had failed expectations with our pastors and our congregations who are not bold enough with returning to in person worship or, on the other hand, who are not strict enough with the guidelines. Even as our vaccination rates climb, we are hearing about dangerous new coronavirus variants that threaten to keep us in lockdowns longer.

I came across an article in the Associated Press this week[1] that addressed the growing sense among us all that even the pandemic will not come to an end like we have long thought it will. It stated that we are a people who have been fed a long and steady diet of Hollywood endings where we subconsciously expect every period of hardship to be somehow be turned around by the end with a wonderful, clear outcome. Many of us have just assumed, maybe without even realizing it, that there will be a point in time in the future when everything just suddenly resumes, when we take off that mask for the last time. But that may not happen with this pandemic at all. The writer of the article likened it to the end of a war where the end drags on and on, skirmishes popping up here and here, but eventually people look about and say, maybe much, much later, “We’re safe now. It’s time to celebrate.” I don’t know about you, but I find the constant up and down of failed expectations to be exhausting.

Palm Sunday comes along to remind us this year that God knows all about failed expectations. His Son ends up dying because no one wants the kind of love and the kind of mercy that he offers, but he offers it anyway. Our celebration of this day is a perfect opportunity to remember that God rides into every human story. God chooses to empty himself and ride into every human story, even when we don’t know how it’s going to turn out or when it will feel like it’s over. That is the kind of love and mercy God comes with, the kind of love he borrows a humble beast of burden in order to bring.  He comes to carry us, to carry the sorrows of the world, to carry the sufferings and shortfalls of everyone who cries out for rescue from some other kind of savior, one who will fight and just violently overthrow what we don’t like. For his is a kingdom where glory to God is first and most clearly given in actions of compassion and self-sacrifice. Coming in the name of the Lord means doing things in humility and servanthood.

Palm Sunday comes in 2021 to recall our thoughts to our own place in that crowd and take stock of just who we expect this God to be for us. And then, with a morning on next week’s horizon that will surpass all our imaginations, shout out with joy and thanksgiving to learn that God is present when things don’t pan out like we thought. God is not just a God of Hollywood endings. God is God also of things that run into the ditch. God is mainly God of things—and years, and plans, and lives—that sometimes run into the ditch.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] https://apnews.com/article/americans-coronavirus-ending-e311cadbb86f7165e7d21498548c1768

“Dangers, Toils, and Snares”: a Year of Pandemic

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent [Year B]

Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21

It has been one year since the novel coronavirus COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and life as everyone knew it changed. It’s been a year of worshiping on-line, learning how to live-stream, hook up microphones to our smartphones, and upload videos to YouTube and Facebook. One member sent me a couple of photos from a year ago this weekend that showed a group of us crowded into the new parlor holding worship on Instagram Live and Facebook Live around the makeshift studio altar we had thrown together. We weren’t even wearing face masks back at that point because we weren’t even sure how this virus really spread. Little did we know that Joseph’s and my televangelist careers would begin that day. I don’t know how he feels, and please don’t take this personally, but I’m ready to have my televangelist career come to an end. The blooper reel alone from this past year provides enough comedy and blackmail material to bankroll a capital campaign.

This week one colleague of mine posted on Facebook the following question: “If you could go back in time one year from right now, what would you tell yourself?” I was amused at some of the answers people gave. Several people said they tell themselves to buy stock in Zoom. One person said, “Move to New Zealand right now.” Another said, “Get a massage. You won’t be touched for a year.” Poignantly, one person said, “Go visit grandma in the nursing home.” What would tell yourself as you launch into a process of lockdown measures that dragged on longer than most of us expected?  What would you tell yourself knowing now that a year of all kinds of tumultuous social changes would occur and the political divisiveness would get worse?

I can think of several things that might have bolstered me through all that would come, but I try as I may I can’t come up with anything better than the third verse of the hymn we just sang, which, ironically, is not even one of my favorites:

“Through many dangers, toils, and snares we have already come;
’tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.”

It is God’s grace that has allowed us to continue to have a congregational life together without really being able to be together as a congregation. It is God’s grace that sent us numerous people who had the right skills to guide us through this time—those with computer and technology skills, those with creative ideas and energy, those with the far undervalued gift of patience. It is God’s grace that sent us things like parents who called the church saying, “I know it’s a pandemic, but we want our child baptized and however you think we can do that, we’re on board.”

It is God’s grace that has provided a way through the wilderness of disappointment, pain, cancellations, and complaining that we’ve all faced and, if we’re honest, taken part in. Yes, I would have told myself “Look, remember that God’s people have come through so many ‘dangers, toils and snares’ before. Phillip, trust that God’s grace will lead you through.” That is what we sing to ourselves today, for, sadly, this time of wilderness is not yet finished.

It sounds like the Israelites could have used a little reminder of that in the middle of their wilderness, which is where we find them this morning. There is disappointment, there is impatience, and there is complaining. And this is epic complaining. This is far worse than complaining that we can’t sing in church or that facemasks make it hard to breathe. Worse than complaining that the school board made a decision we disagree with. Or complaining that the vaccines are being rolled out quickly enough. I mean, we’ve complained a lot this year, myself included, but the Israelites take it to the extreme.

For, you see, God has delivered them from their hellish existence in Egypt. God has given them manna to eat each day and quail, too. God has found water for them in the middle of the desert. God has brought them through life-or-death toils and snares, but they seem to have already forgotten that and just want to mumble and grumble. They start taunting God, almost. One modern paraphrase of Scripture has the Israelites asking God, “Why did you drag us out of Egypt to have us die in this godforsaken country?”[1]

And I don’t know if it’s that God has had enough of their attitude or what but he sends snakes to start biting them. At least, that’s how the Israelites remember it. The point is, there’s a snake infestation at this point and people start dying.

A culture of complaining is venomous. It starts to poison everyone—the people who make the complaints and the people who hear them. It slithers around and finds its way into the cracks and crevices of every situation. Studies have actually shown that complaining—or being complained to—for thirty minutes or more physically damages the brain.[2] It also releases the stress chemical cortisol into our bloodstream, which impairs our immune system and can lead to other problems like diabetes and heart disease. Venomous snakes are probably an effective way to have the Israelites reflect on their behavior and what’s really killing them. Horrified, they come to Moses and confess their complaining and ask for the snakes to be removed. But God doesn’t remove them.

It may be, at first read, the most baffling story we ever read. Snakes are killing people and God doesn’t just simply take them away. But God does find a way to save them from the snakes. Moses is told to make a bronze version of the snake and lift it up on a pole high enough so that everyone will be able to see it. If they get bitten, they can just look at it and the power that the snakes have to kill is taken away. The people still get bitten, and I assume the venom still hurts, but the control it has over them is removed.

It’s not too different from this COVID vaccine and how it works. It’s pretty evident that we can’t eradicate this coronavirus. Like these snakes, it will lurk in our midst probably for the rest of time, or at least for the foreseeable future, infecting us and passing from one person to another. But thanks to science and medicine, whose very symbol has roots in this story, we’ve found a way to lift up a little version of it inside our bodies so that if we get bitten by the virus, COVID won’t kill us.

This event in the history of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness might have become one of those lesser-known stories you never hear about if not for the fact that Jesus uses it to describe his own reason for coming. One night a leader among the Jews named Nicodemus comes to him to learn more about who Jesus is and the things he is doing. They have a conversation about how to perceive the kingdom of God in the here and now, and about being born from above, or born again, and about having a relationship with God that gives eternal life.

All of these things are interrelated, Jesus says, and critical to having any of it—the ability to live in God’s kingdom now and to be born anew—is being able to look at Jesus as he dies and see life, see salvation. Jesus will be lifted up on a pole just like that serpent in the wilderness so that people who see him will have a life that conquers death.

It’s a seeing that is more than just looking with the eyes. It is a seeing with the heart and the mind—understanding that in Jesus’ death on the cross God is doing something save the world from all the venom and poison and sinfulness that infects us. Because when we see Jesus, the Son of God, dying, we see the harm that our sin does to God and to others. It’s laid bare for us to deal with, lifted high so that everyone can see. God doesn’t just take sin away, but in Christ he gives us the way through it. And that’s important, for in order to be saved, we need to be honest about what is really killing us, what we’re being saved from.

When we look at the cross of Christ, with Jesus hanging on it, we see the evil of violence, the damage it does. We see the wickedness of hatred and bigotry and the way they corrupts who we really are. What else do we see? We see the dead end road of trying to justify ourselves before our Creator, that we can sacrifice something or stake the blame on someone else in order to clear our name. None of it works. All of it is worthless, and it’s painful to be bitten by that realization but God wants us to see that in his dying Son so that we can come to terms with it. It will help save us.

When we think of racism, to use an example that has bitten us quite a bit this past year, we have learned will not find a way to heal from it if we keep ignoring it or complaining about it or justifying the stances of our past. We have to confront it, especially in ourselves. I can lament the political divisiveness in our country until the cows come home, shake my fists at the media or the politicians, but the division not going to miraculously disappear. I have to look at how I actually might be participating in it, unawares, and how my comments or apathy contribute to the decay. That will be the way through it.

And so forth and so on we go about all that poisons us until we realize that also hanging there in the loss and the death is God himself. There, present in the wilderness, all along, present in the decay and despair, present in the hunger and the thirst—present, faithful, steadfast, in spite of our complaining is God the Son, given—always given—never, ever taken away. There, never letting us go, in a place where everyone can see, is love. Love that will heal us, love that will forgive us, love that will let us lament all that we’ve lost this year and love that will persist with us until the end. Love that will never condemn. Love that will be sign that God will always deliver us to the other side.

This miracle, my friends, is not on us. We alone will not find the way out, we alone will not brave the dark of sin and triumph over it—but God, stooping low to be lifted high, will do it for us and with us through every danger, toil, and snare…and every online worship video too.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr

[1] The Message. Eugene Peterson

[2] https://www.cnbc.com/2019/05/06/stanford-researchers-says-30-minutes-of-complaining-makes-you-dumber.html

Where to Find God

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

John 2:13-22 and Exodus 20:1-17

When Moses comes down Mt. Sinai after the Israelites have been released from bondage in Egypt, and before they begin a forty year journey in the wilderness he bears in his hands a list of laws that would come to be known as the Ten Commandments. Read aloud as our first lesson this morning, they form the backbone of how God wants his people to navigate the complexities of life. They are a hard-and-fast, unchangeable rules that are not supposed to weigh them down with duty but actually lift them up to create an environment for a good, safe, and prosperous life. The Ten Commandments are a gift, even though the people pretty quickly reject them.

It got me thinking, we’ve kind of had a very similar experience over the past year when it comes to navigating and living safely as a human community during this pandemic. We’ve watched so many officials coming down out of governmental institutions bearing clipboards we probably could compile a list of the Ten Commandments of COVID. What do you think they’d say? Here are some I’ve thought up…

Thou shalt wear a facemask.
Thou shalt remain six feet or more from other human beings.
Thou shalt wash your hands fastidiously.
Honor thy doctors and nurses.
Thou shalt not go anywhere if you have a fever.
Thou shalt not sing in public.
Thou shalt learn how to unmute yourself on Zoom.
Thou shalt not hoard toilet paper.
Do not covet thy neighbor’s vaccination. Or thy neighbor’s ox’s vaccination. Or donkey’s.

Things seem fairly set in stone about it all now, but it wasn’t always so clear what we were supposed to be doing. Remember when we were still leaving our groceries on our doorsteps for 48 hours before bringing them inside? I know some of you are still doing that—not judging! And we still have governors and other officials rescinding orders and backtracking on health guidelines. It’s all so confusing, even if we were to have them listed out like Moses’ Ten Commandments.

One of the main benefits to having these rules from Moses in Exodus listed so concisely and so systematically and engraved in stone is that it leaves no question as to how God speaks to us and how God wants us to be together. The law comes across so self-explanatory. “Do this and don’t do that.” God’s presence and God’s goodness are going to be really clear and obvious whenever and wherever people are obeying them and putting them into practice.

We do this kind of thing with God’s laws and God’s words all the time. We basically roll into one the rules and God himself, and as long as we’ve got the rules down pat—so we think—as long as we know what’s expected of us and do our best to meet those expectations, we’re on God’s side. It’s like God is in the rules and if we do the rules then hunky-dory and if we don’t do the rules, then there’s probably some way we can make it up, or just try again.

It’s kind of like COVID. We think as long as we follow all the main rules and trust Dr. Fauci or Michael Osterholm or whichever official we put on the pedestal we will keep the virus at bay and live in safety.

Except we don’t. Some of us still get sick, even though we follow all the COVID commandments. I can’t tell you how many people I know, some in this congregation who have gotten the virus, and they don’t have a clue about how or where they picked it up. A safe life was never supposed to be guaranteed with the COVID commandments, and a relationship with God was never guaranteed by following the law. God meant it as a tool for living in that relationship, but eventually even those who love God distort its use.

This distortion of the law and the overly corrupted systems of religion is what we see Jesus confronting in bold fashion as he comes into the Temple of Jerusalem. The tables and booths where people were selling cattle and other livestock were taking up precious space in the temple’s interior. People were so convinced that by just keeping the law, by fulfilling whatever sacrifices the religious authorities interpreted the laws to require, that they had found God and God’s favor.

Christ driving moneychangers from the Temple (El Greco)

In Jesus’ eyes, the Temple looked like a market. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a middle eastern market before. They look similar to one of our flea markets or maybe a farmer’s market—narrow rows that take you by table after table where people have set up their wares for you to see and buy and maybe barter for. Could you imagine coming to worship and finding that, people barking over tables at you, trying to get you to come closer? I would imagine that most people back then, if they just stepped back and looked at what had become of their Temple, would have been shocked at it. Jesus sees it with fresh eyes, a Nazareth guy from way out in the country, disgusted that the Temple had become this.

He takes a whip of cords and drives them all out. It’s like Indiana Jones Jesus. It’s a famous scene and one of the first things we actually see Jesus do in John’s gospel. He changes water into wine at a wedding, and then he immediately goes to Jerusalem for Passover and confronts the religious system of sacrifices and this misguided understanding that following the law gets people closer to God.

One thing this scene should make us stop and think about is what our own churches and religious buildings look like and what their interior and exterior communicates about God and our relationship to God. This week I stepped outside briefly because the weather was so nice and found Mike Long, one of our members, thinking through our new signage. As you know, the entrances to our building have changed drastically, and it’s not immediately clear where people are to come inside to find the sanctuary or the office, for example. Something as basic as a sign shouldn’t be so complicated, but he and I walked around for a good bit talking about where we’d place it and what it should say and where the arrows should point.

I admire him because he clearly thinks about this kind of stuff all the time and is good at it. You don’t want to put up a sign at a church that is going to confuse people about where they’re supposed to go, no matter how obvious you or I may think the path may be! By the same token, houses of prayer should communicate above all things that God is worshiped here, not something else. Churches and sanctuaries and common areas and the art and furnishings and decorations in them should point a clear arrow to God’s grace.

But no matter how good the signs are, they don’t—and they can’t—point an arrow to where God may be found. And that is really the message Jesus is driving home when he makes the whip of cords and overturns the tables. God can’t be found in building or a temple any more than God can be found in following rules.

And so when Jesus overturns the tables he is doing more than redecorating the Temple narthex. He is overturning the way of thinking that says the commandments contain our relationship with God.

He is overturning the beliefs that say as long as you’re at church you are holy and sacred.

He is driving out the wrong idea that we can build a building to contain God or write him down on pieces of paper.

God is not located in a sanctuary and God is not found in the law or in Holy Scripture. God is found in Jesus. And even more amazing than that? If God were to make a sign about how to enter relationship with God, the sign would say, “Wait! Stay where you are. I’m coming to you.”

Just as Jesus changes water into wine and flips tables, Jesus also completely changes our whole stance toward God. Gone are the days where we need to search or change or sacrifice something in order to get to God or grab God’s attention. In the cross of Jesus, God comes to us. “Destroy this temple,” Jesus says, “and in three days I will raise it up.” He’s not talking about the building. He’s talking about himself and the incredible lengths he himself will go to in order to prove that God loves and reclaims every aspect of the human experience. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God reaches out to all of humankind and to all lonesome paths that humans walk, even the walk of the grave.

this overturns everything we might assume about God.

That kind of grace can’t be contained in a list of laws or in a structure or institution. It is made known each time selfless, sacrificial love is shared with someone else. God’s love seems foolish to the world, which almost equates force and violence with strength. And God’s self-giving ways are a stumbling block to systems that say we have to be wise or clever to know God.

When I sat down with the Nass family to prepare Alice for her baptism a few weeks ago, I was slightly aware of our language barrier. Being from Brazil, her parents speak Portuguese. They are much better at speaking English than they think they are because I have no problems understanding them, but sometimes they are worried they misunderstand me. I noticed that they had taken our baptism preparation packet, all four pages of it, and entered it into Google translate so they could really read and understand it and know they weren’t missing anything.

their delightful surprise, everything said exactly what they were expecting it to say. There were no differences, as it turns out, in how a baptism in their old church in Brazil would go and how a baptism here in Richmond would go. And furthermore, there was no difference in what the baptism would signify. Two different cultures, two different languages, two different countries, but one clear sign that pointed to grace: Jesus has torn down the temple of his body and raised it back up to cleanse Alice of her sins and claim her forever as God’s child. And how she will be a little arrow that points people to Jesus.

That, my friends, is the action of a God whose grace is now unleashed in the world, a God who likes and uses commandments, a God who likes and uses buildings for worship, but ultimately a God who will not be contained by culture or language or privilege or sacrifice systems or human wisdom or human strength or time or place or death. That, my friends, is the God who loves and claims you.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.