No “Ghosting” Allowed

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter [Year B]

Luke 24:36b-48

One of the pleasures of expanding our in-person worship offerings and the rising vaccination rates in our area has been seeing more people venture back to church for the first time since the pandemic started. Early on I imagined that COVID would be like a big wave and then once it subsided, we’d all be back for the first time together in one big group. We would sing all again and pass the peace and hug each other like the old days.

That’s not how it’s going at all. Our return has been much more gradual, and probably will drag on for months this way, if not years. People are coming back, family by family, individual by individual, more like a trickle and less like a flood. Nevertheless, it is fun to receive them and see them again, and it’s particularly fun to see their reactions to our new spaces. Since construction was completed last summer, in the middle of the shut-down, many folks haven’t even walked through the front doors, but when they finally do, they often say, with a wide smile and opened eyes, something like “This is a totally different church!” And, in some respects, it is. Almost everything about the entrance to the church has radically changed. The parking lot, the sidewalks, the doors themselves, the interior spaces—they’re all extremely different. And you can see those differences on paper and the architect’s plans and construction blueprints, but until you physically walk through the doors and stand by the walls and look through the windows yourself you can’t appreciate the full difference.

And, just so you know, we’re feeling the same on our end, as we sometimes, I must admit, have to stop for a few seconds to identify someone we haven’t laid eyes on in thirteen months or more, especially when a third of their face is covered by a mask. And, let’s be honest, many of you have different hairdos. And if I see you for the first time and you’re wearing sunglasses, don’t be surprised if I need to hear your voice before I can figure out who you are!

Silliness aside, the good news is this is not a different church, and you are not different people. The pandemic may have changed us in some ways, and we certainly have evolved over the past year or so, but this is still Epiphany, the building, and we are still Epiphany, the people.

But this happens in faith over the passage of time. Jesus’ very own disciples have a hard time figuring out what they’re looking at when they see him for the first time after his resurrection. It’s not really his new hairdo, or something about his outer appearance, but the fact that, you know, he should be dead. Maybe he looks a little different, too. Whatever the case, they think he’s a ghost. You would think they’d be excited to see him, but they are scared of what they’re seeing, for who is not a bit taken off guard by the thought of a ghost? This is a common theme in Jesus’ first resurrection experiences, isn’t it? Fear where there should be joy, doubt where we think there’d be faith, misunderstanding where we’d expect clarity. The new can often throw us off, even when it is hopeful and life-changing in a good way.

Jesus wastes no time in trying to put them at ease, however. He meets them in their doubt. Immediately he offers his hands and his feet. He gives them something to grab onto. They could stand back and look at the blueprints of the resurrection, they could ponder God’s mighty acts on paper, consider the plans in the prophets’ words they could envision what the Great Architect’s salvation might look like, but until they touch it, it’s not fully real to them. Ghosts don’t have real bones and skin. This is a real person standing in front of them, a person they saw die an ugly and gruesome death just a few days before. And if being able to touch his feet and hands isn’t enough to convince them, he asks for something to eat. They bring him some fish they’ve just cooked on the fire.

One of the all-time best things I’ve ever had to eat was, in fact, a piece of broiled fish. I was at the beach with my extended family and there was this hut right on the water where a local guy was fileting fresh-caught grouper and mahi-mahi and searing them over some charcoal. It was so tender and light, flaky but juicy. Pieces would sometimes fall off as I was biting on it and I’d pick it them up and blow the sand off just so they wouldn’t get wasted. Maybe that’s how good this fish is that day when Jesus is with his disciples. It’s fresh and delicious, and Jesus is making a subtle statement about how good and rich the resurrected life is. He drops some and blows the dirt off. Savor every morsel!

And yet Jesus doesn’t seem to be eating that day in order to enjoy it. He is eating simply to show them he is fully there. He is eating to show them God’s power of forgiveness and redemption  is so real and so true it comes back with flesh and bones. Death has really been defeated. God’s love in Christ is not a figment of our imaginations. We can touch, see, and taste it. It isn’t until this moment happens that Jesus’ identity becomes clear. Once his physical presence with them is demonstrated then he is able to explain who he really is, that the law and the prophets and the psalms all speak about him. Then he opens the Scriptures while he’s with them and the words there start to make sense.

Oh, how we’ve found this to be true this year. Things like on-line teaching and on-line worship are wonderful for what they are—the technology has provided us ways to impart information to students and share the Word of God when we’ve been prevented from being physically together. But things are so much clearer when we are fully present with each other, when we can see lips and eyes and facial expressions. When we can hug. Teachers teach so much better when students turn their cameras on, and I would imagine students also learn better. It’s so much easier when facemasks and plexiglass barriers are removed and we can communicate openly.

The other day a gentleman came into the office looking for a particular book. Through his facemask I thought I heard him say he needed a copy of the roof book. Knowing we had just finished this construction and that this person was one of our building trustees, I figured he was going to help with something regarding the roof. But as we kept talking I realized he was getting ready to join our new Adult Sunday School class and they are studying Ruth. He was looking for the Ruth book, a small but important difference from “roof” that is obscured when you can’t see someone’s lips.

The hands, the feet, the delicious broiled fish—it’s all about getting rid of the obscurity. God is really present with the disciples. These are physical things that serve to prove his resurrection is not just an act. The Christian life can be confusing and complicated, but perhaps our first task in any situation is just to grab hold of those things that clearly communicate Jesus. Grab hold of the lessons, the moments that truly embody Jesus’ selfless love for us, that proclaim grace and mercy and compassion.

By the same token, we are not called just to love people figuratively or metaphorically. Words are important, words create possibilities and give hope and point people in the right direction, but our task as Jesus’ followers is not to be about words only, to make social media posts or be a source of inspiring quotes. Jesus wants us to be people with feet and hands, a presence people can grab hold of in their fear and grief. Jesus tell us to be present for the world, beginning from Jerusalem. When we are witnesses to the new life in Jesus, when we proclaim the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name it requires us to be present and hear our brothers and sisters, to see their faces contorted in grief and sorrow, to hand them them a Kleenex to wipe their tears. In many cases, far more than we’re ready to understand or commit to, it will mean sacrificing a bit of our own energy and life. It is saying to our fellow humans as clear as is possible, “God is here for you. This is really me and God really loves you and this life we are experiencing is something we are supposed to do together, even if your suffering affects me and mine affects you.”

Earlier this week I was doing some cleaning out of a file cabinet at home. I couldn’t tell you the last time I had opened those drawers, and I was positive there was nothing in there that was of any use to me. I was just going to get a garbage bag and transfer everything straight to the trash can. Then I ran across a Ziploc bag with some papers and photos in it. I opened it to find some pictures from about 20 or so years ago from the time right after I graduated college. In and among them was a greeting card that I didn’t recognize still in its original envelope. As I opened it, the thing almost came apart. There, on the inside of the card, were dozens of signatures. It took me a second to realize I was holding the card that was sent to me by the people in the first congregation I served in Pittsburgh to congratulate me for my ordination. They were signatures of people I ended up living alongside, some of people I eventually would buried. Many of the names on that card are of people who are now no longer with us.

I had thought about those dear people many times, and still do, but something about physically holding a card that had actually been signed by them made their memory take on powerful new meaning. I could remember details of their stories, their appearances, that I had long forgotten. And I could remember their love and vulnerability, how they ended up presenting themselves to me in ways I could hold on to. I could imagine them passing that card around, signing it, saying “God bless,” before they even had met me. I was overwhelmed with how God had been present for me in their witness when I eventually arrived there. I’m sure you have had similar experiences with objects given to you by your loved ones.

            Jesus comes so that God’s real, loving presence is in all the dark and forgotten places where people’s lives get filed away. Jesus is crucified and people all but forget him, going on with their life as normal…or they try to. But the grave is opened and he returns, full of life, full of joy. Jesus comes back, ready to be grabbed onto again, ready to let his love be real. And he has signed his name on you. Now, go be witnesses of these things.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Jesus, Ever Given

a sermon for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Sunday [Year B]

Mark 16:1-8

The question that began our week, the question that almost the entire world was asking together as we peered at our phone screens and our televisions on Sunday and Monday was, “Who will move away that gargantuan cargo ship from the middle of the Suez Canal?” There it was, one of the largest watercraft ever built—maybe in the universe—lodged diagonally, all but immovable, cutting off all traffic through one of the world’s most important waterways. Boats were backed up for miles and miles. Each day it sat there meant a $9 billion delay in trade revenue. Who could move such a thing? And we all probably saw the unforgettable photos of that single, small excavator with his one little shovel, looking like one of my son’s toys, working as hard as it could to free the hull of that enormous ship. And then, one day, long before it was predicted, the freighter almost miraculously gave way from the silt and sand and everything started flowing again. Life as it was intended resumed.

The question that begins today, the question that a small handful of women are asking together as they hurry with their spices, is “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” There it was, a large boulder, the kind that typically marked the entrance to ancient tombs, chosen for its size and weight to deter graverobbers and keep in the smell of decomposing flesh. Don’t you like how the Easter story begins with a question, a question that rings with immense practicality, a question that sounds like anything anyone might ask when trying to solve a problem? “Who will roll away the stone for us?” “How are we going to get inside there and do what we’re supposed to do?” “How long will we be blocked from delivering this special myrrh and aloe to our destination?” The news of Jesus’ resurrection, the news that will shake the world, starts with people going about their business, thinking about the next step in the tasks of daily to-do lists.

But we know how the story goes. No need to call in an excavator this time. Or Joseph of Arimathea, the guy who put the rock there in the first place on Friday evening, however he managed it. The women arrive to find the stone has already been rolled away. That which was immovable has already been moved. Life has already begun to flow again, the power of death broken through, the resurrection already advancing as Jesus, the risen, awaits them in Galilee. What questions are you asking today? What problems seem to have no solution? What is blocking you from living the abundant life God intends? Don’t be surprised if the stones start to be rolled back. Because Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Of the four resurrection stories we have in the New Testament, the one written by Mark is the shortest. It starts with this question from the women delivering the spices and ends rather abruptly. After encountering this mysterious man in a white robe in the tomb and learning from him that Jesus is not there, they run from the scene in terror and amazement. In fact, Mark is more vivid than that. He says that the terror and amazement had seized them. We may expect joy at this kind of news—joy because if Jesus, who was crucified, is not there but alive and ahead of them in Galilee, then they will be able to see him and resume life with him—but the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection are to be gripped with fear and awe. And they are so afraid and bewildered that they end up saying nothing about what they discover that morning.

The man that they see at the tomb gives them one job. He says, “Go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus is already out of the tomb and waiting for you.” The man gives them one simple job and they don’t do it. Mark says the women say nothing to anyone. Again, Mark’s Greek is even more descriptive. He uses a type of double negative, which, of course, is a big no-no in English and Greek unless you’re trying to overemphasize a point. Mark writes that the women “didn’t say nothing to nobody”…just to make sure we understand. It looks like the message of the resurrection is going to die with them. No stone blocking the tomb that morning, but the witnesses still find a way to stick a sock in it.

And that is irony, my friends. Because all along Jesus, all through his days of healing and driving out demons and teaching his disciples about the kingdom of heaven, Jesus has told them to be quiet about him until he rises from the dead and in all those times they can’t keep their trap shut. They go blabbing all over the place. But the time when the word finally does need to get out, the time when Jesus finally accomplishes that which he was sent to do, which is to suffer and die and rise again, the everyone clams up.

Jesus is our savior. Jesus is the One who was crucified so that power of death might be broken forever. He is not just a healer or a teacher. He is our Redeemer who suffers and dies for us. That is what we can say without holding back today. It is what we need to say today in a world that has, for example, pandemics. In a world that has people locked up in concentration camps. In a world where demons like narcissism and addiction and idolatry still enslave people, in a world racked by grief from tragedies that are senseless and tragedies that are ruthlessly planned out and executed. God has burst through the stone of the tomb to let eternal life flow for all of humankind. Easter means the kingdom of heaven will now come to all earth’s dark corners. Easter means we have communion with God forever. This is unbelievably wonderful news, and yet the women don’t say nothing to nobody about it.

In a way, then, the resurrection story this morning not only begins with a question—the one about the stone—but it ends with a question. It’s an unwritten question, one that the reader or the hearer of the story can’t help but ask as we envision the two Marys and Salome running off into the dawn light. If they didn’t tell anyone this news, then how in the world did we find out about it? If the last emotion we are left with that morning is fear, then how do we live in such joy and boldness now? A stone doesn’t block the entrance that morning, but doesn’t their lack of action block the news?

Of course, we have the other gospel accounts. Matthew, Luke, and John, fill in the picture for us with what happened in the days following. So, on one hand we are thankful that God placed this message in the hands of more than one evangelist. But if we didn’t have those, if, for example, we were in Mark’s original community, the congregations and people for whom Mark was writing this story, how would we know that Jesus is risen? How did the word eventually get out?

You see, this is, I think the bigger miracle of Easter, or at least an extension of the miracle that happens when Jesus steps out of that grave alive. Somehow the word gets out. Somehow those women must have found the resolve to follow the man’s instructions. God will not be delayed by a cross, a stone, or our inaction and fear. Nothing can block the good news of Easter.

There have been many times during this past year when we have felt isolated by fear and inactivity. Locking down has been hard. Learning to Zoom and connect with people in safe ways is frustrating and sometimes we just give up. I still loathe that stupid mute button most days. Schools, churches, community groups, families wonder are our messages getting through? Is the love and concern I have for my loved ones and friends being communicated? We long for the days when we can see faces and expressions of emotion, realizing we’ve taken for granted the flow of friendship and familiarity in human relationship.

Congregations and communities of faith have felt no different. Even as small groups began regathering, even as vibrant online communities have formed and prayed together, even as we watch our YouTube statistics and try to form strategies about our message, there has still been a tomb-like quality to ministry. This past week, though, I was reminded in another powerful way just how persistent God is in getting his word, even when we feel isolated. The UPS truck pulled up one day and delivered a package that none of us was expecting. We receive packages all the time for the nursery school and the cleaning crew, for example, but this particular package was unannounced and, to my delight, deposited on my desk. I did not recognize the return address, which was from a location over three hours drive from Richmond. I unwrapped it with much curiosity. Inside I found a letter, a check for a donation, and this remarkable, handmade cross.

Here’s what the letter says,
            “This cross was made from the branch of a cedar tree which grew from a seed to a mature tree in my neighborhood. We have lived in the neighborhood for nearly 46 years and the tree was small when we arrived. Unfortunately the wind blew the tree down. I used some limbs from the tree to make this cross. Perhaps you can use this cross in your children’s ministry. My wife and I have watched your online morning services every Sunday since you started the services last year. We have enjoyed the services very much. We have enclosed a donation for the church to be used for whatever purpose you decide.”

So thank you, Mr. and Mrs. White, for your generosity and your Easter reminder this morning, and proof that the word does get out. God rolls away stones, God grows trees from seeds, wind blows them down, and dead branches take on new life. A new beginning comes from death. The kingdom of heaven is here among us, and the one who was crucified is ahead of us, always ahead of us, making new life happen. Thank you for carrying on what those first women saw and heard when they were seized with terror and amazement. In spite of our isolation, it appears God still gets the word out.

Interestingly enough, I can’t help but think about the name of that cargo ship stuck in the Suez: Ever Given. Stuck for a while, but still the Ever Given. Blessed Easter, everyone, and blessings of new life and faith from Jesus who is Ever Given, ever giving. In bread, in wine, in words that never die, that never get muted, that never get blocked. Jesus the Ever Given for you, for me, for all who hear it. This day and every day.

Thanks be to God!!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

God Grief

a sermon for Good Friday

We are grieving. That is the explanation I’ve read in several places now for the general feeling of malaise, anxiety, and irritability that many of us have or have had over the course of the past year. Unable to gather like we want to, unable to work and play and do school like we’re used to, and constantly bombarded with loss and death and bad news we are dealing, many experts say, with a big whopping and prolonged case of grief. Lost jobs, lost loved ones, lost learning, lost gatherings. The loss has been intense, and the darkness we sit in tonight as the candles are extinguished, is symbolic of the darkness we’ve been sitting in all year, a darkness that has only intensified after the mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia and the death of Lucia Bremer here in Henrico County. You probably don’t need another sermon that lists all the heavy things that we’ve been dealing with, but it still is worth remembering that the fog many of us are walking around in is actually grief.

Tonight, we see that God takes on the grief of the world. On this holy day, we hear that God confronts suffering, confronts hardship, confronts the unfair, inexplicable violence and torture that visit us all too often and hangs there with us. On Good Friday, we remember that God did not hold back in offering his own Son into a world darkened by human sin. The temptation is always there to skip ahead to Easter, to leapfrog to the bright lights and happy morning, but Good Friday always comes first, and that is a good thing. We need Good Friday to come first because the griefs of this world needs to be named and seen, and Jesus on the cross lets us do that. God intends Good Friday to come first so that we may see that God wants to meet us where we are, no matter the cost to him.

Unfortunately, religion can so often go off on a tangent. That is, religion can get overly complicated about things, waxing poetic at best, getting manipulative at worst. It can form in-groups and out-groups, it can make us feel that there are easy answers and explanations for everything if we just search hard enough. Religion can make us think if we’re not happy and joyful all the time or not all put together then we’re not doing things right. Good Friday comes to stop that nonsense, if we’ll let it. Good Friday says life’s problems often doesn’t have easy answers or secret short cuts. Good Friday says it’s OK not to feel happy and joyful all the time. Good Friday prevents us from going off on a tangent to figure God out so we can instead realize God is just one of us, God gets scared like us, gets wounded like us, bleeds like us.

And to notice that, to notice how plain and open and vulnerable God is for us, we take special note of what we hear from God’s Son tonight. You know, the core of most religions and self-help programs consists of deep and profound sayings that convey some rarified knowledge, usually spoken by some old man or woman who seems really intelligent and wants to dazzle you with their experience. But none of the words Jesus says from the cross is really philosophical in any way. Rather, their power is in their brutal humanity. Their meaning is in their simplicity. These are not phrases you would want embroidered and framed, drawn in calligraphy and placed on a card. Jesus does say those kinds of things, plenty of times. He says “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.” He says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” He says, “You are the light of the world and the salt of the earth.” Jesus says so many things that are beautiful and enlightening but tonight, in his supposed finest hour, when he is being glorified, he is succinct, he is earthy, he is inarticulate. He coughs out very basic, very short sentences and questions:

“I’m thirsty.”
“Mom, disciples, take care of each other.”
“God, where are you right now?”
“Father, forgive these people.”
“It’s over.”

These are words uttered in grief, in pain, which, if we’re honest, also often leaves us unable to form profound thoughts. Here is God as a human, in a moment of total weakness, just struggling to get words out, but still wanting us to hear something. Yet for centuries we have found life in these words. Is there wisdom, too? As soon as his first followers could collect themselves and remember who Jesus was these words and this death formed the backbone of their understanding of God.

Why? Because we realize there is love behind it all. Love doesn’t try to offer some witty or wise saying to package the pain or explain it away. Love doesn’t ignore the realities of suffering. Love, at least the wonderful kind of love we hear tonight, says, I will sit in the darkness with you. Love says I will go through all the horrible loss for you, I’ll take the brunt of it on your behalf. The love we encounter in Jesus says I will suffer in your place so that you may be forever free. This love dies in order to release us from our constant efforts to reach God on our own terms. This love says weakness is where God will make his home.

I bet if you look over the events of the past year and think of the people who have helped you the most, the people who have offered you the most hope or the best comfort, the people who have shined the brightest light, it is the people who were strong enough to let you voice your pain. They are the people who were vulnerable enough themselves to listen your frustration, to validate it, who sat down and commiserated with you from time to time rather than offering some profound wisdom or solution to deal with it.

That, my friends, is the God of the cross who has been present for you. That is the saving action of the crucified One still meeting you in the darkness and knowing what it means to grieve. Those voices were the echoes of the one who spoke bare, human phrases from the cross.

So tonight, we let those final words echo again—we let them echo into a world that still grieves even if it can’t come to terms with it. Let them echo through our faith into a world that needs to be reminded it has a Creator that loves it, a Savior who loves it so much it will be thirsty for it, bleed for it, be weak for it, cry for it, offer up its spirit for it.

And then, in the darkness we can safely wait for the brightness of Easter. Because that will come next. Without a doubt.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.