“So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

for Sophia, on her confirmation

Sold often by the handful (pocket change
could purchase just enough for peasant’s lunch)
these denizens of dusty roadside range
were no one’s haute cuisine. Assorted bunch
of species inconspicuous and small—
White-throated, Swamp, Clay-colored, Field, Song, Sage—
in color drab as simple in their call,
this trope of commonplace in every age
is yet, each one, with thought precisely planned,
each painted feather, perfect in its place,
a flawless masterwork. A Master Hand
has formed each one, bestowed them all with grace.
Then you, moreso redeemed by blood, rejoice,
and ne’er deny your worth, nor mute your voice.

like the sound of a mighty Wi-Fi signal

a sermon for the Day of Pentecost [Year B]

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 and Romans 8:22-27

Last week I began a three-week online webinar for continuing education. Typically when pastors and other professional people complete continuing education events they are at conferences where you are in-person. You go and register for the event, buy your plane tickets, get a hotel, and then listen to the keynote speaker. But, as you are well aware, things don’t really work that way in a pandemic. This event was coordinated through Zoom. I have taken part and led Zoom meetings all year long, but this one was different.

I logged on and there were well over a hundred people taking part. There, on my computer screen, were dozens and dozens of boxes with faces and names in them. As I scrolled around, I saw all kinds of people I knew in those little boxes. There were close friends that I didn’t know had signed up for the same event. There were people I went to seminary with who I hadn’t seen since we graduated almost twenty years ago. There was a guy who was my counselor at a summer camp named Lutheridge when I was in elementary school. The two of us figured out it was sometime in 1985, which makes me feel ancient, for some reason. There were people I had heard about for years but had never gotten to meet. And there were many many more people who were completely new to me. It was amazing—a group of people from all over the country and we were able to participate in the same activities and learn from the same lecturer because of Zoom.

This is nothing special for most of the youth today, people like our confirmands. This is how they’ve been learning all year. Maybe the virtual classrooms haven’t been quite as large and quite as diverse, but technology like Google classrooms and Zoom have been able to take the knowledge offered by one central teacher and spread it out to all kinds of different places.

That is like the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the One who takes Jesus, the one Son of God who is in heaven with the Father, the one who once walked among us as a human in flesh and blood, and spreads that Jesus everywhere all over the earth. Jesus is now someone that all of us know and can learn from and be healed by and be loved by because the Holy Spirit has been given to us like a passcode link to a Zoom chat. The Holy Spirit is who enables Jesus’ lifegiving words to be received here and in the church down the street and in the church down the next street and all the way across the world. The Holy Spirit is who has brought Jesus’ presence to people who’ve worshiped through YouTube and Facebook live this year.

the first Zoom session

And it’s not just that the Holy Spirit can bring Jesus to every place all over the earth, into the hearts of every believer, in the conversations of people who work for peace and justice but also all of these places and people at the same time. Because of the Holy Spirit, there’s no taking turns to have time with Jesus—as if we all got to have him as our guest speaker, one after the other. As much as I’ve been on Zoom this year I still don’t understand how the technology works, and neither can I grasp how the Holy Spirit does what he does. Maybe if the first Pentecost had happened in 2021 instead of 2000 years ago, WiFi and Bluetooth would have been the metaphors for the Holy Spirit rather than wind and fire. You can’t really capture WiFi, or see it, but you always know when it’s there. And when it’s not.

Jesus tries to explain this phenomenon to his disciples on the night before he is crucified, but it probably goes over their head, just like I think it does ours. To do so he calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate. In some translations of the Bible the word used here is “Counselor.” An advocate is someone who speaks for another person. Often when a young child is involved in the court system in situations of custody rights, for example, they will be appointed an advocate so that the child won’t have to speak themselves. Maybe they’re too young to understand their alternatives or too traumatized by something to vocalize what they truly need. The advocate comes in, learns that child’s story forwards and backwards, and serves that critical role of truly representing that child’s position.

So when Jesus says that an Advocate will come once he leaves them and goes to his Father in heaven, he is letting them know they will be taken care of. God has thought of our needs even before we have, and God is giving part of himself to help us with that, to help us communicate to God what is in the deepest parts of our hearts, the pains we’re too afraid to share, the things we don’t even understand yet.

But on that night the disciples are pretty sad, which is understandable. Jesus has mentioned he will be going away and he knows they feel abandoned. He knows they may even be like a child who just doesn’t know what the alternatives are, how to give voice to their own needs and desires. It makes me remember how several years ago Melinda and I took a short trip out of town with our son when he was an infant and our two girls stayed at home with my parents. When we got back I asked one of them, “Did you miss mom and dad while we were gone?” And she responded, matter-of-factly, “Yes, but mostly I forgot about you.”

The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the one Jesus sends to keep us connected to Jesus and each other, will not let us forget about Jesus. The Holy Spirit will continue to teach us and remind us of the things Jesus did and said when he walked the earth.

And so we see that the Spirit is not just our advocate, someone who searches our hearts and voices them to God, but that he also is communicating what God knows and wants to us. Jesus says the Advocate will not speak on his own, but will speak what he hears. And what he hears is the intense love between the Father and the Son that wants to include all of creation and renew it. The Holy Spirit is the WiFi reaching from God, the Creator of the whole universe, to each one of us.

In the Lutheran Church, confirmation has a beginning and an end. For us, it starts in ninth grade and ends in May of the sophomore year. We study various things about Scripture and about our faith. We take a deeper look at things like the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. These are just some of the things that the Holy Spirit has declared to us about God the Holy Trinity. God is bigger than anything we can understand and put on paper, but the Holy Spirit helps us just focus on Jesus and his love for us. We can always start there.

Confirmation has an end, but the life of faith does not. Nothing Jesus tells his followers would suggest that they will ever receive all the information about God, like God is in a book somewhere and we just need to read it enough times to grasp it. For Jesus, knowing about God in the power of the Holy Spirit is like a relationship. It grows as we grow. It changes over time. One of my prayers for the confirmands today is that they never equate having faith with having all of the answers about God. My prayer is that they see the Holy Spirit will continue to reveal things to them about the life of faith. Sometimes they’ll find that life includes parts where we just sigh or groan. We cannot give words to the pain or anxiety or frustration we feel, but that God is still there, listening, understanding, advocating, urging us one step forward.

That’s what this whole last year has been, right? No one alive knew how to live through a pandemic, what all of the right choices were. We just headed into it, finding the truth as we went, living in hope. And in the points when we were too tired ourselves, or too frustrated, or too sad, we let others carry us forward. We leaned on others to give us hope, to remind us that together we can get through this.

Sometimes I wonder if this generation of young people, like the ones who are being confirmed today, the ones who’ve spent formative years of their youth learning through screens and talking through masks, the ones who’ve had to forfeit a whole year of childhood activities and normal social interactions, are going to teach us all about the power and importance of real community. There’s no much negative talk these days about what these youth have lost, but maybe there’s been more gain than we realize. Maybe they will take the feelings of isolation this year and translate that into a deeper appreciation for the benefits of being together throughout their lives. That will be the Holy Spirit, working through them, guiding us in truth.

There’s a song on country music radio right now called “My Church,” by Maren Morris. It’s a catchy tune and the lyrics are pretty relatable. Morris sings about how driving in her car with the radio turned up to some of her favorite classics is a religious experience. The song goes,

“I find holy redemption
When I put this car in drive
Roll the windows down and turn up the dial.
Can I get a hallelujah?
Can I get an amen?
Feels like the Holy Ghost running through you
When I play the highway FM
I find my soul revival
Singing every single verse
Yeah, I guess that’s my church.

I certainly have been there and I have turned up the dial myself, on occasion, singing every single verse. In the end, though, the Holy Ghost runs through us only to link us up with other people. My church is never just my car, never just my house or my prayers, or even just my own experience with God. My church is your church and their church and our church—everyone’s church where the Holy Spirit is zooming Jesus in and helping us grow in faith. My church never keeps me by myself, but leads me into greater community with all kinds of people, the diverse humanity that God has made through the self-giving love of the cross. John, Audrey, Hank, Yasmine, Anna, Ella, Rowan and Justin… this is your church.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Ever Vulnerable, Ever Resilient

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

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 and John 17:6-19

The chicks in the nursery school here hatched this week. And boy are they cute. Six little chicks from six eggs that sat in an incubator in the classroom of the 3- and 4-year olds for a couple of weeks. Hatching chicken eggs has become somewhat of a spring ritual here, a way that pre-schoolers learn about life cycles and animal care and…how to be gentle. The day the birds actually emerged from their eggs was pretty exciting, but it was a little strange to see them all crammed on top of each other inside the plastic domed device that kept the eggs warm.

And then there was us, on the other side, our faces crowded together and peering in at these new fuzzy little creatures. The kids got to name them, and they chose to name them after the Paw Patrol characters, which are actually dogs, but that’s what you have to expect when you give naming rights to pre-schoolers. Chase, Rubble, Marshall, Skye, Zuma, and Rocky are doing just fine down there and there’s even a key chart taped above the container so you can figure out which chick is which. They are peeping constantly now, and they can make a bit of a racket when you try to reach in and pick one up to let a preschooler pet it.

easy now

Nature is amazing. To a large degree, chicks hatch already knowing things like how to scratch for food and what to eat but if they had been raised by a hen they would be so much safer. She would have sat on them until they were all done with hatching and drying out. She would have kept them warm and safe and no one would have been able to just reach in and grab one to hold. They are tough and resilient, and yet they are vulnerable. Their new life is so precarious. But we know they’ll be OK.

I see the new chicks here and I can’t help but think about the new life of Jesus’ disciples after his ascension. They’ve emerged from the events of Good Friday and Easter morning, from the tombs of their doubt and fear and amazement, to find themselves vulnerable, living this precarious life without the protection and guidance of Jesus, who, you may remember, once called himself a mother hen. The world is peering in at them—suspicious Romans that want news of Jesus’ resurrection silenced, curious Jewish friends and relatives who don’t trust the gospel yet, Gentiles wondering how welcoming they’ll be, governments that are hostile to any upstart movements. The world is peering in at them and watching this new way of living take shape and their leader, their risen and victorious leader is no longer with them in the same way they’ve always known him. Precarious and vulnerable, that’s what we see in them.

One of their first obstacles is replacing Judas, one of the original twelve who left them. Problem-solving, right off the bat: how they mount this challenge in a peaceful and calm way that limits fracturing their communion will be a big test. They talk together about several candidates, other people who saw Jesus after his resurrection and learned from him and who will be able to convince others about it. They discuss those candidates attributes, their qualifications, their growing edges. They go and creep these Facebook pages and look back at their past Tweets to see if they’ve said anything incriminating. They run background checks and they come up with two fellows who can fill the spot, and instead of just letting them both serve, which is totally something I would imagine a church today would suggest, they settle on one by rolling some dice. The arrow points to Matthias. Things move along to the next crisis, the next challenge of this fledgling community known as the church..

Ascension (John Singleton Copley, 1775)

The church has almost always been in a precarious position, vulnerable to the world. In fact, that’s how God has plans it and it’s the way Jesus himself lived his life. We are always on the edge, always at risk of making things too complicated, always tempted by sitting and doing nothing. It’s when we wall ourselves away from the world and try to be too overprotective that things start to go wrong. It’s when we shy away from moving forward that we stop living up to that first task—to be witnesses to the risen life of Jesus. We are meant to be transparent people, meant to live, so to speak, under a plastic dome with everyone peering in, a community that rolls with the punches and does what that original little core did. We trust God.

And there will always be decisions we have to make. This past fourteen months has been a stark reminder of that, hasn’t it? In fact, most people I’ve talked to, especially people like school principals, business administrators, and parents, have come up with a term to describe what they’re feeling from all of this: decision fatigue. We have certainly felt it here! How will we worship? What should our capacity in the sanctuary should be? Now it’s should we wear masks? Should we check vaccination cards at the door? When will we sing?

The over-riding challenge in all the decision-making, the remaining transparent and vulnerable, is maintaining the unity. When the CDC or the governor, for example, releases a new guideline regarding COVID, they aren’t really worrying about keeping people unified. They are primarily concerned with stopping the spread of a disease or keeping people safe. People may decide to follow the guidelines or not. The CDC might wind up with a public trust issue here and there, but they don’t have community relationships to tend to. They aren’t concerned with people’s feelings and don’t have tools for how to patch things up when people don’t get their way.

But the church is and has always been different. We’re not an organization as much as we are an organism, a body that is supposed to think and act and do things as one. God creates us this way and the Spirit forms us as people who present Christ to each other. You know that back during that first decision the people who supported Justus really thought he would be a better twelfth disciple than Matthias. There were Justus fans who really wanted to see him get the job, but for all we know those people got over it pretty quickly and agreed to go along with Matthias. The reason? They knew Jesus had prayed specifically for their unity, their life of togetherness. On the night before his death on the cross, Jesus had taken great effort to pray to God for the little fledgling community that the Holy Spirit was starting. Jesus prayed for them to stick together, to put personal differences aside as much as they can, to see themselves as part of a bigger picture. If they got a decision wrong, they would suffer along with each other and trust God. They’d trust that God would ultimately, at some point, correct them down the line.

It’s probably why singing—group singing, not soloists—became so quickly a hallmark of Christian worship. Some of the oldest texts we have in Scripture are songs, both in the Old and in the New Testaments. Singing in a group is a fundamental expression and practice of unity. When we sing we take our individual voice—that part of us that is quintessentially ourselves and unique—and we place it within a larger sound. The point is not to hear our own voice above everyone else’s, but to let it get lost and find itself among all the others and make it better. In singing we practice sacrificing our individuality to be part of a richer, stronger reality. This is why being church without group singing this year has been so strange and difficult, especially for those who might not consider themselves strong singers. I am so thankful that it will be coming back here beginning this Sunday.

Whether in singing, in our service to our neighbor, in our sharing of our lives together, God’s nature is to be made known through all of it. When Jesus prays for us, he prays that God’s ways will be recognizable through us, that the world desperately needs to see a people who love one another, who are not afraid to hatch out of the shells of doubt and fear and live in the forgiveness and hope that Christ brings. Because Jesus does not pray that God remove us from the world. Jesus prays that we be protected from the evil one, from the forces and authorities, even the ones within ourselves, that want to pull us apart.

This year so many of you have sacrificed of yourselves to embody and foster this unity within this congregation. Eileen Johnson, for example, has tirelessly led Zoom meetings with our Clara Sullivan Circle every Wednesday, and she consistently sends out a prayer list that lets everyone know who has specific needs or joys. Kim, Lisa, Carl, and Clair have taken time from their busy schedules to serve as our COVID medical advisors, who’ve helped make these hard decisions about worship. Lyle and Wayne obtained our radio transmitter and work to set it up on Sundays so people can sit in the parking lot and listen. The Seedling Group led by the Becks have been meeting, conscientiously checking in and doing virtual Bible studies together. Matt Greenshields has kept adult Sunday School going. Several of you have made facemasks and some of you have bought them, bringing them into the office for the staff on a regular basis. Some of you have served as ushers during a time when many thought it was unsafe to worship in public, and you think of all the bases I’ve forgotten to cover.

And perhaps some of the most meaningful and joyful expressions of unity for me throughout all of this have been the little emojis some of you have left in the Facebook comments during morning prayer. Some of you say good morning and then leave a little sunshine if it’s sunny out or an umbrella if it’s rainy. It’s just a little sign that we’re in this together, watching and praying over the internet until the day when we can return together. I was just talking to someone about this the other day, someone who plans to come to worship soon but who has grown fond of that morning prayer community. She, too, felt like the simple greetings in the comments had a unifying effect for her.

We can do this. We’ll be OK. We can come through the decision fatigue of congregational life during a pandemic and still be one. We can hold our singing for a spell in order to stop the spread of disease. We can live with the whole world peering in at our peculiar self-sacrificing ways as we scratch around and try to figure out how to move forward. We can trust God. We can look to the cross and trust God in each and every moment of loss and despair and frustration and know that Jesus, who endured the same, is now ascended, sitting at his Father’s side. We can trust him because he is praying for us. We are his. God gave us to him and he has sheltered us and given us his Word. We have a message to make known. Step out of the fear and solitude and the sadness and sing. Or start with a little peep, if you need to. The Lord our God is life and we belong to him.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.