Friend in the Neighborhood

a sermon for the First Sunday of Advent [Year C]

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 and Luke 21:25-36

Our five-year-old son would tell you that the best thing about living in our neighborhood is that Samuel, Lucia, and Anna Bolick live there too. As most of you probably could guess, the Bolicks are friends from here at church, the children of Joseph and Sarah. Their house isn’t on our street, but it’s so close—two quick turns away—that you only need to walk or hop on a bike to get there. I’ve often wondered if we live in earshot, but have been too bashful to test it out, and haven’t had an excuse to. COVID lockdowns have made it harder to hang out over the past two years, but now that our kids have got one vaccination shot done, it’s becoming easier to hang out. And not a day goes by when Jasper doesn’t ask to be with them…multiple times. I’ll usually say, “Son, they are busy today and we are busy today so it won’t work out.”

And then he’ll say, “Then text Pastor Joseph. He’ll make it work out.”

Last weekend we had raked up a big pile of leaves and, in fact, Joseph and I had texted about getting the kids together at our house to play in them and on the zipline and swingset. It was going to be so awesome. As soon as Jasper knew that he was out at the curb. He knows not to stand in the street (most days) but he was right at the edge where the concrete forms a ledge, craning his neck to look down the road in their direction. We can usually see and even hear them coming because they are always riding their bikes or pushing a stroller—that’s how close we live.       

They seemed to be a bit detained. Jasper stepped even closer to the road, refusing to take his eye off the corner they would be rounding. “We’ll hear them soon,” I promised him. And closer and closer to the edge of our property line Jasper crept, and as he turned in his impatience to beg me to let him loose he didn’t even see them roll up that day in their Subaru, surprising us all.

That, my friends, is the true Advent posture. More than lighting another candle on the wreath, more than hanging a beloved ornament on a Christmas tree, more than even, we might say,  placing the familiar characters of a nativity set in their creche. We today—we every day of this season, we truly every day of our faith—are a 5-year-old at the curb, standing as close to the edge as possible, hoping, waiting, wondering, and full of joyful anticipation. Stand up and raise your heads, for our friend Jesus will be here soon.

And let us remember we don’t stand on the edge of the curb waiting for an infant Jesus but a fully grown one—we’re not expecting the weak and vulnerable Jesus of nativity scenes but a powerful and commanding one, one who comes to join us and bring to bear the full meaning of his resurrection to us and the whole world.

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago about the secret power of reconnecting with old friends, and how “pals from the past can give us a sense of stability in turbulent times.”[1] Advent is waiting for a good friend in turbulent times, a friend we already know, one we’ve already had meals with and conversations with, one who has already sought us out when we were lost like sheep, one whose voice is as familiar as the words of a Christmas carol. This Jesus is on the way, so let us be ready.

If Advent is about anything, it is about remembering again that our lives are situated in a particular story. It is not just any story, and it’s even the story of Christmas. Like doors on a calendar, our lives are arranged within the context of a grand narrative, that God is writing and that one day God will finish. One day that last door will be opened. This is God’s history, the true history of all things, one that that reaches back to the very beginning when light and matter first exploded onto the scene and continues through the particular promises to a people called Israel and now includes, thanks to our baptism, the likes of you and me. Kind of like how New Year’s Day is a time many people use to make resolutions or re-claim some goals and re-orient their habits, Advent is a time for the people of God to re-orient ourselves to God’s story and the person to which it is leading.

This is the way in which Paul speaks words of comfort and encouragement to the church in Thessalonica. They are a church struggling to be faithful in a region that doesn’t understand their beliefs or buy into God’s timeline. Paul had been with the Thessalonians for a while, a congregation he himself had helped to start, but for several years had been pulled away from them by other commitments elsewhere. He receives word that they are doing well in his absence, but that they are worried for their future and what will lie around the corner for them.

In order to spur them along, he praises them and reminds them of their place in God’s story. Paul reminds them that God is, despite the troubles they face, despite the separation they are living with, the real author of time and is still moving the plot along. Despite the uneasiness they are feeling, in spite of the fear, God has used them to bring Paul so much joy. In admitting that he prays night and day most earnestly that he may see them again face to face, he shows them and us that meeting together is the goal. There is no substitute for it when it comes to following Jesus. A livestream of worship is good, a Zoomed Thanksgiving is preferable to none, as we’ve all learned, but actually being in each other’s presence is the goal. Jesus’ followers, Paul says, will continue to increase and abound in love toward each other and for all, and they will one day soon stand blameless before God when Jesus arrives again. When you are part of God’s story in Jesus, the future is always ultimately hopeful, the future is always ultimately good, because it is centered on the Bethlehem star, Jesus Christ himself.

This is difficult to remember when the world is constantly trying to center us on so many other things and trying to give us so many other stories. An ominous new coronavirus variant seems to threaten our progress towards this pandemic’s end. Countries rattle sabers and position troops at borders, challenging our beliefs that peace is possible. Things like small town Christmas parades become scenes of death and loss and unbelievable sadness. Media coverage of court cases and crimes try to convince us that humans are destined to be torn along lines of race and class and ethnicity and political persuasion.

The narratives of our brokenness and divisiveness and anger and disgust are out there, and they are in and around us. It is so tempting to hear them and give into them so that our hearts are weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, to get despondent and doubt God’s power to save. It is tempting to turn to conspiracy theories and fall prey to con artists.

But in Advent we remember That Story—how Jesus first came into a world rife with conspiracy theories and con artists. That’s kind of what he does. It’s his thing. He is first born in a backwater town under oppressive military rule. He is a righteous branch of David that grows up and blossoms in a thorny region that is a geographical and ethnic hodge-podge of loyalties. And he eventually dies at the hands of the emperor’s henchmen when there is all kinds of distress among the nations. His defining moment is when everything is falling apart, even for him. Jesus comes speaking peace and love and service to the neighbor and these are words that do not pass away. The world will become shaky and unsteady but these things he shares and lives are the firm foundation.

A few weeks ago it dawned on some of us that the restrictions and challenges of pandemic living will once again put a damper on many of our congregation’s Advent traditions of telling and sharing this word. Even with child vaccination rates on the rise we are reluctant to let our guard down fully and group children in large crowds. To be honest, we were a little discouraged and disappointed. On top of this, a few of the people who have typically been instrumental in helping us prepare for Christmas have moved away or are not available this year.

We sent around a few emails and called a quick meeting of people who might be interested in helping out with some Advent decorating and immediately the joy and excitement was palpable. People had creative ideas and were eager to share them. They are ready to help tell the story.

the outdoor Christmas display in 2017

Russ Johnson and Bruce Garringer unearthed elements of the outdoor nativity sets and started to repair the lights. Le Lew has already put the characters in place. Ken and Linda Reckenbeil, Cathy DesLesDernier, and Bonita Wyatt all came up with ways that children and families could be safely involved in decorating the tree and learning about Chrismons. Beth Barger and other staff members are already considering ways the Christmas Eve children’s tableau could be engaging for children and safe at the same time. As we finished our meeting and seeing their faces I could not help but hear Paul’s words to the Thessalonians ring in my head: how can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you?

It is a grace to know this story and a joy to be able to tell it. It is a relief to hear ourselves once again in the midst of God’s great story where everything is repaired, and where and emphasis is always made on including the vulnerable, where a final door will be opened to reveal to all what we already trust—that on the cross, God does win.

It is a privilege to be the ones who stand in a fearful world grounded in the word that does not pass away. To be the people who stand on the curb, our heads lifted. To be the ones who say that the best thing about living in this neighborhood called creation is that we know God loves it so much his Son has died to release it from its bondage. He’s coming any minute. He is the Great Friend to all and he’s right around the corner and he’s coming any minute to show us all the full power of his love and forgiveness.

Just you wait.

It’s going to be so awesome.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “The Secret Power of Reconnecting with old Friends,” Elizabeth Bernstein in the Wall Street Journal, Nov 16, 2021

Time Changes

a sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 28B/Lectionary 33]

Mark 13:-18

How are you dealing with the end of Daylight Savings Time? Has your body figured out how to cope after a readjustment of just one hour? How about any kids or dogs living in your house? I know that it took me a few days to respond to a new sleep schedule, and when I visited the Jordan family for a pre-baptismal visit on early Monday evening, they were still patiently trying to get little Audrey to go to sleep at the new 7:30, not the old one.

I ran across a funny meme sometime this week that was a guide for putting your clocks back on various devices. It showed a photo of a smartphone in one corner with the words, “Smartphone: Leave it alone. It does its magic.” Then in the next corner was a photo of a sundial. It said, “Sundial: move one house to the left.” In the bottom corner was a photo of a kitchen oven. It said, “Oven: You’ll need a Masters in Electric Engineering or a hammer.” And in the last corner was a dashboard in a car. It said, “Car radio: Not worth it. Wait six months.”

Each year it seems that the calls to do away with this feature of keeping track of time get louder and louder. Wherever you stand on the issue—and apparently it has become a hot-button topic, as if we need another—we have to admit that it signals the end of one little era and the beginning of another. With one flick of a button, or maybe none at all, we’ve entered a more winter mode. Things are darker, at least in the evenings. Night owls are probably pleased. We feel like cozying down for the year’s end. And as hard as we think we have it, just imagine what it used to be like to keep track of time when the whole calendar and month-numbering system often re-started every time a new emperor took control. At least we don’t have to do that!

It does make us think, though: if time can change, and if even we can change it as one whole huge society, then what can’t be changed? What things are not altered or affected by eras and epochs? What can we count on tomorrow, and the day after that? We can tell this morning that the disciples of Jesus certainly thought the temple in Jerusalem was in that category. It was enormous. It was gargantuan.

This was the temple whose reconstruction King Herod the Great had undertaken. By the time of Jesus and his disciples it had grown to become one of the world’s greatest edifices. It took up about 36 acres. Some of the stones used to make it would have measured about 6 ½ feet in length and weighed tens if not hundreds of tons. You can imagine that to a first century small town fisherman or tax collector, which is what most of the disciples were, who was living in a time before dynamite and nuclear bombs, the destruction of such a huge and imposing building was unimaginable. It would seem absolutely impenetrable and immovable, something that could only be added to, not taken apart.

And their reaction is especially important if you realize the disciples were not just admiring the size and grandeur of the temple. They probably wanted to start measuring it for curtains and drapes because they were thinking that once Jesus came into power, they would be the ones exerting power and influence from there. After all, the disciples are still not clued into the nature of Jesus’ mission and kingdom at this point. They have not yet figured out, even though Jesus has gone over and over it multiple times, that his kingdom is not about big buildings or thrones or exerting force over people and impressing everyone with power and control.

What is his kingdom about? A look back on the journey they’ve just had with Jesus to reach this point would give us a great idea. Like the times he showed compassion to people who were sick or possessed by demons, and the time he crossed racial and ethnic boundaries to talk with a foreign woman whose daughter was dying. Or the many times he talked about children and even brought them onto his lap, using their simplicity and trustfulness as an example of faith. And just before this point, on the way up into Jerusalem, he stopped to call over a blind beggar named Bartimaeus who had been silenced by his disciples. Then he gave him sight. These are the signs of Jesus’ kingdom and they will form the foundation of God’s new time. They will be the kinds of things that will last, no matter what kind of tumultuous days occur between now and then. The things done that reflect Jesus’ kingdom of selflessness and mercy and compassion will be the things that go on forever.

I bet if I were to ask you, for example, who the winners of the last five World Series were, or who the winners of the last five Academy Awards for Best Actor were, you would be hard pressed to name them. We might be able to name the wealthiest person on the planet right now, for example, because that’s in the news, but could any of us name the wealthiest person in 1990? Or 1950? But, by contrast, if I were to ask you to name five people who have made a difference in your life, who have taught you something invaluable, who have helped you find your way through a difficult time, you’d be able to rattle them off with ease. These are the building stones of Jesus’ new kingdom. And they aren’t torn down.

And that kingdom is coming. It’s being birthed right now, right as we speak as we gather in his name, right as you drop your Thanksgiving basket donations here in the Commons, right as you set aside a portion of your time to pray and sing when you could be doing something else, right as you offer some of your Tuesday nights for the next year to sit on Council, right as you speak out and act through the political system to bring peace and justice to all, right as you sign up to serve a meal at the Liberation Veterans Services shelter, right as you consider bringing a foster child into your home, right as you pick up the phone to check in on your friend who is grieving, right as you stop to admire the fall colors around you and give thanks to God that even in dying there can be beauty and hope for spring. We are in the birth pangs of a new time, a new era that Jesus is ushering in with the selfless giving of his life. And everything that does not support that new life will be torn down and done away with. Eventually. As it happens, not too long after Jesus speaks these words, the temple in Jerusalem did fall. Unbelievably and traumatically the Roman army managed to burn it and reduce it to rubble, scattering the Jewish people from their home into the world.

Interestingly enough, it was just about two years ago that the new statue by Kehinde Wiley outside the VMFA was unveiled. It is called “Rumors of War,” a title that may seem strange to some but shouldn’t be to us because it comes straight from Jesus’ own mouth in this morning’s gospel lesson about the coming kingdom. He says, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.” Jesus is telling his disciples to be patient and vigilant and calm during tumultuous times as the world makes this transition into his eternal kingdom. Wiley designed his large statue, which features an ordinary black man in dreadlocks and blue jeans sitting atop a horse, as a response to the many equestrian Confederate statues that, at the time, were along Monument Avenue. Calling the statue Rumors of War is a way to say, Things aren’t over. The powers that be won’t have the final say. Nations rise against nation, even within themselves. And that things we regard as permanent and sacred will be brought down.

That was in early December 2019, and as the statue was unveiled I don’t think any of us had any inkling of an idea that within two years all of those Confederate statues would be brought down. They were kind of like Richmond’s version of the Jerusalem temple, immovable architectural objects that people identified with our city. Nowadays, only two statues remain along the Monument Avenue corridor—the one by Wiley and the Arthur Ashe memorial, which depicts him teaching children.

Regardless of where we each stand on the issue of statues, kind of like regardless on where we stand on Daylight Savings time, we have to admit it is powerfully amazing and exhilarating when we see the words of Jesus come to life in quite such vivid fashion. All will be thrown down, and that means some things that we love and things we revere will belong to the old time that is passing away, reduced to rubble. And I assume that means Wiley’s statue and Arthur Ashe’s, too, eventually. It hurts to think about sometimes.

But these are birth pangs. A new world of life and mercy and forgiveness forevermore is coming to term. A new life of true freedom and true joy is emerging. The Irish rock band has a song with a line that says “Freedom has a scent like the top of a newborn baby’s head.” I’ve always been enamored with that line…so much so that when each of our children were born, I asked the attending physician to let me sniff the top of their heads before she took them to be washed and weighed.

But perhaps I didn’t need to do that. That is what our heads smell like—freedom—marked with the cross and washed as they are in the waters of baptism. Moving forward. Not being swayed by the wars or rumors of wars or by those who will try to be a savior for us in Jesus’ place. We wait for the one who has already claimed us, Jesus the true Savior, our internal timepieces and our eyes and our hearts and our faith set by the cross on this exciting new era—World Savings time.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

“Death Be Never Last”

a sermon for All Saints Sunday [Year B]

John 11:32-44 and Isaiah 25:6-9

“Death be now but never last.” The guy who wrote that hymn, Ray Makeever, composed those words just after his wife’s death from cancer. He says the words came to him as he woke up from a nap—a nap he had taken weary from grief no doubt—like a voice of God speaking to his mind. “Death be now but never last” is not just a line from Makeever’s hymn. It is, in fact, the refrain of the church on this festival of all its saints—like something we’d say at Easter but here in the midst of autumn and its days of decreasing light and warmth. God speaks to us into the haze of our grief: “Death be now but never last.”

Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life, the Alpha and the Omega, a force of life that makes all things new and so death be now but never last.

The hands that were pierced with nails are already wiping away our tears for the day to come and the head that bled from thorns now wears a crown of victory reminding us that thought death be in our presence now, it is never last.

And, oh, how we need to hear this refrain because right now we look around and it seems all we see is death. We look around and see so many faces covered with masks and other reminders of this blasted pandemic. We look around and we see looming inflation and supply chain failure, natural disasters and famine. We look around and we notice how dreadfully tomb-like life seems to be—people still sequestered in their homes or nursing care facilities or hospitals, guests limited to one at a time, if at all. I hear in conversations with people more themes of burnout and fatigue, more than I ever have before. Death be now…death be so now.

It was that way for Lazarus and his sisters, and the town of mourners in Bethany who had assembled outside his tomb. Death be already four days for Lazarus who had succumbed to his illness before his buddy Jesus could get there to say goodbye or maybe—hopefully—work one of his healing miracles to save him. He’s already wrapped up in the traditional ceremonial cloths that give dignity to the deceased and help shield it a bit from the forces of decay. Jesus finally shows up and it is death and its ugliness everywhere he looks. People are crying, Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha are understandably distraught, maybe even a little frustrated at Jesus, and the whole scene is loss and grief—except for a few who use it as an opportunity to mock Jesus.

It even affects Jesus. Not once, not twice, but three times in this short passage we see Jesus overcome with emotions. The people there seem to interpret Jesus’ tears as sorrow and grief, thinking that he is crying because he was close to Lazarus and was sad to see him die. That may be so, and we certainly find it moving that the Lord of life would weep like we do at the death of a friend. But the Greek word used for Jesus’ reaction of great disturbance is more in line with anger and agitation. Jesus sees everyone else standing around Lazarus’ tomb and is overcome with righteous frustration at the chaos and devastation and, yes, burnout and fatigue brought about by the presence of death and sin.

Regardless of what Jesus’ emotions mean, we can definitely notice what Jesus’ first words are. It’s a question: “Where have you laid him?” Jesus’ first instinct in the midst of this turmoil is to go to where the death is. It’s as if he asks, “Where have you stashed your sorrows, your griefs? Where have you locked away your dead ends, your failed dreams? That is precisely where I want to go?” And when we’d rather explain to God why that sounds like a dumb idea, that we’ve already given up, that there would be no use to go there, Jesus just insists those are the things he wants to see. He wants to know the things that bring us pain he wants to know where the grief springs from for he knows that in those places is precisely where God’s glory can be shown. If death must be now, then Jesus must be there.

And so he goes to the very door of the tomb of Lazarus, a cave that has been enclosed with a large stone. Against the murmurs of doubt and surprise, against the warnings about the stench from inside, Jesus calls Lazarus out, and Lazarus walks right out, alive and well again. Because death be now, but never last.

We have probably seen so many churches and cathedrals of so many different kinds that we may not realize that the first public spaces that Christians created and occupied for themselves were not churches or social halls but rather cemeteries. Archaeologists have long known that he oldest distinctly Christian space was a set of underground burial chambers constructed in Rome in the early 3rd century called the catacombs of Callixtus. And in those burial chambers early Christians celebrated worship right alongside the bones of their dead loved ones, so confident were they of Jesus’ promise to make all things new and call forth life from the depths of darkness.

But even more profound than that is the fact that along the walls and ceilings of these dark chambers and passageways are images and designs created with paint and mosaic. They are the first known original Christian artworks.[1] Prior to this, all examples of Christian art were artifacts and trinkets borrowed from secular sources or other religions. The first unique expressions of Christian beauty were created right there in the tombs. What a powerful statement of the gospel! Although death may think it will have its say and last forever, although grief may scream loud and long, those who’ve been claimed by Jesus know that life has the final word. “We’re going to scrawl images of hope and joy right here on the walls of these tombs!”

Catacombs of Callixtus

Beauty and life have the final word because Jesus himself goes to where the death is and speaks into it. He doesn’t just call Lazarus forth, but lays in the tomb himself, dead as he can be, dead from hanging on a cross, so that God may raise him up again. This is the reality that pierces our autumn gloom, our days of grief and burnout here in November 2021.

And so we have hope that death be now but never last for each of our Lazaruses too.

For the Lazarus who loved to golf, but whose cancer crept back by surprise despite the gains made in treatment over the past two years. For the Lazarus who liked to work with wood, but who was taken suddenly by a heart attack as he happily worked on a home improvement project with his son-in-law. For the one who love the Yankees, but who could not turn back the affects of dementia and pneumonia, and the one who died peacefully in her sleep in the bedroom just downstairs from her beloved granddaughters. For the Lazarus who was a big UVA fan, but who died on a ventilator with COVID, unable to share his last days with his family, who heard his last earthly prayer and “I love you” through a Zoom call on an iPad that a nurse, head-to-toe in PPE, held over the bed. Death be now but never last for them and all the others, and we name our dead and through our tears paint the beauty of God their lives on the walls of our sorrow, We talk of that beauty because their lives pointed to that kingdom, a kingdom where because of Jesus’ love they are unbound and free to go.

We all wait for that day, in fact, in the tombs of here and now. We wait for that promised day when the tears will be dried from our eyes, when the shroud that is cast over all peoples will be destroyed fully by the wounds and the tears of our Redeemer. Just as we await the end of these pandemic restrictions, we cast our eyes even farther past, toward that time when all will be gathered unto God on his holy mountain, a scene that the prophet Isaiah reassures God’s people with at a time when they are wandering and without hope.

Back in the spring a member of our church council who works in public relations for the Virginia ABC had to arrange a photo shoot for an article that was going to be run in the ABC magazine, a quarterly publication that goes by the clever name Spirited Virginia. The article, in fact, was in part about emerging from a year’s worth of shutdown by gathering with friends you haven’t seen in a while and serving festive drinks to celebrate.

To find people for this photo shoot, this council member decided to enlist none other than some friends from her church small group here at Epiphany. They all gathered one spring day out at her river house and concocted a bunch of fake cocktails and drinks with food coloring and posed with their glasses raised in celebration. You can go to page 35 and page 22 of the fall 2021 edition of Spirited Virginia and see Epiphany members toasting drinks which, for the purposes of photography, aren’t even real. Apparently it was such a good time that one of them even knocked over a whole tray of fake margaritas.

In a time of stress I know several of us have gotten more than one chuckle at the thought of this scene—people I know and love having a good time with each other pretending to party as models in a magazine. Like Isaiah’s vision, it was to cast hope towards a brighter time in our near future. But even this cheerfulness pales in comparison to the laughter and joy and relief we will all experience when God’s victory over sin and death is complete. There won’t be any fake food coloring in the drinks on that day. It will be rich food and well-aged wines, as the prophet Isaiah promises, food filled with marrow and well-aged wines strained clear.

And the Lord God will wipe away all tears from all faces and, I’m sure, all facemasks and ventilators too. And the Lord God will be done with agitation and anger at all the damages done by death. And he will look at the all the disgraces that hold us back from God’s good life and say with a loud voice of love: “Unbind my people and let them go. Let them go forever for I, I am the resurrection and the life. Death be then,” God will say, “but Christ it is never, ever last!”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The First Thousand Years, Robert Louis Wilken. Yale University Press. 2012. pages 47ff