We Had to Celebrate

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

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

“But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

When was the last time you had to celebrate something? When was the last time something happened—or something was about to happen—that was so important that it actually needed a party to acknowledge it? Was it a major birthday? A retirement? Spring Break? There have been stories in the news over the past week about just how much college students are letting loose on Florida beaches this year. Two years of a pandemic have bottled up the intense desire to release a little school stress. Miami Beach actually had to institute a nightly curfew last week amid a rise in violence and if Miami Beach has a curfew you know things have gotten out of control.

Not too long ago my family felt we had to throw a party for one of my children upon their successful achievement of potty-training. I had never even thought of such a party, but after a long, long, arduous process of cajoling and coaxing, Herculean levels of patience, and countless loads of dirty laundry, my wife Melinda looked at me one day and said, “We have to do something big to mark this moment.” So we did. The whole affair was a mixture of carrot-on-a-stick reward for him and a chance to let loose for us. He got to choose the menu. Melinda made cupcakes. We used toilet paper rolls as centerpieces. His grandparents got to be guests, and he even got presents, including a Spiderman puzzle. We took photos. It seemed outlandish, but all of us were into it.

Jesus tells a story about a party that just had to happen and it’s outlandish too. There was a moment that needed to be marked. After—who knows?—months, maybe years of Herculean levels of patience a son had finally returned to his father after having squandered his whole inheritance. There are creative table decorations. Not toilet paper rolls, but something elaborate, for sure. Mom goes all out. There’s a huge calf on the spit over the fire, drinks flowing, and apps for everyone! The guest list includes anyone the son can think of—first and second cousins, guys he went to high school with, people from church, next door neighbors. The father sends him out to the mall with his credit card beforehand so he get a whole new wardrobe just for the party. Talk about letting loose! There will be no curfew here! They will carry on as long as they want and as loud as they want and the dad is happy to watch from the patio as the DJ kicks it old school.

It’s the party that had to happen. The whole parable Jesus tells is quite a doozy—the boy mouthing off to his dad at the start and then eating with pigs—but the party at the end was the part that would have stood out the most. Everyone who heard the story would have gotten stuck on that particular part. Why in the world did this father, who had just doled out a good portion of his legacy to this son and then watched him throw it all away feel like rewarding him with a big blow-out? Why go over-the-top? Why not just quietly and peacefully bring him back in, discuss it all as a teaching moment over a beer?

The Return of the Prodigal Son (Rembrandt)

Why? Because that is how glad and thankful this father is. This father loves it that his child has come back to where he truly belongs. This father is elated that his family is whole again, that the kids are safe and sound. This is how God thinks of us.

Jesus tells this story because he needs certain people to hear that. The Pharisees and the scribes need to understand that this is how God feels about people who return. Call it extravagant, call it prodigal, call it elaborate, but it is a fundamental aspect of God’s character, and some people just don’t seem to get it. God loves his children and this is how he feels about then when they wander and come home. This is how God feels about people who make huge mistakes, who are hurtful and wasteful and ungrateful.  This is how God receives those who come to themselves even after making terrible, destructive choices.

There’s an old hymn that goes, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” God’s mercy is wider than we can imagine. It’s like standing on the sand down at Virginia Beach and trying to see Morocco or whatever is straight across. God’s love is like that. There’s actually a website you can go to that will tell you what is exactly across the ocean from where you’re standing and apparently if you go straight out from the coastline at Virginia Beach you actually won’t hit land until the southern coastline of Australia because of the curvature of the earth, which is an interesting bit of geographic trivia that actually makes the old hymn even better. God’s mercy is so wide, and all too often people like the Pharisees and other really religious folk like to draw the lines closer in.

Website is here

Sometimes Jesus tells parables to illustrate a point about God’s kingdom. Sometimes Jesus tells parables to warn people about certain kinds of behavior. Everyone once in a while Jesus tells a parable specifically so that one of his listeners might hear themselves in it. This is one of those times, and Jesus is hoping that the Pharisees and the religious leaders hear themselves in that older son, the one who didn’t wander and eat with the pigs, the one who didn’t insult the father by leaving. Often the younger son gets the attention, but in fact Jesus is really driving home a point to that older son—that one child found really is beneficial to the whole house. Being in the father’s care is life itself, something that older son still has and never lost.

What’s interesting to me is how easily this father leaves the safety of his estate to reach out to his kids. He leaves not once, but twice, in order to draw his sons into his love. A lot of the attention falls on that first son as he comes home on the road. The father rushes out to greet him and throws his arms around him. But again, the Pharisees need to hear that the father comes out of the house again—he even leaves the party he’s throwing, in order to have the son feel and understand his love and what the heart of this faith is. The heart of faith is joy, not getting everything right all of the time, not wagging fingers at those who trip up. The heart of mercy is focus on the other, not self. It is about remembering the embrace of the Father is always wider than the sins of the son.

I wonder if it might help to hear this parable as the difference between the concepts of equality and equity. The older son is very focused on both sons being treated equally, but the father knows he needs to treat them equitably. Equal treatment means each son gets the same, no matter what. Young son gets a big party, older son deserves at least a small party, right?

But God is more concerned that each son get what they need. The young son needs a big party to contrast just how far he strayed and how great it is to have him back. The older son doesn’t need that because he has always had the life of his father’s house.

Likewise, when the Pharisees see Jesus hanging out with the sinners, that is a case of God giving them what they most need. They need to feel and know that God still considers them children of the house. The Pharisees should see them as brothers or sisters and their own experience of God’s kingdom would be enhanced. Jesus wants those who maybe haven’t wandered as much to have some compassion, which is exactly what moves the father to embrace the son on the road. Episcopal priest and author Fleming Rutledge says in her book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ says, “Trying to understand someone else’s predicament lies at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.”[1]

Jesus wants all of his disciples—the Pharisees, the wandering, you and me—to see another’s predicament, to see God as running to give people precisely the forgiveness and grace they need and to rejoice with one another as we each receive it. Because one day he runs to us. He runs out to where we all are, at whatever point on the road as we limp along in shame, to have us home.

Eventually, Jesus will run so far and so hard that he will run right into death for us. He will run until they nail his hands and feet so that the wideness of God’s mercy  will stretch all the way across to hell and bring us back. Because a household where we all rejoice and suffer together is such a blessed place to be. Younger and older, dead and alive, lost and found.

This week our friends from Hanover Adult Center were over here making sliders with Rob Hamlin for lunch one day. They worked hard in the kitchen putting together three different kinds—ham and mustard with poppyseed, Philly cheese steak, and pepperoni pizza. After they were done, they invited all of us in the office into the conference room to enjoy lunch with them. It was kind over the top. I wasn’t expecting such a decadent lunch that day, but I’m glad they compelled me to come.

While we were hanging out, having a great time, one of the Adult Center folks named Franklin wanted to tell us something. As it turns out, Franklin is completely deaf, so he started signing to us excitedly, spelling out words and phrases faster than we could understand. Greg Claud was the interpreter, and he said that Franklin was telling us that his birthday had been that Monday and the friends in his group home had blown him up a big balloon and had made him a birthday cake. Franklin is unable to read lips, so he depends a lot on facial expressions and vibrations in communication. So when his friends made things he could see like balloons and a cake and when they clapped really loudly on his birthday and smiled really big with clear eye contact it was more obvious to him that they were celebrating him and that made him so happy. So happy he was still telling people about it Thursday over sliders.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, however you are—hear this, please: God is clapping for you, smiling for you, making eye contact with you. Balloons, cake, bread, wine. Forgiveness with no curfew. It’s all here. For you. And God is sooo happy.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge

An Answer to the Puzzle

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent [Year C]

Luke 13:1-9 and Isaiah 55:1-9

What is your Wordle score today? Have you posted it, with its cryptic little pattern of green and yellow squares? One of the biggest trends to hit the world in the past several months, the Wordle game, which is now posted daily, like a crossword puzzle, by The New York Times, allows you to guess a five-letter word in six attempts. Getting the right word in four attempts is pretty good. Three is above average. And getting it on your second or even first attempt is really blind luck. You may be proud to know that our very own Richmond ranks in the top ten cities in terms of Wordle scores. Based on what I see on Facebook, I think some of the members of this congregation are helping us get there.

The growth in popularity of Wordle is staggering, and if by now you haven’t given it a shot, chances are you know someone who has. At the beginning of November 2021 the game had 90 players. By the start of February it had grown to over 2 million, and I’m sure there are even more now. Its popularity has spawned countless offshoots of Wordle, all built on the same premise of guessing something each day with only a few attempts. Quordle lets you guess four five-letter words simultaneously, which is like Wordle on steroids. Worldle gives you a silhouette of a country each day and six attempts to guess it. Heardle, a sound-based game, lets you guess a song each day, but it only gives you about a second of it at a time. There is Birdle, Lewdle, Bardle. Taylordle is for Taylor Swift fans. Perhaps the one for the biggest nerds of all: Tradle, which lets you guess a country based on the breakdown of its total exports.

Whether it’s Wordle or something else, all this is to say, we humans love our puzzles. We love riddling things out and finding patterns in things. And we’re generally good at it. It’s one of our greatest strengths, one of the hallmarks of being made in the image of God. The keen ability to discover patterns and tease out methods to the universe’s madness is what allowed us to put men on the moon and create a COVID vaccine in less than a year.

But the natural urge to find meaningful patterns in things does more than that. Sociologists and psychologists know that humans have an inherent need to “storify reality,” as Joe Pinsker writes in the Atlantic this week.[1] That is, we instinctively look at things that happen in the world or that happen to us and we try to make sense of them by mapping them into a narrative. We look for those patterns, those causes and effects, ups and downs.

That is what is happening when Jesus is approached this week by people wondering about a recent tragedy in the news. They are trying to storify their reality. Background details are fuzzy, but apparently some Jews from Galilee had been murdered by Pontius Pilate and then, as if that weren’t barbaric and mean-spirited enough, he had mingled some of their blood with the sacrifices to a pagan god. Everyone would have probably been talking about this, kind of like how many of us are talking about some of Vladimir Putin’s brutal attacks on civilians in Ukraine. These people talking about it with Jesus  and their little brains have been going and they wonder if there might be a pattern. Did these people die this awful way for a reason? Is there some method to this madness? Were they, for example, somehow worse sinners than other people and they were just getting their due?

destruction in Mariupol, Ukraine

And Jesus responds to that question by citing another recent tragedy in the news— the tower over in Siloam that fell unexpectedly and killed some people. It was a cruel, unexpected event—so cruel and saddening that there must be a reason behind it. But no, he says, they weren’t any better or worse than anyone else in Jerusalem.

He doesn’t say it specifically, but the message is there for us to hear: sometimes bad things just happen. Sometimes tragedies occur—whether the big, momentary ones like a tower falling or the long-drawn out tragedies like a virus that spreads and mutates and takes out lives and changes others over a long period of time. There are some things that just don’t have an underlying pattern, and human suffering is often one of them. Even with a loving, active God at the heart of the universe, human suffering is, for now, a part of our existence, and no matter how many attempts we’re given we won’t solve its riddle.

This is hard. I can imagine that the people who asked Jesus that question were a bit perplexed, if not terribly disappointed, that day. After all, if anyone could riddle out those tragedies, it would be him. Knowing that there is grand reason behind something, hoping there is a greater design behind all the hardships we face, might help us live our own lives better or face the inevitable dark day. This is why conspiracy theories are so popular. They offer some kind of plan or system for chaotic and troubling times.

There have been times when I’ve been especially unnerved by other people’s suffering, and have wondered, as I’ve pondered their situation from a relative distance, how there could even be a loving Creator. A story is told of a young Steve Jobs, founder of Apple products, who once, at age 13, asked his Sunday School teacher about the starving children on the front of a Life magazine cover. “Does God know about this,” he asked, pointing to the photo, “and what’s going to happen to these children?” Apparently whatever the pastor said did not satisfy the young Jobs and he left church and God, never to return again. That seems drastic to me, especially because he didn’t ever seem to give his life to helping those children, but I can understand that frustration.

suffering that is very hard to understand

That’s what Jesus is dealing with this morning. Questioning things about our faith is OK, for sure, but in the end we are in really tricky territory, he says, when we start riddling and postulating things about God and suffering especially when it’s suffering we’re not directly involved in. Because when we do that we’re essentially just using other people as bullet points in our internal debates about God. And people, Jesus reminds us, aren’t bullet points. They are people we draw near to, to listen to, to pray with, and when we do, we find we are changed. We often find they actually have a deep and abiding faith in a God who loves them in spite of what we perceive they are going through.

That’s the gist of this parable of the budless fig tree that Jesus tells which is intended to nip any conspiracy theories about God in the bud. It’s a fig tree that hasn’t produced anything in three years. Maybe it’s because he’s planted it in a vineyard rather than an orchard, but who knows? In any case, this landowner is tired of its lack of fruit and so he wants the gardener to cut it down. It’s wasting space. It’s wasting nutrients in the soil. What it is is a suffering little fig tree.

But the gardener steps in and says let me take care of it. The gardener is merciful. He sees potential in the tree. He is not as concerned about the soil or even the grapevines it shares it with as he is with the tree itself and its value and the fruit it may give. The gardener wants to give it some more manure, to put a little more effort into it, irrigate around the roots, let the water drip down some more.

Good gardeners, I’ve noticed are like this. I’m not. I have a garden plot at home and it’s about this time of year when I’m wondering what needs to be dug out and what needs to stay. What I’ve learned is that sometimes it’s really hard to tell, especially early on, which perennials are going to send up shoots this year and which ones aren’t. Or which ones might be dormant now but shoot something up next year. To know I have to get really close, or just be patient. I have to dig around, be willing to get my hands dirty, something that landowner is not really willing to do but the gardener is. It’s a gardener willing to get up close to the suffering tree.

The parable is Jesus’ lesson that when it comes to God and God’s interaction with the world there is no pattern other than God wanting to be near it and see potential where we often don’t. Human suffering cannot be calculated or mapped out or placed into any grand story or theory that will make sense. I’m not even sure it makes sense to God. That is, God seems less concerned with giving us a grand explanation about why bad things happen as he is with just experiencing bad things with us. God is a gardener who wants to be close to the suffering. He wants to give another chance for growth and fruitfulness even when things have not gone well. He wants to shift our question from “Why has this happened?” to “How can I grow from this now that it has happened?”

That is the act of repentance, and to do that he will provide us with whatever we need, even when our branches are bare to help us grow and survive and give something back to the world. On the cross he shows his awesome commitment to this, his commitment to enter and be with unjust, inexplicable suffering of the world. We stand before his cross as we stand before God. That is, we stand before God primarily not as people who need answers but as people who need mercy, as people who need healing, as people who can turn and repent because we are broken too.

Productive fig tree, (Jasper Martin, 2022)

And God loves broken people. God loves situations that feel drained of life and hope. There is no pattern to it, no logical reason for that. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are God’s ways our ways, the prophet Isaiah reminds us this morning. He says come to the waters everyone who thirsts, You don’t even need money! Come and have wine and milk without a price! God just loves broken people, seeks them out—people who feel they can’t grow, people who feel they have little useful to contribute, communities who feel they’re banging their head against a wall, families who feel they’re a lost cause. God believes in the fig trees no one else does.

And if God does, then the church should too. In all our ministries, outreach, conversations, relationships, we imitate that gardener, getting close to those who need some care and attention, not judging them, not approaching them as puzzles to solve but as people to love. Like the way our Stephen Ministers sit and listen attentively to people who are hurting. Like the way our confirmation mentors offer an ear and maybe some lived experience now and then with no other goal but to accompany them the confirmand on the faith journey. And we approach ourselves that way too, as a fig tree that needs a bit more time, a bit more TLC.

Because at the end of the day, the way God approaches us is not some hidden discovery we have to ponder and decipher. It’s not a secret, it’s not a mystery but it’s always a surprise, like a cross that stands open to the sky. You see, when it comes to how God deals with us and what Jesus’ love is like, the answer comes down to one five-letter word each and every time. I’ll give it to you now, with the letters in order. Make sure you share it with everyone. Are you ready?

It’s G-R-A-C-E.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “Our Brains Want the Story of the Pandemic to be Something It Isn’t,” in The Atlantic. Joe Pinsker, March 10, 2022

At the Beginning, Wilderness

a sermon for the First Sunday in Lent [Year C]

Luke 4:1-13

One of the stories that gets told in our household from time to time is of the difficulties we had weaning our middle child off her pacifier. She did not want to give that thing up and would refuse to sleep without it.  You could put it in her mouth even when she old enough to talk on her own and it would almost make her eyes roll back in her head. When the time came for us to start removing it, maybe when she was around 2 or so, we calmly explained that big kids didn’t need pacifiers anymore. We braced ourselves for a few nights of bad sleep and fussy behavior.

One of those first days Melinda went out to run errands and stayed home to put the girls to bed. When Melinda came back, I told her that Laura had been really fussy and restless and I had needed to go in a few times and get her back in bed. Then, I said, suddenly she just stopped crying. Melinda said, “I bet she has a pacifier.” We went up into her room, and sure enough, she was sleeping with a pacifier in her mouth and one in her hand. How had she gotten them? We had hidden them behind Melinda’s jewelry box on the top of our dresser. Maybe Laura had found some other ones? We went into our bedroom, and there in front of our dresser was an overturned laundry basket. Items on the top of the dresser were scooted about, including the jewelry box.

Little Laura was a sneaky one. And while we were kind of proud of her determination and resourcefulness, but we also came to understand that by taking her pacifier away we had turned her comfortable bed into a wilderness. Right at the beginning of her life she had had been suffering and wrestling with temptation.

The first thing Jesus does after he is announced as God’s beloved Son on the world stage is to suffer and wrestle with temptation. The Spirit of God leads him there. I can think of a lot of other things I would choose a Savior to do first other than go off into the wilderness and experience temptation. Enjoy the attention from adoring crowds, perhaps. Choose a group of followers. Go to DisneyWorld? But we instead we hear that the Spirit leads Jesus off to struggle with demons first, and do that in, of all places, the wilderness.

The wilderness is not always a terrible place. Lots of people in Scripture found themselves in the wilderness at some point and it turns out to be a place of new discovery and new beginnings. The people of God, when they were released from slavery in Egypt, spent forty years in the wilderness and although they had many rough times there, ultimately it made them into a better people. At the time of John the Baptist, people seeking religious experiences and purity would often go live for long periods of time in the wilderness.

And, not to make light of those experiences, people still like to go camping and backpacking in our day, leaving behind the humdrum of urban or suburban life to spend time in the woods in a tent or camper. Statistics on the camping industry, in fact, indicate that 10.1 million households in America camped for the first time in the summer of 2020, the first summer of the pandemic. Our congregation, in fact, has reserved campsites at Sherando Lake State Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains this June in order to spend some community building time in a wilderness setting and I guarantee you people will have a blast. And so often people find the wilderness to be a place of growth and refreshment.

Growth, yes, but refreshment doesn’t appear to be the case for Jesus who goes there and ends up confronting the devil  and struggling with some very tricky questions. This may seem to us like a very strange way for the beloved Son of God to start his ministry, but it ends up being very helpful for us. That’s because we often fall into a trap that tells us being a faithful follower of God will lead to a life of ease and blessing. It’s a trap that tries to convince us things like…if we come to church enough then things in our life will start to fall in line, or that if we do enough good deeds then somehow God will reward us and our troubles will go away or that if we believe the right things God will notice and give us favor. What this essentially is, though, is a kind of faith that is built on how strong we are before God, or how pure we can prove ourselves to be, and right at the start Jesus blows a hole right through that way of thinking.

By going into the wilderness and willingly facing the devil, feeling hungry, enduring temptation, he shows us God’s willingness to live a human life. For if the very beloved Son of God is going to struggle in faith, if God’s anointed Messiah and Savior is going to have a rough go right from the start, then can’t we expect that we will too, somewhere along the way? Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness shows us that feeling temptation, undergoing trials and hardships, struggling and suffering aren’t signs of a lack of faith or a sign that God isn’t with us. Trials are going to be, in fact, a natural part of a life with God.

Jesus walks, as we do, in a world broken by sin and suffering. Faith, therefore, is not about figuring out a way out of hard times. It is about trusting that Jesus will get us through, even when we fail even when the times of struggle overwhelm us. We see photos of Ukrainian Christians still continuing to gather for Ash Wednesday worship services this week in bomb shelters and among the rubble of war and it helps us put this in perspective. Their suffering seems to be driving them closer to God’s care.

Ukrainians gather for prayer in a Kyiv church basement Feb. 26, 2022, as the Russian invasion of their country endures. (CNS photo/courtesy Polish Bishops’ Conference)

The devil, who is the entity in the wilderness who comes to tempt Jesus, is a mysterious figure in and of himself. Mark, Matthew, and Luke all share this story about Jesus, but they all have different names for Jesus’ competitor. Mark calls him Satan. Matthew calls him the devil but at one point substitutes it with the word “tempter.” Luke uses the word devil, or diabolos in Greek, which literally means “slanderer,” someone who deliberately tells lies. Another trap of faith is to give this being too much attention. An embodied evil being doesn’t appear anywhere else in the gospels, even when Jesus is struggling with fear and trial on the night of his arrest and betrayal.

Whether this thing or this presence is called a devil or Satan or something else the point is the same: it is an attempt for people of faith to describe the force in the world and inside us that works against the good, who wants to spread lies about whose we are and what God is like. And whether or not we find it easy to believe in the existence of an actual, physical devil, I think most of us encounter or at least observe some opposition to love and peace every day. And we really can’t overcome that opposition on our own. Martin Luther says, “No strength of ours can match his might. We would be lost, rejected.” But this brokenness is what Jesus comes to face head-on right from the start.

Put together, these three specific temptations that Jesus endures encompass all the things that would chip away at our trust in God alone. Turning stones into bread, or turning stones into pacifiers, would take away Jesus’ pain from hunger. This is about physical, bodily needs. But one does not live by bread alone because in the end God is our one true desire. God does not want anyone to be hungry, but on the other hand when we make life only about bread and not about the soul we end up having a distorted relationship with things that nourish our bodies and others’.

The second temptation, when the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, is about putting trust in power and fame, two other things that look terribly attractive to us. Again, in the wilderness, Jesus proves where his trust really lies. His response this time, also taken from the Jewish Scriptures, reminds us that we can all too often be drawn to worship and show devotion to our own status and institutions.

The third temptation might be the most difficult to withstand. The devil asks him to throw himself from the temple wall. It shouldn’t be a big deal because God will surely swoop down and save him from dying. But that is not about trusting God. It often looks like trusting God. It looks like we’re saying, “See, I can push the envelope a little bit here because God will keep me safe.” But really it is manipulation of God. In reality it is testing God to see if God will be there like some kind of divine bungy cord.

Jesus knows that kind of relationship is not a quality relationship with God. When we truly love people we don’t try things just to see how far we can push it because we think they will love us anyway. We give ourselves to them in obedience and faith. This is what Jesus models in the presence of the devil. Jesus trusts his Father and loves his Father, and so he wants to be true to that relationship. He doesn’t throw himself off the temple wall to see how far he can push it.

He also doesn’t tear himself down from the cross. When the devil leaves at the end of these temptations, Luke says he departs until “an opportune time.” The cross in the opportune time to get Jesus to turn away from his love for us, if you know what I mean. It is the supreme temptation, the ultimate time of trial, but Jesus has already proven that he is unwavering in his mission to save. He will not think of his bodily needs first. He will not think of his fame or his reputation or power first. He will not use God’s get out of jail card free. He comes to release us from all of these trials and claim us for God.

Several years ago we noticed that there were cars often parked in our parking lot at strange hours of the day. Sometimes it was right after worship was over on Sunday. Then we noticed there were people sitting in those cars. After we approached some of these people we learned from them that Epiphany is a gym in the online game known as Pokemon Go! A gym in Pokemon Go! is a place where players can battle the players of rival teams. Players from an opposing gym will go against each other in order to gain control of it. So there was this whole warfare going on out there in our parking lot in the cybersphere unbeknownst to us, a fight for control and domination.

Well and good.  And here, inside, each week, at the table, in his word, Christ reminds us he has dominated the forces of darkness and temptation and has already claimed us for his kingdom.  In fact, each and every day that we remember our baptism, and call to mind his cross Jesus is there, reminding us he did not back down or give in. For us, he did not back down and he won. And this Conqueror goes with us—Jesus Go!—now and forevermore!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Our Funeral

a sermon for Ash Wednesday

2 Corinthians 5:20–6:10

In her very short poem, “Take Your Kids to the Funeral,” American poet Michelle Boisseau, who herself died from lung cancer in 2017, pleads the case for bringing even young children to church funeral services, even though they might not understand what’s going on. Their presence will lighten the mourners’ moods as they play with the bulletin, and let their legs dangle back and forth over the pew’s edge but will also introduce them to a world of mystery and power beyond themselves.

She describes the sounds of a church sanctuary filled with grieving people, and kids can be such an unexpected gift in such a place. Often when we are often worshiping as a body, no matter when that is but especially at a funeral, our attention can’t help but be drawn to children as they squirm and find ways to pass the time. They bring life and curiosity into places of death and sadness.

Boisseau writes:

Take Your Kids to the Funeral

Let them stretch out on the cool pews
and listen to the valves of the church
pump with coughs and foot scrapes.
Let them discover the pleasing weirdness

of pressing your belly against the seat edge
and swinging your legs. Let them roll
the bulletin into a telescope, stare a hole
into their hands and heal it.

The liturgy won’t hold them, but the furtive
dabbing versus sudden bursts of tears
will foster a curiosity about powers
and exponents. Rock, paper, scissors—

luck leaps in your fingers. Bring your kids
to the funeral and let us smell their heads. 1

Today, Ash Wednesday, we bring ourselves to the funeral. In fact, if you’ve ever wondered about what this day and this worship means, it is about having the chance to show up at your own funeral. We step forward in a sanctuary with its coughs and foot scrapes and receive ashes, admitting our finitude and coming to terms with the darkness of our souls once again. It is reminiscent of one of the actions pastors perform at most burials—dropping a handful of dirt on the casket in the sign of the cross.

Just as the prophet Joel issued a call for the people of Israel to bring everyone, even the babies, and assemble in the sanctuary with weeping and fasting and mourning in order to look the fearsome destruction of death in the eye, so we assemble ourselves today and have fearsome destruction smeared between our eyes. I doubt there will be any sudden bursts of tears, but there is a somberness to this beginning of Lent, the kind of somberness we almost think is inappropriate for children to be exposed to.

We are very much alive! We may even wonder: do we even belong here? Do we need to stop and think about these things? What good could it do? Someone hand me bulletin so that I can make a telescope or play Tic-Tac-Toe. We are so filled with life. And yet are dying, and this is our funeral.

I’ve been thinking so much recently, as we all have, about the situation in Ukraine, but I’ve also been haunted by what is going on in Moscow, and in the small towns across Russia where tens of thousands of 18- and 19-year-olds have been conscripted by the Russian army and placed on the front lines, apparently without much food and without much fuel for their tanks. I think of how scared and confused they must be, how terrified and sad their parents probably are. Some of their text messages to their parents from the war in Ukraine that I’ve seen on social media are heart-wrenching to read. Ukrainian soldiers are receiving praise for their courage and flintiness, and rightly so, but what about the ones who are just miserable in their sorrow, who feel there are fighting a lost cause they did not even start? War, like funerals, to some degree, contain extremes—the brave and the fearful, the determined and the aimless, the well-resourced and the hungry. They will not need ashes from palms this year in Kyiv. Or Kabul, for that matter.

This is the world that God looks upon: The children in the pews who seem too young. The soldiers with AK-47s who are too young. The refugees with skin considered too dark. The cities with streets that are too empty. The mothers and fathers with tears they weep too soon.

And tonight, at our funeral, we hear that God does not just look on this world. God reconciles himself to this world. God himself walks into this world that contains all of these stark opposites that don’t seem to go together. Tonight, in the midst of our funeral, we rejoice because our day of salvation has come. “For our sake God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

God does not distance himself, like child left at home. God brings himself to this funeral, and makes the first move. God does not keep himself separate from what we’ve done with the world and with ourselves. God does not distance himself. God, in Christ, comes to reconcile all these things with each other and with himself in steadfast love

And so in Jesus Christ, with his cross marked on our heads, we remember that plenty of total opposites now belong together: Our sinfulness and God’s mercy. Our hard-heartedness and God’s compassion. Our inability to finish the things we start and God’s truthfulness and drive all things are complete. Our desire to hide from and ignore our call to care and God’s insistence in seeking us out and letting us try again. Our attraction to violence in solving problems and God’s standard for peace. All of these things are brought together, just as at a funeral we share our sorrows and sing with hope. And just as at a baptism we drown the old self and raise the new one up to life eternal.

Therefore we should not be surprised that the life of faith, for now, is one with so much tension between opposites. This is precisely how Paul describes it in his letter to the Corinthians, a church so caught up in their own divisions and drama that they had started to turn on him. He says that he has undergone all kinds of afflictions and hardships in order to bring this message of hope to them. He is treated as an imposter, yet is true. He is treated sorrowful, but yet always rejoicing, as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing and yet possessing everything precisely because Christ has accomplished it all for him.

When a world still does not fully acknowledge yet, or grasp that it has been died for, that unconditional love really has been poured out for it, or that God has truly conquered death and sin on the cross, faith will often be a struggle. God gives us courage to face that struggle, in ourselves and in the world around us. But God gives us the strength to move ahead knowing that the times of sorrow will have joy mixed in, and the times of hardship will have peace mixed in until the day when all it will be is joy and peace.

So we are soldiers, or a kind of fighter. Paul saw himself as one, as did some of the great figures of the Hebrew Bible—Esther, David, Miriam, Ruth, and Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego— Like them all we are called to embrace the pain and suffering and hard decisions that come with the life of faith, confident that God’s life and love is victorious in the end. Over the course of these Lenten Wednesdays we will look a little deeper at their examples of courage—whether it is in how they use their voice, or their action, or their compassion. They are people who trusted that God’s day of salvation was at hand, trusted that though death and sorrow surrounded them, God was merciful and abounding in steadfast love.

So bring yourself to this funeral tonight, and trust you may look your death right in the eye. Hear the words of sorrow and loss amidst the valves of this church’s coughs and squeaky pews.

But also know there is promise and life for you, and it has the final word—life and love of a risen Lord who claims you and lead you forth in courage.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.