Remembering to Move Forward

a sermon for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Day [Year C]

Luke 24:1-12 and 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

The women were terrified, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

In all seriousness, I actually had an experience almost like this the other day. The staff and I were trying to find one of the church’s crosses to get ready for Good Friday. We have several large crosses people have made and there was one in particular that we thought might work. However, no one seemed to remember where it might have gotten stashed, so I just started looking in some of the most logical places. I went out to the garage and snooped around. Not there. So then I looked in the storage room inside the Star Lodge. There are a lot of things in there, for sure, but a cross wasn’t among them. Finally I checked the new storage units that Tod Mitchell built a couple of years ago on the back of the Star Lodge. It’s not a place people go very often because you have to have a special key and it faces the back of the property and is a bit creepy.

What I didn’t know what that the big mannequins that we use on our front lawn for the Christmas display were stored in there. I unlocked the padlock on the door and slowly opened the door to the darkness inside, and—hiya!—there they were, these huge towering faceless figures right in front of me My heart about stopped and I jumped back a foot or two, especially because their arms are all bent upright and for a split second—a very short split second— I thought was being jumped by some tall dudes in sequined outfits. When I came to my senses, it was like they were asking, “Phillip, why are you seeking the Easter props among the Christmas decorations. The cross is not here. It is in some other location.”

The whole incident was pretty funny, but there was no one there to laugh at it. But it did get me thinking about how much of what we’re doing right now revolves around remembering how we used to do things. It has been three years since we’ve had an Easter like this. The other night on Maundy Thursday we distributed Holy Communion at the altar rail for the first time since March 2020. It felt a bit like the Keystone Cops up here. I couldn’t exactly remember which side we were supposed to go to and which direction we served. I thought I’d skipped someone with the bread; a worshipper, still chewing his morsel, kindly pointed to let me know I needed to keep going down the line. At one point Joseph asked me, “Psst. Is there another chalice bearer?” even though Matt Greenshields was standing right behind him, exactly where he was supposed to be.

I take comfort in the fact we’re all in that place, to some degree, these days. The COVID pandemic disrupted so many aspects of life. Teachers are trying to remember how to run a classroom in person. Students are trying to remember how to be in a social educational setting again. Some experts say that we were all living in crisis mode, more or less, for two years. Even thought life is moving on we find ourselves also looking back, trying to remember. As you move farther into a more open 2022, what kinds of things have you been trying to think back on?

That is where the women at the tomb find themselves on that first Easter morning: having to remember. They come to the tomb with their spices, the props of death. We can imagine they are still very much in crisis mode. As torturous as the events of Friday night had been when Jesus had been crucified so hastily because of the anger of the crowd this was still the thing you did when someone died. You gathered and prepared the spices to anoint the body in the tomb. You instinctively grab the facemask when you go into the store. You back away from the stranger who gets a little too close. You douse yourself in hand sanitizer when you get back in the car.

The stone is rolled away from the tomb when the women get there. That should have been the first clue that things had changed, that their spices might not even be needed. But they go into the tomb anyway, the darkness most likely overpowering them at first as their eyes get adjusted to the dim, damp space. They walk around, unable to locate Jesus’ body. Historians tell us tomb-robbing was a problem in first century Israel, but it wasn’t all that common for people in this socio-economic bracket; plus, the day before had been a holy day and therefore not much activity had been going on anywhere. The stone rolled away, the empty tomb—there are two very peculiar and out-of-the-ordinary occurrences that might have tipped them off to what really was going on.

Then suddenly there are these men in dazzling, maybe even sequined, clothes in front of them. The women bow down in fear and terror. It is not until the men encourage them to remember that they begin to understand what has happened. Not until these mystery figures tell them to think back to life before the great crisis of Holy Week, to cast their memories back to the more pleasant days in Galilee, that the women start to realize that the stone is rolled away and the tomb is empty because Jesus is risen from the dead.

To remember. It’s funny, isn’t it, that they find their faith in what God is doing now in Jesus doesn’t take shape until they think back to what has already been said. The men in dazzling clothes say, “Remember, women, how Jesus told you that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again?” This, itself is significant because Jesus had only shared that kind of information with his inner circle of disciples. If women at the tomb were being asked to remember something like that, then clearly women were part of Jesus’ inner circle.

The point is that long before this morning on the first day of the week, Jesus had been laying the groundwork for his resurrection. Long before the cross, long before the suffering, long before the ridiculous trial before Pontius Pilate, long before the donkey ride into Jerusalem when things start to go off the rails, Jesus had been lovingly and openly sharing with them the truth about his life and mission. All along he told them that he had come to be handed over to the authorities and be crucified. They had heard it, and now they remember it, and they are ready to understand and believe that Jesus is risen, that death has been conquered and creation is released from its bondage to sin and free to live a new life. The terror and the chaos of the crucifixion had caused them to forget, but God is always moving creation towards freedom and life.

We can think about all the times we have been told things that don’t make much sense in the moment, that don’t fully register when we hear them, but that later become crystal clear. It’s information that stays lodged somewhere, insignificant at the time, like a seed in the soil that later germinates and blossoms into faith that forms your future. Or maybe like an anchor that the sailor tosses into the sea but then forgets is there, keeping him steady all along when the fear of the rough seas takes him over. These are the words of Jesus for those first believers at the tomb.

I wonder how often someone has had to remind me, in a moment of fear and frustration, things that a teacher once told me, or a camp counselor, or one of my parents. Indeed, this is the promise of our baptism that anchors our lives. Words spoken over us by the water become the anchoring memory which guides our lives. In the crisis of faith or identity we have this moment of which we may be reminded where God claimed us with his unconditional love and spoke promise over our lives. Maybe it didn’t mean much to us at the time; maybe we don’t even remember it. The world makes us feel we are worthless, our failures make us feel we are hopeless, and our griefs make us feel we are loveless. But God thinks and knows differently, and our baptism assures us of that. It tethers us to Jesus, and Jesus is risen and God will bring his promise of new life through any thing that currently seems insurmountable.

Newborn baby baptism in Holy water. baby holding mother’s hands. Infant bathe in water. Baptism in the font. Sacrament of baptism. Child and God. Christening candle Holy water font. The priest baptize

As the apostle Paul says, reminding his Corinthian church in much the same way that the men in the tomb remind the women: “for as we all die in Adam, so we all will be made alive in Christ, but each in his own order.” And since Christ is like the first fruits of the eternal kingdom, the first return of the harvest that indicates more will come, we can be reassured that we will, in our time, die and then find ourselves awake in the presence of the living God forever.

All this is to say that God is always, always, moving things forward into new life. From the beginning this has been God’s plan—to bring the fullness of life to all to unleash each of us in service to one another. Pandemics will not stop it, chaos will not stop it, death will not stop it, and our lack of faith and memory will not stop it either.

So I don’t know what you are trying to remember from two years ago. But don’t seek the living among the dead. Christ is risen, and God gives us the courage to step out of the fear and fog and into the freedom of God’s future which he has claimed through the cross. Remember who and whose you are: forgiven and loved. Even death cannot take that away.

And then go forth like those women disciples did, to remind others who may still be in their darkness. Remind them of what Jesus has said, that they too are free to move forward into this great new life. You won’t even need to jump out of a storage shed to do it.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Made to Look Ridiculous

a sermon for Good Friday

Psalm 22

“But I am a worm, and not human. Scorned by others, and despised by the people.” Psalm 22:6

Pastor Karl-Heinz Nickel, the long-time pastor of Trinity Church in the small eastern German town of Gommern, presided over a very small parish whose numbers had dwindled almost to nothing during the years of the Communist Party’s dictatorship. Once the Berlin Wall came down and the two Germanys—the open west and the closed east—were reunited, Pastor Nickel had hoped that the church would experience some type of revival. Slowly, over the years, some people did come back to the congregation—some that were reacquainting themselves with a faith of their grandparents, others who were just curious. But overall things stayed fairly quiet.

St Trinity Evangelical Church, Gommern, Germany

I got to know Pastor Nickel during the year I lived in Gommern, and I was interested to know just why the Christian church in the former East Germany had fared so poorly compared to the church in the free west? Why had so many people essentially left the faith in the years of the communist regime? He and I had several discussions about it, and he tried to explain that communist rule implemented certain policies that made it almost impossible for the church to survive. For example, if one decided to be confirmed, which typically happened at age 15 or 16, then that person could not become a legal member of the Communist Party, which was the only ticket to most careers in adulthood. Understandably, that turned a lot of young people off to faith in general. The government also enacted many policies that made it difficult for congregations to raise funds for upkeep and for staff, and since people didn’t have a lot of personal disposable income anyway, as a result of the command economy, churches fell into disrepair.

But I remember that Pastor Nickel said that despite all of these official governmental obstacles to the flourishing of the church, the thing that probably was the worst to deal with was that Christian faith was, by and large in society, “lӓcherlich gemacht.” That is, Christian faith was made fun of, or, more accurately translated, made to look ridiculous. It wasn’t a formal policy—it was just the way faith in God was treated by people in common society. People were seen as simpletons and idiots for actually believing in things God and worshiping on Sunday and professing the power of sacrificial love. I think could detect in his voice a slight sadness and resignation as he told me. Being made to look ridiculous proved to be the biggest burden of faith. And yet they persisted.

The trials of Pastor Nickel and his flock are an extreme example, but even today in America we can feel shame for our beliefs. Even being made to wear a face mask can be humiliating.  And yet tonight we all gather to remember that the defining moment of Jesus’ life was being made to look ridiculous. How can Jesus’ followers in this life ever really expect to be the cool kids, the admired and strong, when the head himself is wounded at the pinnacle of his ministry? He hangs naked in a position of complete humiliation, hands nailed outstretched. He needs water to slake his thirst; his tormentors give him vinegar.

And that’s just the ending of it. The moment he is brought before Pontius Pilate and the soldiers it is one moment of embarrassment after another. The scarlet robe they put on him is meant to be joke. The crown of thorns is a cruel trick by his bullies. When they cast lots for his clothes as he dies, it underlines how weak and insignificant he is. He didn’t even have enough property to divide, and what he had wasn’t large enough to rip in two. Could you imagine what it would feel like to watch people you didn’t know, your haters, try to divide your belongings while you were still alive?

What a strange way to be a God. What a peculiar way to show your divinity, your dazzling other-worldly strength—to let yourself be mocked and derided when it would be completely in your power to silence them all, when it would be completely within your power to flash across the earth in a blaze of glory and amaze them all. The Tuesday morning adult Bible study this spring is reading a book together called Making Sense of the Cross by former Philadelphia Seminary president David Lose. It’s a great title, but I think the cross is hard to make sense of,  and this is one place where I’d want to start. How does humiliation really accomplish anything good? The East German rulers figured out that it is an effective way to crush a religion.

Even if he is not delighted with it, Jesus himself understands that humiliation is part of God’s plan to restore humanity to God’s love. On the cross many of Jesus words are prayers that come straight from Psalm 22, an ancient prayer of the Hebrew Bible that articulates what it’s like to be totally rejected. As he dies it’s like he’s saying his prayers:

For dogs are all around me, a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled.
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me.”

If we must make sense of the cross, then it starts by understanding God does not send Jesus simply to be mocked and tortured and encircled by evildoers. God sends Jesus to be human in a pure and selfless way. God sends Jesus to love in the way all people were created to love. And once that gets going in this dark world, the cross becomes inevitable. That is, it becomes clear pretty quickly that God’s love in Jesus must come down to meet us where we are, to search all of us out, to stand with humanity wherever humanity is found. Even when it is found in shame. Even when that shame is death.

It doesn’t feel like victory tonight. I realize that. But it truly is the best victory the world can ever hope to make sense of: the cross. To all those who have ever been made fun of, to all those who have been mocked for who you are and where you stand, to all those who haven’t fit in, to everyone who hasn’t been selected for the in-groups, who has been left behind by popularity and success, who have been enslaved, discriminated, tonight should feel really good. Because tonight God says, “I see you.” God says, “I know you feel ridiculous. But you are holy stuff. God says, “My Son, by evildoers encirled, stands with you, and he will not leave.”

So just wait a little bit, just wait with me, and see what happens next.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Even the Rocks

a sermon for Palm Sunday [Year C]

Luke 19:29-44

In the summer of 2020 when the congregation’s construction project finally came to an end and all the inspections had been passed and we were finally able to use our new front doors and patio, I took one walk out the new front entrance on that first day and realized we might have made a terrible mistake. The river rocks in the landscaping out front looked fantastic on the blueprints and the designs, but once I saw them lying there I knew they would instantly become projectiles. In fact, I remember talking with our building manager Steve about it, and we thought that those rocks would be very tempting for small children to reach down and launch them through one of those windows.

What in the world had we been thinking? I called the architect it and he reminded me that in the meetings leading up to the project approval, we had all agreed that rock beds right there would, in the long run, be much neater and much, much easier to maintain and keep weed-free than regular mulch beds. Now that I saw them, thought, I was having second thoughts. Sure enough, a week or so later I watched as my own son, age 4, on his first visit to the new entrance, walked over, reached into the bed, pulled out a rock the perfect size of his hand and launched it into the grass before I could stop him. It will be a challenge, I think, to keep that from happening, because the rocks practically cry out to be thrown. They have no real voice, but they scream in tones grown-ups can’t hear.

Jesus talks about rocks that cry out on his way into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey—they would cry out in tones that many disciples wouldn’t be able to hear. His point is this: even if the parade had been carefully crafted to minimize impromptu outbursts of excitement—even if people had stayed home that Palm Sunday for fear of being caught on film and later targeted by the state police—even if people had for some reason decided to respectfully golf-clap like the crowds at the Masters instead of shouting—the rocks themselves would have come to life to cry out “Hosanna! God save us!”

This is not just a provocative image that Jesus uses, as if we are supposed to imagine rocks with little eyes and mouths. This was a statement that all of creation had been waiting for this moment. This was a declaration by Jesus that his arrival in Jerusalem was not just the conclusion to his own personal faith journey that began in the River Jordan, but the culmination of the hopes and fears of all the years of humankind. The whole universe awaits redemption. There is a new heaven and a new earth underway, and this moment, this arrival of a new king in Israel, is the moment it begins to reach a climax. The arrival of the one “who comes in the name of the Lord” is no small thing. Even Jesus can sense, before the palm branches wave and before the people pour out of the their homes to greet him, that his mission is going to have far-reaching ramifications.

Of course, the rocks that day do not need to cry out because the people do. They do come out of their homes and they do wave the branches. They do cry out for a king who at long last, they thought, would get something done. They see a ruler who would finally stand in the shoes of the great King David and bring them respect and honor among the nations. And they see a man who is ready to take on their oppressors, throw them out, and establish peace in the land. These are their hopes, and they pin them to the male on the donkey that day.

Do the rocks of today still cry out? By that I mean do you get the impression that the world still longs for things like peace and justice? I know that those who mark Palm Sunday as holy claim to want these things, but even if our voices were silent today, even if we were to find other things to do than worship, would others somewhere take our place? Or have people settled into a scary rhythm of war and hardship because that’s what they believe all life really holds? Have people lost hope in leaders? In the power of forgiveness and reconciliation? What about the cobblestoned streets of Bucha and Irpin? The rocky pathways of Kabul?  The gleaming stone buildings of Washington, DC? Are they crying out?

What about you? Do you find yourself crying out for anything these days? What kinds of hopes and dreams do you pin on God? What expectations do you have of your relationship with God and with the things God promises? Is there some way all of the these things become centered and focused on the man who comes riding into Jerusalem. How can he be an answer to these prayers and hopes?

Luke is the only one of the gospel writers who tells us that the multitude of disciples on that day as he rode in began to rejoice and praise God for the mighty works that they had seen. The other gospel writers record the shouts of the crowds, but here in Luke we are told that his disciples—those who had been in ministry with him over the past few years—are thinking about the great works they had witnessed. They know a leader who has reached out to heal the suffering. They have worked with a teacher who has emphasized the least and the lowly in his lessons. They have eaten with a deeply religious man who has still shared his table with tax collectors and sinners. And they have watched in awe as he took fish and a few loaves and fed thousands of people. I wonder what those disciples think Jesus is here in Jerusalem to do. What particular dreams and hopes have they focused on him as he rides in? Will they feel let down as the week unfolds and it seems he does no miracles like these at all?

Hearing the events of Palm Sunday this year makes me think of how we tend to adore leaders, and place them on pedestals. And it makes me think about how all too often our expectations of leaders don’t line up with what they actually end up delivering. Jesus is no exception to this, as it turns out. He doesn’t hold anything close to his vest, and he doesn’t try send mixed messages about his agenda, and yet he still ends up ruining most people’s dreams of him. We know this because by the end of the week the crowds are eager to free an insurrectionist named Barrabas (and look past Barrabas’ crimes) rather than follow Jesus into the love of God’s kingdom. So if you cry out for a leader today, if you pin your hope on a savior on this Palm Sunday, which leader is it for?

Over the past several months one of the most popular and successful local non-profit organizations, Shalom Farms, has been very carefully searching for a new Executive Director. This Executive Director will lead Shalom Farms in its mission, which is to provide free farm-grown produce to alleviate food insecurity and address food justice issues in the greater Richmond area. As it happens, when it began out in Goochland County in 2009, the Epiphany Youth Group was one of the first volunteer groups to work there, and we’ve continued that relationship to today. In 2021 they produced over 700,000 servings of food.

members of the Epiphany Youth Group working at Shalom Farms in 2009

One of Epiphany’s members, Johanna Gattuso, is the current chair of the Board. She shared with me that the Board made the conscious decision in their search that one of the criteria of the new Executive Director was that at some point in their life they needed to have experienced food insecurity. They still received over 100 resumes for the position. Some of the letters that accompanied these applications spoke movingly of what it was like to grow up going to bed hungry,or foraging in fields for greens, or having to watch their parents eat nothing for dinner so that they, as kids, would. The idea, of course, is that the new leader of Shalom Farms would lead from a position of solidarity and familiarity with the organization’s mission. Anna Ibrahim was hired and began her tenure as the Executive Director this month. Hailing from farmers who toiled on the prairies of the Midwest and the valleys of the Levant, Ms Ibrahim looks forward to continuing Shalom Farm’s ministry with renewed energy.

In our search for that leader who can rescue us from our brokenness, who can release us from our captivity to sin and selfishness, who can free us to a life of forgiveness, perhaps we should cry out for one who has walked that road. If we seek mercy, perhaps we should cry out for one who is willing to be broken, one who has a track record in eating with the sinner, in seeking out the lost and lowly. In our hope for one who can conquer death, why don’t we look for one who will die himself? For a leader has been given to us, and that is his mission: to love us as we are, to free us with forgiveness, to heal us with humility.

Back in 2020, as the construction was being completed, and the doors were open to receive people who couldn’t come because of the pandemic, a family in our congregation with young children decided to paint rocks with Easter messages as a faith formation activity at home. They didn’t just cover these rocks with color. They inscribed little messages on them—things like “Happy Easter!” and “He is Risen!”—and then they came by and placed them along our sidewalk with the hope someone might see them. Two years later and some of them are still here, lying around underfoot, like petrified Easter eggs, still just waiting to be seen now that the people are returning. I leave work each day, and, if I’m lucky, my eyes will fall upon one, crying out, saying He is Risen. reminding me that if I don’t learn to shout Hosanna!—“Hosanna, My leader, my savior has come—has come and loves me to the end!” well, then a rock will take my place.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.