A Better Freedom

a sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 8C]

Luke 9:51-62 and Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Christian writer and homelessness advocate Kevin Nye remarked on Twitter this week that in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) Jesus is asked a total of 187 questions. Nye says Jesus answers (maybe) eight of them, a fact which suggests that maybe faith isn’t about certainty, but learning to ask and sit in the complexity of good questions. I haven’t tried counting all the questions myself, but it is a credible estimate, especially when we consider that in Jesus’ Jewish religious tradition, the typical practice was to approach one question with another one right behind it (much like, I hear, a Supreme Court hears an argument).

As it happens, one of those eight questions that Jesus does answer occurs in this morning’s gospel text from Luke, and Jesus doesn’t appear to give any time for reflection and pondering. His own disciples, worried by the threats of the local Samaritans and frustrated by the Samaritans’ rejection of their message, ask Jesus point-blank, if they can ask God to rain down fire upon these half-breed, no-good people. It is a logical request, actually, and the disciples probably figured Jesus would approve, because their well-known ancestor Elijah had once done the same with his enemies. Bringing destruction upon those opposed to the mission of God’s prophets was not unheard of.

But Jesus doesn’t allow it at all. Without hesitation, without prevaricating, Jesus says, “No.” Interestingly enough, one ancient manuscript of Luke’s gospel inserts an additional line here. In that textual variant, Jesus says “No,” and then adds, as if to clarify, “for the Son of Man didn’t come to destroy souls, but to save them.”[1]

So there we have it: one of Jesus’ few direct, unambiguous answers, and it should make us at least stop and think about where Jesus would stand when it comes to any of our efforts of violence against our enemies and those groups of people we care less for. It should make us stop and think about forcing any religious viewpoint on a whole group of people, much less a whole nation, even when you are convinced Jesus is on your side.

Jesus and his disciples are in the land of the Samaritans in the first place because they are traveling to Jerusalem. Luke says that Jesus has “set his face to go there,” which is another way of saying that Jesus has programed Jerusalem into his GPS and it is going to take the quickest route, not necessarily the easiest. He needs to get to Jerusalem because that is where the power is and therefore where he needs to take the movement of justice and mercy and cleansing that he has begun in Galilee.

So often our journeys of faith don’t take the easiest route. Have you ever noticed that? In my experience, more often than not, following Jesus leads me down a complicated path through obstacles and into places outside my comfort zone where answers don’t seem to be cut-and-dry. Following Jesus usually involves the disorientation of new ideas and the awkwardness of having my mind changed and adjusting to new scenarios.

This isn’t the same as being wishy-washy. It’s the reality of ministry on the move, of seeing that Jesus does not come to put roots down in one place or one country or one culture or one set of laws but comes to free God’s people for one life. What is that one life? It is the life of compassion and forgiveness and love for the glory of God.

So we see that as Jesus travels he doesn’t just encounter stubborn Samaritans. He comes across these other people who want to fall in line with him, and his responses to them may seem grumpy to us, but they indicate that this one life he calls us to does cause a break from some of the other commitments that bind or distract us.

It’s interesting that he uses foxes and birds in his analogy, because we happen to have both right here on our church property. I’ve never given much thought, to be honest, to a fox’s hole until we realized we had a fox last summer underneath the ark toy in our pre-school playground. I saw him go under there one hot summer day and we called animal control to help us remove him before the children began school that fall. As it turns out, removing a fox from his hole is really difficult. The expert set a trap, but that proved unsuccessful. The animal control officer said we could call in a professional exterminator, but that they, too, would probably not be able to remove him. Evidently foxes really like their homes.

And as for birds, I think we have all been impressed somewhere along the way at how un-picky they can be about where they build their nests. The women of the Sleepy Hollow Garden Club included a bluebird house in their new natural habitat garden that they planted for the congregation on the other side of the parking lot. Within two days a pair of bluebirds had already moved in. But it appears they built a dummy nest with no intention of raising chicks there, which many bird species do every year. They build one and, if it doesn’t feel right, they choose somewhere else.

By using these two animals for comparison, Jesus shows just how transient and fast moving this mission of his one life can be. Foxes choose specific, hard to reach homes that they defend fiercely. Birds show up and, without much obvious discernment, build quickly, and then abandon it once the babies are raised. How often do we cling to our ways like a foxhole, refusing to budge or change strategies even when presented with something new? And how often do we rush to establish something permanent only to abandon or discard it once we’re ready for something new.

How do these scenarios inform a congregation that is trying to figure out a ministry plan after a two year pandemic? Do we wait for people to return and restart what we used to do in the ways we used to do them? Or do we just move forward with new ministries and vision and if you’re here with us, then great! It’s hard to know the right answer, but we do know the Son of Man doesn’t lay down his head anywhere. That is, he tends to be moving onward. With his love to save all people and not to destroy them he is moving onward. He is, in a word, free.

And he calls us to this freedom with him. Jesus calls us from our foxholes and our comfortable birdnests to respond to this freedom and claim it. It breaks us free even of certain traditions and responsibilities that we often idolize.

Another person on the road who hears the call of that one life is told by Jesus to leave funeral obligations for the family patriarch and go announce God’s kingdom instead. Another person wants to tie up loose ends, have a good farewell with people back in her village. That’s an honorable request, really. Jesus suggests there is not even time for that.

Any excuse, I imagine, could be offered for delaying the call to be Christ’s people in the world, to put off embodying God’s love here and now and Jesus would probably not allow it. There are people who need to hear that Christ has set us free, that his love on the cross has named and claimed all people as God’s beloved children. There are people who need to know the good news that Christ’s sacrifice has opened us to a life where fruits of the spirit are always in season.

I wonder if, amid all our talk about American freedom and what the Constitution says or doesn’t say, amid all our arguing about our freedom to bear arms or our freedom to say whatever we want we can forget that Jesus actually calls us to a greater freedom. This freedom—Jesus’ freedom—is the freedom that releases us from having to prove ourselves to God and releases us from the trap of living for ourselves and instead is a freedom that binds us to our neighbor.

It’s freedom that makes us a slave, and that’s a bit of an oxymoron when you hear it. For the apostle Paul, though, it is very obvious. Because of Jesus, we are no longer slaves to God’s law, which is the notion that God has some ideal for us to attain and if we’re just good enough at following God’s rules and doing what we’re supposed to, we’ll be in the clear. Christ on the cross set us free from all that. Now he sets us firmly at the needs of the people around us, a slave to them, free to stop worrying about ourselves and our rights in so many ways and free to care for those around us.

This is why Jesus tells his disciples so clearly that they can’t rain down fire on the Samaritans. Surely they could do it, and are able, and they may even have the right. They could go register for the AR-15 and pass the background check, comply with the waiting period and then walk through Samaria with the thing cocked and loaded, but that’s not the freedom that Jesus calls them to. This is not a military march, you see, but the road to Jerusalem, where life is laid down for the freedom of God’s good kingdom. It is movement of a strange kind of freedom and moving forward in a kingdom where the path is always service to those who need it and the goal is abundant life for all.

The challenge with Supreme Court rulings and other legislation is often that we get an answer or a verdict even when we might rather sit in the complexity of good questions. Some people of faith are rejoicing this week while other people of faith are in a state of despair or anger. Some people of faith are mortified by what the January 6 hearings are revealing about the previous administration and others in power, while some people of faith are convinced it is nothing more than a partisan show. Our political positions have become foxholes from which we dare not budge. Even so, Jesus’ hand is on the plow and he will move on and leave the dead to bury their dead, and we can assume he might mean any one of us.

What if, instead of attitudes of defeat or victory about whatever political issue we instead remember Jesus has called us to this strange freedom? What if, after glancing at the flag and Constitution and giving thanks, we remember to walk by the font and recall the covenant that claimed us there? What if, in the midst of all the pompous talk of American freedom we can remember that on the cross Christ has given us a better one—that Christ has actually bound us to each other and freed us to take care of all neighbors, especially those who will be most affected by these decisions.

And with the Spirit’s power, then, we will walk through the land with open hearts and ears, not waiting for God to reign down fire but as the strange liberating presence of love, and joy, and peace, and patience, and kindness, and generosity, and faithfulness, and gentleness. Ah yes…gentleness. (Gentleness, anyone?) And self-control. That is the one life Jesus calls us to.

It is the only one worth living.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Gospel of Luke: Sacra Pagina. Luke Timothy Johnson. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN 1991

God’s Nametag

a sermon for The Holy Trinity [Year C]

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, and John 16:12-15

As many of you all know, about two months ago our Evangelical Outreach Team finished making nametags for everyone in the congregation so that we could wear them when we worship and gather. Lots of congregations have nametags, and we’ve used paper ones from time to time, but the team felt it would be helpful for us to have official nametags as we reacquaint ourselves with each other as the COVID pandemic subsides. It was a formidable task, because we have close to 1000 people on our books, and the team didn’t want to leave anyone out.

What I appreciated most about this project was out conscientious they were in getting everyone’s name exactly right. When I got my nametag, not only was I thankful that my name hadn’t been shortened to Phil, which happens quite often, but both Ls were in there, and they’d also included my suffix with the comma! No one can wear this nametag correctly but me, even if another Phillip Martin walks in here some day, including my father! It’s a very specific nametag that helps people know me. Funny enough, another person who has the junior suffix, Frank McCollough, had his first nametag incorrectly printed as “JR McCollough.” They printed him a new one.

This Sunday in the church year is basically meant to be God’s name tag Sunday. We call God by name every Sunday, of course, and the name is not ever a secret but today, on the Sunday of the Holy Trinity, we take intentional time to give thanks that God has given us his name and remember that it is good to be conscientious with it: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is good to be conscientious with God’s name because it is connected to God’s unique story and it is a story of deep love for us. God has commanded that we not take God’s name in vain, which means talking about our God with respect and as much clarity as we can will inevitably help others understand that deep love too.

When we come to experience that love we arrive at the conclusion that God is a Trinity—God is one and God is three all at the same time. God reveals that identity to us in Holy Scripture, and we see examples of it from Genesis all the way to Revelation. Sometimes God is referred to as Father, sometimes God speaks to us directly as his Son and at other times we hear that God is Spirit. Precisely how these three persons relate to each other is never spelled out neatly and in an organized fashion in the Bible, but it is there nonetheless. In fact, explaining how Father, Son, and Spirit are yet one God is something big church nametag committees of previous centuries hammered out. We called them Councils, funny enough (Nicaea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, to name a few), and they gave us things like the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed to help us articulate the Holy Trinity.

Over the years people have tried to come up with analogies to describe the Trinity and make it easier to understand. Some of these analogies have been helpful, to a certain degree, but all of them eventually fail in some way because God’s nature is something we’ll never fully grasp. This name of God we use doesn’t say absolutely everything we can ever know about God, but it is enough for us to base our faith on. The fact is this: God’s identity is about nothing more and nothing less than the rich love that the Father and the Son have for each other in the bond of the Spirit. This love between then is so powerful and gracious that it eventually draws us in, too. Since it is the Sunday of the Holy Trinity, I thought it might be helpful to focus briefly on three things about God as a love-based Trinity that arise out of this set of texts today.

The first is that God is the source of all things. All things come into being through God, whether they are things we can see with our eyes, like puppies, or things we “see” with our heart, like joy. They all must have a source, and that source is God. I think we’ve all had the experience at some point of just sheer wonder at the world that surrounds us. That was the point of that hymn we just sang, the one that names all the different kinds of animals.

There was one father on the camping trip last weekend who had to get up in the middle of the night and make the trek to the bathhouse. He said that once his eyes adjusted to the darkness he looked up and there above him were uncountable stars. It just made him stop and stare. This happens to be a gentleman who has his own telescope and knows quite a bit about space and he still hasn’t lost that wonder of how immense it all looks.

We don’t get that particular opportunity very often in a time and place with so much light pollution, but the night sky is always a mind-boggling way to think about the vastness of creation and the grandeur of everything around us. Voices of the Bible reference it all the time in the same way, like this writer of Proverbs who looks at the heavens roughly about 2500 years before the concept of relativity and light years come onto the scene and he almost instinctively understands he is looking back in time to the very beginning of creation. Woven into all of this universe is a wisdom that makes it all work together. In his wisdom, God creates this all—time, space, stars, this planet, all the ways in which we make a living from the earth, human community, the shoes on our feet and wine and bread on this altar. All of it comes from a God who wants to provide things for his creatures. All of it comes from a Creator who weaves it together with a purpose we often miss. All of it for us to enjoy and marvel and steward as God’s representatives. So, first thing: God is the source of all things.

The second thing: this God, who is the source of all, comes near to us. That is a crazy thought, but the Holy Trinity says it’s true. God has created all of this—the stars in the heavens, the unfathomable diversity of this earth, and still finds humans something special. The writer of today’s Psalm says, “I look at the heavens, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, who are human beings that you should care for them?” I think at some point we have all been made aware of our smallness. We have grappled in some way with our limits as humans. We may be small in the grand scheme of things, but to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we are not insignificant. God comes to dwell with us, and doesn’t just stop there—God comes so be so near to us that he becomes one of us.

And this is all the more wonderful considering what a mess we make of everything. And that goes beyond pollution and climate change and littering. We’re quite unlovable in a lot a of ways. We make a mess of each other and our relationships because of our sinfulness and self-centeredness and all the ways in which we deny the image of God in one another. And in spite of all of this, human beings matter so much to God that Jesus even says that everything the Father has given him Jesus will give to us.

And that brings us to the third thing: God’s love lives through us. It doesn’t stay distant in the heavens, or in books, like a theory. Because of God’s Holy Spirit, all of the love that the Father has poured into his Son has been poured into us to know and share. Our relationships with God will deepen as we live in that love, and we come to know God better the more we love.

One of my good friends recently lost his father to a long battle with cancer. My friend is an only child and was really close to his dad and the loss has been really hard for him. He texted me a photo the other day of what turned out to be his father’s final minutes. He snapped the photo as he was sitting in his chair by the hospital bed because his mother and father looked right then. She was exhausted, having kept vigil for days and nights as he slowly succumbed. She had wadded up his dad’s Snoopy PJs that he didn’t need anymore and had placed them on his father’s body as a pillow. Even though she needed to rest and take a break, even though her energy was giving out, she couldn’t bear to leave her husband. There was a bond there that could not be broken, even as death closed in.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul says that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us. When I saw that photo and heard the story behind it, I thought of the kind of love that God pours out for us. I thought of Jesus, doing whatever he can for us to make sure that bond is never broken.

I would venture to say that you have experienced this kind of sacrificial love in your own life, the kind of love that does not turn away, the kind of love that is so strong it can take a situation of suffering and make it produce endurance. And then the endurance creates character, and character produces hope, and is a hope of things that will be that does not let us down. Hope: one of those unseeable gifts that God has created for us. Formidable stuff. God pours that transforming love into our hearts so that we can pour it out in the world, so that we can boldly go to where there is suffering and fold up the PJs, so to speak, to stay there and be hope. God’s love lives through us.

To say it differently, we get to wear God’s name tag when we go forth from here. In our baptism this Triune God has claimed us—that is, the God who has created all that is, the God who draws near to humans in all their messiness, the God whose love lives through us.  This God sends us out with that name on our foreheads in the shape of love as we know it best: the cross.

We’ve planned next Sunday to be “nametag” Sunday here. We’ll do it once a month. Check to see if you have one already. However, every day is a chance to bear God’s name. Each day God strengthens us to bear his name so that all may come to know this God who is Father, Son, and Spirit and who has given all for the life of this creation.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Put Your Face out of the Window

a sermon for Day of Pentecost [Year C]

John 14:8-17 [25-27] and Acts 2:1-21

When we were children, my parents did not let us chew gum very often and so it was a bit of an illicit treasure if we ever got our hands on any. One time on a particularly long road trip when I think my parents were happy to let my sister and me be entertained on our own in the back seat my sister and I got a pack of bubble gum and had fun blowing bubbles and popping them. We had to be discreet with it, of course, lest things get out of hand and the ban on gum be reinforced.

As it always does, the bubble gum eventually lost its flavor and its tenderness and I wanted to get rid of the tough wad in my mouth. Figuring that a discarded piece of bubble gum left in the car somewhere would end up somewhere it shouldn’t, I decided to roll down the window and spit it out at 65 miles per hour. So I did, with all the force I could muster. I stuck my face out as far as I felt comfortable and—p-tooey!—I launched it. It wasn’t until the next time we stopped at a rest area that my mother looked at me and saw that the gum had not gone far. It was lodged like cement in the hair on the top of my head. To get it out we first tried ice but then we ended up having to stop at a grocery store and get peanut butter to massage it out of my hair. It was messy. I was embarrassed. And it was my first personal lesson that wind is unpredictable and in certain circumstances can make us feel like a fool.

It was a lesson that has born out repeatedly throughout my life, including even last weekend when a large group of us were gathered for a wedding rehearsal dinner in a fancy dining room. A tornado touched down nearby, forcing us all into the basement of the country club. There we were: a bunch of relative strangers in dressy clothes (and some in golf clothes) huddled randomly through nervous chatter in close proximity as we waited it out.

Wind is unpredictable. That is the experience of the disciples gathered together in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. I’ve often wondered: did a violent wind actually rush through the room where they were hanging out, or is it just how they remembered it? Was whatever they experienced so suddenly wind-like that they used it to describe their experience as the Spirit of God is poured out upon them?

It was unpredictable. They hadn’t known this would occur. They were just in one place in order to celebrate the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot was the yearly festival that marked the historic moment when Moses received the Torah, or the stone tablets of God’s law, on Mount Sinai. It was used as a kind of harvest festival because typically wheat was planted around Passover and it was ready for harvest about seven weeks later.

But like wind that blows wherever it wants, God’s Spirit had other plans. That day they were going to receive a new kind of law that would be written on their hearts. And instead of celebrating a harvest of agricultural goods, they would be seen as workers in God’s harvest of all creation where people of all kinds and all nationalities and all languages would be gathered into one kingdom.

The whole event is a bit embarrassing and humbling. Not only do people who witness this event from the outside and see their behavior think that the disciples are drunk, but they themselves aren’t sure what is going on. They can understand one another even though they know they all come all over the known world.

We speak of the church as a body—the body of Christ. It’s like on Pentecost we get our body’s first results from a “23 and Me” test, those tests that take a bit of a person’s DNA and determine what their genetic background really is. The church body’s “23 and me” results show  that the body of Christ has a bit of everyone in us. Of course, we have some Parthians and Medes and Elamites in us. At some point. But we also have some Germans and Danes in us. And also some Chinese and Armenian and Tanzanian and Papua New Guinean. And also some American. The community of Jesus that is born on Pentecost with the unpredictable movement of the Holy Spirit that acts like wind blowing where we never can predict includes a bit of every kind of people on earth. Therefore the Christian faith doesn’t belong to one country or one denomination or one congregation but to all of humanity. God pours his Spirit upon all kinds, making us all heirs, as Paul says, of God, members of the same household..

This kind of unpredictability can be embarrassing. It can be embarrassing for us, for example, when we think we can control the movements of God or when we think we alone have all the right answers about faith. This unpredictability is frustrating for the church, for example, when we think we should praise God with the old hymns of our youth, written in the style we are familiar with. And also when we think we should phase those golden oldies out, that there’s no way the Spirit can use them today.

This habit of the Holy Spirit is extremely frustrating to those who think only true Christians are Republican or only true Christians vote Democratic, or that the main purpose of Christian faith at all is to hitch our faith to politics. The Spirit gathers us all and teaches us the words of Jesus and the ways of the Father, since the two of them are one. Do we realize, in a time of increasing political polarization, how critical this work of the Holy Spirit is? From what I understand—and I could be wrong—people are often more likely to change their church membership based on what their political beliefs dictate rather that change their political party based on what their faith teaches. The Holy Spirit helps tear down all the silos and echo chambers we create.

Lastly, the unpredictable nature of the Spirit is humbling to anyone who tries to keep people outside of the faith or deny them full inclusion based on their gender or their race or their sexuality. From the beginning God’s Spirit is all about reaching and lifting up those who are marginalized by the world. Immigrants, women, those of differing sexual identity like the Ethiopian eunuch that Philip baptizes in Acts chapter 8—these are all some of the first people in the church’s family, the people who built the faith and handed it on to us. The Holy Spirit reminds us that if we think we can keep our Christian faith discreet or control where it goes or restrict it to certain people then it will come flying back at us and make a mess like bubble gum in the hair.

Another important and interesting thing about wind is that we can’t see it but we can be aware of its presence because of the things it does. We can’t see the air that blows through a windmill but we can see the blades move around in a circle. We can’t see the wind that fills the sail, but we can tell its there because the boat takes us further out to see. This is the same with God’s Spirit. Even though Jesus had ascended to the Father the disciples would eventually be able to tell that Jesus was still with them, and they would figure out they were encountering Jesus in the world because they would be able to do the things he does. And they would see other people doing things that Jesus would do.

This is how the Holy Spirit works—it comes among us and yet we can’t see it like the disciples could physically see Jesus, but lo and behold we see people affected by him. We feel compelled to feed the hungry through our own service and we collect food for them and distribute it, setting up permanent food pantries, if need be. We feel compelled to pray for the people who are suffering from war and displacement and so we gather supplies together and send them off. We don’t know these people. They aren’t members of our families or our personal close networks. We may never even really meet them, but we feel Jesus move us toward them with compassion and mercy. This is the work of the Holy Spirit among us, giving us not a spirit of fear, but that spirit of adoption to see all people as beloved by God, even ourselves.

I can imagine that Jesus’ disciples would have been shocked to hear that they would do greater works than Jesus did. I’m shocked to hear that. Jesus fed 5000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. He cured a man of blindness and raised Lazarus from the dead. What could we do that is greater than that?

Just in the years following Pentecost, the church expanded and fed far more than 5000. We hear that deacons were set aside right away to see to it that orphans and widows, especially.

In the next few centuries the church would invent hospitals and build them in different cities, and right this very minute in health clinics and hospitals across the world help people regain their health and walk out of the tombs of illness.

Previous to the gospel, death was greeted with shame, and those who were dying often cast aside (unless they were in the upper 0.01%). But moved by their faith in Jesus’ own suffering and his bodily triumph over the grave, early Christians would sit by the dying, offering prayers and comfort. And, when their patients died, they would offer a burial of dignity and respect, even when they didn’t personally know them.

These were all new traditions to the human community, new gestures of dignity and compassion that often went against the prevailing customs and beliefs of the time. They came about through the work of God’s Spirit dwelling in his people and leading them to be Christ’s body. Greater things that Jesus did while he was with his disciples.

We can’t see God, but we know of God’s presence with us and in the world because we see things happening that Jesus would have done. And, in fact, he is doing them. Through the power of his Spirit given right now, Jesus is still accomplishing them through you and to me. He promised he would give us what we need when we undertake things that line up with his mission.

So let’s stick our faces out of the window, especially as we work rebuild our ministries after this pandemic. Stick our faces out of the window, and feel the rush of air on our face and be prepared. Be prepared to let it take us where it does and be a part of God’s unpredictable force of love and forgiveness in the world.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.