Getting Transferred

a sermon for Christ the King [Year C]

Colossians 1:11-20 and Luke 23:33-43

During my seminary internship at St. Andrew’s United Church in Cairo, Egypt, I spent a great deal of time working among the large and diverse refugee community that our congregation served. At that time many of the refugees were coming to Cairo up the Nile from Sudan, Egypt’s neighbor to the south, where government-backed armies were ransacking villages and slaughtering people by the thousands. Over the course of that year I got to know a good number of these brave individuals as their pastor and as the music teacher in the school the congregation was running for the refugee children.

These are some of the best memories of my life, and at the same time some of the most difficult, for that year I came to appreciate more fully just how precarious a refugee’s life is. There is nowhere on this earth where a refugee truly feels safe, and the place where she feels she belongs is off-limits—two fundamental aspects of life that I, as a white, affluent American, take for granted every single day. The hope of every refugee is to find a place on this planet where they can live without fear of being killed, where they can raise their families with a hope of a good future. They wait and wait and wait to be transferred to a country that will give them that, and usually that country is somewhere in Europe, Australia, or North America.

Imagine what it’s like to live in that kind of treacherous limbo and then finally one day receiving word that your request to be transferred to a new, peaceful country has been approved. I got to witness that a time or two that year. One day we had a special assembly in the children’s school in order to say goodbye to two young siblings whose parents had received word that Canada had finally approved their transfer. I’ll never forget the feeling in the room—the joy of all those assembled, the relief of the parents, and the bewilderment, too, on the faces two young children as they contemplated being transferred overnight from one of the hottest, dirtiest, and most crowded cities of the world, a city that subjected black-skinned Africans to discrimination on a daily basis, to Manitoba, Canada. This, by the way, was in February. Can you imagine?

Apparently the writer to the Colossians can. In an attempt to describe the power of Jesus Christ, a power of love that transcends anything we have ever known, he says that Christ “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” It’s not going from Cairo to Canada, but we do get word of a transfer to a reality no less contrasted to the world we live in now, a world we know that is filled with sorrow and violence and mistrust and brokenness of all kinds. Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, has come to find all of us refugees, all of us pilgrims, all of us wanderers, and through his own death and resurrection receive us into the realm of God’s eternal peace. Jesus Christ, born among us to heal and to comfort, breaks the power of sin over our lives and makes himself our king.

That is our message: no matter where we’ve come from and no matter what we’ve gone through, Jesus’s grace is our new home and we can never be taken out. To get us there, God becomes fully present in Jesus Christ. As the writer of Colossians says, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in the crucified nobody Jesus of Nazareth. That is, the fullness of God didn’t just find a home in Jesus, but it was pleased to dwell there, it was pleased to be so humble, so commonplace. God happily moves in to the rough and tumble places here. And he does this in order to reconcile himself to all things. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the person in whom all things hold together.

If we want to see God, if we want to know how all of the universe makes sense and what the meaning of life is, we look at the person of Jesus Christ. If we want to know how to treat one another in all circumstances, we look to Jesus, for in him all things hold together. And if we wish to know what the Creator of all things thinks of us, we see how Jesus looks to us. And we find he look to us with eyes full of mercy and a heart full of compassion.

That is, after all, what Jesus does in his finest moment there at Golgotha where he looks on everyone with unfathomable forgiveness. To the people driving nails into his flesh he says, “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.” To those who insult and mock him, he refuses to lash out in defense, preferring to let their ugliness and meanness echo out into nothingness. To those he dies between—just common criminals—Jesus looks with pardon and solidarity, even promising one of them that day a place in his kingdom. At the precise moment at which anyone would excuse him of any behavior that would alleviate his suffering, Jesus refuses to show any sign of self-preservation. With Jesus of Nazareth, in whom all things hold together, there is absolutely no abuse of power.

This is what his kingdom is made of. This is where we have been transferred by the power of his love and relationships based on this kind of humble authority is what God builds through us. This is how we live, upstream against the flow of hatred and apathy and spite we experience around us.

That disconnect probably presents the biggest challenge to living with Jesus as king. His reign is not always evident to us. Colossians says we need to be prepared to endure everything with patience. No kidding! Greed and war topple the peace and prosperity which people have so carefully built over time. The shooting tragedy at the University of Virginia this week becomes just another example of how quickly one senseless act shatters so many lives. People promote conspiracy theories that try to convince us that dark forces rule the world and are holding all things together, rather than Christ. The rise of Christian nationalism even here in the U.S. distorts the power of Jesus’ gospel and attempts to align one kind of faith with power in government. If Christ really is King, and if his reign is our true home, then how can these things keep getting in the way?

We hear this morning that the place in this world where Jesus dies is called the Skull. In Aramaic that is “Golgotha.” It has often been thought it got that name because of the way it looked. Maybe some boulders protruded from the landscape in the form of a skull. But theologian and teacher Chad Bird, points out that there is an ancient church tradition which maintains that it was called “The Skull” because people believed that is where Adam’s body was buried. Adam, the first person God created, according to Genesis, is the person in Scripture by which death comes to be. Adam’s disobedience to God, and his primal act of self-preservation and wanting to be like God symbolizes our own rebellious nature. It leads Adam to the punishment of death and is a reality that we all must bear. But Jesus, the second Adam, is the one whose obedience to God’s love brings life and immortality to all.


It is just a tradition, of course, but there is something deep at work here: the very place that speaks of death and reminds us of human brokenness becomes, by God’s grace, the very place where Jesus’ redemption and life makes a new beginning. This is how a humble God works: a cross becomes the place where we are transferred from sin into forgiveness, from loneliness to community, from this land to our eternal one.

And therefore the places where we would least expect to encounter God’s grace become the places where Jesus’ new life rises up most clearly. The moments when we hand ourselves over in service to our neighbor become those moments where selfishness begins to lose its grip. The times when God moves us to forgiveness rather than revenge are the times when healing comes to even the deepest wounds. The occasions when we release long-held prejudices and stereotypes come the occasions when dialogue and relationship finds new solid ground. Acts of humility and love strike fear into the rule of the proud and bold new life takes root. “Today,” Jesus tells the humble criminal beside him, “you will be with me in Paradise.”

One of our adult Sunday School classes has been watching and discussing the recent Emmy-winning documentary Heard, which was filmed right here in some of the public housing projects of Richmond. The movie is literally an attempt for some of the residents just to have their stories heard because they are profoundly beautiful stories—stories of remarkable grace and bravery, stories that many of us would not hear because of the stereotypes we assign to the projects and people who live there. It is true that poverty sucks people in and drugs and their accompanying gangs cause all kinds of dark problems for the people in the film. Yet one by one in Heard you hear examples of amazing redemption and the message is clear: God is still at work at Golgotha, raising up new life in the darkest of places. You watch the movie and can see that the transfer is happening, over and over again. People go from a land of despair and brokenness to a place where Christ and his goodness reign.

Where are the places in your life where Christ’s kingdom has been realized, where his goodness has been seen and heard? What are the places of darkness where you’ve buried your skulls of despair where Christ’s reign of forgiveness and mercy still need to be acknowledged? May his mercy reign true for you, for with God’s power Christ is promised to be first place in everything.

Last week we took the second year confirmands up to Roanoke to visit several places where the Lutheran Church has established ministry sites over the years. We saw Roanoke College, of course, but we also stopped at Brandon Oaks, a Lutheran retirement community that is part of Virginia Lutheran Homes. At one point Charles Downs, the CEO of Virginia Lutheran Homes, took the confirmands over to the edge of a bluff overlooking a big four lane road and gestured to another building across the street. It was the rehabilitation and nursing care facility component of Virginia Lutheran Homes, a place where many patients often enter hospice to die. To our back was the planned retirement community, complete with its swimming pool and dining room, where people were very much alive.

Beside us was this small replica of the original Lutheran Church that stood on that location built by settlers back in the 1800s as they came into the valley. Mr. Downs then proceeded to gesture to all of it in one big swoop with his arm, explaining how all of it is all a part of Jesus’ ministry. And then he pointed to the confirmands, who are in the spring of their young,        and said that we, too, are connected through it by our faith and our work together as a synod. He said those sitting in those pews at that church over 100 years ago never could have imagined that all of this would come from their vision to extend Christ’s kingdom in their work. It stretches across the highway, across the world, back in time, and into the future—a home of life and care and mercy for all.

So it is with all of us who’ve been transferred to Christ’s kingdom. It happens to us now, but it stretches back to claim those who came far before us and those who will come after. It claims those who are close to us and those we’ve never met. It draws us all in to one land, one reign where Jesus always remembers us with a mercy and love we cannot resist, refugees that we are.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

What an Inheritance

a sermon for All Saints Sunday [Year C]

Luke 6:20-31 and Ephesians 1:11-23

Children’s literature often has a way of taking complex topics and presenting them in a way I can understand with as few words as possible. About fifteen years ago actress Jamie Lee Curtis came out with a children’s book that was given as a gift to our oldest daughter by someone in the congregation I served in Pittsburgh. Our daughter, Clare, was only two at the time, and we had fun reading it to her. When Laura came along not too long afterwards we read it to her, and the other night I dusted it off to read to our 6-year-old as I tucked him into bed. The illustrations are as colorful as they are entertaining, but the rhyming text of the book is really what stands out.

The name of the book is Is There Really A Human Race? a question that perhaps we all wonder at some point along the way, what with all of our competing and our resume-building jumping through the hoops of life. The text, together with the pictures, illustrate humans racing against each other, breathless and exhausted, as if we’re all on a lifelong wild goose chase:

Is there really a human race?
Is it going on now all over the place?
When did it start?
Who said, ‘Ready, Set, Go’?

Did it start on my birthday? I really must know.
Do I warm up and stretch?
Do I practice and train?

Do I get my own coach? Do I get my own lane?
Do I race in the snow? Do I race in a twister?
Am I racing my friends? Am I racing my sister?
If the race is a relay, is Dad on my team?

And his dad and HIS dad? You know what I mean.
Is the race like a loop or an obstacle course?
Am I a jockey, or am I a horse?
Is there pushing and shoving to get to the lead?
If the race is unfair will I succeed?
Do some of us win? Do some of us lose?
Is winning or losing something I choose?
Why am I racing? What am I winning?

Does all of my running keep the world spinning?

With question after rapid question the book continues, wondering aloud with the reader what is this world really all about, what is the goal and how do we achieve it?

Today we gather to be reminded once again, thank God, that Jesus narrates and illustrates a completely different world from that. Today the church is gathered—just as Jesus gathered the large crowd on the Plain in Galilee one day when he spoke to his disciples—to hear once again that Jesus has come in order to bring an end to a world where everyone races against one another, a world of pushing and shoving, a world where we believe our progress is somehow what keeps the world spinning.

Today, All Saints Day, we recall the lives of those who have gone before us, but not in a race, but in grace. They have lived lives that touched us with compassion, selflessness, and joy. And each of them bore through the course of all their years that tension that exists between the world we feel we live in, where we’re constantly in a competition, and that eternal world that Jesus has given us, where community is built on forgiveness and love even of the enemy. We give thanks for them and for the ways they demonstrated in their own ways their trust in that new and coming world, which the apostle calls our inheritance.

I think at some point each of us has probably received something from a loved one who has gone before us. We’ve inherited something that that person intends for us to cherish and use. That’s the point of an inheritance—it is something we did not earn but which we deeply value because it points to a relationship. I remember when my great-grandmother died in 1996 she left me a big silver punch bowl. I was twenty-two at the time, still in college, living in my fraternity house, with nowhere to put the punch bowl and no one to serve punch to. I didn’t know how to value it, how to care for it, what its story even was. But Grammy wanted that bowl, for whatever reason, to fall into my hands.

Through Jesus Christ this pledge of a world redeemed and whole has been placed into our hands, and like the saints before us, we work to learn about it, treasure it, and serve the world from it. On the cross, Jesus has handed over all that he is so that we might have all the life that God gives. Our task, as we serve from this priceless bowl of grace and mercy, is to seek out and find those who right now seem to be the losers in the race of life.

And if it happens we have a hard time remembering who they are, Jesus names them for his disciples this morning. The poor seem to be the losers, especially if you listen to the news and the way we talk about them as people who haven’t worked hard enough or who have been born in the wrong neighborhoods, or who haven’t taken the chance to better themselves. The hungry are definitely losers, and their ranks are growing as grocery prices rise and supply chains are blocked. Those who are weeping often feel like losers, finding it difficult to get beyond their grief, which sneaks up and grabs them when they least expect it. And then there are those who are rejected and reviled for exemplifying Jesus in their actions and words. But Jesus calls them blessed, not losers.

In his new kingdom all these are the ones who get preference. The poor, for example, have been promised the kingdom of God. Because they have nothing else to rely on, no power that comes through wealth or privilege, they are bound to fulfilling experience of relying on God before anything else. We find the poor and learn what they have to teach us. We find the hungry and we give them reason to trust that in Jesus’ kingdom they are filled. We collect bags of Thanksgiving food, we serve at the pantry, we work for just and equitable distribution of resources. We come alongside the mourning and the weeping, singing the hymns for them at the funerals (because the words catch in their throat), and volunteering at the receptions in the fellowship all afterwards—all as an assurance of the laughing that will one day come. And learning from them the value of being vulnerable, ourselves.

Jesus continues with even more instructions for living this new world he has created by his death and resurrection we give generously, bless those who persecute, respond with nonviolence, and do to others as we’d have them do to us.

And I have to be honest and say that these are things that are difficult. They do not come naturally for me, not in the slightest. It is hard to trust this way of Jesus. It is hard to believe in this inheritance we’ve received when the world is so harsh and hard. It takes courage to inhabit this way of Jesus when we can’t fully see it implemented just yet. We see glimpses every now and then, but the full glory is still hidden.

The Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, lays out in a chronological format the history of the bus boycott that kickstarted the civil rights movement in the 1950s. The bravery and ingenuity of the people of color in Montgomery is on full display as you wind your way around the different exhibits. It becomes clear that Ms. Parks and her community were reviled for working for justice and peace to overturn the system of domination and racial oppression.  

One sign in the museum asks the question: “Do you have the courage to treat people fairly?”  What a pointed question—like a rephrasing of the Golden Rule Jesus tells his disciples. Living in the world Jesus dies to create is not just a matter of education or wokeness or cleverness. It is courage that we need for that, for our default setting is mistrust and prejudice. It is courage that allows us to view this world not as the rat race of competition it appears to be but according to the upside-down values Jesus names in his vision. It is courage and faith—and Jesus gives us both, over and over again, flowing from the waterfall of our baptism our whole life long. And we know so many examples of  this courage from the lives of those who’ve gone before us and in the lives of those who are sitting next to us today.

It was about two years ago, in the height of the COVID pandemic, when I spoke with Sonya Fluckiger on the phone instead of going to her house for her Christmas visit. She was just a few months shy at that point of her 100th birthday. The news was out that the first COVID vaccines were going to being distributed to senior citizens and people who worked in health care Sonya assured me in no uncertain terms that she was going to direct that her vaccine dose be given to a young woman or man with a family. “I understand that what they’re doing,” she said, “is the Christian way, but they’re wasting it on us old people.” I assured her there would be plenty to go around, but then I paused. It took me a second to recover once I remembered that I was a young person with a family: Sonya, age 99 ¾ trying to remind of the world Jesus empowers me to live in.

It is courage we give thanks for in the lives of the saints, in the lives of all us sinners, living and dead, who have been claimed by the grace of Jesus. It is their courage we praise as they and we turn this world of self-proclaiming on its head. Courage and faith to receive the inheritance that Jesus has bestowed upon us that we may know the hope of the calling to which he has called us.

So that night when I was I reading this book to Jasper, I remembered the ending sounds a lot like Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain:

Sometimes it’s better not to go fast.
There are beautiful sights to be seen when you’re last.
Shouldn’t it be looking back at the end
That you judge your own race by the help that you lend?
So take what’s inside you and make big, bold choices,
And for those who can’t speak for themselves, use BOLD voices.
And make friends and love well, bring art to this place
And make the world better for the whole human race. (“Is There Really A Human Race?”)

What a goal to tuck someone to bed with: Wake up tomorrow, little kiddo, and live into that inheritance that Jesus has given us. Life is no wild goose chase!

And so now we’ve tuck our departed loved ones for their final sleep with the hope they will soon open their eyes to the full inheritance prepared for them.

Rejoice in that day and leap for great joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.