A turner and the cross

a sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [proper 19B/Lectionary 24]

Mark 8:27-38

sanctuary Epiphany

Just a couple of years ago one of our youth, Turner Barger, was serving as crucifer in worship one Sunday. He carried the processional cross, like the crucifer is supposed to do, right down the aisle, leading the choir and the worship leaders. He stopped and turned around in the chancel, just like crucifer’s supposed to do, while the choir members filed into their seats.

And that’s when something kind of funny happened. He approached the altar to place the processional cross in its brass stand, but the stand wasn’t there. Someone had, for whatever reason, moved it from the week before. And so there was Turner, bearing the cross in front of God and everyone else, with no logical place to put it down. Turner knew that the stand probably just got shuffled around and was somewhere else up here in the general vicinity, but he couldn’t exactly lay the cross down to look for it or, worse yet, prop it upside the altar, he had to look for it with the cross in his hands.

So while we were still singing the last few lines of the first hymn, Turner proceeded to march around with that cross all over the place up here. He took the cross behind the altar to see if it was there. He marched over to the piano to see if the stand was lurking over there somewhere. Then went over to the other side where the choir sits to see if it was there. All in all, he crisscrossed the chancel several times (see what I did there?) looking for where that stand might be, and when it wasn’t found, and the hymn was almost done he just…walked right out of the side door into the hall and disappeared, cross and all.

Those of you who know Turner know it couldn’t have happened to a more appropriate person. He literally knows where everything in this church is. I still have visions of Turner faithfully wandering the halls of the church, still lifting that cross high, looking for a place to let it properly rest.

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Easter procession with the cross in Croatia

Following Jesus means walking the halls of life with a cross we won’t be able to put down. To be one of Jesus’ followers, that is, and to continue on the road he is taking, we will need to be prepared to take on a new way of life, one where we’ll steadily learn to let loose of certain things so that we can grab hold of the divine things—divine things like serving our neighbor—that will give us life. There is no stand for this cross, no convenient little place where we can drop it off and resume whatever else we were doing with ourselves. Like the cross that is placed on our forehead at our baptism, it is really with us for good.

In Mark’s gospel we hit the halfway mark and discover Jesus needs to level with his disciples. It’s as if he says, “This has all been interesting up to this point, maybe even fun. The healings, the miraculous feedings, the debates with the stuffy Pharisees, the crowds that adore me everywhere I go, the anticipation about a kingdom coming. But I need to make sure we’re on the same page. It’s time to talk about this road we’re on.”

And to have this little come-to-Jesus talk Jesus has chosen a very appropriate venue. They are near the villages around Caesarea Philippi, a gleaming new city that was built by Herod’s son Philip as a testament to Caesar’s power and glory. Philip had chosen a location that had been the site of ancient worship to the god Pan. Multiple carvings of that god had been made in the rock face and together with the fancy city on top and all the monuments to empire it would have been hard to stand there and not think about the identity of these figures. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to stand there as Jesus’ disciple and not think about things like worship and allegiance and kingdom. And right there, with these things surely swirling in their heads, Jesus asks for the first time “Who do people say that I am?” That’s Caesar, up there. That’s the worship of ancient gods. Where do I fit in?

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The cliffs at the base of Caesarea Philippi where the altars to the god Pan were carved into the rock face.

 

After they share with Jesus some of the ideas they’ve overheard people in those crowds murmuring, Jesus turns the question to them. And Peter, the disciple who tends to blurt things out, the disciple who often serves as the group spokesman, gets the question about identity correct, but it’s clear he doesn’t know what he’s in for. In Peter’s mind the Messiah, or the Christ, would march into Jerusalem, bust some heads, and take names. But that is not how Jesus is going to be the Messiah, the one anointed by God to bring in his kingdom of justice and righteousness. Jesus is going to march into Jerusalem and let them bust his head. They will pull out his beard. He will not hide his face from insult and spitting (Isaiah 50). He’s going to hand himself over to human ways of power and control and self-assertion in such a way that we can finally, clearly see where those ways eventually lead. He will be a suffering Messiah, a humble and loving king who trusts not in himself and his own abilities, but in God’s power to set things right. Jesus will let himself be lifted up on a cross and never be set back down—they’ll carry him out of the halls of power, out of the temples of glory and beauty to a most inconvenient hill somewhere outside the city where he will suffer and die.

This is who Jesus is and this is how he comes to be God’s Son for us. He comes to empty himself for us. He comes to bear God’s love into all the dark hallways and pathways of our lives. He comes to set aside his own needs in order to give us the grace we need.

And therefore following this kind of Messiah, means lifting up this kind of leadership and this kind of self-giving life into the world, even though it will be unpopular. That is bearing the cross. That is denying the self. That is saying “I’m not going to lay down the chance to bring Christ into the world.”

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the crucifixion by Simon Bisley

And in a day and age when so much emphasis is placed on personal identity and crafting that identity, and putting it our self out there for people to see just how we want it, this is super challenging. Like builders of little Caesareas of Philippi all over the place, we construct all kinds of facades and monuments that we want people to think about when they think about us when really they should look at us and see someone carrying a cross. Because we don’t really find our true selves until we’ve lost ourselves in Christ, until everything we think we are has been offered up for who Jesus is. And not because we’ve been so wise or brave to do it, but because God has been so gracious to claim us.

Today our 9th and 10th graders sign up for another year of confirmation ministry. In the Lutheran Church, since we typically baptize infants, we provide young people the chance to be a Peter and publicly profess their faith and affirm the promises God made to them in their baptism. These young people will spend the next year looking more closely at certain foundational aspects of the faith of the church with the hope they’ll start to articulate that faith as their own. Now, I don’t know how this specific group of confirmands is approaching this task, mentally or intellectually. They’re bright and curious, though. At their age I just wanted it to be over.

One helpful way to think about it is to think that they will be learning to answer this question that stands at the center of Mark’s gospel: “Who do you say that Jesus is?” Or, as one of my theology professors from seminary put it, “Who is Jesus and why does he matter?” There are a lot of good and interesting questions that are taken up by Christian faith, but that’s that really is the question that stands at the center. That’s really the question that keeps us coming back to the basics: who is Jesus and why does he matter?

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youth performing service with their church at a shelter

And we’ll be surrounding these young people just as we always do, with our responses to that question, whether we realize it or not. When they see us give up our time to serve at LAMB’s Basket or the HHOPE pantry or CARITAS, up goes that cross we carry and we say Jesus is hope for those in need and he matters because God’s kingdom includes all people, especially those who often get overlooked. When they see us take the time to join a small group or attend a Sunday School class up goes that cross again, and we are saying Jesus is a teacher and he matters because we need more than bread to live. When they see us donate supplies to McShin Foundation or ACTS to prevent homelessness, we are saying Jesus is a healer and he matters because he shows us all people are given God’s mercy and forgiveness. When they see us come as often as we can to this place to worship him and give him praise we will be saying Jesus is the risen Son of God and he matters because he has brought us eternal life.

Whether we realize it or not, we are all given the chance to answer Jesus’ question about his identity through the everyday decisions of discipleship we make. God is gracious, and no matter how many times we set our minds on human things, Jesus gives us another chance to figure out who he is. God is so gracious—the formation of our faith doesn’t end at 10th grade! Daily we are given the chance to go through all kinds of confirmations, again and again—as if we are given the chance, over and over, to take that life-saving cross down the aisle, to be a Turner—that is, one who turns aside from the paths of selfishness the human things that point us inward and march instead across the chancel with the cross in front of all God’s people and out, out, out into the world.

Thanks be to God!

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a crucifer (but not Turner)

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

 

Faith Formation: a role model and a goal

a sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18B/Lectionary 23]

James 2:1-10, 14-17 and Mark 7:24-37

syrophoenicianwoman

It’s probably not the common answer, but a strong case could be made that no one in the entire New Testament displays greater faith than this Gentile Syrophoenician woman that meets Jesus in the region of Tyre. Most people would probably go for the apostle Paul, maybe, or one of the disciples, like Peter or John. They express faith deeply on many occasions.

It could be James, come to think of it, the guy who wrote the letter we read from this morning who, despite what Martin Luther thought, really nails it when it comes to describing faith. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” James asks. “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Martin Luther didn’t like those lines. It made it sound too much like you have to earn salvation, but James understands that true faith in God always leads to loving action for the neighbor.

I think you could put up any one of these fine people as an example of faith, but this unnamed, foreign woman still would beat them, and I think Mark wants us to know that. First of all, she comes to Jesus on behalf of someone else, not herself. Granted, the neighbor she seeks to serve is her own daughter, but she wastes no time in finding Jesus when he wanders into her town. Like every mother I’ve ever known, when it comes to caring for her child she will stop at nothing. She has faith in Jesus and she comes and bows down at his feet like he can do something about it.

crumby-dog-2

Second, she is the only person in all of the gospels who gets into an argument with Jesus and actually bests him. In that, she does what no Pharisee, scribe, no disciple is able to do. She asks Jesus for help, and when Jesus gives her a response about the mercies of God coming first to the children of Israel she says, “Yeah, well, even the dogs get crumbs.” Jesus immediately announces that her daughter is healed. You can see him sitting up a little straighter at the table, can’t you, astounded that such faith is coming from someone considered such a political, racial, and social outsider. Or maybe he already knows that about her, and this is a little conversation to emphasize to the others around him just how silly it is to try to put up barriers around God’s grace.

Third, and as if to underscore just how mighty her faith in that grace is, her daughter is healed before she gets home. In every other exorcism in the gospels Jesus comes face to face with the unclean spirit in order to drive it out. In this instance alone is Jesus able to heal the girl without confronting her. It’s as if the woman’s faith is so strong it can leap time and space.

To be sure, faith is not a competition, and we shouldn’t really compare and contrast something so personal, something we don’t really have control over, Nevertheless, this woman displays a profound trust that God can hear and help her, and so she becomes the perfect person to lift up as we celebrate Rally Day and begin a year in the life of this congregation focused on faith formation. Thank you, determined Syrophoenician woman, for inspiring us to build a community of Christ-followers who grow in our faith and equip us to be disciples in our homes, in our church, and in our world.

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a teacher with students in Vacation Bible School

What is faith formation? That’s a good question. Faith formation is a term the church has begun using in place of Christian Education, which is the term that was used throughout most of my childhood and the lives of generations before me. Christian education can sound too “school-y,” and so Faith Formation is a more expansive term, and really gets us to think of ways the church can intentionally build people’s relationship with God outside of the Sunday School classroom, although that is certainly part of it. This congregation has a rich culture of children’s Sunday School, for sure. I think of how Ms. Betsy has helped form the faith of countless children, as this year, at the age of 90, she begins a 66th year teaching Sunday School!

But faith formation is not just for children, and congregations can’t forget that. In fact, surveys of adults in the U.S. still reveal that the number one reason why people attend religious services at least once or twice a month is not because they find the sermons valuable or because they think it will make them a better person, or because they want to give children a moral foundation, but so that they can become closer to God.[1] And that is exactly what this Syrophoenician woman does. You can’t get any closer to Jesus than bowing at his feet.

How do you approach Jesus? What healing to you seek in your life or in the lives of those around you? How do you hope to be involved in God’s healing of the world as Jesus walks from the far reaches of Tyre and Sidon and the Decapolis—way outside his Jewish people’s comfort zone—back to Jerusalem and then to the cross, re-drawing the whole map of humanity into the embrace of God’s love? Is it something that you think “just happens,” or are their intentional practices and commitments you can undertake to nurture that kind of faith?

Holy Land at the Time of Christ
Tyre and Sidon (at the top) and the Decapolis (right) are outside of normal Jewish stomping grounds.

“To build a community of Christ-followers” is how our objective of faith formation begins, which means we at Epiphany recognize that faith is not ever meant to be a private, one-on-one affair with God, like it can be strengthened solely on one’s own. It is a community enterprise, where people gather and let their stories of sorrow and joy interweave and build one another up. I remember hearing one time that many American adults have about the faith level and biblical knowledge of a fourth grader because that’s about when they stopped attending church regularly as a child. God has created us as people who grow and learn and give at all stages of our lives, and faith formation in a congregation should reflect that.

People I see for home communion visits often remark on the little leather-bound communion set that I bring. I explain that is was a gift to me upon my ordination from my grandparents’ Sunday School class at Augsburg Lutheran Church in Winston-Salem. On the lid of the Communion set is a little metal plaque that reads, “The Sid Sowers Class,” named after one of the men who helped lead the group over 50 years ago. If you think about it, the body and blood of Jesus is literally brought to the coffee tables and hospital bedsides of people in this congregation by the faith of a group of 80- and 90-year-olds that have been meeting together for Bible study and life-sharing since the 1950s. We can all be so thankful for their faith formation.

communion kit
my home communion kit

If the Syrophoenician woman in the first half of today’s gospel reading is an example of faith, then the man in the second half becomes the perfect example of what faith formation looks like, of what it’s goal should be. Faith formation looks like being opened. Just as I open that little communion set to share the sacrament, just as Ms. Betsy opens her heart to 2-year-olds every week, just as Pastor Joseph opens his guitar case to lead the youth group in song, the hope in faith formation is that we are opened to the wonderful ways God loves us and cares for us. It is that we are opened to see new possibilities of service to our neighbors in need, opened to new relationships with others that are life-giving, opened to the renewing power of forgiveness.

The reason why Jesus’ healing of this man causes such a stir in that community is because the people of ancient Israel understood that one of the principal signs that God’s kingdom had arrived was when the mute were made to speak and the deaf were able to hear. To a God who creates the universe merely by speaking and who sends his Word to be flesh among us, the gift of communication—both receiving and giving—is what truly de-isolates people and brings people together, and when that communication opens people up, and opens up their world, instead of shutting them down, then God in Christ is truly present.

Ephphatha-be-opened-message-smaller

When a congregation uses “opening up” as a model for faith formation it will do all kinds of exciting things. They will, for example, develop curricula for confirmation and Vacation Bible School that will allow children who are on the autism spectrum to participate more fully in the life of the congregation. This summer our faith formation director led a weekly evening VBS based on Legos which ended up being ideal for children with sensory and processing challenges, and over the past two years one of our confirmation mentors created lessons on the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer that can be used for students who are non-verbal.

Congregations who use opening up as an inspiration for faith formation also provide their youth groups with summer experiences in places like inner city Atlanta and the migrant worker communities of Eastern Shore (people who pick the food that goes on our tables) to learn about what life is like in places very different from where they are growing up in suburban Henrico and Hanover counties.

Congregations who worship a God who opens people up support and then also utilize things like Stephen Ministry. The also might even open themselves up to sending people to seminary. This congregation has sent four individuals to seminary for ordination in the past six years. And just two weeks ago I wrote a letter of recommendation for one of our members who serves in the Marine Corps who has requested to lead Bible studies for his battalion.

It is our hope also that Seedling Groups will be used by people of this congregation as a way to open up. Seedling Groups, which are open to any adult—don’t need to be a member!—will begin meeting in members’ homes this fall for a time of reflecting on the pastor’s sermons and the Scriptures those sermons use as a foundation to provide fellowship and spiritual growth. Leaders for these groups have already been trained and sign-up sheets for those Seedling Groups are now in the Commons for this Sunday and next Sunday.

small group seedling logo

The way Seedling groups will work is that they will meet twice a month. Some groups will be for couples, and others are for individuals, whether they be single or married but attending without their spouse. Other groups will be mixed. All of the discussion questions will be based on the pastors’ sermons (and the texts that go with them) and will be downloadable from our website each week.

Our Thursday morning Mom’s Bible study group will be one Seedling Group this fall. They piloted the Seedling group model last spring and really enjoyed it. We were hoping to create a Seedling Small group on Sunday mornings for people who don’t have a more convenient time to meet. However, all available spaces for meeting on Sunday mornings are taken. There is no place for additional adult faith formation to happen, which makes Brighten Our Light building campaign even more necessary. That will add some much-needed space for us to grow and do ministry. We need room like crazy.

We are hoping to have 20% of our worship attendance sign up for a Seedling Small Group, which is about 80 people. Once you sign up, the leader will contact you and bring you on board, and we ask that you stay committed for two meetings before you decide to drop out. In a widespread congregation like ours, small group ministry not only can open people up but also help bring us together, shrink our boundaries down from Tyre and Sidon to the cross, and build a community of Christ-followers who grow in their faith—faith just as strong, perhaps, as that of the Syrophoenician woman who is willing to live on crumbs from the table of Jesus.

 

Thanks be to God!

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Rally Day at Epiphany Lutheran Church (Ms. Betsy is on the front pew, left)

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Christian Century, August 29, 2018. P 9

Tough bread

a sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 16B/Lectionary 21]

John 6:56-69 and Ephesians 6:10-20

 

Chalice Of Wine With Bread On The Burlap

It was my first Sunday here at Epiphany, about ten years ago. I was still in the interview process to be the associate pastor and was here to preach and help lead worship, kind of like an audition. Everything went fairly well, but the thing that really stuck out to me that day was the communion bread. For whatever reason, the pita loaves had gotten left out of its bag the night before and by the time we went to serve it the next morning, it was all dry and hard and stale. When Pastor Chris Price and I worked our way down the rail for communion, each piece we broke off made this loud cracking noise. I kind of had to get my wrist into it just to tear them off. The pieces were very chewy and rough, like we were handing out crackers. People were crunching on them.

But I didn’t know any different, you see. It was my first Sunday here, and I just thought that was the way Epiphany Lutheran liked communion. They like their bread tough and hard to chew. No judgment here. It wasn’t until after the service was over when Pastor Chris Price, the senior pastor at that time, assured me that typically the bread they used was typically soft.

Be that as it may, I think Jesus is content to give us hard, chewy bread most of the time. I don’t think Jesus is bothered by how difficult it might be to break off, tear apart, swallow, digest. And I’m not talking about the communion bread, necessarily. I’m talking about his teachings, the things he says to us, the lessons he gives. Jesus works his way down the rail, down the paths of our life encountering us in his Word and in the communal life of his people gathered, and he doesn’t seem to be concerned if things are hard to choke down.

Is this your typical impression of Jesus? I’m not sure it’s always mine. I’m not sure I think often about this difficult Jesus, this content-to-be-offensive Jesus, this “take-me-or-leave-me” Jesus. I know I am usually most familiar with the easy Jesus, the chasing-after-lost-sheep Jesus, the boil-things-down-to-make-it-simple Jesus.

But today we see him standing there with a crowd of followers around him. He has just fed thousands with a few loaves and two fish—loaves that were probably fresh and soft—and he hears his disciples complaining about his teaching. They’re complaining because what he’s said is too hard to accept. It’s too hard to receive his lesson about his body, broken and shared for the life of the world, and how partaking of that flesh and that blood connects them to the eternal life that he has.

drinking the cup

We know this similar reaction occurs with any number of Jesus’ teachings, not just this one about his presence in the bread and the wine. We’re told many of them turn back at that point and no longer go about with him. And he doesn’t chase after them. Jesus doesn’t say, “Yikes! The numbers of religiously unaffiliated is on the rise in our culture today! People are leaving the church! Let’s do whatever we can to get them to come back with us!” Instead, he lets them turn back if they want to.

I’m not sure this impression of Jesus is always mine, but I bet it needs to be. It needs to be because I am so tempted to think God always agrees with me and what I think about any given issue or cause. I don’t know about you, but I am also often tempted to think the easy way, the easy answer, is the right one. I am so easily convinced that matters of faith and belief should never be difficult to digest, that they should instead be something I can figure out on my own, or fit in nicely with what I already know, and they’re especially useful if I can pick and choose what I want to believe. But perhaps most dangerously, I’m easily wooed into thinking faith is a kind of secret charm, that if I have it, that if I believe in God and do what I’m supposed to, I’ll escape or avoid all trouble in life.

The Jesus we encounter today, who gives us tough, chewy bread, flies in the face of all of that: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” That is, when it comes to a relationship with the eternal God, what we do on our own—muscle and will-power—aren’t helpful. Those things ultimately get us nowhere. What Jesus speaks to us and gives to us is what is life-giving, lasting.

“No one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” In other words, faith is a gift. It is a trust that God cultivates in us that gets us to follow and listen more closely through whatever comes our way. That’s the whole point of Paul’s conclusion to his letter to the Ephesians. God doesn’t outfit us with a parachute a magic wand or a secret tunnel to safety. God gives us armor because he expects us to withstand the trials we face, to stand firm and endure.

And tough, chewy words from Jesus are the kinds of things that sustain that kind of faith. They tend to last. They tend to stick with you, especially in the difficult times ahead.

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Epiphany confirmation classes

Our ninth and tenth graders are preparing in a few weeks to begin another year of confirmation classes. We’ll meet about every other Wednesday evening for ninety minutes, and I know that many of them will question, just like I did when I was there age, what is the point of all of this. Why does the church invite its young people to profess their faith publicly, and why do we have them come to classes and learn things like the Ten Commandments, the Sacraments, and the Creed? There are so many other things they could be doing with their time, and so many other ways, perhaps, to come at the faith. I can think of several reasons we do this, but one might be is to make sure we introduce them to this Jesus who hands out tough bread, to chew together on some of the life-giving things he says.

Interestingly enough, one of the stories that is being told about Senator John McCain in the wake of his death is of the “informal worship services he had with his fellow prisoners of war [in Vietnam], toward the end of the war when they were out of isolation. McCain [said he] was named room chaplain, ‘not because the senior ranking officer thought I was imbued with any particular extra brand of religion, but because I knew all of the words of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.’”[1]

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John McCain (1936-2018) as a prisoner of war

 

We live in day and age when people are geared toward this idea of self-fulfillment. I know I see myself in this culture’s values. Linda Mercadante, professor at the Methodist Seminary in Ohio author and expert on people who claim to be spiritual but not religious, says that our system of morality is geared towards making the most of it, of stacking our lives with experiences we won’t regret, of choosing adventure and accumulating our identity from the world of options around us. Our quests these days are for personal meaning. The questions revolve not around “Where do I belong?” for example, but “Who am I?”

In this kind of moral landscape, religions—and really any communal faith practices or wisdom—often appear to demand too much giving up of personal liberty and the center of authority has shifted from “out there” to “in here.” We view ourselves as the most authentic and most true judge of what we need. We even do this with Christian faith, adding what we like here, taking out what we don’t like over there, seeing time in church on Sunday primarily as something that fills us up, recharges our batteries, rather than worship of a higher power, something that joins us to a crowd that heeds an outside authority. And I suppose there is some good to this, some enjoyment to be had, ideas to be explored. God gives us a brain to be discerning and call out error when we see it. Besides, to some degree, there’s little we can really do about this individualistic mentality. It’s the era we’ve inherited.

man-praying-dock

Into all of this, into all of this navel-gazing and skepticism, this confident Jesus strides just like he does after that miraculous meal of loaves and fishes and asks us, “Do you also wish to go away? Do you also wish to turn back, leave me here?” And with the faith of Peter may we say,  “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Because, truth be told, all other ways we might tread run dry and turn up empty. I don’t know how Peter knows that already, but he seems to. Usually after great heartache we see how those other paths end in emptiness, loss, isolation, failure. Jesus knows this. He knows that that all ways of humankind eventually lead to the cross.

And, as it turns out, there aren’t two different Jesuses—a hard-edged one and a gentle one. There is one Jesus—one who is always giving life, always reaching out, always extending that call to follow and take up the armor of faith. And that one confident, loving Jesus will be at the cross, too, at the dead end of all the other paths we might choose. For he…

suffered under Pontius Pilate
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
But on the third day he rose again.

This Jesus will be at the cross waiting, but he will be there with eternal life for each of us, defeating the harsh with the humble. There he will be with mercy and forgiveness and welcome. And there we will hear his Words and they will heal us, once and for all. And he will raise us up on the Last Day.

We come to the rail today, weary and worn, some of us perhaps a little testy, belligerent, doubtful, begrudging, selfish, wanting something easy. I can guarantee we’ll receive something good. And with bread between our teeth, we come and receive another invitation not to turn back and to keep on walking with Jesus now, the Lord of life, the one who conquers the grave. Might as well keep walking with him. Might as well.

 

Thanks be to God!

Lella giving communion

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2018/0825/Remembering-John-McCain-the-quintessential-patriot

Not a pizza party

 

a sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15B/Lectionary 20B]

John 6:51-58 and Ephesians 5:15-20

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Emanuel’s Lutheran Church (Bellevue, PA). The congregation closed those red doors in 2015.

The congregation I served back in Pittsburgh had a Wednesday evening Holy Communion service that had been started by the pastor just prior to me. It was an abbreviated worship service, designed only to last about 30 minutes or so. We often only read one Scripture lesson. It was also a spoken liturgy, meaning we typically didn’t have any music with it. It wasn’t a fancy worship service, by any means, but it was very intimate, kind of like the Sunday evening services we held here last year. When it came time to share the bread and the wine, there were typically so few of us that we could all gather shoulder to shoulder right in front of the altar. In fact, by the time I arrived our average attendance was around eight and it rarely climbed higher than that.

A more experienced and courageous pastor might have cancelled it right off the bat, but I was determined to give it a go and see if we could grow it. We tried adding music here and there. We tried worshiping outside in warmer months. We tried all sorts of various little alterations and innovations in order to appeal to more people but nothing seemed to work.

It happened that one Wednesday evening our women’s retreat committee was having a meeting at the same time as that Holy Communion service in another room elsewhere in the building. They had made it a dinner meeting and had ordered pizza to be delivered, but they mentioned to me right before worship that the delivery man might not know which door to come to. I told them not to worry—I would point him in the right direction if I saw him. We went forward with worship and they went forward with their meeting.

Then, right as I was standing in front of the altar about to bless the bread and the wine for Holy Communion, the large, heavy, red front doors of the church cracked open and the evening sunlight streamed through. My arms were spread open in prayer, but all of the worshippers were turning their heads, focusing on the person who propped open the door with his foot and started down the aisle straight for me with a stack of steaming hot pepperoni pizza. The timing could not have been better…or worse? Since there was no one else to receive him, he walked all the way down the aisle with those pizzas and met me at the altar. I eventually paused the service so I could show him out the side door, But for a minute or two there that guy probably thought this pastor will try anything to boost the worship attendance! Pizza for Holy Communion! Let’s party, everybody!

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Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven, and whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” He means to tell us that the heavy door of heaven has cracked open and he comes down the aisle to give himself for the life of the world.

It’s so easy sometimes to miss this fundamental aspect of Christian faith among the rest of this conversation about bread and wine. The God to whom we pray, the God we worship, the God we call to for life and salvation is a God who comes down to us from heaven. The God who sends Jesus is not a God who asks us to be a certain way or do certain things in order to reach him, as if our task is to climb to his holiness. The living bread comes down from heaven to give life for the world. Let’s party, everybody!

Although those of us in the sanctuary that night didn’t get to eat it, the pizza made us think again how the whole story of Jesus is one about delivery. It’s not take-out. It’s not pick-up. It’s God delivering all of God’s fragile but might self into our midst, repeatedly—delivered into the manger, into the humble fishing life Galilee, into the suffering of ordinary human beings, delivered into our very hands to die on the cross. As the late, great Aretha Franklin once sang in one of her earliest gospel songs:

“Yes, I hear a voice pleading with me,
Quietly, quietly commune with me.
Just steal away in secret and pray
Quietly, quietly, come break bread with me.”[1]

In all honesty, sometimes we might wish Jesus had just thrown something like a pizza party with his disciples. It might make our faith a little more accessible to seekers and newcomers and get us out of this awkward situation where we eat a bit of bread and drink a sip of wine each week. Plus, given the way Jesus himself talks about that meal, it’s easy to see why early Christians were accused of being cannibals. As they wait for his return, as God’s Holy Spirit ignites faith in more and more people, his followers are not just going to gather to remember Jesus and his teachings, they’re not just going to “to sing hymns and psalms and make melody to the Lord in their hearts,” as the writer to the Ephesians says, but to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood.

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In fact, if that’s not graphic enough, the word for “eat” that Jesus uses is the English word “gnaw,” which indicates he is not speaking metaphorically here. He is not saying we just consume him and his words with our brain. He is talking about teeth and jaws. He intends for people to eat when they meet for worship. Holy Communion is Jesus’ way to prevent his followers from turning their faith into a head-trip, from making church into some form of a TED Talk or self-help seminar. It’s like God says, “Here. Here’s bread and here’s wine. Can’t avoid it. Real things. God loves created matter. And you are created matter, not just ideas. And you are sent to take care of created things.”

Jesus says these things right after he has multiplied the loaves and fishes and has gotten into an argument with the Jewish leaders about what is the living bread from heaven. They have already failed to grasp how Jesus will be the living bread from heaven, how his life will be even better than the manna that sustained their ancestors in the wilderness as it dropped each night from the sky. Now he takes it another step further by saying that his body will be that bread and that by eating it they will gain eternal life. The living Father delivered him to them, and so now they can take him and eat him and have the same life as the Father.

We think of bread nowadays as somewhat of an optional food, as something that can make some people ill, but in Jesus’ day, and still in many parts of the world, it is the main food. I remember growing up and going to Sunday dinner after church at my grandmother’s house out in the country. They always had fresh rolls on the table. I got the impression that you couldn’t really eat a full meal unless there was bread involved. Fried chicken or barbecue or short ribs might be the main course, but bread is what enabled you to eat it all because, you see, they taught me you eat everything by holding the roll in your left hand so you can sop up everything on your plate and leave it clean.

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When we eat of Jesus, we get everything God offers. We realize it sounds strange, and maybe even a little off-putting, but Jesus wants us to know that he comes to deliver God’s life all the way inside of us. When we partake of Jesus, it’s like we’ve got that roll in our left hand: we can sop up everything God offers. This meal embodies the self-giving and self-sacrifice that Jesus is sent to deliver. All of God’s forgiveness and mercy, all of God’s love and compassion, all of God’s justice and concern for those who don’t have enough, all of God’s grace is given to us in this meal. It is a visible, tangible reminder of what Jesus comes to do: give himself. Eating is necessary for life, and so if we’ve got a new life in Christ, it will require food.

Furthermore, if you think about it, and every act of eating anywhere involves a sacrifice somewhere, whether it’s the chicken that was slaughtered at the Tyson plant up off Staples Mill Road or the wheat that was cut out in Nebraska, or the labor of the grandmother that woke up early to get it cooked and arranged just right on the checkered tablecloth. It think most of the time we eat without thinking about that. I know I do. Food implies sacrifice, and this meal that Jesus gathers us around is no different.  The fact that Jesus spent his life coming down from heaven to be with you, to feed you, to heal you, to walk with you, is the reason why he gathers you around this table and break bread with you.

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A voice is pleading with you, says Aretha. Not just you, of course, but all of us—his body, blessed and broken, shoulder to shoulder we gather, and yes, at a dinner meeting (let’s call this what it is) where we sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs making melody to the Lord in our hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

On that note…I’ve heard many visiting pastors and other visitor friends of mine make comments about how well our congregation sings. I’m so thankful for that. It’s another strange, counter-cultural thing the Spirit has us do. In a day and age when singing is typically something we watch other people do for us (or at us), Christians continue to regularly sing together, make melody—and sometimes even harmony—in our hearts as we make a joyful noise to the Lord.

Let’s be real: we don’t need pizza.

 

Thanks be to God!

Bread and wine

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “You Grow Closer” Songs of Faith – the Gospel of Aretha Franklin

a meal to remember

a sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost [proper 12B]

John 6:1-21

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Three summers ago my family was making the long trek back across the country from visiting friends in Wisconsin. We stopped for a night in Chicago and ended up staying in a hotel on the far northern edge of the city. After spending a long, hot, and sunny day walking to different sites in downtown, we got back in our car and drove the thirty minutes north to the hotel. We were tired and hungry, and we didn’t want to spend more money and energy in a restaurant, so at about 7pm we stopped in Heinen’s grocery store, bought a rotisserie chicken, some small tubs of salads from the prepared foods counter, some fruit, and some Chips-Ahoy for dessert. We went back to our hotel room, spread out the food on the coffee table, which was small and unusually low to the floor, so we had to squish together on the sofa and hunch over to eat. And we sat there and ate our lukewarm and cold food while we watched the U.S. Women’s soccer team win the World Cup final.

My family still talks about that meal. In many ways, that supper still feeds me and Melinda. We remember it with such fondness, and not because the food was exceptional. It was an event where we had a clear need and discovered that somehow the Lord provided more than we were expecting. It was a surprise moment of unusual togetherness for us during a long trip home, a time of growth and opportunity—one daughter willing to try blackberries for the first time, all of us swept into the action of the game. It was a humble meal, kind of haphazardly put together. We didn’t have any plates, so we just ate right out of the food containers themselves, everyone with their own fork from the grocery store salad bar. Everything tasted so good, and while I don’t remember my belly feeling particularly full after we finished, I was satisfied.

Have you ever had an experience like that?—a time when food was shared and it created a life-giving moment but the food itself wasn’t really the centerpiece? Have you found yourself in a moment like that—a time of random ambush of God’s abundance, when there was what seemed like nothing…and then suddenly there was more than enough?

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There was an event in Jesus’ ministry like that. It was such a big deal— and people talked about it so much and, in a way, fed from it for a long time in their memories—that it ended up in every version about Jesus’ life that we have. In fact, no other event in Jesus’ life, outside of the crucifixion and resurrection, is recorded by all four gospel writers. We’ve come to call it the feeding of the 5000, and it is probably one of the most well-known stories from the Bible. The fact that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all get so many details the same suggests that this meal there beside the sea had a huge impact on how people understood Jesus’ presence in their life.

He has compassion for people in need.

He empowers disciples to do ministry of caretaking, just like he enlists Philip and Andrew in the problem-solving.

When we hand over to him what we have, he can make it more than enough.

A seemingly small gesture done in Christ’s service can have effects with infinite proportions.

That miraculous event by the Sea of Galilee that day was so impressive, so out of the ordinary, that it became one of the key ways to understanding what Jesus was all about.

For the last few centuries it has become custom to try to explain the miracle scientifically. Some have said that it is a miracle of sharing—that once the one boy had the courage to offer forth his food, suddenly everyone broke out his or her lunch and before you know it, they had a feast on their hands. While it might be hard to get my head around Jesus bending the laws of nature, feeding that many people with such a small amount of food, I find it even more difficult to believe that everyone shares and they all just happen to have brought the exact two same things that day: bread and fish! No stuffed grape leaves? No hummus? Come on!

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Jesus Feeds the Multitude (Victoria and Albert Museum). The boy on the right is handing fish to Jesus. The loaves have already been handed over to Jesus’ disciples on the left.

Others have tried to interpret this miracle as a relic of an ancient mindset that we don’t have anymore. They say that people were used to seeing ordinary things happen and then embellishing them as if something remarkable had happened, that they would tell these kinds of stories about people they admired all the time. However, as researchers and historians look more closely at that time period, we have found that there really aren’t many other examples of major figures performing feedings like this, not to mention stories about the same person doing other miraculous things along the way, too. Of course, as miraculous as this event is, it is just one of several that Jesus manages to pull off during his ministry, something mentioned in the passage’s opening sentence.[1]

No matter what Jesus wants you or me or those people to believe about how he pulls off the feeding of the 5000, the point he is trying to make with it is more important. As with so many things in life, we see something and become so fascinated with how it’s happening that we miss what is happening. And in this case, what is happening is that Jesus is showing us something about God. God’s grace towards us is not ever going to be bound by the laws of physics or the laws of attraction or the laws of the United States of America. God’s desire to care for us and look after us is sometimes—more often than not—just not going to make sense. It’s just too great.

And yet this feeding of the 5000 is still not just an event to tell those hungry people and these hungry people how gracious and giving our God is in general. If that were the case, then all of the attention afterwards would likely be focused on that little boy who offers up his lunch. He would become the hero, the example of how God opens his hand, as the psalm this morning says, and provides for the need of every living thing. And if this were just a lesson about how God is always going to provide ample resources, then it does kind of make sense to make Jesus king, and Jesus would probably accept that gesture. He might say something like , “Just trust in God and there will be enough. As long as you have faith, everything will work out in your favor. God helps those who help themselves.”

Feeding of the many. John 6:1-21. 1999 Mark A Hewitt. Lino cut & water colour.

But Jesus doesn’t say that and Jesus doesn’t want that, because that’s not what this miracle is about. And that’s not really grace, anyway. When Jesus multiplies the loaves and the fish that day beside the sea he is offering a sign not about how generous God is in general. It is about how generous God is with Jesus. At this meal, the food is not the centerpiece; the host is.

This is a story about how abundantly God provides for us through the life and suffering of his Son, even when we don’t deserve it (reality check: we never deserve it). It is a sign that the true needs we have as God’s children are being answered in the grace and mercy and astounding forgiveness of Jesus Christ. God has our true needs in mind, and there is enough love of Jesus to provide nurture for the entire planet. When he is at the table, when he is present in the conversations we have, when the ministry team gathers in his name, when the mission work crew labors for his kingdom, then we do not need to worry about ever going without. There will be enough to do, enough to be joyful about, enough to share with others.

And we know this foremost because there is another event in Jesus’ life much like this feeding. It is the crowning moment, the moment of total glory, even though it, at first, also looked like everyone was going to come up empty-handed. Around the cross a crowd shows up, hungry, disappointed, and eventually goes away because no one steps up with even a loaf or a fish. It is just loss and emptiness there. And yet God is at work, dying to our ways of hoarding and wasting, dying to our ways of worrying there isn’t enough. Christ is at work, and, lo and behold, he is being made king. In our rejection of him, he’s being made king of a kingdom that doesn’t operate by the selfish, competitive standards of this world.

Congregations do well to remember this, and pastors too, because every congregation I’ve ever been a part of at some point worries that it is deficient in some way. Either there are fears that there is not enough money or not enough Sunday School teachers or people for the choir, or there are concerns the congregation isn’t diverse enough or that we don’t sing enough of that kind of music.

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The fact of the matter is that when Jesus is present in the crowd, when the cross is the centerpiece, ministry will always be satisfying and there will enough to go around. The presence of Jesus, you see, is the only thing that ever makes a congregation worthwhile or sacred. He suffices. And over and over he has us sit down, then he takes himself, gives thanks, and breaks himself and distributes himself to each person in the crowd. And we are fed.  In fact, that meal is still feeding us. That is grace.

There is a table blessing they sing up in the dining hall at camp Lutheridge that helps drive this home. Maybe I can teach it to you now as a way to remind us of our king and the limitless capacity of his love for us and his call for us to share it with the world. Maybe it can be a way we prepare to receive his grace at his table again today.

 

Come and dine, the master calls us, come and dine.
There is plenty at God’s table all the time.
He who fed the multitudes and turned the water into wine
Come and dine, the master calls us, come and dine.

 

May we come to keep eating it. And to keep talking about it.

 

Amen.

 

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a mosaic on the floor of the Church of the Multiplication, Tabgha

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Jesus: A Pilgrimage. James Martin, S.J. HarperOne 2014. pp 257ff

rules and regulations for a mid-July evening

The storm has ended.
Listen to the crickets tell you:
The last leaden rain drops from the tree leaves
are fading into their chorus.

The petrichor was strong a moment ago
but it is giving way
to a night breeze
that is cooler on the face.
Breathe it in now
while you still can.

The moon will be out in a bit
but for now
the brightest glow is the from the porch light
where some bugs are beginning to gather.
Watch them; I’ve done this before—
None of them bite.

My children
if you want to come join me here
on the porch swing
no footwear is allowed

Do not pump your legs.
It is time for sitting
and moving if the swing moves us

Uncharted Territory

a sermon for the festival of Mary Magdalene, Apostle

Ruth 1:6-18 and John 20:1-2, 11-18

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This week at Vacation Bible School 145 children and around 75 volunteers all participated in a Rolling River Rampage. The theme of whitewater rafting was carried throughout the week, and each day, in order to enforce the day’s Bible lesson, campers “went to the river” and found something.

For example, on Monday we found adventure on the river, and we heard the story of Jesus’ calling his disciples. When Jesus tells them to fish for people he is preparing them for adventure. The life of a disciple contains lots of new tasks and not knowing what comes next. The second day of Vacation Bible School we found acceptance on the river, and that was tied in to the story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus in their home. On the third day we found joy on the river, on the fourth day we found rest on the river, and on the last day we heard the story that comes at the very end of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus tells his disciples he would be with them until the end of the age. On that day we found peace on the river. I thought this was a clever way to tie one of the main points of each Scripture lesson to the theme of river exploration.

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Well, July 22 is the church’s commemoration of Mary Magdalene, and if we were extend Vacation Bible School to today and tie the theme to her, would get on the river and find nothing. It would be an empty river. We would expect to find something, just like we had every other day before—we would walk down to the river with our paddles and our life-vests and be prepared to deal with another theme or lesson— but nothing would be there. That’s what happens to Mary Magdalene. She comes down to the cemetery outside Jerusalem not with her rafting gear but with her oils and spices for anointing the dead, and the body of Jesus isn’t there.

Mentioned at some point by all four gospel writers as a person involved in Jesus’ ministry, Mary of Magdala becomes the first person in history to show up at a tomb and find nothing there because the body has been brought back to life. Mary Magdalene, about whom we know so little but who is featured so prominently in Jesus’ life, becomes the first person to come face to face with the full force of the life-giving power of God in Jesus Christ.  As one poet once put it, “She, while Apostles shrank, could dangers brave/ “last at his cross and earliest at his grave.”[1]

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“Descent from the Cross” (Van der Weyden, 1435). Mary Magdalene is the figure on the far right, weeping.

At first, however, Mary Magdalene thinks Jesus’ body has been removed and taken to another place. When Jesus himself addresses her, she first mistakes him for the gardener. It’s fascinating that she confuses him with a gardener, for what does a gardener do but work to bring new life from the earth? When he finally calls her by her name, she recognizes him as her Lord.

It is so often the knowledge that Jesus knows us and calls us which brings clarity to whatever situation we’re in. In seminary we were taught by a pastoral care professor to make sure we placed a cross or a clear visual image of Jesus in our study so that people could see it when they came in. It was in Jesus’ name and presence that people would share things with us…and like Mary they may feel comforted by a God who addresses us so intimately.

Once she realizes who it is, Mary doesn’t want to leave him, and I think that sounds like a totally normal reaction. If I had lost someone close to me, especially in a terrible death like that, and I saw them again, I wouldn’t be able to leave them so easily. However, Jesus instead tells her to go to the disciples and announce that he is ascending to God, and astoundingly, she does. So great was her faith and devotion to Jesus that she immediately does what he commands. She goes to them and says, “I have seen the Lord” and in John’s gospel, to see something means to understand it, to know it, to perceive what is really going on. Mary Magdalene is really the first believer in the resurrection.

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“Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection” (Ivanov, 1835)

All of the disciples will eventually have to grapple with what Mary Magdalene saw because they will see it too, but right at the beginning—right there at the tomb before anyone else—Mary Magdalene finds herself in uncharted territory. It is a whole new rolling river rampage—one that rolls completely differently than anything that has come before it. Like Ruth before her, who ventures into uncharted territory by bravely and dutifully staying with Naomi her mother-in-law and going into a foreign land where she would be a stranger instead of turning back and staying in the land she already knew, Mary Magdalene is a pioneer for God’s kingdom. The territory that Mary ventures into is one where God is victorious over death. Is it a reality where the power of sin, death, and the devil are undone. God and sinners are reconciled. Weeping turns to rejoicing. The One who was crucified is now risen. The Gardener is always bringing forth new life.

She may be the first witness to the resurrection, and many Sundays during the year, her name is mentioned as a part of our Holy Communion liturgy from behind the altar, and yet the church has not always known how to handle Mary Magdalene, and has to some degree mishandled the truth about her. Because Luke tells us at one point that Jesus cast seven demons out of her, and because at least one woman by the name of Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with oil, it has long been assumed that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute whom Jesus redeemed from that line of work. There is nothing in the New Testament that tells us to connect those dots that way. Unfortunately, early on Mary Magdalene was so closely associated with Jesus that legends began to surface about the nature of her relationship with him. Movies and books have been written suggesting the two of them were secretly married or had children together. Again, all of this does nothing but to concentrate on Mary Magdalene in a negative way or mainly in terms of her sexuality which is unfortunately what often happens with a lot of women, both then and now. There are a lot of legends and traditions associated with Mary Magdalene, including a popular and ancient story that ties her to the creation of the Easter egg, which is why in a lot of ancient paintings and icons of Mary she is holding a red egg.

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What we do know from Scripture is that Mary Magdalene witnessed Jesus’ death, she was there at his burial, and she witnessed his first resurrection appearance. This puts her first into the uncharted territory where God is doing something brand new with creation. It is news that, if you believe it, changes your perspective on everything. God is re-making the world into a place where the holy can dwell forever. It is a place where compassion and mercy and love have the upper hand. It is a place where God promises to heal our brokenness and turn our weeping into joy. It is a creation where Jesus, the suffering and merciful Lord Jesus, is Lord of all.

Mary Magdalene, perhaps more than any other person, reminds us is first and foremost that Christian faith is about an event, a piece of news—that is is a message about something particular that happened. It is so tempting, especially in this day and age, I believe, to try to reduce Christian faith to just a set of values or ideals. We can catch ourselves saying things like “Christian faith is really, at its core, about peace or love or accepting others.” Or we’ll say it’s about following the Ten Commandments and learning what the Bible tells us to do, like Scripture is a just a self-help rule book. Or we’ll try to boil Christianity down to a philosophy or concept, like treat others the way you want to be treated. But Christian faith is not a concept or value system. It contains values and ideas, and good ones, at that, but Christian faith, the faith of Jesus, is inherently a message: Jesus is risen. The message is this: Mary has seen the Lord. She didn’t find his body. She found new life. And now the universe and everything in it—even everything that has been snatched away by death and sin—belongs to God again.

That is what’s so exciting about what happens to Caroline in her baptism this morning. She starts her life learning about this uncharted territory where death isn’t the end, where Jesus is risen, where God’s love reigns forever. And, like Mary Magdalene, it will be her turn to tell that message to others…with her words and with her life.

One of the other things I noticed during Vacation Bible School this past week was how excited the youth were to take part as leaders. Once you finish 5th grade here, you age out of being a Vacation Bible School student but you are eligible to serve as a helper, whether that be in one of the stations like crafts or science. And I could see this week that a lot of those youth took very seriously this role of helper. It’s like they’ve been hearing the messages of God’s love in VBS for years, and now they want to help tell it. They move from role of listener and receiver to role of proclaimer: from being a disciple (one who learns) to being an apostle (one who is sent).

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At one point on Friday I was speaking with a parent who was standing in line to pick up her young child. She was saying that next year her children would be aging out and I said to get them involved as helpers because we’ve found that when they’re young youth they love to take on that role of telling the story. And right at that point I felt this nudge on my leg—the nudge not of a human but of something metal, and then a hand on my side. I turned around to find that Ms. Sophie Wilson, age 96, was pushing me with her walker. She looked at me and said, “All of us young youth like to help out here!” This was probably her 60th Vacation Bible School.

How are you living into God’s possibilities of new life? I could ask you how are you living God’s adventure, acceptance, joy, rest, and peace as one of his disciples? But today a challenge for us all is: how are we sharing this message, reporting in our words and in our actions what Mary Magdalene did not discover on the river that morning? Because of Jesus’ cross, we are apostles, and this whole life is holy, gracious, exciting, and joyous unchartered territory.

Thanks be to God!

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Sara Bareilles played Mary Magdalene in NBS’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar LIVE” in 2018.

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Border crossings

a sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 8B]

Mark 5:21-43

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About fifteen years ago I got to attend a church conference in Cyprus, which is a small island in the eastern Mediterranean roughly about the size of Delaware. It is actually an island split in two with a wall running down the center of it, and it’s been split since about 1974 when the Turkish-leaning citizens of the north, feeling threatened by the Greek Cypriots in the south and concerned about where their country was going, declared themselves their own country. It is one of the world’s still-unresolved disputes, since only the country of Turkey recognizes that upper part as an independent country. In order to prevent further bloodshed, the United Nations set up an armed buffer zone between the two regions.

While I was there, my friends and I rented a car and drove around the southern part of the island for a few days and then decided we’d like to see the northern part. Americans were allowed to travel to the Turkish side, but we had to park our car in the parking lot and leave it there, walk through the checkpoint by the armed guards and leave our passports there. It was the authorities’ way of ensuring that we would eventually come back to the south side where we belonged. When I found out that I’d have to leave my passport behind, I suddenly felt a little nervous about the whole adventure. What if I didn’t get it back? What would they do with it while I was gone?

Eventually I overcame those fears and we walked on foot between the big walls of the buffer zone and through the checkpoint on the northern side. There we rented another car and drove off to see the sites we had in mind. But the clock was ticking because we had to be back by nightfall. As foreigners without passports, we weren’t allowed to stay in northern Cyprus. So, at the end of the day we dropped the northern Cyprus car off, walked back through the buffer zone, retrieved our passports, got back in our first rental car, and went along our merry way. It was like we had gone on a short detour in a very divided country.

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Me, standing atop the ruins of St. Hilarion Castle, Northern Cyprus (2002)

Jesus makes all kinds of tricky border crossings in his ministry, and today we see him go on one short detour in a very divided country. However, the divided lands that Jesus crosses in this event are not bounded by buffer zones or armed guards or tall walls with barbed wire. They are the divisions of culture that are set up all over his world. And while on a trip to help with the family of a man who you might say lives squarely on one side of the human island, he makes a quick detour to heal a woman who lives on the total opposite side, and who is separated by all kinds of barriers.

There is a lot to focus on in this account of Jesus as he gets off the boat after traveling to the land on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. It’s basically two healing stories rolled into one, and I suppose that’s where most of the attention immediately goes. It goes to the way that Jesus is able to heal even without coming into direct contact with people. The woman merely touches the cloak Jesus is wearing and her hemorrhage stops. Jesus is able to feel this healing power go out of him, almost like he’s got static electricity.

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Our attention also goes to the way that Jesus is really a master healer, popular throughout the land in a time when people sought out faith healers. But unlike other faith healers of Jesus’ day, Jesus doesn’t actively seek the healing, trying to make a buck, and—more importantly—he increasingly appears to be mentally moving on to something else, doesn’t he?

But perhaps our minds mainly focus on the way we identify, on some level, with each of these individuals. We know people who have dealt with some kind of medical condition for years that never goes away. It drains them physically, socially, and financially. They never seem to get the answers they seek and they end up just having to learn to live with it. I think especially of people who live with the disease of addiction, who often lose their friends and their other close relationships because they’re in the grip of something they can’t control. And yet God seeks to heal them. God loves them and they need our compassion, not our dismissal.

And then there’s Jairus, who is in a different kind of grip—the grip of worry for his child. I think anyone who’s ever cared for a child, or a loved one, whether their own or someone else’s, understands on some level what Jairus is going through, how you get to a point where you’ll do anything to help your child stop suffering. Your mind begins to go very scary places even when they just spike a fever. That’s where Jairus is, except he is already in the scary place with his daughter.

Long, Edwin, 1829-1891; The Raising of Jairus' Daughter
The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter (Edwin Long, 19th c)

It’s easy for our minds to focus on this miraculous healing of that daughter, too—how Jesus takes her by the hand, even though it was taboo to touch dead bodies, and says, “Get up, little girl!” In her case—as in the case of the bleeding woman—she is restored to life. Their faith and the faith of those around them play a part in this. They see Jesus as their hope and salvation.

Jesus doesn’t really perform either healing so that people around them may believe. Notice he asks everyone to leave at one point. Yet these people’s relationship to him is this critical component to being well.

Faith in Christ makes us well in the sense it makes us whole. In some exceptional cases, that means we are physically restored somehow. Maybe doctors, nurses, and pharmacists are able to touch our bodies or use medicines and make us well that way. In other cases, however, the healing may look completely different. Being restored to life might mean being at a deep peace with things, or reaching a new level of understanding about life.

I remember my last conversation with Dean Zellmer, which was only a few weeks ago. He was in the hospital after having struggled with dysentery for several weeks. He had also been struggling with multiple myeloma and had lost most use of his right leg because it had gone numb. He had heart problems and had suffered damage to a valve. He had also had to move out of his apartment into assisted living in another part of town, which is a transition anyone could find difficult. But I could only describe as a miracle the way Dean spoke about his life and how whole he felt—whole in thanksgiving for the gifts he’d been given, for the opportunities he’d had, for the things he’d been able to experience in his ninety-two years. He had plenty of suffering to concentrate on, plenty of physical healing he could pray for, but he could only talk about his blessings, and was more interested to know about me and my family. He was a person of deep faith in Christ’s love for him, and Dean was ready to continue that relationship, no matter what happened next.

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These are the places our minds go when we hear this story today, but perhaps the greatest healing Jesus is doing is actually the healing of those human divisions. While on the way to see Jairus and his daughter, He makes that short detour with the woman who is bleeding. And in one short day, Jesus engages both an important male leader and an overlooked outcast woman. He treats as equal a man with a given name, position, and authority and a woman with no name, no position, and no authority. He interacts with someone who is socially isolated, has no resources at her disposal whatsoever, who comes to him as she slips unnoticed through the crowd, and then he interacts with another person with a well-established support system by going into his house. He welcomes someone who grabs him in a clandestine fashion and someone who Jesus has to physically touch himself in order to heal. In just about every way imaginable, Jesus is able to span the divisions that separate people in society. Through faith, he is available and accessible to all. The healing and wholeness he embodies is for everyone, regardless of social status, gender, age, education level, nationality, or race. In spite of the sacrifice it means to himself and his identity, he is able to take the risk, cross the borders, and bring the kingdom of God and all its healing to all people.

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And if it sounds today like Jesus is starting to move on from performing so many healings, like he’s got something else on his mind, another horizon to meet, it’s because he does. He is moving on to the point of true healing, the real border of division that needs to be crossed. He is not just a physical healer, but he is among God’s people to heal the big division between God and us. He will die on the cross as a ransom for our sins, bringing us all back to God’s eternal care, to unite what has been separated, to restore us all to life through the power of faith.

I’m not sure I could have chosen myself a more fitting set of Scriptures for the weekend before our nation’s Independence Day. As you know, we just use the Revised Common Lectionary to provide our readings, and this just happens to be the lesson falling on this Sunday. It wasn’t selected by anyone with the Fourth of July in mind. But yet it is a good word for us. We are living in a society whose divisions seem to be very pronounced right now—at least that’s what I’m hearing people saying. Several people I’ve spoken with recently in this congregation have shared with me how they keep their opinions to themselves more than they ever have before because they’re afraid of how they will be perceived and interpreted, especially by people who disagree.

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photo credit: CNN

I don’t have any great wisdom to offer on how to span our divides, and I’ve certainly done my fair share of contributing to the divisiveness, I’m sure. But I do know Christ is walking among us, running back and forth between the different groups, seeking out those who are hurting, those who need life. We have faith that even if the flag cannot seem unify a country at a given time, our risen Lord will always seek to bring God’s people together. He will lay down his life at the crosspoint, and venture to the wilderness of death in order to get it done.

And as people who follow him, our mission is to do the same. In such a divided culture, the church may be the last place where people of all different kinds can be served at a table no matter what our opinions are, no matter how we vote, no matter what our citizenship status even is. That’s something. Healed by our faith, we are called to look into the world, maybe even lay aside some closely-held ideas of ourselves, and see people as Jesus does—that is, less in terms of their status and rank, name or label, and more in terms of where the suffering is.

I suppose then, my friends, we’ll find that may be the most exciting and healing journey of all.

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

“What then will this child be?”

a sermon for the Nativity of John the Baptist

Luke 1:57-67 [68-80]

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“What then will this child be?”

That is the question all the neighbors and relatives of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth ask and ponder as they marvel over the birth of their miracle baby and receive him into their midst. Zechariah was so surprised and doubtful about it that he has his voice taken away for a while, like some sort of punishment for not trusting the miracle could happen. And now that the child is born,  Zechariah can finally ask aloud with the others as he cradles him in his arms, “What then will this child be?”

“What then will this child be?”

 I suspect that’s the question asked by anyone who has ever held a baby or met a young child or spent any time in the presence of a kid. You look into their eyes, observe their behavior as they play with their toys, maybe, if you’re lucky, you have a conversation with them, and can’t help but wonder what they’re going to grow up to accomplish. Those who, like the village friends of Elizabeth and Zechariah, are privileged enough to receive a child—whether their own or someone else’s—can’t help but be filled with hope. They could turn out to be anything, perhaps.

As it happens, I just spent a full week in the midst of a place that all about receiving children. I’ve been up at Lutheridge, a Lutheran outdoor ministry in the mountains of North Carolina, serving as a Bible study leader for 3rd-5th graders. I know that this congregation is helping to send several children there as well as to Camp Caroline Furnace, one of the Lutheran camps here in Virginia, this summer. Receiving children and nurturing them well is the reason any summer camp exists whether its faith-based or not. Every Sunday a new group of children arrives at the gates, and you can feel the excitement in the campers as well as the staff.

All the counselors have at that point is the campers’ names. At least at Lutheridge, they’ve received those names on little printed-out sheets of paper from the registrar. One of the first things—and most important things—a counselor does to set the stage to receive their campers and make them feel at home is to take a plain, old piece of white poster paper and make a sign with their names on it and then hang the sign on the front of the cabin. When I worked on staff there, we often got a little competitive in our sign-making, seeing who could come up with the most creative signs. This week there were some amazing signs (I wouldn’t be able to hang) like one counselor who look the first letters of the names of the campers assigned to her and matched them with elements from the periodic table. Making a sign with names is such a basic task, and it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but it communicates to each kid, “We are ready for you. We’ve been expecting you. We are glad you’re here.” And the counselor thinks to herself as she writes out their name, “What then will this child be?”

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The villagers make a sign for this child, too. It’s because Zechariah is still unable to speak, of course, so they look for a writing tablet and he writes, “His name is John.” This is a big deal, and would probably make people wonder more than usual about what the child would become, because John is a somewhat of a strange pick. John is not a family name in a time when family names were the standard custom. It would be especially odd for him not to receive the name of, say, his father, considering the circumstances of his birth.

However, Zechariah had received a visit from an angel who had told him a bit about the child and that his name was to be John, and as it turns out, John means, “God’s gracious gift.”

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One of the prophecies about this gracious gift which the angel announces to Zechariah is that John will cause the hearts of parents to turn toward their children. John will bring about a time of possibility and hope, a time when people will begin to look forward again, open to what God is doing in their midst. John’s life and ministry will bring people out of this idolatry of the past and usher in a time of change and new perspective. They’ll think a bit less on what has already happened and a bit more on what’s to come. I suspect Jessie’s and Matt’s hearts are turned today toward Elaina, as she is baptized, and turned again to Leo and Jacob, her older brothers. And as the water is poured over her head, we all can once again turn our hearts towards the future as it unfolds and we are remade in Christ.

When John finally comes back from the wilderness as a young adult, we find him at the river Jordan as the Baptist, washing people in the water for the repentance and forgiveness of sins. He is involved, you see, in helping people start over. Giving people a chance to be washed of their past and step into a new future.

And as we know, the whole surprise about John the Baptist is that who he turns out to be ends up being far less important than the person he comes to pave the way for. What John ends up becoming is focused on preparing the world to receive an even greater gracious, gift. The hope and possibility that John represents is no less and no more than the real dawn from on high, the light for those who sit in darkness, Jesus Christ.

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Saint John the Baptist Pointing to Christ (Bartolome Murillo, 1655)

And this is a very important point we cannot overlook, especially in this day and age. John the Baptist is not special in and of himself except for the ways in which he prepares the way for Christ to come. We eventually hear this from John’s own lips, himself, who says at one point, I must decrease so that he, Jesus, must increase. As it turns out, that’s why the church, so early on, placed this festival at the end of June. We’ve just passed the summer solstice, so the hours of sunlight are decreasing. They will finally increase once again in about six months, in late December, which is when we’ll be celebrating the birth of the light of the world.

Jesus’ life is woven together with John the Baptist’s like no one else in the gospels. One theologian I read pointed out how every time John the Baptist appears, Jesus’ ministry makes a significant turn, eventually getting us to the cross. When Jesus is conceived, John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb. We learn that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise of a savior. When Jesus is baptized, John is there, and we hear that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. When John is arrested by Herod Antipas, Jesus begins preaching about the kingdom of God. And when John the Baptist is beheaded, Jesus doubles down on his ministry of feeding and healing, eventually embracing the fact that God’s love for the world will require his own suffering and death.

There is such an emphasis on “making a difference in the world” these days, such a desire for our lives to mean something, to create change, a lasting impact. We hear it in our politics, in the way that candidates speak about the problems we face and in the idealistic slogans of our education systems. I hear it in the way we speak to our youth, even in youth ministry settings. A group of our high schoolers will take off this week for the ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston, and I’m sure they’ll hear it there, like they have before. In a world filled with so much tension, so much division, it is hopeful to see so many people giving their lives to bring about change, to see people respond to our challenges not by withdrawing but by rising up.

And yet from John the Baptist we hear the reminder: our lives are only important insofar as they reveal Jesus’ light to the world. Our impact on others (and the world) will be beneficial only insofar as it leaves the mark of Jesus on them. Because what Jesus does is the only thing that it ultimately eternal. All else fades away.

When Zechariah finally speaks, he sings, and the song he sings is a prayer that points not to John primarily, or to Zechariah’s future. He sings about what John’s birth means in the ongoing work of God for the world, how holding John is holding an eventual deliverance from sin because John will point us to Jesus. Our prayer for the youth gathering in Houston this week…our prayer for those who’ve prepared these beautiful quilts…our prayer for those who are awaiting a new round of campers at Caroline Furnace or Lutheridge…our prayer for those who are mobilizing for justice and compassion at the US-Mexico border…is not that people they serve will have an encounter with their own greatness or our effectiveness or wisdom, but that they and we will encounter and receive the mercy of Jesus. For it is never ourselves who can make a difference, but Jesus within and through us. Like John the Baptist eventually teaches us, (and I paraphrase), “It’s not about me. It’s about God.”

One of the activities Melinda and I planned for our Bible studies with the 3rd and 4th graders last week was to make simple crosses with them. They were the most basic craft of all time (mainly because I was involved): just two sticks tied together in the middle with twine or yarn. Basically we just needed them as a time filler at the end of the session, and we were a bit embarrassed we couldn’t come up with something better. The crosses weren’t intricate and wouldn’t take the kids long to make them. She and I hunted around camp and along the roads for about an hour gathering up about sixty sticks that we could use.

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When the time came, the kids rooted through the pile of sticks of various lengths and thicknesses, fumbling them as best they could to get the yarn to hold them tight together. Time came for the session to be over and pick up their things and leave, and I turned around to find the eyes of one young blond third grade boy looking up at me with tears in his eyes. “What then will this child be about?” I caught myself thinking. He had been struggling with homesickness the whole week and was ready to go home to see his family. He said, “If there are any sticks left, I’d like two more, because I really want to make a cross for my sister.” He said she was in high school at a cheerleading camp, and he wanted to bring something home for her because he missed her.

So, of course there were sticks. And suddenly they didn’t seem so plain anymore. We put one together, and he ran off to stick it in his luggage.

The kid’s name was Alden, but it could have been John. He purified me! Like fuller’s soap. He reminded me: Don’t ever be ashamed of the cross! What a gracious gift from God he turned out to be, thinking less of himself and more of the cross he could share with someone else, turning my own heart to the message of children.

May each child of God—young as well as old—reveal to you and me our own gifts in service to nothing more and nothing less than the cross of Christ.

 

Amen.

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

stretch out your hand

a sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost [Year B]

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and Mark 2:23–3:6

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As some of you may know because I’ve mentioned it before, our 4th graders planted wheat from seeds back in March as a part of their Holy Communion instruction. It was the first time any of us had ever tried growing wheat, so we didn’t know what to expect. I was thinking the stalks would grow somewhat slowly and give us some grain by mid-summer. I don’t know if it’s all the rain we’ve had or just what wheat does but, lo and behold, we’ve got amber waves of grain already. Actually, they’re still green waves, and it’s more of a ripple than a wave, but each stem is topped by 9 or 10 kernels of wheat bobbing in the wind.

The thing is: I don’t have a clue about what to do with them. We had a great time that day planting them, and I was excited to see them sprout perfectly in time for Easter, but I’ve never harvested wheat, so I don’t know when to pick them or how to do it. Therefore, I figured that maybe we planted the wheat just so that I’d have some grain to pick on a Sabbath, which is what I did this morning before I came in to worship.

I picked this grain of wheat and I doubt anyone is going to get after me for doing it, except for maybe the 4th graders, and even they wouldn’t be upset because I’m picking it on a Sunday. However, as we hear in this portion of Mark’s gospel this morning, Jesus didn’t get off so easy. As he and his disciples are walking through grainfields on their way through Galilee, they begin to pick the heads of grain and, I assume, eat them. Some religious officials catch them doing this and immediately want to know why, if he is a follower of the Jewish faith, he would allow his disciples do something that is not allowed on the Sabbath Day. Why is picking grains of wheat not allowed on the Sabbath Day? Well, as far as they and their religious laws are concerned, picking wheat is one of the long list of things that qualify as work, and as any law-abiding Jewish person would know, work is strictly prohibited on the Sabbath Day.

Now, this may sound really silly to us (what is picking wheat?), even though we are still, as a culture two thousand years later, are still a bit unclear about what the days of the week are for. It wasn’t too long ago that most of the country had blue laws, restrictions about which businesses could be open and which goods and services could be sold on Sundays and weekends. Most of those have been repealed now, probably to our detriment, even though we wouldn’t like to admit it. I know most people would probably expect a religious leader like me to be in favor of blue laws because it might lead to better worship attendance, but that’s actually not my concern. I wonder more about how things like a common day of rest across a whole culture might actually strengthen families and contribute in some way to making us less divisive overall, a problem we are clearly dealing with in all kinds of ways now. I just know that whenever Chik-Fil-A decides to open on Sunday there’s going to be a lot of happy people…except for people who wear Chik-Fil-A uniforms.

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Whatever your stance on blue laws is, honoring the Sabbath Day in Jesus’ culture was not just a minorly annoying little law the religious leaders had made up. It was one of the Ten Commandments; that is, one of the ten core, foundational rules of the faith given by God for God’s people to have a life where they would flourish, the life that God intended for them. In fact, the real name for the ten commandments is actually the Ten Words. These commandments are so basic and so intrinsic to everything about life with God that they are like words are to a thought or a sentence. They speak life and hope into the life of the people of God, giving them purpose and identity, and one of the first words, depending on how you number them, is to take a break. One: You’ve got a great God and remember to obey him. Two: Take care of that God’s name because that name is directly related to God’s particular story and identity, and you don’t want to treat the name so carelessly that it gets mixed up with other gods’ identities. Three: Now you need to remember those two things, so set some time aside for it and make it a priority. Time, which is truly our only non-renewable resource, is necessary to be reminded of those first two things because we’re terribly forgetful. Too much time goes by and we’ll forget.

There’s a key in there about these ten words that the religious authorities seemed to have forgotten. The key is that these words were never meant to be viewed as restrictions, as “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” but as gifts. There is an inherent promise in each of the commandments, like a kernel of grain inside a hard husk, and focusing only on what it prohibits or does not allow is actually a warping of them.

What then is the promise in keeping the Sabbath Day, of refraining from certain things that could involve work? It is to allow our attentions to focus on the life-giving work of God (who accomplishes more work for us than we ever could). It is to honor the fact that built into creation itself is renewal and restoration. It is to recognize over and over that fundamental to human creativity and ingenuity and industry is rest. Taking time away and time off is not an interruption of work. It is a part of it. Sabbath-keeping, you see, helped instill that in people’s faith, but the Pharisees had taken it to an extreme. They would not even allow feeding the hungry or healing to occur on the Sabbath day because it looked like someone was working.

Then along comes Jesus doing those things. Along comes Jesus who allows grain-picking on the Sabbath because disciples are hungry, who sees a man in need of healing and says, “Stretch out your hand” just so that the Pharisees can hear it. And it’s not because Jesus is a rebel and disliked religion. It’s not because Jesus goes around looking for ways to tick off religious leaders. It’s because Jesus, unlike anyone else, could understand what the point of that commandment was, just like he could embody what all of God’s words meant. He could see that it’s work to go through life with a withered hand, or any disability, for that matter. Or in grinding poverty. Jesus could see that holy time was not holy simply because you were following God’s rules and being good. Holy time was holy because it was blessed by the presence of God’s Word, and God’s Word has always been that which truly gives life. Keeping the Sabbath preserves a time where God’s word can be heard and seen and then let loose to do its thing, which means it makes absolute sense for someone to have their life restored and withered hand stretched out on the Sabbath. It isn’t work at all.

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That’s why when Martin Luther gives an explanation for the Third Commandment in his Small Catechism he does not relate it to taking time off, per se, but in taking time with God’s Word. He says, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

Church and worship is not just another activity, even though pastors often make it seem like that, and there’s nothing inherently more holy about Sunday than the other days. Time with God’s Word is always life-giving, no matter when it happens. Our time here, the day the Word rose from the dead, is a weekly reminder of who and whose we really are. It’s a weekly identity check that our life depends on.

Once when I was in high school I attended a week of Rotary camp with kids from several different high schools. On one of the first days there I ran into this one girl who knew me from another camp somewhere, but she had mis-remembered my name. She walked up to me and called me “Peter,” and because I was flustered and giddy around girls at that age I was too shy to correct her right off the bat.

Well, the next time she walked up to talk to me, sure enough, she yelled out, “Hey, Peter,” and I was even more embarrassed to correct her because there were other people around. Thankfully, none of them heard her say it. For the rest of the week, however, whenever I saw that girl wanted to talk to me I would try to walk away from earshot of everyone else so I could be “Peter” to her, even though, of course, I was really Phillip.

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Here God wants to remind us of our real name each time we hear his Word, drink of the cup, eat of the bread. One study in 2015 showed that the average American is exposed to somewhere between 4000 and 10,000 ads a day. That is 4000 to 10,000 daily suggestions of who someone thinks you are or what someone thinks you need to be, essentially calling you Peter when you know you are someone else. And that’s before we factor in the messages we receive from social media that try to tell us who we are supposed to be friends with or what label we’re supposed to be comfortable with.

Youth, in particular, these days are under unbelievable stress to “form an identity” and choose a label and I worry about that pressure in their lives. It’s unfortunate this all coincides with a time when there are so many more options for activities on Sundays and every other day of the week, too.

In this city, just driving up and down Monument Avenue we find reminders of a certain identity and history that authorities want us to remember and adopt for ourselves, whether it’s true for us or not.

In this midst of all this, in the midst of the misnaming and the mistaking, we have a God who gets honest with us. He doesn’t need a monument or memorial or place for this honesty; just time with his Word. We have a God who knows we’re not perfect even when we’re pretty sure we’re “all that,” and so time with his Word will remind us of our brokenness, our need for forgiveness. We have a God who understands our inclination to turn into Pharisees, demanding holiness from everyone else, and his Word knocks us down a notch or two to where we belong.

But we also have a God who knows how to heal, who knows we’re wandering, who knows it’s hard to know who we really belong to in this world. We get to follow a God who loves us and has offered himself on the cross for us, who knows we’re worth a lot even when we don’t feel it. And in those times, when we’re not too busy, his Word gathers us in and lifts us up. In those times we realize that we get to follow a God who says, “Stretch out your hand.”  And then into our open, stretched out hand—wonder of wonders—he places his very life.

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.