Talking Politics?

a sermon for Christ the King [Year A]

Ephesians 1:15-23 and Matthew 25:31-46

Politics, politics, politics. We’ve probably all had our fill of politics lately. We’re tired of hearing about it on the news, tired of hearing it mentioned from the pulpit, and we’re probably afraid how it might get tired over Thanksgiving with relatives whose views differ from each other. After such a contentious election season, and with results still in a strange limbo, we’re so tired of it all, and—good grief!—here we end our Christian church year with what is clearly a political statement: Christ is King.

Christ is King: just saying that carries with it some political images and connotations. It sounds different and bears different weight from saying, for example, Christ is teacher or Christ is healer. Christ is teacher sounds comforting. Christ the healer is intimate. Christ the King expects me to obey and function a certain way in society. Even if we remove the masculine language from it, and say something like “Reign of Christ,” we still end up with something explicitly political.        

And it’s not just the Christian church year that ends on this note. In fact, calling this particular Sunday—the last Sunday before a new Advent begins— “Christ the King” is a tradition that only began in the early twentieth century, which isn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of church history. So you could still take this celebration away and still notice that the witness of Scripture ends with these images and phrases surrounding Jesus. He is seated on a throne or holding a scepter and wearing a crown. The writer of Ephesians, for example, says that God has seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places where he is far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, and that God has put all things under Christ’s feet. That is very political language, both in ancient cultures and in ours today. Jesus is at God’s right hand, which is not really talking about a particular chair or passenger’s seat in heaven but a type of authority Jesus has now, an authority to judge and rule and make laws.

I’m here at the Virginia Capitol, which is like the right hand of our commonwealth. The elected government officials who work here will enact legislation that will impact the people of Virginia. They do good and important work. And even though the Virginia General Assembly is the oldest continuous law-making body in the western hemisphere, it is still somehow under Jesus’ feet. We give God thanks for good government and healthy democracy, but at the same time the baptized acknowledge that Jesus, crucified and now risen, has authority far above this one and others like it. That is, what Jesus says about us and about the world ultimately bears more weight than any of the authority on earth, even though his power might not always be clear and understandable.

Even Jesus himself brings up politics towards the end of his earthly ministry. In his final parable before he begins his final clash with the Roman and Jewish authorities Jesus talks about the Son of Man coming in glory to judge the nations. He perceives the power of his love not as something that rules just in the confines of our own hearts, not just something that cleanses individuals and makes them whole, which is all we’re often prone to see it as, but something that engages us with the world. His mighty love impacts our relationships with those in our lives, our relationships with everyone around us and the community that God forms among us. It is political—not Republican or Democrat political, and definitely not FoxNews or MSNBC political—but he is a King now and therefore his love is political in that has to do with the ways God wants his people to live together. God sees us as one, as a flock.

And this is what comes as a huge surprise to all the people gathered there before this shepherd King on his throne, Jesus says. His authority, his presence, has been among them, drawing them toward one another and they haven’t even noticed it.

For the past several years our third graders have made bookmarks to accompany the Bibles we present to them in the fall. This year, because we could not meet together and assemble those crafts in person the church office staff offered to make those bookmarks for them. Initially we were just going to forego the bookmarks altogether, but we quickly heard that the third graders had high hopes of getting them, so Hanne and Beth figured out a way to do it. On one side of this special bookmark is a photo of them in third grade, and on the other side is a photo of them at their baptism. We attach them to the bookmark and then laminate it so it’s a bit more sturdy. It becomes a way for these kids to see their own growth and how the church of Christ will come along side of them as they grow and discover the word of God.

Who does she look like all grown up?

Most of these kids are baptized as infants, so this year we got several emails with their baby pictures as attachments, and we had the hardest time figuring out who each photo was. Even by third grade, which is about 8 or 9 years old, people start to look different from when they were just a baby. Hanne, our administrative assistant, said at one point, “If the baby photos hadn’t come to us through their parents’ email addresses, we wouldn’t have known who these kids are!”

Christ is king, and his face is right here among us as we seek to live as God’s flock. Can we recognize it? Can we match the king in our midst with the King we envision on the throne? The only way that may happen is because Jesus has already come to us on the cross. His righteousness has already been placed right in front of us. It has come to us like a star shining over a Bethlehem stable in a dark, dark time, drawing foreigners with their gifts. His holy righteousness has already been given to us, like a full day’s wages in the vineyard when we only worked for one hour. His purity has been poured out for us like wine and bread set before disciples who will betray and deny him. His love has been hung out for all to see, that all may see him breathe his last, as he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is our king, and throughout his time with us, throughout his ministry with his disciples and among the people of Israel, Jesus identifies himself with the weak, the outcast, the excluded, the unclean. This is how we will know and recognize our King’s face and learn to live as the body he has redeemed us to be. That’s the email it came attached to, so to speak. God the Son in the form of tenderness and meekness.

The writer to the church at Ephesus prays that God would give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him. When we encounter the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the imprisoned, the ones who are persecuted, the ones who teach us to forgive, we are not just coming to know Jesus’ face. We are encountering our authority. These are the people who actually reign over the universe. So we listen to them. We heed their commands and pay attention to their needs, because—surprise!—they are righteous and have come to us and made us holy even though we didn’t deserve it. Even though we didn’t know it was him.

Christian writer Sarah Bessey puts it this way: “If you can’t find God while you’re changing diapers or serving food or hanging out with your friends, you won’t find God at the worship service or the spiritual retreat or the regimented daily quiet time or the mission field. I believe God hides in plain sight in your right-now life.”

She goes on to say it takes guts because these encounters are most often uncomfortable, and I’m pretty sure I know what she means. I’ve been with the youth group on service project trips to some places in our country that are pockets of poverty and neglect. When I was there I realized it becomes all too easy to think of the people who live in those locations as merely recipients of our charity, like they’re subjects of the kingdom and I’m the generous lord or baron, higher than them, more affluent and wise than them.

authority figure

But thankfully I come across some people have learned to recognize the hungry and the stranger as holy authorities, that they are actually the righteous face of the King in our midst.  These kinds of servants are around here, to be honest. This week some members of our Community Service Team were busy assembling the donations for the Thanksgiving baskets that people have put together. Now, it is uncomfortable to think about people being hungry or lonely at the holidays, especially one that centers around food and family. But Brenda Barnes and her team were here almost every day, sorting things out and lining things up for distribution. She got positively revved up when she discovered that the nursery school had assembled a whole bunch of food donations. It meant a little more work for her, but she wasn’t bothered one bit. You could tell she was excited to serve. I’ve watched the volunteers for HHOPE and LAMB’s Basket too, curious and interested how they might be able to have more encounters with their clients during a pandemic, since need is probably greater. I’ve seen Eileen and Russ eager to take supplies to the ACTS house and Stew and Marilyn, Katie and Johanna, and many others request more opportunities for Habitat Builds.

Elderly woman on wheelchair with a nurse

None of these folks seem uncomfortable in their service. They are exuberant and blessed. They definitely don’t make it look like politics as usual. Because it’s not politics as usual. It’s politics of the kingdom of love. They and so many others here and in congregations and ministries around the world keep getting surprised over and over again by the presence of the King—surprised that, at least for the time being, the one who is seated at the heavenly places, whose authoritative love and grace is over all, not only in this age but in the age to come shows up right here among us and says, “When you do these things for the least of these, who are members of my family, you are doing it to me.” That one shows up right here among us to show us how to live…together…as one holy and righteous flock.

He says, “Come, enter the kingdom I have prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


a sermon for All Saints Day [Year A]

Revelation 7:9-17

Multitudes. It seems like every time we turn on the news these days we’re hearing about the multitudes, multitudes of people. Multitudes have had to evacuate from their homes in the American West as record-breaking forest fires sweep through various states. Multitudes of engaged and perhaps even anxious voters have already submitted their ballots in the next election—over 61 million—and it looks like turnout will be higher than ever since far more than that will actually stand in line on Tuesday. There will be all kinds of people in those lines— young and old, red staters and blue staters, Democrat and Republican and independent.

long lines at 2020 voting booths

And then there are multitudes we shudder to think about but which are reported daily whether we like it or not. At last count over 45 million across the world, and just over 9 million in the United States. They are the multitudes who’ve received a positive coronavirus test result. And then the grim multitude no one wants to be a part of: well over one million deaths from the disease worldwide, over 230,000 of those in our country. This multitude, too, includes all kinds—members of this congregation, even, families and friends of people we know, teachers, nurses, garbage collectors, construction workers, students. Dave Ottaway’s brother, and Allan Neergaard’s too. My own grandmother. We put on our masks and wash our hands and hunker down because many experts are saying this multitude’s number is about to grow even faster. And, despite the political disagreements surrounding it, the reality is those numbers keep looming throughout our newsfeeds and none of us want to be counted in it.

And then on this day in worship we hear about a different multitude. There are so many of them they cannot be counted—cannot be graphed, registered, or divided into different colored states. They are of every nation and every tribe and language. And they are together and united, dressed alike in white and singing together with one voice. This vision from Revelation gives us such a striking image of unity and glory that we have a hard time imagining it in our present circumstances. Just so hard to imagine.

One reason we have a hard time imagining it is because they’re singing, and that’s one thing we just can’t do right now since it’s a high-risk activity for spreading the coronavirus. Much of Christian worship, in fact, is based on the hymns and songs we find in the book of John’s Revelation, songs like we hear this morning. Worship of God is not grounded in the work of solo singers, but in groups of people, multitudes, raising their voices together because God has redeemed them together out of every tribe and nation. In praise and thanksgiving they sing to the Lamb on the throne, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and power and might be to our God forever and ever!” And yet today we sit in the confines of our homes or silenced in the pews, unable to join in the choir. Don’t you wish we could just hear our voices together? Again, we’ll have to imagine it.

Another reason we can’t envision this multitude is because it’s so different from the world we live in now, a world that is filled with all kinds of divisions, conflict and…ordeals. We inhabit a world that is broken by human sinfulness and suffering of all kinds and yet this multitude in John’s vision is beyond all of it. They’ve been rescued out of it, and they stand redeemed in glory.

I heard a story once that Jimmy Valvano, the late, great basketball coach of the NC State Wolfpack who led the team to the 1983 National Championship started his first practice each season by having his team cut down the nets, an action only reserved for the coming national champion. Before they underwent hours of grueling drills, before they practiced their first free-throw shot, before they had played their first game, Valvano had them imagine and feel themselves as victors, claiming the glory.

That is kind of what John asks his readers to do with these strange and perplexing visions in his Revelation He tells his readers, “Imagine God’s glory and triumph at the end of all time. It will come to us. After the ordeal it will be real.”

We often don’t know what to make of John’s Revelation, but it is basically a book about power. It is a book about who has ultimate power and how that power shown. It is about how the powers of sin and death and chaos in the world often create ordeals we have to ensure—ordeals like disease and oppression and riots and prejudice and dying. Through all of it, John’s Revelation is clear about one thing: the power of God in Jesus Christ will have the final say. The Lamb is seated on the throne. The power of God in Christ triumphs over all the evil and over every ordeal we encounter.

As these multitudes wash their robes in the blood of Christ we hear God’s power is used to cleanse us. We learn the Good Shepherd uses his power to guide us to the water of life. We discover, to our surprise, God wields his power save people of all tribes and nations, not just people who are like us. It is helpful for us to remember how powerful God’s mercy is. It is good for us to speak about and sing about how powerfully good and gracious Jesus is, because we are in need of hope. The multitudes of sad and grief-stricken hearts that we know now will become the multitudes who sing God’s praises eternally around his throne.

Today we remember several of our own who have been through their ordeals and have gone to rest in God’s power. We give thanks for their witness and now place them in that choir that is cutting down the nets and singing the full triumph of Jesus’ sacrifice. We don’t know all of the struggles that these faithful departed endured, but we know they are now over. The heart failures, the cancer, strokes, the lives of hardship—they’ve come through them now and are in God’s care. Four of these people which we name today died during the time of COVID, which means the congregation has not been able to gather as one and lay them to rest and give thanks for their life in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. I’d like to take a moment now to do that.

Joe Meindl was a gift from God, as his wife of almost 60 years, Peggy, calls him. Together they attended the later service almost every Sunday from the time they joined Epiphany in 1965. Originally from Chicago, Joe spent his career as a ceramics engineer. He was a kind man, easy to talk to, and always quick with a smile. He listened to everything you said. Joe was a patient and loving father to daughters Elizabeth and Christine, and he served in a number of capacities within the congregation, including as a teller, usher, and member of the finance team. Joe liked everything in church to look really shiny, and he was famous for fastidiously polishing all the brass candlesticks and offering plates after worship each week. I guess that was the ceramics engineer coming out in him. Metals should not just be cherished but relished. Joe himself now shines with the full brightness of Jesus’ light.

Wanda Umlauf was a southern lady of eminent charm, grace, and kindness. Possessed of a beautiful voice, Wanda spent many years singing in our choir. Her influence was felt throughout the congregation for many years as a member of the Margaret Miller Women’s Circle and as Sunday school Teacher. Together with her late husband, John, she provided the leadership and vision and energy for much of our congregation’s earlier expansions. Strong faith had Wanda, and a giving heart. Everyone baptized here is baptized in the font that she and John gave, and the columbarium was blessed by their generosity too. Their daughters Pat and Ginny grew up here in the warmth of their love, and Wanda was proud to know that Ginny had almost completed seminary before she died.

Lunette Edwards was an artist, a gentle but very perceptive soul who drew and painted the most beautiful pictures and portraits. Her husband, Bob, is a retired professional illustrator. He often worked in pen and ink; Lunette was all color, in both style and substance. Born to share her faith and talent, she taught art to many people in the greater Richmond area. She served on Council here, and was even Secretary for a term, and she also taught Sunday School and VBS. Their sons, Russ and Drew, thrived in her love, and Russ and his family are members of Epiphany. Everyone I’ve talked to who knew Lunette remarks on how she never had a bad word for anyone. We give thanks to the eternal Creator who receives Lunette the artist into his kingdom.

Today, we may number Lunette, Betty, Wanda, and Joe in the multitude. Today, we may give thanks for how God’s power embraces them—a power that gives preference to those who hunger and those who thirst, a power that blesses those who are vulnerable and those who are outcast:the meek, the peacemaker, the poor in spirit. And anyone who has passed through the waters of baptism can rest assured that Jesus, the victor, has already vanquished death, the foe. He has cut the nets down already and the game is won. One day we will know that vision and claim our own place in the host that is robed in white.

The other day I was speaking with Betty’s widower, George, and he shared that every Sunday morning he sits down all alone in his apartment and watches our online service just like he did with Betty for years and years. He tries to sing along with the hymns, he told me, but it’s a little lonely just being one voice. A few weeks ago his daughter purchased him a recorder, the kind you learn to play in 4th grade, in order to provide a type of therapy for the neuropathy he is experiencing in his fingers. So now he plays along with our on-line worship because we print the actual music notes on the screen. “I haven’t read music in thirty years,” he told me, “but I’m getting better every week. And then he added with a chuckle, “It would go a lot better, if I had a whole group singing around me.”

You do, George. You do. Just imagine them. Multitudes.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Boiling It Down

a sermon for Reformation Sunday

Matthew 22:34-46

Every year at about this time my family gets a bunch of apples and Melinda and the kids use them to make homemade apple sauce. Sometimes we go out to an orchard and pick them, but sometimes we just get some bags from the store. To make the apple sauce, Melinda removes all the skin and the core and then places them into a big pot on the stove with some water. I’m not actually certain about her whole process because I basically show up to partake of the final product, but I know it makes the house smell so good and it’s a fun activity for the whole family.

What always amazes me, though, is how many apples it takes to make one small batch of apple sauce. Melinda says that it’s not even worth it unless she has at least two dozen apples. That’s about 8 or 9 pounds of apples, depending on how large your apples are. The process of boiling down those apples is key. As they go in the pot and are heated up, the sauce starts to form. Boiling it all down makes it so rich and apple-y and helps it get that creamy texture which is so delicious. What you end up with is basically the pure essence of the apples.

This morning we hear Jesus boil it down for the Pharisees. They come to him one more time with a question that is a veiled attempt to test him on his knowledge of Jewish law. “Which commandment is the greatest?” they ask him. It’s a way of saying which commandment is the most important, which is the one that really needs to be followed most of all?

Jesus doesn’t just choose one as his answer. He manages to boil it all down for us—all the law of Moses and the words of the prophets, all the commandments that God has given God’s people, all the statutes and ordinances that the religious leaders hold dear can essentially be put in a pot and boiled down to love. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And, he quickly adds, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Religious scholars say that at the time of Jesus the law codes of the Jewish faith consisted of 613 different commandments, all covering a wide variety of subjects regarding morals and ethics and cases one might encounter in daily life. As you can imagine, it had become very complicated to follow all of them, to dot all your I’s and cross your Ts and make sure in each and every scenario you were obeying the law. And when it was thought that your ability or inability to follow God’s law was connected to God’s love of you, then the pressure is on, right?

In a way, we can’t fault the Pharisees for the thrust of their question. It is easy for religion to get barnacled over with a lot of extra provisos and conditions, like hauling around a whole heavy sack of apples when all you want is a bowl of the delicious, smooth sauce. For Jesus, as he responds to the Pharisees, the essence of it all is love. What’s more, Jesus says all the law and prophets hang on those two commandments. That is, everything in God’s word intends in some way to point to establishing and maintaining this relationship of love that God has for God’s people and that God’s people reflect back to God.

The command to love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind was undoubtedly something most rabbis in those times would have settled on as the greatest. When Jesus relates that love with love of neighbor, essentially linking them as one unit, he says something new. The bond of love between God and us is not all that different from our love of each other. In fact, the two cannot be separated. We can’t read God’s Word and come away with the impression that we can love God like crazy and treat our fellow human beings like trash. That is the essence of it all.

As it happens, Martin Luther found himself having to boil things down for the medieval church. Things had gotten rather complicated then, too, when it came to life before God. So much about faith had gotten convoluted, at least as it appeared to Luther and many of his contemporaries. He himself had struggled as a young monk with trying to follow all of the ritual guidelines and purity codes, keeping himself clean from impure thoughts and incorrect actions. It tore him up inside, because he was constantly worrying whether or not he was following all of the church’s rules and restrictions in order to receive the life that God promises in Jesus.

Along came a man named Johannes Tetzel in around 1517, an official of the church in Rome. Tetzel was selling indulgences, which were basically pieces of paper that guaranteed, for a certain price, the purchaser would get into heaven quicker. This was confusing lots of people and misleading them in their faith. Luther had had enough and decided it was high time to boil things down. That is one way to think of reformation and the act of reforming something. Boil it back down to its essence and, if necessary, get rid of the stuff that doesn’t matter, the peel, the seeds, and whatever else.

For Luther, the essence of Christian faith is grace. The core nature of God is unconditional love. At the core of God’s being is a desire to set us free from the sin that holds us back without requiring anything from us beforehand. This is why Jesus goes to the cross. He goes to lay his life down purely out of his love of God and love of us. We do nothing to deserve his sacrifice, and it is pointless to think we can do anything to earn it or purchase it or hoard it. When we boil it all down—all the thoughts and statements about what God is like and who God is—you get the cross, the forgiveness of sins, the compassion of sacrifice. We simply receive it. All the things that the church does and all the beliefs and doctrines that the church holds should and must proclaim that.

Martin Luther was willing to say that some things that the church was doing and saying, like the selling of these indulgences, had to go. They no longer upheld that notion that God was gracious. They didn’t fit into that essence that the gift of love in Jesus Christ—the love that involves all his heart and soul and mind to redeem us from sin—comes with no strings attached.

We can’t deny that there has been something very reforming about life over the past eight months.  Living during a pandemic entails a constant boiling down of everything, and it goes way beyond making apple sauce. My family and I are constantly thinking about what is really necessary for us to do, where are the essential places we need to go, and what are the essentials for us to have. Toilet paper, as it turns out, is high on that list.

The debates in society are at a boiling point over these matters too—we’re still arguing over essential businesses and what kinds of behavior we should be able to expect from one another at a minimum. I think many of us can say that although we’re ready for all of this to be behind us, we’re also undergoing many reformations. We’re learning what we really need to survive and what kinds of things are important, what we’re willing to sacrifice for.

Life in the church has been no different. Last I checked no one has gone around nailing 95 Theses to our doors, but we have had many conversations on staff and with groups in the congregation regarding what are we really about right now. We can’t get together like usual.  We can’t sing, which is particular difficult for Lutherans. What kinds of things should the church be doing in a pandemic that clearly communicate God’s grace and love?

Thanksgiving donations in a previous year

A lot of things have fallen by the wayside, at least for the time-being, but what I’m seeing is giving me great hope. This congregation has not stopped loving the neighbor. We have undertaken food drives, blood drives, and drives for household products. People are finding ways to bring in supplies for the quilting group and kits for Lutheran World Relief. We continue to house some community groups that need meeting space, and last month we opened up our parking lot to the Richmond Symphony Chorus so that they could practice in a socially-distanced format.

Our on-line presence has been a huge blessing, both for me and for many others, and we’ve found, like many other churches have, that people are eager to experiecne God’s Word through Facebook or Instagram or YouTube. The other staff and I have had conversations with and received contributions from people we’ve never personally met but who feel a part of our community because of our on-line ministries. And although we sometimes find it a chore to implement safety standards, we are encouraged by the fact there are many people who value gathering for worship in the sanctuary together. We’ve even added in a children’s sermon on Sundays now at our in-person worship because several children have been attending each week.

And people are craving the sacraments. We’ve had just as many baptisms this year as we ever do, if not more, And multiple parents have emailed me wondering how they we can arrange first communion for their children. These are essential things.

I’m not sure how this season will affect the church’s message and ministry long-term. The fact of the matter is we’re probably not even through it yet. Things may be very different on the other side. But I do know that in my life I don’t think there’s ever been a time when the words of the final verse of Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” have had such deep meaning. The other night when the Bargers and I gathered to record it for this worship service, And I thought of the trials of COVID-19 and the millions who’ve been affected and those who’ve lost loved ones, and the struggles of loneliness we’ve all had because of the shutdown, I felt the Holy Spirit was hurling our words out into an empty sanctuary and darkened world with the force of a choir of multitudes. It as is if we were saying “Hear this, O world, you stupid virus. This is the essence of Christ for us, boiled down:

‘God’s Word forever shall abide,
No thanks to foes who fear it.
For God himself fights by our side
With weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse,
Though life be wrenched away.
They cannot win the day.
The kingdom’s ours. Forever.’”

How ‘bout them apples?

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Dr. Luke’s Prescription for the Ages

a sermon for St. Luke, Evangelist

Luke 1:1-4; 24:44-53

We don’t know a whole lot about the people who first followed Jesus and the companions of the apostle Paul. They had stories, of course, very interesting lives, but in most cases we only have their names—names like Thaddeus, Judas son of James, Euodia, Clement—and that is all. But every once in a while Scripture gives us a little extra bit of information. We know, for example, that Jesus calls some disciples who used to be fishermen to follow him. He also calls a tax collector named Levi or Matthew, depending on which gospel you are reading. Lydia, one of the early Christians in the book of Acts, is a dealer in purple cloth. She is affluent and has some influence in her community.

When we add all of these little precious nuggets of information together, we soon get the picture that Jesus and the first Christians were a remarkably diverse group of people. They don’t all come from one class of people or from within one profession. Jesus appeals to all. Throughout the wide and fractured ancient world, the Holy Spirit was bringing together all kinds of different people and in that gathering God saw to include at least one physician, Luke. We know that Luke wasn’t one of the original twelve disciples, and he wasn’t even in the larger group of followers. He claims that he was not an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry, But Luke did travel with Paul, and he felt compelled to leave us with a powerful and detailed version of the events of Jesus’ life, which he follows up with a wonderful and exciting version of the early church’s life, named Acts of the Apostles.

the traditional symbol for Luke’s gospel is an ox (from references in Ezekiel and Revelation), an animal that represents sacrifice, service, and strength, themes present in Luke’s gospel.

We don’t know very much about what physicians were like in the time of Paul and Jesus. We know they didn’t carry around stethoscopes because those weren’t invented until 1816. They probably didn’t live soap opera Grey’s Anatomy lives. Hospitals, in fact, weren’t really even invented until around the fourth century by Basil of Caesarea when Christianity became mainstream. And although doctors may not have been quoted daily in the news like Anthony Fauci, we can assume that people came to physicians when they felt ill and needed healing. These were people with the knowledge and education to make careful observations about people’s health and diet and mostly likely give out medicines. We can see some evidence of that in the introduction to the gospel that bears Luke’s name. Like others he wants to give an orderly account of what he’s heard and learned about Jesus, but Luke adds that he has investigated everything carefully from the very first.

Don’t we still want doctors and therapists and nurses like that? Don’t we still expect pharmacists and other medical professionals to investigate things carefully, starting at the beginning? This is how Luke approaches his evangelism, his telling of Jesus’ story. He has been moved by Jesus’ death and resurrection and now wants to put it down for his readers. As it happens, Luke’s gospel is written with some of the most sophisticated Greek in the Bible, pointing to the fact that he was probably fairly educated. This is serious, life-changing stuff. It demands to be communicated with precision and taken seriously.

And thank God Luke did, because Luke’s gospel includes some of the stories and sayings of Jesus we probably can’t imagine Christian faith without. The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. Could you imagine our faith without those characters and those parables? They are only recorded in Luke’s gospel. Without Luke’s orderly account neither would we have the story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus, or know about the time Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree to see Jesus and wound up having Jesus for dinner in his home.

And because Luke clearly investigates everything careful from the very first, we have the stories of Jesus in the manger, and Bethlehem, and the shepherds’ visit, and the angels praising “Glory to God in the highest!” Luke also contains the forceful song Mary sings when she finds out she will be giving birth to the Son of God—a song that declares that God brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly. And Luke is the one gospel writer who remembers that, as he hangs dying, Jesus looks on the people crucifying him and says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke highlights the ministry and voices of women more than any other gospel and has a definite emphasis on social justice and the needs of those on the margins.

To a person whose vocation would have been related to healing and wholeness, maybe the story of Jesus feels like a diagnosis and a prescription. Maybe Luke is drawn to tell us this story because he hears in it an honest assessment of human nature. We are lost.  We are lonely. The world often treats us as lowly. We are like the child who has wandered far from their father’s home and can’t imagine how they’ll be able to return. We are like the tax collector who is despised and misunderstood by society who just wants a glimpse of a man who receives all kinds. We are like the lawyer who rises to ask “who exactly is my neighbor?” so that we can figure out who deserves our kindness and charity and forget about the others. We are like the young pregnant woman who is in danger of being labelled forever but who still carries within her very being the promise of God. In carefully investigating Jesus Luke has also carefully investigated us.

And Luke also sees a prescription, for God seeks out the lost, God cares for the least, and God lifts up the lowly. Time and time again, Jesus crosses boundaries of human making, Jesus disrupts traditional religious codes, Jesus reclarifies how God comes among us in love.

There are so many ways to experience healing. So often we focus on just the physical side of it—that which can be addressed with a First Aid kit or MRI—but the gospel of Jesus shows us that healing comes in so many ways: Being included in a group after years of being ostracized or overlooked. Learning the truth about something that confused us. Achieving equality and having a playing field leveled. Being heard. Persevering through suffering. Allowing the stages of grief to unfold as they come. Experiencing empathy from someone. Jesus brings all of these to you and to me and to each person of the earth, and through each way God makes his creation whole again.

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” (Pompeo Batoni, 1773)

They are all in some way a part of the greatest healing force Jesus brings, which is the forgiveness of sins through his name. The power of forgiveness and reconciliation to transform human community and open up new paths of life has no equal. Jesus is killed in an unspeakable act of cruelty. He becomes lost, least, and lowly himself on the cross. But his resurrection assures that even that kind of brokenness can be healed by God. Even that kind of brutality and violence can be overturned by love and grace. “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Luke is a physician of the Great Physician, and he’s still writing a prescription the world desperately needs. When I see our church parking lot, as I did this Thursday, lined up with cars of people waiting to be tested for COVID, I know our world is feeling anxiety. When I speak with a son of a member in our congregation who is concerned about his parent’s isolation and loneliness in the nursing home, I know there is a longing for community and personal purpose. When we hear that teenage suicides are at an all-time high, even before the pandemic outbreak, we sense a culture among our youth that is abused and confused. When discussions about politics are more divided than they ever have been, we know that common ground and compromise would bring relief and growth. The story that Luke tells, the life that Jesus lives for us, has some good news to say about each of these situations.

A recent article in The Christian Century talks about how we are living now in an “environment of widespread and collective trauma…Whether it is due to the pandemic, the social unrest, or the election tension, or all of the above, people are experiencing a disruption in their fundamental sense of safety and questioning assumptions they previously held,” with no seeming end in sight.[1] The author suggests several ways to address it. Her last point is the most compelling to me. “Christians,” she says, “have some practice in waiting for a far-off resolution].” Because we have heard the news that the end of all things is ultimately in the hands of a loving and healing God who has already raised Jesus from the dead, we have learned wait in hope with one another, to know things take time. We can tell our story, persist through the grief, reach out to the person left for dead by the side of the road. As it happens, it is Dr. Luke’s prescription for a world lost in its own brokenness. Stay the course. Be clothed with power from on high.

I don’t know about you, but I often don’t get my prescriptions filled. I feel a bit ashamed admitting that in front of all these doctors and nurses on here today, but sometimes I come home and start feeling, I can do this on my own. I don’t need the medicine. The drawer in my bathroom vanity has more than one old doctors note that has gone unheeded. This is one prescription we fill and we take and we share with others. When Jesus gathers his disciples together at the end of his ministry, just before he ascends to his Father in heaven, he says: proclaim repentance and forgiveness in Jesus name to all peoples. “You,” he says, “are witnesses of these things.” So, go and heal. Go and forgive. Go and tell. Go and be a blessing.

Sounds like we’ve all been made doctors of the gospel, too.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “We’re All Traumatized Now,” in The Christian Century. Danielle Tumminio Hansen. October 7, 2020.

Quite the Love Song

a sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22A/Lectionary 27]

Matthew 21:33-46 and Isaiah 5:1-17

Let me sing for my beloved congregation a love song concerning my daughters’ carrot garden. My middle school daughters had a carrot garden in a four-by-four plot of our backyard this year. They themselves mixed the soil with manure and tilled it, they chose the packets of carrots from the hardware store rack and planted them in April.

They did not build a watchtower in the midst of it, but they did watch over those little tufts of green furry leaves like hawks and when their dad tried a time or two to pull one up for a taste test he was rebuked and scolded multiple times and told to stay far away from the carrot garden, Daddy, and tend to your own flower garden over there!

me singing the love song of the carrot garden

The daughters expected their carrot patch to yield dozens of plump, succulent carrots but instead it yielded, in most cases, barely visible micro carrots, too small really to do much with. What more could they have done for their carrot garden, after weeding and watering in the dry weeks of July? They expected it to yield thick, substantial carrots. Why did it yield little shrimpy carrots? Probably the soil quality and the lack of sunshine, but it was still determined to be dad’s fault anyway for messing too much with them and trying to dig them up to early.

Such is the lament of the prophet Isaiah, except it’s not a carrot garden, but a vineyard. Isaiah looks out at God’s people and sees none of the fruit that God expected God would see. Who is to blame? What is to blame? Even with all the effort of a watchtower to keep lookout for predators and poachers, even with soil cleared of menacing stones, God got nothing like he imagined. God planted and tended justice among his people, things like concern for the poor and peacefulness and harmony but instead they gave him bloodshed and discord.

How many of us have known this song? How many of us have labored and labored on the lives of our own children, or our work colleagues, or our friendships, or our marriages, our communities, within the gardens of our own hearts, only to have things turn out unpleasant and disappointing?

As it turns out, God feels that, too, with his people ancient Israel. It may be a sad song, a sad feeling, but it is sung in a song of love. It is a song of truest love—love that keeps at it, love that thinks of everything it can do to save things…and does all of that and more. It is a never-tiring love that is rooted in the very heart of God, who has created these wayward people and redeemed these wayward people and brought them out of slavery and made them his prized possession.

It is this song and this never-tiring love that Jesus tries to explain to the Pharisees and chief priests as he faces off with them in the Temple in Jerusalem. Borrowing from this love song from Isaiah about the vineyard, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who plants a vineyard and does all the things. Fence, watchtower, wine press in the middle of it. It is deluxe. It’s doing so well, supposedly, that he lets some tenants come in to manage the grape-growing process.  But when the time comes for the landowner to get some of the fruit he’s planted, the tenants turn ugly. They kill the first set of slaves he sends to receive the produce, so he gets nothing. So he sends another group of slaves, and they, too, get executed by these tenants.

Eventually the landowner just decides to send his own son. In those days, sending a son, provided you had one, was essentially just like going yourself. Today it just as well could be a daughter. The child doesn’t just stand in place of the parent but is seen as a real extension of that parent and that parent’s authority. This really makes no difference to the tenants. They see taking the son as a way of claiming ownership of the vineyard. Then it will be their vineyard! They throw him out and kill him. Who is to blame for all this bloodshed and injustice, for not giving the landowner the fruit of the vineyard he deserves? Clearly it is these wicked tenants!

Some love story, huh? Jesus, though, is reaching the end of his road. He is doing all he can to explain and show that God’s kingdom is built on things like love of neighbor, and that God’s righteousness is not known by how well you follow all the religious rules but by how compassion rules your faith. But no matter how much he talks about and displays this compassion the religious authorities feel threatened and angry. By the end of his parable, they realize it is really a story about them and about how they are eventually going to reject Jesus and have him arrested.

Yet for all the violence there is love here, for the landowner is not willing to hold back anything to tend to his vineyard and gather the harvest he desires. But more interesting than that is that Jesus doesn’t seem to want to make this love song about blame, about who is going to get what they deserve. At the end of the parable he asks his listeners a question: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They respond that those wretches will be put to a miserable death. But Jesus does not affirm that. God will not respond to all this tragedy by killing anyone. In fact, it seems that the son’s death puts an end to this cycle of violence in the vineyard.

“The stone that the builders reject has become the cornerstone.”That is to say, Jesus, the son, will be arrested, thrown out of the garden and crucified, but God will raise him up to make him the foundation of a new creation—a new creation that we have faith will bring justice and righteousness and beauty and mercy to all people everywhere. This song tells of a love so strong and so deep and so true that it can look the most awful death and tragedy right in the eye and still be triumphant. This love is so pure and so powerful that it can venture into our violent and corrupted world and redeem it and make all things new. God never holds back in loving us.

This is the love that brought us out of the waters of baptism, that has cleansed us of our sin and granted us freedom in the Spirit to love and serve our neighbor. And now we are those who tend the vineyard of God’s kingdom. We are the tenants who work the fields and do what we can to make sure that the good things of God’s harvest come to fruition in the world around us.

Last Sunday in this very location we saw five young tenants of God’s vineyard publicly profess their own faith by affirming their own baptism. Doing anything publicly in these times is challenging. For seven months we have been isolated and to varying degrees shut down. But these young men and women of our congregation—Riley, Ryan, Matthew, Joe, and Cole—had completed confirmation classes last spring and wanted to find a way to make their confirmation happen. Rather than staging the confirmation indoors, they opted for something outdoors. We ended up, as you will see, holding the ceremony right in front of our giant cross, each of them facing in the direction of Monument Avenue as they say the Apostles’ Creed and ask God to help them and guide them in their faith.

We knew it was a bit of a risk to hold the confirmation service right there because, as you probably know, Horsepen Road and Monument Avenue can be rather noisy. We weren’t sure how clear our audio would be and if it might get overpowered by something loud that drove by. There is a point, as if on cue, where someone paying really loud rap music descends on the intersection right as we are praying for the Holy Spirit to be present in their lives. (Bonus points if anyone can tell me what the name of the song was). In any case, we took any interruption and any noise around us as a blessing and a call.

Where does God give us faith to practice but in the world, in the midst of the sirens and shouts and songs of humankind? Where does God ask us to tend to the fruits of his vineyard but in the everyday lives of people and communities around us? Where else does God send us as his servants, often into situations where we’ll lay down our lives, lay down our agendas, lay down our privileges, but the harvest that is literally all around us?

This was part of Francis of Assisi’s story. Son of a very wealthy and powerful businessman, Francis originally thought of becoming a knight. But after some experiences with God Francis felt drawn toward a life of faith and service to the others through the church. This caused friction with his family, and he was rejected. In one dramatic point, brought before a bishop’s court by his father and accused of squandering money, Francis renounced worldly wealth by stripping off all his clothes and giving them back to his father. From that point on he took on a vow of poverty, becoming a Christlike ambassador of kindness and service and charity for thousands of communities across the world.

“Scenes from the life of St. Francis” (Benozzo Gozzoli)

As we pray again for those young people today, let us add in that their lives will continue to be built on nothing other than Christ the cornerstone that was rejected. It is on Christlike compassion that the arrogant and prideful ways of the world will ultimately fall and be broken to pieces. It is the grace and mercy of Jesus that will crush the hurtful and hateful hearts we often bear.

As we pray for them let us also then recall our own part in the love song that God sings. Let us pray that God make us good tenants who give thanks and praise in all our days for a God who holds nothing back to make his kingdom’s heirs bountiful and beautiful again. And let us pray for a field of fruit in us that is exactly what our vineyard owner wants to see.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Labor Day 2020

the failure
of overused tiki torches
with canisters rusted from rain
and leaking citronella so much
they can no longer hold a flame
to fend off the mosquitoes
forces us to the table on the porch
for the first time

encircled by Christmas lights
around the top of the screen walls
and glancing at our phones
we speak of school schedules
the diminishing lives of laptop batteries
and debate the frequency of snow days
from years past

the puppy
banished to the family room
hungry and anxious from separation
(oh she has no idea)
yelps through all the conversations
as the summer of the pandemic
comes to an end.

Whom to Believe

a sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21A/Lectionary 26]

Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13

When I hear Jesus tell this parable about the two sons responding to their father’s request to go work in the vineyard, I feel like it’s speaking directly to me and how I’ve responded to different things over these months of pandemic. I have had all kinds good intentions but my follow-through hasn’t always been very good. We badly need to replace or repair our mailbox post at home, for example, and six months ago I told my own father I’d work on it, and he even made me part of a new post to help out, but it still stands there about to fall to the ground. Back in the early summer Hanne, our church administrative assistant, asked me to help her complete a project on funeral information that she’s been working on for several years now and I said, “Yes,” but guess where that file is right now: on my desk underneath a bunch of other half-done projects.

Perhaps the example of this I feel the most remorse about is the fact that I have been telling Council and other people in the congregation that I’d be happy to lead a book discussion on the topic of racism in the United States but as of now Pastor Joseph and I still haven’t put anything on the calendar or decided what that’s going to look like. We’ve been publicizing this idea since July, and I have at least read a potential book on the topic, but I’m still just not able to commit to a time or a format. Each week that goes by I think, the congregation knows I’ve said, “Yes” to this but in reality, like that second son, I’m just shirking my responsibility.

Have you struggled with this, too, not just during the pandemic but in life in general? Have you set goals for yourself or maybe consented to others’ requests but still haven’t checked those things off your list? In the parable Jesus gives us no indication why the second son never shows up in the vineyard. Maybe he never had an intention of going and he was just giving his father lip service. But maybe he just got distracted or overcommitted elsewhere. Maybe he thought about the realities of actually working in the vineyard and got cold feet.

In the end it doesn’t matter, because Jesus doesn’t tell this parable as a lesson about our To-Do lists, however noble they may be. Jesus uses this parable to illustrate for the chief priests and the elders the differing responses to his own authority. To give a bit of background, it may help to know that something really, really big has happened just before this gospel reading. Since June we’ve been steadily making our way through Matthew’s gospel and in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is on a journey to Jerusalem where he knows he’s going to be handed over to the chief priests and authorities and be killed. In this morning’s gospel passage Jesus is finally there. The day he comes into the city he rides a donkey and all the ordinary people wave palm branches and shouted with excitement and hope that their new king has arrived. And just like if someone in this country wanted to go address the powers-that-be would head to Capitol Hill or the White House, Jesus heads to the temple, the epicenter of his Jewish religion.

He creates a bit of a stir. First he drives the money changers out and then he starts teaching there, drawing crowds. When he winds back up at the temple the next day the religious leaders immediately want to know just who does he think he is? Jesus presence in the temple and the kind of things he is doing—and the kind of energy he is kicking up among the people—are new things to deal with, and the people in charge, the religious leaders, are trying to figure out how to respond.

authority figure?

I have a friend who tells me the story of when her three children were all very young. They have an attic in their house that is accessed through a hole cut in the ceiling. You pull on a cord and down falls this wood hatch and a set of collapsible steps. Lots of houses have these, but it was a source of wonder and mystery to her three children. Her oldest, who was quite the storyteller and had a vivid imagination, had told the younger ones that there were ghosts up there and that mom and dad kept a creature up there. One day during a birthday party she came around the corner to find the hatch opened and the steps all the way on the ground. Concerned for their safety, she immediately climbed up the stairs to find the kids all huddled in the dark over by the edge of a window. “Get down from here right now, boys and girls!” she ordered.

“But, mom,” one of them responded, “we are looking for the ghosts and the creature up here.”

She explained emphatically, and with all the pleading authority of a caring, logical adult, that there were no ghosts, that there were no creatures and that there was nothing of any interest to them in the attic. At first, there was silence from the kids, and then one of the younger ones pointed to the eldest and said, “We believe him.”

The chief priests and elders are in a predicament. The steps have been pulled down and a new experience of God has been opened, first in John the Baptist, but now in Jesus. And people are believing them rather than the figures in the temple. How do to they respond? Do these leaders believe John, whose message was one of repentance, of having their minds and hearts changed to receive Jesus as God’s anointed One? Or do the chief priests and elders maintain their distance? Do they trust Jesus teachings on God’s kingdom and where that will take them, or do they shut the door and go with their status quo experience of religion? They don’t want to buck their religious safety, but they also don’t want to make the crowds angry. I think we’ve all felt the tension between doing a bold new thing that speaks of justice and peace or continuing along with the powers that be. The ministries of John and Jesus are both kind of tied together and Jesus is causing the people to figure out how they will respond.

And then Jesus tells this short parable about the two sons who have to decide how they’ll respond to their father’s request to work in the vineyard. The scenario involves a few more layers than we might understand from our modern angle. To say “No” to a father figure in Jesus’ time was a big deal. It was an insult to the father and a violation of the fourth commandment. The first son, by responding “no,” was doing something deeply offensive to his parents and to the whole system of power and authority in ancient Israel. No one would have liked that first son, even after he went and changed his mind. The second son would have shown honor due his father by agreeing to work in the vineyard. He would have saved public face and looked good to everyone, even if in the end he didn’t follow through.

This parable would have really challenged Jesus’ hearers. In fact, we know it challenged them because this parable is written down three very different ways in the oldest manuscripts we have of the gospel of Matthew. The idea of a son rejecting his father’s request was so offensive that it’s almost like original audiences couldn’t imagine that Jesus would find him to be the hero, and so in some versions of the Bible they changed it to the second son. Religious people couldn’t imagine that that first son, in doing something so disrespectful, could even, with a change of heart, be the one who did the will of the father.

In fact, it’s kind of like being unable to imagine that people like tax collectors and prostitutes are hearing Jesus’ and John’s message and responding to his grace better than the really religious folks. And yet that is precisely who Jesus says are entering the kingdom of God ahead of the religious authorities. Tax collectors and prostitutes are basically representative labels for sinners in general—those people who have, for whatever reason lived in ways and done things that are deeply offensive to God’s righteous ways. Sinners are like that first son who rejected the father’s commandment but now, through a change of heart, a change of mind come to respond to God’s call in Jesus.

It’s not anything that new. God has always been about seeking and loving the people who are lost, the ones who are the least. Jesus is just bringing that into sharper view again. The issue is that some people are better at recognizing that God is present in the life and love of Jesus before the religious experts are, and those are the people on the edges. They are the people who’ve been routinely sidelined and overlooked and oppressed. They recognize mercy when they see it. And they love its authority in their lives. It is an authority that values them. It is an authority that gives them another chance. It’s an authority that bestows them with freedom and honor. It is an authority that makes them heirs of the kingdom. This is the authority that Jesus wields.

Several weeks ago Robin Beres, a columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote an article that generated a lot of buzz. Titled, “Do We Really Want to Give up on God?” the article argues that declining participation and membership in churches and communities of faith in America is a bad thing. She touts several statistics about the benefit of religion and worship on personal well-being and things like the rates of volunteerism. A few letters to the editor took her to task for saying this, arguing that religion was outdated or that church services need to be streamlined. It was a very interesting back and forth, and I’m thankful that a member of the congregation painstakingly cut all of them out and sent them to me so that I could read them. As the discussion over religion and its proper place played out in the pages of the paper during the weeks that followed, only one of the letters to the editor mentioned Jesus Christ by name. In a very succinct and articulate statement, our own Joel McKean, former council president explained that the focus on the cross has the power to change lives, and that is the focus of our faith.

There in the pages of our local paper was a profound and beautiful example of responding to the authority of Christ, explaining that God’s grace has a power over our lives that can’t be described by science or defined by philosophy. The issue of authority is a very tricky topic these days. We don’t really know which sources of news to trust anymore, which talking heads are being truthful and loving with us. We can have different experiences with religion and religious figures, some helpful, others not so much. But Jesus authority is something we can be sure of and respond to. It calls us and forgives us. It loves us and gives us gifts for service. His authority leaves the door of the vineyard open so that when we have that change of heart, when we find ourselves led to a new beginning, we will be able to come inside and work the fields of our Father. I would hope that if I were given the public opportunity to respond to God’s grace, I could name Jesus with the grace and confidence that Joel did.

And here’s the thing: while our witness and discipleship might come down to where we stand concerning Jesus and his message, we know ultimately our life and our worth comes down to where Jesus stands toward us. And he stands toward us in love. Our eternal life is in the hands of the crucified and risen One. Jesus has opened that hatch, that staircase, and descended from the tops of the mystery to be with us down here. He has emptied himself completely, never exploiting his equality with God, and he has handed himself over to not just any death, but a death on the cross, mocked and disregarded by all. Jesus’ authority is like an anti-authority, never seizing power, but always giving it up. Never demanding allegiance, but always inviting us to join his journey.

And one day, we are promised, every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess and every letter to the editor of the entire universe will proclaim him Lord of all. And we will point to him with confidence and say, “I believe Him.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Holding-Us Family

a sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19A/Lectionary 24]

Matthew 18:21-35, Genesis 50:15-21, and Romans 14:1-12

Life in the Martin house—my house—right now is a life of constant learning of rules and breaking of rules and doling out consequences and saying “sorry.” I’ll spare you the details, and, more importantly, I spare my family the embarrassment, but with a 4-year-old and two middle schoolers daily life involves a rolling tally of screen time and debates about who left which crumbs on the kitchen table and didn’t clean them up and whether or not certain people are allowed in certain people’s bedrooms without knocking.

And that does even include the issues of living with me. Do you know that I’ve never loaded the dishwasher correctly—not even once? I’m serious. It’s not just a matter of opinion. I’m really bad at it and (and have to confess) I don’t really try to get better. A lot of other stuff goes on in our house, to be sure—eating, petting the puppy, watching episodes of “Friends,” but when I step back and look at the whole picture, that’s really the crux of it. At our best, most of what’s going on is forgiveness and compassion.

Isn’t that the case with every family, every identifiable group of people? That’s one thing I’ve loved about the videos from the Holderness family, especially during this pandemic. The Holderness family is this relatively normal family of four who post regularly on social media in a very lighthearted but honest way, usually with music, airing some of their grievances with one another and showcasing daily life together. A great many of their videos reveal how living as one community is really about constant negotiation. It’s about constantly fessing up, acknowledging your shortcomings, and then showing grace. Usually with humor.

The story we have of Joseph in the book of Genesis, of course, is this on a grand scale. It is an epic story of constant negotiations around mistakes of the past, and family trauma and cold heartedness. It goes way, way beyond who left the crumbs on the kitchen table. It’s got favoritism, human trafficking, fake death, lying…all kinds of sordid drama I don’t have time to go into today But in the end, a part of which we hear today,forgiveness and reconciliation rule the day. Joseph is miraculously able to overcome all of his bitterness, all of his pain, all of his anger, after being sold into slavery by his brothers, and he is able to receive them once again in love.

It is such an emotional scene…and so complex. Joseph hears the words of his father, whom he loved, and who loved him a bit too much. It provokes compassion and joy in him, and then there is this culminating scene where Joseph weeps in front of them and then they’re all like “I’m not crying, you’re crying,” and they present themselves as slaves at Joseph’s feet, but Joseph doesn’t want that. He wants his brothers back, not slaves. And somehow Joseph is able to see in all that has happened the hand of God leading them back to one another, restoring them as a family.

There are many things Joseph’s story teaches us, things that even the Holderness family touches on, but one of the main points is that a family can only function if no one is keeping constant track of wrongs. Forgiveness has to wipe the slate clean on occasion. Openness towards reconciliation needs to be present all the time, like a default position on a computer program, like oxygen. Otherwise, it kind of stops being family or community. It becomes chaos.

I think this is largely what Jesus means when he explains to Peter and the other disciples that they are to forgive people not seven times but seventy-seven times. Jesus doesn’t literally mean to tally how many times you forgive someone for sinning and stop at seventy-seven. He’s being flippant with the number, turning the question back on Peter in a humorous way. Seventy-seven was kind of a way of saying, “don’t count occasions of rule-breaking and forgiving because forgiveness isn’t really able to be calculated. It’s like he’s saying be constantly gracious. Don’t ignore wrongdoings, by any means, or the pain they cause, but be aware of your ability to unburden people from their trespasses. Don’t be a Karen all the time, pointing out everyone’s flaws in an unrelenting manner. Relationships are living and active and just as individuals need daily bread to survive, so do we need forgiveness and grace and mercy to make it each and every day. It’s not just a matter of being nice and thoughtful. It a matter of giving people oxygen.

Then Jesus tells this fantastic parable to remind his disciples that they, too have been forgiven. It’s not just a one-way street. Our default stance of grace towards other people is based on God’s grace towards us. We have been loved and forgiven seventy-seven million times. Again, we’re not supposed to count.

The parable tells the story of a slave who owes an exorbitant amount of money to his king. Ten thousand talents may not mean anything to you or me, but historians say this would have been equivalent in Jesus’ time to about 200,000 year’s worth of wages. Scholars tell us that not even King Herod would have had that much in his treasury. How this slave ran up that kind of bill we are not supposed to be too concerned about. The point would be that there is no way he could ever pay it off. When the king makes preparations to sell him and his family, the slave falls down in humility and begs for time to pay it off. And instead of getting a deadline extension, which is what he asks for, he gets complete forgiveness of the debt. The king just lets him go!

But then this slave immediately turns around and comes across a buddy who owes him a much smaller amount. A hundred denarii was equal to about four months of wages, so a very doable debt. He grabs the guy by the throat and demands the money. What happens when you grab a person by the throat? You cut off their oxygen.

The guy pleads and pleads, just in the same manner the first slave had done, but instead of being merciful, instead of cancelling the debt, he throws the poor guy in prison. Word gets back to the king about this, and I suppose that most kings probably wouldn’t really get involved in their many slaves’ various private financial affairs. I suppose most kings really wouldn’t care about who owed who money or who was doing what to which person. I suppose most kings would have bigger fish to fry. But this isn’t most kings. This king doesn’t want this kind of stuff going on in his kingdom. This king has a higher vision for how things roll, and he finds that unmerciful slave and calls him wicked, throws him in jail and has him tortured until he pays the 200,000 years worth of wages.

And the bit about the torture may freak us out a bit, because torture is terrible and inhuman, but on some level, we end up truly torturing ourselves when we withhold forgiveness and shut the door on true reconciliation. I think that’s what Joseph understood. Receiving back his brothers only as slaves would just prolong the torture of everything he’d been through. Doing the hard, often emotional work of listening and restoration frees the person who does it almost more than those who are forgiven.

I came across an article recently about the infants and children of Nicolai Ceausescu’s Romania from the 1980s. In one of the most heartbreaking and disgusting eras of human history, Nicolai Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, ordered hundreds of thousands of children to be born to appease his fascist fantasies, but because the country was too poor to raise them all in homes, many were placed in orphanages where they rarely received any physical or nurturing care. They would cry and no one would comfort them. They would get scared and no one would hold them. They wouldn’t be able to fall asleep and no one would rock them.

Tragically, we know now this did irreparable damage to the way their brains processed fear and hope, and now many of them are adults (which is what the article was about) and they are unable to function at a normal level in society. They find it difficult to build healthy relationships with others.

It is such an awful thing to ponder and talk about, because it still happens on a smaller scale today. But here’s what it teaches us: Humans, even at birth, it turns out, are able to process mercy and grace. We begin our lives as creatures that receive—receive care, receive warmth, receive joy and security. We do nothing to deserve it, but our survival depends on it. And the survival of others depends on our willingness to share it. It is oxygen for God’s people, and God started it all rolling in Jesus, his Son, that different kind of king who gives up everything, who gets thrown in prison, who gets tortured to death, in order to keep that cycle of forgiveness and reconciliation going.

We never outgrow this. We never outgrow the need to hear and know we are set free from the brokenness that burdens us. We never get too old to receive the news that our debts against God have been cancelled. Across the board. It makes us live.

Sometimes I look online and at the news, especially as we near a presidential election and think we are all holding each other by the throat. How dare you think this, Trump-supporter? How dare you support that, Black Lives Matter activist? And we lay into each other primarily to get a pound of flesh and inflict a mortal wound on the other side because how could they, right? and we want to deprive them of oxygen.

It sounds a bit idealistic, perhaps, but maybe it’s time to stand back and think of the human family, especially as think about that meme we want to post or that news station we want to turn on. Maybe Jesus tells us this parable again right now in hopes time we would realize we’ve been given to one another as brothers and sisters.

And maybe we might hear in this lesson the fact our whole existence is dependent on the grace given to us by God through other people. Certainly we don’t ignore the wrongs we’ve inflicted on one another, certainly we take seriously the real damage that lasts, but certainly it is time to remember, for the love of God, that our default position, as forgiven and loved children of God, is not attack and torture, but listen and embrace. Our default position is grace because that’s what God has lavished on us.

As Paul says to the Romans, “We not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves.” My decisions don’t just impact me. I’m bound to you and you are bound to that guy over there. Like Joseph and his brothers. We are the Lord’s, whether we live or whether we die. And his is the hidden hand of God, leading us back to each other.

Are we the Holderness Family?  Not exactly, but we are the Holding Us family, for God holds us in his care and in his steadfast love forever, never repaying us according to our iniquities, holding us from the moment we’re born seeking love and warmth to the moment we die and find eternal love receives us.

Seventy-seven billion times (not that we need to count)!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Way Jesus Goes

a sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 17A/Lectionary 22]

Matthew 16:21-28

Have you ever had the experience of starting a story or a movie thinking that you know what it’s about as it starts only to find out as you keep watching that it’s not what you expected? Or have you ever heard a recommendation from a friend about a book or read the book jacket and make assumptions the plot will take a certain trajectory but then once you’re into it, it turns out to go in another direction?

These kinds of things seem to happen to me all the time, for some reason, and sometimes it’s an actual, physical trajectory. One time many years ago I was traveling abroad with a friend and we wound up in one town where we had reservations for the night but neither of us spoke the language there. Everything was a little disorienting, but we were well-worn travelers so we figured where we needed to go and jumped on the subway. Nothing was written in English and we couldn’t understand the subway commander, but we were pretty sure we had chosen the right one. SLowly, after several stops, and trying to match what we thought we were hearing on the microphone system to the strange words on the signs outside, it occurred to us both at the same time  that we were not on the correct train or line at all and we needed to disembark at the next station. Unfortunately we had only paid for a ticket in the direction we had initially taken, and we didn’t know if they’d let us back on the train going in the opposite direction. So we had to exit the whole system and re-board going in the correct direction, hopping over turnstiles and running up steps.

Well, that’s kind of what’s happening this morning with Peter and the other disciple as Jesus begins to show them he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering. They are realizing the subway they’re on is going in a totally different direction than what they thought when they got on. They are realizing the plot of the story they are in is quite a bit different from the jacket on the back. They assumed this was a Galilee uprising, one where the next Messiah, the next God-chosen leader, would drum up enough grassroots support to be swept into power and crush the authorities in Jerusalem.

But instead, Jesus is heading to Jerusalem on his own, and he is heading right into the hands of the people he would overthrow. He is not avoiding suffering and death. He is aware of it and accepting it. They assumed they had boarded a train bound for glory, but it is a train headed toward a cliff. In fact, it is bound for glory, but not in the typical ways the world pursues it or imagines it.

“Get behind me, Satan!”

We can hear Peter’s shock and disappointment as he tries to turn the train around. “God forbid it, Lord!” he bellows. “This must never happen to you!” But Jesus is determined. He is determined to overturn the powers of sin and death that plague God’s people by going straight into his crucifixion. And then Peter becomes the one who gets turned around. He goes from being called the Rock upon which the church shall be built to being the stumbling block of Jesus’ own mission.

The Greek word for stumbling block is “scandal.” We have seen some scandals in the news this week, and we can see how scandals trip people up—not just the people involved in them but all the people who look to a leader for guidance, counsel, and hope. Scandals make the way forward less clear, they chip away at clarity and vision. Peter’s insistence that Jesus not head to Jerusalem, that Jesus not accept this path of suffering and self-sacrifice immediately chips away at the clarity of God’s love and Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. Jesus does not need that kind of stumbling block in his way.

This is a critical moment in Matthew’s gospel. This is the point, quite literally, when Jesus leaves behind his Galilee home, the fishing and farming villages where he has made his name, and focuses on the seat of power in Jerusalem. But it is much more than a critical point in Matthew’s story. This is a crucial moment in understanding just who Jesus is. This is one of those moments where Peter and the gang and even the rest of us are going to have to decide whether we go ahead and finish the movie or read the book, whether we commit to the finishing point, even though it’s not turning out like we thought it would.

In his book Atheist Delusions, theologian David Bentley Hart explains that a suffering Son of God, a deity who dies, was a completely novel concept in the ancient world. I think two thousand years of Christian witness and singing about the cross has almost made the death of Jesus seem ordinary to us. We build churches and place crosses over the altar. We talk about his betrayal and death every time we gather for his holy meal. I hate to say it, but it almost feels old hat to us, but the idea that a divine power would stoop to this kind of self-giving was absolutely unheard of. Nowhere in the history of ancient religions and faiths, Hart says, was there anything like the path Jesus takes as a legitimate way of life, much less linked to God.

What we see in Jesus at this moment is a completely new and daring way to deal with the brokenness of the world. He’s not just going to patch things over with healings and new teachings. And he’s not going to enter Jerusalem and try to establish a benevolent regime through a people’s army or through pulling strings the right way, appointing the right allies, shoring up his defenses, and so on. Because no matter how well it might have turned out it would have just been a variation of all the other human ways that had already been tried. And ultimately it would have faded away until the next clever popular power came along. Jesus, rather, is going to try a divine way that involves handing himself over. Letting the suffering speak.

When we think about it, we realize the gift of Jesus is never old hat. The world still operates in the same old, self-proclaiming, violent, and hope-robbing ways. The cross of Jesus is still a new thing—always a new thing!—which is why in his call to his disciples he says they will take up a cross and follow. They will need to lose their life. This way of self-giving and unconditional loving happens now and it will always meet resistance. It meets resistance in ourselves, because we want an easier way that involves less pain. And it meets resistance from the world, because the world rewards self-promotion. To avoid being a stumbling block as this train moves forward, Jesus says to set our minds on divine things, not human things.

If you, like I, struggle to understand what that means, what setting my mind on divine things looks like, it helps to remember it actually means setting them on other humans; that is, serving them. We can see this pretty clearly if we look at Jesus’ life, but the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, gives us a wonderful list of diving things, one right after another.

As it turns out, setting our mind on divine things is not ultimately based in things like mindfulness or yoga or memorizing Scripture or contemplating nature’s beauty, as much as those things may help. It involves paying attention to our neighbor and our relationship with him. In the list that Paul gives the Romans about how to offer their bodies as living sacrifices to God in thanksgiving for Jesus’ love, there are very few that have a personal or private dimension. Almost every single one of them is about building and mending our relationships with others: Love one another with mutual affection. Contribute to the needs of the saints. Extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you. Weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice. Associate with the lowly.

When Jesus says we lose our lives to save it, it becomes clear that we are meant to lose ourselves at the feet of our neighbors. When Jesus talks about denying ourselves it’s not really some clever system of giving up this or that, but offering ourselves to the world’s service. When the Holy Spirit empowers us to do that, we truly gain our lives. They become full, full of life, full of meaning, full of grace.

Our quilting team was disheartened, like so many others, to learn that the explosion in Beirut last month destroyed shipping containers used by Lutheran World Relief. The containers that were lost held 22,000 quilts, 100 cartons of school kits, 300 cartons of personal care kits, and 150 cartons of baby care kits that were prepared for distribution to 24,550 men and women who were already in great need. That loss is staggering, but at the same time, it is a sign of countless people in our denomination who have denied themselves in service to the Lord. Think of all that work just out of love for neighbor! This week, you may like to know, thirty-three quilts made by our quilters just since July will make their way back into that supply chain to help cover the loss. That means they are stitching together quilts at a faster rate than they normally do.

In fact, even during this time of COVID shutdown, the quilters here have had to expand their ministry into new space at church, which has bumped elbows with the nursery school, which has expanded to create a program for virtual learning for school-age kids to get work done while parents are working. Our church has basically been empty for six months and we just finished a major renovation, and we’re still having to negotiate how to use space to service our neighbors because our ministries are going strong. Contribute to the needs of the saints, Paul says. Extend hospitality to strangers. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. In losing our lives to service, we gain them, and we continue with Jesus on the way to the cross.

For the truth is, my friends, Jesus has never questioned once whether he wants to be on the journey with us. Jesus has never looked at us and thought, as our lives take some crazy or dangerous turn, “You know, you’re not what I expected. I want off.” He never says that, never wants that. He is never scandalized so much by us that he leaves us behind. That’s the promise of our baptism. Never, ever is Jesus going to let us go.

And here’s the best part: the end is not the cross. The end is not the suffering, the end is never the denial and the self-sacrifice. This strange train goes through them, but it ends with resurrection. Its destination is glory in God’s loving presence forever and ever. It is victory and triumph and power and strength because Jesus rises on the third day. And there we find the story of glory ends much, much better than we ever could have imagined.

Thanks be to God.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Gates of Hades Don’t Stand a Chance

a sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 16A/Lectionary 21]

Matthew 16:13-20 and Isaiah 51:1-6

“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Those words of Jesus’, which we hear him speak to Peter this morning, may be the most important words for the church to hear at this time. The gates of Hades that Jesus is talking about was the gaping hole at the middle of the rock wall that the gleaming new city Caesarea Philippi was built on. Many people in Jesus’ time thought that it was the entrance to the underworld, the place from which evil and the powers of death emerged. There is no place like that underneath us or in the middle of the earth, but for many cultures and peoples, the Gates of Hades, or gates of hell as they are sometimes known, has become a metaphor for forces of destruction and darkness. It is a way of speaking about fearsome, unpredictable things that harm us and tear human community apart. When Jesus says it to Peter and his disciples, he means that there is nothing that will ultimately break his followers apart, nothing in the universe that will ever conquer and demolish the community that has been formed by the love of Jesus Christ, not even death.

The Gates of Hades in modern-day Israel

2020 certainly feels like something out of the Gates of Hades. The year began with some deaths in our congregation that took our breath away. Then the pandemic started. We thought would be a few weeks of shutdown. And now we are beginning our seventh month and there still is no end in sight. Looking back, there was something almost romantic about those first three or four weeks when we thought it would be short-lived. Baking bread. Writing letters long-hand. I don’t need to list for you the stress we are all under now—the effects on the economy and unemployment, mental health, the challenges of educating our children and college students. You can add to it the tumultuous social changes we are undergoing in this country, right in time for one of the most divisive election seasons this country has ever seen. And now two hurricanes are getting ready to hit the Gulf coast in one week. Don’t forget the murder hornets.

Human communities everywhere are dealing with unbelievable amounts of stress, and Jesus’ church is no different. The main things that tend to hold us together as our community are not available at this time. Group singing, kneeling at an altar together to receive Holy Communion, hugging and shaking hands, Sunday School crafts and youth group games—they are all on hold, and we’re feeling it.

Church growth consultant and expert Thom Rainer shared in a blog post this week he titles, “Five Ways Churches Will Have Changed One Year From Now,” that we can expect twenty percent of our members not to return, even after the pandemic is behind us. I don’t know how he arrives at that number, but it’s probably pretty realistic. Rainer also shares that more pastors will leave ministry altogether over the next twelve months than at any time in recent history. It’s just his prediction, of course, which means it may not come true, but he explains that most pastors and church leaders are receiving more negative comments and criticisms than usual at a time when face to face conversations, which is usually how conflict is best worked out, are not really possible.

Suffice it to say this is not my experience at Epiphany whatsoever. I think Pastor Joseph and Kevin and the rest of the staff would agree that we continue to feel so supported and loved and encouraged. But I think Rainer is likely correct about the church at large. I suspect many congregations will close or merge with others as a result of what we’re going through.

None of this mentions anything about those we may lose as a result of COVID-19 because they die. That is what truly brings us grief. To think of the people we have already lost and will yet lose during this pandemic is deeply saddening. We’ll never get to worship again with certain people this side of the resurrection, and the fact we can’t even gather to give thanks for their life in worship and song and prayer is like pouring salt in the wound. Funerals are some of the first Christian liturgies, and they’ve been taken away from us. As one bishop in our denomination said, it is like this coronavirus is designed specifically to damage the church. The Gates of Hades have been opened and hell is afoot.

at least 2020 has given us funny memes

But, Jesus says, we have a rock. Kind of like young King David standing off against enormous Goliath, we have a rock. It may seem insignificant, but it is a rock that will not falter, a foundation that cannot be shaken, a weapon of precision that brings down the terrors. Jesus looks at Peter, who has just confessed Jesus as God’s anointed Son for the first time, and says that the rock of faith will hold his followers together. Nothing that this world throws at us will be able to shake the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Nothing the church encounters will be able to overthrow the truth that God has come to live with God’s people and announce the forgiveness of sins and bring righteousness to the earth. There is no telling what life for us may look like once this exile of pandemic is over, but we know we will have a rock to rebuild on.

This morning Isaiah mentions a rock, too. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn,” the prophet says to a people who were worn down by life in Babylonian exile. “And to the quarry from which you were dug.” They knew they would eventually return to their homeland, but they couldn’t imagine it. In their despair and dejection and preoccupation with the desert around them they couldn’t envision it. They needed someone to remind them that there is rock—valuable, strong rock—there. And that they are made of the same rock as those daring and bold ancestors who were also called to live their faith into dangerous and uncertain times.

“Delivery of the Keys” Pietro Perugino (ca 1481)

The same is true for us. There is solid rock deep down inside this faith about Jesus that will anchor us and keep us steady. The church may not be able to gather in person as we like, but we have the internet to sustain some sort of contact. We may not be able to have Sunday School, but parents and grandparents can carve out time at home to teach Bible stories and read Scripture so that the faith is passed down. We may not be celebrate Holy Baptism and Holy Communion in the same communal, comfortable ways we used to, but the Holy Spirit has still provided us with opportunities to keep the water and the wine flowing, so to speak. These are just a few examples of how we know we’ve been called claimed by the Son of a Living God, not a lifeless or inanimate one.

But the greatest reason that we will survive this, and the thing that will prove that the gates of Hades won’t be victorious isn’t the internet and isn’t the creativity of the people of God. It is because the keys are in our pocket. We have been given the keys to the kingdom, which Jesus first imparted to Peter that day by Caesarea Philippi. Binding and loosing—the forgiveness of sins, the reconciliation of relationships in God’s name—that is what the forces of hell can do nothing about. They tried. They tried on the cross to stamp out a life given over to selflessness and grace. The forces of hell tried to silence the way of compassion and mercy. But they were not able to succeed. Healing people’s woes and forgiving people’s sins, bringing that which is broken apart back together again, is the heart of Jesus’ ministry and the foundation of God’s kingdom. In his crucifixion he brought heaven and earth together again, sinners and God together forever. This will never be taken away from us, and it is the foundation of everything the church is about. That is the rock from which we are hewn.

When we have the keys, the door is always open to us. Forgiveness and new life in Jesus’ name can be pronounced anywhere and at any time. And whenever that happens, well, there is the church, thriving and doing what it’s created to do. That’s what Jesus, the church best growth expert and consultant, knows.

Earlier this morning we witnessed the baptism of Spencer Wallace Jones, a child in our congregation who was born back before the pandemic began and whose baptism was originally scheduled for sometime in April. Then we rescheduled it for July. Then, finally, August. We were all set to perform the baptism outside where we’ve been holding our other pandemic baptisms, but it was raining like crazy, so we moved inside and everyone put on masks.

As you saw, all through the baptism Spencer’s two older siblings, Samantha and Wesley, kept running up to the baptismal font, then away from it, up the aisle, through the pews,  and then back to the font. Things like that typically don’t happen on a normal baptism on a Sunday morning here. Because we were recording, however, no one really wanted to say anything to the kids about it or redirect their attention because that could obviously get very awkward. So we just let them run to their hearts’ content. They were clearly having a good time. And it was perfect.

Once it was finished and we had stopped the filming, Spencer’s dad said, “You probably don’t want kids to get too used to running around in here.” And I said, “Oh it’s absolutely fine. The church hasn’t been this happy in six months!” And then he said, or maybe it was his wife, Megan, “Well, I suppose it is a sign that they are comfortable here in this place!”

Absolutely, I thought. Let them run all day, then. Let them reclaim this dark and dusty place for the kingdom with all their laughing and squealing and memories of Cherub choir and children’s sermons. Let them run through the pews for us, on our behalf, as we all run along the paths of forgiveness and righteousness we know as church, the rock that never falters. Let the walls resound with the silliness of children and the tenderness of parents along the shores of a baptismal day where a new creature is given the keys. Let them run and laugh. The Gates of Hades don’t stand a chance.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.