Looking up to the Sky

a sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord [Year B]

Mark 1:4-11 and Genesis 1:1-5

On the morning of January 1, 2021, when the world seemed so bright and full of hope, I logged onto Facebook to find that one of the guys I went to high school with had posted this:

“On this same morning in 2003, I couldn’t remember most of the night before. I literally looked up at the sky and said, “God, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but PLEASE help me.” I haven’t had a drink since. I don’t tell this for pats on the back. I want you to know, should you need to, that you don’t have to feel the way I felt this morning 18 years ago ever again.”

Wow. What honesty and openness. I had never known my friend had struggled with a substance abuse problem. There is a tendency we all have to keep our brokenness and our problems hidden, but in this case it was out there for all see see. I also imagined he was not the only one to mark each January 1 as a day of rebirth, given that New Years Eve is often viewed as one last chance to live in chaos and craziness before joining the gym, or spending more time with family, or pouring the liquor down the drain. But aside from all of that I was moved by my friend’s vulnerability in sharing it. I especially am grateful for the way he phrased it, that he looked up at the sky and cried out to God. I rejoice with him in the new life he lives, just as we should all rejoice in the newness anyone experiences when they are redeemed. This January 1st was just another day for me. For my friend it was a powerful reminder that God reaches down and saves us.

That, my friends, is the God we believe has claimed us. Like we see in the beginning of all things, this is a God who can and does move over the waters of our chaos and the darkness of the world and brings about order, who brings about light, who brings about good. This is a God who constantly works to rebuild and restore. And to do all those good words that begin with ‘re’—renew, redeem, reform, reclaim. This is just how the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is, the God who brought Moses through the Red Sea, the God who sent the prophets like Isaiah in the midst of ruin with words of hope. The deep and the formless void is not too scary for this God, even when the deep and formless void is within us. We aren’t able to make a new start because the calendar year changes. We are able to make new starts because God always grants new beginnings. That’s what God does. That’s who God is. Faithful. Full of promise.

This is the God who sends Jesus into the Jordan River probably on some random, chaotic Tuesday when John the baptizer is busy washing people with water. Something is clearly afoot because everyone is there like a mob—people from the villages and farms and people from the big city. John is washing and cleansing them as part of another ‘re’ word: repentance. Repenting sometimes gets a bad rap, but really it means a turning around, a changing of direction. Looking up at the sky and crying out. Soul-searching is what it is. John the baptizer knows God’s kingdom is about to break into the world in a new way. Perhaps all those people are, too. They are tired of the same old, same old. They are weary of the dysfunction. So John is busy trying to prepare people for the new. He’s helping them turn around from the ways they’re going, to renounce the things drawing them from God.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the midst of this scene Jesus steps in and presents himself for this baptism. He’s just one of the masses, blending right in. The whole world doesn’t even know it, but the point when Jesus is baptized becomes the point all of earth can look up to the sky and cry out, “We don’t know what’s wrong with us, but God can help us.” The world may not have caught on just yet, but that moment when Jesus bursts out of the Jordan’s waters becomes the moment that God’s redeeming love bursts onto the scene of creation in a new way that will have lasting effects on all of us.

            The Baptism of our Lord is either mentioned or recorded in all of the gospels, and it was one of the very first festivals the church ever celebrated. In fact, many eastern Christian traditions still read the story of Jesus’ baptism when they celebrate their Christmas. For us that may seem strange. In our time events like Christmas or Epiphany get all the attention, and that’s OK, because they have an important message to teach us. But to the earliest people of faith what this occurrence said about God was too powerful and too extraordinary to skip over. It’s the real beginning to a new creation, no turning back. From here on out, everything that Jesus does and says is for us. From here on out, God is reaching down and pulling our lives out of the void.

            Part of the reason that this event is so clarifying has to do with rivers, and the Jordan River in particular. Not many of us live near a river anymore, nor are our livelihoods directly impacted by one. We laugh in Richmond about how the river divides us, and at best we retreat here for recreation. But in Jesus’ time rivers were constantly bringing life to everyone around them. They had cycles of flooding and drying up that made soils fertile and irrigation systems work. The Jordan River, which was not all that mighty, was also the boundary between wilderness and the Promised Land. When Jesus stands there in the water, he is showing us that he is God’s path to deliverance. Jesus is a bridge. He is a flood of God’s grace, ever new, ever reliable. We have taken what it means to be human and dragged it through the mud. Jesus takes back what it means to be human and plunges it in the cleansing waters. We take our human nature and degrade it with things like hatred. Jesus raises up human nature as God’s Beloved. The heavens are torn open. God speaks. God is well-pleased with him. Creation begins again.

            There is only one other time when something is torn like this in Mark’s gospel. It happens here at Jesus’ baptism, when we first meet him, and then at the very end when he dies, when we think his ministry is over. We hear that Jesus cries out in a loud voice, breathes his last, and then the curtain of the temple is torn in two. The curtain in the temple separated that which was common and profane from that which was holy and sacred. It was a barrier that had stood in the temple and in people’s relationship with God for a long time. In his death, Jesus takes that which is an end, a boundary, and makes a new beginning. God’s holiness is open for all, forgiveness and mercy abounding, not sequestered anymore. God reaches down and saves Jesus by raising him up. And because Jesus has been given to us, in so doing so raises us to new life as well. New beginnings. Sin and death no longer have us bound.

            I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the own dark times in my life, the choices I made and the influences that formed me. Maybe it’s because I now have teenage children of my own and that’s making me remember what it was like to be in those exciting but confusing times. Like many of you, I had very rough days back then, days when I wasn’t sure who I was or what was going to become of me. It was a lot of soul-searching at times that wasn’t fun. One thing I realized even as early as college was that my faith, through my church, had instilled in me the notion that of my own worth. I’m not sure that was ever a stated objective of my congregation’s youth ministry or Sunday School program but that was the message that got across anyway, many times over. I was a worthwhile child of God and no matter how dark and chaotic my world got, no matter what people said about me and no matter what I might be persuaded to think about myself, a claim had been made on my life for good. God would always, always, always give me a new beginning because I was grounded in his love. Like a river it would always be there for me to return to, a soil that would always been made rich.

I hope that doesn’t just sound like something inside a Hallmark card, because there’s no telling how many times it saved me. God’s claim on my life in baptism, reiterated to me numerous times by family, friends, and pastors, anchored me in a way I couldn’t even articulate at the time. Of course I made mistakes, let people down, let myself down. No matter what barrier tried to contain me, Jesus could tear open a hole in it for me to experience God’s constant grace. I hope that each of the young people growing up in our congregation today receive the same kind of message. It will guide them through their life until they draw their final breath. They have elements of brokenness, shortcomings, but ultimately they are God’s and because of Jesus, God is well-pleased with them.

            These are dark times for our country. We saw images this week that are difficult to process. Relationships in our government and in politics have been dragged through some of the worst mud we’ve ever encountered. We know our enemies are laughing at us and rejoicing at our stumbles. We are angry. We are disappointed. Some of us feel betrayed. Others feel assaulted. A lot of what I’m feeling is grief. Most religious leaders I know are fatigued from a year of constantly trying to narrate hard things in the light of God’s Word. And now there’s been a violent attempt to overthrow our government and execute leaders. Like my friend’s prayer said, we don’t really know what’s wrong with us. It’s like void and chaos.

When these feelings come, maybe it’s best to start back at the river. Maybe it’s just best to go there and look up to the sky God can tear open. And repent. Before we do anything else. All of us, together. From the whole countryside and the cities. Sounds like red states and blue states. Then, standing there, before we say another word to each other, remember again who works really well in void and chaos, over the formless face of the deep things. It is the God who always works new beginnings, who brings about light and good. And does so in the mud of a riverbed. At the boundaries of the holy and profane. On the cross of death. In the life of a man sent to love and give and serve until he breathes his last.

It is Jesus of Nazareth, the new beginning of love and forgiveness that is risen and lives forever.

Notice how the creator of this icon tries to make the sky look like it is torn open.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

God’s Superhero Suit

a sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas [Year B]

John 1: [1-9] 10-18 and Ephesians 1:3-14

We are in full-on Superhero mode at the Martin house right now. A few months ago, our four-year-old, Jasper, discovered the main characters of the Marvel and DC universes and it has been Spiderman and Batman and Superman ever since. He was Spiderman for Halloween and for Christmas someone gave him a Batman costume, and we wears both all the time. Sometimes he can’t decide on one, so he’ll wear a Spiderman shirt and a Batman mask. You can walk into any room in our house, even when we’ve cleaned up, and either see or step on a superhero figurine or accessory. Jasper has not seen one movie or comic book yet, but something about these characters fascinate him and spark his imagination. I think it’s not uncommon, given that movies in this genre gross billions in revenue.

Lately he has really become interested in the fact that all superheroes have what is called an alter ego, and he’s trying to memorize which alter ego goes with which hero. The way Jasper asks about a character’s alter ego is, “Who is such-and-such when they take off their suit?” And so we explain that when Batman is not dressed like a bat with the mask and the cape, he is a normal man named Bruce Wayne, Spiderman, when he’s not in his Spider outfit, is really a guy named Peter Parker. Yesterday he found his little figurine of Flash Gordon and that is where it got a little complicated because apparently Flash Gordon and the recent TV show The Flash are not the same thing. I had to look that one up.

The Word of God—that is, the very essence of what God is like and how God moves, the second person of the Trinity—has put on a special suit and it is Jesus of Nazareth. We don’t need to look that one up. John, the gospel writer, begins his story about Jesus this way, leaving nothing to secret, by telling us how the Word of God, who exists from the very beginning of time, has a human counterpart and that this human counterpart has some to live among the rest of us. “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son.”

Before we learn anything that this human counterpart does, John states very clearly right up front that when we come to know who Jesus is we are coming to know what the heart of God is. Only certain people ever know that Bruce Wayne is actually Batman, or that Peter Parker is Spiderman, and the heroes tries to keep those two identities separate. It’s as if their power would be taken away if this was revealed. Not so with the Word of God. The Word wants to be known and seen as Jesus, the glory of a Father’s only Son. The Word wants people to see him and see his true identity, God’s Son.

And just as superheroes acquire or display some powers when they don their different suits, so does the Word of God gain certain powers and abilities when he puts on human flesh and comes to be among us. It is a power of giving like we’ve never seen. He gives us who receive him the power to become children of God, to be born anew and live with God in unity. His powers are strange, almost backwards from from we’d expect because they are rooted in his humility and servanthood, not in magic or wizardry or brute force.

This is the miracle of God’s incarnation, which is the heart of what we celebrate at Christmas. Incarnation means “putting on flesh” or “being physically present.” But the incarnation is not just the heart and meaning of Christmas. God’s act to become flesh and live among us and therefore undergo human life in broken world becomes the basis for everything else about Christian faith, from the manger (which John actually never mentions) to the cross.

This fundamental idea may seem kind of basic and obvious to you and me by this point. We marvel over story of Bethlehem, we sing the Christmas carols, we ask “What Child is This?” and think about God as baby all the time. I was amazed at how many of the Epiphany families who took part in the daily video Advent devotions showed nativity scenes. There were so many different and beautiful ones. I remember one young woman and her nephew, Callie and C.J., took us through her house and showed us three or four of them.

We just accept the incarnation as a fact, but for so many of the earliest Christians this was a challenge to get their head around. The concept of God, especially in ancient Greek culture, was all about attaining secret knowledge and intellectually contemplating beliefs and theories. To arrive at what God was like you needed to debate and argue different perspectives about life. You were supposed to reflect on private things of the soul, contemplate the universe, and so on. The idea that a God would just reveal himself so plainly and blatantly, as a person, was preposterous. One early critic of Christianity, a man named Celsus, wrote a long essay attacking the faith of Jesus that many people in his time read. It gives us a peek into ancient views on religion. At one point in it Celsus says, “If you shut your eyes to the world of sense and look up with the mind, if you turn away from the flesh and raise the eyes of the soul, only then will you see God.”

We may have loads of nativity scenes around and be able to talk about Jesus the human, but how often do we still go Celsus’ route without realizing it? By that I mean how often do we still find ourselves saying things like “If I could only mentally escape this chaos for a little bit I’ll connect with God”? “If I could just remove myself from the everyday I’ll experience that flash of faith again”? How often do we look to have an experience in creation—say, with birds—as if it is proof God is real? How often do we look for that one author or that one book that will transcend our realities and help us see the divine more clearly? Nature and good books are true gifts from God—don’t get me wrong—but we don’t have to seek them to know God, John says. Jesus is as far as we need to go. And we don’t need to go find him. He has come to us.

superhero powers, incarnational presence

There has been so much talk about how awful the year 2020 was. I think “dumpster fire” is the term I hear most often It is true that much of life was and remains disrupted by the things that happened in 2020, but I’m wondering if this past year didn’t also provide a great opportunity to reflect on the true importance and deep meaning of God’s incarnation. I wonder if the trials of 2020, particularly ones brought about by the pandemic, weren’t actually a window into seeing how a flesh and blood presence with one another is more lifegiving than we realized.

Just look at church life. Much of it has been disembodied this year. We’ve moved many ministries on-line, we’ve tried to limit personal contact as much as possible, dropping things off by the office without running into anyone. Our worship services and daily prayers on the internet offer time for people to reflect on God’s Word and pray, in some sense, together. But there is something about being physically present with one another that almost everyone seems to recognize the need for. It’s not just that we miss seeing each other and all the things that might come with that. There is something about life that depends on incarnation. There is something about our faith that can’t just survive on words and thoughts alone.

When we are actually together, when God’s people are assemble for real, it is like we are wearing our true nature. Our ideas or theories about love and forgiveness and community life eventually have to actually be practiced and honed, and to do that requires real togetherness, being in the same space. This is one reason why our bishops have not encouraged practicing some form of online Holy Communion, although several churches have done so. Sharing bread and wine around a common table of some form, which is what the Lord’s Supper is, brings us together, puts us in one another’s space. And in that God meets us and works to reconcile us, to remind us in the best way possible that we must share this creation. I know that for all the fun it has been to share devotions on-line, I have felt an overwhelming joy to see people in person, to hear people speak as one.

The Word of God is not just some ideal, something we reflect on. God means to meet us, grab us, touch us. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians uses a very physical word when he describes what Jesus does: he gathers. “The good pleasure God set forth in Christ,” he writes, is “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and on the earth.” He does not say Christ’s goal is to inspire all people, or to improve all people, or to get everyone to make the right New Year’s Resolutions so that their lives will be in order. Jesus is set before us to gather all things—all people, all kinds. Together. And so even though we give thanks for the ways that God gathered some of us through digital means in 2020, we look forward to the ways God may really gather us at some point in the future, maybe even in this new year. Because that is why he becomes flesh and lives among us.

An emergency vehicle, with siren blaring, “interrupted” my sermon right as I was talking about the Christian call to embrace the world’s suffering. Very cool.

This also suggests that our call as the church must involve being physically present for our communities and the world. We begin to fulfill our role as Christ followers when we clothe ourselves with the suffering of those around us. And that is what the Holy Spirit helps us do, and, thankfully, has enabled you to do over and over again this year. When we do things like that—when we pull up alongside those who suffer the effects of racism, when we reach out with food to the hungry, when we gather together with those who struggle under life’s load, when we bake a supper for someone going through a hard time, then we are wearing the suit of our superhero, Jesus Christ. And the God no one has ever seen will be made known.

There is no cape involved. No X-ray vision, no superhuman flying or jumping abilities (much to Jasper’s disappointment). Just thoroughly human abilities. Washing feet. Sharing bread. Embracing the wounded. Full on superhero mode. You know, the powers of the children of God.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Swaddled

a sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

I don’t suppose any of us were hoping we’d be celebrating our Lord’s birth this way this year. I remember that during the first few weeks of the pandemic I was sure everything would be back up and running by the fall, if not earlier. Like in that final scene in “White Christmas,” I at least held out hope that the curtain would miraculously go up on Christmas Eve and reveal a world uninhibited by a coronavirus.

Oh, how naïve I was! Maybe some of you were, too. Christmas, in large part, seems to be all about closeness, sharing food, and singing together. And now here we are with very little of that. Perhaps we should have prepared better, been more sober-minded, but Christmas is about hoping and believing, right?

not 2020

It has been nine months of a strange, fearful, and tumultuous lifestyle because of the coronavirus. And I don’t know about you, but for me all the conflicting sources of information have made it worse. Finding which media voices to trust is as difficult as staying on top of the ever-changing flow of data. Throw in a Presidential election and rocky administration change, threats of foreign influence and pretty much everyone is wondering: Who should I listen to? What’s reality? Voices of the left? The right? Somewhere in the middle? What is the middle? Is there a middle?

Tonight there are no sides, no spin. The news comes straight down from above, delivered by God’s messengers. And the message is a wonderful, glorious truth: God declares humankind essential. God has always felt that way about us, of course, from the beginning at creation when God declared us very good, and even through the struggles and wanderings of his people Israel.

But tonight it becomes clear to the world in a new way. Looking past all our failings, our contagious fallibility, God shares our space and says, “This isolation is over.  This sin that separates us, keeps you quarantined from my peace and goodwill? It is gone,” God says in the birth in Bethlehem. “You and I are going to be together.”

Perhaps never before—in the last century, at least—has the message of this night met a world so fearful and angry and broken. It’s like the hopes and fears of all the years are met in us tonight as we listen from our cars, masked in the church, or on a screen at home. Madeleine L’Engle, the writer of the beloved children’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, was a person of faith, and over her life wrote several poems about Christmas. She composed one of them, called “Into the Darkest Hour,” in the 1990s, but upon reading it we might think it is about 2020. The first stanza goes:

It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss-
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.

We are living with a “horror in the air”—we’re afraid we’ll breathe it, share it. Don’t sing a Christmas carol with people…there’s a horror in the air! And there are echoes of war—trade wars, civil wars, not to mention about wars within our own hearts about how we go forward. And yet as Mary and Joseph go down to Bethlehem, driven there by a ruler who wants to count, count, count the people, it should occur to us: how we’re living now is exactly how God expects to find us. How we’re living now—more aware than ever in our lifetimes of our mortality, more aware than in a long time of our disunity, more aware of the challenges of trusting one another—is precisely the humanity God love and has in mind to save. And so into this darkest hour we know God comes. We may not be able to sing or celebrate it like usual, but Jesus is nevertheless born.

He is most wonderfully here.

Yes, it’s a stripped-down, more-anxious-than-usual Christmas, but something truly sublime happened here last week as we pulled together a Live Nativity outdoors. It happened on the night we should have had a children’s Christmas musical. We had never tried to put something like this together before, much less while maintaining social distance for people seated in their cars and broadcast over the radio:“Breaker-breaker-one-nine, we got a pregnant lady coasting into Bethlehem.”

In all honesty, we weren’t that clever. We didn’t need to be. We simply had families from the congregation sign up on-line for the different roles and we read the Christmas stories straight from the Bible. We had a Holy Family, including a real baby Jesus, some shepherds, four angels, plus an archangel who stood on the roof, and we added in the magi from Matthew’s gospel just to make it more interesting. We even had an extra set of shepherds show up if we needed them.

To my knowledge very few of these families really knew each other or had met before that night. Our preparations were minimal. All we really did was tell each group where they were supposed to start and where they were supposed to end up. We did a very quick run-through and then they went and put on costumes. Twenty minutes later they did it for real in front of more than 100 people.

And in spite of all my anxiety, nothing went wrong. It would have been OK if something had, but nothing went wrong. Nobody’s timing was off, no one had to be coaxed into their role, and my favorite part was the fact that the very moment that the narrator was speaking the words, “Mary wrapped her first born son in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger,” our Mary actually bent overand put her son right into our manger. Like we had practiced for days.The whole thing went off without a hitch.I am positive something similar to this happened at churches throughout the world.

It occurred to me, as the cars were filing out of the parking lot, as the characters were hanging their costumes back up, and Saturn and Jupiter, mysteriously drawn together, were appearing in the sky over the columbarium like a Bethlehem star, with what other story on earth could people do this? What other story can take total strangers, hand them basic props like bathrobes, tinsel halos, and plastic crowns, and essentially say, “Do your thing”? Almost everyone knows the shepherds are terrified. Almost everyone knows the angels show up, flap their wings, and calm them down. People know the magi kind of wander around and then at some point kneel down with gifts. Mary and Joseph don’t need to speak. They just need to act tenderly with one another and smile at their baby.

The story, you see, just carries us. This good news pulls everyone in. It doesn’t need embellishment, it doesn’t really need rehearsal. It definitely doesn’t need complexity. It uses common people, and most everyone fits that bill. There are people, of course, who don’t know this story. For whatever reasons they aren’t aware yet how silently the gift is given, but they also don’t know how easy God has made it for them to play a part too. At a Christmas when all we really have is the story, we see it’s enough for God to carry us through.

When mothers in the middle east give birth, they wrap the child in nothing more than bands of cloth, or swaddling clothes. Whatever they have on hand. Mary does this. It is a sign of maternal care. Swaddling keeps babies warm and makes them feel safe. It also makes them easy to carry. Who is swaddled this year? I think God has swaddled us. I believe we find ourselves wrapped up in little more God’s story of love and relying on God’s hands to carry us through. And it’s enough.

For it is a story, you may recall, that takes us from the swaddling clothes of the manger to the clothes that are divided by casting lots as this Jesus hangs on the cross. It is a story that does not turn back from any darkest hour, not even death. In Jesus, God takes our various terrified and wandering lives, pulls us in, and tells us where we end up and where we end up is at the heart of his love. We are essential, remember?  Even as he dies, he dies for us. Because of Jesus, the best gift of all, we will be carried through to life forever with God.

And so on this unusual night of peace and glory, when all we have is this wonderful story, here are the things marvelous things we ponder:

As the holy pair wait for room to deliver their child, we know God is with every patient waiting on a hospital room or ICU spot.  

As the shepherds are startled from their fields we realize God values every health care worker and law enforcement officer who has had to work through the night this year.

As the angel insists on making known tidings of great joy to a fearful audience, we know God is with every public health official and vaccine developer who has struggled to get across messages of health and safety this year. God sees every teacher who has struggled to share tidings of math and reading through a computer screen.

As Joseph and Mary travel far from their home in Nazareth, separated from family in such a tender and vulnerable moment, we trust God recognizes every grandparent and loved one and nursing home resident who celebrates this day alone.

As Jesus finds himself born in Bethlehem simply because the governor issued a census, we see that God knows what it’s like to counted by the powers that be, as another data point for some chart somewhere. And so God comes alongside everyone who’s received a positive COVID test, mindful of the stigma they are now just a number on a graph.

As the whole scene likely takes place in the open air, and on a road trip, and definitely not in heated sanctuary, we know God sees everyone who’s been kept away from gathering in their churches this year.

We’re all in the story, somehow, you see.  Swaddled, wrapped up, kept safe in this dark night…and ready for God to pick us up and take us ahead, and Jesus is most wonderfully here.

Merry Christmas!!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Rejoice + Pray + Give Thanks

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent [Year B]

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 and Psalm 126

One night this week my family was seated at our kitchen table for our Advent devotions, which we typically do right as everyone finishes eating. We prefer to have the table cleared before we do them, but on this particular night we were in a rush so we just shoved the dishes to the middle of the table and made-do. There are different duties all associated with our devotions routine. In our kitchen window we have our Advent log, which contains one candle for every day of Advent. We also have an Advent calendar and some devotional readings I’ve worked up over the years. Everyone has multiple roles to play, and no matter how well-organized we are, there is always some fuss and debate about who gets to do what.

what a completed Advent log looks like

On this particular evening, as he watched the rest of us try to figure out what was going to happen in what order, the 4-year-old announced, all on his own, that he wanted to lead us in a prayer. It kind of caught us off guard, and even though our routine was already a little too elaborate, perhaps, we couldn’t turn down his request. And so we bowed our heads and let him offer a prayer. There was no hesitation on his part. “Dear God,” he said, and then clearly waited for us to repeat: “Dear God.”

“Thank you for loving me.”
“Thank you for loving me.” And then a pause.

“Thank you for loving Bigger Bear” (which is his number one stuffed animal)
“Thank you for loving Bigger Bear.”

“Thank you for loving our food.”
“Thank you for loving our food.”

“Thank you for loving our vegetables.”
“Thank you for loving our vegetables.”

“Thank you for loving an apple.”
“Thank you for loving an apple.”

And at this point I couldn’t resist opening my eyes just a bit and I saw him scanning the room looking for the next thing to plug into his prayer formula. The girls were starting to get the giggles, and I wasn’t sure how long this was going to go on considering we have a very cluttered kitchen right now. He had plenty of things to choose from. But right at that moment he said, “Amen.”

In his final words to his congregation in Thessalonika, Paul says to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances. There we were in our kitchen, doing all three, and our 4-year-old was leading the way. In the Thessalonians’ case, Paul is not discussing family devotions or rituals, but the situation they are dealing with is not all that different from ours on this third Sunday of Advent. They are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Jesus. They are taking serious Jesus’ own promise that he would return at any moment and usher in a reign of peace and justice. We get the sense from reading the letter that they are starting to get a little impatient and that impatience is leading to some anxiety and even some fear.  I thinktThe Thessalonian congregation sounds a little bit like a popular Christmas song by the Chipmunks, rephrased:

Our Lord Jesus’ time is near.
Time of peace, time of cheer.
We’ve got faith but we can’t last.
Hurry, Jesus. Hurry fast.

Oh, how hard it is to wait!

Then in his characteristic pastoral tone, Paul assures them that anxiety and fear are not in order. Even in this time of waiting they can rejoice. Always. They can pray. Constantly. And they can look around the room wherever they are and start plugging things they see and notice into a prayer of thanksgiving.

There are several times where prepositions become very important in our faith, and I find that this is one of them. Paul doesn’t say to give thanks FOR all circumstances, but to give thanks in all circumstances. And so even as they pray for Jesus to hurry, even as they confess some frustration with how long the waiting is turning out to be, they can still be thankful. That is, they don’t need to feel thankful for Jesus’ delay, but it’s absolutely appropriate to be thankful while Jesus is delayed.

We find that this expands to all kinds of situations of faith and life. I’ve had a conversation this week with a woman in our congregation whose father just died. She told me how she has feelings of sadness, because, after all, he was her dad, and she loved him, but at the same time expressed to me how thankful she feels nonetheless—thankful his death was peaceful, thankful all siblings had time to gather and spend time with him, thankful the nursing facility relaxed COVID restrictions just so they could say goodbye. She’s not thankful for his death, but she’s thankful in the circumstances.

I spoke recently with someone whose child had received a cancer diagnosis. Those are never words you want to hear. You rarely, if ever, give thanks for cancer, but at the same time there was clear thankfulness, in this case, that it had been caught far earlier than it should have. There is thankfulness for support from so many friends and caregivers.

I don’t think I need to belabor the point, and Paul doesn’t either. These three little commands at the end of his letter are brief and to the point. Through joyfulness, fervent prayer, and a spirit of thankfulness they will have all they need to be blameless and sound at the coming of Jesus. To be blameless and sound is to be ready, to be whole. And all three of these things—thanksgiving, prayer, and joy—have a way of doing that to our soul. God, the one who calls us, is faithful, Paul reminds us, and will provide us the ability to sit around the table, virtually if we have to and share these things together.

Of those, the one we might need to hear most in these days is the command to rejoice always. For obvious reasons, joy goes a long way during stressful times. Traditionally, the third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, taken from the Latin word for joy. The Scripture readings appointed for this Sunday typically focus on joy if they don’t mention joy directly, and we certainly hear them today. In some traditions the Advent candle is pink today, a color that symbolizes joyfulness and gladness, which reminds us that ultimately we are anticipating joy in Jesus.

That Latin word, Gaudete, is also where we get the word “gaudy,” which is a word that comes to mind with pink. Gaudy also makes me think of what has become many people’s favorite ways to mark this time of year—the gaudy Christmas sweater. Things that are gaudy often bring joy. They are flashy and fun. They don’t hold back and aren’t subdued by social convention or feelings of embarrassment. They’re kind of bold in the midst of the whites and golds of Christmastime. The third Sunday of Advent tells us our faith can wear a gaudy Christmas sweater, especially in the midst of a world that is dark and hurting. It’s a garland instead of ashes, a mantle of praise rather than a faint spirit, as the prophet Isaiah says.

But we know the joy that Christ brings us is not a shallow or surface happiness. It is a joy that knows God plays the long game, as theologian Walter Brueggeman says. It is a “deep, glad confidence,” he says, “that God’s good will for the world will outrun all of our troubles and tribulations.” This, you see, is a joy rooted in the cross and shining with the light of Easter morning. It has already looked death head on and let it do its worse and still not been conquered. Nothing can now take that away.

The truly amazing thing about this joy that Christ brings is that it isn’t just intended for us and for our salvation. It is a joy that is reflected in the transformation of the world around us. The brokenhearted find themselves bound up in hope. The captives are set free. Prisoners to sin and grief are set free. The ruins of human communities are rebuilt and restored. Goodness and mercy flow through God’s people again, like the watercourses of the Negeb, which is a desert wilderness in southern Israel, after a storm. They blossom and grow in a riot of color even though the surrounding hills and rocks, in their desolation, suggest they are out of place. A gaudy sweater stands out, looks “out of place.” The deep joy from knowing Christ sets God’s people apart, even as the world seems fearful.

Jesus, in all his goodness, comes to us. In fact, John says he is standing among us now. May we be sound and blameless. Ready and whole. It’s a joyful thing. Next thing you know—this joy spills over from our personal gaudiness, and the whole world wants to wear a sweater like ours. It spills over in your generosity through the Giving Tree and Thanksgiving baskets. If flows over in your commitments to carry this congregation into another year, even as a pandemic is ongoing.

The writer of the psalm would call this shouldering the sheaves. That is, carrying so much more harvest than you expected that you bear them on shoulders, ready for a party.

John the Baptist would call this testifying to the light, the light that ends the darkness.

Paul would call it rejoicing always, giving thanks in all circumstances.

Jasper, my son, would say, “Thank you, God, for loving me. And that over there. And that over there. And that and that and that.”

Take your pick, it’s all the same.

The Lord is near. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do this.

Rescue

a sermon for the First Sunday of Advent [Year B]

Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37

Right after graduation from high school I took a trip to visit a friend who lived just outside of Paris. We basically just hung around the city a lot but one day he wanted to show me this expansive forest just outside of town where there was good hiking and nature. After several days in the bright lights of a big city, it sounded like a nice change of pace. He packed his camera and I packed snacks and we set out on the commuter train, which we had gotten fairly comfortable at riding.

At one of the stops on the way there, three nefarious-looking characters boarded our car and started to stare at us. Just before the doors opened at the next stop, they jumped us. Right there in front of everyone, trapped with nowhere to run, we got mugged, and all of the other passengers just watched. They beat us up a little bit, took my watch off my arm as well as my brand new Yankees hat I had just gotten as a graduation gift and had just gotten broken in. The more we tried to resist, the rougher they seemed to get. They felt our pockets for money and took all of that and they were getting ready to make off with my friend’s camera when the doors to the train opened and they bolted off into the alleys of the city. My friend and I stood there, stunned and shocked. We went from feeling safe and happy, with a full day of fun ahead of us, to being frightened and disheveled and directionless, all in an instant. We had no idea what we were supposed to do, how to take hold of our situation, where we could seek help. We didn’t speak the language, we held no currency. We were foreign men, surrounded by the sounds of people we thought didn’t care.

Never before and never since have I so wanted the sky to open up and be delivered. Never before and never since have I so wanted justice and yet also felt so helpless to do anything about it. I didn’t want to go to the forest anymore. I just wanted to get back home, but neither my friend nor I were able to think straight enough to do that. We needed to wait and hope that someone would recognize the mess we were in and help us.

That, in a nutshell, is how Advent begins. We may think Advent begins with buying a Christmas tree or hitting black Friday sales, or even lighting a candle, but really it begins with a hope that the sky would open and someone would come down and straighten things out. Advent begins not so much with a crime, of course, but with a reality check that we are helpless foreigners here in this life, stuck on a train of misadventure, vulnerable to all kinds of harmful situations and horrible impulses that are larger than we are.

It is not just Advent that is set up this way. Each year, in fact—no, each day of a Christ-follower’s life should probably begin the same way: with an honest assessment of how out of control things are. Each day should probably begin with a sincere confession of just how vulnerable we are because then we would also be aware of just how much God protects us, how thoroughly God loves us, how ready God is to deliver us.

God’s people ancient Israel knew this feeling all too well, and their words are ours today, the first lines of Scripture we hear as a new year begins. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” We find them standing in their own land having returned from many years of exile far away and yet feeling like aliens. None of the dreams of peace and order they had envisioned had materialized. None of the prosperity that had hoped for had come to fruition. There was chaos in their culture and corruption in their leaders. Famine was taking hold. They felt mugged by the rough world and by their own inadequacies. They are at this point aware that there is nothing they can do to change any of it. They cry out to God, from whom they are feeling so distant,“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” And then we have these great lines about God arriving and even making the mountains tremble, the very God who sculpted those mountains. God’s people wait that God to come and remake them like a potter who works clay. Fascinating images of a God who loves the earth but who can smash it and then get his hands dirty and refashion it to his own desires.

My bet is that many of us feel this same way about 2020. By almost all accounts it has been a crazy, out of control year and we want a re-do. Pandemic, economic ruin, societal upheaval, political uncertainty, the Washington Football Team doesn’t even have a real name. In fact, I saw a meme shared on social media this week that featured a photo of a well put together Tina Fey, grinning from ear to ear and holding her knees with confidence as she sits on a desk next to a some photos from from a movie where she is yelling and stress-eating and having a nervous breakdown. Her face is contorted in a grimace and her mascara is running. The contrast between the two is stark, but humorous. Beneath the photo where she is is clean and confident it says,  “Pastors in January 2020” and, as you might guess, the words underneath the worn-out and falling apart Tina Fey say, “Pastors in November 2020.”

It’s certainly not just pastors. It’s teachers and principals and nurses and physicians and moms and dads and school children and small business owners and restaurant workers and government officials and law enforcement officers and the elderly and the immuno-compromised and those who’ve lost loved ones since March and those who believe coronavirus is a threat and those who believe it’s an overblown hoax. It’s just about everybody this year. (Except meme makers. It’s been a banner year for meme-makers). But for everyone else, 2020 began with such hope and now every day seems to drag on and we hear of another thing that we can’t control, another piece of bad news. With all kinds of cracks in our social fabric, the human family is in a situation that is far beyond any human’s ability to straighten out, and we can’t even pull ourselves together, even once the trials of 2020 are over. “O that God would tear open the heavens and come down!”

But when it comes to waiting for God to act we do not wait with fear. When it comes to the mountains quaking, Jesus’ followers have nothing to worry about. As tough as things are both inside of us and outside in the world, we do not wait as if no help will come. We are people who have been claimed by one who has waited for us on a cross, who has already waited through the intense abandonment of crucifixion without any rescue. We know our God is triumphant. Good Friday has over and done with. We are confident our God can tear open the sky and come down because God has already rolled the stone away from a tomb. And in all things we anticipate the return of this risen Lord to who will fully restore the world to the vision of love and justice and prosperity God has for all of creation.

It occurs to me we all happen to be waiting for a vaccine right now. What an Advent symbol! That seems to be the magic cure, if you will, that thing will restore things to the way we’re used to living. In the past few weeks I, like most of you, have been encouraged by the announcements that progress is being made on this front. Testing is almost finished and next will come distribution. Maybe we should have a vaccine wreath. It is at the gates, you might say, ready to be let in.

Guess what?  So is our Lord. He, too, is ready to burst onto the scene with his cleansing and healing power, with his wide embrace to love and restore. Maybe we can learn how to wait for him from the way we are waiting for a COVID vaccine. We persevere, we continue our daily rituals of mask wearing and good hygiene, we encourage one another knowing that eventually, and probably sooner than we realize, it will all be over.

This Lord Jesus himself reassures his followers precisely of this just before his death. It will all be over before you know it. Be ready, and be at work. And even though there will be times of great suffering in the world, even though turmoil will be so great it may feel as if stars are falling from heaven, his words will not pass away. We will always be able to depend on Jesus’ words, no matter how much stay at home orders change and numbers fluctuate. We trust that in the meantime God is still forming us, like a potter, to be ready. God is shaping us to be ready to live in the new normal, the new, perfect, everlasting normal that God has planned.

I’m glad to say that someone did step up to help us that day on the trail terminal. Two girls, of all people, saw our situation and offered to take us to the police. They couldn’t have been older than 18, probably about our same age. We never would have imagined that out of all the people on that train car—the various businessmen returning from work, for example, the older folks who would have been our parents’ age, the women with the large, heavy handbags that clearly could have been used as weapons—that the people who would come to our rescue would have been these two young women. They told us not to be afraid, walked us to the police station and then got in the car with them to go on an elaborate hunt to find the perpetrators, which they never did. Then they gave us money for the train ride back home. My friend and I felt somewhat redeemed, and thankful we did not ignore or turn down their offer to help. Later that week my friend’s dad gave us some money to take them out to dinner to say thanks.

So comes the Christ, unexpectedly, tearing open the heavens (if he has to) and coming down, and most when we need him. Be ready. Watch. And wait.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Abstract of a young woman standing on the edge of a train platform waiting for a train

For God and Neighbor

a sermon for Thanksgiving Day

Deuteronomy 8:7-18

“Come, ye thankful people, come
Raise the song of harvest home.
All be safely gathered in
Ere the winter storm begin.
God, our maker, doth provide
For our wants to be supplied
Come to God’s own temple come,
Raise the song of harvest home.”

So begins one of the most well-known and beloved hymns sung at Thanksgiving and the end of the year as harvests are collected and families celebrate. Yet this year I’ve been told there is much less coming together, far fewer parties and celebrations of “gathering in.” We have been encouraged (and in some cases ordered) by authorities to refrain from traveling and limit the size of our parties. Many of us may be trying to have a Zoom Thanksgiving, which is probably something I’ll try with my own family later today. The COVID pandemic may as well force us to re-phrase the hymn something like this.

Stay, you thankful people, stay.
That is the best thing today.
Raise your songs and eat your food
With solitary attitude.
Bake and baste with cautious flair
For the germs are in the air.
Wear your masks but ever pray!
Celebrate this way today.

In all seriousness, this may be a very difficult Thanksgiving for some folks. Those who count on big holidays as one of the few times a year they may receive family in their nursing home are likely sequestered away, denied the life-giving visits from people they love.

Some people may be celebrating their first Thanksgiving alone. And yet others may be relishing the chance to do something different, to scale things down a bit, to cook a smaller turkey breast rather than an entire bird.

Whatever the case, our prayers are with those for whom this day seems very strange and they are with those for whom nothing has really changed. No matter how you are gathering and eating today, may none of it get in the way of giving thanks to God nonetheless, for despite the hardships this year has brought, God still crowns the year with goodness. Giving thanks is perhaps our first language of faith. When we look around and see that we have been brought through to another day, when we take even the briefest stock of what is around us that helps us live, we notice that it comes from somewhere besides ourselves. It is not our own doing. It is the gracious gifts of God that sustain us.

That is God’s word to his people ancient Israel as they come into the Promised Land to possess it. In the words from Deuteronomy this morning God gives a different kind of stay-at-home order. God intends for them to enjoy the land they are receiving, for it is a rich land, and filled with many blessings. Pomegranates, olive trees and honey. It’s almost as good as Wegman’s, but not quite. But then comes his order: don’t fail to remember me, God says, and to keep my ordinances. That is, as they are to enjoy their land with its many blessings, they are to always keep in the back of their mind just how bad they had it God brought them out of slavery and through a wilderness with scorpions and snakes. God fed them in the arid wasteland with manna and sustained them with water from a rock.

Don’t forget this, God says, especially when times are good and there is no pandemic and you don’t have to limit the size of your dinner parties. When you’re sitting in your house and life is good, remember God’s commandments because it will be easy to forget. Life in God’s kingdom involves a devotion to God and neighbor, an intertwining of service and love that weaves the whole community together. This the ordinances make clear.

This reminds me of a poem my former bishop in Southwestern Pennsylvania once shared by the Finnish poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg. Runeberg, who lived in the 19th century, is the national poet of Finland, in fact, and this poem is one of his most beloved. It describes the challenging conditions of people living in rural Finland. There was the need of mixing bark with flour to have bread, a staple of life. Today I’d like to share this poem with you, and to help make its message clearer—at least I hope—I’ve done some very rudimentary drawings. Here is “Farmer Paavo,” by Johan Ludvig Runeberg:

High ´mid Saarijärvi´moors resided
Peasant Paavo on a frost-bound homestead,
And the soil with earnest arm was tilling;
But awaited from the Lord the in crease.
And he dwelt there with his wife and children,
By his sweat his scant bread with them eating,
Digging ditches, ploughing up, and sowing.

Spring came on, the drift from cornfields melted,
And with it away flowed half the young blades;
Summer came, burst forth with hail the shower,
And with the ears were half down beaten;
Autumn came, and frost took the remainder.
Paavo´s wife then tore her hair, and spake thus:
“Paavo, old man, born to evil fortune,
Let us beg, for God hath us forsaken;
Hard is begging, but far worse is starving.”

Paavo took the good-wife´s hand and spake thus:
“Nay, the Lord but trieth, not forsaketh,
Mix thou in the bread a half of bark now,
I shall dig out twice as many ditches,
And await then from the Lord the increase.

Half bark in the bread the good-wife mixed then,
Twice as many ditches dug the old man,
Sold the sheep, and bought some rye, and sowed it.
Spring came on, the drift from cornfields melted,
And with it away flowed half the young blades;
Summer came, burst forth with hail the shower,
And with the ears were half down beaten;
Autumn came, and frost took the remainder.
Paavo´s wife then smote her breast, and spake thus:
“Paavo, old man, born to evil fortune,
Let us perish, God has us forsaken,
Hard is dying, but much worse is living.”

Paavo took the good-wife´s hand and spake thus:
“Nay, the Lord but trieth, not forsaketh,
Mix thou in the bread of bark the double,
I will dig of double size the ditches,
But await then from the Lord the increase.”

She mixed in the bread of bark the double,
He dug then of double size the ditches,
Sold the cows, and bought some rye and sowed it.
Spring came on, the drift from cornfields melted,
But with it away there flowed no young blades.
Summer came, burst forth with hail the shower,
But with te ears were not down beaten,
Autumn came, and frost, the cornfields shunning,
Let them stand in gold to bide the reaper.


Then fell Paavo on his knees and spake thus:
“Aye, the Lord but trieth, not forsaketh.”
And his mate fell on her knees, and spake thus:
“Aye, the Lord but trieth, not forsaketh.”
But with gladness spoke she to the old man:
“Paavo, joyful to the scythe betake thee!
Now ´tis time for happy days and merry.
Now ´tis time to cast the bark away, and
Bake our bread henceforth of the rye entirely.”

Paavo took the good-wife´s hand and spake thus:
“Woman, he endureth trials only,
Who a needy neighbour ne´er forsaketh;
Mix thou in the bread a half of bark still,
For all frost-nipped stands our neighbour´s cornfield.”

So, from the Promised Land thousands of years ago to the moors of Finland a hundred years ago to the United States in the year 2020, God’s commandments remain the same: In good times and bad we look to God’s presence as well as the needs of neighbors. We are a community, tied together in God’s love. Thankful hearts are aware of both God and others.

No matter how we celebrate this year, or every year, whether we are coming together or staying apart, the gift of Jesus Christ is always the same. He is the bountiful land, the great harvest, the plentiful blessing that God has given to you and to me. And because he has crossed the biggest barrier we could ever know on the cross, we can be confident that he overcomes any separation we feel today.

Like the one leper who has been restored to his community after being healed by Jesus, we return our thanks to God for the ways COVID is being conquered through scientific progress and through the daily sacrifices of millions of people. It is through patience and perseverance, given by God, that our communities will be restored. And it through the courage of many that God’s name is praised as they work in hospitals, on the police beat, in grocery stores, food pantries, on farms, and in other places that build up our society.

Perhaps we’re all mixing a little bark into our bread this year, with the promise that God will not forsake us. So, whether Thanksgiving 2020 it is Come, you thankful people come, for you or stay, you thankful people, stay, may the God who overcomes all hardship and stills the roaring of the seas and the clamor of the peoples bless you and your loved ones today.

Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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.

Multitudes

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.

Amen.

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.