“Um…God??”: Jesus Teaches Prayer

a sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 12C/Lectionary 17C]

Luke 11:1-13 and Genesis 18:20-32

I bet we can think of the person who taught us to drive. We can probably think of the person who taught us how to bake cookies or make a meal using the stove. Each of us can probably think of the person who taught us how to play a musical instrument or throw a ball. There are a few high school seniors here who will be heading off to college in a few weeks. I bet if they haven’t learned it already, someone will be teaching them soon how to use a washing machine and dryer.

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Last night one of our members who is at the beach with her extended family this week posted a photo on Facebook of a bunch of adults huddled around a coffee table with some elementary school age children in a dimly lit room. On the table were some playing cards and some chips with the caption, “Teaching the older girls how to play blackjack and poker at the beach…they are big stuff.” My guess is those girls are tired from the sun and the sand and the salt but they are always going to remember when their moms and dads let them stay up a little late and taught them how to play grown-up card games.

Can you think of the person who taught you how to pray? Perhaps you are still wondering how. We may not at first think of prayer as something that needs to be taught. My guess is that many people would think that prayer is so personal, so unique to each person’s own spirit and perspective, that the idea of teaching prayer sounds authoritarian or doctrinaire. Who are you to tell me how to pray?

And yet we know that Jesus’ taught his disciples to pray. In fact, it’s the only thing we know of that Jesus was specifically asked to teach. In both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel we have stories of Jesus returning from a time of quiet prayer and the disciples wanting him to show them what he’s doing. I imagine they’re pretty intrigued. In those days, the disciples would have most likely associated prayer with something that happened in the Temple or in the local synagogue, something that the rabbis, priests, and other worship leaders did or knew how to do. The disciples see that their leader is constantly going off somewhere to pray on this own, that this praying somehow fuels him and gives power to his ministry, so they naturally ask him how to go about it.

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We find that Jesus’ arm doesn’t need to be twisted one bit.  He gathers them around the coffee table, sees their faces eagerly looking up to see what he’ll say. And instead of telling them about a certain position or posture they need to be in or telling them that they need to meditate he actually gives them words. He gives them a real, usable pattern to go by. It’s perhaps the purest example of grace. They ask and he gives. They knock and the door is opened. It’s a real, biblical example of faith formation.

This past Lent the staff discovered, almost to our surprise, that people still respond well to the concept of prayer and teaching someone how to go about it. When the staff came up with the theme for Lent 2019, we decided to continue with the congregation’s focus on faith formation and present different forms of prayer. Some of you may remember that we incorporated an interactive aspect to the sermons. When we learned about prayers of thanksgiving, for example, we were invited to write on a cut out of a flower things for which we were thankful and then to come forward and place that flower on a large board that came to look like a field. When we were taught about prayers of lament, worshippers were given a piece of torn cloth that they wrote on and then came forward to tie on a wooden cross we had set up in the middle of the aisle. We did this for five different kinds of prayer, thanksgiving, lament, and then supplication (asking for something), adoration, and confession.

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Now, I have to be honest and admit that even though I was part of the team that came up with this idea, I secretly worried that the topic and the interactive component would go over like a lead balloon. I couldn’t have been more wrong. People seemed to really respond to the opportunity to learn about the forms of prayer and physically participate in practicing it. The staff talked several times about how moving it was seeing people so eager to express themselves to God.

The prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples that day catches on immediately. They must have responded well to it because we have evidence from the earliest times of Christianity that followers of Christ were praying this prayer and following this pattern. It has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer, and here at Epiphany you may notice we use two different versions of it. There are actually many different translations of it, as you can tell from this morning’s Scripture. With it Jesus says that these are the best types of things you can pray for: that God’s holiness and power be made known through us. That our truest needs be given just for today. Tomorrow can worry about tomorrow. And so forth.

The Lord’s Prayer has become so ingrained in our usage  that some of the truly groundbreaking parts of this prayer may be lost on us. For one, Jesus tells his disciples to address God in the same way that he himself does, in the most familiar and endearing terms possible. In fact, the word “Father” might best be translated as “Daddy,” and that word doesn’t imply anything about God’s gender or masculinity but rather the parental relationship Jesus has with God. All of the pronouns used by Jesus are the informal means of address. Many languages have what is called a formal “you”—used when talking to someone like a professor or an adult you want to show respect to—and an informal “you,” which one would use when speaking to a close friend. Nothing about the language Jesus gives to his disciples suggests we need to be formal when addressing God. He says we are to just talk in the way we’d talk to our friends.

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I remember when I was in youth group we were gathered around one evening for our meeting and our leader asked for a volunteer. I know this may surprise some of you, but I was the kind of kid who’d throw my hand up before I knew what I was being asked to volunteer for. I raised my hand eagerly and the leader called on me and said, “OK, Phillip, pray for us.” I was mortified because I’d never had to pray in front of anyone before, much less all of my peers. I felt like Ben Stiller’s character in that scene from Meet the Parents when he has to say the table prayer in front of his fiancee’s family. I ended up bowing my head, pausing nervously for a really long time, and then bursting out with “Um…God?” like it was a question. And everyone in the room burst into snickering. I felt so stupid. Who starts a prayer with “Um?” Well, the tone of the Lord’s Prayer suggests that God loves to hear that kind of honest plea even if there is merit in being more direct and succinct with our words. God doesn’t grade us on how we begin, how we open our hearts, what language we use, how repetitive we are.

That’s why it’s helpful to use this newer version of the Lord’s Prayer that incorporates more modern language. Many of us are so familiar and attached to the version that came out in 1611 with the King James Bible, and that’s OK, but the new version matches more closely that familiarity that Jesus teaches his disciples in the Bible. I don’t know anyone nowadays who talks to a friend with words like “thy” and “art.” Being open to and even memorizing two slightly different versions of Jesus’ prayer has only enriched my prayer life, and I guarantee it will yours, especially since many of the earliest Christians believed that Jesus intended this prayer to be more like a pattern than a rote saying.

Whatever language we use, however, Jesus then goes on to say that prayer involves action. It is like knocking on a door in the middle of the night so that you can be a good host for someone who’s dropped in. It is like receiving food from a parent’s hand so that you can eat. Jesus implies there is nothing really passive about prayer. It may be done in quiet from time to time, but it is active, and it moves us to action, just as it moved him to action to love and serve us. His last words upon the cross were prayers, as he gave up his life to show us his mercy and forgiveness.

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Seeing this gets us to the real heart of prayer—that it is not so much about getting God to do things for us as it is about joining our lives with what God is doing in this world through Jesus. Christian prayer does not come from a place where we see ourselves as the center of our own lives. It is not about centering primarily on what’s happening to me and figuring how God might fit in or how God might be moving in my life. Jesus says we pray, “Your kingdom come.” When we pray as Jesus teaches us we are tapping it whatever mercy and compassion and love God is bringing about in creation. Our personal needs are surely important and understood by God, who gives what we need without our even asking, but prayer does something even mightier than make those requests known to God. Prayer cracks open our hearts and aligns us with God’s intentions, God’s plans.

That’s precisely what is happening in this interesting dialogue between Abraham and God in Genesis. The heart of God is compassionate and merciful and Abraham knows this. He doesn’t particularly like Sodom and Gomorrah, but his brother and his family are staying there The city-people have sinned against God by treating the visitors with extreme inhospitality. They needed a place to find refuge, and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah took violent advantage of them. Abraham stands before the Lord, however, and asks for mercy. He appeals to the way he knows God moves in the world, the way of God’s heart even though he knows God’s anger is kindled against them.

I have seen this kind of praying among this congregation so often—ways that push them further into the vision for God’s kingdom and God’s will. Just yesterday as I spoke with members of our HHOPE Pantry team. The HHOPE team is very diligent about their own time of prayer together each time after they serve, and over the past several months they have seen a decrease in the number of people using the pantry. Now, there could be any number of reasons for that, but their prayers have led them to reassess their ministry, their outreach. They are now considering a strategy to reach out to additional schools to heighten our profile, to reestablish contacts with their existing local relationships. God’s kingdom is coming when the poor are given hope and the hungry are filled with good things. And so instead of soldiering on the same way or making their ministry the center of what God is doing, they are aligning their goals with whatever the needs of the community are.

I realize that I’ve probably given you know clearer vision of what prayer is or how to go about it. In many ways, it like the disciples asked Jesus how to speak a language. And how do you really learn a language other than start speaking it? If you want to learn how to pray, if you are wondering how it all works, if you are struggling to see the point, may I humbly point out some people in our midst who are native speakers. Join up with them or another group like them. Knock on the door and you will find your heavenly Father, who is gracious, gives the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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In orbit around Jesus

a sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11C]

Luke 10:38-42 and Genesis 10:1-10a

We’ve just finished a week of a Mars-themed Vacation Bible School. Each morning this week 92 children entered the building as Explorers who were learning to “Go Beyond with God” in a fellowship hall that had been transformed into a space station. We imagined ourselves as orbiting in outer space, and stories from the Bible taught us about the power of faith, of boldness, of kindness, of thankfulness, and of hope. A lot of planning and work went into these five days so that the children would be safe, have fun, and learn about Jesus’ love. You could see our Faith Formation Director Cheryl, her four main VBS co-directors, and all the volunteers in their leadership orbits all week long, and last weekend one director was even in orbit high above the ground—literally—as she stood on a scissors lift and hung fabric from the rafters of Price Hall.

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Pastor Joseph, our Mars explorer, led us in adventures of faith

Whether it was intentional or not, it all was timed perfectly with yesterday’s 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Just as Vacation Bible School this week was designed to make us lift our heads up to the ways God calls us to be his people in the world, the commemorations of Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” give us an opportunity to lift our heads up in pride and wonder at the bold things humans can do when we dream and work together as God made us to. When we use our intellect and curiosity about the universe, when we use our ability to listen and collaborate, when we use our bodies to explore and venture into the unknown we are doing what God created us to do.

And, of course, thinking about Mars and the moon and space exploration causes us to lift our heads quite literally and focus on the heavens for a moment and ponder the wonder and vastness of creation. Orbiting and swirling up above us there are stars and planets and supernovas and comets and asteroids that we are only beginning to know about. And deep within us there are cells and mitochondria and strands of proteins that we are only beginning to understand. And around us are animals and ecosystems and weather patterns that interlock in ways that still fascinate and perplex us. People of faith understand that these are all ways that creation gives glory to God.

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Then alongside VBS decorations of Mars and space stations and dozens of kids orbiting here and grainy black and white television footage of the moon in orbit around the earth, we come in this morning and find Mary and Martha in orbit around Jesus. There they are, in their house, with Jesus as guest. Mary is the closer of the two, like Mercury or Venus. His gravitational pull has her captivated. She sits at his feet listening to what he is saying. Martha is in an outer orbit, maybe a Jupiter or Saturn, spinning and whirling with the tasks of hospitality. It is her house, after all. She has invited Jesus there and she has undertaken the holy and righteous role of host.

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Johannes Vermeer (Christ in the House of Martha and Mary) c. 1654

In middle eastern culture there were and still are few things more sacred than taking care of a guest. Centuries of living in and very near inhospitable deserts and wilderness areas and eking out a living as nomads had created a culture among Jesus’ people that revered the visitor because you never knew when you might be the role of someone seeking sustenance. The opportunity to have someone in your home or in your tent, as Abraham and Sarah do in our first reading, was seen as an opportunity to entertain one of God’s own representatives.

I’m not so sure this same attitude toward hosting and entertaining guests still exists in our culture today. There are probably various reasons for that. Melinda and I love to have people over for dinner, but the thought of someone just dropping by could cause us to hyperventilate. We wouldn’t think things are clean and tidy enough. It takes a lot of energy to bring people into your home and make them comfortable there. And yet as recently as in my grandparents’ generation, it was customary always to have one room of the house where you could take in someone at moments’ notice. We were just talking about this yesterday as we gathered with my relatives to lay my grandmother to rest. They said during the Great Depression it was a common occurrence to have people you didn’t know dropping by your house for food or for work and to turn them away or not invite them in was shameful.

Younger couples getting married these days often don’t register for a china pattern, which is not a sign of their lack of taste or a complaint in any way. Fine china isn’t necessarily needed to host, but that downward trend could be an indication that we are entertaining people in our homes far less often than we used to, at least to the level that Abraham and Sarah display. The way in which we make ourselves open towards visitors and guests changes over time and varies by culture. And for Martha, taking care of Jesus was not to be taken lightly. She’s clearing off the table, scraping off the plates, finding the right size Tupperware for the leftovers all by herself. She speaks up about it. Surely the Son of Man, who came not to be served but to serve, will take her side and encourage Mary to join in.

That’s when Jesus surprises us yet again. He doesn’t take Martha’s side.

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a sculpture at our church of Mary listening to Jesus

So many of us struggle with this Bible story. In one of my discussion groups this week people seemed to me to go out of their way to defend Martha, as if we need to make sure we tell the rest of the story, find out how she recovers from Jesus’ rebuke. I think we all kind of want to defend her because there is a lot of work to do, after all. But Jesus doesn’t say that by staying busy and hosting Martha has chosen the wrong part. He says Mary chose the better part. Martha’s acts of hospitality aren’t themselves inherently “off,” but that they have somehow become a distraction for her. Martha’s mistake is not that that she’s working, but that her work has become her.

There’s a lesson here, especially since this story occurs immediately following Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which is about the work of ministry, going and doing acts of compassion in the world. The life of the disciple can so easily turn into one of doing, of basing our worth and our relevance in how much we’re accomplishing—how many items we’re collecting for the food bank, how many people we’re impacting, how much we’re seen out and about in the community and world. These are parts of our faith. They are vitally important parts of being Jesus’ people, but they are not the main part. They are not to be the inner orbit.

The better part of our discipleship, the more central tasks, involve listening and paying attention to the Word, to letting it shape who and whose we are, to realizing Jesus is at the center of all things and letting that shape us, because Jesus will never be a distraction. We as the church aren’t just a “social service organization with sacraments,” as our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton reminds us. We are the holy people of God called to be at his feet in the midst of a busied world.

The Lutheran Campus pastor at the University of Colorado at Boulder recently released a short video on his YouTube channel directed at recently graduating seniors who will be starting college in the fall. It is called, “The Five People You Meet in College,” and in a very humorous fashion imitates five of the stereotypical identities college students often “try on” in their college years. One of them is the student who gets over-involved, signing up for all the programs and activities. Another is the super-philosophical student who questions and challenges everything. Another is the party-goer, and so on. Then the pastor talks about how forming and exploring personal identity has become a part of the college experience, and that God’s world, like space, is meant to be something to venture into and wonder about.

But then he says that we don’t really know who we are until we’ve heard what God says about us, until we know our identity as people redeemed and loved by Christ.  That, as it turns out, is the mission behind his campus ministry. He invites incoming and returning students to gather around Jesus’ Word and around the sacraments in worship each week so that they can pause all the things they’re doing and hearing and be reminded of their central identity. His is not an invitation to “be more religious” in college, or to make the right decisions and stay away from sin. He says he offers chance to hear from and be shaped by One who has died for you. It is a reminder that God himself has come into our house and loves us unconditionally. That is the church’s task in the world, in fact. Not just campus ministry’s.

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Rembrandt (Abraham entertains Three Angels)

Just this past week our 3-year-old had his first nightmare—at least, I should say, the first one we were aware of. He has always been such a sound sleeper and never one to get out of his bed, so when we heard him screaming in the middle of the night it startled both Melinda and me immediately. His words were as clear as day: “I’m scared! I’m scared!” Then the sound of thrashing in the sheets came through on his monitor, too.

Melinda jumped up and ran in and found him with his eyes still closed, but still rolling around as if he were running away from something. It took her a few seconds to break through and calm him down. He was dreaming about monsters chasing him, and he asked her if there were any still in his bed. Don’t you wonder what those monsters looked like? Grover from Sesame Street? Or chemotherapy? Unemployment? A general feeling of uselessness?

I suppose we could have just left him there to figure it out for himself. I suppose we could have just let it play out, let him struggle with the nightmare a bit longer, let him get to the endpoint of his fear, whenever that would be, and learn it his own way. But Melinda opted to break into that false reality, to remind him he’s OK. She comforted him with our words and told him the truth. She rubbed his back and brought him back to this life.

Hearing that is the better part, and it’s what Mary chose that day.  She knows he’s bringing her back to this life. His word breaks through everything—breaks through death!—and reminds us we have a Creator that has given his own life for us, has reconciled it all through the blood of the cross. That’s more critical to our existence than knowing the sun at the center of the solar system. For as beautiful as our works of compassion are, as helpful as our demonstrations of faith can be, as glorious as the cosmos is, none of them can say to us, “I love you. It’s OK. There are no monsters. I’ve beaten them.”

The writer of Colossians says, “For in Christ all things in heaven and earth were created, all things visible and invisible—all things have been created in him and all things hold together.” Let’s be held today, with the Son (S-O-N) at the center—his love for us and all people pulling us in…like gravity.

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Road Trip

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 10C/Lectionary 15C]

Luke 10:25-37

As some of you already know, my family just returned from a vacation out in the Midwest. We first spent some time with our close friends at their home in Wisconsin, and then just the five of us stayed for a few nights in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. All of this involved a lot of driving. I knew on paper that driving first to the northern end of the Mississippi River and then the shores of Lake Superior and then back to Richmond would a long trip, but it wasn’t until we were on the open road that it sunk in just how far it was. All in all it was about 2500 miles and when through a total of eight states, nine if you count the little bit of time we crossed into Minnesota. We are thankful for a reliable car, children who are excellent travelers and Google Maps.

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Google Maps is amazing technology. It makes road trips so much easier. It figures out the quickest routes from here to there, it automatically re-routes you around traffic snarls, it even tells you where the speed traps are (not that I need to know, of course!) But maybe one of the best features of Google Maps, however—one which I think they’ve only added fairly recently—is the little icons that pop up when you cross a state line. They make long distance travel just a little more interesting. Google Maps knows the exact moment you cross into another state and at the bottom of the screen a little window appears that says “Welcome to” whatever state you’re now in, along with a little cartoon character that is somehow related to that state’s history or economy or culture.

Each time we neared a border, we found ourselves glued to the smartphone screen to see what little character would pop up. Lots of times we’d guess as to what it would be. Would Indiana be a little corn farmer? A basketball player? Nope. It was a little Indy car driver. Would Michigan be represented by a car factory worker? Nope. It was a Motown singer. In case you’re wondering, Virginia’s icon is a little colonial-president-looking dude with peanuts over his shoulders. The one we were most surprised by was Minnesota’s, which was a little Prince, as in Purple-Rain-Prince, the pop music singer who died just a few years ago.

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Granted, these little icons are a little bit based on stereotypes, but they do supposedly say something about the territory you’re traveling through. In life, as on trips, we cross boundaries, we encounter others, and we want to what to expect from them, and how we should regard them. What zone do they belong in? What’s their icon? Are they this this group or that?

Isn’t that really the heart of the matter in this dialogue between the lawyer and Jesus? It starts out as a way to test Jesus through a question about inheriting eternal life, but it quickly evolves (devolves?) into a question about how to regard others. This exchange starts out as a way to trap Jesus on his interpretation of Jewish law, but it turns into a matter of how to navigate the world and all of its different distinctions and boundaries and territories. Because the two commandments of loving God and loving the neighbor as self are so intertwined, we can’t have one without the other. That is, if a person’s relationship with God is going to directly reflect on their relationships with their neighbor then (and vice versa)—I agree with the lawyer—it would be helpful to understand just who the neighbor is.

And so Jesus responds to the lawyer by talking about a roadtrip. A man starts in Jerusalem, which sits way up high at this elevation, and plugs Jericho into Google Maps. He knows that it is going to take him down a steep path that plunges 3300 feet in just 17 miles. In addition to that several icons pop up that look menacing. As it turns out, this is not friendly territory. Roads rarely were, but this one, from Jerusalem to Jericho, because of its terrain, was notoriously sketchy. But the man goes anyway. We could question his motive, perhaps. We could question whether he has any right to be there, or if it is a wise decision to travel such-and-such by himself, but Jesus doesn’t seem to do that. And sure enough, the man is attacked and beaten and left for dead.

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Hanna Varghese, The Good Samaritan

Then, as chance would have it, Jesus says, a priest was going down the road and sees the man who has been beaten. It would be helpful to know the priest’s motivations at this point. Does he pass by the man because he assumes he’s dead and it is unlawful for a priest to touch a corpse? Is he in a hurry and doesn’t want to get sucked into this guy’s drama? We could come up with any number of reasons why the priest and later the Levite—both religious professionals—pass by and choose not to help him. The point is that they are stereotypical characters.  They are icons of religion. They work in the temple and synagogues. They are little representatives of the best of what God’s people have to offer. If you were hurt on the side of the road, you would hope and expect that the priest or the Levite would help you.

I have a friend who serves as a pastor out in California and just this week she was visiting someone in the hospital and a nurse saw her with her collar on and asked if she was a Catholic priest. “No,” my friend answered, “I’m a Lutheran one.” The nurse said (nurses know how to get things done), “Well, could you come and pray with this Catholic patient who is entering surgery?” So my friend did. Then, a half an hour later, another nurse came to her and said, “I hear you are willing to do a Catholic prayer before surgery. Please come.” So she put on the gown and gloves and mask and let them all in prayer together.

Priests and Levites are expected to help and pray, but for some reason the two in Jesus’ story don’t and perhaps we’re a bit unsettled.

Then, at this point, the lawyer and anyone else listening to Jesus’ story are expecting a third person because things come in threes. Historians tell us that for Jews in Jesus’ time, the Jewish world was divided between three classes of people: priests, Levites, and then everyday Israelites. But the third person who comes by the injured man is not an ordinary Israelite. He is a Samaritan, a figure completely out of left field! No one listening would have seen it coming. Samaritans were not just foreigners, but foreigners who no one trusted. Their religion wasn’t trusted, their culture wasn’t trusted, and furthermore they lived right at the border, sometimes mixing right in with ordinary Israelites. Law-abiding Israelites like the lawyer would have detested Samaritans. And so to hear this story about the Samaritan being moved with pity or compassion would have been infuriating. Finally in the story we have evidence of someone’s motivation, and it is the foreigner’s! And it is a motivation typically associated with God’s character. The Samaritan’s icon pops up on the Google Maps and…it is an icon of God! The Samaritan not only helps the guy out of the ditch and treats his wounds, but he provides money to nurse him back to health.

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Jesus ends the story by returning to the lawyer’s question but he changes it a little. “Who is my neighbor?” turns out to be not the best question. In doing so, the lawyer is still living by borders and boundaries, into zones of neighbors and people who aren’t neighbors. Jesus asks, “Who was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” and the lawyer has to admit it is the one who showed God-like mercy. Living as a person of faith involves displaying mercy and pity, responding as Christ, and not really being concerned about whichever icon or stereotype they’re represented by. Rather than wondering about who our neighbor is, our task is just to go and be a neighbor to anyone who needs one.

If we’re going to be legalistic about our faith, Jesus says to the lawyer and to that part of each of us that longs to know exactly where the lines fall, the only law we really need to be following is the one written on our hearts by Jesus’ tender mercy. It’s the law of compassion. Because Christ-followers know that we’re all, equally, on dangerous roads in need of mercy. We come to realize that on some level we’re all just wandering through perilous country here, that we all vulnerable and utterly dependent on the grace of God in others to get us through. Jesus doesn’t look upon the earth from the cross and see states or countries or boundaries or Google icons. He sees people he loves. He sees people in need of forgiveness. He sees people in need of cleansing with oil and wine, people who need shelter and nurture. He sees a world where Samaritans can do the things that pure-hearted, God-fearing Israelites would do. And since we are his people, we go and do likewise.

Early Christians were the ones who invented the world’s first hospitals. They were pioneers in creating buildings like this inn in this parable, where the best medical practices of their day would be combined with prayer and service to tend to those who were in any need. Scientists and priests and deacons would work together to nurture people back to health, if they could. Christians became so good at forming these institutions that non-Christians began to take note. In fact, the pagan Emperor Julian, who was notorious for wanting to rid the Roman Empire of Christianity, “chided his fellow pagans that the Christians supported not only their own poor but [the poor and sick] of others as well.” These early hospitals were called “xenodochion.”[1]

You may recognize the first part of that word, “Xeno.” It means foreigner or stranger. We hear it mostly these days in the form of xenophobia, fear of foreigners or fear of the other. Yet early Christians were known far and wide for xenodochion, which means “hospitable to foreigners.”

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immigrants detained at the U.S. border

The Irish rock group U2 came out with a song several years ago called, “Invisible.” All of the proceeds from downloading it went straight to care for people with AIDS. The ending of the song repeats the words:

There is no them
There is no them
There’s only us.
There’s only us.
There is no them.
There is no them.
There’s only us.

I like to think that’s the message echoing in the lawyer’s head as he leaves Jesus thinking about that foreigner-loving Samaritan dropping his hard-earned money in the innkeeper’s hospital.  To be honest, I’d hope that’s what’s echoing in my own head on my roadtrip of life as I watch people bring in diapers to stock the ACTS house today, as I see photos of our youth group’s trip this week to Tarboro where they rebuild hurricane-damaged houses. I hope that’s the message playing over and over in my head as I watch children whose personal stories I don’t know file into our sanctuary by the dozens this week for Vacation Bible School. I hope it’s the message I remember as I deliberate and ponder whatever’s happening at our own national border and with immigrants in our community…and as I still foolishly watch with anticipation to see what stereotype-driven icon will pop up when I encounter anyone on my path.

Welcome little Caius Roma, just baptized today. You’ve got oil on your head. We’re going to have wine here in a minute. Listen:

There is no them.
There is no them.
There’s only us.

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The First Thousand Years. Robert Louis Wilken. p 159

To be clothed in Christ

a sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 12B]

Galatians 3:23-29

Later this afternoon nineteen of our rising 9th-12th graders will depart Richmond and head to Roanoke College in Salem, VA, where they will take part in a week-long youth event that our Synod runs. Known as Kairos, which is a Greek word meaning “God’s time,” this youth event brings together about one hundred youth from congregations all over the state for a week of worship and prayer and in-depth faith reflections and growth as the body of Christ.

Several years ago I was asked to serve as the chaplain for the Kairos event, and I know that Pastor Joseph also served in that capacity just a few years ago, too. As chaplain for Kairos you help serve as a spiritual guide and kind of pastor for the planning team, which is the group of rising seniors who decide the theme of the event and how they will present it. This year one of our youth, Matt Boyle, is on the planning group.

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Youth in matching t-shirts (but not Kairos t-shirts)

One of the things I discovered when I served as the planning group chaplain is that the planning group gets to help design the Kairos t-shirt that everyone receives when they get up there today, and there is some unofficial planning group pressure to have the t-shirt look cooler than any other year. If it’s a really cool and memorable t-shirt design and color, people will often refer to a particular Kairos by its t-shirt in the years to come. People will say, “Oh, yeah, that was the year with cool camouflage pattern t-shirt.” Or “That was the year with the glow-in-the-dark design on the front.” And, by the same token, if it’s a lousy design, people remember that too. You don’t want to make that mistake. You don’t want to be the planning team that asks everyone to wear a bad color. The point is, of course, that the t-shirt has the ability to set the theme for the event, and ideally you want people to honor your t-shirt by wearing it that week and for many weeks afterward.

Rewind that scenario about 2000 years and that is essentially the issue that the apostle Paul confronts in his congregation in Galatia. His beloved Galatian congregation has forgotten how cool it is to wear Christ, or at least they’ve forgotten what it means. Paul is so irritated by the fact that they are dismissing the design of the greatest t-shirt of all time—that is, their own baptisms—that he shoots off a six chapter letter to them to whip them back into shape.

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“St Paul Writing his Epistles” (Valentin de Boulogne, 16th cent)

The letter to the Galatians contains some of the most visceral writing in the whole Bible. You can tell Paul is really worked up. In at least two places he calls them foolish. In the first couple of chapters of the letter he painstakingly goes through his credentials mostly so that they trust he is an authority on matters of faith and the way of Jesus and they should continue to listen to him. Paul is worked up because they are not realizing they wear the holy and righteous and completely awesome garment they have received by virtue of their baptism, and he knows it will be their doom. Or at least it will doom the message of hope and salvation in Christ he brought them.

Now, we may not typically think of Christ as something we wear. To our modern ears that may sound a bit strange. I would guess most of us probably think of Jesus primarily as a person we have a relationship with, not a fashion statement, and Paul certainly has that understanding too. In fact, for Paul Jesus is a real, risen, living man who suffered and died and rose to bring about God’s new creation and who now lives with us through the presence of his Spirit. But Paul also talks about being “clothed with Christ,” which is something that had definite meaning within the early Church and even within the spirituality of Judaism.

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a baptismal font from ruins of an early church. Note the cross shape.

In the early church, when people were baptized they immediately white robe which they then wore for at least a week afterwards. This was a practice that intended to drive home the transformation that had taken place in their life as a result of their baptism. It drove it home for the person who had been baptized as well as for those who would come into contact with them. It drove home that they had been changed somehow. No matter what kind of person they were, they were now a visible part of the community of the church, the body of Christ on earth. It was like they received a Kairos t-shirt—something that indicated they were now people of God’s time in Jesus.  It was a sign that their faith in what Jesus had done for them, their faith in God’s self-giving love for them, no matter who they were, was now their way of life. Jesus’ grace covered them and their sins completely. It was their identity, their community, their hope and joy.

But in Galatia, for whatever reason, rivals to Paul had begun to convince many of them that their faith in Christ was not enough, that there were other t-shirts that were better. These people were claiming there were parts of the old Jewish law that they still needed to satisfy in order to be right with God. And for new Christians who were Gentile in origin, who had never followed Jewish law, this involved some pretty strict sacrifices. That’s when Paul steps in to say to them once again the only sacrifice required for our new life is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The law was fine for a time, Paul says, but once Jesus came, then he is all we need. And that gift cuts across all lines of social class, race, gender, and, we may assume, any other dividing line we tend to set up between people.

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This was true for the people of Galatia and is true for us today. It dooms the message of Christ’s love if we start making any kind of distinctions about it. Jesus clothes us in the same love and mercy and forgiveness, no matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, no matter what language we speak, no matter what country we come from, no matter who our parents are or were, no matter what political party we vote with, no matter how old we are, no matter how long we’ve been a churchgoer…you get the point. Our faith in what Jesus has done transforms the way we look at ourselves and each other. We’ve all got the same cool t-shirt. When we realize we’re wearing it, it makes us view one another as someone for whom Christ died and rose.

There is movie from the mid-1980s starring Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez called The Breakfast Club that was so beloved and so relevant that it crops up in pops up in popular culture from time to time. It tells the story of five high school kids who are all sentenced to a Saturday morning of in-school suspension for different trouble they’ve gotten into. As it happens, they each embody a different high school stereotype. One of them is a jock, one is a preppy snob, one of them is an academic nerd, one is a rebel, and one is a bit of a social misfit. They all are thrown together for this four-hour segment of time to complete an assignment the stern principal has given them as punishment: to compose a 1000-word essay on the topic, “who you think you are.”

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They start as rivals to each other, making fun of one another, but they end as friends. Something about being in the “Breakfast Club” transforms them and they way they view one another. Their old identities don’t completely melt away, but they become transcended. Those distinctions become secondary to their friendships. In the movie’s final scene, one of the characters reads the essay they jointly compose, claiming they each came to see part of themselves in each other.

We, might I suggest, are the supper club…the Lord’s Supper Club. As we come together here each week and break his body and share his blood, we come to see in each other not just a part of ourselves, which is important, but mainly a reflection of Christ, the one who has claimed us all. We realize we’re all wearing that same garment of Jesus’ grace and that there is nothing we can ever do to cause us to lose it. We don’t ignore or downplay critical differences of privilege and power that creep in to our common life, but we do understand that all of us in Christ are one. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female.

So, for example, when we reflect on the massacre at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, when a white supremacist shot and killed nine African-Americans which has its fourth anniversary this month, we don’t think of that event as primarily something that happened to people of color. We realize it was an attack on our brothers and sisters. When we hear about the struggles of fellow Christians in the Holy Land and Iraq we don’t dismiss it as an Arab problem. We hear their cries for justice as coming from our own.

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And this all matters because the world is watching. The world is shattered by all these differences and if there is a community that by God’s grace has learned to overcome them with mercy—or at least frame them in a constructive manner—Paul knows they will want to join us. They will feel the pull of Jesus’ love.

Melinda and I spent last week as Bible study leaders at one of our Lutheran camps in the mountains of North Carolina. We knew going in that we had been assigned to work with thirty 6th-8th graders in a camp known as “Fire and Water,” but what we didn’t know or even anticipate was that about a third of those campers were from Vietnam. I’m not entirely sure how they came to be registered for that week at Lutheridge, but they were actually visiting from Vietnam to learn about America and Christianity.

Although these young teenagers were well-behaved and very sweet, to be honest—utterly fascinated by lightning bugs and making lanyards—there was a cultural barrier and a language barrier that was difficult to overcome. As we all struggled to learn their names and pronounce them correctly, I watched with awe as their counselors, all college-aged young adults, worked extra hard to form one community all week long, to forge cross-cultural friendships, to bridge differences. And I watched the middle school campers not ostracize their cabinmates from Asia but find ways to incorporate them into what they were doing.

It was a tall order and it didn’t always go perfectly. But one day one of the Vietnamese campers shared with his counselor, “I have never thought about this religion thing before, but I like it.” And on our last day of Bible study together, we sat in a circle and tossed a ball of yarn around to form a web and gave each camper a chance to share something they had learned during the week. The American campers called them by their correct names, which was good to see. As it happened, the very last person to receive the ball of yarn was Quang, one of the Vietnamese boys. And as he held his section of yarn he said, “I learned this week about the love of God and the love of people who love God.”

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So as the ball of yarn is thrown to you around this supper, in this place today, may you know the love of God for you and for the person on your left, and the person on your right. May the Spirit so move in us that we see we are all clothed and in our right mind in God’s timeless Kairos shirt.

 

Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr. 

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How to say “Cappadocia”

a sermon for the Day of Pentecost [Year C]

Acts 2:1-21 and John 14:8-17

There was a lot of talk in the church office this week about the Parthians, the Medes, and the Elamites. There was also a lot of talk about the residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia…or is it Cappado-sha? Or Cappado-kia? And don’t get us started on those Phrygians and Pamphylians! We were talking about them because, you see, Hanne Hamlin, our Office Administrator, knew she had drawn the lay reader “short straw” and was scheduled to read the Acts lesson this morning that tells the story of Pentecost. And Turner Barger, the son of one of our office staff members and who serves as the president of the Synod’s Lutheran Youth Organization had also been assigned to read this Acts lesson at the big worship service at Synod Assembly Friday night in front of a group of 300 people which contained at least two bishops and dozens of pastors…as if we know how to say these words. I don’t really know how to say these words. I’ve always just made a guess on all those Cretans and Arabs and proselytes from Rome, which is what we all told Hanne and Turner to do. We told them just to launch forth with confidence no matter how they say it. No hesitation. Power through. Everybody will think they’ve done it correctly. And, to be honest, Turner and Hanne and Pamela all rocked it. Take that, Cappadocians!

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If you like a good case of irony, this Pentecost reading is a perfect example of it. It is ironic that the Scripture lesson that tells us about how clearly understood the first disciples were on Pentecost contains itself so many words that are impossible to say! It is ironic that the Bible reading that is meant to show us how easy it was for those disciples to proclaim the gospel is one of the toughest for people to get through. For you see, the main message conveyed by this reading, once you get passed all the strange names, is that the gospel is no longer a mystery, no longer a complicated, hard-to-put-together message that only a handful of small-town disciples were entrusted with. The main message of Pentecost, the giving of God’s Holy Spirit, is that the love of Christ and his death and resurrection is now something everyone can grasp and not just grasp, but share!

And that message is for all people, no matter how hard it is to pronounce the country they come from, or how uncomfortable the color of their skin may make us, or how easy it is to drive around their impoverished neighborhood, or how tough it is to sit at their table in the lunchroom at school. The message of the gospel—that Jesus loves us and that the Spirit draws us into one body for God the Father—has been given to us to share and celebrate with all people. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved! And we are the ones to let that good news be known.

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The congregation I served during my seminary internship  felt like a mini-Pentecost just about every Sunday in that several languages and ethnic groups were always present in the congregation. St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo is an international, interdenominational congregation supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that sits in the heart of Egypt’s capital city of about 16 million people. It has long been one of the few Protestant churches that offers English-language worship services in a liturgical format. As a result, the congregation is made up not just of American and British and Canadian expats, but also a large number of folks from other countries who happen to speak English. There were Dutch families, German families, as well as several families from various African countries. The congregation also hosted two Sudanese refugee congregations, each of which spoke a different native tongue.

On Christmas our worship tried to gather all of those different peoples together for one service, so we had to make sure the bulletin contained a print version of a lesson in the languages that were being spoken. If the Old Testament lesson, for example, was read aloud by one of the Sudanese worshipers in Dinka, then we’d print the lesson in English, Arabic, and Nuer. If we sang the first hymn in English, then the second one would be offered by one of the refugee choirs. It was a challenge to pull off, but the end result was that each received the message of Jesus’ love in their own tongue.

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the beautiful St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo, Egypt

I was glad for that experience, but I’ve since learned that congregations that speak one language have to be no less intentional about communicating the message of Christ. We may all speak English here, but none of us is exactly the same. We’re all walking the journey a bit differently with our own scars and wounds. We end up hearing things and experiencing matters of faith a bit differently. The Holy Spirit helps bring us overcome those barriers and brings us together in a way that makes us one. The Holy Spirit is that person of God that binds us in mission, so that when we perform an act of mercy or compassion, when we share a word of kindness, we will see the face of God revealed and the world will come to see the face of God in us. Jesus says to his disciples, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” As we, in spite of our differences, live out Christ’s command to love one another, we become the way the world sees God.

Diversity seems to be a big topic church these days, and for good reason. Even in 2019 we are still trying to overcome the divisions of race and gender and economics that have kept our unity less than what it could be. We celebrate that now there are more women and more people of color serving as bishops in our Lutheran denomination than ever before. Three congregations in the Virginia Synod (out of about six) are led by senior pastors who are women, which is sign that the stained glass ceiling is breaking. One day we won’t even count or take note of those kinds of things. They will just be the way the church in America is.Church-Diversity-640

And yet one thing I struggle with my tendency to make the concept of diversity into an idol, as if that idea of many differences is what I worship, not the God behind it. The people on Pentecost were surprised at their diversity and glad for it. Their diversity language and culture is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s activity. And yet the diversity never becomes the focus of their message. It just happens.

We would do well to remember, then, that the only thing that keeps the church true and interesting and powerful is the presence of Christ abiding through the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells his disciples on the eve of his death to keep his commandment of love. Diversity alone does not alone make the church rich. God’s love in Christ does. When it is proclaiming Jesus, crucified and risen, a small congregation of farmers on the plains of North Dakota is just as true a church as the congregation I served in Cairo with its many languages and ethnic groups. A new group of Christians worshipping in a grass hut in Papua New Guinea is just as valid in their discipleship and as a sign of God’s kingdom as we are here with our Brighten Our Light campaign and groundbreaking.

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It is important that we not get too taken away with ourselves, too fixated on our tapestries of diversity—or apparent lack of it—for our task as church is never to proclaim ourselves. It not to point ultimately to how special we are, even though true diversity is very special. Our task is always and only to do the works that Jesus’ love produces in us, which are the works of God the Father. Our task is to point the world to the One who has claimed us and made us his own. It is to lift up the love of the God who has adopted us and made us children, and if children, heirs.

And yet…that is never an excuse just to be content with whoever is here at Epiphany at the moment, as if we’re complete. The Spirit always bringing new people to each church event, to each Sunday worship service. The Spirit is always placing new people in your path out their in your daily lives, people who long to know the love and forgiveness of Jesus. And the Spirit always calls us to be aware of how unintentionally unwelcoming we may be to newcomers, or how confusing our ways may be to those trying to find their way in.

That’s one reason why all the images for the Spirit in the Bible have to do with air. A dove, fire, rushing wind—God can’t be controlled, and be prepared for what can happen when you open up a window and let the air in. The Venerable Bede, an English saint of the 8th century who the church commemorates today, once said, “Unfurl the sails, and let God steer us where he will!”

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The groundbreaking last Sunday was an exciting day in the life of this congregation. We’re getting ready to open a lot of windows. And walls. Literally. They’ll be knocked down and rebuilt. Last week during one of the children’s sermons, as I was showing the architects’ drawings to make a point, one young child spoke up and said, “But I don’t want our change our church.” That wasn’t exactly the direction I wanted to go with the children’s sermon, but, then again, you never know how the Spirit is going to move. In that moment I gave God thanks that the Spirit has developed this congregation in such a way that young children are welcome in worship and are nurtured in their faith in such a way that they can use their voice and respond openly and honestly to what they hear.

And I also gave thanks for that particular boy’s prophecy, because, if I’m honest, a part of me fears what these changes will bring to Epiphany, too. A part of me always fears change a bit, fears the air that blows in the window. I suppose the church is always being changed in some way, not just here at Epiphany, but the world over. If you like a good case of irony, there you have it. The church can always depend on the fact that things are changing. In our sin we consider them too young to do so, but the young men and women are prophesying. And in our sin we often paint them as stuck in their ways, but old men and women do have visions and dream dreams for what the people of God can be doing.

We can fear it, have our misgivings, and yet God still pours himself out for us. God still entrusts to us this powerful message of Christ for the sake of the world. So even when we’re not quite sure how we’re supposed to say it…or share it…how to pronounce it…how to be it…at some point God’s Spirit moves us to launch forward with confidence. No hesitation! Power through! People will see us and see the Father.

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

In the right hands

a sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter [Year C]

John 14:23-29 and Acts 16:9-15

The other day I stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few items, and as I made my way to the stack of baskets something caught my eye. One of the cashiers, in her green Publix vest, was walking around the flower department and then the produce section with a young girl who was clutching a stuffed animal. As they passed in front of me, I clearly heard the cashier, a woman who could have easily been the age of the young girl’s grandmother, ask the girl, “Now, where did you last see him?” The woman had her hand gently placed on the girl’s shoulder and was guiding her around the store but at the same time looking up, scanning the scene, as if she was intently looking for something.

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I was witnessing the other side of every parent’s nightmare—the little girl had been separated from her father, or maybe it was her brother or her uncle. In any case, my heart immediately went out to the girl, however, when I looked at her face it did not look frightened in the slightest. There was something about the way this cashier was taking control of the situation that must have calmed the girl and made her feel safe. I watched the two of them meander through the vegetables and fruits before I lost sight of them. It was not clear to me where the girl had last seen the adult she had come in with. It was not clear to me if he was looking for her, too. But what was clear to me was that for the time being, the girl was in the right hands.

On the evening before his death, Jesus assures his disciples that they will always be in the right hands. Even though they will likely feel lost, maybe even abandoned, even though their hearts will be troubled within them, even though they might be afraid, Jesus promises that someone will be there to place a hand on their shoulder and guide them along. At the time that Jesus is saying these things, it is pretty clear the disciples have no idea what he is talking about. The events of that evening have been very strange. He’s just finished washing their feet…of all things! And Judas Iscariot has run off to turn Jesus in…of all things! They are asking all kinds of questions about what’s about to happen and they’re confused.

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But after his resurrection, after they see him die and then rise again and after they spend some time with him these words may start to come to them. As he says, Jesus is not always going to be with them in the same way. He is going to the Father. The disciples will continue in the way of love he has taught them, but he won’t physically be with them like he was when he multiplied the loaves and fish by the sea or the way he was when he broke bread around the Passover table. His community of followers will need to find their way around the grocery store of life without his physical presence. They’re going to have to imagine a life on their own without having him at arm’s length. They’re going to have to make decisions without his direct leadership, without being able to turn to him and say, “Hey, Jesus. What would you do in this situation? I’ve got this bracelet on my wrist that says WWJD. Help me out, dude.”

Does the life of faith ever seem like that to you? Hazy? Open-ended so much of the time, a bit like shooting in the dark? Maybe even a bit frightening, if not frustrating? If it makes you feel any better, it certainly seems the early disciples felt some of that too. Just look at what happens in this morning’s Acts lesson. Paul is stuck in Troas, and he’s not sure where to go next. His original plans had been to go elsewhere and preach and spread the gospel there, but that way for some reason had been closed off to him. So, as a result of a vision, he and his crew wind up in a totally new and foreign place. In fact, it is the first time the message of Jesus comes to a new continent. Macedonia is in Europe, and up until this point the church had only been an Asian thing.

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Even when Paul and his crew finally get to the city of Philippi, they still seem a bit perplexed as to what to do. In other places they had found the synagogue in order to launch their ministry, but here they find nothing like that right off the bat. So they just go to one of the main public areas and start talking to some of the women they find there. That’s how they end up getting introduced to a woman named Lydia, who is likely fairly wealthy and influential. She ends up getting baptized, along with her whole household. More than that, she offers Paul and his people a place to stay. What would Jesus have done? Hard to say, but they were guided in the right direction after all.

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St. Lydia of Thyatira

On a much, much smaller scale I think about how directionless I felt during one point in college and how some simple advice from my grandmother one day over Christmas break ended up leading me down the path to where I am today. She wasn’t by any means insistent in encouraging me to return for a second summer as a counselor, but at a time when I felt a bit troubled and unsure of what to do, she and my grandfather were like a hand on the shoulder giving me permission to take another step.

The point is, the life of faith is rarely clear cut, and Jesus knows this. His own life was full of twists and turns, some of which were terrifying and which involved a good bit of suffering.  But in some way, a part of his Father was always there with him, and Jesus promises that same part will be with his followers, too. The name he gives that part is Advocate, or, in Greek, Paraclete. If you think about what an advocate is, wou realize it is a person who can speak on your behalf, someone who can understand and articulate your needs often better than you yourself can. The image that Paraclete or Advocate would have given Jesus’ disciples is a person who would come alongside you, kind of like how an advocate in a legal setting sits down at the table with you to help you make your case. Jesus means to say that it is the Spirit of God that will come alongside them, gathering them together and speaking to them and reminding them of that love that we’ve come to associate with God.

I’ll never forget the children’s sermon a bunch of youth once did on this Scripture for youth Sunday several years ago. They called the children forward, and it was clear they were going to play the part of Jesus’ anxious disciples while some of the high school guys put on a skit. At the time we had a set of identical twins in the youth group, Matthew and Stephen von Schmidt-Pauli. They were so similar-looking that most people couldn’t tell them apart unless you got really close to them. Stephen played the part of Jesus in the skit, and he told his disciples, “In a little bit I won’t be with you. I’ll go to the Father, but it will be OK because I’ll send someone who will remind you of me.” He left out the side door and then in comes Matthew, who says, “Hi there. I’m the Advocate. Do I remind you of anyone?”

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That’s the role of the Spirit: to remind us of Jesus, to bring us into places where we will experience him. Just as the Father and the Son share this special bond of love, that bond will now be shared with those who have been claimed by Jesus.

The promise of Jesus is not that we will always know what decision to make, or which path to choose or how to solve a particular problem. The promise Jesus makes to his disciples as he prepares to leave them is not that life will be easy or that there will be no hardship. The promise is that we will always have the love of Jesus assessible to us. The promise is that we will always be able to count on God’s presence to be with us in some way. We will always be able to look at the cross, to encounter God’s Word at worship an in study, to receive the bread in our hand and wine on our lips and hear Jesus speaking to us that we are forgiven, we are loved, we are treasured. God will always be seeking us out when we’re lost putting his hand on our shoulder, and finding a way to guide us, comfort us, and give us peace in the same way that God found a way to raise his crucified Son to new life.

On this weekend we remember those who served our country and who have died in combat.  These men and women saw something greater worth giving their lives for. They followed through on a mission, whether or not they may have personally believed in it, and never had the chance to see how it all turned out. In many ways, their dedication to a cause and their willingness to move forward in bravery in spite of fear or apprehension can serve as an inspiration to our mission as Jesus’ people of peace. Because of the freedoms we have in this country, it is unlikely we will have to offer our lives for God’s kingdom in the same way that a soldier does, but we do die to self every day in Christ’s venture. Whether we’re speaking as a congregation getting ready to embark on a bold and exciting new construction project or we’re talking about our own personal faith journey, there are always opportunities to move forward by letting familiar ground give way, ground we may have unknowingly become too attached to. In a world where so much is changing, one constant is that Jesus grants his followers peace. People of a nation can sleep in peace knowing their servicemen and women are on the front lines offering their lives. Jesus’ people can live in eternal peace knowing he has offered his life on the cross.

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A few weeks ago the confirmands (those 10th graders who professed their faith last weekend in worship) attended a council meeting where they shared a Bible verse that was important to their faith. Each of them had selected a different verse, and all of them did a great job of explaining what that meant to them. There was one young man who had chosen Psalm 31:7, “I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction, you have taken heed of my adversities.” He then very honestly and open shared how in an especially dark time in his life when we wasn’t sure of anything else, even how to move forward, he felt sure of God’s presence. It was the gentle hand of God, the God who conquers death and darkness, who reminded him of who and whose he was. That is a powerful testimony to the Spirit Jesus promised us.

That Spirit is here, and that Spirit gathers us in spite of ourselves to hear the words of Jesus  and to take his body and share his peace. In fact, the Holy Spirit just gave me those words, put them together. And it is the Holy Spirit who, perhaps, helped those words make sense to you just now.

That girl in the grocery store was eventually reunited with her father. As I was checking out, right there in front of me I saw the kindly cashier present her to a man holding groceries, the three of them forming a little trinity. Father, girl, and holy Publix employee, bringing them together. There was a huge smile on the girl’s face, and of relief on the father’s. It had been several minutes. He thanked the woman, and as I handed my cashier my card, I heard the him say to his daughter, “I don’t know how we got separated, but I knew I’d find you.”

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Peter’s Big Day

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter [Year C]

John 21:1-19, Acts 9:1-6, Psalm 30, and Revelation 5:11-14

I do not fish, but I do go birding, and I’ve long thought that the two have a lot in common. Both activities consist of going out into nature, into the world, (even suburban and urban locations!), and hoping that you find something that you really don’t have a lot of control over.

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Right now happens to be peak migration season for many birds species that come from the south to North America to breed and raise their young. I’ve been going out almost every day to some of my well-worn nature trails with my zoom lens hoping for what they call in birding circles a “big day.” I crane my neck into the trees. I get really still and listen all around me. And, suffice it to say, so far it’s been pretty disappointing. Either the birds are just not out there, or I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, or they see me coming and they all say, “Shh. Let’s all be real quiet for a sec.” Sometimes you have such long stretches of nothing exciting that you start to wonder if they’re conspiring against you.

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I’ve talked about this with some of the people in our congregation who fish, and they say that’s what fishing is like sometimes. Will Willimon, a bishop in the United Methodist Church and professor at Duke Divinity School says that if you’re going to get into fishing, you’d better be good at failure. It is just part of what happens, and quite often.

That’s what happens to Peter and his fishing buddies a few days after Jesus’ resurrection. This might be the best-known fishing expeditions of all time, and it starts with total failure. They go out with all their nets and their boats and they fish all night, which is when lots of fishing happened back in those days. They work hard, because, after all, this is how they make their living, and they come up with nothing. Next thing they know a mysterious visitor along the shore recommends they do something a little different and—voila!—it’s a big day! Suddenly they have more fish than they know what to do with. Then, one by one, they come to the realization that the mysterious visitor on the shore is none other than their risen Lord. His presence turns their failure into success. They eventually all get to shore and there they find that Jesus has prepared them a meal and he invites them to join.

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The Appearance at the Sea of Tiberias (William Hole)
The Scripture doesn’t say this, but I bet the failure that is looming in Peter’s mind is not the fact they worked all night to catch fish and came up empty. The failure that is likely on his mind is the one from several nights before when Jesus had been arrested and was getting ready to be crucified. That’s when things had really gone south. He had always been the eager beaver disciple, quick to promise Jesus that he would never desert him, but at Peter’s first chance to say something and prove himself, he had denied even knowing Jesus. Three times he had been given a chance to identify himself as one of Jesus’ followers, to prove his love for his Teacher, and all three times he had been too frightened or nervous to do it.

That’s got to hurt, both from Peter’s perspective and from Jesus’. They both probably feel like failures, to some degree—Peter for denying and Jesus for choosing someone so unreliable. But then Jesus does again what he just did with the fish: he gives another chance. He turns emptiness into abundance. He transforms the situation with his grace. And just as Peter denied knowing Christ three times on Good Friday, Jesus gives Peter three chances to profess his love. He gives Peter a new vocation, a new call—to tend the faithful, to feed the church, to follow Jesus.

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The call to follow Jesus is to know the story is not over until Jesus says it’s over. To know Jesus is to realize that this is the kind of thing God is always up to: looking at our failures, looking at our shortcomings, looking at our brokenness and ultimately not being deterred by them. God’s mission in Jesus will find a way. He is great with turnarounds. It’s kind of God’s “thing.” As the psalmist says this morning, “you have turned by wailing into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” Sackcloth is what people wore when they were mourning or repenting from something shameful. God in Christ is always moving things in that direction—from weeping to dancing, from sorrow to joy—and typically in the bleakest of situations.

Peter learns this by the lake that day eating fish and bread with his risen Lord. Saul learns this, too, which we hear about in our first lesson from Acts. Ruthless and tenacious, he is extremely successful in his career of attacking Christ’s followers. Christians far and wide fear him. Saul is probably the last person anyone might suspect to be transformed by grace, and yet Jesus is able to find a turnaround for him, too. On the way to Damascus Saul encounters Jesus in a type of intense vision and receives a new direction. When Saul eventually regains his sight and receives care from a kind Christian named Ananias, Saul becomes Paul. And instead of using a sword to fight against Jesus’ kingdom, which is what he used to be known for, he takes up a pen and fights for God’s kingdom, writing letters to churches across the ancient world that still teach people of faith today.

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Yet as powerful as the turnarounds are of Peter and Paul, the place where you and I learn about God’s knack for gracious, surprising turnarounds is the cross of Jesus. There we see and call to mind each week in worship that God can step into the most broken of circumstances and bring about life. As the writer of Revelation puts it, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered to receive power and wisdom and might.” Or, as we sing each week on most Sundays of the year, “For the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign.” It’s not the Lamb who climbed his way to the top through popular opinion, who beat everybody else, who had the most power. It is the Lamb who gave his life in the most humiliating way. That Lamb is the one God raised to become Lord of all.

Over and over again we re-learn this story every week so that, in part, we can see God’s work in our lives. So that we can hear the promise that our wailing will turn into dancing, that our denials of Jesus’ love will turn into chances to say, “I love you.” To have our lives of anger and disappointment and bitterness be turned around to gentleness and peacefulness and love. Because that’s what God does.

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All too often we’re prone to take too short of a view of things, especially in times of tragedy or hardship, in spells of doubt or anxiety. We get tempted to think that whatever situation we’re in is irredeemable, there’s no way it can get better. Or that what we’ve done is unforgiveable. Or that a certain relationship is irreconcilable. But there is nothing irredeemable for Jesus. There is nothing unforgiveable to Jesus. And there is nothing God’s love in him eventually can’t reconcile. As one person put it, our worst day is never our last day. Because of Jesus, even in our grave there is a gate to eternal life.

Last week our Question for the Car Ride, which is printed each week in the bulletin, asked if there was an occurrence or conversation that led you into deeper faith in God. For a meeting this week we shared our responses to that question and I learned the most amazing things about people on that team. One person’s response was so simple and yet so insightful. She said it wasn’t just one conversation she can remember that deepened her faith, but the cumulative effect of all the dinnertime conversations she had at home with her family. Her mind couldn’t pull just one topic or epiphany out and settle on it as eye-opening, but just the repeated sitting down with her parents, who were comfortable talking about matters of faith when they arose, slowly over the years built her a strong foundation in a God who is loving and dedicated to turning around the world’s wailing.

It is by God’s great design that when Jesus encounters his disciples that morning on the beach he offers them food and gets them talking. That’s what he does for us each week. He gets us talking as a family around this table where Jesus once again gives us himself. We have conversations. We have them in the Commons, in Sunday School classrooms, in the pews before church begins, in the narthex and parking lot. Sometimes these conversations are profound, but more often that not they are just regular conversations. They are regular conversations that that little by little open us up and lay the groundwork for God’s big transformations to take place.

crowd in Commons

I don’t think anyone can predict exactly where Epiphany Lutheran Church will go in the coming years, just as no one could have predicted several decades ago that we’d be here today making the decisions we have at hand. Some people are excited about the direction implied in today’s vote and the opportunities for future ministry that it will lead to. Others are anxious about it, and still others, I imagine, have misgivings. No matter where things go today, or tomorrow, or the next, Jesus will still be gathering us around this table and inviting us into conversation. That we can count on. We can count on the fact that he will be there to meet us in the midst of our failures and disappointments, in our endeavors that don’t pan out like we think, and in those that go perfectly.

We would well remember that it is the life of turnarounds and transformations our baptism has signed us up for. Never stop the story at today because with Jesus it goes on. You never know how God will find a way to turn wailing into dancing.

At this point I’d love to say that one of my birding misadventures has turned into an epic big day. And even if it happens, I know I have something far better: fellowship with you and with a Lord who gives Peter new chances. With the God who turned Paul to love and peacefulness…With One who was slain who has begun His reign.

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Time for doubt, time for praise

a sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter [Year C]

John 20:19-31

A man in the congregation who has a young daughter, about 5 years old, told me a few weeks ago that she had sat down at supper time and asked him, “When are we going to sing ‘This is the Feast’ at church again?” Evidently the long Sundays in Lent when we remove festive songs containing Alleluia and replace them with the more penitential “Kyrie,” (which means “Lord, have mercy,”) had gotten a little long for her. She was eager to rejoice and sing “This is the feast of victory for our God.”

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And so we should. Alleluia! but we also shouldn’t forget that the first reaction to Jesus’ resurrection is fear. If we somehow were to decide to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection according to the timeline that is presented in each of the gospels, kind of like the way we re-enact and dramatize the events of Holy Week, we would probably not sing any songs of praise right off the bat. We would instead do things that communicate that it all still feels like a tragedy. Even after the women share the news that the tomb is empty. Even after Mary Magdalene tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” The message of the first Easter is tragic and frightening and confusing. The disciples have just witnessed a gruesome execution of their leader…in public! At least two of them have been possibly identified as members of his inner circle. As far as any of them know, the religious authorities, which is basically what is meant here by “the Jews,” want to do away with the movement Jesus has begun. One really natural reaction to all of this is to hole yourself up somewhere in a saferoom, some pre-assigned meeting place, and lock the doors. Who knows what’s going to happen next? How could this have happened?

Last Sunday, as Christian worshippers gathered in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to celebrate Easter, maybe even with trumpets and drums, suicide bombers from a little-known terrorist group detonated themselves in their sanctuaries, and in luxury hotels in other parts of the city. It was an unspeakable, horrible tragedy, and at last count officials estimate 253 people were killed and many more wounded. One article about the event I read this week discussed the various reactions to this event in Sri Lanka. There are many religious groups living together in that country, and now many are worried about how they will trust each other. The article included the reactions of some who are wondering openly, “Where is God?”[1]

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the aftermath in one church’s sanctuary (Sri Lanka)

I found that to be a refreshingly honest response, and I’m thankful they included it. Too often we rush past that part of a tragedy. We hurry to tell people to look for examples of God in the rubble, in the people who are helping and the stories of kindness and heroism that emerge. And those things are important, but often we go all “This is the Feast” without making room for the fear and questioning. And the fear and questioning are real and they’re natural and that’s where the disciples are on the evening of Jesus’ resurrection. It is hard to figure out where God is in all of this when you’re still in crisis mode.

What about you? Do you make room for the wondering, the questioning? Do you understand the urge to lock the doors and hunker down when disaster strikes?

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Of course, Jesus’ death was a tragedy, but the resurrection isn’t, and before things get too carried away Jesus finds them. Isn’t that wonderful? Jesus finds them, because locked doors don’t mean much to the risen Christ. Just as before, he tends to break down barriers and find ways to bring people together. Whether it is through doors that try to lock out the world or communities that try to lock out certain people because they seem different, or hearts that try to lock out love and compassion because of anger and bitterness, Jesus will find a way to enter. It’s usually mysterious how he pulls this off. We are all wound up in our grief or panic and then next thing we know he is there.

When Jesus comes to his disciples behind the locked doors he transforms them almost immediately from people who don’t know what the future holds to people who have purpose and mission. And he does it without shaming any of them even after they’ve demonstrated a lack of faith. He gently and graciously includes Thomas, too, who is bold about his doubt. The first thing Jesus says is “Peace be with you.” He had told them before his crucifixion that he gave them a peace that the world could not give. Peace that comes from someone who has died in order to show God’s love for you is a peace like no other.

Here Jesus basically sets the tone for everything that comes after the resurrection. I know at other churches where the worship service includes the sharing of the peace they often place it more in the middle of the liturgy, right before Holy Communion. That’s how they do it at Synod Youth events. That is a valid option. Here at Epiphany, though, it comes right after the confession and forgiveness, near the beginning, and I’ve come to appreciate that. Right from the beginning we say, “Peace be with you.” Right from the beginning we acknowledge Christ is risen and that he has shown up, regardless of whatever concerns we carry here.

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Jesus transforms them with peace and then Jesus transforms them by sending them out. He re-focuses their attention from themselves and their own inward-facing community to risk themselves in the world. He doesn’t just release them from their locked room to go back to things as usual. He sends them as he was sent, and that is a lot to chew on, if you think about it, considering where he’s just come from. It means he send them out to serve in the manner he serves, and to love others in the way he loves…to die to yourself as he died. To be sent as Jesus is sent is to lead with compassion and humility. It is to stop and be more cognizant of the situation of others rather than yourself.

One colleague of mine says that when he gets bogged down with decisions of leadership and fears of self-doubt creep in, lots of times he just drops everything and goes on visits to people on his homebound list. He literally sends himself out of the building and into the lives of people who knows will bless and minister to him, and immediately the anxieties fall away.

The third thing Jesus does with his disciples that evening is give them the authority to grant forgiveness and withhold it. This is key. Right from the beginning, the life of Jesus’ followers will be linked to reconciliation, to healing the brokenness that can be done by human sin. Christ-followers can be known in this world by so many good things: wonderful architecture like the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Beautiful music by composers from every century. We are recognized by our acts of service and justice, especially in times of disaster. Some are known for their potlucks! But Jesus places how his followers deal with sin at the top of that list. The quality of their relationships with each other, among their community, will lead the way in who they are as God’s people. It will be clear to future followers that Jesus is still among us when we deal with sin honestly and lovingly.

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Of course, Jesus demonstrates this kind of graciousness immediately in the way he treats Thomas, the famous doubter. Jesus doesn’t chastise him or alienate him from the community. He even offers Thomas the chance to poke those wounds in his hand and side in order to show that he is real. It is a gesture of remarkable vulnerability. Jesus ends up including Thomas by opening himself up, by allowing himself to be touched if Thomas needs it. And Thomas goes from being one who doubts  to being the first person in John’s gospel who proclaims that Jesus is Lord and God.

Oftentimes when this story comes up there is so much focus on Thomas, and I suppose that is helpful. He becomes a type of hero for people who struggle with belief, who are honest with their doubts and suspicions about the resurrection, or even about the existence of God. It is easy to put ourselves in his shoes, and perhaps we should from time to time, but maybe Thomas’ shoes aren’t the main ones we should be wearing. Maybe it would be better to place ourselves in Jesus’ shoes. Since we are his body on earth now, it makes sense. And especially since he sends us like he was sent, it really makes sense. Maybe our best witness is to offer our woundedness to the world so they might become ways to faith for them, to practice transparency and vulnerability especially in our weaker places, to let people even poke into our scars if they need to so that they may better understand the nature of our faith and calling and our presence in the world as Jesus’ people. If we let ourselves as individuals and as church be open to share where or how we’ve been hurt or how we’ve hurt others it will give us an opening to talk about how Jesus has led us through.

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Last Sunday while we were all in here with our Easter bonnets and lilies and loud, trumpet music, members of our Safety Team were keeping a lookout around the building and in the parking lot. One of those volunteers, Lyle Gleason, rounded the corner from between the main building and columbarium and was stopped in his tracks by what he saw. The sun, still relatively low in the sky as it was mid-morning, was directly above our cross out front. A long and very distinct cross-shaped shadow was stretching directly toward where Lyle was standing. It was like the cross had become a sundial and the cross’s shadow was giving the time, and the perspective of the photo puts you at the tip of that cross shadow, as if you are standing at the time it has landed on.

Lyle grabbed his phone and snapped a photo very quickly. We ended up sharing it on social media and people immediately reacted to it. One woman made the photo her profile photo. In texting about that photo later that day, and about the message of Easter, one gentleman in the congregation wrote, “All that I have seen teaches me to trust my Creator for all the things I haven’t seen.” I happen to know that this man and his family have been in constant crisis mode for much of the past five years. What a witness for me to hear him share his faith that way. “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

From behind the tomb’s stone to behind locked doors, Jesus moves us from doubt to faith, from shadow to sun, from fear to mission. What time is it? I wonder. The sun has risen over the cross. Death has been vanquished, the dark lies behind. We have peace, we have purpose, we have the promise of forgiveness.

What time is it, O Son-dial?

It’s time to sing “This is the feast of victory for our God!”

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

 

[1] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/-where-is-god—-sri-lankans-stunned-after-deadly-blasts-11467340

The Story at the Center

a reflection for Good Friday

We’ve now arrived at the very heart of Christian faith, the main event, the well from which all else springs. Suspended for the moment in the dark, we find ourselves in the middle of the three days where everything about what we believe and about who we follow comes into focus. This is the core of it all, and one thing we might notice—one thing we might even find odd—is that there is no moralizing. There are no “Do’s and Don’ts,” no life lessons listed for us, no philosophies to ponder, which you might be looking for if you’re looking for a religion. On Good Friday, it can be said we are at the center of what makes us who we are as Christ-followers and yet we find no bullet points that succinctly explain what we’re all about.

About thirty years ago there was a really popular book by the title of  All I Really Needed To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Written by a minister named Robert Fulghum, the book became so beloved because it essentially contained convenient rules to live by, philosophies that he boiled down from the kindergarten environment that could be applied all through life. We get nothing like that. We don’t get nice essays or nuggets riffing on the basics like “All I Really Needed To Know I Learned at Golgotha,” the name of the hill where they crucify Jesus.

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still popular

Instead, we get a story. Instead, we get to hear about something that happened. And what happens is a man comes bearing good news and compassion and life and seems to be terribly misunderstood. Before things really get off the ground the authorities have arrested him, put him on a sham trial and execute him like a common criminal. It doesn’t take him too long to die. As people scatter, the kind of life he lived for, the kind of vision he wanted to give us seems to die with his last breath. He does manage to speak and say a few important things as he hangs dying that may sound like things we’d live our life by, but overall this is just a story that gathers us here tonight, a story that will send us out in silence. Here we are at the center of our faith and that’s the story we get.

Maybe, though, this is what makes it all so compelling, so…true. After all, our lives don’t unfold like a series of bullet points, do they? Our lives are stories. They happen…they are uncontrollable, to a larger degree than we like to admit. They go up and down, around corners with surprise and heartache. When, at our funerals, people will speak, they will not so much talk about who we were from a philosophical standpoint as if we were a concept. They will tell stories about things we did.

And so this is the story we hear of our God. We hear it, we struggle with it, and whether or not we believe it we come away with a God gives himself fully to us. We come away with a man who submits the lies, the denials, the betrayals of his enemies and his friends, whose dreams go up in smoke (for the time-being). We come away with a cross, and for a religion that’s a strange thing to come away with. It says to us, “This happened. Will you see how it speaks to your story?”

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The Flogging of Jesus (Carravaggio)

A few months ago a cross was placed unexpectedly on the edge of our property. It was a tall, heavy cross—two bulky timbers nailed and screwed together, painted bright white and fitted with a stand that helped it stand upright on its own. Visible as you drove into the parking lot but not really in a central location, it was easy to overlook or forget. It stood there through wintry weather for several weeks. I just assumed it was someone’s property or project. Eventually staff started to talk about it. We tried to find who it belonged to, but no one claimed it. So, we had to deal with it, that is was now in our story. We took off the stand and painted it brown. Tonight we brought it into the sanctuary and it is lying on the altar. (By the way, if you recognize it as yours, we’ll give it back.)

The cross happens in God’s story. Jesus doesn’t choose it, but it chooses him. It may not appear randomly, but it is certainly sudden. The cross of Jesus means that God is a gift to us, no matter our story, no matter our background. God simply takes on our brokenness, our sin, our tendency to turn to other gods and just dies for us to see ourselves in his story. This means God is in your story, no matter where it goes or how it turns out. God is there to love you and to forgive you. The cross means that our faith is based not on a set of principles, but rather a trust that God never lets go of us, a trust that God has dropped himself into our lives, a trust that frees us to live and follow him.

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Tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. I was listening to a series of interviews of the survivors of that tragic event, which at the time was the worst school shooting in America’s history. Twelve students and one teacher died from the bullets shot by two students who felt like they didn’t fit in. Twenty years later many of the wounds are still hurting, but, miraculously, many have healed. Many survivors and their families have been moved to forgiveness, and a remarkable number of former students who were there on the day of the shooting have returned as teachers to Columbine. Most of them credit the steadfast love and Christlike compassion, Frank DeAngelis, principal of Columbine High School back in 1999, with the new life they’ve been able to experience.

In the interview I watched, he talks about how he bears guilt and pain of what happened that day, how the nightmares used to keep him up, but that he made the promise to stay at Columbine until everyone who was in kindergarten in 1999 graduated. He stuck with them. He placed himself in the middle of their suffering in order to lead. He refused the opportunity to remove himself from their story. That is the work of a God who gives us a cross, who doesn’t hand out rules to live by, but just lives, in spite of the suffering.

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Isenheim altarpiece, (Matthaeus Gruenewald)

As much as we might like to come away from today’s events with a handful of nuggets to live by, with a philosophy to debate, with a core idea, we really come away with the story of a God who gives himself to us, who enters our story, who stays in our story…who saves our story. On second thought, maybe all we really need to know about God we do learn at Golgotha.

 

Amen.

Cross-of-Jesus

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Charity Walk

A sermon for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion

Luke 22 and 23

Today, at the same time that we gather here in our sanctuary to read together and reflect on the events of that first Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, when the people lined the streets and formed a kind of parade to welcome Jesus as king, a group of people from our congregation is gathering in Virginia Beach with the family of our congregation council president, Rob Burger, to take part in the PurpleStride. PurpleStride is a walk to rally awareness for pancreatic cancer and raise money for a cure. Rob was diagnosed with a pancreatic tumor in February and has been undergoing treatment for two months. Today is a joyful pause in the grueling rounds of chemo to gather and walk with survivors, family members, and others who have been touched by the disease. A few families from Epiphany have driven down to participate with the Burgers and the Westins and several members of our youth group have joined them, too.

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Rob and his rebels at the PurpleStride in Virginia Beach, VA

The choice of Palm Sunday for the walk, as far as I know, was not intentional. These things are held on various weekends throughout the year. But Rob liked the connection. His team, Rob’s Rebels, is named after the Star Wars characters who fight against the evil Empire. They are wearing purple shirts—purple is the color for pancreatic cancer—and, at his request, a member of their team came by late this week and grabbed some of our palm branches to take with them. So it can be said that this morning, a group from our congregation, waving palm fronds and wearing the color of Lent, is participating in a procession of life. They are walking in hope. They are walking with a united purpose. They are walking because they love Rob.

Palm Sunday aside, walking or running for a particular cause or a cure is a trend that is about 50 years old. It is generally accepted that this idea got off the ground in the 1960s with some very successful walks to highlight causes related to hunger. The March of Dimes got in early on the act and helped popularize them and expand their focus to medical issues. Now tens of thousands of so-called charity walks are held every year. In fact, in 2012 it was estimated around 72 charity walk events were held every day! If you ran or walked in the Monument Avenue 10K yesterday here in Richmond, you were part of an event that was partially sponsored by the Massey Cancer Center.

Why are charity walks or runs so popular? They actually aren’t the most economically sound was to raise money for a something. Psychologists have actually studied this and say it’s because they give people an opportunity to suffer or work for a cause. People are more willing, it turns out, to contribute financially to a cause if they have to exert some kind of effort. If they sweat, if they get blisters, if they run the risk of getting a sunburn, if they P.R. in a race, if they get “palm branch elbow”—they feel joined somehow to the people who are actually suffering from the cause. I think many of us already are aware of some of the suffering of Rob and his family, but much of what they’ve gone through is personal. The PurpleStride gives his friends a way to join in and walk by his side—even if their sacrifice is only small by comparison.

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That happens to be how we think of our Palm Sunday and Holy Week rituals, isn’t it? We come today and to the extra worship services this week not just to remember and reflect but in some way to pay really close attention to Jesus’ suffering. We come to read scripture slowly and dramatically to hear how it all plays out for him. We come to walk with our Lord on his purple stride: the gospels note that at some point during his ordeal the soldiers mock Jesus by arraying him in brilliant scarlet or purple, which was the color of royalty in those days.

All of this—palms, the music, the special readings, the darkened sanctuary during the evening services on Thursday and Friday—all of this adds to our experience in some small, small way to what Jesus endured, and figuring out where, if anywhere, we might fit in. Are we a palm branch waver? Are we one of the loudest ones choosing anyone—anyone, even Barabbas—to be freed over the innocent Jesus? Are we a disciple who betrays him in the garden? A member of the crowd who watches silently by the cross? I mean, that’s the point of that almost haunting hymn we sing, right?

“Were YOU there when they crucified my Lord?
 Were YOU there when they nailed him to the tree?”
Were YOU there when they laid him in the tomb?”

With questions that are left to be answered in the mind of whoever sings or hears it, we wonder: are we going to walk with Jesus too? It’s good and right to think on those things, and to “do” Palm Sunday with those questions, but there is something greater going on we don’t want to miss. The greater point is that Palm Sunday and Holy Week are, in fact, Jesus’ commitment to walk with us, God’s desire to join in our suffering. And that’s not to say that we or our lives are the most important things here, or the center of the universe—far from it! It is rather to say this day and this week are about God’s decision to walk along the paths of human life. All of them.

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Christ’ Passion is about God’s close attention to the ever-sinking lows of what humans can put each other through, about how cruel and dark things can get on this planet. It’s about God looking at his creation and wondering where he’s going to fit in, what role he is going to play and, by golly, God is going to fit right in along those who are suffering. That’s the speaking part God winds up with today, and every day. It is God singing, “I WAS there, I AM there”— with those who are abandoned, those who are hurting, those who are rejected. This is God’s charity walk for us.

And therefore if God is with us today and in the midst of the events of this week, if God finds a part to play among the lows of human existence, then we have more opportunities than just during Holy Week to listen and be committed to his cause. Any time, in fact, we see our neighbors hurting, God is there—not because God is causing it, but because God wants to heal and bring life where its needed. Any time there is pain and loss in the lives of those around us, any time there is loss, God is walking. He sees a place go grant charity. God is walking and we can sign up and join right in with him.

And walk with hope, because Jesus will be victorious.

And walk with united purpose, because the cross is carried for all.

And walk because his love is poured out for everyone, come what may—for Rob, for those in the PurpleStride, for you and me.

With Jesus the loving rebel, we walk from death to new life.

 

Thanks be to God!
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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.