The Great Family Reunion

a sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 5B/Lectionary 10B]

Mark 3:20-35 and Genesis 3:8-15

This week the Wall Street Journal ran a piece with the headline, “The Great American Reunion.”[1] With poignant photos of different people embracing each other, many of whom were not wearing masks so that their wide and infectious smiles could be seen, the article was made up of several different stories of people across the U.S. who were planning to use the summer of 2021 as a chance to spend time with family. The sub-headline reads, “Families and friends are coming together after long separations as vaccinations rise; ‘My God, we’re back.’”

One story tells of the reunion between 22-year-old Nicole Chase, a recent college graduate, and her mother, who lives about two hours away. Having chosen to keep apart for months in order to protect a step-father with a compromised immune system, Nicole and her mother finally get together for a visit on Mother’s Day now that they’re all vaccinated. They hug, and neither want to let go. At one point Nicole says that the best part of the weekend was just being in her mother’s presence. “Being around her,” she explains, “just feels like home and secure and the one place where I don’t have to worry about anything.”

Sound familiar? There are stories just like this about people here. One older couple here has been waiting for over a year to see and hug their adult son, who lives in a special home for people with traumatic brain injuries. Their first meeting just a couple of weeks ago was happy and blessed. Scenes like this are occurring throughout the country these days as we begin to turn the corner against COVID, and the joyful reunions of human communities are perhaps the best part of it all.

But being with family is not always a blessed and harmonious thing. After a period of separation because of his ministry and travels, Jesus returns home only to have his family try to restrain him. It is not entirely clear whether they are trying to protect him or silence him, bring him in for some of mom’s homemade macaroni and cheese or lock him up in that room down in the basement because everyone thinks he’s crazy.

Because at this point, some important people do think Jesus is crazy. This huge crowd follows him everywhere he goes. You know those scenes from American Idol when the final contestants get to go back to their hometown after they’ve gotten a little famous? That’s what we can imagine here. There are people lining the roads, fans showing up in front of wherever Jesus is staying just to get a photo or an autograph. Mark tells us that Jesus and the disciples couldn’t even eat because of the crowd. But worse than that, the religious authorities have followed Jesus all the way from Jerusalem because they have seen him casting out demons and they see the commotion he’s started and they are convinced that he is up to no good. For Jesus, being in the presence of his kin is not the one place where he doesn’t have to worry about anything.

You could make the argument that just about every moment of Jesus’ life is a critical point but this particular event in his hometown is very important. The core of Jesus’ reputation and the direction of his mission is on the line. He is being accused of being a devil worshiper. I remember when accusing someone of being a Satanist was one of the worst things you could say about someone. When I was growing up there was an old run-down house way out at the edge of town that was reportedly haunted and used as a site for devil worship. There was absolutely no evidence to back that claim up, but we teenagers would drive out there at dark just to freak ourselves out. It was like a no-man’s land, only good for the bulldozer. No one would buy it…or so we thought.

When the scribes claim that Jesus has Beelzebul, they are saying that his house is haunted. And Jesus knows that these rumors must stop. For God’s kingdom of life and light to take hold, Jesus must make it clear that his actions are always for the good. When he is busy casting out other people’s demons, he is advancing God’s peace and justice, not causing the demons, themselves. If Jesus were on Satan’s side, he would instead be busy trying to put demons into people. It makes no sense, Jesus says, for his works to be described as dark and evil because his works are clearly an attempt to rid the world of evil. Jesus comes to bind up Satan the strong man and plunder his property. By that he means us (remember he’s speaking in parables)—we are the precious property of God, and we belong in God’s kingdom. But the forces of darkness that rebel against God have taken us hostage. Jesus comes to combat that and, by handing over his life, undo the control that these things have on us.

For some of us, this may be a strange way to understand Jesus, the man who comes to offer his life as a ransom for many, who lets himself get beaten and bound up in the worst possible way when he dies on the cross. But Jesus here, in the presence of his family and this huge crowd certainly understands himself as a superhero with strength and might who comes to tie up and do in the satanic forces so that he can rescue God’s people. This image of Jesus, this mission of Jesus, is precisely where the verses of one of our most beloved hymns come from, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

No strength of ours would match his might (the “his” in that sentence is the devil).
We would be lost, rejected.
But now a champion comes to fight,
Whom God himself elected.
You ask who this may be?
The Lord of hosts is he!
Christ Jesus, mighty Lord,
God’s only Son, adored.
He holds the field victorious.

What Jesus needs the crowd to understand, what Jesus wants you and I to know, is that in Jesus, God has come for us. Jesus has not come to harm us or condemn us or harass us. Jesus is not unleashing the forces of chaos on our lives. Jesus is the way God himself follows up on the question that God first asks to Adam and Eve, our first parents, that question that rings out when Adam and Eve go hiding, running away from their responsibility and their dignity into the dark places of the world. Looking for them, his beloved creatures, his pride and joy, God calls and says, “Where are you?” In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God is continuing that question. Where are we? Where have we run to? There is no place Jesus can’t find us, and there is no strong force Jesus won’t tie up with his love in order to have us back. On the cross of Calvary, Jesus holds the field you are on victorious.

This is why Jesus says that people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter. A blasphemy in this case is essentially an insult against God. God grants forgiveness for all of our brokenness, all of our misrepresentations of God and God’s goodness and the ways we let God down. God forgives all of our participation in the systems of corruption and oppression, but when people start to call the work of Jesus evil, that crosses a line. When someone outright denies the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit, God’s ability to find us in the first place, then forgiveness isn’t possible because it’s like the person has already decided it doesn’t exist, that God doesn’t forgive and create new life.

This remark of Jesus piques our interest, I think, because we’ve heard there is nothing beyond the bounds of God’s love. God seeks out the lost sheep every time. We’re not accustomed to thinking that there is actually something we could do that would be ultimately unforgiveable. But Jesus makes this statement to the scribes to drive home a critical point: God’s saving acts are at work in Jesus. It is the Holy Spirit doing these things, not an unclean spirit, and that must be put in as stark terms as possible. To insult him is one thing, and he will undergo plenty of them, but to label his works as haunted, or evil, or a demonic force is to label life and healing and forgiveness itself evil and demonic.

When a person comes to the font to be baptized, or when they bring a child to the font for Holy Baptism, the pastor actually begins with something called an interrogation. Usually this interrogation takes the form of one to three questions, depending on how it’s worded. Here at Epiphany we ask:

“Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?”

“Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?” and

“Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?”

Those questions have formed the beginning of the church’s baptismal rite from the very beginning because it needs to be clear here as this water is poured and these prayers are said, that this line is clear. This is the Holy Spirit at work, and there is no way that someone who is possessed of evil intentions or an unclean spirit could presumably respond to those interrogations by saying, “I renounce them.” It would be like Satan renouncing himself, and we know that Jesus says a house divided against itself cannot stand! Filled with the Holy Spirit, a person answers these questions with “I renounce them” and it’s a way of saying, “Yes, I want the life that Jesus brings. Yes, I know that God has found me in Jesus. He holds the field for me victorious.”

And when we receive that life, we receive a new family too, the new community that God has sent Jesus to redeem and gather. Jesus re-draws the lines of relationship, breaking down restrictive lines of blood and marriage and opening us up to a greater fellowship than our earthly families could ever provide. They are the brothers and sisters who have been washed in baptism with us, those who have been sought out and found by our one Father in heaven. People of all colors and ages and kinds. They belong to us and we to them,

As the seniors in the class of 2021 sat together in Price Hall the other evening for their picnic and recognition, I couldn’t help but give thanks for the sense of siblinghood many of them have among each other. I couldn’t help but be filled with joy for the ways they’d grown up here in the faith, especially in this year when so many other relationships were put on hold by pandemic. As I reflect on the lives and witness of people like June Cheelsman, of blessed memory, whose time among us at Epiphany and whose particular life path as a single person was a brilliant testament to how the church is a true family, I am filled with gratitude for how this community has nourished and enriched my children’s faith.

We renounce the ways that draw us from God because we know God draws us to him and with so many others. As this pandemic slowly draws to an end, and our family meetings resume, may we all gather for our reunion at the table of Jesus, where once again he lifts up the bread and wine and declares to those sitting around him, “Though life be wrenched away. The demons cannot win the day. The kingdom’s ours, folks. Forever.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


“So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

for Sophia, on her confirmation

Sold often by the handful (pocket change
could purchase just enough for peasant’s lunch)
these denizens of dusty roadside range
were no one’s haute cuisine. Assorted bunch
of species inconspicuous and small—
White-throated, Swamp, Clay-colored, Field, Song, Sage—
in color drab as simple in their call,
this trope of commonplace in every age
is yet, each one, with thought precisely planned,
each painted feather, perfect in its place,
a flawless masterwork. A Master Hand
has formed each one, bestowed them all with grace.
Then you, moreso redeemed by blood, rejoice,
and ne’er deny your worth, nor mute your voice.

like the sound of a mighty Wi-Fi signal

a sermon for the Day of Pentecost [Year B]

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 and Romans 8:22-27

Last week I began a three-week online webinar for continuing education. Typically when pastors and other professional people complete continuing education events they are at conferences where you are in-person. You go and register for the event, buy your plane tickets, get a hotel, and then listen to the keynote speaker. But, as you are well aware, things don’t really work that way in a pandemic. This event was coordinated through Zoom. I have taken part and led Zoom meetings all year long, but this one was different.

I logged on and there were well over a hundred people taking part. There, on my computer screen, were dozens and dozens of boxes with faces and names in them. As I scrolled around, I saw all kinds of people I knew in those little boxes. There were close friends that I didn’t know had signed up for the same event. There were people I went to seminary with who I hadn’t seen since we graduated almost twenty years ago. There was a guy who was my counselor at a summer camp named Lutheridge when I was in elementary school. The two of us figured out it was sometime in 1985, which makes me feel ancient, for some reason. There were people I had heard about for years but had never gotten to meet. And there were many many more people who were completely new to me. It was amazing—a group of people from all over the country and we were able to participate in the same activities and learn from the same lecturer because of Zoom.

This is nothing special for most of the youth today, people like our confirmands. This is how they’ve been learning all year. Maybe the virtual classrooms haven’t been quite as large and quite as diverse, but technology like Google classrooms and Zoom have been able to take the knowledge offered by one central teacher and spread it out to all kinds of different places.

That is like the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the One who takes Jesus, the one Son of God who is in heaven with the Father, the one who once walked among us as a human in flesh and blood, and spreads that Jesus everywhere all over the earth. Jesus is now someone that all of us know and can learn from and be healed by and be loved by because the Holy Spirit has been given to us like a passcode link to a Zoom chat. The Holy Spirit is who enables Jesus’ lifegiving words to be received here and in the church down the street and in the church down the next street and all the way across the world. The Holy Spirit is who has brought Jesus’ presence to people who’ve worshiped through YouTube and Facebook live this year.

the first Zoom session

And it’s not just that the Holy Spirit can bring Jesus to every place all over the earth, into the hearts of every believer, in the conversations of people who work for peace and justice but also all of these places and people at the same time. Because of the Holy Spirit, there’s no taking turns to have time with Jesus—as if we all got to have him as our guest speaker, one after the other. As much as I’ve been on Zoom this year I still don’t understand how the technology works, and neither can I grasp how the Holy Spirit does what he does. Maybe if the first Pentecost had happened in 2021 instead of 2000 years ago, WiFi and Bluetooth would have been the metaphors for the Holy Spirit rather than wind and fire. You can’t really capture WiFi, or see it, but you always know when it’s there. And when it’s not.

Jesus tries to explain this phenomenon to his disciples on the night before he is crucified, but it probably goes over their head, just like I think it does ours. To do so he calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate. In some translations of the Bible the word used here is “Counselor.” An advocate is someone who speaks for another person. Often when a young child is involved in the court system in situations of custody rights, for example, they will be appointed an advocate so that the child won’t have to speak themselves. Maybe they’re too young to understand their alternatives or too traumatized by something to vocalize what they truly need. The advocate comes in, learns that child’s story forwards and backwards, and serves that critical role of truly representing that child’s position.

So when Jesus says that an Advocate will come once he leaves them and goes to his Father in heaven, he is letting them know they will be taken care of. God has thought of our needs even before we have, and God is giving part of himself to help us with that, to help us communicate to God what is in the deepest parts of our hearts, the pains we’re too afraid to share, the things we don’t even understand yet.

But on that night the disciples are pretty sad, which is understandable. Jesus has mentioned he will be going away and he knows they feel abandoned. He knows they may even be like a child who just doesn’t know what the alternatives are, how to give voice to their own needs and desires. It makes me remember how several years ago Melinda and I took a short trip out of town with our son when he was an infant and our two girls stayed at home with my parents. When we got back I asked one of them, “Did you miss mom and dad while we were gone?” And she responded, matter-of-factly, “Yes, but mostly I forgot about you.”

The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the one Jesus sends to keep us connected to Jesus and each other, will not let us forget about Jesus. The Holy Spirit will continue to teach us and remind us of the things Jesus did and said when he walked the earth.

And so we see that the Spirit is not just our advocate, someone who searches our hearts and voices them to God, but that he also is communicating what God knows and wants to us. Jesus says the Advocate will not speak on his own, but will speak what he hears. And what he hears is the intense love between the Father and the Son that wants to include all of creation and renew it. The Holy Spirit is the WiFi reaching from God, the Creator of the whole universe, to each one of us.

In the Lutheran Church, confirmation has a beginning and an end. For us, it starts in ninth grade and ends in May of the sophomore year. We study various things about Scripture and about our faith. We take a deeper look at things like the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. These are just some of the things that the Holy Spirit has declared to us about God the Holy Trinity. God is bigger than anything we can understand and put on paper, but the Holy Spirit helps us just focus on Jesus and his love for us. We can always start there.

Confirmation has an end, but the life of faith does not. Nothing Jesus tells his followers would suggest that they will ever receive all the information about God, like God is in a book somewhere and we just need to read it enough times to grasp it. For Jesus, knowing about God in the power of the Holy Spirit is like a relationship. It grows as we grow. It changes over time. One of my prayers for the confirmands today is that they never equate having faith with having all of the answers about God. My prayer is that they see the Holy Spirit will continue to reveal things to them about the life of faith. Sometimes they’ll find that life includes parts where we just sigh or groan. We cannot give words to the pain or anxiety or frustration we feel, but that God is still there, listening, understanding, advocating, urging us one step forward.

That’s what this whole last year has been, right? No one alive knew how to live through a pandemic, what all of the right choices were. We just headed into it, finding the truth as we went, living in hope. And in the points when we were too tired ourselves, or too frustrated, or too sad, we let others carry us forward. We leaned on others to give us hope, to remind us that together we can get through this.

Sometimes I wonder if this generation of young people, like the ones who are being confirmed today, the ones who’ve spent formative years of their youth learning through screens and talking through masks, the ones who’ve had to forfeit a whole year of childhood activities and normal social interactions, are going to teach us all about the power and importance of real community. There’s no much negative talk these days about what these youth have lost, but maybe there’s been more gain than we realize. Maybe they will take the feelings of isolation this year and translate that into a deeper appreciation for the benefits of being together throughout their lives. That will be the Holy Spirit, working through them, guiding us in truth.

There’s a song on country music radio right now called “My Church,” by Maren Morris. It’s a catchy tune and the lyrics are pretty relatable. Morris sings about how driving in her car with the radio turned up to some of her favorite classics is a religious experience. The song goes,

“I find holy redemption
When I put this car in drive
Roll the windows down and turn up the dial.
Can I get a hallelujah?
Can I get an amen?
Feels like the Holy Ghost running through you
When I play the highway FM
I find my soul revival
Singing every single verse
Yeah, I guess that’s my church.

I certainly have been there and I have turned up the dial myself, on occasion, singing every single verse. In the end, though, the Holy Ghost runs through us only to link us up with other people. My church is never just my car, never just my house or my prayers, or even just my own experience with God. My church is your church and their church and our church—everyone’s church where the Holy Spirit is zooming Jesus in and helping us grow in faith. My church never keeps me by myself, but leads me into greater community with all kinds of people, the diverse humanity that God has made through the self-giving love of the cross. John, Audrey, Hank, Yasmine, Anna, Ella, Rowan and Justin… this is your church.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Ever Vulnerable, Ever Resilient

a sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter [Year B]

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 and John 17:6-19

The chicks in the nursery school here hatched this week. And boy are they cute. Six little chicks from six eggs that sat in an incubator in the classroom of the 3- and 4-year olds for a couple of weeks. Hatching chicken eggs has become somewhat of a spring ritual here, a way that pre-schoolers learn about life cycles and animal care and…how to be gentle. The day the birds actually emerged from their eggs was pretty exciting, but it was a little strange to see them all crammed on top of each other inside the plastic domed device that kept the eggs warm.

And then there was us, on the other side, our faces crowded together and peering in at these new fuzzy little creatures. The kids got to name them, and they chose to name them after the Paw Patrol characters, which are actually dogs, but that’s what you have to expect when you give naming rights to pre-schoolers. Chase, Rubble, Marshall, Skye, Zuma, and Rocky are doing just fine down there and there’s even a key chart taped above the container so you can figure out which chick is which. They are peeping constantly now, and they can make a bit of a racket when you try to reach in and pick one up to let a preschooler pet it.

easy now

Nature is amazing. To a large degree, chicks hatch already knowing things like how to scratch for food and what to eat but if they had been raised by a hen they would be so much safer. She would have sat on them until they were all done with hatching and drying out. She would have kept them warm and safe and no one would have been able to just reach in and grab one to hold. They are tough and resilient, and yet they are vulnerable. Their new life is so precarious. But we know they’ll be OK.

I see the new chicks here and I can’t help but think about the new life of Jesus’ disciples after his ascension. They’ve emerged from the events of Good Friday and Easter morning, from the tombs of their doubt and fear and amazement, to find themselves vulnerable, living this precarious life without the protection and guidance of Jesus, who, you may remember, once called himself a mother hen. The world is peering in at them—suspicious Romans that want news of Jesus’ resurrection silenced, curious Jewish friends and relatives who don’t trust the gospel yet, Gentiles wondering how welcoming they’ll be, governments that are hostile to any upstart movements. The world is peering in at them and watching this new way of living take shape and their leader, their risen and victorious leader is no longer with them in the same way they’ve always known him. Precarious and vulnerable, that’s what we see in them.

One of their first obstacles is replacing Judas, one of the original twelve who left them. Problem-solving, right off the bat: how they mount this challenge in a peaceful and calm way that limits fracturing their communion will be a big test. They talk together about several candidates, other people who saw Jesus after his resurrection and learned from him and who will be able to convince others about it. They discuss those candidates attributes, their qualifications, their growing edges. They go and creep these Facebook pages and look back at their past Tweets to see if they’ve said anything incriminating. They run background checks and they come up with two fellows who can fill the spot, and instead of just letting them both serve, which is totally something I would imagine a church today would suggest, they settle on one by rolling some dice. The arrow points to Matthias. Things move along to the next crisis, the next challenge of this fledgling community known as the church..

Ascension (John Singleton Copley, 1775)

The church has almost always been in a precarious position, vulnerable to the world. In fact, that’s how God has plans it and it’s the way Jesus himself lived his life. We are always on the edge, always at risk of making things too complicated, always tempted by sitting and doing nothing. It’s when we wall ourselves away from the world and try to be too overprotective that things start to go wrong. It’s when we shy away from moving forward that we stop living up to that first task—to be witnesses to the risen life of Jesus. We are meant to be transparent people, meant to live, so to speak, under a plastic dome with everyone peering in, a community that rolls with the punches and does what that original little core did. We trust God.

And there will always be decisions we have to make. This past fourteen months has been a stark reminder of that, hasn’t it? In fact, most people I’ve talked to, especially people like school principals, business administrators, and parents, have come up with a term to describe what they’re feeling from all of this: decision fatigue. We have certainly felt it here! How will we worship? What should our capacity in the sanctuary should be? Now it’s should we wear masks? Should we check vaccination cards at the door? When will we sing?

The over-riding challenge in all the decision-making, the remaining transparent and vulnerable, is maintaining the unity. When the CDC or the governor, for example, releases a new guideline regarding COVID, they aren’t really worrying about keeping people unified. They are primarily concerned with stopping the spread of a disease or keeping people safe. People may decide to follow the guidelines or not. The CDC might wind up with a public trust issue here and there, but they don’t have community relationships to tend to. They aren’t concerned with people’s feelings and don’t have tools for how to patch things up when people don’t get their way.

But the church is and has always been different. We’re not an organization as much as we are an organism, a body that is supposed to think and act and do things as one. God creates us this way and the Spirit forms us as people who present Christ to each other. You know that back during that first decision the people who supported Justus really thought he would be a better twelfth disciple than Matthias. There were Justus fans who really wanted to see him get the job, but for all we know those people got over it pretty quickly and agreed to go along with Matthias. The reason? They knew Jesus had prayed specifically for their unity, their life of togetherness. On the night before his death on the cross, Jesus had taken great effort to pray to God for the little fledgling community that the Holy Spirit was starting. Jesus prayed for them to stick together, to put personal differences aside as much as they can, to see themselves as part of a bigger picture. If they got a decision wrong, they would suffer along with each other and trust God. They’d trust that God would ultimately, at some point, correct them down the line.

It’s probably why singing—group singing, not soloists—became so quickly a hallmark of Christian worship. Some of the oldest texts we have in Scripture are songs, both in the Old and in the New Testaments. Singing in a group is a fundamental expression and practice of unity. When we sing we take our individual voice—that part of us that is quintessentially ourselves and unique—and we place it within a larger sound. The point is not to hear our own voice above everyone else’s, but to let it get lost and find itself among all the others and make it better. In singing we practice sacrificing our individuality to be part of a richer, stronger reality. This is why being church without group singing this year has been so strange and difficult, especially for those who might not consider themselves strong singers. I am so thankful that it will be coming back here beginning this Sunday.

Whether in singing, in our service to our neighbor, in our sharing of our lives together, God’s nature is to be made known through all of it. When Jesus prays for us, he prays that God’s ways will be recognizable through us, that the world desperately needs to see a people who love one another, who are not afraid to hatch out of the shells of doubt and fear and live in the forgiveness and hope that Christ brings. Because Jesus does not pray that God remove us from the world. Jesus prays that we be protected from the evil one, from the forces and authorities, even the ones within ourselves, that want to pull us apart.

This year so many of you have sacrificed of yourselves to embody and foster this unity within this congregation. Eileen Johnson, for example, has tirelessly led Zoom meetings with our Clara Sullivan Circle every Wednesday, and she consistently sends out a prayer list that lets everyone know who has specific needs or joys. Kim, Lisa, Carl, and Clair have taken time from their busy schedules to serve as our COVID medical advisors, who’ve helped make these hard decisions about worship. Lyle and Wayne obtained our radio transmitter and work to set it up on Sundays so people can sit in the parking lot and listen. The Seedling Group led by the Becks have been meeting, conscientiously checking in and doing virtual Bible studies together. Matt Greenshields has kept adult Sunday School going. Several of you have made facemasks and some of you have bought them, bringing them into the office for the staff on a regular basis. Some of you have served as ushers during a time when many thought it was unsafe to worship in public, and you think of all the bases I’ve forgotten to cover.

And perhaps some of the most meaningful and joyful expressions of unity for me throughout all of this have been the little emojis some of you have left in the Facebook comments during morning prayer. Some of you say good morning and then leave a little sunshine if it’s sunny out or an umbrella if it’s rainy. It’s just a little sign that we’re in this together, watching and praying over the internet until the day when we can return together. I was just talking to someone about this the other day, someone who plans to come to worship soon but who has grown fond of that morning prayer community. She, too, felt like the simple greetings in the comments had a unifying effect for her.

We can do this. We’ll be OK. We can come through the decision fatigue of congregational life during a pandemic and still be one. We can hold our singing for a spell in order to stop the spread of disease. We can live with the whole world peering in at our peculiar self-sacrificing ways as we scratch around and try to figure out how to move forward. We can trust God. We can look to the cross and trust God in each and every moment of loss and despair and frustration and know that Jesus, who endured the same, is now ascended, sitting at his Father’s side. We can trust him because he is praying for us. We are his. God gave us to him and he has sheltered us and given us his Word. We have a message to make known. Step out of the fear and solitude and the sadness and sing. Or start with a little peep, if you need to. The Lord our God is life and we belong to him.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Good Shepherd vs. the Wolves

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter [Year B]

John 10:11-18 and 1 John 3:16-24

All year, it seems, we’ve been aiming for what they call herd immunity. Herd immunity is what the scientists and doctors say will enable us to live with a sense of freedom from a disease. Herd immunity comes when each individual realizes their personal immunity is only a part of a bigger whole. Herd immunity protects those who are especially vulnerable and can’t, for whatever reason, receive a vaccine. It essentially asks those who are healthy, who would probably whip the virus if they got it, to roll up their sleeve and, in some small way, lay down their life for others, to love “not in word or speech but in truth and action,” as the writer of 1 John tells us this morning. That is how we get to those greener pastures in the future. Because of distrust of the COVID vaccine, because of misinformation and conspiracy theories, and because of how the pandemic itself has become politicized, some are saying we may never achieve herd immunity against COVID. Time will tell.

Sisters and brothers, whether or not our herd achieves that status, today we are reminded that we are a flock, and that ain’t changin’. And we’re not just any flock. We’re Jesus’ flock. He knows his own and we know him. He has laid his life down for us. He leads us beside still waters. He restores our souls even as our bodies face harm and hardship. He walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, through all kinds of harmful and frightful scenarios, through the isolated stretches of pandemic life, and we don’t get worried about what might happen to us because he is with us. He has already been there and he comforts us. Our Good Shepherd prepares a meal for us in the presence of people who might be contagious, he gathers us together with strangers and friends alike over Zoom and Facebook and YouTube so that we may be fed with the word. He showers us with blessings that we don’t expect even in the midst of this crazy time, and our cups still manage to run over. They have run over here with record charitable donations for our community. Our cups can’t contain all the thoughtful gestures and extra-mile actions that people have given one another to get through this. Yes, we are a flock, and Jesus our shepherd has power—power to lay down his life in love for us.

Images and lessons about sheep images are everywhere in Scripture. Sheep farming was a main source of livelihood in ancient middle eastern times, and people interacted with sheep almost on a daily basis, even if they lived in cities. One time when I was living in Cairo, Egypt, I remember sitting in my apartment and hearing a bleating over and over again. This went on for a day or two. There I was in my apartment on the fifth floor of a downtown high rise, trying to figure out where this out of place animal noise was coming from. Finally I realized it was from a ram that a family beneath me had brought in and tied to a post in the small inner courtyard. It stayed there for a few days until it was slaughtered for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha. along with all the other sheep that had been brought into the city—a densely packed metropolis of about 16 million people.

With so many sheep around everywhere, Jesus and the people of his time could relate to what shepherds go through and could often see themselves in the lives of the sheep, themselves. They could see how sheep were not armed with much in the terms of natural defense and so they needed to stick together or get protection from a higher power—a shepherd of hired hand. They could see how they were extra vulnerable if they ever got separated. People also knew that sheep learned the voice of their shepherd and could follow just by gentle commands. They could see that sheep held all of their resources in common and that pastures and streams were for the livelihood of all. Overall, though, it was probably that communal nature of sheep that stood out the most.

Jesus understands that about us. He sees us in our need for shelter and protection, in the fact that we thrive more when we’re together, no matter the circumstances. He knows we need freedom, that we can wander at times, that openness is good for us, but that we also can’t completely overcome the dangers of life by ourselves. He knows wolves will come and devour us, scatter us about. And there are also people sometimes in charge of us, people we give authority to, who don’t have our best interest at stake. They are like hired hands that run away at the sight of danger. They may stick by for a while, but at the end of the day they are only in it for themselves.

Jesus, however…he’s the good shepherd. He cares about the flock more than the flock may ever know. Unlike the hired hand, he seeks his own welfare last. Jesus has power, and he uses it for the good of others. He gets his power not from taking up arms against the wolf. Jesus does not derive his power from lording his authority over the sheep. Jesus does not demonstrate his power by dazzling the sheep with his masterful knowledge of the science of sheepherding. Jesus gets his power from his love, from laying his own life down for the sake of the sheep. In fact, there are others not in the fold he is seeking to bring together. Everything Jesus does is to group together, to round up, to gather in. His Father aims to have the flock as one.

However we want to describe or define who Jesus is and however we may understand what he’s up to, we have to come to terms that being with him is not an individual enterprise. Jesus does love me, the Bible tells me so, as the song says, but there are others on the journey with us. And Jesus loves them too. Our togetherness with them is an unmistakable part of faith. Jesus doesn’t like the wolves because the wolves snatches and scatters them. Being apart is not how they are supposed to live. Jesus doesn’t define who the wolves are in this lesson to his disciples. They may be corrupt kings or the leaders in the Temple who thrive on corruption, those who would eventually lead him to be killed on the cross.

However, as I reflect on this past year and the challenges of living as a flock that you have overcome, I wonder if the wolves that Jesus has in mind aren’t actually people at all, but other things that devour the sacredness of community. A coronavirus may be one example. It certainly has snatched some of us and scattered the rest. But I’m also thinking things like selfishness and self-righteousness. False information and gossip. Apathy and complacency, stealth wolves that eat us from within. I wonder if Jesus means things like the wolves of individualism and idealism, things that are not necessarily bad, but when they’re turned loose to the extreme, the almost always damage the way we travel together.

Against all of these things Jesus offers his life. He puts the flock behind him and stands in the way, knowing that all of those wolves of sinfulness and pride will tear him apart on the cross. Jesus is the good shepherd. He shows us the power of love, and how the love from his Father radiates out through his life to you and me. Because of that powerful love we learn a new and better way of being community.

Last week our 9th and 10th graders in confirmation class hosted a panel discussion on vocation and baptismal call. As they prepare for affirming their baptism, they are thinking through the promises they’ll make—promises like serving all people following the example of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of Christ through word and deed, and striving for justice and peace in all the earth. Members of our congregation from various careers came in and spoke about the ways in which their faith impacted their job on a daily basis. One school administrator, for example, spoke about her goal of increasing racial representation among school teachers. The former magistrate regional supervisor spoke about treating all people, even those accused of crimes, with respect, and of the importance of listening to everyone’s story. It was fascinating to hear how each of them, from such a wide range of careers, could articulate how their livelihood in some way was where their faith was at work.

The woman who teaches special education preschool in the public school system gave a memorable answer. Many of her students are developmentally delayed and most are unable to use speech to communicate. When she was asked, “How does your faith impact your daily work?” she did not speak in terms of broad, overarching concepts and goals that guide her, but instead gave a very specific instance, one that really stopped me in my tracks. She explained how back in the fall she received a letter from stating that their work was essential, that the preschool services could not be shut down, and that if employees still wanted their jobs they had to show up for work. Every day she teaches kids by holding them in her lap, wiping their noses, holding their hands. Her kind of special education could not be done over Zoom. Scared of working in an environment where she might easily contract COVID, but also not wanting to forfeit her job and leave her students, she told the confirmation class that she really struggled with what to do. How did her faith impact her job? Well, she told us she stopped and prayed that day. She thought, “My Lord is a Good Shepherd. He has always led me well. He won’t stop now. No matter what happens, he will take care of me.” And so this woman reported for duty and held those kids in her lap, kept showing them how to communicate, how to live, in the midst of a pandemic. In her own way, she laid her life down, or was at least willing to, in order to shelter and teach her little preschool flock.

I’m thankful those confirmands heard that witness that night, glad for all that they heard. But I’m grateful I heard it too. A real-life shepherd in our midst, she was. Not a hired hand. Because more often than not our faith isn’t made known in some grand overarching narrative that links everything together, but in everyday situations wherein we’re called to trust the Shepherd and love. It was a good reminder of what we are all called to be all the time—people called to love in truth and action, not giving in to the wolves. We are each one of the flock that has been named and claimed by an uncommon power of humility…sheep of a Good Shepherd who always chooses to hold us in his lap—who always reads that letter from above and chooses to hold us close. no matter the danger, no matter the loss.

Thanks be to God.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

No “Ghosting” Allowed

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

Luke 24:36b-48

One of the pleasures of expanding our in-person worship offerings and the rising vaccination rates in our area has been seeing more people venture back to church for the first time since the pandemic started. Early on I imagined that COVID would be like a big wave and then once it subsided, we’d all be back for the first time together in one big group. We would sing all again and pass the peace and hug each other like the old days.

That’s not how it’s going at all. Our return has been much more gradual, and probably will drag on for months this way, if not years. People are coming back, family by family, individual by individual, more like a trickle and less like a flood. Nevertheless, it is fun to receive them and see them again, and it’s particularly fun to see their reactions to our new spaces. Since construction was completed last summer, in the middle of the shut-down, many folks haven’t even walked through the front doors, but when they finally do, they often say, with a wide smile and opened eyes, something like “This is a totally different church!” And, in some respects, it is. Almost everything about the entrance to the church has radically changed. The parking lot, the sidewalks, the doors themselves, the interior spaces—they’re all extremely different. And you can see those differences on paper and the architect’s plans and construction blueprints, but until you physically walk through the doors and stand by the walls and look through the windows yourself you can’t appreciate the full difference.

And, just so you know, we’re feeling the same on our end, as we sometimes, I must admit, have to stop for a few seconds to identify someone we haven’t laid eyes on in thirteen months or more, especially when a third of their face is covered by a mask. And, let’s be honest, many of you have different hairdos. And if I see you for the first time and you’re wearing sunglasses, don’t be surprised if I need to hear your voice before I can figure out who you are!

Silliness aside, the good news is this is not a different church, and you are not different people. The pandemic may have changed us in some ways, and we certainly have evolved over the past year or so, but this is still Epiphany, the building, and we are still Epiphany, the people.

But this happens in faith over the passage of time. Jesus’ very own disciples have a hard time figuring out what they’re looking at when they see him for the first time after his resurrection. It’s not really his new hairdo, or something about his outer appearance, but the fact that, you know, he should be dead. Maybe he looks a little different, too. Whatever the case, they think he’s a ghost. You would think they’d be excited to see him, but they are scared of what they’re seeing, for who is not a bit taken off guard by the thought of a ghost? This is a common theme in Jesus’ first resurrection experiences, isn’t it? Fear where there should be joy, doubt where we think there’d be faith, misunderstanding where we’d expect clarity. The new can often throw us off, even when it is hopeful and life-changing in a good way.

Jesus wastes no time in trying to put them at ease, however. He meets them in their doubt. Immediately he offers his hands and his feet. He gives them something to grab onto. They could stand back and look at the blueprints of the resurrection, they could ponder God’s mighty acts on paper, consider the plans in the prophets’ words they could envision what the Great Architect’s salvation might look like, but until they touch it, it’s not fully real to them. Ghosts don’t have real bones and skin. This is a real person standing in front of them, a person they saw die an ugly and gruesome death just a few days before. And if being able to touch his feet and hands isn’t enough to convince them, he asks for something to eat. They bring him some fish they’ve just cooked on the fire.

One of the all-time best things I’ve ever had to eat was, in fact, a piece of broiled fish. I was at the beach with my extended family and there was this hut right on the water where a local guy was fileting fresh-caught grouper and mahi-mahi and searing them over some charcoal. It was so tender and light, flaky but juicy. Pieces would sometimes fall off as I was biting on it and I’d pick it them up and blow the sand off just so they wouldn’t get wasted. Maybe that’s how good this fish is that day when Jesus is with his disciples. It’s fresh and delicious, and Jesus is making a subtle statement about how good and rich the resurrected life is. He drops some and blows the dirt off. Savor every morsel!

And yet Jesus doesn’t seem to be eating that day in order to enjoy it. He is eating simply to show them he is fully there. He is eating to show them God’s power of forgiveness and redemption  is so real and so true it comes back with flesh and bones. Death has really been defeated. God’s love in Christ is not a figment of our imaginations. We can touch, see, and taste it. It isn’t until this moment happens that Jesus’ identity becomes clear. Once his physical presence with them is demonstrated then he is able to explain who he really is, that the law and the prophets and the psalms all speak about him. Then he opens the Scriptures while he’s with them and the words there start to make sense.

Oh, how we’ve found this to be true this year. Things like on-line teaching and on-line worship are wonderful for what they are—the technology has provided us ways to impart information to students and share the Word of God when we’ve been prevented from being physically together. But things are so much clearer when we are fully present with each other, when we can see lips and eyes and facial expressions. When we can hug. Teachers teach so much better when students turn their cameras on, and I would imagine students also learn better. It’s so much easier when facemasks and plexiglass barriers are removed and we can communicate openly.

The other day a gentleman came into the office looking for a particular book. Through his facemask I thought I heard him say he needed a copy of the roof book. Knowing we had just finished this construction and that this person was one of our building trustees, I figured he was going to help with something regarding the roof. But as we kept talking I realized he was getting ready to join our new Adult Sunday School class and they are studying Ruth. He was looking for the Ruth book, a small but important difference from “roof” that is obscured when you can’t see someone’s lips.

The hands, the feet, the delicious broiled fish—it’s all about getting rid of the obscurity. God is really present with the disciples. These are physical things that serve to prove his resurrection is not just an act. The Christian life can be confusing and complicated, but perhaps our first task in any situation is just to grab hold of those things that clearly communicate Jesus. Grab hold of the lessons, the moments that truly embody Jesus’ selfless love for us, that proclaim grace and mercy and compassion.

By the same token, we are not called just to love people figuratively or metaphorically. Words are important, words create possibilities and give hope and point people in the right direction, but our task as Jesus’ followers is not to be about words only, to make social media posts or be a source of inspiring quotes. Jesus wants us to be people with feet and hands, a presence people can grab hold of in their fear and grief. Jesus tell us to be present for the world, beginning from Jerusalem. When we are witnesses to the new life in Jesus, when we proclaim the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name it requires us to be present and hear our brothers and sisters, to see their faces contorted in grief and sorrow, to hand them them a Kleenex to wipe their tears. In many cases, far more than we’re ready to understand or commit to, it will mean sacrificing a bit of our own energy and life. It is saying to our fellow humans as clear as is possible, “God is here for you. This is really me and God really loves you and this life we are experiencing is something we are supposed to do together, even if your suffering affects me and mine affects you.”

Earlier this week I was doing some cleaning out of a file cabinet at home. I couldn’t tell you the last time I had opened those drawers, and I was positive there was nothing in there that was of any use to me. I was just going to get a garbage bag and transfer everything straight to the trash can. Then I ran across a Ziploc bag with some papers and photos in it. I opened it to find some pictures from about 20 or so years ago from the time right after I graduated college. In and among them was a greeting card that I didn’t recognize still in its original envelope. As I opened it, the thing almost came apart. There, on the inside of the card, were dozens of signatures. It took me a second to realize I was holding the card that was sent to me by the people in the first congregation I served in Pittsburgh to congratulate me for my ordination. They were signatures of people I ended up living alongside, some of people I eventually would buried. Many of the names on that card are of people who are now no longer with us.

I had thought about those dear people many times, and still do, but something about physically holding a card that had actually been signed by them made their memory take on powerful new meaning. I could remember details of their stories, their appearances, that I had long forgotten. And I could remember their love and vulnerability, how they ended up presenting themselves to me in ways I could hold on to. I could imagine them passing that card around, signing it, saying “God bless,” before they even had met me. I was overwhelmed with how God had been present for me in their witness when I eventually arrived there. I’m sure you have had similar experiences with objects given to you by your loved ones.

            Jesus comes so that God’s real, loving presence is in all the dark and forgotten places where people’s lives get filed away. Jesus is crucified and people all but forget him, going on with their life as normal…or they try to. But the grave is opened and he returns, full of life, full of joy. Jesus comes back, ready to be grabbed onto again, ready to let his love be real. And he has signed his name on you. Now, go be witnesses of these things.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Jesus, Ever Given

a sermon for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Sunday [Year B]

Mark 16:1-8

The question that began our week, the question that almost the entire world was asking together as we peered at our phone screens and our televisions on Sunday and Monday was, “Who will move away that gargantuan cargo ship from the middle of the Suez Canal?” There it was, one of the largest watercraft ever built—maybe in the universe—lodged diagonally, all but immovable, cutting off all traffic through one of the world’s most important waterways. Boats were backed up for miles and miles. Each day it sat there meant a $9 billion delay in trade revenue. Who could move such a thing? And we all probably saw the unforgettable photos of that single, small excavator with his one little shovel, looking like one of my son’s toys, working as hard as it could to free the hull of that enormous ship. And then, one day, long before it was predicted, the freighter almost miraculously gave way from the silt and sand and everything started flowing again. Life as it was intended resumed.

The question that begins today, the question that a small handful of women are asking together as they hurry with their spices, is “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” There it was, a large boulder, the kind that typically marked the entrance to ancient tombs, chosen for its size and weight to deter graverobbers and keep in the smell of decomposing flesh. Don’t you like how the Easter story begins with a question, a question that rings with immense practicality, a question that sounds like anything anyone might ask when trying to solve a problem? “Who will roll away the stone for us?” “How are we going to get inside there and do what we’re supposed to do?” “How long will we be blocked from delivering this special myrrh and aloe to our destination?” The news of Jesus’ resurrection, the news that will shake the world, starts with people going about their business, thinking about the next step in the tasks of daily to-do lists.

But we know how the story goes. No need to call in an excavator this time. Or Joseph of Arimathea, the guy who put the rock there in the first place on Friday evening, however he managed it. The women arrive to find the stone has already been rolled away. That which was immovable has already been moved. Life has already begun to flow again, the power of death broken through, the resurrection already advancing as Jesus, the risen, awaits them in Galilee. What questions are you asking today? What problems seem to have no solution? What is blocking you from living the abundant life God intends? Don’t be surprised if the stones start to be rolled back. Because Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Of the four resurrection stories we have in the New Testament, the one written by Mark is the shortest. It starts with this question from the women delivering the spices and ends rather abruptly. After encountering this mysterious man in a white robe in the tomb and learning from him that Jesus is not there, they run from the scene in terror and amazement. In fact, Mark is more vivid than that. He says that the terror and amazement had seized them. We may expect joy at this kind of news—joy because if Jesus, who was crucified, is not there but alive and ahead of them in Galilee, then they will be able to see him and resume life with him—but the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection are to be gripped with fear and awe. And they are so afraid and bewildered that they end up saying nothing about what they discover that morning.

The man that they see at the tomb gives them one job. He says, “Go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus is already out of the tomb and waiting for you.” The man gives them one simple job and they don’t do it. Mark says the women say nothing to anyone. Again, Mark’s Greek is even more descriptive. He uses a type of double negative, which, of course, is a big no-no in English and Greek unless you’re trying to overemphasize a point. Mark writes that the women “didn’t say nothing to nobody”…just to make sure we understand. It looks like the message of the resurrection is going to die with them. No stone blocking the tomb that morning, but the witnesses still find a way to stick a sock in it.

And that is irony, my friends. Because all along Jesus, all through his days of healing and driving out demons and teaching his disciples about the kingdom of heaven, Jesus has told them to be quiet about him until he rises from the dead and in all those times they can’t keep their trap shut. They go blabbing all over the place. But the time when the word finally does need to get out, the time when Jesus finally accomplishes that which he was sent to do, which is to suffer and die and rise again, the everyone clams up.

Jesus is our savior. Jesus is the One who was crucified so that power of death might be broken forever. He is not just a healer or a teacher. He is our Redeemer who suffers and dies for us. That is what we can say without holding back today. It is what we need to say today in a world that has, for example, pandemics. In a world that has people locked up in concentration camps. In a world where demons like narcissism and addiction and idolatry still enslave people, in a world racked by grief from tragedies that are senseless and tragedies that are ruthlessly planned out and executed. God has burst through the stone of the tomb to let eternal life flow for all of humankind. Easter means the kingdom of heaven will now come to all earth’s dark corners. Easter means we have communion with God forever. This is unbelievably wonderful news, and yet the women don’t say nothing to nobody about it.

In a way, then, the resurrection story this morning not only begins with a question—the one about the stone—but it ends with a question. It’s an unwritten question, one that the reader or the hearer of the story can’t help but ask as we envision the two Marys and Salome running off into the dawn light. If they didn’t tell anyone this news, then how in the world did we find out about it? If the last emotion we are left with that morning is fear, then how do we live in such joy and boldness now? A stone doesn’t block the entrance that morning, but doesn’t their lack of action block the news?

Of course, we have the other gospel accounts. Matthew, Luke, and John, fill in the picture for us with what happened in the days following. So, on one hand we are thankful that God placed this message in the hands of more than one evangelist. But if we didn’t have those, if, for example, we were in Mark’s original community, the congregations and people for whom Mark was writing this story, how would we know that Jesus is risen? How did the word eventually get out?

You see, this is, I think the bigger miracle of Easter, or at least an extension of the miracle that happens when Jesus steps out of that grave alive. Somehow the word gets out. Somehow those women must have found the resolve to follow the man’s instructions. God will not be delayed by a cross, a stone, or our inaction and fear. Nothing can block the good news of Easter.

There have been many times during this past year when we have felt isolated by fear and inactivity. Locking down has been hard. Learning to Zoom and connect with people in safe ways is frustrating and sometimes we just give up. I still loathe that stupid mute button most days. Schools, churches, community groups, families wonder are our messages getting through? Is the love and concern I have for my loved ones and friends being communicated? We long for the days when we can see faces and expressions of emotion, realizing we’ve taken for granted the flow of friendship and familiarity in human relationship.

Congregations and communities of faith have felt no different. Even as small groups began regathering, even as vibrant online communities have formed and prayed together, even as we watch our YouTube statistics and try to form strategies about our message, there has still been a tomb-like quality to ministry. This past week, though, I was reminded in another powerful way just how persistent God is in getting his word, even when we feel isolated. The UPS truck pulled up one day and delivered a package that none of us was expecting. We receive packages all the time for the nursery school and the cleaning crew, for example, but this particular package was unannounced and, to my delight, deposited on my desk. I did not recognize the return address, which was from a location over three hours drive from Richmond. I unwrapped it with much curiosity. Inside I found a letter, a check for a donation, and this remarkable, handmade cross.

Here’s what the letter says,
            “This cross was made from the branch of a cedar tree which grew from a seed to a mature tree in my neighborhood. We have lived in the neighborhood for nearly 46 years and the tree was small when we arrived. Unfortunately the wind blew the tree down. I used some limbs from the tree to make this cross. Perhaps you can use this cross in your children’s ministry. My wife and I have watched your online morning services every Sunday since you started the services last year. We have enjoyed the services very much. We have enclosed a donation for the church to be used for whatever purpose you decide.”

So thank you, Mr. and Mrs. White, for your generosity and your Easter reminder this morning, and proof that the word does get out. God rolls away stones, God grows trees from seeds, wind blows them down, and dead branches take on new life. A new beginning comes from death. The kingdom of heaven is here among us, and the one who was crucified is ahead of us, always ahead of us, making new life happen. Thank you for carrying on what those first women saw and heard when they were seized with terror and amazement. In spite of our isolation, it appears God still gets the word out.

Interestingly enough, I can’t help but think about the name of that cargo ship stuck in the Suez: Ever Given. Stuck for a while, but still the Ever Given. Blessed Easter, everyone, and blessings of new life and faith from Jesus who is Ever Given, ever giving. In bread, in wine, in words that never die, that never get muted, that never get blocked. Jesus the Ever Given for you, for me, for all who hear it. This day and every day.

Thanks be to God!!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

God Grief

a sermon for Good Friday

We are grieving. That is the explanation I’ve read in several places now for the general feeling of malaise, anxiety, and irritability that many of us have or have had over the course of the past year. Unable to gather like we want to, unable to work and play and do school like we’re used to, and constantly bombarded with loss and death and bad news we are dealing, many experts say, with a big whopping and prolonged case of grief. Lost jobs, lost loved ones, lost learning, lost gatherings. The loss has been intense, and the darkness we sit in tonight as the candles are extinguished, is symbolic of the darkness we’ve been sitting in all year, a darkness that has only intensified after the mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia and the death of Lucia Bremer here in Henrico County. You probably don’t need another sermon that lists all the heavy things that we’ve been dealing with, but it still is worth remembering that the fog many of us are walking around in is actually grief.

Tonight, we see that God takes on the grief of the world. On this holy day, we hear that God confronts suffering, confronts hardship, confronts the unfair, inexplicable violence and torture that visit us all too often and hangs there with us. On Good Friday, we remember that God did not hold back in offering his own Son into a world darkened by human sin. The temptation is always there to skip ahead to Easter, to leapfrog to the bright lights and happy morning, but Good Friday always comes first, and that is a good thing. We need Good Friday to come first because the griefs of this world needs to be named and seen, and Jesus on the cross lets us do that. God intends Good Friday to come first so that we may see that God wants to meet us where we are, no matter the cost to him.

Unfortunately, religion can so often go off on a tangent. That is, religion can get overly complicated about things, waxing poetic at best, getting manipulative at worst. It can form in-groups and out-groups, it can make us feel that there are easy answers and explanations for everything if we just search hard enough. Religion can make us think if we’re not happy and joyful all the time or not all put together then we’re not doing things right. Good Friday comes to stop that nonsense, if we’ll let it. Good Friday says life’s problems often doesn’t have easy answers or secret short cuts. Good Friday says it’s OK not to feel happy and joyful all the time. Good Friday prevents us from going off on a tangent to figure God out so we can instead realize God is just one of us, God gets scared like us, gets wounded like us, bleeds like us.

And to notice that, to notice how plain and open and vulnerable God is for us, we take special note of what we hear from God’s Son tonight. You know, the core of most religions and self-help programs consists of deep and profound sayings that convey some rarified knowledge, usually spoken by some old man or woman who seems really intelligent and wants to dazzle you with their experience. But none of the words Jesus says from the cross is really philosophical in any way. Rather, their power is in their brutal humanity. Their meaning is in their simplicity. These are not phrases you would want embroidered and framed, drawn in calligraphy and placed on a card. Jesus does say those kinds of things, plenty of times. He says “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.” He says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” He says, “You are the light of the world and the salt of the earth.” Jesus says so many things that are beautiful and enlightening but tonight, in his supposed finest hour, when he is being glorified, he is succinct, he is earthy, he is inarticulate. He coughs out very basic, very short sentences and questions:

“I’m thirsty.”
“Mom, disciples, take care of each other.”
“God, where are you right now?”
“Father, forgive these people.”
“It’s over.”

These are words uttered in grief, in pain, which, if we’re honest, also often leaves us unable to form profound thoughts. Here is God as a human, in a moment of total weakness, just struggling to get words out, but still wanting us to hear something. Yet for centuries we have found life in these words. Is there wisdom, too? As soon as his first followers could collect themselves and remember who Jesus was these words and this death formed the backbone of their understanding of God.

Why? Because we realize there is love behind it all. Love doesn’t try to offer some witty or wise saying to package the pain or explain it away. Love doesn’t ignore the realities of suffering. Love, at least the wonderful kind of love we hear tonight, says, I will sit in the darkness with you. Love says I will go through all the horrible loss for you, I’ll take the brunt of it on your behalf. The love we encounter in Jesus says I will suffer in your place so that you may be forever free. This love dies in order to release us from our constant efforts to reach God on our own terms. This love says weakness is where God will make his home.

I bet if you look over the events of the past year and think of the people who have helped you the most, the people who have offered you the most hope or the best comfort, the people who have shined the brightest light, it is the people who were strong enough to let you voice your pain. They are the people who were vulnerable enough themselves to listen your frustration, to validate it, who sat down and commiserated with you from time to time rather than offering some profound wisdom or solution to deal with it.

That, my friends, is the God of the cross who has been present for you. That is the saving action of the crucified One still meeting you in the darkness and knowing what it means to grieve. Those voices were the echoes of the one who spoke bare, human phrases from the cross.

So tonight, we let those final words echo again—we let them echo into a world that still grieves even if it can’t come to terms with it. Let them echo through our faith into a world that needs to be reminded it has a Creator that loves it, a Savior who loves it so much it will be thirsty for it, bleed for it, be weak for it, cry for it, offer up its spirit for it.

And then, in the darkness we can safely wait for the brightness of Easter. Because that will come next. Without a doubt.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

God in the Ditch

A sermon for Palm Sunday [Year B]

Mark 11:1-11

Several years ago I pulled up at the gym to find a brand new, top of the line, shining and sparkling Cadillac CTX-V. The gym I go to is on a back road, has a gravel parking lot, and is never crowded, so the car stood out immediately. I had a never seen a car like that. The Cadillac CTX-V is the most expensive Cadillac you can buy. This one was white with gold metal trim and tires that looked like they hadn’t been driven 25 miles. The person driving the car was inside the gym working out. I had never seen the guy there before, and, as I quickly discerned from the loud conversations he was having, he was not the owner of the car but someone who was borrowing the car from an affluent friend. As I suspected, it was brand new, and he had stopped in basically just to show it off, hoping to get some attention.

After a few minutes the man got his things and left, but then I noticed something was going on, a little commotion. The few other people in the gym ran to the window to see what was up, but no one was brave enough to go outside. Apparently, as he tried to drive the parking lot, the young man with the extremely sweet, expensive ride had misjudged the road and the driveway completely. There was that $110,000 car, nose-first in the ditch. He couldn’t have been going more than 5 miles per hour! But he had wrecked it so badly that the back end and wheels were off the ground, sticking up in the air. He was pacing around and running his hands through his hair nervously, waiting for a tow truck to arrive. I wanted to offer pastoral care, but decided better of it. He needed to be alone. I just kept thinking about what that conversation was going to be like with the owner of that brand new car. There was a good chance it had been totaled.

not a photo of the actual event, but close!

Jesus makes his entry into Jerusalem on a borrowed vehicle, turning heads, and by the end of the week, his whole life is in the ditch. It is a catastrophe of monumental proportions. Of course, the vehicle Jesus borrows is not a top-of-the-line, fully tricked out model. It is a humble colt, which was most likely a young donkey, small but sturdy, a beast of burden used to carry farm produce or building materials. But regardless of what the animal was, that is the plot of Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Jesus rides into town with the attention of everyone, making a buzz, but before you know it, he is deserted and everyone’s embarrassed. It looks as if God has handed the keys to a guy who clearly doesn’t know where the road is.

The crowd that meets Jesus on the day he enters Jerusalem on the back of that donkey to shouts of “Hosanna!” was probably the most public event in Jesus’ entire life. Jerusalem was the capital and most holy city for the Jewish way of life and although it was not nearly the largest city of the Roman Empire, it was a major crossroads for the region and strategically-speaking it was an important military post. And that was just Jerusalem on any old day. When Jesus comes into the city, it’s time for the biggest Jewish holiday, Passover, to start. Tens of thousands of extra people would have been there. There was also an old rabbinical tradition that appointed the weekend before Passover as the time when all the lambs were brought in to the city from the surrounding farmlands to be readied for slaughter.

“Jerusalem” (Hyppolite Flandrin, 1842)

There are several places in Scripture where Jesus is surrounded by large crowds, but it’s probably a safe bet to say that more people see him on this day of his life than on any other. This looks like and feels like Jesus’ moment. The people are excited and anticipating a lot from him. The things they say about him and to him make that even more obvious. Things like “Hosanna!” which is an old Hebrew or Aramaic word that means “Save us,” or “Rescue us!” or “Save now!” They expect Jesus to do something in Jerusalem in those days that will save them. They also call out for the kingdom of their ancestor David. David was the ancient King who had, at least in their memory, issued in a reign of prosperity and stability that they had long wanted to have again. All of these expectations are foisted onto Jesus on that little tiny donkey. With every wave of the leafy branches they had cut down to greet him, they let him know they are ready for rescue and they are ready for stability for dignity, for victory. Wouldn’t you be?

Palm Sunday is a good time for us to address our own expectations of Jesus and of the God who sends him. Who do we really expect him to be? What exactly do we expect him to do? Where exactly do we want things to end up? Do we want a Lord who aligns with or validates all our political agendas, whatever they may be? Hold up the status quo? I don’t know about you, but I like that kind of Lord, one who doesn’t really challenge me on anything. Do we anticipate a Savior who will remove from us everything that’s uncomfortable or hard? Are we expecting a Redeemer who will just pep talk us through life, like a personal coach? I think there are any number of ways that we still project onto Jesus our definitions of what he needs to be and what Jesus needs to do, and, truth be known, those are the things that end up in the ditch by the end of the week.

And that is good for us. It is good for us, even though it is disappointing, and it is bloody, because none of those Saviors and Jesus’ are eventually going to do us any real good. We need a love and mercy that we don’t expect, a compassion and a forgiveness that we haven’t predicted or earned. We need grace, not a governor. Not a genie.

I think this has been a year of managing and readjusting all kinds of expectations. We have repeatedly had our hopes lifted only to have them dashed to the ground a little while later, whether we’re talking pandemic, politics, or personal goals. We have struggled with expectations for school, with what we can accomplish through learning and teaching on-line, with what worship can be like and when. We have struggled with expectations in our politicians and other leaders who are no more experienced in navigating a crisis like this than anyone else. We’ve had failed expectations with our pastors and our congregations who are not bold enough with returning to in person worship or, on the other hand, who are not strict enough with the guidelines. Even as our vaccination rates climb, we are hearing about dangerous new coronavirus variants that threaten to keep us in lockdowns longer.

I came across an article in the Associated Press this week[1] that addressed the growing sense among us all that even the pandemic will not come to an end like we have long thought it will. It stated that we are a people who have been fed a long and steady diet of Hollywood endings where we subconsciously expect every period of hardship to be somehow be turned around by the end with a wonderful, clear outcome. Many of us have just assumed, maybe without even realizing it, that there will be a point in time in the future when everything just suddenly resumes, when we take off that mask for the last time. But that may not happen with this pandemic at all. The writer of the article likened it to the end of a war where the end drags on and on, skirmishes popping up here and here, but eventually people look about and say, maybe much, much later, “We’re safe now. It’s time to celebrate.” I don’t know about you, but I find the constant up and down of failed expectations to be exhausting.

Palm Sunday comes along to remind us this year that God knows all about failed expectations. His Son ends up dying because no one wants the kind of love and the kind of mercy that he offers, but he offers it anyway. Our celebration of this day is a perfect opportunity to remember that God rides into every human story. God chooses to empty himself and ride into every human story, even when we don’t know how it’s going to turn out or when it will feel like it’s over. That is the kind of love and mercy God comes with, the kind of love he borrows a humble beast of burden in order to bring.  He comes to carry us, to carry the sorrows of the world, to carry the sufferings and shortfalls of everyone who cries out for rescue from some other kind of savior, one who will fight and just violently overthrow what we don’t like. For his is a kingdom where glory to God is first and most clearly given in actions of compassion and self-sacrifice. Coming in the name of the Lord means doing things in humility and servanthood.

Palm Sunday comes in 2021 to recall our thoughts to our own place in that crowd and take stock of just who we expect this God to be for us. And then, with a morning on next week’s horizon that will surpass all our imaginations, shout out with joy and thanksgiving to learn that God is present when things don’t pan out like we thought. God is not just a God of Hollywood endings. God is God also of things that run into the ditch. God is mainly God of things—and years, and plans, and lives—that sometimes run into the ditch.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


“Dangers, Toils, and Snares”: a Year of Pandemic

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent [Year B]

Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21

It has been one year since the novel coronavirus COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and life as everyone knew it changed. It’s been a year of worshiping on-line, learning how to live-stream, hook up microphones to our smartphones, and upload videos to YouTube and Facebook. One member sent me a couple of photos from a year ago this weekend that showed a group of us crowded into the new parlor holding worship on Instagram Live and Facebook Live around the makeshift studio altar we had thrown together. We weren’t even wearing face masks back at that point because we weren’t even sure how this virus really spread. Little did we know that Joseph’s and my televangelist careers would begin that day. I don’t know how he feels, and please don’t take this personally, but I’m ready to have my televangelist career come to an end. The blooper reel alone from this past year provides enough comedy and blackmail material to bankroll a capital campaign.

This week one colleague of mine posted on Facebook the following question: “If you could go back in time one year from right now, what would you tell yourself?” I was amused at some of the answers people gave. Several people said they tell themselves to buy stock in Zoom. One person said, “Move to New Zealand right now.” Another said, “Get a massage. You won’t be touched for a year.” Poignantly, one person said, “Go visit grandma in the nursing home.” What would tell yourself as you launch into a process of lockdown measures that dragged on longer than most of us expected?  What would you tell yourself knowing now that a year of all kinds of tumultuous social changes would occur and the political divisiveness would get worse?

I can think of several things that might have bolstered me through all that would come, but I try as I may I can’t come up with anything better than the third verse of the hymn we just sang, which, ironically, is not even one of my favorites:

“Through many dangers, toils, and snares we have already come;
’tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.”

It is God’s grace that has allowed us to continue to have a congregational life together without really being able to be together as a congregation. It is God’s grace that sent us numerous people who had the right skills to guide us through this time—those with computer and technology skills, those with creative ideas and energy, those with the far undervalued gift of patience. It is God’s grace that sent us things like parents who called the church saying, “I know it’s a pandemic, but we want our child baptized and however you think we can do that, we’re on board.”

It is God’s grace that has provided a way through the wilderness of disappointment, pain, cancellations, and complaining that we’ve all faced and, if we’re honest, taken part in. Yes, I would have told myself “Look, remember that God’s people have come through so many ‘dangers, toils and snares’ before. Phillip, trust that God’s grace will lead you through.” That is what we sing to ourselves today, for, sadly, this time of wilderness is not yet finished.

It sounds like the Israelites could have used a little reminder of that in the middle of their wilderness, which is where we find them this morning. There is disappointment, there is impatience, and there is complaining. And this is epic complaining. This is far worse than complaining that we can’t sing in church or that facemasks make it hard to breathe. Worse than complaining that the school board made a decision we disagree with. Or complaining that the vaccines are being rolled out quickly enough. I mean, we’ve complained a lot this year, myself included, but the Israelites take it to the extreme.

For, you see, God has delivered them from their hellish existence in Egypt. God has given them manna to eat each day and quail, too. God has found water for them in the middle of the desert. God has brought them through life-or-death toils and snares, but they seem to have already forgotten that and just want to mumble and grumble. They start taunting God, almost. One modern paraphrase of Scripture has the Israelites asking God, “Why did you drag us out of Egypt to have us die in this godforsaken country?”[1]

And I don’t know if it’s that God has had enough of their attitude or what but he sends snakes to start biting them. At least, that’s how the Israelites remember it. The point is, there’s a snake infestation at this point and people start dying.

A culture of complaining is venomous. It starts to poison everyone—the people who make the complaints and the people who hear them. It slithers around and finds its way into the cracks and crevices of every situation. Studies have actually shown that complaining—or being complained to—for thirty minutes or more physically damages the brain.[2] It also releases the stress chemical cortisol into our bloodstream, which impairs our immune system and can lead to other problems like diabetes and heart disease. Venomous snakes are probably an effective way to have the Israelites reflect on their behavior and what’s really killing them. Horrified, they come to Moses and confess their complaining and ask for the snakes to be removed. But God doesn’t remove them.

It may be, at first read, the most baffling story we ever read. Snakes are killing people and God doesn’t just simply take them away. But God does find a way to save them from the snakes. Moses is told to make a bronze version of the snake and lift it up on a pole high enough so that everyone will be able to see it. If they get bitten, they can just look at it and the power that the snakes have to kill is taken away. The people still get bitten, and I assume the venom still hurts, but the control it has over them is removed.

It’s not too different from this COVID vaccine and how it works. It’s pretty evident that we can’t eradicate this coronavirus. Like these snakes, it will lurk in our midst probably for the rest of time, or at least for the foreseeable future, infecting us and passing from one person to another. But thanks to science and medicine, whose very symbol has roots in this story, we’ve found a way to lift up a little version of it inside our bodies so that if we get bitten by the virus, COVID won’t kill us.

This event in the history of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness might have become one of those lesser-known stories you never hear about if not for the fact that Jesus uses it to describe his own reason for coming. One night a leader among the Jews named Nicodemus comes to him to learn more about who Jesus is and the things he is doing. They have a conversation about how to perceive the kingdom of God in the here and now, and about being born from above, or born again, and about having a relationship with God that gives eternal life.

All of these things are interrelated, Jesus says, and critical to having any of it—the ability to live in God’s kingdom now and to be born anew—is being able to look at Jesus as he dies and see life, see salvation. Jesus will be lifted up on a pole just like that serpent in the wilderness so that people who see him will have a life that conquers death.

It’s a seeing that is more than just looking with the eyes. It is a seeing with the heart and the mind—understanding that in Jesus’ death on the cross God is doing something save the world from all the venom and poison and sinfulness that infects us. Because when we see Jesus, the Son of God, dying, we see the harm that our sin does to God and to others. It’s laid bare for us to deal with, lifted high so that everyone can see. God doesn’t just take sin away, but in Christ he gives us the way through it. And that’s important, for in order to be saved, we need to be honest about what is really killing us, what we’re being saved from.

When we look at the cross of Christ, with Jesus hanging on it, we see the evil of violence, the damage it does. We see the wickedness of hatred and bigotry and the way they corrupts who we really are. What else do we see? We see the dead end road of trying to justify ourselves before our Creator, that we can sacrifice something or stake the blame on someone else in order to clear our name. None of it works. All of it is worthless, and it’s painful to be bitten by that realization but God wants us to see that in his dying Son so that we can come to terms with it. It will help save us.

When we think of racism, to use an example that has bitten us quite a bit this past year, we have learned will not find a way to heal from it if we keep ignoring it or complaining about it or justifying the stances of our past. We have to confront it, especially in ourselves. I can lament the political divisiveness in our country until the cows come home, shake my fists at the media or the politicians, but the division not going to miraculously disappear. I have to look at how I actually might be participating in it, unawares, and how my comments or apathy contribute to the decay. That will be the way through it.

And so forth and so on we go about all that poisons us until we realize that also hanging there in the loss and the death is God himself. There, present in the wilderness, all along, present in the decay and despair, present in the hunger and the thirst—present, faithful, steadfast, in spite of our complaining is God the Son, given—always given—never, ever taken away. There, never letting us go, in a place where everyone can see, is love. Love that will heal us, love that will forgive us, love that will let us lament all that we’ve lost this year and love that will persist with us until the end. Love that will never condemn. Love that will be sign that God will always deliver us to the other side.

This miracle, my friends, is not on us. We alone will not find the way out, we alone will not brave the dark of sin and triumph over it—but God, stooping low to be lifted high, will do it for us and with us through every danger, toil, and snare…and every online worship video too.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr

[1] The Message. Eugene Peterson