Rooting for the Anti-Hero?

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

Matthew 11:2-11

Let me tell you: when you go visit Ms. Betsy Williamson in her rehab room at Beth Sholom, expect to be grilled. It’s a friendly grilling, of course, but she will for sure want to know what’s going on at church, and the more details you can give, the better. Ms. Betsy, you see, is our congregation’s sole remaining charter member. At age 94, she has been here for the length of its life. She has watched it grow from just a handful of families back in 1951 to what it is today. She has been here to work with every pastor the congregation has ever called and has contributed to each of the building campaigns. Ms. Betsy has greeted hundreds of first-time visitors at the front doors and has sung with the choir for countless worship services. More than all that, Ms. Betsy has taught Sunday School to just about every 2 year old who’s ever come through this congregation.

But now, even though she is getting great care in rehab and is slowly healing she can’t help but feeling a little bit imprisoned by her circumstances. If you go visit her, Ms. Betsy will expect you to fill her in. She’s going to want to know what’s happening at Sunday School and how many kids are coming to the children’s sermon. She’s going to wonder about plans for Christmas Eve and what the youth group has been doing lately. Your report to her reassures her that people are tending to the newcomers, the children, the vitality of worship. Your report to her comforts her in her concern that the congregation is still going strong, a community and a mission that has been near and dear to her heart for 70 years even though she can’t be with it at the moment.

We meet John the Baptist this morning in a very similar situation. He is in a special 1st century “rehab,” if you will, for people who speak out in critique of the king and powerful people. John’s detention there is keeping him from the community and mission he has been a part of for his whole career. That career has been to announce and prepare people for the arrival of God’s chosen Messiah, the long-awaited leader who would bring about God’s kingdom on earth. He has nurtured this thing from the ground up, taught some disciples, baptized people to get them ready. And John is dying to know how it’s going. And so from his prison cell John sends some of his disciples to Jesus, who is out there in the world with the movement to grill him.

We can’t tell exactly why John is getting anxious or doubtful about Jesus, but he clearly is wanting some assurance that Jesus is keeping the movement going. Has he been pointing people to the right person, especially since John’s own days seem to be numbered? John wants to know if Jesus is the real deal, or do they need to wait for another? John, you see, doesn’t want to put his faith and energy behind the wrong Messiah, the wrong leader, because, as you know, it must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero.

John’s questions, and even to a degree Ms. Betsy’s, speak to a deep concern we all have about Jesus and our expectations for how God is going to move and act in the world. Is Jesus the hero or is he an anti-hero, a bust, an also-ran? As we look at the world from our various prisons—be they prisons of despair or poverty or regret or fatigue or apathy—do we get a sense or anxiety or hope from Jesus? Can Jesus lead us to a future of possibility, a future of prosperity for all people, a future of peace and forgiveness for all sins?

One of my colleagues this week posed a question people of faith have wondered for years. That is, is John’s concern about Jesus evidence that John had things wrong?   Even though he was close to Jesus, in fact related to him, was John’s understanding of what the Messiah would be like slightly off? It’s a valid question for the scholars to ponder, but it’s also one I actually think we could turn on ourselves. Do we often get Jesus’ movement wrong? Is our understanding of how God acts in Jesus slightly off sometimes?  

John seems to be hoping for a leader who will seize the reins of the revolution John helped spark and use force to overthrow the powers in Jerusalem and send them away. John appears to be looking for big, sweeping, political and maybe even militaristic changes that establish dominance for a new regime up top. John is looking for Jesus to take that chance, and sometimes we are too.

But God’s kingdom isn’t about taking that kind chance. God’s kingdom is about giving people second chances. God isn’t going to come through and use Jesus to banish the bad people to the wilderness. God is going to make the wilderness break forth in blossom. The good news of the Messiah doesn’t come with fear and fire but with the excitement of joy. And perhaps most surprisingly, the work of Jesus often doesn’t come about through top-down, grandiose maneuvers, but by bubbling up from the bottom through the actions of people like Mary, some disciple fishermen, ordinary tax collectors, a meal of bread and wine.

There is a poem from 20th century Canadian writer Alden Nowland that resonates. It is called, “Great Things Have Happened” and it goes:

We were talking about the great things
that have happened in our lifetimes;
and I said, “Oh, I suppose the moon landing
was the greatest thing that has happened
in my time.” But, of course, we were all lying.
The truth is the moon landing didn’t mean
one-tenth as much to me as one night in 1963
when we lived in a three-room flat in what once had been
the mansion of some Victorian merchant prince
(our kitchen had been a clothes closet, I’m sure),
on a street where by now nobody lived
who could afford to live anywhere else.
That night, the three of us, Claudine, Johnnie and me,
woke up at half-past four in the morning
and ate cinnamon toast together.

“Is that all?” I hear somebody ask.

Oh, but we were silly with sleepiness
and, under our windows, the street-cleaners
were working their machines and conversing in Italian, and
everything was strange without being threatening,
even the tea-kettle whistled differently
than in the daytime: it was like the feeling
you get sometimes in a country you’ve never visited
before, when the bread doesn’t taste quite the same,
the butter is a small adventure, and they put
paprika on the table instead of pepper,
except that there was nobody in this country
except the three of us, half-tipsy with the wonder
of being alive, and wholly enveloped in love.

John’s worry in prison tells us something about our ourselves. The human brain naturally looks for the great things to be the most noticeable things, the flashiest, most spectacular things. Jesus’s response says, don’t look in the halls of power for where Jesus first shows how he will transform the world with his love. Look in the wilderness, or at the mustard seed, or in the life of a young pregnant middle eastern mother in an unusually vulnerable position. Look in the faces of the poor who’ve realized they can go on another day. Look to the children my family saw in the Children’s PICU this week who have miracles of medicine turn their circumstances around. Look for ways people are half-tipsy with wonder of being alive and enveloped in love, wherever that may be.

ca. 1850 — An illustration from a mid-19th century copy of Grand Catechisme des Familles (Christian Doctrine for Families). — Image by © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

This is the message that Jesus sends back to John in prison to comfort him. Jesus doesn’t talk about himself, and strangely doesn’t rush to stress his own ideas of his identity. Jesus simply points to the ways that God’s promised kingdom is bubbling up in the wilderness. Yet, on second thought, is it really that strange that Jesus doesn’t just point to himself and seize the title of God’s chosen one? After all, he will eventually go on to hand over his very life and let his identity be determined by love stretched out on a cross. That is where love will truly envelop us all. A moment of such total humility and vulnerability will be the greatest of all great things that has ever happened.

Even though John may have the wrong idea about what Jesus is about, Jesus does not throw John under the bus. Jesus lifts him up and sets him back on track with reports of the lame walking and the blind seeing. He assures him the movement is still going, just as God planned. Maybe we shouldn’t underestimate how much we need that same message too. Things at the top rarely change, whether it’s Jerusalem or Washington or Moscow. But there are loads of examples of the joy of God’s kingdom springing up everywhere.

I often listen to the Bobby Bones Show on K95 in the mornings. They have a segment called “Tell Me Something Good” where they offer up a story of hope and joy to change the mood. Typically bad news sells the newspapers, so this radio show scours their sources to flip that script. So, in the spirit of Bobby Bones and John’s disciples, here are a few Something Goods I ran across in just the past month that might have gotten overlooked:

Two weeks ago it was announced that Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, one of the advocacy and public justice arms of our denomination, the ELCA, received a $15 million gift from MacKenzie Scott, former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. This gift is the single largest in the organization’s 83-year history. LIRS President and CEO, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, explained in a press conference that the unprecedented funds come right as they are resettling loads of Afghan refugees, people fleeing the war in Ukraine, and asylum-seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Here’s another: a Christmas tree went up on the town square in Bucha, Ukraine, this week, not far from the site where a mass grave created by invading Russians was discovered earlier this summer. Their spirit is indomitable.

And another: Barna, a research group that concentrates on data regarding religion, reports that Christian philanthropy accounted for 70% of all American philanthropy in 2022 at a total of $330 billion. Christians also out-gave the U.S. government in addressing global poverty.

And this congregation, right after donating a record 120 Thanksgiving dinners to people in our community, turned around and provided 96 Christmas gifts to children at a local elementary school, which were delivered yesterday.

Joy is among us, my friends. Christ is on the move. Great things are happening all over the place. The truly great things: cheer for the imprisoned, something good for the disheartened hope for those who wonder what’s coming.

And you are some of the blossoms in the wilderness. and I…I have some more things to report to Ms. Betsy.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Getting Transferred

a sermon for Christ the King [Year C]

Colossians 1:11-20 and Luke 23:33-43

During my seminary internship at St. Andrew’s United Church in Cairo, Egypt, I spent a great deal of time working among the large and diverse refugee community that our congregation served. At that time many of the refugees were coming to Cairo up the Nile from Sudan, Egypt’s neighbor to the south, where government-backed armies were ransacking villages and slaughtering people by the thousands. Over the course of that year I got to know a good number of these brave individuals as their pastor and as the music teacher in the school the congregation was running for the refugee children.

These are some of the best memories of my life, and at the same time some of the most difficult, for that year I came to appreciate more fully just how precarious a refugee’s life is. There is nowhere on this earth where a refugee truly feels safe, and the place where she feels she belongs is off-limits—two fundamental aspects of life that I, as a white, affluent American, take for granted every single day. The hope of every refugee is to find a place on this planet where they can live without fear of being killed, where they can raise their families with a hope of a good future. They wait and wait and wait to be transferred to a country that will give them that, and usually that country is somewhere in Europe, Australia, or North America.

Imagine what it’s like to live in that kind of treacherous limbo and then finally one day receiving word that your request to be transferred to a new, peaceful country has been approved. I got to witness that a time or two that year. One day we had a special assembly in the children’s school in order to say goodbye to two young siblings whose parents had received word that Canada had finally approved their transfer. I’ll never forget the feeling in the room—the joy of all those assembled, the relief of the parents, and the bewilderment, too, on the faces two young children as they contemplated being transferred overnight from one of the hottest, dirtiest, and most crowded cities of the world, a city that subjected black-skinned Africans to discrimination on a daily basis, to Manitoba, Canada. This, by the way, was in February. Can you imagine?

Apparently the writer to the Colossians can. In an attempt to describe the power of Jesus Christ, a power of love that transcends anything we have ever known, he says that Christ “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” It’s not going from Cairo to Canada, but we do get word of a transfer to a reality no less contrasted to the world we live in now, a world we know that is filled with sorrow and violence and mistrust and brokenness of all kinds. Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, has come to find all of us refugees, all of us pilgrims, all of us wanderers, and through his own death and resurrection receive us into the realm of God’s eternal peace. Jesus Christ, born among us to heal and to comfort, breaks the power of sin over our lives and makes himself our king.

That is our message: no matter where we’ve come from and no matter what we’ve gone through, Jesus’s grace is our new home and we can never be taken out. To get us there, God becomes fully present in Jesus Christ. As the writer of Colossians says, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in the crucified nobody Jesus of Nazareth. That is, the fullness of God didn’t just find a home in Jesus, but it was pleased to dwell there, it was pleased to be so humble, so commonplace. God happily moves in to the rough and tumble places here. And he does this in order to reconcile himself to all things. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the person in whom all things hold together.

If we want to see God, if we want to know how all of the universe makes sense and what the meaning of life is, we look at the person of Jesus Christ. If we want to know how to treat one another in all circumstances, we look to Jesus, for in him all things hold together. And if we wish to know what the Creator of all things thinks of us, we see how Jesus looks to us. And we find he look to us with eyes full of mercy and a heart full of compassion.

That is, after all, what Jesus does in his finest moment there at Golgotha where he looks on everyone with unfathomable forgiveness. To the people driving nails into his flesh he says, “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.” To those who insult and mock him, he refuses to lash out in defense, preferring to let their ugliness and meanness echo out into nothingness. To those he dies between—just common criminals—Jesus looks with pardon and solidarity, even promising one of them that day a place in his kingdom. At the precise moment at which anyone would excuse him of any behavior that would alleviate his suffering, Jesus refuses to show any sign of self-preservation. With Jesus of Nazareth, in whom all things hold together, there is absolutely no abuse of power.

This is what his kingdom is made of. This is where we have been transferred by the power of his love and relationships based on this kind of humble authority is what God builds through us. This is how we live, upstream against the flow of hatred and apathy and spite we experience around us.

That disconnect probably presents the biggest challenge to living with Jesus as king. His reign is not always evident to us. Colossians says we need to be prepared to endure everything with patience. No kidding! Greed and war topple the peace and prosperity which people have so carefully built over time. The shooting tragedy at the University of Virginia this week becomes just another example of how quickly one senseless act shatters so many lives. People promote conspiracy theories that try to convince us that dark forces rule the world and are holding all things together, rather than Christ. The rise of Christian nationalism even here in the U.S. distorts the power of Jesus’ gospel and attempts to align one kind of faith with power in government. If Christ really is King, and if his reign is our true home, then how can these things keep getting in the way?

We hear this morning that the place in this world where Jesus dies is called the Skull. In Aramaic that is “Golgotha.” It has often been thought it got that name because of the way it looked. Maybe some boulders protruded from the landscape in the form of a skull. But theologian and teacher Chad Bird, points out that there is an ancient church tradition which maintains that it was called “The Skull” because people believed that is where Adam’s body was buried. Adam, the first person God created, according to Genesis, is the person in Scripture by which death comes to be. Adam’s disobedience to God, and his primal act of self-preservation and wanting to be like God symbolizes our own rebellious nature. It leads Adam to the punishment of death and is a reality that we all must bear. But Jesus, the second Adam, is the one whose obedience to God’s love brings life and immortality to all.


It is just a tradition, of course, but there is something deep at work here: the very place that speaks of death and reminds us of human brokenness becomes, by God’s grace, the very place where Jesus’ redemption and life makes a new beginning. This is how a humble God works: a cross becomes the place where we are transferred from sin into forgiveness, from loneliness to community, from this land to our eternal one.

And therefore the places where we would least expect to encounter God’s grace become the places where Jesus’ new life rises up most clearly. The moments when we hand ourselves over in service to our neighbor become those moments where selfishness begins to lose its grip. The times when God moves us to forgiveness rather than revenge are the times when healing comes to even the deepest wounds. The occasions when we release long-held prejudices and stereotypes come the occasions when dialogue and relationship finds new solid ground. Acts of humility and love strike fear into the rule of the proud and bold new life takes root. “Today,” Jesus tells the humble criminal beside him, “you will be with me in Paradise.”

One of our adult Sunday School classes has been watching and discussing the recent Emmy-winning documentary Heard, which was filmed right here in some of the public housing projects of Richmond. The movie is literally an attempt for some of the residents just to have their stories heard because they are profoundly beautiful stories—stories of remarkable grace and bravery, stories that many of us would not hear because of the stereotypes we assign to the projects and people who live there. It is true that poverty sucks people in and drugs and their accompanying gangs cause all kinds of dark problems for the people in the film. Yet one by one in Heard you hear examples of amazing redemption and the message is clear: God is still at work at Golgotha, raising up new life in the darkest of places. You watch the movie and can see that the transfer is happening, over and over again. People go from a land of despair and brokenness to a place where Christ and his goodness reign.

Where are the places in your life where Christ’s kingdom has been realized, where his goodness has been seen and heard? What are the places of darkness where you’ve buried your skulls of despair where Christ’s reign of forgiveness and mercy still need to be acknowledged? May his mercy reign true for you, for with God’s power Christ is promised to be first place in everything.

Last week we took the second year confirmands up to Roanoke to visit several places where the Lutheran Church has established ministry sites over the years. We saw Roanoke College, of course, but we also stopped at Brandon Oaks, a Lutheran retirement community that is part of Virginia Lutheran Homes. At one point Charles Downs, the CEO of Virginia Lutheran Homes, took the confirmands over to the edge of a bluff overlooking a big four lane road and gestured to another building across the street. It was the rehabilitation and nursing care facility component of Virginia Lutheran Homes, a place where many patients often enter hospice to die. To our back was the planned retirement community, complete with its swimming pool and dining room, where people were very much alive.

Beside us was this small replica of the original Lutheran Church that stood on that location built by settlers back in the 1800s as they came into the valley. Mr. Downs then proceeded to gesture to all of it in one big swoop with his arm, explaining how all of it is all a part of Jesus’ ministry. And then he pointed to the confirmands, who are in the spring of their young,        and said that we, too, are connected through it by our faith and our work together as a synod. He said those sitting in those pews at that church over 100 years ago never could have imagined that all of this would come from their vision to extend Christ’s kingdom in their work. It stretches across the highway, across the world, back in time, and into the future—a home of life and care and mercy for all.

So it is with all of us who’ve been transferred to Christ’s kingdom. It happens to us now, but it stretches back to claim those who came far before us and those who will come after. It claims those who are close to us and those we’ve never met. It draws us all in to one land, one reign where Jesus always remembers us with a mercy and love we cannot resist, refugees that we are.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

What an Inheritance

a sermon for All Saints Sunday [Year C]

Luke 6:20-31 and Ephesians 1:11-23

Children’s literature often has a way of taking complex topics and presenting them in a way I can understand with as few words as possible. About fifteen years ago actress Jamie Lee Curtis came out with a children’s book that was given as a gift to our oldest daughter by someone in the congregation I served in Pittsburgh. Our daughter, Clare, was only two at the time, and we had fun reading it to her. When Laura came along not too long afterwards we read it to her, and the other night I dusted it off to read to our 6-year-old as I tucked him into bed. The illustrations are as colorful as they are entertaining, but the rhyming text of the book is really what stands out.

The name of the book is Is There Really A Human Race? a question that perhaps we all wonder at some point along the way, what with all of our competing and our resume-building jumping through the hoops of life. The text, together with the pictures, illustrate humans racing against each other, breathless and exhausted, as if we’re all on a lifelong wild goose chase:

Is there really a human race?
Is it going on now all over the place?
When did it start?
Who said, ‘Ready, Set, Go’?

Did it start on my birthday? I really must know.
Do I warm up and stretch?
Do I practice and train?

Do I get my own coach? Do I get my own lane?
Do I race in the snow? Do I race in a twister?
Am I racing my friends? Am I racing my sister?
If the race is a relay, is Dad on my team?

And his dad and HIS dad? You know what I mean.
Is the race like a loop or an obstacle course?
Am I a jockey, or am I a horse?
Is there pushing and shoving to get to the lead?
If the race is unfair will I succeed?
Do some of us win? Do some of us lose?
Is winning or losing something I choose?
Why am I racing? What am I winning?

Does all of my running keep the world spinning?

With question after rapid question the book continues, wondering aloud with the reader what is this world really all about, what is the goal and how do we achieve it?

Today we gather to be reminded once again, thank God, that Jesus narrates and illustrates a completely different world from that. Today the church is gathered—just as Jesus gathered the large crowd on the Plain in Galilee one day when he spoke to his disciples—to hear once again that Jesus has come in order to bring an end to a world where everyone races against one another, a world of pushing and shoving, a world where we believe our progress is somehow what keeps the world spinning.

Today, All Saints Day, we recall the lives of those who have gone before us, but not in a race, but in grace. They have lived lives that touched us with compassion, selflessness, and joy. And each of them bore through the course of all their years that tension that exists between the world we feel we live in, where we’re constantly in a competition, and that eternal world that Jesus has given us, where community is built on forgiveness and love even of the enemy. We give thanks for them and for the ways they demonstrated in their own ways their trust in that new and coming world, which the apostle calls our inheritance.

I think at some point each of us has probably received something from a loved one who has gone before us. We’ve inherited something that that person intends for us to cherish and use. That’s the point of an inheritance—it is something we did not earn but which we deeply value because it points to a relationship. I remember when my great-grandmother died in 1996 she left me a big silver punch bowl. I was twenty-two at the time, still in college, living in my fraternity house, with nowhere to put the punch bowl and no one to serve punch to. I didn’t know how to value it, how to care for it, what its story even was. But Grammy wanted that bowl, for whatever reason, to fall into my hands.

Through Jesus Christ this pledge of a world redeemed and whole has been placed into our hands, and like the saints before us, we work to learn about it, treasure it, and serve the world from it. On the cross, Jesus has handed over all that he is so that we might have all the life that God gives. Our task, as we serve from this priceless bowl of grace and mercy, is to seek out and find those who right now seem to be the losers in the race of life.

And if it happens we have a hard time remembering who they are, Jesus names them for his disciples this morning. The poor seem to be the losers, especially if you listen to the news and the way we talk about them as people who haven’t worked hard enough or who have been born in the wrong neighborhoods, or who haven’t taken the chance to better themselves. The hungry are definitely losers, and their ranks are growing as grocery prices rise and supply chains are blocked. Those who are weeping often feel like losers, finding it difficult to get beyond their grief, which sneaks up and grabs them when they least expect it. And then there are those who are rejected and reviled for exemplifying Jesus in their actions and words. But Jesus calls them blessed, not losers.

In his new kingdom all these are the ones who get preference. The poor, for example, have been promised the kingdom of God. Because they have nothing else to rely on, no power that comes through wealth or privilege, they are bound to fulfilling experience of relying on God before anything else. We find the poor and learn what they have to teach us. We find the hungry and we give them reason to trust that in Jesus’ kingdom they are filled. We collect bags of Thanksgiving food, we serve at the pantry, we work for just and equitable distribution of resources. We come alongside the mourning and the weeping, singing the hymns for them at the funerals (because the words catch in their throat), and volunteering at the receptions in the fellowship all afterwards—all as an assurance of the laughing that will one day come. And learning from them the value of being vulnerable, ourselves.

Jesus continues with even more instructions for living this new world he has created by his death and resurrection we give generously, bless those who persecute, respond with nonviolence, and do to others as we’d have them do to us.

And I have to be honest and say that these are things that are difficult. They do not come naturally for me, not in the slightest. It is hard to trust this way of Jesus. It is hard to believe in this inheritance we’ve received when the world is so harsh and hard. It takes courage to inhabit this way of Jesus when we can’t fully see it implemented just yet. We see glimpses every now and then, but the full glory is still hidden.

The Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, lays out in a chronological format the history of the bus boycott that kickstarted the civil rights movement in the 1950s. The bravery and ingenuity of the people of color in Montgomery is on full display as you wind your way around the different exhibits. It becomes clear that Ms. Parks and her community were reviled for working for justice and peace to overturn the system of domination and racial oppression.  

One sign in the museum asks the question: “Do you have the courage to treat people fairly?”  What a pointed question—like a rephrasing of the Golden Rule Jesus tells his disciples. Living in the world Jesus dies to create is not just a matter of education or wokeness or cleverness. It is courage that we need for that, for our default setting is mistrust and prejudice. It is courage that allows us to view this world not as the rat race of competition it appears to be but according to the upside-down values Jesus names in his vision. It is courage and faith—and Jesus gives us both, over and over again, flowing from the waterfall of our baptism our whole life long. And we know so many examples of  this courage from the lives of those who’ve gone before us and in the lives of those who are sitting next to us today.

It was about two years ago, in the height of the COVID pandemic, when I spoke with Sonya Fluckiger on the phone instead of going to her house for her Christmas visit. She was just a few months shy at that point of her 100th birthday. The news was out that the first COVID vaccines were going to being distributed to senior citizens and people who worked in health care Sonya assured me in no uncertain terms that she was going to direct that her vaccine dose be given to a young woman or man with a family. “I understand that what they’re doing,” she said, “is the Christian way, but they’re wasting it on us old people.” I assured her there would be plenty to go around, but then I paused. It took me a second to recover once I remembered that I was a young person with a family: Sonya, age 99 ¾ trying to remind of the world Jesus empowers me to live in.

It is courage we give thanks for in the lives of the saints, in the lives of all us sinners, living and dead, who have been claimed by the grace of Jesus. It is their courage we praise as they and we turn this world of self-proclaiming on its head. Courage and faith to receive the inheritance that Jesus has bestowed upon us that we may know the hope of the calling to which he has called us.

So that night when I was I reading this book to Jasper, I remembered the ending sounds a lot like Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain:

Sometimes it’s better not to go fast.
There are beautiful sights to be seen when you’re last.
Shouldn’t it be looking back at the end
That you judge your own race by the help that you lend?
So take what’s inside you and make big, bold choices,
And for those who can’t speak for themselves, use BOLD voices.
And make friends and love well, bring art to this place
And make the world better for the whole human race. (“Is There Really A Human Race?”)

What a goal to tuck someone to bed with: Wake up tomorrow, little kiddo, and live into that inheritance that Jesus has given us. Life is no wild goose chase!

And so now we’ve tuck our departed loved ones for their final sleep with the hope they will soon open their eyes to the full inheritance prepared for them.

Rejoice in that day and leap for great joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Set Free

a sermon for Reformation Sunday

John 8:31-36

If we had wandered into church 505 years ago today, on October 30, 1517, suffice it to say our experience would have been wildly different from our experience today, on a number of levels. And that would not be just because a half-millennium has gone by and humankind has made numerous technological and scientific developments since then (Hi there, Livestream crew!!) Some very basic things would seem foreign and bewildering.

For one, we would have heard nothing during worship in our own language. Everything that the priests would have said and read would have been in Latin, and by 1517 nobody was speaking Latin outside of some academic and church-related settings. We would have probably known on a general level what the priest was saying because someone at some point had explained it to us, and some of the repetitive parts we might be able to mouth along with, but overall it would still have been unintelligible to us, whether we were worshiping in Germany or France or Norway or England. In fact, there is a large probability that the priest himself would not have understood what he was saying. He was just repeating back verbatim what he had memorized in seminary.

The town church in Wittenberg, the congregation of which Luther and his family were members.

Secondly, we would not have received the wine at Holy Communion. We would have most likely just watched the priest up at the altar—and maybe even with his backs turned to us—drink from the chalice by himself. There were a variety of confusing theological reasons they did it this way, but essentially the priests would drink the wine on behalf of the people they served. Let me tell you, I’ve tried to use this approach with some of my kids’ Halloween candy and it doesn’t go over well. (“I am eating this Reeses Peanut Butter Cup for your own good.”). This practice was also already receiving a good deal of pushback by 1517 and about a hundred years before Czech man named Jan Hus had campaigned for letting everyone receive both elements, but he had been burned at the stake for it.

Another big difference we would have noticed between then and now is that there would have been nothing for us to sing. There was music, but it was something we, as worshipers in the pews, passively consumed rather something that we participated in ourselves. Music in the medieval church was mostly chanting, all Scripture-based, although there were some choral pieces that a designated choir would often sing on some occasions. But again, everything would have been sung in Latin and it was not really written in a style that would invite people to join. The music sounded nothing at all like the music people would have heard elsewhere in society, around their tables in their homes or in the public places where they gathered.

There would have been countless other differences, of course, between worship in at the start of the Reformation and worship in 2022, but those three things would have really caught our attention. They also would never have called up third graders and placed a Bible in their hands in front of everyone with the expectation they would read it. They wouldn’t have had people read the daily Scriptures from the lectern or hold a baptism during the worship service. They would have had beer and bratwurst after the worship service, for sure. We won’t be having beer today, but we will have lots of other German goodies. So I’m glad all the really important things stay the same!

Talking about these differences is not an attempt to slam the medieval church, or to act like we’ve got it all figured out now. We today aren’t any better people or more moral than they were. However, it is noteworthy that within just a few years at the beginning of the 1500s all of that began to change. For Martin Luther and the other reformers, the church had one main duty: to let the Word of God set people free. The church, primarily in its worship, has been given that sacred and vital task: to talk about God’s grace before and above anything else so that people could be free—free from their sin, free from their inherent inward focus, free from the harmful labels society had placed on them and most of all, free from their tendency to prove their own worth.

And as Martin Luther look out at the state of things around him, he realized that church  was more often than not getting in the way of that first and most important task. Whether it was from the outdated language that made worship inaccessible and mysterious, or the distance of the sacraments from the people that placed priests here and the people down here, or the hard to sing and peculiar music of worship, or a combination of all of it, the church was not doing its best. The Protestant Reformation was about so many more things, of course, but in the end Luther’s reforms ended up touching on all of those matters, and that is a large reason why so many churches have the type of worship we have today. The church exists to proclaim God’s Word, which is about a love that sets you and me and all people free.

That is the foundational issue in the conversation between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day, part of which we hear this morning. He encounters some Jews who had believed in him but who still apparently cling to this idea that their kinship to Abraham, their great ancestor, has kept them free from any kind of slavery.

Just as an aside, because it’s in the news these days, this Scripture is actually a good example of a passage that has been twisted to encourage anti-semitism to take root in Christian faith, even though it is not anti-semitic and was never meant to be read that way. There are several times, especially in John’s gospel, where Jesus’ words seem, to some, to be derogatory toward the Jews in a way that spurs Jesus’ followers to hate and persecute them. Martin Luther, in fact, for all the good he did for the Christian witness, also left a terrible legacy of hating the Jewish and the Jewish faith. That is never Jesus’ intent, not even here when his words seem to linger with a taste of derision. Jesus is not hating Jewish people, for he is a Jew himself, and we have a responsibility to denounce hate of anyone whenever we encounter it. Here he is just reminding them that God is present in himself, the Son of God, in a new way that completely reorients everyone’s relationship with God, even theirs.

I mean, these are people, after all, who had, in fact, been slaves at one point in their history. They seem to have forgotten that. Jesus comes to love us and make us all children of the same heavenly Father, Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white.

And so all of Luther’s reforms were pointed at that message, to center the worship and teaching of the church on grace. Everything about using the vernacular language, letting everyone share the chalice, and providing music that all could sing were all ways to get God’s love to the people where it was supposed to be.

It may be obvious to most how those first two things set people free, but that third one—the one about how the church uses music to proclaim the gospel—may seem less obvious to us or maybe so obvious that we actually take it for granted. Luther knew that group singing, as opposed to listening to someone perform a song like we do at a concert, was a fundamental way to join many people together as one, to help their faith take root in their hearts. Each person has a voice, no matter how “gifted” at singing they may be, and using that voice in concert with others gives us a basic way to practice our faith, because faith involves risk, it involves getting outside of yourself, and what is opening your mouth and trying to make a beautiful noise if not risk? And it’s more risky for some of us than others, but that’s the wonderful thing about it!

One of our members here has shared with me that several years ago in his mind he made a shift from thinking of Sunday mornings as going to church to attending worship. For him there is a distinction—going to church sounds passive, whereas attending worship sounds more participatory. Luther would have agreed, and he wrote hymns in order to increase our feeling of doing something, of literally leaning into one another during the act of worship and he often used the styles of music he was hearing out in public, in secular spaces.

I was listening the other day to a young immigrant who was raised in another culture—I am pretty sure it was a south Asian country—share what he finds to be the main hallmarks of American culture. The very first one he mentioned was hyperindividualism. American culture, he remarked, is so focused on the uniqueness of everyone, almost to a fault, that it’s like we’re afraid to be a part of a group. We always want to set ourselves apart from everyone else, which is actually what those Jewish leaders are doing in this morning’s text. This man’s birth culture, by contrast, was more about collectives. Your family, your village, was your identity.

Celebrating individuality may be important, but it can be overemphasized to the point it becomes a prison. The Word of God sets us free from that, too, joining us to one another in ways we can share our joys and our sufferings in deep and real ways. Worship and theology that makes the space for this, where participation trumps performance where our gathering feels more like community and less like a concert—is freeing in ways we often take for granted.

I know Kevin doesn’t like to hear himself talked about, but this is one way in which he has served us better than I think we realize. Over these 25 years he has reformed us, letting the Word of God set people free to use their gifts and bring us together. I remember one of the first Christmas Eves I was here he had a young Amelie Bice, who was probably 5 or 6 at the time, play the piano for the prelude. She was just a beginner. She plunked out “Amazing Grace” with one hand, which I assumed might have been the only song she had learned. It maybe wasn’t your typical Christmas Eve fanfare, but it was just one of many examples of how our music director Kevin has created a worship environment where we all enjoy making music to praise God. She had gifts to share, and Kevin encouraged it. Amelie is now a high school senior, by the way, and plays like a pro with both hands.

What a way to understand faith, and to have it modeled in worship! We go forth from here not to perform our faith for others in the world, as if they can see what virtuosos we consider ourselves to be, but to participate in the suffering and joy of the world. We go forth from here set free, our gifts and voices tuned to his grace so that we may use them in our service to others.

We go forth chosen not because we’re so good, but because God, who is good, has chosen us. We go as people who have heard in our language, who have tasted on our tongues, who have sung with our voices: we are justified by grace, apart from works of the law!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Are You Ready to Rumble?

a sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24C/Lectionary 29]

Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8

The night was dark. Melinda had picked up me and our oldest child at church and driven us home after a late evening meeting because my car had been in the shop. The three of us came home to find there had been a scuffle between the other two kids, who had been left at home, we had thought, in a peaceful way.

The details of what had actually transpired were hazy. It involved some kind of rough-housing over a stuffed animal and a 6-year-old who wouldn’t go to bed. In an attempt to gain authority over him, his sister had somehow wrenched the toy from his clutches and, in so doing, had had dislodged one of his top front teeth. We found them both in the bathroom. He was bloodied, scared, and defiant, She was apologetic, confused, and worried. We found the tooth on the floor, calmed the opponents down, and moved them along to bed. But now a huge, empty tooth socket punctuated his smile. We had expected it would fall out eventually, but now a night of adversity and struggle had left its mark.

It is also dark the night of adversity and confusion that leaves Jacob forever changed. It is not an empty tooth socket he stands there with on the banks of the Jabbok River, but a busted hip socket, an injury that will mark the way he goes through life from then on. Jacob, too, had wrestled with an opponent, a mystery figure who refuses to be named, who appears in the middle of the night and catches Jacob when he’s alone.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (Marc Chagal)

What a strange scene—there is nothing like it! It’s dark, the two men can’t really see each other, and perhaps most peculiar of all: Jacob actually seems to have the upper hand. He has lived a life of perpetual deal-maker, a swindler, and here he forces a blessing out of his wrestling opponent. You can’t get much more earthy, more intimate and shocking than this scenario, especially when it seems the mystery wrestler is God himself—or at least Jacob comes to understand it is such a divine experience that he feels this what living with God must be like, especially after a life of constantly tussling with almost everyone he knows. It’s so significant of an encounter that Jacob claims his new name, Israel: “He who wrestles with God.”

Let me ask you: have you ever thought of God as a wrestler, someone who comes into the ring looking for a fight like Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, or the Nature Boy Ric Flair? It’s quite the image for God for us to contemplate, especially when so often God gets cast in the movies or in books or maybe in our mind as some aged figure with a long white flowing beard, or sitting aloft some clouds like the actor Morgan Freeman. But if the name of your people, your tribe, if the core of your identity was literally “One who wrestles with God” it would probably be difficult for you to picture God as a fragile, distant, elderly man. If would be tough to imagine God as a shapeless, formless entity. You would think of God as someone you strive against. You would think of Jacob by the Jabbok, never giving up against his opponent, and how in the midst of being given a blessing you were changed.

At some point in his ministry as they near Jerusalem where Jesus will face his own dark hour of struggle, Jesus tells this story about another person who never gives up against her opponent.  This time it is a widow who comes to berate a judge to bless her with justice that she deserves. Wrestling on a riverbank may be a bit out of our frame of reference, but this parable of Jesus’ certainly paints a relatable picture, doesn’t it? Every day there are people enmeshed in our nation’s legal system pleading for justice and mercy—tenants doing everything they can to prevent from being evicted by landlords, parents fighting for custody for their children in a series of court appearances. On TV Judge Wapner and Judge Judy listen to countless tired arguments from people who just want someone to hear them out. And even our former President this week, no stranger to judges and juries, tried another last-ditch effort to have the Supreme Court overturn a case that would help give him some time to reframe his argument.

In Jesus’ parable, the widow is relentless with her arguing and eventually the judge grants her request mainly because he doesn’t want her to give him a black eye with her persistence. By the end of Jesus’ lesson we know that the judge in the parable is not a stand-in for God because God is merciful and compassionate and this judge is a jerk but nevertheless we are left with this heroine who just doesn’t give up.

In both cases—Jacob by the river and the widow by the judge’s bench—we are presented with the reality of what life with God is like. God is there to be wrestled with. God is there to hear our cries. God lives in order to engage with us, to get dirty with us, to be a hotline where some compassionate expert is always waiting to pick up the phone and listen to our emergency.

I don’t know about you, but I find these to be extremely challenging images and scenes. The way God appears in the psalm this morning is usually more my style—that is, the powerful but removed God who never slumber nor sleeps, who keeps watch over me like the policeman patrolling our parking lot this morning. God is always looking out for me, but he or she is over there, at a distance, between me and the sun and the moon, letting me do my thing over here. Too often I am tempted to let my relationship with God become passive like that.

But in actuality God sees a wrestling partner in us. God wants to get on our level, down in the mud, even. God is expecting us to turn to him, to plead if we feel like it, to open up and let loose with what’s bothering us. God might want me to demand a blessing or justice, but ultimately God wants to be engaged all the time. These stories, and plenty others like them in Scripture give us the strong sense that God wants to be near us and know what we know. As Jesus says, we are to pray always and not lose heart and this is challenging to me because I often just take prayer for granted.

In the book H is for Hawk, British writer Helen MacDonald tells the story of how she turned to falconry after her father’s death as a way to help her grieve. She chooses a goshawk to rear from infancy to adulthood, realizing full well that goshawks are the toughest type of raptor to train and live with. She struggles mightily with the hawk, whom she names Mabel, and her friendship with it takes her on many hikes and adventures across England’s fields, but she makes an astonishing discovery about her grief process when she rides the train home from the memorial service held for her dad. By training the hawk she had tried to seek solace in nature,  and had tried to make sense of her father’s memory in solitude, but she finds the true healing came when she forced herself to take part in the community at prayer together and as people wrestled with their grief before God and one another. “Hands are for other human hands to hold,” she writes, confessionally. “They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much air can corrode it to nothing.”

Two years ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic had already been raging for six months and the promise of a workable vaccine was still not on the horizon, I found myself in a really dark night. Unsure of how much longer we could continue as a congregation that couldn’t do much of what kept us alive, I became angry, sad, and bitter. Eventually I sought counsel with a therapist, and our conversation proved very enlightening to me. She helped me see that in the scurry of trying to keep things going at church and at home I had inadvertently laid aside my regular practice of writing in a journal for thirty or forty minutes at a time. “I’ll get around to it when I need it and when I have time for it,” I had told myself at the beginning of the pandemic when there were so many other pulls on my time and energy.

But I had only gotten around to it occasionally, and in piecemeal fashion. The counselor suggested I go back to a set time each week, which is what I’d been doing for 20 years or more. My journaling, I remembered, was intense prayer. It was my wrestling with God, my showing up at the judge’s bench each week to air my concerns. It wasn’t a chore or a luxury. It was the way God had been blessing me in much the way he’d blessed Jacob and refraining from it had left me lonely. And that week I restarted that blessing. It put a limp in my week, for sure, because I had to take the time to do it, but it was amazing how quickly my mindset changed and how closer I felt to God.

And then I thought of all of the people in the congregation who had seen the early days of the pandemic as a time to pray like never before. So many of you found ways to wrestle so faithfully, whether it was in your private lives or through online prayer moments or worship gatherings. In fact, the habits became so beneficial and well-formed that we included livestreaming to our Sunday options and many more of you join us in prayer each week, some while we’re doing it, and others save it for viewing later.

Hands are for other hands to hold. Indeed. It sounds so obvious, and yet we forget it, even as Jesus hangs there on the cross, still in prayer, still pleading with God because he loves us so much, receiving in his dialogue much worse than a busted hip. Prayer should be our first language, and yet we put it off or resort to it only when we need something. But both wrestling and court petitions are something that take constant work if they are to change anything, and the anything is typically us.

When Jesus wonders aloud with his disciples that day about how the Son of Man will at his return be aware of the presence of faith on the earth, he doesn’t suggest that it’s by all the large church buildings they’ve constructed, or by how fun and attractive their youth programs are. Neither does he initially link it, surprisingly, to the number of people who’ve been served and definitely not to which political party is in power or what laws have been enacted. Jesus links the presence of faith on earth to the amount of wrestling he finds. He links the vitality of faith to the number of people who walk differently each day with that out-of-socket hip. Or with an empty tooth socket, as the case may be.

Whatever your blessing of choice—God is here, always ready to listen, always eager to meet us face to face.

The question is: Are you ready to rumble?

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Saying Thanks

a sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23C/Lectionary 28]

Luke 17:11-19 and 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

All this talk about thankfulness makes me think about a curious news article a couple of weeks that ago caught my eye. Its headline was: “Voice assistants Siri and Alexa are Making Kids Rude and Antisocial, Scientists Fear.” The article makes the case that with assistive voice technology “youngsters are not taught” [the importance of manners and courteous responses] nor how to read body language.” The piece even quotes a Cambridge University doctor who says, “With digital devices there is no expectation that polite terms, such as please or thank you should be used.”[1]

Well, isn’t that interesting! If so, then I’m afraid my family is doomed. We boss Alexa round on a daily basis—to put things on the grocery list, to play music, and perhaps most of all, to use the “announce” feature and relay messages instead of yelling through the house. She never corrects our grammar. She never tells us to lower our voice. She never criticizes our music selections. She is the unobtrusive, demure presence in every room who never asks for anything in return.

Those researchers at Cambridge may or may not be on to something, but I think this morning Jesus would chime in to let us know people have had trouble saying please and especially thank you long before there were ever Siris and Alexas. After cleansing ten people with leprosy one day while he is traveling on the way to Jerusalem through the border regions of Samaria and Galilee only one had the decency to return and say thank you, and he was a foreigner, of all things. What happened to the other nine? Why didn’t they come back to give Jesus some respect, or even just turn around on their way to the priest and give Jesus a thumbs up?

The text doesn’t tell us the answers so Jesus’ question just kind of hangs out there for us to ponder along with him. And in doing so, my mind starts to reflect on my own shortcomings in the “thank you” department. It would be nice if I could just blame my own periodic forgetfulness or outright rudeness on things like Alexa or technology, but the truth probably lies somewhere else. Sometimes I probably conclude the person wouldn’t notice or care if I sent word. Did this gift or this gesture which I received reach the threshold of something I should say an intentional “thank you” for?

Maybe sometimes I don’t say thank you because I think my gift was actually deserved. That is, I was just getting was I think I’m due, and so saying thanks is not warranted. Maybe the nine lepers felt their ostracization from society due to their condition had been cruel and unnecessary. Forced to live at the edge of society and beg for a living, which were the rules of the day for many people who were sick, perhaps they felt they had deserved someone’s mercy and that being restored to community was a justice long overdue.

Or maybe they didn’t return out of shame or embarrassment, and they ran on, wanting to put that old life behind them. I’ve felt that, too, before. I know that in my case, it is usually forgetfulness. Life gets busy, I move onto the next thing, and the task of writing a thank you note just slips through the cracks.

Whatever the case, the nine’s lack of thankfulness to Jesus doesn’t change the grace God had conveyed upon them. Those nine are still cleansed. They are still healed. They are still free of the bonds their condition had placed on them, free to run into the future that is open to them.

God is like that: gracious and full of compassion, never revoking his gifts to his children. The lepers cry out to Jesus for mercy, and he responds with healing.

Like the venerable old apple tree in Shel Silverstein’s classic children’s book, The Giving Tree, God is a natural giver. The Giving Tree tells the story of a tree who watches a boy grow up and who constantly wants to help him however he can. First he offers the boy all his apples to sell, and then a few years later his leaves, then his branches, and finally his trunk to make a boat. The selfish boy keeps coming back for more until, when he is a very old man, all the tree has become is an old stump to sit on. God is like that tree who keeps giving and giving even when we fail to say thank you or recognize the suffering that our taking causes him. Indeed, God is a tree—a cross-shaped tree—who keeps loving and dying and forgiving so that we may have life, whether we fully acknowledge it or not.

Today, in the shadow of that tree, we do find ourselves a thankful congregation. To be sure we are always a thankful congregation, but today we are especially grateful for the ways God has looked on us with mercy through the challenges of the last two and a half years when we’ve felt, in many ways, pushed to the edge. We praise God for the ways the Holy Spirit has kept our community of faith together and even expanded it, even as we have felt the strain and pull of controversial discussions and decisions.

Today we are a thankful congregation because we get the chance to call Pastor Sarah Lang our pastor. We are grateful that God has led us to this point so that we could fulfill a vision of leadership from six years ago. We are thankful for Sarah’s gifts of wisdom and experience, for her skills in teaching and administration, preaching and worship leadership. We are thankful for Sarah’s keen ability to see the people on our margins and draw our attention to them.

And with Sarah on staff we now have four married couples on staff together, and we’re thankful for that too, even as it feels like the elephant in the room. It is an unusual arrangement, and for the record we did not seek it out and orchestrate it this way. It just kind of fell into our lap, and it takes some careful minding of boundaries to make it work. You know, it might not be everyone’s ideal staff situation, but, I’ll tell you, we could lead one heckuva marriage retreat!

Today we are thankful people—thankful that God has given us a faith that saves us. And we are thankful to be in a position to call Sarah, who will help continue to form that faith among us. That is the key here with this one Samaritan leper who returns to give thanks and worship Jesus by falling on the ground. His faith saves him. All ten of the lepers are healed of their disease but only this one is truly saved (also translated, “made him well”), and we hear Jesus tell him it is his faith that makes him so.

Faith saves us. It is core Lutheran belief, a foundation of how followers of Christ say God works in our lives. However, when we say “faith saves us” we don’t just mean that one day our faith will provide us entrance to heaven. It means faith has the power to rescue us now. It is an invitation to live a life of change now. I would imagine that everyone who professes a faith in Jesus would describe it in some way as beneficial to them. They could talk in a real way about how their faith at some point, or at many points, has liberated them or freed them from something. Maybe from despair or grief or a feeling of meaninglessness. Maybe, in some cases, from addiction. Faith is good for us. It improves our life, it brightens our outlook, it gives us hope for the journey.

And, by the grace of God, faith is not just something that benefits us. Faith in a risen Christ naturally overcomes boundaries. “The word of God is not chained,” says Paul to Timothy. Just as the Son of God emerges from the tomb, our faith flows from us into the life of the whole world. Just look at how the faith of one enslaved girl serving wife of Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army, ripples from the very bottom to the top of the chain of command! She’s there in the tent—we’re never told her name—but she has an understanding of her God’s goodness and she the sense of mind to share that. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!” she says boldly to her mistress, “He could cure him of his leprosy!”

Naaman (Pieter de Grebber)

It makes me wonder who formed her faith, who made her so sure? She was a little girl at the Sunday School table with Ms. Betsy and Amanda Mertz one Sunday. Or studying the Ten Commandments as a fifth grader with Matt Greenshields and Rob McClintock. Or it was the conversation she had with volunteers Faye Coppage or Chris Crouch during the service project one day. Someone somewhere along the line must have opened her eyes to the power of God to heal and that faith made her well. And that faith in a living God, which meant something to her did not stay there. Eventually it makes its way to the King of Aram and then the King of Israel, whose bluster and pride get in the way, and then to the prophet Elisha, who convinces Naaman to wash himself in the river Jordan where he is saved from his leprosy. And like the foreign Samaritan, Naaman returns to praise God and exalt his name.

The psalm this morning is also found in Proverbs, a book of wisdom: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” To say it differently, our worship is where faith formation starts. Our relationship to the living God—the giving God of the cross-tree—grows from the act of stopping and returning and intentionally sacrificing some bit of ourselves to offer thanks for what God has already done. The Samaritan prostrates himself—an act of humility and vulnerability that shows respect for Jesus. Naaman the Syrian, for all his initial pride, humbly returns to stand in front of the prophet Elisha to profess his faith in Israel’s God.

Now we, standing before our merciful Father, cleansed of our sin and receiving his body and blood in our hand, say thank you. And as we do, we can sense the wisdom growing within us:

Thank you for the beauty of a crisp fall day, for music, even when it’s from Alexa, but especially when it’s from Kevin or Mr. Scott. Thank you for football games and homecomings and weddings and baptisms and funerals. Thank you for this day we’ve been given, these very breaths we are taking, and this voice that allows us to speak to you, and especially when we can join with others. And for all that we’ve ordered you around to give us and for all you’ve given us anyway.

“Thank you, O Lord, for this good life, and forgive us if we do not love it enough.”[2]


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


[2] “State Fair,” Garrison Keillor in Leaving Home. Penguin Books. 1987, p 118

Say Their Names

a sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21C/Lectionary 26]

Luke 16:19-31

“Say their names.”

We often hear that phrase in the aftermath of certain tragedies or injustices, especially when there have been victims of violence or hatred. We often rather look away in these instances, or ignore that the event happened, but saying the name seems to keep the issue in the forefront. Maybe its George Floyd, or maybe it’s the children killed in the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting, or the Ukrainians furiously trying to dig up mass graves so they can identify bodies before it’s too late. Look at what’s happening in Iran as people say the name Mahsa Amini. She was the otherwise ordinary 22-year-old Iranian woman who died last week after being detained by the country’s morality police for not wearing a headscarf in public. Those in power would rather her name be forgotten, dismissed, not spoken, because it might cast the might down from their thrones.

a protester holds up a photo of Mahsa Amini

I know I’m often challenged to utter these folks’ names but the truth is that all too often the world dismisses overlooks, or discounts the existence and personhood of people like this. We tend to lump them into one big category—the orphaned, the disabled, the poor, the elderly, the immigrants—so that we won’t have to deal with the sorrow of their individual stories and recognize their meaningfulness. Naming those at the margins takes special effort and involves special pain. Let’s be honest: we’re much more ready to remember and say the names of the wealthy, the powerful, the beautiful, the gifted.

And so this morning Jesus helps us in this task. Jesus says Lazarus’ name, the man in his story who is the very definition of living at the margins in every way you can possibly imagine. Jesus says Lazarus’ name even though most of his listeners would have found that strange. In fact, in all of the 40 or so parables that Jesus tells in the gospels, only one character gets a name. Not the Good Samaritan, not the prodigal son who famously wastes his dad’s inheritance and who shamefully plods back home. Only Lazarus—the man who is so hungry he wants to eat table scraps, the guy who is so dirty and nasty that he’s covered with festering sores, the fellow who is so exhausted he lets dogs lick his wounds because he can’t kick them away. This sad man is the world’s ultimate “nobody,” a victim of the worst kind of neglect, and yet Jesus says his name.

And then, on the other hand, there’s the world’s ultimate Somebody: this rich man, at whose mansion’s front door Lazarus lies. If we told this story, the rich man would have a name, and we’d know his net worth and just how many billions he lost in last week’s stock market downturn. We’d be following him on Instagram along with 40 million other people. But in Jesus’ parable, in the scenario Jesus illustrates, this rich guy is the nameless one. As Jesus tells it, it is this wealthy, no-doubt influential guy who is left without the dignity of individual identity.

Jesus doesn’t give him a name because this is a story about how God envisions the world. This is a window into how God turns the tables on everything, making the last first and the first last. Furthermore, this is a warning, especially for the Pharisees, about how wealth actually has the power to take away our personhood, our humanity, even more than poverty does. This is a parable about how money and luxury build real walls around us and can warp our minds into objectifying the people who are right in our path. This is a reminder of how affluence can cut us off from the particular kind of suffering that would actually allow us to connect us to others. This is Jesus’ lesson about materialism and how God has constantly, from day one, been trying to tear down the barriers it creates to human community.

An enormous study published last month by researchers at Harvard, Stanford, and New York Universities showed fairly conclusively that friendships across social classes have a strong influence on things like increased rates high school completion, reduced rates of teenage pregnancy, and increased income for those born poorer. Said differently, interconnectedness, especially across different income and social levels, is always better for everyone, especially those at the bottom. Interestingly enough, the study also looked at different places in society where people tend to mix across socio-economic lines. In universities, for example, cross-class friendships form at a rate 5% lower than would be expected. In fact, none of our educational settings or workplaces currently promote this kind of mixing at a rate better than average, which is somewhat of an indictment. In religious settings, however, the study revealed friendships between people of different social classes form at a rate 3% higher than expected.[1]

Other studies conducted on human tears, of all things, reveal that tears we shed as a result of our emotions have a higher protein content than tears we shed when our eyes are just irritated by dust or allergies. Higher protein content makes them roll down our cheeks more slowly, increasing the chance they’ll be seen and cause people to care for us. Some scientists see this as proof that our body is built for community.

All this is to say, God created the rich man and Lazarus to live in community, to pay attention to each other, to notice each others’ tears and what they mean. This is to say God creates our communities to be interconnected, that the blessings of God’s good creation may be enjoyed by all. This is the vision that Jesus has for the world, and Jesus comes to share that vision in all that he says and does. And a clownish story about flipping the social structures upside down, about making his hearers notice the people at the bottom, will help his hearers understand that vision.

Jesus is not the first to explain or articulate this vision, and that’s really the thrust of Jesus’ message this morning. This is nothing new, he says. The prophets like Amos mention it, over and over. And the psalms repeatedly, like Psalm 146 this morning, praise God precisely because he lifts up those who are bowed down and sustains the orphan and the widow because too often no one else will.

Reading the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as a real example of what happens to people when they die is to miss the point of the parable entirely. This is not a lesson about what happens to us after we die, and this is not the Lazarus that Jesus raises from the dead in John’s gospel. Only according to some ancient Jewish traditions do people believe they are “rocked in the bosom of Abraham” in the afterlife, and Jesus is borrowing on that as he tells this parable.

Parables typically have an element of exaggeration and embellishment in them, and this great reversal between life now and the life hereafter for Lazarus and the rich man is part of that exaggeration. The rich man’s fortunes are so terrible now after his death that he can’t even get a drop of water to slake his thirst. And lo and behold for the first time we hear evidence he finally sees Lazarus! With his riches pulled away and now experiencing suffering himself, the rich man’s eyes are opened to see someone else, even though the rich man is still only focused on his own needs. God’s hope for us is that our eyes would be opened to see others, and in seeing them, show compassion to them and hear their cries. God’s hope is that we could have our barriers of money and privilege stripped away so that we can be aware of needs other than our own.

Jesus directs this parable at the Pharisees, whom Luke describes as lovers of money. The Pharisees ascribed to a strand of ancient Judaism that God financially blesses those who are faithful. Poverty, on the other hand, was a sign of God’s curse. The Pharisees justified their love of wealth through a corrupt understanding of God’s law Jesus explains that this interpretation of God’s law was never the intention for God’s people.

In the punchline of the parable, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to his brothers so that they will change their ways. This may remind you of the beginning of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when the ghost of Jacob Marley, draped in the chains of his earthly riches, visits his still-living business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, and warns him he will be visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come in order to learn a lesson about generosity. In fact, Dickens based his famous story on this parable. But unlike Scrooge, who is given a chance to learn from the ghost, and does, Abraham says that if those who love their wealth cannot learn from Moses and the prophets that God takes care of the poor, then someone rising from the dead won’t change their minds either. For right now, God is on the side of the Lazaruses. For right now, God’s vision is for people’s tears of suffering to be honored, for true community to be built, for those who have to be warned of the decay that infests their hearts.

And as it turns out, Jesus is so determined to get that point across, Jesus is so insistent that this world get turned upside down, for the good of us all, that he offers his own life to bridge every chasm—the chasm between you and me, the chasms between rich and poor, the chasm between the West End and eastern Henrico, the chasm between black and white. The chasms that separate our schools and our politics and our neighborhoods and our families. Jesus dies and rises to build bridges between them all and raise us to new life, and new respect for all. And when you are feeling bowed low, forgotten by the world, Jesus proudly and boldly says your name.

Ben Rector

My family loves the singer-songwriter Ben Rector, and we came across one song this summer that appears on album he released several years ago The song is called “The Men That Drive Me Places” and it’s really simple—just two verses, a chorus and a bridge, and him on piano—but it too, like a parable, tells a story. It’s the story of him, as a world famous musician, reflecting on the men who taxi him around. It communicates a profound message that Ben sings about his own privileged life, and it contains a nuanced twist on how best to respond to these chasm between the Lazaruses and the rich men that Jesus comes to close:

Danny showed up early, fifteen minutes till five thirty
Making sure that I’d be on my morning flight
He said he’d love to fix computers, but that he can’t until he’s fluent
So he spends his driving money taking class at night
He wore a neatly ironed dress shirt, and he helps his kids with homework
Deep inside I couldn’t help but ask myself
Why that at night I’m up on stage, everybody knows my name
While Danny’s early picking up somebody else

Oh isn’t that just the way it goes
You’re dealt a good hand and you get celebrated
Oh, how am I the only one who knows
I’m half the man of the men that drive me places.

Dear Lord Jesus, you have dealt us an unbelievably good hand. You have died for us, and we are children of your resurrection. Free us from the bonds our riches have on us, from the pride that holds us back. Send us forth again. Send us forth into this broken world with eyes to see the ones you see—the ones who drive us places, the ones who serve us, the ones who cry to be noticed.

And, Lord, give us lips that speak so as to honor them as your children too: Lazarus, Lazarus, Lazarus.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “Friendship across class lines may boost social mobility and decrease poverty” in The Economist. August 11, 2022

The God Who Finds

a sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19C/Lectionary 24]

Luke 15:1-10

I spent most of my summers during college working on staff at a Lutheran camp in the mountains of North Carolina called Lutheridge. One of those years on staff I ended up staying extra week after the last campers had gone home. I discovered that one of the end-of-summer tasks that had to be undertaken before camp was closed up involved going through the giant pile of lost and found items that had accumulated over the course of the summer. You would probably guess that a camp which hosts well over a thousand children, youth, and adults over the course of eight crazy, chaotic and fun weeks amasses a lot of lost items, and you would be right.

The real pile was much larger than this.

We marveled at this pile as we sorted through it that week. There were dozens of towels—damp, musty towels that had been left at the pool or at the lake. There were items of unclaimed clothing, most of which were dirty, single socks. And Bibles! You would be surprised at how many people end up leaving their Bible at church camp and then not realize it was missing. Since we rarely had any idea whom the items actually belonged to, we would often argue over which things we wanted. One of my co-workers found a sweatshirt she liked. She put it on. It looked…familiar. I went back and checked my own suitcase and noticed one of my sweatshirts was missing and actually had been for a while. I was too embarrassed to ask for it back, so I let her have it.

I don’t know whatever happened to everything in that that pile of lost and found, but it ended up being someone’s responsibility to get rid of it, and I guess the socks were thrown away and the towels cut up and re-purposed as rags. Every once in a while the camp would figure out the proper owner of an item and do their best to return it.

Well, about a week ago a package arrived on our front porch. The return address label said it was from Lutheridge. We opened it to find not one but two water bottles that my daughters had lost at camp not last summer, but two summers ago! Someone up there had taken the time to research our address based on the name label on the bottom. They had taken the time to find a box and get it to the post office. And the really funny thing about all of this is that the water bottles aren’t even ours! They actually belong to Hanne, our Office Administrator, who had let our daughters borrow them that summer because they forgot to pack their own.

Jesus wants us to know that God goes through great lengths to find and return what belongs to him. That is you and me. There are many ways that people perceive God and images that come to mind when they think what God might be like. For Jesus the images are this: God is like a shepherd who risks life and limb, climbing over rocks and down cliffs, if he has too, wrestling the thorny branches of thickets and fighting off wolves in order to retrieve just one of his missing sheep.

And here’s another image: for Jesus, God is like a woman who turns her house upside down in order to find one coin that has gotten kicked or dropped somewhere. She moves furniture out of the way, she gets down on her hands and knees, she gets out the broom, then the metal detector, and turns on every light in the house to help her track it down. And when she finally gets it, she is so overjoyed that she calls together the other women in the neighborhood, some of whom she doesn’t even know very well. But that’s OK. This is a great day! She invites them into her house, which is now clean, if not a little disheveled, and makes some mimosas and lays out a charcuterie board, since that’s trendy these days, and says, “Alexa, play some party music.”

And her friends, curiously holding their glasses of bubbly, are like, “What is going on? Do you have news of another grandchild? Did you get a job promotion? No? Then what’s all this about?”

And she’s like, “I found this twenty dollar bill that I had lost!”

And so Jesus might say this morning God is like the worn-out summer camp office worker who loathes going through dirty stinky socks and moldy towels and who still knows water bottles are a dime a dozen—water bottles that no one has even reported missing, by the way—but who still finds a thrill in tracking down the address in the database from two summers ago, and then finding a box in which they will fit perfectly, and taking them to the post office in the off-chance that two girls living a state away might want to see them again.

God is like that, Jesus says, and God’s kingdom is about lost and found—not being lost forever or cutting your losses or writing things off because they don’t matter. Everyone matters. Every single sheep, every single coin, every single sinner, no matter how insignificant we try to make them feel. These are the images of God Jesus leaves with his audience.

And it’s especially important because the audience is the scribes and the Pharisees, the super-religious people, because they seem to operate with a very different image of God. We never hear them share their image of God, to be sure. We might be surprised Pharisees and scribes would even work with images or their imagination at all because they are a very by-the-book, letter-of-the-law type of religious people. I can’t base this on anything, but they don’t seem to use images and stories to talk about God. They use rules.

They are upset, for example, that Jesus is playing with the rules by eating with people who are clearly lost, people who don’t, in the Pharisees’ eyes, matter. Sharing a table with someone was one of the most intimate things you could do. It was a way of embracing them, of making them a part of your life, and Jesus is embracing and making dirty and forgotten people like rule-breakers a part of his life.

One commentator I read says that these two particular images in these parables this morning would have been especially irritating for Pharisees because they considered shepherds low-class, irreligious folk and women were viewed as second-class. But these are the stories Jesus mines for impact. He has to drive the point home somehow. God is a finder. God is a seeker-outer. God wants to have everyone in his embrace and God is willing to go to great lengths and even make a fool of himself about it if God has to.

And God is not just willing to go to the great lengths to bring people back. God finds joy in it. Drinks on the house! God feels like partying, like clinking the wineglasses together whenever just one person is turned again with his mercy and brought back to his kingdom of love.

For years and years Epiphany and many other Lutheran congregations have used a book in Holy Communion class with the fourth graders called A Place For You, by the Lutheran pastor Daniel Erlander. He used images, too—simple, black and white drawings—and his books come across as babyish at first because they have far more pictures than they do words. But once you look at his books, you realize they are brilliant drawings that speak to both kids and adults. We used them at seminary as textbooks, in fact.

In A Place For You, the scribes and the Pharisees are depicted as “crabby people” and you can find the crabby people on just about every page. They are crabby because they are not happy with how Jesus welcomes people. One of my favorite pages in A Place for You depicts Jesus feeding the 5000. He is seated on a blanket in the middle, with bread and fish lying there in front of him. The multitudes are seated all around them, the ones in the distance drawn as just little faceless shapes. One person in the way back says, “Next time let’s get here on time.” (Can relate). And there are the crabby people, for sure, amidst the crowd of hungry people and they are saying, “I’m upset. Some of these people don’t deserve free food. Disgusting.”

But on every page, Jesus keeps at it, almost ignoring the crabby people, but never shunning or shaming them. He just pulls them in, like Daniel Erlander, trying to redraw their understanding of God with new images and new situations. This is especially poignant today because Pastor Daniel Erlander died just two Sundays ago at the age of 83. The church and especially the crabby people like me give thanks for the ways he redrew understandings of theology and Bible stories by giving us images instead of rules.

How do you imagine God? Do you understand him as a seeker, as a shepherd, as a woman who pops the bubbly when find a coin? Do you hear that God values you—that as lost as you may be you will never be so lost that Jesus can’t reach you? Do you see on the cross how God redraws where God will go and how he reaches out? In his death and suffering, can you see that Jesus draws a circle of love and forgiveness so big that no one is forgotten, no one is left out? And that all the while he is excited to have you back?

Today our congregation comes together to celebrate how God helped us redraw some of the lines in our own church building with the hopes people would feel more included, that someone lost might come here at feel found. We literally redrew the lines of the parking lot, adding more official handicap parking spaces that are closer to the building. We redrew office spaces so that some church staff were no longer left working in offices and closets in a distant part of the building but grouped together in one common area. We redrew classroom spaces so that we could add more Sunday School classes. Perhaps most notably, we redrew the entrance and gathering spaces so that should people wander in here, especially for the first time, they may sense welcome and “being found”—that there is a place for them.

The Building Team did not sit down and read Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin but that was their goal—to move the congregation towards growth in openness, to let this congregation’s space be an image of God’s embrace. Now as we give thanks that those blueprint lines have been redrawn we continue to let Jesus, with his amazing grace, redraw those images of our hearts and minds. Over and over again.

In the past two or so years, as we’ve endured the COVID pandemic, some people may have felt distanced or lost from Christ’s church. Some have wondered when the right time to return is. Some may have fallen out of the habit and wonder if they will be questioned or stared at if they come back. Now more than ever we remember and proclaim to everyone that, in the words of Daniel Erlander, there is a place for you.

And we also remember that the new lines Jesus draws are so big, that the reality of God’s love is so all-encompassing, his mercy so far-reaching, that even the crabby people end up inside at the end. That may be the best part of Erlander’s book—there, on the last page, as on the last day, whenever it should come, situated right in with all the millions as they “join the theme,” sit the over-religious crabby people.

And…look! They’re no longer crabby!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Choices and Calculations

a sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18C/Lectionary 23]

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Philemon 1-21 and Luke 14:25-33

“I have set before you life and death,” says the Lord, “blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

Choose life. Ha! If only it were that easy, right?

There is a famous psychological experiment using children called the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. This experiment has been studied and referenced for decades and has spawned countless memes on social media. The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment is actually a name given to a series of similar tests that were first conducted at Stanford University in 1972.They were devised to study the development of long-term thinking, decision-making, and delayed gratification in young children. The experiments all centered on the same simple strategy: a child about the age of 4 or 5 would be brought into a room and sat at a table where they were offered some kind of treat—usually a marshmallow but sometimes animal cracker. The person conducting the experiment would tell them they could have that treat then—the one laid before them—or wait another fifteen minutes and receive even more treats. They were allowed to play with toys while they waited or they could just sit still, but if they went ahead and helped themselves to the marshmallow before fifteen minutes was up, they would not get the additional treat.

As it turns out, waiting for even fifteen minutes was much too hard for many of the children. Many of them just went ahead and chose the marshmallow that was already before them, tempting as it was, even if it meant losing out on two marshmallows later. You know what that sounds like? That sounds like I should be wary of any children’s sermons from Stanford University.

But it also sounds like the Israelites when we meet them this morning. Poised at the edge of the Promised Land, they are presented with a choice. God has led them to this point so that they may wisely choose to life. God has steadfastly guided them through forty years in the wilderness,(and they’re going to have to wait just a little more before they’re done), and now God has brought them here, at the edge of the land, so that they may consider their options. God encourages them to hold back from following other gods and serving them, as tempting as they will be, seeing as how those other gods will be right in front of them all the time, and instead choose to love and serve God. If they do that, it will mean life and length of days. And, of course, we know how the story goes. They eventually enter their Promised Land and right off the bat struggle to choose life and keep God’s commandments.

When we meet Philemon today, by way of Paul’s letter to him, we find him being presented with a choice, too. Philemon is a relatively well-off and well-connected guy, known well to Paul, and we learn that Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, has run away. Somewhere along the line, Onesimus has bumped into Paul and become a follower of Christ. Unfortunately we don’t have any backstory hereabout why Onesimus ran away from Philemon, or how Onesimus came under the care and friendship of Paul. All we know is that Onesimus has somehow become a spiritual child to Paul while Paul was in prison. It’s like Paul is Onesimus’ confirmation mentor.

In a play on words of Onesimus’ name in the Greek, Paul says that Onesimus is now finally “useful” because he is no longer enslaved, but treated as a full human. Now it’s time for Paul to send Onesimus back to Philemon hoping that Philemon will receive his former slave as a brother in Christ. That is, Philemon will receive Onesimus not as someone he still owns and is in a position of authority over, but as someone he loves as a fellow Christian and is now equal to.

And there, we discover, is Philemon’s choice: take Onesimus back as he formerly was, a slave, as someone lesser-than, or receive him as a brother and see Onesimus as someone whose true worth is not bound up in what kind of work he can do under compulsion, but instead through the gifts that the Spirit has given him to share freely with the world. Can Philemon see past, perhaps, his own status and embrace Onesimus as a true equal? Let the old arrangement go and make room for new life? We never know what happens to Philemon and Onesimus and their relationship, but I imagine that it was pretty difficult for Philemon, given what social pressures he might have been under, to receive Onesimus as a free man.

In so many case, scenarios like this make choices about faith and life seem so easy, don’t they? Here’s one option…and then here’s the other. Now it’s your turn: just make a choice. Easy peasy. But if there is anything that I have observed throughout my days is that it’s so hard to make that choice. I have learned from people in recovery from the disease of addiction are very wise about this matter—that the act of choosing life and prosperity and health is a lot more difficult than most of us would care to admit.

One TikTok influencer I’ve run across several times is a woman in recovery from alcohol abuse. Just the other day she hit day 365 of sobriety—one whole year—and to mark it she made a post just sitting in her car talking about how she’s not going to make a big to-do about it because the next—day 366—will be another day to make the difficult but life-freeing choice to stay sober. She explains how she uses her TikTok followers as a community that helps hold her accountable. In the post she holds up the little token she received from her AA meeting as the humble prize that reminds her the journey will continue the next day and the day after that. Choices of faith can be difficult, even when they are framed in such basic and easy terms.

That’s why we should like how Jesus talks to the crowds in this morning’s gospel even though he says so many things that don’t initially sit well with us. We are to hate our family and even our very life to follow him. We are to carry the cross. We must give up all our possessions. What Jesus is doing is being honest about how hard it actually is to make choices. He’s being forthright with us about how the act of faith is arduous. It’s a procession, but not a parade. It’s a type of contest, but not a game. Jesus is getting real here about the choices and the calculations that necessarily come when one joins up for his journey, and while it sounds off-putting, it is ultimately to our benefit. It is to our benefit because all we often see in the moment is the sweet marshmallow of a charismatic leader forgetting something far better is to come.

That’s the issue with the crowds at this juncture in the story. They are ready to march right on into Jerusalem and take what they see is theirs, stick it to the Roman occupiers. More and more are signing on because Jesus feels like the popular and attractive option at this point.

And Jesus is now leveling with them…and with us. When he says we have to hate our father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, he doesn’t mean that in the emotional angry way that we usually imply with the word “hate.” It’s just a middle-eastern way of saying that in following Jesus we must be willing to detach ourselves from some of these other ties. We will find ourselves in situations where our faith will call our other relationships into question, kind of like Philemon and his relationship with Onesimus.

When he says we must hate our life he doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a hot coffee, or a good beer, or the way our lover’s body feels, or the other things God has given us to enjoy in this good creation. What it means is that our devotion to Jesus will redefine and recalibrate our attachments and affiliations to all other things in life. It will change how we spend our money, how we use our voice in society, how we prioritize our time and talent. Our following Jesus will influence how we regard other people, people the world tricks us into viewing primarily through the lens of our privilege and status. The call to follow, you see, involves calculations, some long-term thinking that can take us off guard.

Here’s my question, though: But can we really calculate it all? Can we ever be sure of our abilities to account for all of the costs beforehand? Can we, standing in this moment in time, predict all the twists and turns that the journey of discipleship might take? Can little Eliza, or her parents, with the water still moistening her head, have a clue what all her faith will get her into throughout her life? Can the couple I married last weekend, standing in the most beautiful of settings, on the eighteenth green of a golf course, before their friends and family, have any clue about all the twists and turns their marriage will inevitably take, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health?

baptismal journey begins for Eliza

Can the congregation, emerging groggily out of two long years of a pandemic, have a clue what the new normal of ministry and church life will look like? Can we know every little detail, for example, what Sunday School for kids will look and feel like with a third of the teachers and half the kids we once had? There is some anxiety about this, perhaps, but this week several teacher volunteers emailed Pastor Sarah and said, “We’re ready to try this, no matter how different it will be.” As for confirmation mentors, this is the first year I’ve never had to go out and beat the bushes. We actually had two more sign up than we needed! In all of these cases, and in each of our choices of faith and following, Jesus today just asks us to stop and consider the work and suffering and prayer that will be involved.

And all of that will be possible because we’re following the one who does know the ultimate cost and he’s willing to pay it. All of the joys and new discoveries of these endeavors will come because Jesus will never abandon us. Jesus has you and me in his long-term thinking from the word go. That we can make these choices is a fact because Jesus has first chosen us. He is the man who builds the tower to protect us and he is the king who sends in his army of mercy and love to conquer us. It takes all he has, but he has calculated in his love that we are worth it. On the cross he offers his life to free us from all the bad choices we’ve made and declare us to be, like Onesimus, truly useful. In God’s eyes, we are always useful, always beloved, always a prize.

And when the going gets tough, and we feel in over our heads, and the choice seems too much to bear—the blessings, the curses, the life, the death, we meet Jesus again. We meet him again today and he comes along side us and reminds us: “you are a blessing, not a curse. Again today I choose you. Now get up, and let’s go.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

More Than We Bargained For

a sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15C/Lectionary 20]

Luke 12:49-56 and Hebrews 11:28–12:2

Like many American families, my family decided in the earliest days of the COVID pandemic that it was time for a pet dog. The circumstances at that time seemed as perfect as they’d ever be for bringing a little cute fuzzy furball into the house. Almost everything had shut down. School had been cancelled, so everyone would be stuck in the house for the foreseeable future. We’d have plenty of time to train the little thing and take pictures of us holding it and going on walks with it at the end of a little leash. We were not all of one mind immediately in this decision, but pretty soon the one hold-out was persuaded and Joy, an eight-week-old Whippet puppy joined our family in early May 2020. The first days were what we predicted, and her adorableness was pretty much on-point. She worked her way right into our hearts.

However, as the time wore on we discovered there was an edge to having a dog that no one was really prepared for, no matter how much everyone claimed otherwise at the start. Valuable and cherished toys got chewed up. Someone needed to get her exercise every day. Crate training took a lot longer than expected, which resulted in many sleepless nights. And now that life has more or less returned to normal, we can’t just up and leave for vacation like we used to. Someone has to arrange boarding and, of course, vet appointments for vaccine updates. We still love her and don’t regret our decision, but, in a sense some, much of the puppy new-ness has worn off and Joy is often the source of friction. This dog has been more than we originally bargained for.

We might get the impression from Jesus’ words this morning that he, too, is more than we bargained for. Speaking directly to his closest followers, he sounds like the parent who rains on the children’s puppy parade. They have invited him into their lives. His healings of the sick  and sharp responses to the overbearing Pharisees have won them over. But there’s an edge to knowing Jesus no one was really prepared for. He’s the source of some friction.

They thought they were getting soft and fuzzy Jesus, but they’ve gotten sword Jesus. They were expecting years and years of cool refreshing water Jesus, but they’ve wound up with burning fire Jesus. They were looking forward to unity Jesus—to agreeable Jesus who stays predictable and peaceable—but now they’re looking at “division” Jesus. And it’s true: Jesus chews up our little idols and asks us to take him on walks outside on a regular basis where other people will see we’re close to him.

I have a wooden cross somewhere in my office that someone once gave me that is painted with Jesus in the middle and surrounding him are all kinds of different people of the world, crowded together. The faces of the people are all happy, and when you look at it you can see they’re people of all kinds of different colors of skin. I love that cross, and I’ve seen others with it. It is a familiar, unifying image of Jesus that brings people together, a love that overcomes all kinds of personal differences that often divide us. Today, however, Jesus is the divider. He says his arrival will even set people in the same family against one another.

Believe it or not, in Jesus’ time, familial bonds were tighter and more binding than we perceive them to be today. Family determined almost everything about one’s identity and one’s place in the village or town. We often think of our personal identity as something that belongs just to us. We have been formed by this idea of personal authenticity, that our true self resides solely within us and must be expressed freely, that it can only be negatively influenced by external pressures. In Jesus’ time, and for much of world history, your immediate family or tribal associations were what really mattered. They were your authenticity. As you can imagine, it was a system that gave a great deal of stability in most cases, but could, of course, perpetuate all kinds of abuses and oppressions, especially if you weren’t male and weren’t wealthy.

Jesus says that he will even cause divisions within these seemingly unbreakable networks of kinship. He is clear-eyed about how his message will occasionally disrupt the fabric of society  and the standard ways people live for one another. Jesus’ life will enable people to see themselves as part of something larger, a kingdom where boundaries are erased even as our diversity remains. Jesus’ sacrifice will give us the eyes to see people as valuable simply because they are alive with us not because of what race they are or how rich they may be or if they’re male or female. For the vision of the cross to come true, bonds influenced racism and sexism and classism will have to be rent asunder. I know I’m guilty of not letting this Jesus speak enough—both to me and through this pulpit—and yet every week, especially in these partisan times, I feel like there is some way someone will be offended.

As it happens, today the church commemorates a 20th century priest named Maximillian Kolbe. Born in Poland just before the turn of the last century, Kolbe was a deeply devout man who was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1919. He founded a friary just west of Warsaw that eventually became a home to over 700 friars and went on to open friaries in India and Japan. A friary is a place where Christian men and sometimes women would live in community and openly be involved in and serve the communities around them. In 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland, Kolbe’s friary sheltered 3000 Poles and 1500 Jews from deportation to concentration camps. In 1941 the Nazis closed down the friary and Kolbe and four of his companions were carried off to Auschwitz. While imprisoned, Kolbe continued to carry on the work of a priest, secretly hearing prisoners’ confessions, offering prayer, and even distributing Holy Communion when people would smuggle in bread and wine.

Fr Maximilian Kolbe (1896-1941)

When a prisoner from Kolbe’s same bunker escaped one day, ten men were selected at random from the remaining ones for execution. One of them was a sergeant who had a family. Father Maximillian Kolbe was not related to him in any way, but understood the bond that Jesus had made between them was real. Kolbe offered to take the sergeant’s place, and the Nazis agreed, figuring a younger man would be of more use than the older Kolbe. He was placed with the other nine in a large cell to starve to death. After two weeks Kolbe was still alive, so he was executed by lethal injection on this day in 1941.

Maximilian Kolbe’s witness is an extreme one, but it shows how stark the division is that Jesus brings. Kolbe knew the love of Jesus had divided him from the dominant Nazi cultural values. And in great courage, he would rather remain divided from it than go along with it, and in the end, he chose even to be divided from his own life than continue in a system that gloried oppression and violence. And because of that, thousands were saved from death.

We can probably safely assume we’ll never face a situation quite that intense, but the fact of the matter is that every disciple finds him or herself under the sword Jesus. Every follower of our Lord becomes aware, sometimes daily, that his way of life is not a cake walk. The truth is Jesus has never been secretive about his mission or his impact on the world. His call is no bait and switch approach that has charmed us with its first impression. The Jesus who is aware of how fiery his presence is is the same Jesus who is gentle and compassionate, calm and patient.

Even before he is born his own mother declares that Jesus’ arrival will cast down the mighty from their thrones and send the rich away empty. And as he is presented in the temple, just a few weeks old, and old man named Simeon, who had been waiting on the Savior, declares Jesus is destined for the falling and rising of many and that he would reveal the inner thoughts of many. “A sword,” Simeon says as he looks at Jesus’ mother, “will pierce your own soul too.” Even Mary will feel the suffering that Jesus will undergo in order to bring all people together in love and justice and peace.

Kosovar icon depicting Christ with a sword

Even though Jesus says here that he doesn’t come to bring peace, that is, of course, a momentary exaggeration to make a point. He is the Prince of Peace and always will be, but his peace must also divide us from all the things that hold us back from embodying the grace his reign. Our baptisms are a drowning of sin. In the waters we are baptized with, the hold that selfishness and clannishness and materialism has on us begins to lose its grip. His words each week to us are a purifying fire that removes the things that make us less than God creates us to be. And throughout our lives, God gives us a great cloud of witnesses—that is, other people on the journey of faith with us—who encourage us and urge us on.

This past week our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, held its Churchwide Assembly in Columbus, OH. This is a gathering the whole church leadership and voting members from each of the 65 Synods to make decisions about church vision and policy that will affect the whole church. Churchwide elections are also held, and this past week we elected a new vice president of the ELCA. According to our church constitution, the Vice President is the highest office that can be held by a lay person; that is, someone who is not ordained.

In the end, the vice presidency went to a man from a congregation in Atlanta named Imran Siddiqui. As you can guess from his name, Mr. Siddiqui is not a cradle Lutheran, and he mentioned that directly in his speech on Wednesday. In fact, Siddiqui was raised a Muslim, and he only became a follower of Jesus and underwent baptism about eleven years ago, as an adult. I do not know Siddiqui personally, but I can imagine that his decision to leave the faith of his family and become Christian might have caused some friction somewhere along the line, but what a gift to the church!

Whatever the case, Siddiqui gave a powerful testimony to his faith on Wednesday before the assembly, explaining how moved he has been, among many things, by the consensus-driven manner of decision making in his Synod and congregation. It is a way of being in community, he says, that requires people to really listen to one another. It stands in direct contrast to the way our ultra-divided society functions now, where everything is “us vs them” and where people who have a differing option are cast as “evil” or “immoral.”

Siddiqui’s statement of faith reminds us that Jesus does call us to be divisive! But not by calling each other names or assigning labels, not by attacking with our fists or with clever zingers from our lips, not by posturing ourselves above others in holiness. Jesus calls us to be divisive precisely in our loving desire to bring everyone together, to raise eyebrows by how forgiving and selfless and vulnerable Jesus helps us be.

And as his reign continues, and he works his way into more and more hearts, and as he works his way into our own again and again, we will be happy to find that, lo and behold, we have wound up with a love that is more, far more than we could ever bargain for.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.