“Death Be Never Last”

a sermon for All Saints Sunday [Year B]

John 11:32-44 and Isaiah 25:6-9

“Death be now but never last.” The guy who wrote that hymn, Ray Makeever, composed those words just after his wife’s death from cancer. He says the words came to him as he woke up from a nap—a nap he had taken weary from grief no doubt—like a voice of God speaking to his mind. “Death be now but never last” is not just a line from Makeever’s hymn. It is, in fact, the refrain of the church on this festival of all its saints—like something we’d say at Easter but here in the midst of autumn and its days of decreasing light and warmth. God speaks to us into the haze of our grief: “Death be now but never last.”

Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life, the Alpha and the Omega, a force of life that makes all things new and so death be now but never last.

The hands that were pierced with nails are already wiping away our tears for the day to come and the head that bled from thorns now wears a crown of victory reminding us that thought death be in our presence now, it is never last.

And, oh, how we need to hear this refrain because right now we look around and it seems all we see is death. We look around and see so many faces covered with masks and other reminders of this blasted pandemic. We look around and we see looming inflation and supply chain failure, natural disasters and famine. We look around and we notice how dreadfully tomb-like life seems to be—people still sequestered in their homes or nursing care facilities or hospitals, guests limited to one at a time, if at all. I hear in conversations with people more themes of burnout and fatigue, more than I ever have before. Death be now…death be so now.

It was that way for Lazarus and his sisters, and the town of mourners in Bethany who had assembled outside his tomb. Death be already four days for Lazarus who had succumbed to his illness before his buddy Jesus could get there to say goodbye or maybe—hopefully—work one of his healing miracles to save him. He’s already wrapped up in the traditional ceremonial cloths that give dignity to the deceased and help shield it a bit from the forces of decay. Jesus finally shows up and it is death and its ugliness everywhere he looks. People are crying, Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha are understandably distraught, maybe even a little frustrated at Jesus, and the whole scene is loss and grief—except for a few who use it as an opportunity to mock Jesus.

It even affects Jesus. Not once, not twice, but three times in this short passage we see Jesus overcome with emotions. The people there seem to interpret Jesus’ tears as sorrow and grief, thinking that he is crying because he was close to Lazarus and was sad to see him die. That may be so, and we certainly find it moving that the Lord of life would weep like we do at the death of a friend. But the Greek word used for Jesus’ reaction of great disturbance is more in line with anger and agitation. Jesus sees everyone else standing around Lazarus’ tomb and is overcome with righteous frustration at the chaos and devastation and, yes, burnout and fatigue brought about by the presence of death and sin.

Regardless of what Jesus’ emotions mean, we can definitely notice what Jesus’ first words are. It’s a question: “Where have you laid him?” Jesus’ first instinct in the midst of this turmoil is to go to where the death is. It’s as if he asks, “Where have you stashed your sorrows, your griefs? Where have you locked away your dead ends, your failed dreams? That is precisely where I want to go?” And when we’d rather explain to God why that sounds like a dumb idea, that we’ve already given up, that there would be no use to go there, Jesus just insists those are the things he wants to see. He wants to know the things that bring us pain he wants to know where the grief springs from for he knows that in those places is precisely where God’s glory can be shown. If death must be now, then Jesus must be there.

And so he goes to the very door of the tomb of Lazarus, a cave that has been enclosed with a large stone. Against the murmurs of doubt and surprise, against the warnings about the stench from inside, Jesus calls Lazarus out, and Lazarus walks right out, alive and well again. Because death be now, but never last.

We have probably seen so many churches and cathedrals of so many different kinds that we may not realize that the first public spaces that Christians created and occupied for themselves were not churches or social halls but rather cemeteries. Archaeologists have long known that he oldest distinctly Christian space was a set of underground burial chambers constructed in Rome in the early 3rd century called the catacombs of Callixtus. And in those burial chambers early Christians celebrated worship right alongside the bones of their dead loved ones, so confident were they of Jesus’ promise to make all things new and call forth life from the depths of darkness.

But even more profound than that is the fact that along the walls and ceilings of these dark chambers and passageways are images and designs created with paint and mosaic. They are the first known original Christian artworks.[1] Prior to this, all examples of Christian art were artifacts and trinkets borrowed from secular sources or other religions. The first unique expressions of Christian beauty were created right there in the tombs. What a powerful statement of the gospel! Although death may think it will have its say and last forever, although grief may scream loud and long, those who’ve been claimed by Jesus know that life has the final word. “We’re going to scrawl images of hope and joy right here on the walls of these tombs!”

Catacombs of Callixtus

Beauty and life have the final word because Jesus himself goes to where the death is and speaks into it. He doesn’t just call Lazarus forth, but lays in the tomb himself, dead as he can be, dead from hanging on a cross, so that God may raise him up again. This is the reality that pierces our autumn gloom, our days of grief and burnout here in November 2021.

And so we have hope that death be now but never last for each of our Lazaruses too.

For the Lazarus who loved to golf, but whose cancer crept back by surprise despite the gains made in treatment over the past two years. For the Lazarus who liked to work with wood, but who was taken suddenly by a heart attack as he happily worked on a home improvement project with his son-in-law. For the one who love the Yankees, but who could not turn back the affects of dementia and pneumonia, and the one who died peacefully in her sleep in the bedroom just downstairs from her beloved granddaughters. For the Lazarus who was a big UVA fan, but who died on a ventilator with COVID, unable to share his last days with his family, who heard his last earthly prayer and “I love you” through a Zoom call on an iPad that a nurse, head-to-toe in PPE, held over the bed. Death be now but never last for them and all the others, and we name our dead and through our tears paint the beauty of God their lives on the walls of our sorrow, We talk of that beauty because their lives pointed to that kingdom, a kingdom where because of Jesus’ love they are unbound and free to go.

We all wait for that day, in fact, in the tombs of here and now. We wait for that promised day when the tears will be dried from our eyes, when the shroud that is cast over all peoples will be destroyed fully by the wounds and the tears of our Redeemer. Just as we await the end of these pandemic restrictions, we cast our eyes even farther past, toward that time when all will be gathered unto God on his holy mountain, a scene that the prophet Isaiah reassures God’s people with at a time when they are wandering and without hope.

Back in the spring a member of our church council who works in public relations for the Virginia ABC had to arrange a photo shoot for an article that was going to be run in the ABC magazine, a quarterly publication that goes by the clever name Spirited Virginia. The article, in fact, was in part about emerging from a year’s worth of shutdown by gathering with friends you haven’t seen in a while and serving festive drinks to celebrate.

To find people for this photo shoot, this council member decided to enlist none other than some friends from her church small group here at Epiphany. They all gathered one spring day out at her river house and concocted a bunch of fake cocktails and drinks with food coloring and posed with their glasses raised in celebration. You can go to page 35 and page 22 of the fall 2021 edition of Spirited Virginia and see Epiphany members toasting drinks which, for the purposes of photography, aren’t even real. Apparently it was such a good time that one of them even knocked over a whole tray of fake margaritas.

In a time of stress I know several of us have gotten more than one chuckle at the thought of this scene—people I know and love having a good time with each other pretending to party as models in a magazine. Like Isaiah’s vision, it was to cast hope towards a brighter time in our near future. But even this cheerfulness pales in comparison to the laughter and joy and relief we will all experience when God’s victory over sin and death is complete. There won’t be any fake food coloring in the drinks on that day. It will be rich food and well-aged wines, as the prophet Isaiah promises, food filled with marrow and well-aged wines strained clear.

And the Lord God will wipe away all tears from all faces and, I’m sure, all facemasks and ventilators too. And the Lord God will be done with agitation and anger at all the damages done by death. And he will look at the all the disgraces that hold us back from God’s good life and say with a loud voice of love: “Unbind my people and let them go. Let them go forever for I, I am the resurrection and the life. Death be then,” God will say, “but Christ it is never, ever last!”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The First Thousand Years, Robert Louis Wilken. Yale University Press. 2012. pages 47ff

Faithful Like

a sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24B/Lectionary 29]

Mark 10:35-45

This morning in our gospel reading from Mark we hear what might actually be the first ever church conflict. There has been a lot of conflict in the church over the millennia. There have been conflicts surrounding religious practices and conflicts dealing with biblical interpretation and conflicts dealing with issues of race and ethnicity. There have been personality conflicts and arguments over the spending of money, and brawls over what color the sanctuary carpet is going to be. The Bible records much of this and, to get right down to it, probably half of the New Testament is written in response to some kind of conflict that the different early Christian communities were experiencing.

Out of a great many of these conflicts arose lots of resurrection moments where the story of Jesus was heard afresh and the community was strengthened. There was a big brou-haha early on, for example, recorded in Acts, chapter 6, between two groups of widows in the church, each of whom thought the other was getting more financial aid. That led to the creation of church ministers, like deacons, who worked specifically within the internal life of the church and distributed resources fairly.

But all that having been said, the argument that erupts between the ten disciples and brothers James and John on the road to Jerusalem with Jesus is the first conflict we have recorded. It is a conflict about the nature of God’s kingdom. It is an argument about what shape Jesus’ mission is to take. It is a debate about leadership and glory and the basics about how to go about in the world as a follower of Christ.

The argument centers around a request made by these two brothers, James and John, two of Jesus’ first disciples. The request they make is that they want to special powers and authority in Jesus’ kingdom. They are all heading to Jerusalem at this point, and James and John are fully expecting that Jesus’ kingdom will soon conquer all of the forces of oppression and injustice. They want to have special recognition and stature in that new constellation of leadership. Right and left hand. Can we blame them? Isn’t this how politics, as we know it, works? You put your money and your reputation and your faith behind a candidate with the hopes that if that person wins or claims power somehow, they will at least listen to close supporters a little more closely, if not place them in key roles of power.

James and John find out the hard way that, when it comes to requests of God, we don’t always get what we ask for. We don’t always get what we ask for because, as Jesus points out, we often don’t know what we’re asking. If James and John really knew what was in store for Jesus’ followers, if they really grasped what was going to befall Jesus once he reaches Jerusalem, they wouldn’t have asked it. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard says in one of her essays that if we really were aware of what we were doing when we worship and pray to God we should wear crash helmets. “Ushers,” she says, “should issue life preservers and signal flares.” The God at which we toss our requests is full of an awesome power, and he “may wake someday and take offense or,” she goes adds, “the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”[1]

That’s the God who James and John approach that day. And God draws them close in Jesus to a place where they will never return. A place of suffering and servitude. A place of humility and heartache. A world that is turned completely upside down where the folks at the bottom are really the greatest.  “You do not know what you are asking, fellas.” They don’t know what they’re asking because they still aren’t grasping what the nature of Jesus’ kingdom is going to be.

And then Jesus asks if they can drink the cup that he drinks, and if they can submit to the same baptism he will undertake, an immersion in a life lived for others, not for themselves. On the one hand, the part about the cup is probably a tip of the hat to Holy Communion, the new covenant of love that Jesus will share with his disciples on the night before his death. It’s like Jesus is asking if they’ll stay at the table with him in their life ahead.

But on the other hand, the act of drinking itself involves a bit of commitment and risk. Once something goes down you can’t really cough it back up again, no matter how bad it tastes and what it may do to you. Currently our five-year-old will drink anything he finds around the house. We actually have to be really careful about leaving cups and glasses out on the counter or on the tables because he will just pick them up and drink them. The dregs of someone’s cold coffee. Pale juicy liquids that have been diluted by melted ice. He’ll twist the lid off his sister’s kombucha and chug it in one sitting. We’re always a little worried if he’ll end up getting sick later. So far he seems to have a stomach of steel.

Jesus has a bitter cup to offer his followers, a cup of hardship, and even if they are able to chug it down, even if they have a stomach of steel, he still cannot promise them the kind of glory and fame they are wanting. They want standard worldly power. That’s not his to grant. And they may get sick on what comes with following him. They may, in fact, die.

Are we ever ready to take that kind of commitment on, to drink that cup? Do we realize that today we are actually immersing little Blair here into a life of strange glory that will promise her some suffering? A life that, if we model it right, will teach her to shelve many of her own needs or at least see them as less important than the needs of those around her? She’s in a nice baptismal gown, but maybe we need to make her one of Annie Dillard’s little crash helmets, because God is going to come down and send her out to do some amazing good in the world that will bump her up against some hard injustice.

Jesus eventually calls the disciples all together because their arguing is getting out of hand. It’s not clear what specifically they’re angry about, but Jesus sees this as the time to spell out what his glory looks like. Glory with him looks like serving. It looks like the opposite of most worldly systems, which place the glory and the greatest people on the top of the pyramid. Glory, for now, looks like handing one’s desires for power over. Glory, for now, looks like hanging on a cross. The Son of Man, after all, comes not to sit at the top of the ladder and have people serve his every need, but to climb down and serve the needs of those at the bottom. And that is really where we are. We are there among the many that Jesus come to ransom. We are there among the many who are enslaved to our sin and the ways of evil, And he comes to offer himself at great cost, even as they make foolish demands and run from him and deny him and betray him. He pulls them and pulls us all together to remind us of his great love, a love that turns the world on its head.

There was a national news story this week right out of our own Chesterfield County of a retired top FBI official and Fortune 500 Executive who is now driving a bus for the public school system in response to their acute need. Michael Mason, who has debriefed presidents and commanded platoons and boardrooms of powerful people has now come out of retirement to drive a school bus for special needs students. He is donating his entire salary to charity. The report on CBS news that covered his story juxtaposes shots of him in White House Press conferences with footage of him lifting a child in a wheelchair onto a bus and strapping him in. “Whoever wants to be greatest must be servant of all.”

This conflict between the disciples about the true nature of Jesus’ kingdom and mission may or may not be the first church conflict. But it is definitely its longest-running. We are still having this argument, even as many of the other arguments have found resolution. This conflict rages daily. It simmers beneath the surface (and should simmer beneath the surface) within our congregations whenever we think about the ministries we undertake and how we allot resources. Are we making ourselves servants to our community? This conflict rages within our culture when we consider which people and groups we tend to adore and which ones we ignore. And the conflict about Jesus’ true mission and kingdom rages within the hearts of each of us, especially when we start to talk about freedom and rights, which are directly related to power, and are really being discussed a lot right now because of the pandemic. For the follower of Jesus, freedom is not the liberty to do whatever I want. It is not even the liberty to do what is best for me. It is the liberty to do what is best for my neighbor. As Martin Luther once famously said 501 years ago next month, “A Christian is perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

I’ve really gotten a kick out of the song by country music artist Walker Hayes that came out this summer called “Fancy Like.” It’s a bit corny, but it’s got a good groove to it, and the message is as straightforward as you can get. As you listen to it, you realize he is redefining the term fancy as he describes his relationship with his sweetheart. Other people may consider a fancy night out something expensive and high-brow, but he and his girl are fancy like simple ordinary Applebee’s on a date night, and splurging is sharing the same Oreo shake. I like country music because it puts a lot of things in real plain terms, and that’s what I see Jesus doing today with us, his disciples, as he tries once again to settle this dispute about the nature of his kingdom and remind them what glory and faithfulness is like with a God who gives his life as a ransom for many. Jesus might just draw us close and, pointing to the Gentiles over there, whose leaders like to lord it over them, would say, friends, remember…

Yeah, we faithful like Son of God on betrayal night
Got that common loaf of bread with his body we are fed
And he’s whipped mean, hung on the cross too.
Three persons, one God, child, he got you.
Power like forgiveness in a wine cup
Seek-seeking out his lost sheep, loving them up
Some suffering Messiah, he’s our Savior, He’s our Light, (hey!)
That’s how he do what he do, he faithful like.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “An Expedition to the Pole,” in Teaching a Stone to Talk. Harper Perennial, 1982, p 52

How the Pastor Writes the Funeral Sermon

She prays then
starts in the
She puts down a thought.
She gets up and wipes her eyes.
She takes into consideration
the ways faces looked
at the hospital, their eyebrows,
the homemade picture board.
She re-reads the obituary,
finds a date, a place,
glances back at the Bible
and then to the screen.
Three strands—
A weaving class would have helped.
Or pointillism.
This is not linear.
Dot of grief goes next to dot of hope.
She spills some paint
and risk
until an image emerges.
It takes her by surprise.
Again she wipes her eyes.
In her mind
she puts herself in the front pew
where the widow sits
waiting, listening, faltering,
at the pallbearers coming down the aisle.
She hears in her head that line in that hymn.
Now she knows the beginning.
She types amen.

Getting Named

a sermon for the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22B/Lectionary 27]

Genesis 2:18-24 and Mark 10:2-16

I hear this Genesis reading about Adam naming the animals in the garden one by one and I think immediately about our own house. Right now we’ve got a lot of stuffed animals at home. It’s bit embarrassing. They litter the flat surfaces in every room. I feel like we live in one of those crane machines at Chuck E. Cheese. The main reason why is because my wife and I have discovered that they make really effective rewards for our son, who is five. He makes a good choice, or he achieves an important milestone, and he gets the next stuffed animal he wants. The ones he likes are the ones that are as realistic as possible.

One of the first things he does when he gets his new stuffed animal is to give it a name. The sloth he got for something a while ago is affectionately known as “Slothy.” The bat he got when we were out west this summer is “Batty.” When he got a stuffed chicken that he really wanted he named it “Chickeny.” The mouse is “Mousey.” The owl is—you guessed it—“Owly.” And the shark is… “Bruce.”

To some degree these are real beings in our house. We spend an awful lot of time looking for them when they’re lost and repairing them when their eyes get chewed off by the dog. And a large part of their realness and closeness is in the naming. Naming things becomes the way the world makes more sense to us and becomes less frightening and bewildering. God does not want creation to be frightening and bewildering. God intends creation to involve intimacy, respect, and healing.

And there sits Man at the very beginning, naming all of God’s creatures, one by one. The creation stories in Genesis are unique in this aspect—unique from all other early civilizations’ creations stories. Creation is supposed to be our haven, a place of wonder and beauty, something that supports our life and enriches us. Living amidst creation in all its diversity is kind of like a reward for being human, for being God’s first and prized creation. God places his first human in the middle as a way to provide him shelter and intimacy. The point of this creating and naming all the Batties and Slothiess and Owliess and Chickenies  is to help solve the issue of his human loneliness.

We are still naming living and nonliving that we discover, carrying out Man’s first job, making sense of them and ourselves as we do so, and how we’re supposed to tend to this beauty that God gave us. That’s why we’re a bit lonelier when a species we’ve named and therefore grown to love disappears from the face of the planet due to extinction. This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that twenty-three American species no longer in existence, including the incomparable Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a reminder that we still exploit and misuse God’s creation.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker (John James Audubon)

But even if we had the woodpecker back, and all the species we’ve ever lost somehow returned, none of them would form real community for the human being. For that, the first man needs another human, and that’s how woman comes to be. The way the ancient Hebrews, who gave us this story, would have understood all of this is that Woman, by coming from Man, is equal to him, not subservient to him. It’s like Man and Woman are two ends of a horizontal line that then are looped together to created a circle, with all the creatures of earth descending beneath them but still connected.

And the method of their creation is not supposed to be read as literal science as we understand science now. Rather, when the writers of Genesis say she is taken from the Man’s ribs it is a way of expressing the mysterious, inexplicably beautiful partnership which men and women can have and how they go through life as equals, beside each other. She is called a ‘helper’ to Man, but that is not a demeaning term. Throughout Scripture, in fact, the same word is used to describe God’s relationship to humankind. Woman is a helper to Man in the way that God is a helper to those he creates and guides through life. The bottom line of the story of our creation is that humans are meant for intimacy and connection. For some that pull of community leads to a call of marriage, to join together as one. But even those who are not married know that there is something about their human friendships that is life-giving.

Adam and Eve in the Garden (Peter Wenzel)

So when our relationships are torn by our sin and selfishness, life can become difficult. The worship service for marriage in our previous hymnal had this wonderful line in the declaration of intent that went “Because of sin, our age-old rebellion, the gladness of marriage can be overcast, and the gift of family can become a burden.” I think all families and all marriages and all individuals know this. I know life with me is a burden for my family, especially when it comes to the kitchen sink and laundry. In reality, those who are most intimate with us have the ability to do us the most harm. I would suspect those who’ve been through a divorce might tell us about that, and those who haven’t should listen non-judgmentally.

The Pharisees try to force Jesus into a judgmental position in this morning’s gospel lesson. They come at him with a question that is not really honest because they are hoping to test him or trap him. I’m not sure the Pharisees really care about divorce or what it does to families, or how it’s a complex issue that, as we know it, involves deep pain and all kinds of emotion. They seem to view it purely as an issue of law and technicalities. And Jesus just throws the question right back at them. It is clear, he admits, all the way back to Moses that God allowed a legal possibility for divorce. Our hardness of heart, our inability to be as totally gracious and loving as God is in every circumstance, is something God lovingly takes into consideration. Sometimes marriages must come to an end so that life for both can move on.

This particular gospel reading can often be a bit of a hand grenade. It gets lobbed in here on a Sunday morning, landing on our bulletin page, making so many people uncomfortable and hurt. I wish that weren’t so. Marriage in Jesus’ time was almost nothing like marriage of today. Women, in particular, were treated in marriage agreements like little more than property traded between families trying to consolidate power. Women were usually prohibited from writing letters of divorce, and so they lived very precariously at the desires of their husbands, and a divorced woman even more precariously in society. Men would easily file for one divorce just so they could take up with another woman, and in many cases everyone knew they were already doing that.

That is the issue Jesus is addressing here—this rampant abuse of divorce laws to cover for infidelity that promoted the patriarchal system and put women’s lives at risk. In one simple discussion with his disciples after-the-fact, Jesus instantly puts women and men back on the same level. What good for the gander is good for the goose. Women and men can both write letters of divorce and should both be held accountable in the same way. Because, as God initially designed it, marriage is about mutuality and respect, about intimacy and love, not exploitation.

Suffice it to say, marriage and divorce is most often so different these days, and I’d have a hard time believing Jesus would not be in support of people getting remarried in most of the cases we encounter. Some of the most blessed unions I have officiated have been people’s second marriages, and some of the most harmonious and wholesome families I’ve seen have been blended families—ones with siblings from parents’ previous marriages.

I think most religious debates and riddle problems, like this ones the Pharisees offer, even when they have good intentions and decent outcomes, are a bit like hand grenades. They leave people feeling let down or confused or in need of grace and in the end, no one escapes unscathed at the damage they do. Try getting involved in a religious disagreement on social media. Everyone ends up looking and sounding bad. And so immediately Jesus looks for an opportunity to set things right again, to clear the air, to remind his people of God’s grace—to remind us that in spite of all the laws and rules, God always desires intimacy for his beloved humans. God always wants the lonely to be given companionship, the marginalized to be brought close, the unnamed people among us to be bestowed with dignity and honor.

And so when people start bringing him children—which they do, right after this—he starts to pay attention to them. My guess is they are women doing this. They know. They’ve heard about Jesus by now and how he reminds people of their blessing. And when his disciples try to stop the people from bringing the children, he rebukes them. He is indignant, the Bible says. It’s the same word for “angry.” Jesus doesn’t get described with that word many times at all, but one of them is when people try to prevent children from coming to him.

And then he goes a step farther, as if patting them on the head isn’t clear enough. He picks them up in his arms. Children!—those who are considered non-people, or not-yet people. Who have stuffy noses all the time and don’t appreciate fine food and who laugh at inappropriate things like fart noises. Those who feel little and left out. Those who can’t follow rules very well. Those who are usually exploited for their labor or trafficked for their youth. These are the ones Jesus takes in his arms, as if to make it clear: no more trying to come to God through religious riddles and debates. No more trying to impress others with your legalism or do-goodism, your grasp of the Bible and theology. Just trust and be curious and rejoice in the world around you.

One Sunday in my internship in Cairo, Egypt, we were doing a big group baptism for one of the African refugee congregations. There were a bunch of them all lined up at the font in our church—men, women, old and young. And it was about 100 degrees. We baptized one little boy—I’d guess he was five or six. The pastor poured the water over his head and instead of getting out of the way, the boy stood there at the font and took his hands and spread the cool water all over his head and face. And he did it again. The adults behind him saw it and started to laugh a bit, but tried to move him out of the way The boy was feeling that cool. He was in the moment, and it’s a baptismal image I’ve never forgotten.

In that moment, I’d bet Jesus would keep spraying water on him, laughing as he did it. And then probably he would have splashed all the grown-ups too. “Don’t be bewildered or frightened anymore, little boy,” he’d say. “Don’t be bewildered or frightened, kids, any of you. Enjoy this place every once in a while. And trust me all the time, especially when you mess up,” he’d say, with the compassion he showed on the cross. “God knows your name”.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Same Boat

a sermon for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21B/Lectionary 26]

Mark 9:38-50

“We’re all in the same boat.
Fishing in the same hole

Wondering where the time goes
We’re all in the same boat.”

I don’t know if you’ve heard that yet, but that’s the chorus of the new song by country music artists Zac Brown Band which is getting lots of play on the radio these days.  It has that familiar sound as if it might have been around a while, but actually it’s a song they wrote and released this year in response to the overwhelming divisiveness they feel has taken over culture and society. It is their appeal to unity and persevering with each other, not against one another. It continues later, “Spread a little love, gotta give back something. If the ship keeps rocking we’ll all go overboard.” The song seems to say that whether or not we realize it, we are bound together and our success is dependent on acknowledging our common goals of survival. It’s like what Jesus says to his disciples at the end of this morning’s gospel reading, a teaching that sums up a long string of lessons about being one of his followers. “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” You’re all in the same boat, fishing in the same hole.

Jesus finds it necessary to keep reminding his disciples of the common goal of his kingdom. They get off track, they aim for personal glory and power, they misunderstand that his mission involves suffering. They are to be the core community that gives the flavor of love and justice to the world. Through their ministry of mercy and forgiveness they will release people from the bondage of darkness. This is the work of salt. It brings out the best in the things it touches. The issue is that the disciples have run across another person who is doing the same kinds of things, being that same kind of salt and they don’t recognize him. It’s like copyright infringement for Jesus, and the disciples are suddenly patent attorneys. This person does not have an official license to cast out demons like they do, or so the disciples think. That’s when it gets interesting. To their surprise, Jesus says that person is in their same boat too, fishing in the same hole. This boat is bigger than the disciples realize. In fact, Jesus clarifies it even further: anyone who is not actively working against them in their Christlike work is actually in their boat too.

Don’t we often forget how big the boat is? No one person or group can claim, identify, or encapsulate the Spirit-driven work of Jesus. In fact, any basic act of compassion, like offering a cup of water to those who bear Christ’s name, is considered a work of the kingdom. If they find themselves on the receiving end of even a basic act of kindness, that, too, is part of God’s work in the world. That sounds like God may be using people for God’s work without their even being aware of it!

God’s kingdom is more expansive than we often realize. Being a good disciple means being aware of that—that as we have salt within ourselves and live peacefully with each other, we constantly remain open to others in the world who are also doing the kinds of things Christ does. And we are not just open to them, but grateful for them. We learn from them. We partner with them when possible. We adopt their wisdom and incorporate it as needed. This past week we had a meeting with the new batch of confirmation mentors to provide a type of orientation to the conversations they’ll be having with their confirmation students. One person offered up a book she had read as a resource, explaining how it had given her good insights on how to have healthy conversations with young people. After she spoke a little about it, she added a little disclaimer, saying, “You just need to know that the book and the author aren’t specifically Christian. And yet it contains such good wisdom about forming solid relationships.” The group of mentors rightly acknowledged that a book doesn’t have to be by a Lutheran author or a Bible scholar in order to impart godly wisdom. I know that listening to certain U2 songs in my angsty teenage years certainly helped cast out a lot of my own demons. They weren’t explicitly Christian songs, but I did encounter God’s care through them. Whoever is not against us is for us.

Then Jesus turns all the focus on them. The disciples are so worried about other people, about who is working against them or for them, about who should be stopped doing this or that. Jesus reminds us that when it comes to the work of his kingdom, the only person we really need to worry about stopping now and then is…ourselves. Isn’t that funny? So often Jesus’ followers get a reputation of calling other people out, organizing coalitions to protest something or censor something. I’m afraid we’re often known as the naysayers of others’ actions, of what we’re against. Yet with some of the most violent images in the New Testament Jesus explains that they need to take far more seriously their own behaviors. If push comes to shove, we need to be more concerned about pushing ourselves out of the boat of God’s forward mission, not other people.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And yet I’m not sure we grasp just how countercultural these teachings of Jesus are. At least I know I don’t. I get caught up in all this talk of hell and the unquenchable fire and undying worms and I miss the point of what Jesus is really saying to me. For example, cancel culture is huge issue these days. If one person makes a comment or gesture deemed to be politically incorrect or even offensive, they are lopped out of human society for good, lampooned on social media, ripped of dignity and honor. With hatchets in hand, we jump on the bandwagon of criticizing others’ lives.

But what Jesus is really saying is that we should really only apply cancel culture to ourselves. If something I am doing brings about temptation or sin, I should address it immediately. If something about me and my actions might be getting in the way of other people seeing and possibly knowing the grace of God, it’s better if I take myself out of the picture somehow. Do some self-examination. Receive forgiveness. Be transparent. Of course, Jesus is exaggerating with the methods. He doesn’t literally mean for your to drown yourself with a millstone or gouge your eye out or cut your limbs off. All middle eastern people of Jesus’ times spoke in hyperbole. He’s trying to stress just how serious of an issue these things are.

And it also should be noted that when he mentions hell here he isn’t talking about life in an eternal fire pit somewhere. He is talking about Gehenna, or the valley of Hinnom, the literal burning garbage dump and burial ground at the edge of Jerusalem that had been there since ancient times. It had even been a place of child sacrifice centuries before. The people of Jesus’ times considered it to be a godforsaken place where no one could imagine living. When it comes to human brokenness, our propensity to mess things up, it is important that we take its dangers seriously. A life lived only for ourselves and our own preservation, a spiritual life that focuses on cutting off other people’s hands and feet ultimately leads us all to Gehenna, desolate and sad.

modern photo approximating ancient location of Gehenna (Valley of Hinnom)

But as seriously as we may take our brokenness and sinfulness and our ability to be stumbling blocks to others’ faith, no one takes it more seriously than Jesus, himself. He goes to a godforsaken place for us. People take nails and hammers to his own hands and feet. They spit in his eyes. They cancel him bigtime. We cancel him. In a cold blooded effort to show him that we know how to row this boat ourselves, thank you very much, we tie a big millstone around his neck in the form of a cross and throw him overboard. And as he dies, we see that in Jesus, God present in everyone we attempt to cancel or destroy. In Jesus God is with in every person who is humiliated and shamed. In Jesus, God is sheltering anyone who has ever been mocked or abandoned.  In Jesus, God is beside everyone who is given just one cup of cold water to drink. In Jesus, God is with you and me whenever we are aware of our brokenness and because Jesus is risen we are set free and made whole again.

Jesus makes us whole, our arms and feet reassembled to go where he sends us and embrace the suffering of the world. Jesus makes us whole, our plucked-out eyes reattached and given new sight to see opportunities to grow and love. Jesus makes us whole, our hearts forgiven so that we may be salt for the earth. I think so often we tend to think of our discipleship in grandiose gestures of making a difference. We wait for God to send us that big mission or that big purpose that puts all the different parts of our lives together in one cohesive world-changing whole. But more often than not it’s the the seemingly small gestures of compassion among us that wind up as big gestures to those on the receiving end. I tried to think of one such example, but as I did, I came up with dozens that I’ve seen just among the people here. The Stephen Ministers who just take time to sit with someone in their darkness. The bag of school supplies given to Southampton Elementary School that allow a young student to feel like she belongs. The meal cooked in the middle of a busy afternoon and dropped off at the home where people are grieving their loved one. There are too many to name. And that’s not even counting the ones done by others in other congregations and those done by people in no congregation at all. These are the saltiest things, my friends, truth be told. Have faith! Jesus builds his kingdom among us one cup of water at a time with the hopes we do see, at long last, he is pulling us all, over and over, into the same boat.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Of Missions and Legacies

a sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19B/Lectionary 24]

Mark 8:27-38

As many of you know, the National Football League begins its season this weekend, which will make a lot of people, including some I live with, very happy. Thursday night saw the league opener pit the Dallas Cowboys against the reigning champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and at some point today the remaining thirty teams will square off against each other. Over the course of the next four or so months, each team will play seventeen games, unless COVID interferes somehow. All in all, this will amount to around $12.2 billion in revenue, based on last season’s numbers. I wouldn’t consider myself a huge pro football fan, but I will say that the weekly games do provide for a nice distraction in the midst of all the fall busy-ness. After living for six football seasons in Pittsburgh, I can appreciate how much football brings people together.

One thing that I think adds to football’s popularity, even if your team doesn’t have a mascot yet or catchy name, is the clear purpose to every season. Every player, every coach, every fan knows exactly where they hope today’s game will eventually lead. The purpose and point to every minute of every game, every snap, every touchdown is to reach and then win the Super Bowl. To take home the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The team I’m bound by marriage to pull for, the Steelers, have been given a 0.8% chance of winning the Super Bowl this year, but that will not stop them from plotting and planning to overcome those odds. When the going gets tough, when the mission seems to go off course, the coaches and captains will remind everyone what their goal is.

If only Jesus’ mission were always so clear and well-defined to us! Today in Mark’s gospel we reach what many Bible scholars call a turning point in Jesus’ journey with his disciples. It is a turning point because he is needing to re-focus and re-clarify just what he and his purpose are all about. He is sensing that things may have gotten a bit off track and it is time to huddle together and remind them what exactly is at stake.

The place where he huddles them, Caesarea Philippi, is pretty significant. It’s a good place to talk about mission and identity. Caesarea Philippi sat atop a big cliff and had recently been expanded with shiny new buildings and memorials to the emperor by the local ruler Herod Philip. It was the kind of grand, gleaming place that made you think about permanence and legacy and the mark you might leave on the world. We can imagine Jesus having this conversation in Richmond, standing somewhere down along Monument Avenue as the Lee statue was being removed. He’d look up at the big Confederate General being taken down, sawn in two, and would say to his own followers, “What is the point of my mission, after all? What will I be remembered as? What do people say I’m fighting for?” Those were some of the questions swirling in our own town over the past year as the statues were removed and carted away. Jesus wonders them now about himself.

all that is left now of Caesarea Philippi’s gleaming buildings

And to answer those questions, Jesus must consider his identity. He has to get his disciples to answer questions about his who he is. At his baptism he was proclaimed as God’s beloved Son. Mark, the gospel writer, calls him the Christ right at the beginning, in the first line, which is to say that is who we need to come to know him as. “Christ” is the Greek word for Messiah, which is a Hebrew term that means “God’s chosen anointed One.” So much has already happened between Jesus and his disciples as he’s taught and healed through the villages of Galilee and even outside Jewish territory, but do they really know who they’re working with? Is his identity clear? He speaks about all of this openly, just so there’s no air of secrecy or chance to get the basics confused.

This is an excellent question for each of us to ponder about Jesus all the time. Who do we say Jesus is? A guy who listens to us and answers our prayers? A leader who calms our spirits when we’re troubled? A personal teacher who helps us understand wisdom? Jesus is all of these things throughout the gospels, but here in Caesarea Philippi he points us to the true mission as Messiah. To know him as he truly is to realize he loves us to the point of his own death. The Super Bowl of this mission, of the Messiah’s mission, is not hoisting a shiny trophy to the roar of adoring crowds. It is not just giving us words to live by. It is not even physically healing us and our loved ones. It is not to be remembered with a statue or monument. His mission is to suffer and die. A cross is involved. Rejection and self-sacrifice are the name of the game.

As the great preacher Fred Craddock once quipped, “it’s possible to get an A in Bible and still flunk Christianity.” That’s what happens to Peter here. Peter doesn’t like hearing Jesus’ true mission. He gets an A in explaining Jesus’ title, but he misses the mark on the suffering and dying. Let’s be honest: none of us really likes hearing these things either. We don’t want to suffer. We don’t particularly like making sacrifices. And we only need to look at the struggles over mask wearing and getting vaccinated over the past year to remind us of that. We are so quick to talk about our individual rights and claiming our personal authority. And yet Jesus is clear: to follow him involves self-denial, not self-assertion. To be on his team will require losing our lives, over and over again in acts of humility and kindness and gentleness.

I think sometimes I trip over the word “deny” in this passage, as if to deny myself means to harm myself or ignore my needs, like some kind of self-flagellation. The Greek word that Jesus uses for “deny” in this prediction of his death means “to act in a selfless way and to give up one’s place as the center of things.” It is what Jesus models for us as he turns around from Caesarea Philippi and heads back to Jerusalem where he will die. He physically turns away from those impressive monuments and statues of the city on the hill and goes toward the cross at the edge of town. Getting an A in Bible is knowing that the Messiah, God’s chosen One, is the leader and the Savior of the world. But getting an A in Christianity means realizing that Jesus becomes Messiah by handing himself over, by letting himself be crucified, by placing us at the center of God’s love.

So if this turning point has to do with understanding Jesus’ true identity, who he truly is, so will our identities and our lives turn on the discovery of who and whose we truly are: God’s people. Because Jesus, the Messiah who loves us by offering us his place, has invited us to join him, so we will go about loving others by offering them our gifts, our time, and treasure. That is taking up the cross. We lose ourselves in the suffering of the world. And in that we will find life.

I heard the story once about a very successful 18th century American merchant named John Woolman. You can look him up. He’s on Wikipedia. He lived a very comfortable and satisfying life until God convicted him one day of the problem of owning slaves, which he did. After that moment, Woolman gave up his prosperous business and used his money to buy people out of slavery. He even started wearing undyed wool suits to avoid relying on dye that slave labor produced. One philosopher historian, Elton Trueblood, reflecting on the life of John Woolman several years ago remarked, “Occasionally we talk of our Christianity as something that solves problems, and there is a sense in which it does. Long before it does so, however, it increases both the number and intensity of problems.”

And that’s probably the really hard thing to swallow, and what Peter bumps up against. The path of Jesus is not about solving our problems, of winning our games, because Jesus didn’t come to win his, and he doesn’t seem to be worried about his own problems. The way of discipleship, then, is about taking up the cross and solving others’ problems, of seeing our faith as inextricably bound to the suffering of the world and going there with our love. Discipleship looks at Afghan refugees plopped in our midst and not so much arguing about how and why they’re here but realizing they need basic life necessities to make it through each day and then sticking with them over the next several months so they get on their feet in a new country. Discipleship looks like the actions of one of our young people a couple of years ago who was announced as the winner of a big school-wide competition in an assembly and was handed the grand prize. As soon as the prize was handed to her, a large stuffed golden eagle, she turned around and gave it to another student, a friend of hers, who had not had the same chance of competing. Discipleship is sticking our necks out for our neighbor because we find a funny thing happens. When we stick our necks out our eyesight for seeing divine things automatically gets better. And that’s how Jesus wants us to see.

210822-N-OX321-1412 NAVAL AIR STATION SIGONELLA, Italy (Aug. 22, 2021) Naval Air Station Sigonella Command Master Chief Anna Wood assists an evacuee disembarking a U.S. Air Force KC-10 Extender Aug. 22, 2021. NAS Sigonella is currently supporting the Department of Defense mission to facilitate the safe departure and relocation of U.S. citizens, Special Immigration Visa recipients, and vulnerable Afghan populations from Afghanistan. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kegan E. Kay)

And discipleship is remembering, above all, that last part of Jesus’ mission in Jerusalem. After the great suffering and the rejection, after the killing and dying, Jesus says he will rise. After three days he will rise again. 100% chance. That is the trophy that comes at the end of it all. And on that day we have faith that all our stories will be told in truth, all our present sufferings will make sense, all our sorrows will wash away, and all our connectedness to others will be clear and beautiful to see. We will see that everything we worked so hard to grasp and hoard is worth nothing, and that everything we let go to others made us rich. We will realize that every monument raised to human glory will eventually come down, but every gesture done in the manner of the cross will live on. Lifting high the cross, we will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living, winners…winners not because we earned it or because we deserve it, but winners of all because God has won the prize and handed it to us.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

What Kind of People

a sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 17B/Lectionary 22]

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

When I was in high school I was on the swim team. Swim meets were long, sometimes all-day events that kept large teams from several different schools inside a gymnasium together. And one thing I remember is that each school team would stake out an area of the bleachers or the pool deck that was away from the competition area and hang out together as a team, doing things like listening to music, finishing homework, eating snacks, and stretching while the different races were held. There was rarely a lot of mingling between teams because we didn’t really know people from the other schools. Plus, they were our rivals. You didn’t want to fraternize with the enemy. I remember there was one team we swam against from time to time that really stood out. They would begin each meet with this really loud and elaborate ritual together that was like a group cheer. When they’d do it, the whole place would get quiet and watch them. It was kind of weird, but it was also kind of cool because we knew it intimidated us. That cheer was their hallmark, and it had the effect of making all the other teams feel like we didn’t have as much school spirit as they did. We had some group bonding customs, too, but nothing as remarkable as the customs of Page High School in Greensboro, NC. And we thought their school spirit helped. They always dominated in the water.

In Jesus’ time, all day and every day in society was like a big swim meet. Out about in public and also in private settings people were grouped almost constantly by visible and sometimes peculiar traditions and customs that they practiced. Jerusalem and the region around it was fairly multicultural, a place where different peoples and religions often lived close together, so it was important to have ways to distinguish your group from another’s. We get to hear some of that in Mark’s Gospel this morning. He goes into great detail about the customs that some of the Jews of Jesus’ time practiced. You get the impression that these rituals were a little elaborate and made them stand out. It’s like they go overboard on washing things. Their hands. Things they buy at the market. Bronze kettles. Mark is the only gospel writer who gives us this background detail, and it is probably because the community he was first writing for did not have many Jewish Christians in it.

In any case, some Jewish leaders from Jerusalem, the capital, come to Jesus and his disciples and notice Jesus and his disciples have different traditions, especially when it comes to this overboard washing. Some of his disciples are not washing their hands before eating. They are not following the tradition of the elders, which is kind of like saying they are not doing the funny cool cheer that makes them seem better than every once else. And if Jesus is a rabbi, a teacher of the faith, a keeper of the tradition, then this is odd. The Pharisees want answers.

The tradition of the elders is what the people of the time would have known as the Great Tradition. Religious elites, people like the Pharisees, were expected to adhere to a very strict interpretation of purity codes. Purity codes governed how to keep yourself undefiled from things in the world, things like certain foods and dead things, and bodily fluids. Common people, like the people that Jesus would have had as disciples, were not expected to follow the Great Tradition. Fisherman and people who made their living farming were constantly coming into contact with things like dead fish and birthing animals and manure. They followed something called the Little Tradition, which was like a watered down version of the Pharisees’ Great Tradition. But both the Little Tradition and the Great Tradition rules about clean and unclean did something else: it defined in groups and out groups. People who could keep themselves ritually clean in the proper ways, especially in the Great Tradition, were considered more holy, more acceptable, more powerful than those who couldn’t. These laws and codes helped to make sure that all the groups of people were kept in all their little sitting areas during the big swim meet of life and that no one intermingled. Correctly used, the laws could remind someone of their need for God. But more often than not they were employed to enforce honor and shame on people.

Jesus pulls the rug out from under the Pharisees and all that. Jesus pulls the rug out from all of our attempts to categorize people to their disadvantage, to shame them, and he does it in a clever way. He doesn’t say that there’s no such thing as being clean and unclean. He just redefines where uncleanliness comes from in a way that makes us all able to look inside ourselves. The digestive system, Jesus explains, has nothing to do with true cleanliness, nor do the hands and the skin. It is the heart where uncleanliness comes from. It is things like thoughts and ideas and intentions where evil can take root, and we all have that capacity. Then he gives a list that surely would have impressed the religious experts in front of him. This list is derived straight from the Ten Commandments, the law that stands at the center of Jewish practice and identity. Religion often tries to use laws and rituals in order to hide these universal inclinations.

It is good to have Jesus remind us where our brokenness comes from, where we need to look in order to find the sources of uncleanliness. It’s why we take a few moments of self-examination during the confession and forgiveness at the beginning of the worship service. In that time we silently search our hearts for ways we’ve let God and others down over the past week, ways we’ve hurt others, or ignored them. We don’t list through all the yucky things we’ve touched or the “wrong” people we’ve gotten too close to. In so many ways we still are learning to live in the world that Jesus envisions—one where we see fewer and fewer in groups and out groups, one where we don’t label people in a way that sets them lower or higher than we see ourselves. One where we realize we all have the same kind of heart.

As good as that all is, we can still let our inner uncleanliness become labels, and we can still distance ourselves from others we see as morally impure, can’t we? We can also begin to loathe ourselves and feel unremitting shame if we are aware in an unhealthy way of how ugly our own hearts can be. I was reading something on Twitter this week about a young man who was still working through some bad memories of the church he grew up in. Apparently it was a very legalistic, moralistic Christian church that taught things like secular music was bad and certain people were going to hell and that questioning any church authority was a sin. But yet he found himself liking secular music, and he had questions he wanted people to answer. This young man described that experience as trauma. It had made him hate parts of himself.

That’s the nature of sin, isn’t it, though? To traumatize us and eventually get us to traumatize each other with rules and religious codes. Sin makes us fixate on ourselves, or, what’s worse, to excuse away our own imperfections while pointing out everyone else’s. Jesus is right about religious groups and people. We have a tendency to honor God with our lips but in our hearts we are far away from him.

In doing away with these cleanliness codes, and focusing our minds on our own inner brokenness, Jesus opens us up to love and forgiveness. It’s like cutting through all the red tape of religion and churchiness and simply bringing God’s compassion and reconciliation straight to us, where he means them to be. It’s about getting us to see our common humanity, the sisterhood and brotherhood we share with one another as God’s children. We don’t fixate on our cleanliness and uncleanliness at all because we’re too amazed by God’s mercy. Eyes of faith help us see that God plants the cross right in the middle of human messiness. Deceit, wickedness, folly, slander, envy, theft, murder—Jesus becomes a victim of the entire list of vices he himself names in order to show us they have no ultimate power over us. The hope—God’s hope—is that his people then become known for that kind of love, that kind of sacrifice for the stranger, that kind of service to the neighbor. In the wide group of humanity, those who follow Jesus are so forgiven and so free that people see they are open to all, open to expanding and letting more people in. Jesus teaches us we’re the one group that should realizes there really are no groups. Our cheer is inviting, not intimidating. It enlivens. It rejoices. Others will look at us and ask, like they did to the ancient Israelites, “What other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him?”

Just a couple of months ago our church office got a call in the middle of a weekday from a truck driver who was hauling a bunch of food that had been rejected by its destination grocery store. The food was fine. I think some packages were damaged and didn’t meet deliver standards. In a pinch, he had to offload it somewhere and continue to his next delivery site. Not wanting to trash it, the trucker got online and searched for churches that were nearby. We came up first, so we got the call. Hanne, our office administrator, told him to stop on by. She called several members, all of whom dropped what they were doing and helped him unload the goods in our parking lot. Within an hour or so all of the packages were in our kitchen waiting for food pantries and partner organizations like Moments of Hope to distribute food to those in need. Someone that day asked him why he came here. “Because,” he explained, “I figured churches knew what to do with a load of food like this better than anyone else.”

That, my friends, is the kind of thing to be known for, especially in a day and age when churches and denominations are increasingly viewed in a negative light, known for bigotry and hypocrisy. I’m so thankful for the people who responded that day, who demonstrated so clearly what the truck driver was expecting—a people whose hearts are not far from God at all, not far from the One who multiplies loaves and fish and distributes them to the people. I’d call that a faith so sure of Jesus’ ability to purify and heal that it habitually looks out in the world in service.  They are doers of the word, not merely hearers. That’s the group with the best cheer of all, and by God’s grace we’re a part of it.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


A sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 16B/Lectionary 21]

John 6:56-69 and Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

“Choose this day whom you will serve…as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Those are the words that Joshua, Moses’ trusty assistant, speaks to all the tribes as they prepare to live there. It has been a hard-won campaign to subdue the native Canaanites, to make the Promised Land a region hospitable to the Israelites and their faith. They have fought and they have settled where they belong. Even more so it has been a hard-won campaign for God. God has done most of the heavy-lifting, delivering them out of slavery in Egypt, leading them through the Red Sea, and bringing them through the trials and temptations of the wilderness. God has fed them with manna day by day and has protected them from serpents and other dangers. Now his people are assembled and ready to begin this new life, and Joshua decides to lay the decision that lies before them as clearly as he can. It’s like a big division. They can serve other gods and go other ways, but why not serve the one God who just claimed them and saved them? That is what he and his household are going to do. It reminds me of what American author David Foster Wallace says about atheism. There’s really no such thing. “There’s no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

We are living in a time of decisions being laid before us—so many decisions that have so much life-or-death weight to them. Our minds are filled, for example, with images of Afghans faced with the gut-wrenching decision of having to serve the Taliban or face unknown consequences. Or protests about school board decisions for the fall. And what about news sources? Choose today which channel your family will watch! As for me and mine…

Of course, people are still drawing lines and making decisions about how they and their family will continue to move through this COVID pandemic, even as some among us deny there is anything to worry about at all. I resonated so much with an article in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago with the title, “Vaccination Status Has Americans Picking Sides.” The writer for the piece interviewed multiple people who have seen their families and close friendships divided over things like wearing masks and getting a vaccine. One woman who had planned a huge birthday celebration for her two-year-old decided briefly to uninvite family members who weren’t vaccinated, or to at least ask them to stand outside. In the end she just cancelled it altogether. Our congregation sent out a simple survey last week to gauge interest in Sunday School for young children. The responses were so interesting. Many people have decided what’s best for their family is only to meet in classes outside. Others will only participate if masks are required. Some won’t send their children if masks are required. We’ll figure it out.

My wife was in Target last week with all three of our children doing their back to school shopping, and all of them were in masks. Another shopper approached my wife and accosted her for having our children in masks, saying that it would harm their brain development. No children should be putting those on their faces, she said. It’s like everywhere you turn is it “Choose today which ideology you will serve. As for me and my house, we are doing this.” I’m just glad Melinda didn’t tell that lady that our household doesn’t think pineapple belongs on pizza.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our faith, at the very least, was devoid of hard decisions and confusing teachings like this? Wouldn’t it be great if our relationship with God were one area where things just came easy, where we could so easily make the leap to belief and practice? Jesus finds out that it isn’t, and so do his disciples. You may remember that a crowd follows him throughout the gospels, and that crowd increases as he makes his way through the towns and villages of Galilee. Today he is in Capernaum, and for the first time in John’s gospel, the crowd visibly dwindles. People leave him. They make their choice to follow something else. Or at least not follow him anymore. All that is left is the Twelve. And I imagine that must be extremely hard to deal with. I imagine that must be demoralizing to some degree because most of us find it demoralizing when people decide to disconnect themselves from us. Generally the point is to increase the number of people who are on our side, who are in line with our lives and beliefs, not weed them out. And whatever Jesus is doing and saying is, at least at this point, starting to weed them out. They choose that day in Capernaum whom they will follow. And most of them don’t choose Jesus.

I remember that our seminary classes started with summer Greek. Before you could actually register for other classes, you had to prove you could read and understanding basic biblical Greek. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a way of weeding people out. The faculty were very patient and gracious with grading, but without fail there was always a person or two who just could not master the concepts and eventually went on to do something else. It was a bit sad to see that happen, but maybe it actually helped them to find their true calling.

The particular teaching that gives the crowd of disciples trouble is Jesus’ words about his flesh being the bread of life and that those who eat it will have life forever. In John’s account of Jesus’ Last Supper, we do not hear about Jesus breaking the bread and sharing the cup of wine. Instead, John uses Jesus’ words and teachings after the feeding of the 5000 as the lesson about Holy Communion. The life of Jesus’ followers will center around this giving of his flesh and blood. When they partake of the meal where that sacrifice is remembered and emphasized, Jesus will abide in them and they in him. That means if you are a follower of Jesus you will always be nourished by Jesus’ selfless giving and by participating in the community that lifts up that selfless giving as God’s way. But for many of those who went about with Jesus, this is just one bridge too far. This teaching is too difficult. It’s like Greek.

The Lord’s Supper and having faith that he abides in us in the bread and the wine is only one element of our faith that may seem difficult to swallow and accept. There are many things about Jesus’ way that make us stop and wonder if it is for us, after alif it our cup of tea, after all. In other places Jesus talks a lot about loving enemies and forgiving our persecutors. He talks about giving what we have to the poor. He models compassion for groups of people we tend to despise.

And then there are all of the teachings about Jesus and his life that have become part of our faith, and these are often too much for us to take in. I’m talking about things like his miraculous birth from a virgin. And his walking on water. And the sign that starts this whole teaching in the first place, the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. We live in a very rational age, where we think everything must be scientifically tested before it can be trusted. It is difficult to hear these things about Jesus and from Jesus and still decide to follow along because his words speak truth.

A friend of mine, who is a pastor, recently shared that his own brother, who just like him grew up attending worship in church and who carried that faith into adulthood, recently confessed that he can no longer believe. The brother told my colleague that he just can’t mentally accept the claims of religion and Jesus and was no longer involved in a faith community. I think many of us know people who are in a similar situation, and, in fact, that story is probably reflected in our own faith journey’s to some degree. What my friend did was buy his brother a book that talked about working through doubt to find faith. The brother read it and, lo and behold, it worked. But that kind of story doesn’t always end that way. Sometimes we just struggle to believe and find it hard to make the choice to keep going. It’s important to notice, however, that Peter never claims to understand what Jesus is saying. In fact, it almost sounds like he doesn’t make sense of it all. But he does know that he can’t turn anywhere else. Jesus has the words of eternal life. That is, there is something deeply true and life-giving about life with Jesus that compels him to stay.

What is most fascinating about this moment in Jesus’ life, at least to me, is not the people who turn away, or how Peter stays, but how Jesus responds to all of this. He doesn’t go running along after the people who turn away right at that moment, worrying about how he can immediately convince them to come back, which is what I think the church often does when people leave. He doesn’t wring his hands about his numbers and adjust his strategy. He just keeps going. Even for those who stick with him he knows there are going to be things that just don’t make sense, that will blow their socks off. Even of the Twelve remaining there will be betrayers and deniers. And then there is the spectacle of the cross. It’s like Jesus says that day, “If you think these words of mine are offensive and something to complain about, just wait until you see what happens in Jerusalem. No one will get it.”

No, Jesus doesn’t go running after the people who turn away, but he does chase us with his love. Jesus doesn’t go back to the drawing board, wondering how he can change his message so as to attract more believers. He doubles down on the message. He doubles down on being the Son of the God who claimed the forgotten slaves in Egypt and who led the cranky Israelites through the desert. He doubles down on calling the dead to new life and showing that love is his way and that his love is forever. He never changes his mind, never changes his course on showing the grace that God has committed to give to all people. Jesus watches people choose something else to worship for the time being, but still doubles down on his love for them, even though it means being lifted up on the cross in order to draw all people to himself.

And that means, my friends, all people. Those wearing masks and those who won’t. Those who don’t want the vaccine and those who want the vaccine to be a requirement. Those who master Greek and those who flunk out. Those who understand what’s happening in Holy Communion and those who think it’s strange. Those who believe what we do and those who don’t. Eventually all of our stories, all of our decisions, all our mistakes and failures and triumphs and victories will be viewed in the light of the one who has died for us because of his love.

He has the words of eternal life. Now, really…what else could we choose?

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The One Green Thing

a sermon for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 14B/Lectionary 19]

John 6: 35, 41-51 and 1 Kings 19:4-8

My grandmother, who died from COVID this past autumn at the age of 102, could set a mean table. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood we’d gather at her house after church on most Sundays with the rest of my relatives ready to feast on the different delicious dishes she and my aunt had prepared. This was country cooking and baking at its finest. I couldn’t wait to get in line and pile my plate with food. But my parents had a rule: something on my plate had to be green. That was their way of making sure I got my veggies. Green Jello didn’t count. I tried to pull that off once. Green beans counted, but I detested green beans. Broccoli casserole would have counted, but I gagged at the mere scent of broccoli. Fortunately for me Maw Maw, as we called her, always had a bowl of homemade cole slaw somewhere in the buffet, and cabbage, even when mixed with a good bit of mayonnaise, sugar, and vinegar, still has a light green tint to it. So slaw was my go-to green option, week after week. The lasting effect of my parents’ “one green thing” rule was a belief that only veggies are really good for you. All the other things that actually drew me to the table—the macaroni and cheese, the chicken pan pie with that nice bready crust on top, the succulent barbecued short ribs and the gooey sauce they were in—all those things were tasty, but not as nutritious. It was the green things that gave life.

there is plenty of green in there

Jesus is talking nutrition this morning, and he has been talking about it ever since he multiplied the loaves and the fish for thousands of hungry people by the lake one day. The people ate and got their fill. They were hungry and found the meal delicious, like a table set by a country grandmother. They follow after him, drawn by his words and his ability to provide. But at the end of the day Jesus wants people to eat the thing that gives life. He cares not just about our bellies, but about our livelihood, about our soul’s health and well-being, and it is starting to sound, as we listen in on this conversation between the crowd and Jesus, that there is a particular thing that Jesus wants us to partake of. What is the something green?

That’s the problem the people are having. They feel drawn to him. They like the stuff he’s providing, but Jesus is saying that he is what they need to eat. It is his flesh, his body and blood, that will give life to the world. He is the bread that has come down from heaven. The crowd is used to bread coming down from heaven and feeding people. They have several stories, in fact, from their history about this happening. Their ancestors in the wilderness, for example, ate manna to get through each day. It was this flaky substance that fell each night from the sky. They would wake up and, lo and behold, there would be enough to collect for a meal that day. It’s kind of appropriate when we learn that the Hebrew word “manna” is actually a question. Directly translated manna means, “What is it?” They couldn’t really come up with a word for this substance that miraculously appeared. What was it? God’s gift.

And the people in this crowd also would have been familiar with our story from 1 Kings this morning, the one where the prophet Elijah is on the run, fearing for his life. Queen Jezebel is determined to kill him, and so he runs out into the desert for safety. Tired and famished, and unable to conceive of any outcome to the situation other than his death, he lies down and wants God to take his life. And then miraculously, out of nowhere, some bread cakes and water appear. He eats them and is able to continue for far longer than he ever imagined.

These are the stories of a God who always gives his people what they need when they need it, even in times of distress and dismay. These are occasions of God’s unbelievable grace, grace that comes through in a pinch, often when we least expect it and never because we deserve it.  

I don’t know about you, but it feels to me that we’ve come through seventeen or so months of wilderness where God has sustained us the way God sustained those wandering ancient Israelites or Elijah. We’ve been existing on manna, little daily or weekly outpourings of help that got us through the darkest times of the pandemic. What was it? It was the donation of the microphone that the Mawyer family knew the church staff would need to broadcast daily prayer with our phones. Or the words of encouragement that people left on our Facebook page.

Or the phone call from one of our friends. Two different families in the congregation had pizza delivered to the church office at different points over the past year or so. We weren’t in danger of starving, of course, but the thought that someone “out there” was wanting to nourish us with pizza and give us a sign of support helped sustain our spirits and energy level. And I kid you not, but just the very day when I was in my office writing this very paragraph, I took a break because I was hungry and needed a snack, but I didn’t know what I was going to scrounge up. I walked out of my office and there lying on the floor by my door was a bag someone had just dropped off. Inside was a bag of Goldfish crackers just for me. It was like my sermon was coming to life.

this was not the actual bag of Goldfish I received this week. The actual bag was much larger.

On a more serious level, of course, some of the financial relief from the government issued over the past year has meant for many people the difference between staying in an apartment for another few months and being on the street. It’s where we probably get the word “godsend” from. Little miraculous godsends that get us through. If the pandemic has been a desert, or if COVID-19 has been Queen Jezebel, hunting us down, then gestures of generosity and community between people have been the hot bread cakes laid by the stone of Elijah’s head.

And yet, as good and necessary as those godsends have been, they are still not ultimately the “green thing,” so to speak, that Jesus comes to put on our plate. As Jesus explains to the hungry crowd that day, even the ancient Israelites would die, no matter how many days God provided them manna. Even though it got them through a hard time, even though it met their bodily needs for a time, even though it bridged their path to the Promised Land, the manna wasn’t and would never be that particular sustenance that fully satisfied them. Jesus is the real godsend. Jesus himself provides for the deepest needs and the most human longings that we experience. His flesh is given not just to get us from one day to the next but so that we may live forever. His body is offered up so that those who are drawn to him will not die and then experience the ultimate separation from God’s promised land of mercy and forgiveness and love forevermore. They will see the Father.

And when we are drawn to him, we find we end up eating. We wind up at a meal, a meal that Jesus himself once provided and a table he himself sets again and again. It’s a table designed to include more and more people. Furthermore, it is a real fellowship with our brothers and sisters in the faith, not just a gathering of like-minded people who like to contemplate ideas together. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Jesus spends a lot of his time in the gospels contemplating and teaching ideas with his disciples and other people. But we can’t deny that the culminating moment of all of that contemplating and wondering about God is a meal around a table with bread and wine and then a real death on a cross, a moment where a real body suffers and bleeds. That’s the green thing, believe it or not, God decides we must have. We can’t live without it. The bread that Jesus gives for the life of the world is not just his words and values, but his flesh.

In fact, the experiences of the earliest Christians show us that our understanding of God’s grace in Christ actually came from first experiencing this meal, not the other way around. That is to say, people can really only contemplate what the Father of Jesus is like and wonder about the grace given in Jesus when they first are fed by his body and blood at the table of Holy Communion. Robert Louis Wilken, a church historian and once on faculty at the University of Virginia, reminds us in his book on early Christianity that in the beginning of our faith there was no such thing as a church without an altar. Before there were articles written about the Trinity, before there were commentaries on the Bible and what it says, before there were essays about how to live a Christian moral life, before the New Testament was even complete, there was “awe and adoration before the Son of God alive and present in the Church’s offering of the Eucharist.”[1] He is the bread that has come down from heaven. Those drawn to him eat and live and that life is eternal because in eating we are joined to what he has become. He is already raised to new life, and so when we become part of his body he will raise us up on the last day.

A green thing on your plate, or in your hand, as the case may be. You receive it today and every time the church gathers here. It is the source of the only kind of life that really matters in the end. Feasting on his sacrifice, we are empowered to sacrifice for others. Drawn into his compassion, we are born to show compassion to those around us. Eating a morsel of his humility and servanthood, we are commanded to put away all bitterness and wrath and malice too. Nourished by his love, we get up from this table and go in the strength of this food forty days or more. We re-commit ourselves to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, and forgiving, as Christ has forgiven us. These are words to contemplate, yes. Ideas and values. But make no mistake, we are to be a real, living body that puts flesh on them, too. Godsends. For the life of the whole world.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Robert Louis Wilken. Yale University Press, 2003. page 36.

Picked out of a Crowd

a sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11B/Lectionary 16]

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

I think at some point or another we’ve all had the experience of being singled out of a crowd at a time or place we didn’t really expect. It’s happened to me occasionally, but one that really comes to mind this morning is the time several summers ago when I was visiting Yellowstone National Park with some friends and family. We had taken a bathroom break at one of the visitor centers. The place was swarming. It was peak season—as I recall it was hard to get a parking spot. People were heading in different directions. Some were going into the building to speak with the park rangers, some were heading into the restroom area, some were heading into the dining hall area to get food, and others were heading in the opposite direction, out into the park. Out of this crowded mix of people comes a voice, directed at me: “University of Richmond! Hey! Did you go there?!”

I looked down and, sure enough, I was wearing the University of Richmond T-Shirt I had bought in the campus bookstore. I, myself, am not a graduate of UR, but as the Lutheran campus pastor at the time I liked to show my support of the school. In any case, there in the middle of the summer tourism crowd, a kind woman had seen my t-shirt and decided to approach me. As it turns out she graduated from U.R. and also is good friends with a person in this congregation. We had a brief but great conversation. She knew exactly where Epiphany was and had driven by it numerous times. It’s not like she recognized me, per se, but If I hadn’t been wearing that t-shirt on that particular day, we would have walked right by each other without knowing we had so much in common.

We’re at the point in Jesus’ life where he can’t walk by anyone without getting recognized. He and his disciples actually can’t go anywhere without getting recognized. And it doesn’t have anything to do with what they’re wearing. It’s not altogether clear exactly what makes him stand out. Have people been talking about what Jesus looks like? Do they know he is typically seen with a group of other men and women who treat him as a teacher? There is no security detail around him, and there is no indication anywhere in Scripture that he dresses a certain way. What makes Jesus so recognizable, even when he is really trying to be discreet? He gets his disciples together and tries to sneak away for a bit of a retreat and people still manage to pinpoint him. And they don’t just pinpoint him. They’re not looking for conversation or an autograph. They want help. They are bringing their sick relatives to him.

I’ve long been intrigued by what the real Jesus looked like. Have you? I think my first impressions of Jesus were the ones given to me in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School when I was a child. If you wanted to know who Jesus was in a picture, you just look for a white-skinned man, medium height and build, dressed in a blazing white robe and sometimes a blue sash. He would have brown hair, of course, his wavy locks carefully combed down the back of his neck. Usually there’s a beard and mustache, well-groomed. After living for a year around middle-easterners I started to realize there’s no way that Jesus looked quite like that. That image had been based on the white-centered culture of my childhood.

Several years ago some researchers put together a computerized image of how Jesus might have actually looked, at least based on archaeological and genetic records of the time. The result was something entirely different than I was expecting. Their picture showed a man who was much less conspicuous than I was used to. His hair was wiry and close-cropped.His beard and mustache looked like they needed a some attention from a Remington. And the skin was brown and weathered. I am not sure I would have ever recognized that as Jesus, especially in a crowd. And at this point the crowd around Jesus is becoming huge. It has taken on a life of its own and cannot be ignored. The disciples can’t even find time to eat because they’re dealing with it.

What some sources say Jesus really may have looked like.

I have come to understand that most people have pretty strong reactions to crowds. A lot of people avoid them at all costs, even before COVID. They don’t like the feeling of being near too many people. It feels dangerous, annoying. And so they try at all costs to stay away. Some people love crowds. They feed into the energy that comes with lots of people. They have FOMO—that “fear of missing out.” They find the mosh pit at the concert. They go to the street festival. They pay for the expensive tickets down on the front row.

Still other people look at crowds and see a chance to exploit people or control them. These are the dictators, the demagogues. These are the worldly leaders who know the right words to say or the symbolic actions that will increase their own power. They want the crowds’ adoration. Sometimes they deploy tanks and weapons to disperse the people, ignoring their true needs. We all have this tendency within us—that tendency to milk the multitude’s praise, to use them in order to make us feel great and important. Where is Jesus in the midst of these people crowding the marketplace? What’s his reaction?

The former dean of one of our ELCA seminaries tells of an experience she had not too long ago as a part of a delegation of the Lutheran World Federation to rural Africa. In reaching a very remote part of Africa, Lutheran World Federation workers spent time in a village where they brought medicine, drilled wells, improved sanitation, provided caring ministry, and helped people rebuild their lives after years of drought and disease. Maybe some of the education kits that our Vacation Bible School will be assembling today will be handed out that way.

A couple of years later, this same seminary dean was a part of another Lutheran World Federation delegation that made its way through the same area en route to an even more remote region. The villagers came and lined the road with cheers and celebration. The delegation workers were confused by the response. They got out of their caravan of trucks and greeted the people, wondering what was the reason for all this joy. The villagers thanked the workers for rescuing them earlier, for bringing new life to their village by tending to their most basic, human needs. As the villagers expressed their thanks, the LWF delegation workers tried to explain that they were not, in fact, the workers who had done the work in their area. One of the village leaders said, “Yes, you are the workers who were here.” The delegation leader insisted that not a single one of the current workers in their caravan had ever been in that village to do anything.

At that point, the village leader took a group of the workers to the side of one of the trucks and said, pointing to the Luther seal on it, with the cross in the center of the heart, “Yes, it was you. You are the people of the seal. You are the ones.”

My guess is that people have come to understand that Jesus has a seal, and it is the way he acts around the people. He does not avoid the crowds, nor does he feed into the energy for thrills and excitement. Significantly, he does not exploit or control or threaten. He shepherds. When sick people are brought to him, he heals them. When mourning people approach him, he comforts them. When people have questions—especially questions about God and God’s reign of justice and mercy—Jesus patiently engages them in dialogue. The gospel lesson today says that when Jesus looks at the great crowd he has compassion for them, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” When word passes from person to person about him, they are sharing not so much the way he looks, but the kinds of things he is doing.

And they will see greater compassion than this. This crowd is adoring and eager to meet him. Later Jesus will be thrust into the center of an angry crowd, one with cries for blood on their lips. This is our crowd, and he will still respond with compassion. He will put his own needs aside and heal us in our deepest needs. Our need for mercy and forgiveness. Our need to be included in what God is doing.

This is our call, as people who have been forgiven and fed: to be known in the crowd of humanity for his compassion to us perhaps above all else. Not for our worship styles. Not our church buildings. Probably not our education programs, nor how well we articulate theology. Definitely not our voting records. But this: how are we responding to the needs of the world? Is Jesus the shepherd leading us into greater self-giving, or are our own voices of ego and ideology still guiding the way?

I was speaking several months ago with one aged member of this congregation. She has been homebound for years, but still is quite robust in health and her mind is sharp. The COVID vaccines were just being made available to the general public and, because of her age, she was in the first group to receive it. She told me she did not want to get the vaccine because she, as she told it, was on borrowed time anyway and that someone younger than her, a person with their life ahead of them or a parent with children should receive her vaccine. I was flabbergasted as I realized she was talking about someone like me. She wasn’t rejecting her vaccine because of some fear or some ideological reason. She wanted to give up her precious vaccine, putting her health on the line, so that someone like me could get it sooner. The compassion humbled me speechless. As it happens, she comes from an era when Americans were formed by hardship to make sacrifices for the good of the whole, who had been taught to think of the crowd and its needs, not just her own. To this day when I think of Sonya Fluckiger, I think primarily of that conversation. Of that compassion.

Vaccination of senior person in hospital

We bring our wounds to Jesus, and he heals them without reservation. We bring our worries to Jesus and he listens without condemnation. We bring our brokenness to Jesus and lay it out there in the marketplace for all to see, and he mends it, even at risk to himself, offering his own place in heaven for us. Compassion is what motivates him, makes him recognizable.

Now we go, nourished, gathered, sent. We go to be in the crowd, and when people walk by us, when they spot us from across the way, they will single us out. They’ll notice something about us: that seal. That unforgettable seal of compassion.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.