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.

All-Access Jesus

a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 8B/Lectionary 13]

Mark 5:21-43

I don’t tend to spend a whole lot of time in emergency departments of hospitals—although with a 5-year-old son that is changing—but I do visit them on occasion when people I know are sick. What I’ve learned from my times in emergency rooms is that you can meet anyone there. The emergency room is one of those few places that really makes no distinction between people. Anyone could find themselves there at some point, and most of us probably will, regardless of how old we are or how wealthy we are where we live or even how overall healthy we are. I bet if you poked your head into the different pods in an emergency room on any given day you would probably find one of the most random assortment of people possible. Issues of health and illness and pain do this to us. They kind of equal us out.

As Jesus makes his way through the cities of Galilee he becomes a walking, talking emergency room. A seemingly random assortment of people find him and crowd around him and begin seeking his help. Anyone, it seems, is comfortable approaching him.

The stories we hear this morning from Mark’s gospel illustrate this more than possibly any other stories in the New Testament. And the peculiar way these two episodes of healing happen shows us just how astoundingly diverse the crowd is who seek him. First, there is a leader of the synagogue. We hear his name: Jairus. He is one of only two people in the healing stories in the gospels who is ever named. This suggests that people in that area or in the community that Mark was writing for may have known Jairus or at least known who he was. Jairus’ daughter is dying and he is desperate for her to live. He loves her. He throws himself at Jesus’ feet and begs for help.

Just as Jesus starts towards Jairus’ house, here comes someone else in the next emergency pod over. We don’t learn her name, but it was not common at all to know or care about the names of most poor, ill women. This widow is just one of the crowd. She doesn’t stand out, and is people were aware of her particular medical condition, which involved open bleeding, they would definitely stand back from her. She approaches Jesus very differently from Jairus. She sneaks up to Jesus and grabs his clothes from behind hoping he won’t notice. This is probably how she’s lived the past twelve years of her life as her condition worsened. The only people she’s been particular direct with are the doctors who haven’t been able to help her but put her through the wringer nonetheless.

And so these two people could not be more different, especially in ancient society, which was really keen on dividing people and assigning value. One of them is male, a person of power whose name is known. He appeals to Jesus in a manner showing respect and deference. He is wealthy and ritually clean, meaning people can be around him and touch him and not risk their own social status. She is a poor, unnamed female who is ritually unclean, which is to say because of the religious laws of the time no one would want to be around her, much less touch her, even less speak be spoken to by her in public. She has no power, no status, no agency. He comes across as a person who follows the social rules. He bows, he asks directly and honestly for what he wants. She, on the other hand, comes across as pushy and clever, aware that if she’s going to get what she wants, she’s going to have to break some boundaries. And in some ways, her pushiness is what creates Jesus’ delay to Jairus’ house where his daughter is dying.

We know that Jesus receives all people. This is not really new to us if we’ve been paying attention. Up until this point he has not wavered in helping people and driving out demons wherever he encounters them. He talks about his kingdom in ways that make us realize. It is drastically different from kingdoms of the world, kingdoms that almost always give preference to the powerful and the well-connected and the good looking. Having both of these people put together like this, back to back, their stories intertwined, makes it absolutely clear.

Just as issues of health and medical need tend to equal us all out—the rich and powerful and the poor and unnamed alike—so does Jesus’ mercy. In the emergency room we are all just people who are in dire need of healing, and all of us have to sit in that waiting room together. So are we the same before Jesus. Whether the world treats us like Jairus or the world treats us like the woman with the hemorrhage, we are each able to access him, and he will break boundaries to make that happen.

When I served in Pittsburgh I had a colleague who served a downtown congregation right in the middle of a very blighted urban area. It had once been a large and affluent congregation, but like many other downtown congregations its neighborhood had been affected by dramatic economic and demographic changes. By the time I arrived on the scene he had been there a number of years, and there were some thriving outreach ministries from the congregation reaching out into the area. It was still not a particular safe area, but the church was a haven for children and adults of all ages, and particularly for those who had been left behind in the economic drift.

What I found particular impressive and daring was that he expressly ordered the church doors never to be locked. There was no alarm system and, in fact, on most warm days the front doors were propped open all day long. He felt that sacred space should never be off-limits to anybody. That kind of decision might not work best everywhere and for every church, but, then again, it was key to the thriving of that congregation. Yes, it probably made it a bit unsafe to be there at times, but on the other hand, no one had to be pushy or clever or get there at the right time in order to find a community of faith or a moment of safety and solace. Anyone could walk right in.

Jesus lets anyone walk right up to him, and eventually find he will let anyone treat him however they want. His life is all-access, his own body a kind of door that God intentionally props open so that anyone can receive life he gives. God intentionally leaves it open, even as people take advantage of it and torture him and mock him and hang him on a cross to die.

People feel uncomfortable with full access—with churches that let anyone and everyone walk right in, with congregations that let anyone come to the communion rail—and people feel uncomfortable with a God who opens the kingdom even to people we would call pushy. And yet this is how God will receive each of us, in the open arms of Jesus that none of us deserve. That is how faith is found and grown. For Jairus to the hemorrhaging woman, and all those in between, the power of God’s healing and peace is always given.

I’ve been participating in a continuing education lecture series over the past couple of weeks called “Religion and the Spiritual Crisis: Ministry in the secular age.” It is being co-led by Andrew Root of Luther Seminary who wrote a book that some of us on staff read together a few years ago called Faith Formation in a Secular Age. A lot of it goes over my head, but the main idea they are discussing is that we live in a disenchanted time when it is just as easy not to believe in God as it is to believe in God. There once was a time when belief in God was a given, but that time is no more and there is nothing any of us can do about it. It’s just the water we swim in now. It’s not just that people distrust religion or don’t want to participate in a community of faith. It’s just that we live in such a here-and-now mindset that faith seems unnecessary. People don’t even care about old categories that we used to think about all the time, like whether miracles can happen, or whether we go some place else when we die, or whether we can be sinner or saint, or both at the same time, like Martin Luther said.

The leaders of this event I’m participating in articulate a lot of what pastors and church members feel these days—that the things about our faith that mean so much to us, the things that gather us and shape us for life, just don’t get much traction anymore. People don’t seem interested or concerned. Perhaps you’re feeling that too, if not within yourselves then maybe with your family members or your friends. It feels as if no one wants or needs the sacred anymore, much less believe in it.

In the midst of all of this doubt and apparent lack of desire for God people will still experience a sense of emptiness or need. They’ll experience crisis or pain or boredom, a hint that they have a soul. Maybe it’s a Jairus moment, a time of acute desperation. Maybe it’s like the woman…a nagging sense you try to hide that things could be better. And the best thing we can do as people of faith in these moments is not to offer proofs of God’s existence or prayer for a miracle or a church program or a wondrous Bible study but rather an invitation to listen and walk with them, to be there for them. The places where faith in a transcendent God can still make itself seen and heard and grow like a mustard seed is when people of God are just available.

It is when we keep the doors of our hearts open and offer people opportunities to share in our life together here around the table and around the font. It is to practice real friendship and non-judgment. It is not to spout off answers about faith, but just listen to people’s questions and wonder with them. It is about access, not appearing closed off or better than anyone—it’s about giving of ourselves to all people once again, just as the bread and wine are given over and over, as Jesus gives himself to all who came to him.

Because the Jairuses of the world and the nobodies will both eventually come looking and wondering. And when Jesus’ people can be open and generous of spirit in a world that is machine-like and cold, then there is a sign that God is truly still active and full of power, moving in our midst. Ready to receive. Ready to create faith.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Who Then Is This?!

a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 7B/Lectionary 12]

Mark 4:35-41

There was a big storm that came through Richmond one night this week—I think it was Monday night around 3am—did you hear it? I remember hearing dramatic thunderclaps all of a sudden, the bright flashes of lightning against the bedroom walls, and thinking, as I tried to go back to sleep, that at least one child would be in our bed in a matter of minutes. It’s been a long time since a storm has woken me up, and apparently I wasn’t the only one. The next day almost everyone I spoke to mentioned how it had woken them up, too. It must have been a huge storm system because friends from all across Henrico County reported it, and even people down in Chesterfield were mentioning how loud it was…everyone I spoke to, that is, except the person who was in bed next to me. My wife, Melinda, slept soundly through the entire thing. She even slept through our five-year-old climbing into bed with us and putting his head on her pillow. A spider can practically skitter across the ceiling in a distant corner of the room and she will wake up and ask me to kill it, but the loudest storm of 2021 doesn’t rouse her.

So I guess all I’m saying is that it doesn’t surprise me at all that Jesus never wakes up during this storm on Lake Galilee. Some people are just deep sleepers. And these particular storms, after all, were relatively common. Lake Galilee was prone to sudden squalls that could whip up out of nowhere. On top of all that, Jesus is likely exhausted. That’s not explicitly mentioned in the text anywhere, but we can connect some dots. He has just finished teaching what could have been hundreds of people for several days. The disciples whisk him into a boat to leave just as he is. I’m not sure what that means, but I bet it means they gave him no time to freshen up or change clothes or anything like that. Also, they give him the only cushion in the boat. So he gets comfortable, and next think you know he’s out like a light. He’s going to sleep through anything.

The disciples, on the other hand, fear for their lives. This storm could wipe them off the face of the earth, the waves emptying them and everything else in the boat into the depths of the sea. The waves and wind must really be substantial because, after all, many of these guys are fishermen. They spend multiple hours each day in boats, reading the sea, watching the sky for signs of bad weather. They probably were not particularly prone to panic in situations like this unless it was really bad. Like frightened little kid in the middle of the night stumbling into his parents’ room, they find Jesus and their anxiety spills over.

It is not altogether clear whether they think Jesus can do anything about it. In fact, I think if you take the whole account together, especially set in the context of Mark’s whole story, it looks like they don’t think Jesus can actually do anything other than maybe help them scoop more water out of the boat. They call him, “Teacher,” for that is really how they’ve come to know him up to this point. They admire their teacher, they have been called into mission by him, but as far as they can probably tell, his ministry is rooted in explaining and healing. He explains important things about what he kingdom of God is like and what Scripture teaches and he heals people who are sick. They are not aware that he is much more than that. And those are important things, but they aren’t readily translatable to keeping a boat from sinking. When they wake him up they are probably just worried that he will die too and confused that he’s OK sleeping right through it.

Christ on the storm on the Lake of Galilee (Rembrandt, 1632)

As you might imagine, this event is the subject of quite a few famous paintings. Rembrandt has one, as does Delacroix and Brueghel the Elder. What is interesting about many of these well-known works of art is they almost always depict Jesus in the act of sleeping, not in the dramatic act of stilling the storm. Rembrandt’s painting is probably the most famous. Known for his creative use and placement of light, which is called chiaroscuro to all you art majors, Rembrandt shows the bow of the boat lifting far out of the water, the brightest focusing your eyes on the place where a wave is crashing over the side. Two men are barely holding onto the rigging, and a third is almost completely awash in the water and spray, as if he might be taken back into the water once the boat lists back to the front. Another man is depicted hanging over the side, vomiting into the water.

These are the things that catch your eye. You have to really hunt to find Jesus. He is in the shadows, at the back and near the bottom, seated, completely removed from the area that is illuminated. He does not look powerful or mighty. He does not stand out or look superhuman in any way. He looks kind of like a professor. Of course, we know that when they finally rouse him, Jesus does not display an ounce of anxiety, but rebukes the waves and wind and brings peace to the sea. And then they are amazed. He is not just a professor. He is someone with truly special powers, and suddenly their perception of him is going to change.

It’s like in that coronation scene from Disney’s Frozen when Queen Elsa gets upset with her sister and accidentally lets her ice powers, which had been secret, spill out in front of everyone. The floor turns to ice, the fountain freezes, and all of Arendell is subjected to a permanent winter. Just like that, everyone’s understanding of just who Elsa is changes. She’s not just a royal. She can control nature. They’re in awe, and very frightened of her too, calling her a monster and accusing her of sorcery.

(Juan de Flandes) Jesus looks like he’s checking his notifications.

In this moment on the boat, our understanding of just who Jesus is changes. He has powers that clearly place him above the realm of nature. Like God his Father, he alone can exert control over chaos, which is what the sea and the wind symbolized to ancient people. Several commentators note that this episode in the boat begins to put distance between Jesus and his disciples. He silences the storm, but he also immediately chides them for their lack of faith. That is, his first and only words to them are not ones of comfort or understanding. He doesn’t say, “You know, it’s OK to feel scared in a storm.” Or “What I hear you guys saying is that you’re afraid we’re going to die.” He rebukes the storm and then essentially rebukes them for putting all the light on the storm, not on God. It puts a distance there. While he is human, he is also not one of them. While he works and moves among them, his mission is bigger than they can understand. While he is vulnerable to forces around him, he is also able to bend them to peace and life. This is the Lord of our life, the One who sails with us and bids us to cross the sea with him, the One who gets exhausted for us, the One who lets the powers of darkness do their worst to him. The cross and its death do come, and Jesus is still there to ensure peace and life will emerge from them. We may never witness Jesus actually controlling nature, but we do know that his presence and words—even after we die—have the power to tame the chaos of our lives.

I feel like I shouldn’t even have to say it, mainly because I feel like it’s all I’ve said for weeks, but the whole last sixteen months has felt like a long storm. In fact, it’s been a combination of several storms, all whirling around and among us. There’s no need, really, to re-hash it all—the way school was, the way worship was, the way life was, the maelstrom of discouraging science news, the arguing among everyone, the distrust. People clinging to the rigging to keep things afloat, the waves of regret and grief, and all the vomiting over the side. Yes, it was rough, but I’m trying to direct my thoughts to that shore where Jesus is taking us, strange as it may be.

And yet there were so many times I was anxious, and so many times I listened to anxious people. Why did I have such little faith? Why was always cranking up the spotlight on the bad things? What I did notice was that each time things seemed lost it was a word of Christ that brought stillness at hand. Now that the seas are a bit calmer, I can look back and see that when someone shared themselves selflessly, in the manner of Jesus, things felt immediately less treacherous, like God would get us through this. For my family, virtual learning was no cruise ship ride, and based on my discussions with other parents and the teachers who had to make it work, we weren’t alone in that. In September I thought there was no way we’d manage a year on-line with a 7th grader and an 8th grader and a 4-year-old who was going to have to wear a mask all day, and yet here we are, in June, on the other side of the sea, beholding a miracle.

This past Tuesday our monthly lunch group for retired men was able to re-gather for the first time since February of 2020. Among these gentlemen were two who were hospitalized with COVID, and one who lost his wife to it. We shared stories from the past year— things we learned, like how fun it is to shop for shoes on-line—but mostly the men wanted to talk about what’s coming next. All in all it was more of a forward-looking lunch than a backward-looking one. One guy brought a chart of worship attendance statistics he had typed up that clearly indicate a positive trend. People are still joining us on line and returning to in-person worship. And one gentleman offered to help with the next church photo directory which, in his opinion, should happen soon. There are so many new faces to get to know!

Yes, Jesus goes with us—just as he is—in the storms. Sometimes it feels like he is asleep and we think he’s snoring through it, but he knows when to exert the force of his love and there is peace once again. And the rest of us are filled with awe and saying to one another, as I did that day once again, and I know I will in the days to come, “Who then is this, that even the wind, and sea—and pandemic chaos—obey him?”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Great Family Reunion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


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

for Sophia, on her confirmation

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

like the sound of a mighty Wi-Fi signal

a sermon for the Day of Pentecost [Year B]

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

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

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

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

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

the first Zoom session

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Ever Vulnerable, Ever Resilient

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

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

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

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

easy now

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

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

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

Ascension (John Singleton Copley, 1775)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Good Shepherd vs. the Wolves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.