God, the ventilator

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent [year A]

Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11: 1-45

Well, we’re two full weeks into a shutdown to curb the spread of a virus. What have you been doing? How have you been filling your time? For a few of you, I imagine, life continues pretty much as usual. You go to work and you come home pretty much like you always did. But for most of you, I bet things have changed drastically. We are no longer going to school, we are no longer playing on playgrounds, we are no longer eating in common dining areas. And for some people, especially those we know at places like a nearby nursing home, where the virus has already led to four deaths, life is now lonely and full of isolation. We are holed up in our homes, wondering how long this is going to last, what activities we can do to entertain ourselves.

I tell you what I’ve been doing a lot of. I’ve been watching a lot of the movie Cars, the animated Disney classic that came out in 2006. I’ve been watching the movie Cars, in fact, every single day of quarantine, which means I’ve seen it about fourteen times in the past two weeks. We normally limit the amount of time our children spend on screens, but these are not normal times, and the Cars movie is the only thing that will keep our 4-year-old son in one place for a period of time so that we can get other things done. He watches it every time like it’s the first time he’s ever seen it, but everyone else in our family can quote it line by line. We know all the characters, the songs, the subtle intricacies of the plot.

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Ornament Valley, from Disney’s Cars

There’s one scene in the movie that really gets me every time. It’s the pivotal moment of the story, and I think it resonates with me so much right now because it reminds me a bit of our circumstances now as a country. It is the part when Sally Carrera, the charming but straight-talking Porsche girl car, takes Lightning McQueen, the vain and flashy race car, to the top of a high cliff and shows him the view. What he sees below him is the wide open, desert landscape. It is beautiful and breathtaking, but it is also almost barren. Down in the valley at the middle of this huge expanse is the little woe begotten and overlooked town of Radiator Springs.

The town, which is Sally Carrera’s adopted home, looks lifeless. Empty storefronts line Main Street, one by one. There is no business, no economy, and the remaining residents Talk mostly about the way things used to be. And off to the side of the valley lies the interstate highway, carrying cars and business and life with it right past the town of Radiator Springs.

Lightning McQueen is moved for the first time in the story. He wonders if the town could ever live again, if a spirit of new beginnings could blow there and bring it back to the bustling, thriving place it once was. At that moment the story becomes much more than a movie about cars and friends. It becomes a film about life and hope and community and history and promise.

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Radiator Springs, before the bypass came

None of us knows where this quarantine and the effects of this virus are going to take us. We look at the numbers of new cases rising, we look at the economic numbers, we read the emails from the school systems. I stand here and look out at an empty sanctuary, pews that should be filled with people of all ages, connected in joy and faith. Most ominously, we look at the rising death toll, and things are starting to feel a bit bleak, woe begotten. We need a Sally Carrera to show us the beauty among the bad news. We need a Sally Carrera who can give us a broad perspective, who can take us even to the edge of what is frightening and fearsome and speak a word of hope and life, show us there are possibilities of rebirth.

I have good news, folks. That is our God. Our God, the one who has claimed us all in baptism, looks out on bleak and fearsome and even lifeless situations among humanity and speaks words of new life.

That is precisely what we hear in this prophecy from Ezekiel about the valley of the dry bones. God takes his servant to vantage point and they survey the scene: nothing but dry, parched bones. The bones represent the whole house of Israel, all the people of God who God loves and has called forth into being. But they are just bones, scattered about and left to dissolve into dust. We may think of bones as fossils and clues to a time gone by, but for the ancient Hebrews, this was about as bleak a scene as you could imagine. If there was no breath, then there was no future, there was no life, and bones with no sinew or flesh on them cannot hold any breath.

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Ezekiel is a bit like Lightning McQueen in the Cars movie at this point. He surveys the scene and the Lord says to him, “Can these bones live?” And Ezekiel just responds in a statement of faith: “O Lord God, you know.” Then the Lord God says that he will cause breath to enter them, even when they are just parched and dry, and they shall return to life. The breath will come back into the valley, and God will bring his people back into Israel, the land where they thrive and grow and live as a blessing to others.

Then, sure enough, we witness one of the greatest scenes of rebirth in Scripture. Ezekiel prophesies as the Lord commands him to. The bones begin to shake to new life. There is noise—a rattling!—and they start to connect together like they’re supposed to. But even after all the bodies reassemble with new flesh and new sinew, they are still lifeless. So then Ezekiel summons the breath of God, and when the breath of God enters the people they finally come to life.

There is so much we don’t know about this coronavirus and the disease that it causes in some people. But what does seem to be the case is that people die from a lack of breathing. The virus attacks their lungs and respiratory system in such a way that they can’t get the oxygen their bodies need. This is why the need for ventilators has been so great. For many people, the only hope for life will be having air forced into to their lungs. God, as it turns out, is the great ventilator. We hear in this story that just as God’s breath first animated all creation, so will God be able to breathe his life into people who have already died and bring them to new life. God will breath and bring them out of their graves and all the way back home to Israel and into his presence forever.

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This is the God we worship today, disconnected as we are from one another like bones scattered across the digital landscape. This God is the great ventilator, undeterred by anything like death or disease or decaying landscapes. This is the God who has claimed us as his own, who has called us forth to serve him through the waters of baptism. This is the God who nurtures us like a mother who pops another DVD into the DVD player to bring joy and peace to her quarantined, cooped up child.

It is the God who sends his son Jesus to the tomb of his close friend Lazarus four long days after Lazarus has died…four days after Jesus could have come to save him. It is the God who does not just confront death by the tomb there, but who also participates in the emotions of grief and sorrow and anger that everyone is feeling. Jesus comes into the scene of despair not wearing a cape, or with muscles flexed, ready to fight, or with a clipboard containing tons of answers, but with his tears. Jesus comes with his humanity on the surface, ready to feel and know what people are feeling and knowing.

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And here, at his culminating moment of public ministry, at a tomb, Jesus defines himself as the resurrection and the life. He does not declare himself to be retribution or fear or power or even justice. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. The core of what God is about is bringing life from death, hope from despair.

Jesus does this because his Father, our God, doesn’t ultimately just peer at the valleys of death and darkness and quarantine from some distant vantage point. He enters it himself. He gives up his own body and his own bones and his own last breath in order to unite himself with the complete human experience so that we, then, may be united to God’s future life. Jesus carries that Spirit, that breath of God—the weeping, grieving breath of God—who can be resurrection and life in the face of death.

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This week I was in the office—alone—and I fielded a call from a former member who now lives in another state. She was very distraught, and as I listened to her I could tell that she was safe and healthy, but that she was very lonely and homesick for Richmond and the community here. She got more and more emotional as the conversation continued, and I assured her that eventually she would feel more at home in her new surroundings and that new relationships would start to form. My words did not seem to help very much. Eventually she stated that she wanted to leave where she was living and come and stay…in our church building.  I thought I may have misunderstood her, but she really meant it. She was willing to leave her apartment and come to dwell in our church building in order to feel less lonely and less distance and less sad.

It was such a surprising and unorthodox request—to live in a church, especially when it is so dark and empty an almost unused. The fancy automatic lights don’t even have anyone to turn them on right now, and they turn off automatically, too, so we can’t leave them burning in the evening to make the place seem more alive.  Doors have stayed shut for three weeks now. But she clearly has memories of how alive and how filled with love this place normally is. She knows this is a place where live has breathed and will breathe again so much so that she’s willing to make it her home.

Friends, God will breathe new life here. God will call our names just as he called Lazarus’ from the tomb.  The pews will be full again one day, the children will stream forward to the children’s sermon. We’ll gather around the Lord’s table to receive our nourishment with his body and blood. The Spirit will blow and our community will be reborn.

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And our schools will be full again, full of teachers teaching and students learning. Our parks and our public spaces will be filled with life and health, and there will be no fear.

And this will all be foretaste of that day when Jesus, the resurrection and the life, will call forth all of creation from the valley of death. And we will gather together in the presence of the Lord forever—those who’ve gone before us and those who will come after—because God, the Great Ventilator, knows these bones. He knows what they’re for, what they can be and do. God knows these bones.

And God knows these bones will live.

 

 

Thanks be to God!

dry bones

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The opposite of social distancing

a sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent [Year A]

John 4:5-42

We find ourselves today in an unprecedented situation. I don’t know of anyone who has ever been involved in such a wide-scale, long-term hunkering down as we are right now. Participating in this collective effort of social distancing in order to stem the outbreak of this coronavirus is both new and unusual. You, like I, have no doubt seen all of the memes and posts shared on social media about the empty shelves in the grocery stores and the crowds trying to get their hands on life’s bare essentials as fast as they can.

The only thing I have to compare it to is the last time we had to hunker down for a coming hurricane. I can’t remember now exactly which storm it was, but I know that it never ended up arriving and doing the damage we thought it would. I know this because we still have all the water we horded from that event. I brought one case of it today. It has been lying out in our storage shed for years. We followed the advice of “those in the know” who were telling us how to prepare, but we may have gone a little overboard. Having lived through a few hurricanes in my life, I know that you never want to be in the position of lacking drinkable water. What I find interesting is that this case of bottled water, which I estimate is probably from 2016 and Hurricane Matthew, actually has an expiration date on it. Did you know water had an expiration date? This one says—you may be interested to know—best if used by February 2020. Just missed the coronavirus by one month. We’re actually good on water this time, but apparently people are going overboard stockpiling other things: toilet paper. Go figure.

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still drinkable?

This morning we hear the story about Jesus and a Samaritan woman and water that will never expire.  It is water that will never run out, apparently never needs to be stockpiled.

It’s one of the most provocative conversations in all of Scripture. First of all, Jesus is in foreign territory. He begins in Judea, which is Jewish territory, and needs to go to Galilee, but instead of going around Samaria to get there (most likely the typical path) he goes right through it. The Samaritans were a group of people the Jewish folk did not get along with. There are several reasons for that, but suffice it to say there was a long history of mistrust and animosity between the two groups even though they shared some of the same history lived geographically very close to one another.

Not only does Jesus go through this foreign territory but he visits this well and strikes up a conversation with a woman while he is there. At the end of the story this woman goes back to the village and ends up bringing everyone into faith in Jesus as the Messiah. It’s a powerful example of how Jesus has the ability to cross boundaries. It’s like the absolute opposite of social distancing! Jesus goes out of his way to connect people. Jesus goes out of his way to spread this life-giving quality that he has.

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Now, a lot has been said about this particular woman throughout history, much of it made up, much of it kind of disparaging. All we know from what John tells us is that she is alone at this well during the heat of the day and that she’s had a number of husbands and is currently with a man to whom she is not married. I’m not sure we’re supposed to read too much into any of that. Perhaps she is a five-time widow. She clearly has some power and influence in her community and couldn’t have been all that shunned because her testimony alone is all her village needs to begin worshiping Jesus as the Messiah.

Whatever the case, it would have been a little unusual to be alone at a well. Wells were community places, spaces where people came together and their stories overlapped on a daily basis. This particular well had been used that way for centuries. I kind of think of wells like modern day cell-phone charging stations or maybe the counter at a pharmacy.

Recently I had to fulfill a prescription for one of our children and it required me to go to one of the few 24-hour pharmacies on our side of town. As I sat there waiting for the medicine to be ready I looked around and noticed I was sitting in the waiting area with all kinds of different people. I imagine if we had to go there every day or every week to get medicine we would end up getting to know each other pretty well. We would probably start to care about one another on a deeper level.

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In Bible days there were few places you could get good water and so people tended to congregate there. When Jesus approaches this woman, he asks her for something to drink. Immediately she is aware of how unusual that is. There are at least two boundaries he is crossing he is a Jew speaking with a Samaritan and a man speaking with a woman. And throughout the course of their conversation it becomes aware that Jesus is non-threatening and that he wants to offer her a new kind of life—water that will never run out. Jesus gives living water, water with no expiration date, water that doesn’t require a continual traipsing somewhere to get, water that somehow gets in them and gushes up to life without end. Understandably, this woman wants this water always.

 

So, what could Jesus mean by this? Why would Jesus describe himself this way? First of all, just like water, Jesus gives life to all people. He is not just for this group or that group, for this kind of people or those kinds of people over there—the kinds who worship in Jerusalem or the kinds who adore Mt. Gerizim.  Just as need for basic water is common to all living things so does God give Jesus for nurturing all kinds of people. He does come from one particular group, the people of Israel. His story arises from their story, but he is a Savior, a Messiah, for all. No one can claim him only for themselves. His love is meant to be shared and shared abundantly. The kind of love that Jesus shares for us on the cross, this total giving of self, can only be extended others. I cannot save it up, stick it in some corner of my life just for me. If I try that, then it is not the love of Jesus I am talking about. Jesus love gushes up from within me and naturally is extended to others around me.

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Another thing Jesus means by describing himself as living water is that he constantly refreshes and renews and gives life to people. By nature Jesus brings life, makes things new. He is like God’s big irrigation system for the universe. It’s not a stagnant pool of water but something moving, running, cascading in some parts. His words are always going to be a source of growth and vitality. We can hear them, read them again and again, and continue to have our lives pointed towards God.

I think how some of the oldest people in this congregation have helped me understand this better than anyone else. The way they speak about their faith and their relationship with Jesus shows me that it is alive, not something they do out of years of tradition and habit or because it reminds them of the good ol’ days. About a year or so ago we produced a short video for our faith formation programs. We went around one Sunday and just randomly interview people and asked them to share something brief about their faith and how it is shaped here. One of the women we got on camera, who is in her nineties, was sitting on her rollator and without any prompting, said, “I’ve been here since 1954 and I’m learning something new all the time.”

That is what living water is like. That is a source that never leaves you thirsty when you drink from it. That is a fountain of life that just doesn’t have an expiration date. And it is all because God decides not to stockpile his love for us. God’s not going to store it away and parcel it out, bucket by bucket, bottle by bottle. His Son will be lifted up on the cross for all people and the love will just flow and flow and flow right to this very day.

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Enough food donated in one day to make 70 bags!

I can’t help but think that this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman comes at the perfect time. We can’t physically be gathering to hear God’s Word for the time being. It’s like we’re all sequestered in our own little Samarias while this pandemic cranks up. But Jesus, the living water, is still present through you, flowing into our community just like always.  No matter where you are in these days of social distancing, no matter what kind of necessities you have to venture out to find, Jesus is still giving living water. He is still crossing boundaries, still bringing people together, still showing up to comfort the lonely, still giving life without end through his words and his love. You can read Scripture, you can listen to a podcast, you can pick up the phone and call a friend, you can write a letter to someone you haven’t heard from in a long time. You can pray. And today many of you have brought in food donations that we are packing up to distribute to school children stuck at home during this time of physical distancing. The love of Christ flows to you and through you. To that I can say, “Drink up!”

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

bottled-water

 

 

Loved, Saved, and Wet

a sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent [Year A]

John 3:1-17 and Genesis 12:1-4a

Cleansing is all we’re doing these days. We’re washing our hands and singing “Happy Birthday,” we’re refilling Purell stations right and left, and we’re buying out all the Lysol wipes at Wal-Mart, but the cross of Jesus Christ is the only cleansing we ever really need. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Jesus is lifted up as he dies, and all who come to see that God is fully at work in him are rescued from the powers of death and sin.

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It is right and good to follow the guidelines of our public health officials to keep people safe from illness, especially the vulnerable, but those who have been purified by water and the Spirit have the hope that no matter what happens, in this crisis or the next, we are born from above and the kingdom of God is where we reside.

It is right and good to put drastic measures in place, to sequester people or use social distancing to stem the outbreak of a disease, but also to remember that God so loved the world—which means God loves everyone, no matter where they live or where they’ve been, or what country they come from or what age they are or what gender they are or how often they go to church or what religion they are. God so loved the whole broken, quarantined, worn out, perhaps overly panicked world that God gave his only Son so that people can believe in and know that kind of love that has embraced the world and can live forever in that embrace.

That is the message that Nicodemus learns from Jesus when he comes to Jesus under the cover of night. That’s the answer Nicodemus gets when he sneaks off to ask some questions of Jesus, this new teacher in Galilee who performs amazing signs of God. Where do you go to ask your questions about life and about God, especially ones you might be a little embarrassed to ask? Nicodemus, as a leader among the Jews and probably a Pharisee, probably has lots of answers, himself, but something about the way Jesus is makes him curious, makes him think Jesus knows more. He can’t go openly, of course, because the others in his community might ostracize him. That’s why the night makes good cover. People need a place to escape, an atmosphere where it’s OK just to talk and start to open up.

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“Study for Nicodemus and Jesus” (Henry Ossawa Tanner)

The church got an email this week from Chaplain Nate Huffman, a son of this congregation who is married to our former Director of Faith Formation Christy and who was ordained as a Lutheran pastor in 2016. Nate is now serving as a chaplain in the armed forces and is deployed somewhere in the world, working closely with service-men and -women on a tour. He was writing to thank us for the care packages—twenty-three of them—our congregation assembled last month. We sent all kinds of snacks and goodies and puzzles to work on while they are away. He said that he’s been able to use the things we sent him to stock up a workspace he has built where people can escape. Maybe somewhat like Nicodemus. He’s built shelves, video game stations, and libraries there. He says that many people don’t see his ministry at explicitly religious and that the gathering space isn’t explicitly religious, but that the men and women he serves gather there often and it’s always interesting to see where Christ enters the conversation. Nate also said that his tour will end soon, but the next chaplain will be set up nicely with what we’ve sent. Christ will continue to show up in conversations in that space with other people long after Nate comes home.

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So much of Jesus’ ministry, especially in John’s gospel is about Jesus developing a deeper relationship with people through dialogue and understanding, not having people sit and receive and regurgitate what he says. And in Jesus Nicodemus finds someone who is very receptive to his questions and helps Nicodemus understand how God’s Spirit works. Turns out, it is like wind. It moves on its own and you can’t predict how strong it will be or what direction it will take or where it will show up. It cannot be bottled up in a church building or contained in a handy pamphlet you pass out to people or reduced to some succinct “Sinner’s prayer” but the Spirit is loose in the world and to some degree all you can do is try to harness it and be refreshed by it.

Through conversations, through his suffering, God works in the world because wants new life in the world. God wants people to be born again, or born from above. God wants people to be born of this Spirit, to be cleansed and renewed, to have new beginnings. We see that with Abram, who God calls even in his advanced age and to whom promises him new life, a new perspective on the world and a new perspective on himself as a father of nation through whom the whole world will be blessed. Like Abram, we learn to trust God and this new life and move forward into where faith leads us. It is not always easy, but God is always there.

For us, that new life and that new call begins at our baptism. The Spirit of God may have working in us before that moment, but at the waters of baptism we say we can be sure God’s conversation with us has begun. That is where the winds of grace begin to blow and be named as such. And for the rest of our lives we can look back to that moment and remember God is always open to conversation, available even in the dark, inviting us into his love.

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This new life involves seeing things a different way. That’s what both Nicodemus and Abraham and any person of faith comes to learn. It involves, for example, seeing one’s self a different way: with God’s grace, you see yourself as a person who is not going to be defined by your faults or shortcomings, your’re not going to be defined by worldly labels and limitations like “too old” or “not the right race” or “not gifted.” Baptism allows us to see ourselves as people whose brokenness is always overcome by God’s love. We can always start over.

This new life also involves seeing the world a different way: as a place that is full of hope, a place where God is active and healing and opening us up to ever-unfolding opportunities to serve and create. The world is described these days as such a scary place, a place to wipe with Clorox and segment with walls and fences and separate with facemasks. To be sure, some of that may OK, for a time, but that is not all the world is. Abram goes forth into the unknown with faith and promise, not fear and hatred, because God has called him there. He ventures out not with a desire to conquer and exploit, but with the hope of experiencing blessing.

We see ourselves differently, we see the world differently, and over and over again we see God in a different way. This is how God changes us the most. It’s wonderful. We come to see that love is at the core of what God is always doing. God so loved the world. If it is not about love, it is not about God. Love is at the core of the room Chaplain Nate Huffman outfitted with the supplies we sent him. Love is at the core of the cross, the rescue effort God undertakes to unite us to him.

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Speaking of baptism and rebirth and limitless second chances…we have a three year old at our house who is constantly playing in the water. He has done this since he could stand on two feet. He takes his toys and drops them in his water cup, or other people’s cups of water. He puts things in the dish water at the sink. He drops things in the toilet. I don’t know if he’s trying to see if things sink or float or what, but it is something we are constantly dealing with.

Well, he went missing this week. We were at the front door together and I turned back to get a jacket for him and a hat for me and by the time I returned, which was all of ten seconds…he was gone. He is a speedy little guy and I had no idea what had happened to him. For about thirty indescribably frightening thirty minutes he was gone. I thought I’d lost him forever. The police were at my house and a search had commenced.

And then as suddenly as it started, it was over. From the woods behind our house emerged a neighbor I’ve never met holding my son in his arms. He is shivering even though he was covered with the man’s fleece jacket. Soaking wet from his neck down, and still clutching a Matchbox car in one hand, our boy had clearly gone straight for the water in the creek behind our house, gotten lost, gotten wet, and wandered about 100 yards or more away. They said when they found him, he was standing at the edge of the water where it spills out of a culvert, holding the Matchbox car in the air, like he was getting ready to “baptize” it. We are now pricing out electric fencing.

We can run fast and we can run far in this life. We can thrill ourselves with all kinds of risky behavior, push too many boundaries, get in trouble, lose our way. And yes, there is peril. But if we’ve ever wandered at some point in our adventure of life to these waters of cleansing, these particular waters where we know God has met us, then we’re rescued. We’ve been rescued from the farthest we could ever go. Jesus has gone the distance, been there in the dark, died on the cross, and we rest in his grace. Even when we die.

God so loved the world, and no matter what happens Jesus will bring us home to God safely.

 

Thanks be to God!

Jasper saved 2

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Day Has Come

A sermon for Ash Wednesday

2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10

I knew the day would come. Such an unlikely friendship, so strong but yet in many ways so fragile, it couldn’t last forever. Through Facebook posts over the past nine years we had watched this bond form between my friends and a songbird as it kept returning every winter to their backyard. It had learned to eat mealworms straight out of their hands, and would routinely chirp outside the kitchen window for company when it was too rainy. And each night it would roost under the eave in the shed by the window they would deliberately leave open. Since the longest recorded lifespan for an Eastern Phoebe, a small brown and tan flycatcher of the eastern United States, was ten and a half years, I knew the day would come when their little feathered friend would not show up, and I’m sure they did too.

Phoebe

 

This year, like clockwork, Phoebe, as they named her, showed up in early December from wherever it was she spent the summer. She was her usual spunky, cheerful self all winter, but all who follow my friend on Facebook received the heartbreaking report yesterday—just in time for Ash Wednesday—that Phoebe had been found dead beneath the shed window. It looks like she died of natural causes. My friends shared that they held her up close one last time—such rare opportunity for a little bird—admired her little delicate Phoebe features, remembered her bravery and curiosity, and then gave her a proper backyard burial. I think many of us who followed the adventures of Phoebe and the Ragan and had enjoyed all the photos of this little bird feeding right out of Mr. Ragan’s hand mourned a bit yesterday.

We know the day will come. We’re so strong, but yet so fragile in so many ways. That’s why we’re here tonight…to confront the reality that one day our flight will too come to an end. It is inescapable. Someone said it’s a little like having to greet a pastor after worship is over while we’re under construction and limited to one way in and one way out. There’s no slipping through some other exit. You’re going to shake our hands, one way or another.

Some of us may not need such a stark reminder this year because we’ve dealt with mortality afresh in our families or friendships. We’re painfully aware that we really just eat out of God’s hand, each day a blessing, and we rest in the shelter God has provided. It is such a good and gracious hand stretched out with things we don’t deserve, with mercies more numerous than we could ever count, and yet it is so easy to forget all that and begin to think the gifts are treasures we’ve gotten ourselves, scrounged up from our own determination, treasures to hoard and stockpile. It is good to be occasionally reminded our day will come, the day when God’s loving and eternal embrace will put an end to all our selfishness and pride and reveal fully just how connected we all are.

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Yet, in fact, in all the most important ways that day has already come. Confronting the finality of our lives does allow for a certain stock-taking of our motives and goals, but be certain of this: for those who’ve been marked by a certain watery cross the day of God’s total embrace has already come. For those who’ve been claimed by baptism, the day for redemption is here. We live in God’s grace now. We have received the fullness of his light and love now, have been given a foretaste of the feast to come now, and we are therefore reconciled with one another. Because God loves us and rescues us from sin and death, God has given his own Son to be sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.

That means a lot of things, and one of the things it means is that we may live and share in God’s divine life now, not just after we die. God’s forgiveness gives us opportunities now to demonstrate and share God’s grace and mercy with others—the same grace and mercy he has first shared with us through the life and death of Jesus. As Paul says to the church in Corinth, let it now be said again to us: don’t accept the grace of God in vain. That is, let’s not waste any part of this marvelous life God has given us.

So, while much of the world right now is forced to wear facemasks to present the spread of disease, Christ-followers have a special opportunity to wear the cross. One is a sign that I might be a threat or you might be a threat to me, an emblem of our need to be timid and careful.

Danger of epidemic

The other is a sign of our common brokenness and of God’s love for us, that ultimately we have been set free. Let us bear that cross for he has cleansed us. It is a sign of our boldness to live this life that is now reconciled to God and one another.

Perhaps one of the most basic and important and ways we display and enact this reconciliation with one another is in the ways we actually receive one another, the ways we bring people into our presence. It is the practice of hospitality: extending a greeting or a handshake, making room for people in our spaces and lives. An up-front acknowledgement each and every day of our common fragility and brokenness sets the stage for healthy relationships to occur. It helps to cut through harmful systems of power and privilege. It reminds us that we are really all on the same playing field after all, that on this earth our livelihoods are tied more tightly than we might think.

The ancients understood this well. The harsh life of the desert, which was always nearby, even in Jesus’ age, had impressed upon generations that you never know when you might take your last drink of water. Wilderness life humbled you, and you were ever aware that everyone was at the mercy of the same elements.

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“The Hospitality of Abraham” (Ravenna)

The privilege and power that come from things like the clothes we wear, or the schools we send our children to, or the side of town we live on, or even the color of our skin often make us think we have different value. Making unhelpful distinctions between each other through religion and religious practices happens all too often, too. It’s one of the first things Jesus addresses among his followers, and we hear that in the gospel reading today. Some people use prayer to make themselves appear more holy, and others lift up their generosity and philanthropy  or their attachment to certain righteous causes mainly to get attention before others. On social media it’s called “virtue signaling,” the public sharing of one’s actions and beliefs for the main purpose of showing off one’s good character. Whatever they are and however they arise, these distinctions pop up all over the place in human community when we are blind to our link to our common Creator and Redeemer, and when we ignore our common link to the dust from which we come. Whether we intend it or not, these distinctions communicate to others messages what a facemask might: “You’re tainted.” Or “We have reason to be afraid of each other.”

It is very possible that during this season of Lent the newest gathering and welcoming areas of our church will be complete, and if not during Lent, then not long afterwards. We have also been since September giving special focus to our congregations’ objective for Evangelism and Outreach Objective, which is to “seek, invite, and attract people to create more opportunities for the Holy Spirit to deepen their relationship with Jesus.” Undertaking evangelism and hospitality from the position that Jesus has already reconciled us to one another, even to those we have yet to meet and receive here is the best way to go about it. We are one in our dust-ness, but also one in Christ’s love for us.

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“The Feast of Simon the Pharisee” (Rubens)

This Lent we invite you to take on the discipline of hospitality with us.  Host a dinner in your house. Invite people over for a game night in your home, maybe even some families at church you’d like to get to know better. Introduce yourself to someone at worship you do not know. And join us on Wednesdays over the next several weeks for a special series that will focus on hospitality and welcome as it is pictured in Scripture. We will be looking at select stories in the Bible that give us examples of how God wants us to relate to people as fellow wanderers in the desert, fellow migrants who are actually all eating out of the same hand, the same nail-scarred hand. We will be unpacking those scenes from God’s story that may help us see and cherish the unlikely friendships that may arise.

And learn that it is a holy thing to receive a common mortal, to view one another in terms of the price God paid for us in his Son, and not according to the other ways we devise. For the day has come—we knew it would—and now we can learn to depend utterly on God the provider, who always leaves that window open for us, and commit our fragile lives to the bold witness of Jesus’ love.

 

Thanks be to God!

Phoebe 2

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Brought to you by the letter B, for “Beloved”

a sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year A]

Matthew 17:1-9

Every time the Sunday of Jesus’ Transfiguration rolls around, someone in my family brings up a story from my childhood which I am too young to remember anything about but which I’ve heard so many times that I feel like I can remember it. Do you have stories like that in your life? One of mine revolves around this strange event of Jesus’ life. Often my uncle, who is also a Lutheran pastor and who was in seminary at the time, will text me or message me on Transfiguration Sunday and remind me of it.

As the story goes, I was about three years old at the time and my dad was reading a magazine that had a little comic of Jesus’ transfiguration. I guess the little cartoon drawing got my attention because I was standing next to him and looking over his shoulder. Curious to see what I thought, my dad asked if I knew who the people were. I pointed to the person in the middle, who was depicted with a beard and wearing a white robe, and said, “That’s Jesus.” Then my dad pointed to the two older guys on either side of Jesus and asked me if I knew who they were, probably hoping in some way that I was a child prodigy, or a model Sunday School student. I was silent for a second and then answered, “That’s Bert and Ernie.”

Bert and Ernie
artwork drawn for me during worship today…by a child who was baptized on the Transfiguration of Our Lord five years ago.

No, I was not and am not a prodigy, but now I can say that every year when Elijah and Moses are standing there holding a conversation with Jesus I think of Sesame Street. And, truth be told, to many 3-year-olds there are few figures who hold greater authority in life than Bert and Ernie. They teach life lessons. They model how to get along as opposites. They are arguably the most famous pair in the whole world of educational TV, representing not just different personalities, but different ways of dwelling in the world. And suffice it to say if a three-year-old had been on the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John, that kid would have been really impressed with Jesus if Jesus were hanging out with Bert and Ernie.

Being impressed with Jesus is what the transfiguration is really all about. The light, the clouds, the voice—whatever else our modern minds want to make of this strange and mysterious event up on the mountain, it’s clear that it’s meant to get our attention on Jesus. It tells us this is who we’re dealing with here. He is not our ordinary teacher. He dazzles. He shines. He has authority like no one else. He is on level with or even above the greatest figures of Israel’s history and faith, the pillars that God’s Word is based upon: Moses and Elijah.

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It would be like being in a Super Bowl huddle with 24-year-old Patrick Mahomes and wondering just what he’s made of and then looking up and seeing him talking with Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr. It would be like calling in the young IT person your company has just hired to set up a new network and set up a new anti-virus system and then peeking in the employee break room to find her conferring with Steve Jobs and Alan Turing. Jesus may still be relatively new to the disciples up on the Mount of Transfiguration but it is clear from all that happens that something absolutely groundbreaking is happening in him and all eyes and ears need to be on him. God loves him. God has placed him on this earth to demonstrate what God’s righteousness is like. Move over, Bert and Ernie. Today’s episode is brought to you by the letter B, for “Beloved.”

The disciples’ reaction is about what we’d expect. It’s about what we’d expect because we do this too when we’re amazed and dazzled by new people and new experiences. We want to prolong them, bottle them up, save them for later. I’ve seen the youth as they prepare to leave Winter Celebration, often getting teary-eyed and clinging to their friends, wishing they could somehow stay at Eagle Eyrie all the time. Many of us have felt the urge to keep that Christmas Eve candle lit just a little longer and only blow it out at the last possible minute. We want Christmas to “last all year.” I’ve myself struggled to come home from vacations or get back into the swing of things after a particularly meaningful time away with friends and family.

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Peter’s up on that mountain, in the moment, and says, “It is good to be here,” and then he comes up with this idea to make three tents for Jesus and the Elijah and Moses. Peter’s so impressed with Jesus that he doesn’t even think of where he and James and John are going to sleep. But then before any of that can take place, a cloud rolls in, Moses and Elijah disappear, and Jesus tells them all it’s time to head back down the mountain.

And then he does something very strange—maybe it’s the strangest thing of all in this whole episode. Jesus tells them not to mention any of it until after he the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. Typically people come away from amazing spiritual experiences and want to share it, want to let people know what happened. This particular transfiguration Jesus wants to remain a secret.

Just who is Jesus? That’s what’s at stake here. How we’re going to talk about Jesus and explain his presence in our life is not just a transfiguration issue, but a daily challenge. I was once at a pastors’ conference and heard Richard Graham, former bishop of the Metro DC Synod of our denomination, say, “Jesus is the light of the world. Christians don’t advance the conversation in a helpful way when we say to the world, ‘Jesus is just an interesting option.’”

Jesus is announced as God’s Son, God’s beloved, not just another great teacher or leader in a list of great teachers and leaders, and if the point of his transfiguration is to get all eyes on him, to notice how special he is and to make us impressed, then it appears the disciples will need to keep following and listening to him. God wants them to keep listening and moving with Jesus when they come down the mountain.

There is a movement in this story, you may notice, from seeing and experiencing to hearing and following. At first the disciples see things—the dazzling white clothes, the authority figures of ancient Israel, the bright could that overshadows. But by the end of the story, all those visions are gone and they are left with sound—God’s command to listen to Jesus, and Jesus’ own words of “Do not fear” and his urge to “Get up.” The key then to understanding who Jesus truly is, the key to deepening our relationship with him, will lie not in seeking out or prolonging the religious experiences, as holy as they may be, but in listening to him, taking in his words, realizing that in Jesus, God has given us someone we can always count on.

This past week in Confirmation Class we were looking at the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, that long middle section that talks about Jesus, and we were specifically discussing Jesus’ death and resurrection and what it means for us. How do people of faith explain what Jesus’ death on the cross actually accomplishes and why his death plays such an important, I would say, indispensable part of his love for us. We talked about how in some ways Scripture presents Jesus is a sacrifice for us, that he lays down his life like a lamb so that the guilt we bear and the sins of the world can somehow be erased and we can be reconciled to God. Then we looked at how some parts of Scripture talk about Jesus as a rescuer or a liberator that he comes to redeem us, set us free from the ways of darkness and selfishness that hold us captive. And then we talked about how in some ways Jesus is shown as our purifier. His death purifies us of our sin like water and shows us how powerful love is—how powerful unconditional love is—in its ability to make people new again.

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a Greek Orthodox depiction of Christus Victor (Christ the rescuer)

There are other ways that Scripture talks about Jesus’ death, of course, but those were the three we looked at—sacrifice, rescuer, and purifier. And then the confirmands were asked to share of those three which made most sense to them. Here’s how Scripture talks of Jesus. How do you talk about him? It was quiet for a moment but then one of the confirmands raised his hand and said Jesus is a purifier for him because each Sunday after worship he feels purified, cleansed and renewed to go forth into the week. One young woman said that she feels Jesus is more of a rescuer because she has felt Jesus’ presence in her life when she was going through some really difficult stuff and that Jesus was there for her, bringing her out of it.

Hearing their testimonies was so moving for me. It seems to me that kind of faith comes from someone who has realized that what makes Jesus so impressive and authoritative is not that he provides flashy religious experiences but that he comes down the mountain and enters the world’s pain. It seems to me that kind of faith comes from people who know that the two most important people Jesus is seen standing beside, and in conversation with, are not Elijah and Moses, but the two common criminals that hang next to him on the cross. That kind of faith is born in someone who has come to understand, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the most dazzling Jesus ever gets is when he is stripped of all his clothes and left to die. If God’s Beloved Son is crucified, died, and is buried, then there is no limit to how far God will go to give us his righteousness.

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Life can be so hard. The valleys can be dark and the road treacherous. I think Jesus does want his disciples to save up this awesome vision for later, after all, to bottle it up in their minds eye. If you, like me, wonder what’s going on with this transfiguration, after all, if you’re wondering what to do with it, how Bert and Ernie might fit in, then just let the vision sit with you. Let the vision of Jesus transfigured in glory sit with you and then continue to listen to him. Get up on your feet and hear his word not to be afraid. And when you’re moving through days of grief and sorrow that never seem to end when you begin to think in your guilt and doubt there’s no way you can be put back together again, no way anyone could purify or rescue you, then remember of where this all is eventually going to go.

Listen: God’s beloved has come to you. Tell that story over and over. He was transfigured. He is risen. Jesus is the light of the whole world. And his love is most impressive thing the we’ll ever know.

 

Thanks be to God!

Bert and Ernie 2

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Light that Makes a Difference

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A]

Matthew 5:13-20 and Isaiah 58:1-9a

Although it seems that construction here is going to drag on forever, we are actually about two months from completion. One of the major things that has happened in the past two weeks—which is one of the things that has to be gotten right before the project can continue—has been the addition of our new skylights. Because the new administrative suite has expanded the building in such a way that we’ve lost the access we once had to sunlight, the skylights have been carefully thought out and designed so as to provide maximum natural light to the interior.

The new skylight just on the other side of this sanctuary wall, for example, will allow almost twice as much light into that hallway and through those stained-glass windows as the ones before. Three small skylights in the ceiling of the new conference room will help bring light to the office spaces. Perhaps most spectacular of all is the skylight in the new gathering area. It will run the length of the exterior wall that faces the parking lot and is placed the way it is not just so that light will come in, but so that when you look up through it you can see our cross. I think we’re all going to like that the architect was that thoughtful with his concept.

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In each of these cases what I’ve learned with the Building Team over the past year or so of designing and planning is that light matters. I think I always understood that fact on some level, but this whole Brighten Our Light process made it much more real. How light is channeled, reflected, muted, diffused, focused is simple, yet complicated—there’s actually a whole field of study you can major in at a handful of universities called architectural lighting. It helps you learn the physics and art of how light defines a space, opens it up, lifts a mood. Right now there’s a new song on the radio by Eric Church called “Monsters.” It’s not exactly architectural-lighting-level-stuff, but Church talks about killing the monsters in his bedroom as a child just by turning on the 60-watt bathroom lightbulb. Light matters. It makes a difference.

That’s all the disciples of Jesus really needed to know to understand what Jesus was trying to tell them about how their faith, their righteousness, would have an impact on the world. Their actions of love and mercy would be the way the light of God would get in to the dark corners of the world, bounce off the walls, lift the mood, kill monsters. They will matter, make a difference.

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For some time I’ve noticed we talk this way about the desire about our lives. People speak in terms of making a difference in the world, and it seems to resonate with a lot of us. Implicitly or explicitly people mention this longing that their lives will have impact on others and make it a better place. The theme song for the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans, in fact, was “Make a Difference.” We were all taught this song down in the Superdome. “I want my life to make a difference,” went the song’s chorus, “I want my life to make a change.”

That may be, in fact, how you feel. You want your life to make a difference. This place in Scripture right here, right near the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is probably the closest Jesus ever comes to saying “Go make a difference in the world.” He puts a little different spin on it, though, for the difference his disciples are to make in the world isn’t mainly for their own sake of fulfillment. It’s for God’s sake.“Let your light so shine before others,” he says, “so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

That is, the light I shine isn’t primarily for my own well-being, so that I feel I have a purpose. Jesus doesn’t say anything about my feelings at all, in fact. Isn’t that funny? This is about others getting the light and then mainly about God. The light we reflect, focus, diffuse, channel, the 60-watt bulb we flick on to kill the monsters of evil and hatred, is for the purpose of bringing God glory.

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This is also the part of Jesus’ teachings where he gets more scientific than anywhere else. It’s not just light that Jesus uses as an example for his disciples’ lives, but salt. I doubt the disciples would have known this, but because salt is a polar compound, it is able to dissolve into just about any greater substance and make the whole thing taste totally different. The positive and negative ions can dissociate and move all over the place. Have you ever baked bread without adding salt to the dough? I’ve learned the hard way. It tastes awful. It’s like eating plain wheat. And the dough also rises too fast without salt, so it can often go flat. Salt slows the growth of yeast. Just a little is all you need because it can spread out and fill the whole loaf. Therefore salt not only gives a loaf flavor—makes it worth eating—but it also gives the bread better form and texture.

For Jesus, the difference his followers are to make in the world has to do with spreading out, not necessarily taking over. The difference is about expanding, influencing, impacting through small but potent measures. It is about taking the light of Jesus Christ and bouncing it into whatever space we’re in. But the kicker is that this difference is not something we make alone. It is our difference, our impact, our influence as a group, as a church, as a body. It is not “I” but “We.” The song from the 2012 Youth Gathering, although it was catchy, might better have gone, “We want our life together to make a difference. We want our life together to make a change.”

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Jesus needs his followers to know they are a community, that the light they will give, the light the world so desperately needs, is fundamental to the way they live with each other. It’s about their collective values of sharing bread with the hungry, of bringing the poor into their houses, of clothing the naked. They nurture this kind of life together. In fact, these are the guidelines for Israel’s life together that Isaiah announces five or six centuries before Jesus is even born. These things are great when a single person undertakes them, of course, but when even a small community makes them their flavor, an entire world can feel the difference. The light of God will break forth like the dawn.

Things haven’t changed. The goal for God’s people hasn’t changed. We are still called to be salt and light and nurture our common life. Maybe, just maybe, one way the church can be light and salt these days is to be the community that can somehow model unity and respect in the midst of a very divided world. In case you haven’t noticed, the rest of the loaf is tension and anger, it’s Republicans and Democrats ripping up speeches and gloating and yelling at each other, politics as usual. The rest of the world’s loaf right now is malaise, rising levels of cynicism and sarcasm, anxiety and rates of suicide.

And while all that kind of stuff is going on, local Christian congregations will be the salt that keeps the good flavor going. They’ll create a meal chain for a family going through a devastating loss. They’ll have birthday parties for 6-year-olds and instead of asking for gifts they’ll ask guests to bring book donations for a local elementary school library. They’ll see the news reports of tensions rising in the Persian Gulf region, and they’ll take up a collection for Navy personnel who may be stationed on a ship near it all. They’ll maintain a sense of humor somehow, eat pancakes and watch youth be silly at a Talent Show. I know syrup is sweet and Jesus is talking salt, but it works. These people will be peaceful and forgiving in spite of their ornery, clueless pastor. Maybe they’ll do things like that. I think they already do.

One thing I know for sure is—because it’s precisely what Jesus says to them—is that, washed by the mercy of Jesus Christ, they become people who say, “I am part of the problem with the world. I have some work to do” in the midst of a culture who is always saying, “Those people are the problem. They have some work to do.” Christ’s followers will be the ones, the salty little ones, who will point out their own faults and God’s mercy to overcome them rather than pointing out the faults and shortcomings of others. Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and the scribes, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” That’s what the Pharisees and scribes were all about, don’t you know? They were always pointing out where the other people fell short, the sins that other people needed to confess. The Pharisees were experts at diagnosing the problems of the world. The righteousness that exceeds them says, “Look no farther than yourself. Look no farther than yourself. Look no farther than yourself.”

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Because people with that excessive righteousness will know it’s really not about them. They’ll know it’s not about how bright their light is, as if the glow originates within themselves, as if they’ve got their crap together and they’re so goody-two-shoes that all the Pharisees and scribes would die to be just like them. In fact, Jesus’ followers will know their crap isn’t together and God loves them anyway.

No, if they shine at all they’ll know it’s because they’ve been opened up somehow to a certain degree—maybe through repentance, maybe through suffering—opened up, like a hole in the roof, a gash in the ceiling, so that when people look at them they see the cross shining through.  It’s because people will look at them—at us—whether we’re in the building with our cool new skylights or we’re outside of it somewhere, like dissociated ions, filling the world, and they’ll see a righteousness that comes from somewhere else, from a love that is above, shining down. They’ll see us in our light and know nothing among us but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. They’ll not see a people who are making a difference, but a loving God of light who makes a difference.

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Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

Waiting for consolation

A sermon for the Presentation of Our Lord

Luke 2:22-40 and Psalm 84

It was just a few weeks ago. I needed to pick up a few things at Target and I had my 3-year-old son with me. He’s only recently been allowed to walk by himself in the store instead of being strapped into the cart, but I thought I’d give it a go. In we walk, the two of us together, and make our way across the store by way of the wide aisle. We get about halfway to the food section and I realize he’s not right beside me anymore. I turn around and find that he is face to face with a woman I’ve never seen before. She’s got a red top on and khaki pants, so I figure she must be a store employee. She has crouched down to talk to him right next to her re-stocking cart, and as I approach them she looks up and says, “You must be Jasper’s father!”

“Yes,” I explained, as I got ready to pull him away so she could get back to work.

“Oh, let me talk to Jasper,” she said, “I heard his voice since he came in the store and I’ve been hoping I’d get to see him.”

“Excuse me,” I asked, “you know my son’s voice?”

“Oh, yes! I love him. I met him back in the fall and have seen him a few times, but it’s been several months since we’ve run into each other!”

Jasper stood there and gave me a look like, “Dad, leave us alone.”

So I watched them talk for a few minutes, utterly engaged with one another.

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It was one of those moments where I realized that my own son, although he was still young, although he still has so much to learn about people and strangers and conversations, was already forming relationships and interacting with the world apart from me. Although I am very much in control of his world, he was already able to venture out from my care and know people I don’t know. It’s kind of a proud but scary feeling. The Target employee was excellent, though.

It wasn’t Target, but the Jerusalem Temple for Jesus. And he wasn’t three-years-old and able to talk. He was just forty days old, right at that point in his development where he might have been able to start smiling at people, where his eyes could focus only about 8 to 12 inches away. Mary and Joseph walk in and immediately encounter someone who has been waiting for him. This stranger—not a temple employee, but a faithful, devout elder of the city—scoops Jesus from Mary’s arms (can you believe it?!) and begins a conversation.

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Aert de Gelder

The man hasn’t ever actually met Jesus before, but in some way he knows him. He knows him because he’s been waiting for him—waiting for the consolation of God’s people—and the Holy Spirit has led him to the Temple that day. And then here comes Anna, another elder who happened to never leave the temple, so faithful was she in her devotion to God. She begins to praise God and again makes a remark about waiting for him like everyone has been waiting for redemption.

The holy couple are probably both proud and a bit scared. They have that moment—that moment when they realize their child, still so young, will be forming relationships and interacting with the world apart from them. In fact, that is the sole purpose of Jesus’ existence, his reason for living, moreso than any other human: to form a relationship of love and mercy with all the people of the earth, to have an impact on everyone. As Simeon says, he is destined for the rising and falling of many. He is to be consolation. He is to be redemption.

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In the modern-day classic comedy Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell, the main character, TV weatherman Phil Connors, finds himself mysteriously stuck in a time loop where he always wakes up at 6:00am on February 2. He relives the day over and over again. He never ages, the town never changes, and he goes through the course of each February 2 meeting the same people and having the same opportunities. The whole time, of course, he is waiting and waiting to figure out how he can be redeemed from the whole situation. Quite literally, he seeks consolation, deliverance, from what quickly becomes a hell for him. We watch him respond to his situation any number of ways. He is transformed through his waiting but in the end his deliverance comes from within. He figures out, at long last, how to reach his own consolation.

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It is a charming movie and on some levels it teaches good lessons about things like attitude and charity and suffering, but Simeon and Anna are both looking for and find consolation and redemption from outside themselves. Their deliverance into a new world comes from a Savior. Their hopes are fulfilled not because some thought or attitude suddenly clicks from within, like trial-and-error self-help situation, checking out the books one-by-one from the library, but because they see God has reached down into the world and given his Son who is going to have conversations and relationships with people despite their brokenness. He is ours. The wait is over.

A better comparison to Simeon and Anna and to ourselves on this February 2 is the Greensboro Four, the young black men who, 60 years ago today, were sitting down at a whites-only Woolworth counter in Greensboro, NC, and waiting for a meal. They were waiting for consolation, too, for a redemption from a corrupt system of racial discrimination that would only come about when white people in power would let it happen. They, too, found themselves in a hellish time loop, day after day at the same counter, waiting for equality and facing hostility. They would end up waiting 146 days to get served lunch, but that’s only counting from the beginning of the sit-in. Technically-speaking you could say they waited over 200 years.

Simeon and Anna, both at the end of their lives, reveal that waiting and seeking is part of faith. And they both reveal that the only true deliverance from world that repeats its darkness and sorrow and injustice over and over again involves seeing the light of Jesus, of letting him love us and claiming that love. The only real fulfillment to the long wait for salvation is to behold the Son of God whose arrival reveals our inner thoughts, who brings the fall and rise of many. And the ones who fall are the ones we tend to think of as great and powerful, the ones who abuse authority, who lord over their people, who use things like religion and the economy to oppress others. And the ones who rise are the ones we cast aside, who are poor, or who are mourning, elderly, feeble, fragile.

Psalm 84, appointed for today, the Presentation of Our Lord, makes note of how both the sparrow and the swallow are able to make their nests by the altars of the Lord. Two of the most insignificant, most delicate, most non-descript creatures find place in God’s presence, right at its heart. Who are the sparrow-like in our time? Who are the people whose existence is so vulnerable, dependent on others for safety? They are the ones able to draw nearest to God.

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baby swallows in a nest

You may be interested to know there is only one other person in the gospel of Luke who is described as waiting and looking for God in the same way and that person, too, ends up holding Jesus. It comes at the very end of the gospel as Jesus’ limp and lifeless body is taken down from the cross and his followers wonder what to do with it. Another man, like Simeon, appears from nowhere and asks Pilate for the body so he may place it in a tomb. His name is Joseph of Arimathea, and he holds the broken body of Christ the same way Simeon held the child. He too is described as a good and righteous man who is looking for the kingdom of God.

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Mary and Joseph present Jesus in the Temple forty days after his birth, but in Jesus’ death we see just how much God’s love is presented to us. The family comes to be purified according to the law, but through the cross we see how we all are purified by love. Simeon and Anna see a light beginning to shine on the child’s fortieth day but Easter morning will prove just how bright that light will get. These devout and righteous men may hold Jesus in their arms, but in reality it is the other way around: Jesus holds us—in birth, in death, in the life to come.

And today we behold him again, or, rather, he holds us, in bread and wine, in his words,  in the promise of deliverance and salvation from all that holds you captive. He is your Savior. Let him crouch down, scoop you up, love you forever. “Master, now you dismiss your servants in peace, according to your word. Our own eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared—like a table, like a feast, like a lunch counter—in the presence of all your peoples.

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Dialogue, Discovery, Do Life Together

a sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A]

John 1:29-42

Beginnings. We have had a lot of beginnings lately. Some of it has to do with how a new year starts a lot of things over, but some of it is just the Holy Spirit’s timing. Today, for example, we receive new members into our congregation, so that’s a beginning. These fine folks have begun walking the journey of faith with us at Epiphany Lutheran Church. We’ll honor all recent new members with a reception between services, which is a new ministry of the Evangelism Team, in and of itself.

We’re also installing a new set of Council members and officers today. Some of them have never served on Council before, and so they are very conscious that this is a new endeavor for them. The new officers are thinking about the beginning of a new year of leadership that has fallen to them.

Council 2020 whole group
A new Congregation Council for 2020

As many of you know, our congregation hosted the ordination yesterday of one of our own, Daniel Hess, who now begins ministry as the pastor of a church over in the far southwestern part of the state. That is a new beginning in a number of ways.

We’ve at the beginning of an impeachment trial in the Senate (which we’re all looking forward to, of course), the beginning of commercials for the Masters tournament on TV, and this week, in the middle of January, you might have thought it was the beginning of spring. So did the cherry trees at the grocery store where I shop.

So much of the time, like in the cases I just mentioned, beginnings are very clear. In some sense we know they’re coming. We mark it with a ceremony or a reception of some kind, or by telling people it’s happening, or maybe we just know about it within. But sometimes things begin and we’re not aware they’re beginning. Sometimes things get underway before we realize what’s happening, before we comprehend a new thing has actually started. That’s how the beginning of Jesus’ ministry feels in John’s gospel. There’s no fanfare, no drum roll. One day John the Baptist is pointing Jesus out to John’s own disciples and then the next day they are following Jesus. Jesus doesn’t really call them to follow him. He doesn’t draw any attention to himself.

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John the Baptist points to Jesus

We have no evidence, in fact, that Jesus is even ready to start his ministry or receive followers. What’s most strange to me is that one of those first followers never even gets named. We know one of them is Andrew and that Andrew eventually goes and gets Peter, but the other guy (or woman?) remains anonymous. We do know the time this all happens, which is a little bizarre fun-fact thrown in there. It is 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Other than that, though, it all seems to just take us by surprise. In fact, Jesus’ first words as his ministry begins are simply in the form of a question: “What are you looking for?” Those are actually the first words Jesus ever speaks in John’s gospel, and it occurs to me that is a great question to routinely ask ourselves in our faith journey every once in a while. What are we looking for and how might Jesus choose to address that need or hone it down for us?

So while the beginning of Jesus’ ministry among his first disciples seems to come from out of nowhere, there are at least three things about journeying through life with Jesus that are clear right at the beginning. The first is that it hinges on dialogue. That’s why that initial question of his is so significant. When the first disciples come up to him Jesus does not hand them a pamphlet to explain everything about him, with nice bullet points and graphics:

  • I am the Son of God.
  • I am the Lamb of God.
  • I am the Messiah
  • I am co-eternal with the Father in the bond of the Spirit.
  • Share this on Facebook, tag 20 of your friends, and a blessing will come to you tomorrow.

No, Jesus, right from the start, invites conversation and is more interested to learn about his disciples’ motives and interests than in reciting facts about his agenda.

Several years back I was speaking with a friend who was sharing about how he had entered a prolonged period of doubt about God and his faith that he described as intense and painful. As we were talking I asked him what had been helpful in that time, what had drawn him closer to trusting God rather than pushing him away and he said, “When people simply ask me questions about what I’m feeling or struggling with, rather than simply doling out answers.” This is hard for me to remember and model, because I like to give answers. I like to solve problems and share what I think I know. But Jesus teaches us how to begin and continue life with him and it functions on dialogue, and dialogue typically functions with questions, not closed, bullet point statements.

talking

The second thing the beginning of Jesus’ ministry teaches us about walking the journey of faith is that it’s about discovery. If we are not truly OK with discovering new things about ourselves, even about our brokenness…if we are not comfortable with discovering new things about the world and about other people, then discipleship with Jesus may not be for us. If we’re really wanting certainty and safety and security all the time, then walking with Jesus is going to be off-putting. If we want everything to remain the same, if we want power and control, specifics about how to handle every situation coming our way, then Jesus is going to make us really uncomfortable.

There is a noticeable element of discovery with Jesus right from the beginning. The disciples leave John the Baptist, approach Jesus, and then end up staying at his house all day. As the story of Jesus unfolds, of course, we discover all kinds of things that we would never have figured from the start. He makes the blind see, he feeds people, he washes his disciples’ feet, and he eventually hands his life over. All of the things that stand in the way of discovery, that close life off—disease, hunger, oppression, and eventually death—Jesus removes. He makes a way where there is no way, but it’s not easy and it’s not always clear where the path will lead.

It’s like these new lights we ended up installing in this construction project. They are energy-saving LED lights that automatically turn on when you start walking down the hall. I’m still frustrated that there are no light-switches. I like the certainty of turning on lights and turning them off, but with these lights you need a sense of discovery. You just need to keep walking down the hall so the motion sensor knows you’re there and eventually the lights will turn on. Sometimes, though, it feels like they’re not going to work!      I’m halfway down a dark hall before the lights come on. It’s like they’re whispering “Come and see.”

hallway
“Come and see”

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry we learn it is centered on dialogue, that it is essentially a process of discovery, and, thirdly, that it is an endeavor we do with others. Christian faith is done together. While each person’s faith and understanding of Jesus may be in some way as unique as we all are from each other as individuals, there is never a sense in Jesus’ ministry, even at the beginning, that it is a private journey. While we have our own ups and downs and navigate trials in our own way, Jesus’ life with us is always involving others.

Quite frankly, all of life is like this. Despite what we think about rugged individualism and the power of one person to overcome odds, chart their own course, none of life is truly done alone. We should be thankful that Jesus is so clear about that up front. The disciples naturally draw other followers in. They are a community from the get-go. They pass the message along from one to the next.

Every worship service has an element of this to be sure but yesterday at Daniel’s ordination service we had a very rare opportunity to glimpse how true this is. Gathered in the sanctuary were people from all aspects of Daniel’s life of faith. There were people from this congregation who watched him grow up and eventually be confirmed. There were people in the assembly who roomed with him in college and spent time with him in campus ministry in Harrisonburg. There were people from Camp Caroline Furnace, which is a Lutheran camp in the Virginia Synod where Daniel worked as a counselor for a few summers. There were people from the Synod candidacy Committee and seminary professors with us in worship. And there were people who just were there because they cherished Daniel and had influenced his faith in other ways.

Daniel Hess Ordination Jan 19 2020

It’s powerful to have visible so many of the people who had been doing faith together with Daniel, and ordination are rare worship opportunities which provide for that. But it’s important we remember that we all have that in our walk with Jesus. We all are ultimately doing this as one. Jesus has called us all together, with Christians throughout the world, in his ministry of dialogue and discovery. Jesus promises to be with us along the journey and more often than we probably would like to admit, Jesus’ presence is not borne to us in some warm glowy feeling in our heart but in the friendship and love of other people. It is Andrew to Peter. It is John saying to his friends, “Look there. Here he comes.” It is another disciple saying to another, “We have found the Messiah.”

Dialogue, discovery, and doing the life of faith together: three things that are clear right from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, even if the beginning itself kind of comes out of nowhere. And, of course, the most glorious thing about beginning with Christ is that there is always a chance for a new one. Maybe that’s why the beginning is no inauspicious, so sneaky. It’s because Jesus can always begin again with us anywhere, anytime. Risen from the dead, and ever-ready to take our sins away, he holds out his arms and asks, over and over, “What are you looking for?”

invite

 

Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Nativity of all nativities

a sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas [Year A]

John 1:1-18 and Jeremiah 31:7-14

This year our set of Scripture readings for late Advent and the season of Christmas have provided us with the opportunity to reflect on the story of Jesus’ birth through the eyes of three different gospel writers. We only really get that chance about once every three years or so, depending on how the readings of our lectionary fall with the calendar.

This was one of those years, and so two weeks ago we read from Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth. As we heard then, Matthew’s focus is on Joseph. Joseph, Mary’s fiancé and husband and Jesus’ earthly father, hears the news about Mary’s pregnancy through the power of the Holy Spirit and it is Joseph who must wrestle with what it all means.  Then again last Sunday we heard the extension of Matthew’s birth story and how, again, it is Joseph who must immediately take up the role of protector and usher Jesus and Mary to safety in Egypt.

Between those two Sundays, on the night of Christmas Eve, we heard the version of the nativity that Luke tells, which is the one with which most of us are probably familiar. Luke’s focus is not on Joseph at all, but on Mary. There are other characters, too, that factor in—characters like the shepherds and the angels—but it is mainly Mary who wrestles with what all of this means. Luke tells us that there by the manger, after the shepherds arrive and tell the holy family what they heard from the angels, Mary ponders these things in her heart.

Today, on the second and final Sunday of the Christmas season, we hear John’s version of Jesus’ nativity. And in John’s version all the focus is on Jesus. That is not to say, of course, that Matthew and Luke don’t think Jesus is important, but John tells this story of the mystery of God’s birth among us in such a way that Jesus is the main character and that, right at the start, it is to Jesus where our attention is drawn.

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Our attention, we find, is taken all the way back to the beginning, far before Nazareth or Bethlehem or even ancient Israel, which is where we typically think of Jesus having his start. John takes us back to the very, very beginning when God speaks over the waters of creation. “In the beginning was the Word,” echoing the words of Genesis, “and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This Word, which we come to understand pretty soon is Jesus, is there as God begins forming things into existence. All things came into being through this Word, which is a pretty profound statement given that most cultures at the time believed creation was either accidental or the result of capricious or indifferent gods. And just as the first thing God spoke to create was “Let there be light” so we know that this Word was even a part of turning on that first lightswitch so that things could live. So this is the birth story of all birth stories: life itself starts with this Word. There may be no manger and there may be no star, but clearly everything that exists comes to be through Jesus.

It’s hard to translate what John means by Word, but it helps to know that in the culture and language of that time, “word” was a synonym for “basic essence” or “key action” of something. We kind of have something similar today when we say, “I give you my word.” What we mean when we say that is that I am speaking the truth. You can count on me, not just on what I’ve said. It means that whatever I’ve said to you about something is so true to who I am and what I’m about that it’s like a unite myself to that statement I just made.

Black American slang has given us this sense of the word too. We could say, “Hey, that baptism this morning was really awesome.” And I could reply, “Word.” I’m saying, “Yes, that is the truth.” When John talks about God’s Word he is talking about that “Yes” of God, that fundamental truth of whatever God is.

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So when he says that Word became flesh and lived among us, then that’s a pretty big deal. This key action of God, this fundamental component of the divine doesn’t just stay out there somewhere as an idea or concept but takes up residence as one of us. God gives us his word and that word is Jesus. And since God has now taken on our flesh, since God’s Word has now put on human skin and bones then it leaves God vulnerable to anything that a human with skin and bones might experience.

And that is glorious because that is some kind of love. That is grace upon grace. It’s one thing just to speak your agreement with something or someone. It’s a completely different level of commitment and compassion to become that thing or that someone to get your point across.

Several years ago I went ice-skating with a church group and we watched one woman who was not a part of our group fall to the ice and not be able to get back up. Thank goodness she was not hurt, but no matter what she did, she could not get back up. One of the ice rink attendants skated over to her to guard her from being run into and we watched as he tried to explain to her how to get off the ice. He kept saying things like, “Put your hands like this,” or “Pull over on this railing,” but nothing was working. Then he tried to pull her up himself, and that didn’t work. Eventually he decided to get down on the ice next to her and lay on the ice in the same position as she was in. That was the only way she got back up. He became what she was. That is the story of John’s nativity of Jesus.

Skating on the frozen lake

Once we understand that God became human, then, we can never really look at another human being the same way again. Once we come through faith to see that the Word of God took up residence as a man on earth, we can never really interact with another one of our fellow humans as if they don’t mean anything. No matter what another human being looks like, no matter what gifts they have or what gifts we perceive they don’t have, no matter where they’re from, no matter how old or young they are or how they communicate with us, we know God has decided that is the kind of thing God wants to be, that is the place where God wants to dwell, that is the space the Father’s love wants to call home for a while. This rearranges our understanding about God and what God is like but it also rearranges our relationships with one another.

Over the summer we’ve been having to rearrange a lot around here. We’ve lost our main gathering area and our main entrance, for example, and had to improvise with the large fellowship hall and bringing in people through our side doors. Initially some of us were concerned with how that might impact our relationships on Sunday morning and the sense of community. At the same time, we were renovating a room for a new parlor and needed somewhere to stick the old parlor furniture. Someone decided to place it out there in the fellowship hall until we decided where we’d donate it. Well, something kind of unexpected happened. People sat in the furniture right away. Lots of people. That furniture has probably never seen so much sitting! And people sat with people and across from people they didn’t really know and started talking to them. I walked in there one Sunday and there were so many people on the old floral-print couches and wingback chairs, and with the way they were all arranged, they looked like the start of the old Family Feud show.

Price Hall
the old furniture is on the right of this photo

By rearranging space and physical objects we were able to form new community and draw people together. In fact, those are the kinds of things we heard from the Building Consultant in 2016. She had told us that people are opened up to each other—or closed off from each other—simply by how space and doorways and furniture are used, but not until we were forced to change things around here did we see how much that was the case. The words had been spoken to us, but it’s different when it actually happens to you.

In Jesus, God’s love has actually happened to us, and we are rearranged to be gathered unto him. Because God does not become flesh among us in Jesus just as a type of undercover investigation. God does this to bring us back to him. God does this to draw all people into his love and glory. God does not become flesh among us just to experience what we experience. God undertakes this in order to draw us to him, to seek us out and bring us into the divine life, to give us the power, as John says, to become children of God. Or, as Jeremiah announces, “See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, a great company, they shall return here.” No condition or hardship will disqualify anyone from God’s great search and rescue. All are brought in, with a preference for those most vulnerable.

I notice that when we perform baptisms and I walk down the aisle with a newborn baby people are just drawn to watch. They try to sing the hymn—in many cases they’ve got their hymnal open—but they mainly want to watch the baby. There’s just something about a little human that naturally attracts us. That is the life of Jesus, the Word made flesh. There is no baby in John’s birth story, but there is plenty of gathering in. Whether it’s calling fishermen from the lakeshore…or feeding thousands of people with a little bit of food…or washing his disciples feet…or being the shepherd that calls all of the sheep into the safety of the fold…Jesus is always gathering, always drawing people to him, always rearranging all the furniture so that we will see his face and see the face of love. And so that we can see in the face of each other the image of God.

Eventually, though, he gathers us to look to his cross, when he is lifted high in the deepest darkness. He draws our attention there so that we can see the depth of his love for us, just how far he will go to stoop down and pull us up. He is lifted high in the deepest darkness, but the darkness will not overcome it. It is the nativity of all nativities—a new life that never ends, with all things on heaven and earth, from the farthest parts of the earth, the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, a great company—they shall be with God. Evermore and evermore.

 

Thanks be to God!

Jn1

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Bearers of the Promise

A sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve

Isaiah 9:2-17

We are gathered amid the glow of candles and carols tonight, perhaps warmed by the cheer this special day brings, but it has been a rough Advent season for Epiphany Lutheran Church. Amid all the festive preparations that come at this time of year, our community has been laying out food for funeral receptions and gathering in the columbarium to remember the lives of three of our own—three we had every reason to believe would be celebrating the Savior’s birth with us this year.

Maybe that’s where you find yourself this Christmas, too. The prophet Isaiah tonight speaks of people who’ve been walking in darkness, of people who dwell in a land of deep darkness, and while Isaiah was initially speaking to an ancient Israel waiting for a redeemer, some of us feel something like Isaiah might be talking directly to where we are. It feels like darkness now: a sense of loss and wandering and wondering about how to move forward.

Two weeks ago I was visiting the hospital room where one gentleman was watching his wife of almost 56 years slowly slip away. As I prepared to leave he pulled me out into the hallway to speak one on one. Bereft and almost at a loss of words as their time was growing short, he looked straight at me and said, “Well, I can say I have fulfilled my marriage vows to her. I have been faithful. I have loved her. I have kept those promises I made back in 1964.” And then, to my astonishment, right there in the hospital hallway, with no prompting at all, as if to puncuate his heartache, between the beeping of heart monitors and the shuffling feet of nurses he began to recite those vows, one by one. “I, Richard, take you, MarthaiIn plenty and in want, in joy and sorrow, in sickness and in health.” A man’s love for his life’s partner, reaching its climax, even in her final days.

vows

It occurs to me that’s what this special day brings, why we’re gathered here, why the candles glow. The news of Christmas all about the fulfillment of promises. God has fulfilled his promise to shine a light in the darkness. It is about God staying true to God’s steadfast love, making good on his vow to be with his people in plenty and in want, in joy and sorrow, in sickness and health. Indeed, if we say anything about this night, it is that God has reminded us of his love for us, even as the world slips away. In the midst of a rough Advent season that man in the hallway spoke gospel truth to me, and tonight we gather to sing and be filled with joy. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.” He is ours. This birth is God’s promise that though we might feel lost, we are found…that though we might feel empty, God fills us with good things…that though we might feel defeated by what life throws at us, God has broken the rod of our oppressor as on the day of Midian, and the boots of the warriors that trample upon us—the sorrow, the grief, the despair—have been burned as fuel for the fire. Because God fulfills his promises in Christ, we have life forevermore.

For if a son has been given to us, a child born for us who comes as God’s own, then we have the assurance that everything we go through, everything we encounter as human beings on a benighted planet is something that God himself will encounter and experience. God weds himself this day to a world with newborn babies and our favorite Christmas treats and squeals of joy at presents wrapped and placed underneath a tree. And God weds himself this day to a world with impeachment trials and trade wars and cancer treatments and funerals. A child has been born for us.

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Martin Luther, the church reformer, puts it this way in a short little essay for his students from 1522 called “A Brief Instruction on What to Look for in the Gospels.” The essay’s title is its whole point: what one should be looking for when reading or hearing one of the books about Jesus in Scripture. And we read from one this night. Luther says, “Before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given and that is your own. This means that when you hear or see Christ doing something or suffering something you don’t doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you.”

When God decides to fulfill a promise, you see, when God decides to give a gift, God gives it wholeheartedly, and nothing can take it away—not religious authorities who think he is too gracious with his love, too liberal in how he shows it. Not disciples who vow one moment to defend him and then the next deny they even know him. Not forces of sin and darkness that try to nail him to the cross. God promises and God gives and the gift lasts forever. It is ours. Jesus is given to you.

And here’s the thing: those who receive it find they cannot help but give it again. Those upon whom God’s light has shined cannot help but shine it on others. It’s like the heavens break open with the blast and cacophony of angel voices over a field of shepherds. Those shepherds then leave their flocks and hasten to the gift and find him wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. Those same shepherds then return, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.

We, who hear the promise tonight—we who receive the promise—become bearers of the promise of God’s unconditional love to the world. God makes good on God’s vows and we respond, shielding the weak, staying near the world in its fears, holding the hand of the lost. We, who sense the light tonight, or whenever, then shine the light where we go.

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Some of you may have noticed that this year our congregation did not set up its outdoor nativity scene, the one on our front lawn here where the characters of the nativity and the Epiphany slowly but surely make their way to Bethlehem. I’ve heard the disappointment from a few community members and nursery school families. That display of mannequins on wire frames and covered with fabric have become one of our best evangelism tools. We decided, given how construction was affecting access to the lawn and dependable electricity sources, it would be good to take a break this year.

But the other day I received a text from one of our college students. It was text of a photo of her house way out in Louisa County. There, on top of her house, her father had hung the huge star from our nativity display. Her text read, “Now keep in mind we live a mile off the road so no one will ever see it.”

Normally this man the one who uses a complex system of fly-fishing rods and weights to sling the massive star over our cross. This year he took it home and I’m proud to tell you it is shining from his roof. I guess he couldn’t bear for that light not to shine. because the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.

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A light shines in the darkness of Louisa County, VA

So, if the star is not here, but still shining out there somewhere, a beacon of promise, where then are the characters? Where are Mary and Joseph and the shepherds in the fields abiding, who eventually return glorifying God? Where are the magi, traveling from the East with their gifts, plodding their way toward the house in Bethlehem? That’s you and me, people.  This year and really every year. The gospel’s best evangelism tool, you are hope in the darkness, a sign that God’s promise of love has being fulfilled.

Here’s the “Brief Instruction on What to Look for Upon Being a Christian.” Bear the promise. Go with haste. Hang a star. Shine with your good deeds with the glory of a thousand angels. You and me, characters of God’s redeeming story out in the world, because the Son has been given. And they won’t miss the nativity scene because they will find it in you. And perhaps they’ll think in their minds, in the words of a simple tune by Garrison Keillor…

 

There are angels hovering ‘round.
There are angels hov’ring ‘round.
There are angels, angels hov’ring round.

 To sing in harmony
To sing in harmony
To sing, to sing in harmony.

 The shepherds on their knees
The shepherds on their knees.
The shepherds, shepherds on their knees.

 The child in her arms
The child in her arms
The child, the child in her arms.

 O world without end.
O world without end
O world, O world without end.

Maybe that’s what they’ll hear, you Promises.

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.