Jesus: Mother hen, mobile nest

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

Luke 13:31-35

Today is the feast day of Patrick of Ireland, but we’re still in Lenten purple. This has never been a major commemoration on the Lutheran calendar—or even in Ireland, I’m told—and yet I feel like he and his holiday have become somewhat larger than life in recent years. Our kids are expecting leprechauns to show up today and leave evidence of their antics by leaving behind something green, and for one school project a few years ago our girls had to construct a leprechaun trap using their knowledge of simple machines. There are parties and parades in many U.S. cities this weekend. Rivers are died green. Krispy Kreme doughnuts are frosted green. Milkshakes are colored green (while supplies last!) and someone even bought me a green wig and dared me to wear it today knowing St. Patrick’s Day would fall on a Sunday.

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The thing is, there is an awful lot of legend surrounding Patrick, most of which is probably not true. The part about his use of a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity is just a legend. Turns out the story about how he drove all the snakes out of Ireland is not true, either. There have never been any snakes in Ireland. What we do know for sure about Patrick, though, is very interesting. He was raised in England in the 5th century and was kidnapped by Irish pirates when we was about 16. The pirates took him to Ireland where they kept him as a slave for about six years. During that time he became a man of prayer and deep faith in God. He managed to escape and make it back home, but then he entered studies to become a priest and then heard a call to go back to Ireland as a missionary and bring the gospel of Jesus’ love to the very people who had enslaved him. He felt compelled to head right into a land and a people who did not know his God, who had a proven track record of hostility toward people like him. He believes that if the gospel of Jesus is true, then God has reconciled him to his former captives. In one of his letters Patrick writes, “If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples, even though some of them still look down on me.”[1]

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That does not sound like a person who is concerned with pots of gold or trapping leprechauns, or making sure things are green enough. That sounds like a person bound to the mission of a loving God. That sounds like a prophet bold in faith to share God’s word of promise, even in the midst of hostility.

In fact, Patrick sounds a whole lot like Jesus as Jesus heads to Jerusalem. We hear him this morning leaving Galilee, the territory of Herod Antipas, who the Pharisees say is out to get Jesus. This is the Galilee of Jesus’ hometown and early days of ministry, the places where his family resides and where his disciples come from. Even with Herod on his tail it could have been easy for Jesus to stay there, but he heads on to Jerusalem, a city, yes, that has a track record of hostility towards prophets like him.

Jerusalem in Jesus’ day was a relatively cosmopolitan town, full of people from all over, but it was still the central city for the Hebrew people. It basically served as a capital of sorts, kind of like New York City is for artists and Nashville is for country musicians. They used to say in eastern North Carolina you learned three “R’s” in school: reading, writing, and the road to Richmond, because that’s where the jobs were. If Jesus is to bring the message of God’s kingdom to God’s people, he knows he is going to have to make it in Jerusalem. If Jesus is going to complete his mission to bring peace on earth and goodwill to humankind, he is going to have to get on the road to the city where the temple is. And yet Jesus all but knows they will not receive him well. He expects to be treated in the way they’ve treated others who go there because he’s got a message they don’t want to hear, a message of dying to self and loving the neighbor.

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a depiction of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus

That’s where get this wonderful image of Jesus as a mother hen. He thinks about Jerusalem, the place he is compelled to go even though he knows it won’t go well, and he sees himself like an everyday barnyard animal that wants to shelter its young. So many times prophets can come across as firebrands and judgmental preacher-types who go around telling everyone what they’re doing wrong, but Jesus sees his actions among God’s people as a mother, as a soft, feathery, delicate bird who can open up her wings and shelter her babies, always finding room for one more.

Not every bird is like the chicken in this respect. Most birds spend a good part of their reproductive energy constructing nests, some of them very elaborately. Their young hatch from their eggs without feathers and with eyes still closed. They need to have a place that is secluded and safe and out of harm’s way where those babies can grow and develop. Maybe it’s a tree, maybe it’s the edge of a cliff, maybe it’s your mailbox. But some species of birds, like chickens, have chicks that are born fully feathered and basically ready to go from the start. They can peck on the ground and eat, they can run around, they can get into trouble, and get easily eaten up by predators. In those birds’ situation, the hen is the nest. She is the mother and the place of refuge at the same time. So wherever she goes, there is safety. It’s like a mobile home-base, accessible anywhere, always nearby. And, as most people would have known in Jesus’ time, hens will often mother their babies so much they will offer their own life keep them safe.

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Wherever Jesus is going to go, then, he will be a place of rest and refuge—even when it means he will be heading into danger, into a threat. Wherever Jesus takes himself, people will be able to run to him, will be able to find God’s sheltering presence. And there will be nowhere that is off-limits for him. He’s not going to stay outside the city that kills its prophets and hope they come to him. He’s not going to build another temple somewhere else and declare God’s presence and safety there. He’s going to be instinctively accessible and raise his armspan for all of God’s people to find refuge, even when it means he will give his life.

The question he has is: will they come to him? Will the people of God recognize their inherent vulnerability in the world, their need for that guardianship, that care? Will God’s children understand it’s so easy to be gobbled up, soul and all, by all kinds of tricky, fox-like false ideologies before you know it?

One of the focal points of Lent is taking stock of ourselves and the overall human condition and our place it and realizing we’ve always got God with his wings open, waiting. We can return there, no matter how old we are or how far we’ve wandered. But part of that taking stock means recognizing our inherent vulnerability. It involves appreciating our own fragility, our own susceptibility to forces in the world and inside ourselves that will do us harm. It means realizing in some sense we’re all a part of Jerusalem, a headstrong city that thinks it has it all figured out.

I recently watched that movie Free Solo, about Alex Honnold, the first and only person ever to scale El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California, without any ropes or climbing gear. El Capitan is a 3000 foot sheer rock face that is widely considered among serious rock-climbers as scary, daunting, perhaps the most dangerous rock-face in the whole world. Somehow Alex Honnold pulls it off, climbing from the bottom to the top in just under 4 hours one day back in October, and they caught it all on camera. It’s been called the greatest human athletic achievement of all of history. And yet what makes the achievement so remarkable, the film so gripping (pun intended) is that Honnold is so vulnerable as he does it. One little slip of a toe and he’s a goner.

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I highly recommend the film, and I personally think that what Honnold did is amazing, but I do find it interesting as a way to reflect on the human fascination with pushing the boundaries of our vulnerability, of living on the edge, not just in a physical or athletic sense, but in any sense: socially, emotionally, spiritually. There is always going to be this innate captivation with our supposed invincibility, with this tendency toward individualism and self-sufficiency.

We get enamored with our ability to go it alone and we feel as though we’ve “made it” only when we’ve severed all the ropes and ties to the supporting things around us.

What’s worse is that relative privilege, whether it comes from race or social class or wealth or education, really adds to that tendency of masking our vulnerability. The people of Jerusalem were certainly susceptible to the false security that privilege affords. They were the temple city, the center of trade and commerce, the place where big things happened and important people gathered. But at their core they are just as vulnerable, too. I know when I’m forced to look closely at myself, I think of the ways that I, at 45 years old, am still so vulnerable to other people’s opinions, to the power of my own privilege, to letting the media in all its forms influence my views, words, and actions when I could just let Jesus rest his wings above me.

Because he is the mobile nest. He’s everywhere, wings up, ready to receive me, all around me. Like Patrick’s own words, which we will sing this morning: “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me…” He doesn’t want to trap anyone like they’re a leprechaun. He wants us lift up those arms so we know how safe we really are there. How much refuge we will find, even in death.

This past week I visited Ms. Betsy in the hospital after her fall. Ms. Betsy is 91 and has been teaching the 2-year-old Sunday School class for something like 65 years. Even though her fall left her with one broken hip and another dislocated one, she was characteristically upbeat. Every Easter she holds an Easter Egg hunt for her class at her house over on Sleepy Hollow Road. It’s been called the social event of the spring, all these little kids running around on her yard looking for eggs and then gathering for ice cream and cake in her basement. I’m here to tell you Ms. Betsy’s goal in therapy is to have that Easter egg hunt.And on Monday when we were visiting, her daughter-in-law, Traci, was trying to brainstorm other options. Maybe they could find a way to host the egg hunt at her house, or maybe here at church. And Betsy interrupted her and said, “Oh, no, doll, they come to me.”

So, there you have it, from St. Patrick to Jesus outside of Jerusalem to the gospel according to Ms, Betsy. Jesus has gone everywhere, everywhere, so that we can come to him. Quite simply, like an egg hunt at Betsy’s house, he’s where we belong.

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[1] Letters to the Soldiers of Coroticus. Patrick c. 450

Getting Elemental

a sermon for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 and Matthew 5:1-6, 16-21

Today is Ash Wednesday but, as it happens, March 6, 2019, is also the 150th birthday of the Periodic Table. I know that’s probably not on everyone’s radar, but it’s on mine! And, plus, I think it’s good to talk about the gift of science in the church. In any case, it was on this day in 1869, that a Russian chemist named Dmitri Mendeleev presented one interesting invention he had come upon almost by accident to the Russian Chemical Society. He had realized that all of the chemical elements they knew about, ones like Oxygen and Hydrogen and Sodium and Silver, could be arranged very neatly according to their atomic weight because he saw a pattern in them that no one else had seen.

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Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907) and his Periodic Table of elements

It immediately revolutionized science, and the Periodic Table has been called one of the crowning achievements of the human mind. In fact, Mendeleev’s discovery was so accurate that his Periodic Table could be used to predict the existence of elements that hadn’t even been located yet as well as what their properties would be, too. The Periodic Table on its 150th birthday contains 118 elements, 94 of which occur naturally on earth.

I realize that for some of us, the Periodic Table might cause painful flashbacks to high school chemistry classes and memorizing equations and different things about the elements. For others, the Periodic Table may be a glimpse of God’s beauty and design, an example of how there is actually a lot of order in the midst of what we perceive as chaos in creation. Tomorrow, for a science project, my fifth grade daughter will essentially dress up as the element Lanthanum, atomic number 57—a rare earth metal that is used in some medicines, telescope lenses, Hybrid car technology, and swimming pools, and is soft enough to be cut with a knife. Tonight she and the rest of us will walk around wearing mixture of calcium carbonate, potassium chloride and a smattering of phosphates on our foreheads in the shape of a cross, because today is Ash Wednesday.

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It’s so fitting, this neat little birthday and liturgical event happening together, because, after all, the Periodic Table is a list of all the elements, and today is about getting elemental. The Periodic Table map of dust of the smallest kind, atoms, and today we come to terms with the fact we’re just on that map somewhere—that each of us is just atoms which have come together for the time being and will one day unbind themselves from one another and dissolve back into the stuff of the universe.

Mendeleev did not come up with that idea 150 years ago, of course. God’s Word had revealed that to the ancient Hebrews millennia ago. “You are dust, and to dust you will return” is what the Creator says to man at the beginning of existence after the disobedient nature of humankind rears its head. Humans had tried to put themselves in the Creator’s place, to reach for a position that wasn’t theirs, and God had to remind them of their true element, that they depend on God for all things. Tonight we bear a symbol of that reminder. It the period to remember our life has a period.

But that’s not the end of it tonight, really. If we’re going to contemplate the elements of creation, and our own complicated place within it, we also must call to mind the elements of our Creator. This is not just a chance to reflect on our mortality, on how death will eventually put an end to all our creativity and love, but an opportunity to understand more deeply who this God is. What are this God’s elements? What constitutes his nature?

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For that we look to his story, and we hear he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God creates in us clean hearts and renews a right spirit within us. God’s nature is to give himself to creation, in all its brokenness not stand distant from it and watch it crumble. The apostle Paul writes “for our sake, God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, that in Jesus we might become the righteousness of God.” God’s basic elemental desire is to love us, to breathe life into us, over and over, to form us into beautiful, extraordinary people.

Yesterday, as Pastor Joseph and I prepared to make the ashes for tonight, we made a snap decision to issue an online invitation if anyone else wanted to join us. In past years we’ve undertaken this smoky task alone in the kitchen, but this year we thought it would be fun to include others. I had wondered where outside we could burn last year’s palms if more people came. Joseph suggested the columbarium, which was a brilliant idea. Four people—all women, as it happened—turned up and took charge of igniting these dried palms from last year’s Palm Sunday. The wind was whipping around like crazy and it was a bit chilly. Huge tongues of fire leapt out of the little metal pot Beth Barger had specially purchased for us to use. Dark smoke swirled into the air.

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I felt like it was a little out of control for a minute or two there, but I suppose that’s to be expected when working with the Spirit, the breath of God that brings life to dust. It was almost like we were re-enacting Easter and Pentecost at the same time: women at the tomb, in a holy place surrounded by the remains of our brothers and sisters, standing around and sharing their faith in the presence of a mighty fire and roaring wind. It was a picture of this mighty God who can take the ashes of our lives and raise them up to something new. Today those ashes the women made form crosses on all of you.

And if today’s gathering is about remembering or celebrating a Table, it is the Lord’s Table, the Table where all things really start to make sense, where order in our universe is finally achieved. That is where we meet the One who is Behind it All. And there he offers himself again. There we see that basic desire to be with us once again—to have his own body broken  and his own blood shed. And at that Table we find ourselves forgiven, restored, reconciled to him, sent back out into the world with another chance. We will return to dust at some point, yes, but we can also return to the Lord our God who is gracious and holds out mercy to us.

As we return to God, know that Jesus gives his disciples the elements of strengthening that relationship: almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus outlines the basic structure of how we can grow in the life of faith. We learn to give of ourselves like God does through the sacrifice of money and possessions, freeing us up from materialism and allowing us to realize our responsibility to care for those who have less.

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The elements of Lent

We grow in our dependence on God by abstaining from something we do on a regular basis that may be unnecessary, or by changing a habit in a way that we reoriented away from infatuation with our own powers.

And we grow in our ability to communicate with God by focusing on our prayer and using the language of Scripture to form our language to God.

We hope that this Lent can be a time of growth, of realizing that God takes our finite lives, our numbered days, and fills them with the life of his Son Jesus—that though we are nothing but atoms, we are God’s atoms and that the God we meet on the cross has a love for us that makes all things new.

That is, in the cross of Jesus we meet God is in his element.

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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Down from the mountain

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

Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]

As some of you already know, I was summoned for jury duty this past week, and out of the 50-60 potential jurors that were summoned with me, I ended up being one of seven chosen for a civil case that lasted three days. It was a very new experience for me as I had not only never received a summons before, but neither had I ever been inside a courtroom or seen a judge in his or her robe. They actually wear robes!!

Each day we had to report to a certain floor on the parking deck of the county office buildings and be escorted by a bailiff down several long halls, through some doors that had security key entry into our jury room and then, finally, into the courtroom to hear the case. It was altogether kind of a sacred experience, there in the inner sanctum of the American justice system. They gave us a lot of instructions, but I found I was more prepared for what was going on because I had seen so many “Matlock” and “Law and Order” episodes growing up. Even though we were treated almost like royalty, we were very sequestered. We had to leave our smartphones and computers in the parking deck. That made me feel like I was living in a bubble.

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it didn’t look quite like this, but close

For three days we listened quietly as the detailed testimonies poured forth from the witnesses. There was a lot to take in and digest, but—here’s the kicker—we weren’t allowed to discuss it with anyone. We weren’t allowed to go home and share things with our spouse or friends, and we weren’t even allowed to discuss it with each other. We just had to take it in, experience it ourselves. We were left to create our own narrative and meaning in our mind based on what we were hearing and keep it to ourselves. Now that it’s done, I’m allowed to speak about it, but I’m not sure I can explain what I saw and heard.

In many ways, that is kind of like Jesus’ transfiguration. Lots of disciples are called, but only three are selected for this honored journey where they’re allowed to witness a very special event involving Jesus. They have this unique experience with the truth of Jesus where they’ve never seen him in such a white robe. They are moved, even terrified at one point. When it’s all over, they don’t talk about it. They keep it to themselves, and so what they really encounter there on the mountain and what it all means is still somewhat of a mystery to anyone who wasn’t there. We never get to hear what Peter, James, and John think about their experience on the Mount of Transfiguration, how exactly it changed them, or what they do with it.

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The Transfiguration (Rubens)

To some degree, isn’t that true of all of our experiences with God’s holiness, whether we glimpse it in worship or in some meaningful and moving service event or perhaps during a week at summer camp or even in private prayer? Some of you have a 5th or 6th grader who will come back from their experience at 7th Day this weekend and you will sense have felt and seen something about glory of God or the community of Jesus that they won’t quite be able to communicate to you. They will talk about how many stink bugs and ladybugs are in the cabins, for sure. But the bigger thing they saw up there will be more vague.

When Moses comes down Mount Sinai after his conference with God his face is shining and he puts this veil over it. That veil kind of obscures him from everyone around him who didn’t go up on the mountain. It makes him a bit mysterious, I bet—a bit removed from them.

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That’s the thing, right, about experiences with God’s glory, or, as some people might call them, “God moments”? When I have them I find it is wonderful and exhilarating for me, but it almost puts a veil over me face to everyone else, and if those people weren’t there, or if they haven’t experienced something comparable, it can become alienating.

The danger is this, of course, especially after having several of them, is that we start thinking that these powerful experiences of God’s glory is all that faith is supposed to entail. We can fall into the trap that Peter apparently does when he asks to build the dwellings—that sustaining that mystery and mystique is the point of Christian faith. It’s like we want to figure out a way to wear this veil all the time, only wanting to lift it when we’re in those places that we connect with God.

One of the earliest controversies that arose in the church was this belief called Gnosticism. Gnosticism essentially taught that God could only be met in the mountaintop experiences, that you had to be one of the select few who could encounter God’s glory. That veil was really important, in other words. It helped you maintain that mystique and that special knowledge about God. I’m afraid we can even start to think of worship this way, if we’re not careful. We can believe that if we’re not feeling something each Sunday, or if we’re not learning something powerful and new, then worship has become pointless. This is a form of modern-day Gnosticism and we still have to fight against it. We still need to fight against that understanding of faith because any message of Jesus that says God is for select people is not the gospel. Any form of Christianity that calls us to leave the world is opposite to what Jesus is about.

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When Jesus is transfigured and his glory is revealed, he is talking about his departure in Jerusalem. The actual word for “departure” here is exodus. Jesus is meeting with the two greatest figures of his people’s faith and history, the two people who got closest to God in their time—Moses and Elijah—and what Jesus is talking about is the cross. That is, he is speaking about how his departure through death will be the point at which God’s people are led to freedom—freedom from their slavery to sin, freedom from selfishness, freedom from the idea that God has to be climbed to. Jesus’ exodus is going to show that everyone in any circumstance is already present with God. Jesus’ death is going to reveal that God climbs down into every possible place we might find ourselves in. That’s not secret knowledge. There is no special prayer you need to say, there is no privileged background you have to have, there is no degree or experience you need to testify to to receive that. God has given himself to you as you are, no matter how uninformed and excluded you feel.

And as if to prove what he means, the first thing that happens when Jesus and the special three come down the mountain is that he encounters a hurting person. It’s a really unpleasant circumstance. There’s this boy overcome with some sort of evil spirit. His father is distraught and terrified. Now, I have to believe that if Jesus had been transfigured to show that God is only going to reveal himself to the select few, I think Jesus probably would have walked on by. If Jesus had been transfigured in the blazing white robe and the voice in the cloud had said “This is my Son, my Chosen” to communicate that faith is only about super transcendent moments on the mountains, then Jesus probably would have said “Dude. Sorry. I’ve got other important mountains to climb.” It’s difficult to say exactly what Jesus might have done in this situation if God were only concerned about keeping himself veiled. But that’s not who God is. Jesus stops right in the middle of this messy situation and responds compassionately to what he finds. He rebukes the boy’s unclean spirit and heals him and gives him back to his father.

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Youth having a mountaintop experience at a retreat

I recently ran across a great article by a Mennonite pastor out in Alberta, Canada. He lives just several miles away from some of the most breathtakingly beautiful mountain ranges in the world. His name is Ryan Dueck and he admits that those mountains are often his sanctuary, that the closeness to God he feels there is profound and healing. He admits that he has often in his life skipped church in order to be there. But he also has come to realize that Jesus calls him back down from the mountains to be with people. He says in his article, “The God of creation can inspire me, but creation cannot demand that I die to myself and become ever more alive and attentive to all the things that are ugly and easily ignored in the world.”[1]

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Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Said another way, mountaintop experiences, wherever they are and however they come, often end up giving us a veil, and Jesus came to remove that veil. Jesus removes the veil so we can see ourselves in each other’s suffering. Jesus removes the veil so we can understand that we are created to be in community with one another and Jesus came to die on the cross to show us how to do that and make that possible, as messy as it can be sometimes.

One day, though, it will be clear that Jesus’ love and power to heal has embraced the whole world. One day it will be fully unveiled that all who are seeking freedom from their brokenness have found it in Jesus the Christ. One great day on the other side of this hurting valley it will be clear as a bright new day that God has claimed us and healed us all. I think that’s why Jesus selects Peter and James and John. What happens on the mount of transfiguration is not a trial or a hearing or a piece of evidence but a view, if you will, of God’s final verdict. It’s a brief, hopeful view of that day when all is said and done…and everything will give way except for Jesus, everything will fade like mist except for the One who offers his life for us. We will have a robe, too, and his light will be reflected in us, from glory into glory.

And on that day we will talk about it All. Day. Long.

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Mt Tabor, Israel, the traditional site of Jesus’ transfiguration

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Ryan Dueck, “Nature is My Sanctuary, but Jesus Keeps Dragging Me Back to Church,” in The Christian Century, October 26, 2018. https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/ccblogs-network/nature-my-sanctuary-jesus-keeps-dragging-me-back-church

What the spring is like

a sermon for the seventh Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]

Luke 6:27-36, and 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50, and Genesis 45:3-11, 15

Peas go in on President’s Day. I can thank Chris Crouch for that bit of gardening wisdom. She’s one of our team leaders for the Epiphany Community Garden, and she knows a lot about how to grow things. I’ve followed Chris’ advice for planting peas with great success, and yet each year it gets harder to believe it. For one thing, Presidents Day is still really cold. There are nights below freezing and even if we get a warm spell I know there will still be snow and ice at some point. When I dig around in the soil this time of year it seems barren and sterile and empty of anything that can harbor life. And the peas themselves look like—well, like peas—fragile little things you could just boil and eat. They’re little green test balloons scouting out the possibility of spring, but instead of going up they get buried and never seen again.

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I guess what I’m saying is that it is so difficult to stand there all bundled up on a chilly February day, fingers frozen, and hold these tender seeds in your hand, place them into the cold sod and have any idea of what it’s going to look like in three months. Even though I have a degree in biochemistry and understand the science of it all, and even though I have done it before, it taxes every bit of my imagination. It taxes my imagination because what is going in the soil on a cold February day, of all days, looks absolutely nothing like what will be growing there on a warm May day. It’s like trying to imagine a dry, sunny Richmond at this point. Or trying to imagine I’ll ever walk through my front yard without triggering my childhood fear of quicksand.

It wasn’t peas on Presidents Day, but that’s basically image that the apostle Paul uses to talk to the Corinthian church about the new life of Jesus’ resurrection. There appears to be some misunderstanding in the church about what kind of life the dead will receive when all are raised like Jesus was raised on Easter. Paul seems to say that just as you can’t look at a grain of wheat and deduce from it what it will look like once it’s planted and growing, neither can we deduce completely what it and feel like and be like when we and everyone is raised from the dead, a mission God started with Jesus.

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And that’s because we’re all standing here in the cold, icy, Februarys of our lives, with its cancer diagnoses, and our race problems that won’t go away, and our substance abuse disorders. We feel our potential, we trust God loves us, but we can’t really grasp intellectually or visually what Jesus’ new life for us will entail when all this perishable stuff has gone, even us. That will be a spiritual life, Paul says, and right now we’ve got mainly a physical one. Our bodies and the creation that surrounds us are of dust, but Jesus is now a man of heaven (eternity) and because he has claimed us and we bear his image that eternal life awaits us. Furthermore, as Paul tries to say to them, just because it’s impossible for us to imagine it doesn’t mean that glory won’t come to pass. You can still have faith in what God will bring about.

I imagine that’s what Joseph needed to hear when he was in the bottom of that pit his brothers made for him as they sold him into slavery in Egypt. As he lay down there in the waterless pit, dirty, scared, as he was led by a caravan of human traffickers into servitude in a foreign land, there is no way that Joseph could have imagined that one day he would not only see his jealous brothers again but be reconciled to them.

Even as we read the story of Joseph as it’s told in Genesis, it’s difficult to predict how it’s all going to turn out—that one day he’ll find his way promoted to the top of Pharaoh’s chain of command—that one day Joseph will control the food distribution for the greatest empire on the planet. And that one day his own rapscallion brothers would approach him looking for food and protection.

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Sieger Koeder

The scene where Joseph is reunited with his family and where his identity is revealed is one of the sweetest in all of Scripture. Instead of seeing them as old enemies, figuring out a way to seek revenge, Joseph sees a chance to extend forgiveness. Instead of easily keeping them at a distance, turning his back and pretending he doesn’t know them, Joseph says, “Come closer. It’s your bro!” Instead of using their meeting as a way to pay them back with evil, Joseph is kind and loving. Unpredictably, Joseph is able to see that even though they in their treachery handed him a cold, lifeless February, God was able to raise him up to newness and life. But I bet in the bottom of that pit that day he never thought that.

God makes all things new. We worship here at the foot of the cross every Sunday to be reminded of that. We gather to eat around a table where our leader was betrayed just as Joseph was to remember that God’s core nature, God’s basic operating system, God’s chief objective is to bring about unimaginable new life. It is to take the things we consider losses and find a way to make them gains. It is to take the relationships we know are broken and to make them whole again. It is to hold our shriveled potential in his hand and help it die so that something new can come of it. That is what God is about at all times because God’s love for us is so great.

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With faith in that kind of God in mind, Jesus looks out at the crowd of disciples and others gathered around him and gives them a description of a new world they can’t imagine. It is a world where enemies are loved instead of hated. It is a world where they will do good to those who hate them. It is a world where people bless those who curse them and abuse them. It’s truly a new creation where all the old ways of dealing with hurt and evil have died and all the typical boundaries of who deserves what are erased.

Instead, Jesus says, we put an end to ways of domination and humiliation by turning them on their heads. And Jesus gives very specific examples of how to do this, one that involves turning the other cheek and another that has to do with giving your inner garment when someone has already taken your outer one. Some Bible historians who have studied those two tactics, in particular, have suggested that they aren’t simply examples of rolling over in passiveness but are actually early non-violent activist techniques.[1] That is, by turning your cheek after they’ve struck you to put you down like a slave with the back of their hand, you force them to hit you full on with their fist and thus force them to declare you’re an equal to them. And if someone takes your coat, you strip down to nothing so that your nakedness shames them and points out to everyone how far they’ve gone.

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It’s kind of like some advice I got from my father one after I had been accosted and insulted by a fellow student. This person had laid into me quite inappropriately and with no ground to stand on. They had demeaned me and tried to make me feel stupid. My dad said that the best way to respond in situations where people are yelling and accusing you is just to be silent. Resist the urge to defend yourself or yell back in the moment. Just let their abuse fly and not open your mouth. That way, when they have a chance to replay the situation in their mind later on, which they no doubt will, all they’ll have to reflect on is their own ugly words, not anything you’ve said. Thankfully I haven’t had many chances to put that advice into practice (mainly because I’m too slow to think of anything on my feet anyway) but when I have I found it’s pretty successful.

One person in our congregation who has experienced great grief posted a thoughtful article on her page this week about how everyone around us is “experiencing the collateral damage of living.”[2] It was a call to follow Jesus’ words even when it’s difficult and treat everyone mercifully because we never know what they’re feeling, even those we might label as enemies. It was a call to treat others the way we want to be treated, not according to the feelings their actions provoke in us in that moment or in a way that will give us an immediate advantage.

On a much grander scale, the strategies of love and mercy and “turning the other cheek” were what advanced the civil rights movement in this country. I am not an expert on these matters, but from what I understand a strong argument can be made that all of the lasting progress this country has in race relations over the past two centuries is due to the fact that people of color have often been outstanding models of love and forgiveness to their white oppressors. The use of nonviolent demonstration in effect held up a mirror to society so that many people with power could eventually see themselves as cruel and abusive and ugly and the cycles of humiliation could stop. Pioneers like womanist theologian Katie Geneva Cannon, who just died this past August here in Richmond, have given people like me a chance to hear stories of faith and perseverance from people who were traditionally at the bottom of society’s structure in their own words. That has been empowering.

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Whether it is the sibling rivalry that infests Joseph’s relationships with his brothers or the ways in which our current culture is so bent on seeing the worst in each other, calling people out and confessing their sins for them, Jesus wants his followers to understand that the ways of violence and humiliation in the world are part of the perishable things that won’t last. There is a new world we are living into. It’s going to tax our imagination, but he believes we can do it. In fact, he is willing to die himself in order to show them his love and faith in us, to hold up a mirror to our ugliness so that we can see it. This world of loving enemies and being merciful to all is the world Jesus knows we can bring about when he lives within us, when the Holy Spirit is free to raise people up into this new life.

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Because many days, the world is going to stand there in its February, or March, or October—it doesn’t matter because it’s all the same with everyone rushing to judgment and suspecting the worst in each other—the world is going to stand there, dukes up, expressing outrage at the drop of a hat, painting everyone into some tribe, stuck in a cycle of mistrust and violence, and they’ll wonder if things could ever be different. They’ll try to imagine if things could ever be beautiful and kind. They’ll get on the news and lament things, wish this and that could be great again, and on those days they’re going to look at you, the blessed, you with the bread in your hand and the wine of mercy on your lips. They’re going to look at you, as you stop to listen and not condemn. They’re going to see you in your gentleness and patience even with the people who laugh at you. They’re going to see you hoping for the imperishable in a world of perishable, loading quilts on a rainy Saturday morning into a van to go to the other side of the world, not expecting them to send anything back in return. They’re going to see you singing praises at the foot of a cross. And you know what’s going to happen?

They’re going to get a glimpse of what it’s going to be like in the spring.

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] http://www.wikipreacher.org/home/quotations-and-illustrations/-p/peacemaking/walter-wink-on-turning-the-other-cheek?fbclid=IwAR3hXkmhQpnd6caSl7Cjgu4kBRSnfpP99TjcFlfvxx3I2xjgwy9M2WU80dM

[2] https://johnpavlovitz.com/2019/02/21/everyone-around-you-is-grieving-go-easy/?fbclid=IwAR2uRUqS-px6vyHwg7Aeu9ICybhqMu9RJZ29o4CtpH3VGaaJKlOHBJftA-I

Making calls

a sermon for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]

Luke 5:1-11

It is hard to tell exactly how long it is from the way the gospel writers share their stories of Jesus, but we know for a while his ministry is a solo affair. Maybe it’s days. Maybe it’s weeks. Maybe it’s months. There’s no way to figure it out, really, but for some period of time after his baptism he is the only one in the area around the Sea of Galilee (or, as it’s sometimes called, the Lake of Gennesaret) announcing the kingdom of God through his preaching and teaching and demonstrating the power of that kingdom through healings and exorcisms.

And then one day he suddenly recruits some helpers. One day he starts choosing people for his team. One day the news about God’s kingdom becomes something that other people are involved in proclaiming.

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“Miraculous Draught of Fishes” (Raphael, 1515)

That may seem to be old news to you and me but it’s a pretty big deal because what that means is that God’s kingdom goes from being something that happens to people—something that heals people or changes them—to something that people actually take part in. God’s reign of mercy and peace and justice goes from being something that Jesus is bringing to the world and giving to people to something that actually enlists people in its spread. It goes from being an idea or the cause of one person to a movement that has followers.

Jesus’ cause becomes a movement down among the ordinary people of Galilee, down along the shore of Lake Gennesaret where the fishermen pull in their boats and are consumed with the tasks of daily life. These are not especially educated or powerful people. These aren’t royal court, well-connected folks. God’s kingdom in Christ first becomes a group endeavor among the day laborers and people who are in the middle of what they’re always in the middle of.

I think that’s why Jesus’ kingdom turns into a movement so quickly. God is holy and righteous and utterly different from humankind but humans are created in the image of God, after all, and so are able to embody the love and mercy of God in their words and deeds. Jesus embraces those unpretentious first followers as equals. He steps right into Simon Peter’s boat without even asking. He just commandeers it in order to continue talking to the crowd about the word of God as if it were his own. Simon’s everyday tools and trade are good enough for Jesus, the Son of God. Are you aware that the divine steps into your life just as you’re going about things, that Jesus can commandeer any dinner table, office workroom, any conversation? God is ultimately other than us, holy and mighty, but he comes into our presence and sees us as partners.

This, of course, can be accompanied by a sense of “I’m not worthy.” It’s like that old routine from Wayne’s World skits and movies: “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” Wayne and Garth are asked by Alice Cooper, their idol, to hang around after a show. They can’t believe it! Likewise, Simon sees this miraculous catch of fish that Jesus helps bring about and he immediately thinks “We’re not worthy!” He’s overwhelmed by a sense of his own inferiority, of his sinfulness, and yet Jesus still chooses him.

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In fact, this is a theme when it comes to taking part in God’s work. Isaiah, in our first reading, is ushered into the very presence of the Holy Lord and he, too, is overcome with how out of place he feels. He experiences the rush of angels and the whole temple shaking with God’s glory, and he says, “I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!” And the apostle Paul, in our second lesson, talks about being “untimely born” and “unfit to be called a disciple”—that he is an unlikely bearer of the news of Jesus’ resurrection because he spent so much time working against the Jesus movement. But Simon will learn what Isaiah and Paul both learn, and that is Simon will be able to carry this message of God’s love in Jesus just as he is  and in the middle of things he’s in the middle of.

In addition to accepting his followers as equals, Jesus also does not ask them to download a whole lot of doctrine or information about him before they start. His only words are “Don’t be afraid,” and “from now on you will be catching people.” They leave everything and follow him. By following Jesus—watching him, imitating him, trying and failing and trying again at the same things he does—this is the way the kingdom of God begins to take root in the world.

There is a danger, though, in thinking that following Jesus is going to be one miraculous catch of fishes after another. What I mean by that is that we can get drawn in to this idea that the life of faith is a constant rush, one long drawn-out joy ride. In this age of where we grade everything on how authentic it feels, where the perceived “realness” of our experience is so important, this is hard to stomach. For some people it does sound like the life of faith is constant excitement, a constant “speaking straight from the heart,” but more often than not the work of God’s kingdom and bringing more people along, as Simon Peter and James and John will find out, is a daily slog with lots of duty. The miraculous, blow-your-socks-off experiences come every once in a while, but the overall bulk of their discipleship experience is putting one foot in front of the other, in showing up and trying again. Fishing, after all, is monotonous, chore-like work, especially if you do it to put food on the table. Jesus doesn’t say that part is doing to change. It’s just the focus that shifts.

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I am constantly amazed at the ways in which this culture can pressure people and their children to learning a sport or a musical instrument or some other hobby almost to mastery. And yet when it comes to faith and following Jesus we often think it’s just supposed to “happen.” Faith formation comes through practice and prayer, through being graciously open to the work the Spirit wants to do in us, in the daily life of home and work, not just at church. Discipline and disciple. Same root word. Not by accident.

You might hear a lot even in faith circles about the desire to “make a difference” in the world, or the longing to be impactful, to go viral. I always feel great to that something I’ve done or begun has affected a change somewhere. But isn’t that really about me? Jesus never says, “From now on you will be making a difference in the world.” Jesus never says, “Don’t be afraid. From now on you are going to have an impact.” His kingdom will make a difference and will have an impact, for sure, but that’s not your or my main concern. Our main concern is to follow him and embrace people the way he embraces us.

Howard Thurman, the civil rights leader and theologian who served as a mentor for Martin Luther King, Jr., and went on to co-found the first major interracial congregation in the U.S. might have said it best: “Don’t ask what the world needs,” he said. “Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

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Howard Thurman (1899-1981)

It is Jesus who has made us come alive. And he does not do this just once, as if our life of faith consists of just trying to recapture the magic we felt of when we first sensed the call or that first time we handed our life over to the Lord’s work. Jesus calls us over and over again. The grace of our baptism greets us each day. In the middle of whatever we’re in the middle of.

My first paid job was working one summer in high school as a telemarketer for a carpet cleaning company. These were the days before robocalls and cell phones and this job was boring with a capital B. We worked at fold-out tables in some back room with shag carpet and faux wood paneling on the walls. There were broken Venetian blinds on the windows that let in light unevenly. Each day our supervisors would literally rip out a page from a cross-reference phone book and hand it to us. Cross-reference phone books were books that listed people in a region by the street they lived on and then in the order of house number. Our task was to pick up our phone, go down that page and call the people at home, one-by-one, and recite a script when they answered.

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We were expected to make about three hundred calls a day. As you can imagine, we got hung up on a lot. We also got a whole lot of answering machines. A good day was getting just one person to agree to have their carpet cleaned. There were some experienced ladies who worked there that could get five or six and I never could figure out how they did it. If we got an answering machine, we were supposed to put an asterisk by that name. I remember the first time I finally finished a page. I proudly presented it to my supervisors, thinking I’d get a fresh page ripped out for me. Instead she handed me a used page from someone else and said, “Call the ones with stars beside their names.”

One time I got a sheet that had streets that I knew because they were in my school district. I was going down the list and I saw a family I actually knew. Their son was on the swim team with me. I had driven by their house countless times. I was so embarrassed I had to call them and was worried they might recognize my name. They didn’t, but lo and behold, that was my sale that day! I couldn’t believe it! I remember going to their house afterwards for a swim party and seeing their carpet and feeling this strange sense of pride.

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Jesus calls and calls. If he gets our answering machine, if we’re still too focused on ourselves and our own impact, he still calls and bids us to join the movement. He calls and suffers with a strange sense of pride in us, pride in how he’s changed us. He offers bread at the table and says it’s himself, sustenance for when the days get long. He himself seems to get a little disillusioned at one point, pleading that God might change the storyline and remove the cup. And Simon Peter—bless him—the guy who caught all those fish, who rung up hundreds of carpet cleaning sales that one day,  well, even he says, “Heck with it” later on and denies he ever knew the guy who stepped into his boat. It’s a strange movement, friends.

And it is still going on, my friends. Right here when we’re in the middle of whatever we’re in the middle of. This movement rises up, even when we think it’s dead and buried, and sweeps more people in.

We are not worthy of it. Not worthy at all—our lips are unclean and we fight against him way too often. But by the grace of God this holy movement rises up and brings us to life. God rips out another sheet of paper, hands it to us and says, “You. I want you on my team.”

Thanks be to God!

Bozo fisherman using a net on the River Niger, Mopti, Mali

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Hometown boy

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]

Luke 4:21-30 and Jeremiah 1:4-10 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

I don’t envy Jesus. There he is, in his hometown synagogue, giving his first recorded sermon, and he ends up almost getting pushed off a cliff for what he says. Last time I checked, that is not typically what happens when preachers give a sermon in front of their home congregation, especially their first sermon. What I’m accustomed to seeing is pride and joy and extra guests out in the pews for moral support. This congregation has sent four of its own members to seminary and one young adult to global mission in the past seven years, and each time one of them has come back to preach in this pulpit there’s been a bit of a buzz…a happy buzz.

For example, I remember when Nate Huffman, the husband of our former Faith Formation Director, who is now serving as a chaplain in our armed forces preached for us for the first time. It was on a Thanksgiving Day and we used to have Thanksgiving Day worship in the Chapel, but we knew so many would come to hear him that we held worship in here. Sure enough, there were quite a few more in attendance that year than usual, and we hung on every word. There have been similar reactions each time Ginny or Daniel or Alex or Emily have preached. We listen, and we love to hear them share the gospel.

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Daniel Hess (on right) preached at Epiphany, his home congregation, at the end of his first year at seminary.

I still have a copy of the first sermon I ever preached, which was nineteen years ago in front of my home congregation in Winston-Salem. I read that sermon a while back and, quite frankly, it should be shredded. Nobody should ever be reading that. But my hometown crowd acted like I was speaking in the tongues of mortals and of angels. I suppose it was simply because I was one of them—because, like in this sanctuary, the pulpit and baptismal font are right beside each other and many of them that day had seen me get wet 25 years prior. It was as if I had risen straight out of those waters to the place of preaching, the direct path of a disciple so clearly laid out that day. Of course, I basked in the glow of their loving comments and congratulations. But in all honesty, preachers probably like that kind of stuff way too much.

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Augsburg Lutheran Church, Winston-Salem, NC

And so I don’t envy Jesus that day in his hometown synagogue. They really end up thinking he’s a stinker. So what goes wrong? To begin with, we have to read between the lines a little bit and picture what’s going on. Jesus stands up and reads a portion of the Hebrew Scriptures from Isaiah about the coming of God’s kingdom and then declares “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The people in the synagogue are a little shocked and impressed that one of their own would be so bold as to suggest that God and God’s kingdom are encountering them right there and then. They would have been waiting on that moment for centuries, so Jesus’ words are quite a claim, even for a hometown boy. There are some mutterings in the crowd, some shifting around. A handful of people get on Twitter. And then I imagine they start to wonder if he can back this up. If Jesus heralds the arrival of God’s kingdom, what about the signs and wonders he performed in the next town over? If hope of God’s kingdom has shown its glorious face in Capernaum, why can’t we have a little taste here in Nazareth? It would be nice to see a blind person be given sight or some other miracle to go along with this sermon.

And instead of just making them happy and giving them something to really talk about, he gives them two examples of when the Word of God came first to other, foreign people—that is, to people from the next town over, people on the other side of the wall, so to speak. Jesus says that if they remember their Bible stories, they know have several examples of when God showed some kind of preference to people different from them.  He names first the widow at Zarephath, which we actually just heard in a lesson in our worship back in November. She was a non-Jewish woman living way out in Sidon, outside the territory of Israel, and she was the one who got to host the great prophet Elijah and witness the miracle of the jug of oil and jar of meal that never ran out. And Naaman was a Syrian commander, and he was the one God decided to cleanse of leprosy, even though there were plenty of people in Israel with skin diseases.

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“Elijah and the Widow and Zarephath” (Gerrit Willemsz Horst)

These were been stories they would have been familiar with, no doubt, but they seem provocative that day in the synagogue, spoken with the tone that reminded them that God’s Word cannot be controlled, and is not always comforting, either. As the professor Cleophus Larue of Princeton Seminary says, “The gifts of God’s grace are not bestowed because of nationality, tribal loyalty, or hometown connections,”[1] and that is disruptive to us because we love our nations, our tribes, and our hometown connections.

It reminds me of a story I once heard from a colleague about a pastor who was sent to an urban church—this was somewhere in North Carolina, I believe. As my friend tells it, the pastor realized that while the neighborhood around the church was mostly low income and people of color, the congregation itself was made up almost entirely of middle class white folks from the surrounding suburbs. After a while the pastor began some outreach ministries in the neighborhood and before long there were some community members coming to the church and getting involved in activities.

Several weeks later, a person who had been a member of the church for a long time made an appointment to come see the pastor. She sat down and said, “Pastor, there are a lot of members of the congregation who are just not comfortable with all these people from the neighborhood being here in our church.”

And the pastor said, “Well, I am doing this because I don’t want these people to go to hell.”

The woman said, “Now Pastor, don’t say that. We know that God loves everybody, including the people in the neighborhood.”

And the pastor replied, “No, you don’t understand, I’m talking about the members of this church.”

Jesus does not label the people of his hometown as racist, or stupid, or beneath him. He merely points out to them with their own stories a truth we all need to remember: God’s kingdom is going to take root and prosper wherever it is received and believed. And when we, too, hear and receive this, we are saved—saved from our own inward thinking, saved from our own dead-end roads of vanity and narcissism, saved from the hell of a kingdom where we always think we’re the center of God’s attention and no light breaks in.

Jesus escapes death this time, but our mutterings and selfish demands for something spectacular and powerful will find him again and our kingdom of death will nail him to a cross. And he will still love us. He fully knows us and he will still love us just like he knows and loves all the people God has created the world over.

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Jesus’ first sermon in one sense does not go well, but in another sense it goes perfectly well because it gets his message across loud and clear. Just because we don’t like the sound of something we hear in church doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The goal of the Word of God is not to announce something meaningful or pleasant, but to announce something that’s true, and the truth can be uncomfortable. Talking in our faith communities about complex topics that are current in our culture, like that of abortion and women’s health and when life begins, can make us uncomfortable. And yet we hear the word of God come to Jeremiah this morning and say “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”

Mentioning damaging things like racism and white privilege and our governor’s yearbook photo might make us uncomfortable. We might want worship to shelter us from such topics, but this morning we hear Jesus himself lift up people of other ethnicities and races as people who matter, so it’s kind of with us whether we like it or not.

Pastors I talk to often say they take heat when people think sermons are too political or that the preacher pushed a social agenda. Perhaps you have discovered that too, in your own preaching. Because you know what? It’s not just people wearing stoles that are given the task of proclaiming the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, of bearing this often uncomfortable word. There is a direct line from this font to where you’re sitting in the pew, too. Do not say, “I am only a boy,” or “I am only a girl,” or “I am only a non-ordained person.” God doesn’t think that’s an acceptable response. You were ordained in your baptism to share this message. “You shall go to whom I send you,” God says to the prophet Jeremiah, and God says to each one of us. “You shall go to whom I send you…and I have put my words in your mouth.”

To the middle school lunchroom, where people it’s clear who is shunned and ostracized…

To the neighborhood on the other side of town, where the public services and roads might not be as good…

To the friend on social media that posts things you can’t tolerate.

There is a difference, though, between the way others might share uncomfortable truths about God and the way followers of Christ do: love. The apostle Paul says our words and actions for Jesus, however prophetic and however bold they may be, are to be done in love, which is never boastful or arrogant or rude. And we can do it, folks! That love has been poured into our hearts. Our gestures and overtures can be acted out with kindness and patience, without resentment or irritability. Those claimed by Jesus don’t ever rejoice in wrongdoing, they rejoice in the truth. It’s unfortunate Twitter influences so much of our public discourse these days. Twitter and cable news is a lot of rejoicing in wrongdoing and arrogance. It’s about 90% clanging cymbals. It’s a muttering crowd wanting to hurl someone over a cliff and in many cases succeeding.

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Yet Christ is going to catch us all, the mutterers as well as the ones hurled over in hatred. He’s going to reach out and holds us all, the ones who detest the prophecy and the ones who prophesy it. That is the truth we must share above all: somehow he manages to catch us all with those arms so wide with faith, hope, and love…arms that can bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.

And in this embrace maybe one day we all someday see we’ve come to our true hometown.

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Thanks be to God!

[1] “Living by the Word” in The Christian Century, January 2, 2019. Cleophus J. LaRue

Mystery wedding guest

a sermon for the second Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]

John 2:1-11

Funny enough, one of the best little stories of Melinda’s and my marriage involves an incident with wine at our wedding.

The story goes that when we were looking for a reception venue in Pittsburgh 14 years ago, we found a restaurant downtown that we thought would be perfect. The problem was that when we met with the manager we quickly discovered that having an evening reception there was way out of our price range. Although we didn’t have a big guest list, we would still have to pay a rather large reservation fee to rent the whole place out and then, on top of that, cover all of the costs for an open bar, an expanded dinner menu, and parking. Before we left, disappointed, the manager offered us the idea of a lunch reception. Turns out there were no fees for that—no reservation fee for the space, no parking fees and, most importantly, no cost for the open bar. All we would have to do was pay for the food and drinks people actually got and the gratuity. As he explained, it would literally be like we were taking all of our family and friends out for lunch. No contract involved, no deposit—nothing. The only stipulation was we had to be out of there by 4. It cut the cost of a reception there in more than half.

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wedding reception at the Grand Concourse, Pittsburgh, PA

So we moved the wedding ceremony up to the mid-morning and enjoyed a great noon-time reception on a beautiful October day. We partied, we danced, we clinked our glasses, and then at about 3:45 that afternoon, a waiter came to Melinda and me with the bill. It was this long receipt—even longer than a CVS receipt—folded up into a billfold. Just like the manager had explained, we had just taken our friends to lunch. So before we handed him my credit card,  Melinda and I went through the receipt just to see if it looked right. We’re going down the list— gin and tonic, beer, beer, glass of wine, crab cakes, glass of wine—and suddenly we notice that buried in the list there was a $55 charge for a bottle of wine someone had ordered from the bar.

To two newlyweds just starting out, that sounded very pricey. Each time we re-tell the story, the bottle gets a little more expensive, ha! Of course, we were absolutely fine with it, happy to host the reception, glad someone was able to enjoy it, but we just thought it was a little funny that someone had ordered it and that the bar had handed out a whole bottle like that. Must have been something really fancy!

The thing is, Melinda and I have always wondered who it was. We don’t bring it up with our guests from that day, but it does intrigue us a little bit, and we have fun time re-telling the story, remembering what that day was like, how much fun we had. And how much fun some mystery guest must have really had.

Jesus’s first sign, his first display of God’s glory, involves being a mystery guest who gets the good wine at this wedding in Cana of Galilee. Of course, he doesn’t keep it for himself, and it’s just not one bottle. It is somewhere around 120 to 180 gallons of really fancy stuff. That’s like if someone had walked up to the bar at 4:00pm and ordered 757 bottles of wine (or 63 cases)—and then paid for the wedding reception to continue into the evening. I don’t know how big the reception was in Cana that day, but it would have taken us months to consume that much wine. I can’t get my head around that.

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“The Wedding Feast at Cana” (Paolo Veronese, 1563). A servant in the right foreground fills a wine bottle from a purification jar. The steward (I think) is immediately behind him, to his right.

Weddings in Jesus’ time, of course, were multi-day affairs that could drag on and on. They pulled in people from all over the village. The ceremony portion of the wedding itself could last almost a whole day, and then there were parties and meals that followed it, and guests often kind of came and went from them as they were able. The bridegroom’s family was typically required to provide most if not all of the food and drink for this occasion. A wedding symbolized a joining together of two families’ fortunes and hopes for the future, so the more lavish a family could make it, it was thought, the better. Favors would be repaid during these times, invitations reciprocated, and status in society overall could go up if things went well.

To run out of wine, then, which was basically the only thing other than water that people drank in ancient times, signaled the end of the shindig, last call, and could have been a huge stain on the family’s reputation. It’s hard to tell from the details presented, but it sounds like Mary, Jesus’ mother, knew that was the case. Perhaps she was a bit more connected to one of the families, perhaps this was a friend or a distant relative. I imagine her saying it with her eyes wide, through almost-clenched teeth: “they have no wine.” In any case, she is the instigator. She sees that guests are going to start to leave and she coopts her son into getting more wine.

There has been a lot of speculation about how Mary might have known this, or how Mary expected Jesus to solve this problem. Did she know already that Jesus had these special abilities? Why do they speak to each other this way, like she’s bossing him around? To some degree, all of that is just background. The main point is that Jesus does something about it, even though he makes it clear that this kind of thing is not really what he came to do or be. He says his hour has not yet come, which suggests that there will be more to come from him, that a greater glory will shine forth at some point.

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In any case, he does what he is asked to do and goes over the top.   Not only does he provide more wine than they could probably ever drink, but he makes it the fancy stuff. Everyone is amazed, especially the steward, who is in charge of the open bar and the menu and settling things up in the end. The bridegroom gets most of the attention. He goes from looking like a chump to an overly generous, creative, and almost wasteful host. The party lives! New wine flows free and fast.

Here’s the thing: by changing this water into wine, Jesus doesn’t just prolong the wedding. He transforms the wedding. Jesus doesn’t just save this village family from humiliation. He makes them the joyous and glad talk of the town. Jesus’ presence takes something ordinary and turns it into something unexpectedly extraordinary. Jesus’ presence that day doesn’t just keep things going. He creates a new beginning.

As a first sign or display of God’s glory, this is excellent clue of how God is going to interact with the world through Jesus. He is the true abundance at that wedding that day, not the wine. That God would open up God’s heart and pour into the empty vessels of this world the love of Jesus is a grace we will never get our heads around. His presence transforms us and it transforms the world. He is given to take endings and turn them into new beginnings. At this Cana wedding…by the shore where loaves are multiplied for the hungry and tired…by the tomb of Lazarus where people are weeping…at the cross of Calvary where he is dying…when and wherever the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, or becomes acknowledged in our midst we can expect life-giving transformation.

The back room in the restaurant where one of our Men’s lunch group meets has a small icon of Jesus high on the wall. I’ve noticed it several times before. It’s not a piece of fine art, by any means, but it is a nice icon or painting of Christ looking out at the room. It does not look at all like it is part of the décor. This week I asked the proprietor about it, figuring that must be important to her. Sure enough, she is of the eastern Orthodox tradition and explained how she has an icon of Christ in every room of the restaurant. I asked her “why?” and she said it was to help her acknowledge and remember his presence everywhere, that she has the potential to bear him in all that she says and does. And she then went into long history of all the times those icons had transformed conversations and interactions with her guests.

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the icon on the wall at Nick’s Roman Terrace

 

It made me remember how one of our seminary professors all but commanded that we have some kind of visual depiction of Jesus in our offices—a cross, a painting, a statue—something that would acknowledge his presence to us an others people who come into our offices for conversation or support. It wasn’t enough to let people assume that Jesus was some mystery guest whenever we’d meet. It was helpful to, like Mary, point him out and let him work.

I think we are all familiar with examples of how acknowledging another with a gesture of self-giving, of kindness, of humility can utterly remake the landscape of a relationship or a community. We can be the icons of Christ in this case, each using our Spirit given gifts to transform our surroundings with God’s love.

Congregations and church communities, by acknowledging Christ in their ministries are inviting gracious transformation to occur not just in their inner relationships but in the neighborhoods around them. Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa is attested as having said, “Every church should be able to get a letter of recommendation from the poor in their community.”  Those who live and work around us, who come into contact with Epiphany Lutheran Church should be able to say, this congregation is a transforming presence in the Richmond Metro area.

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This sign at the wedding in Cana may not seem, in the grand scheme of things, to have that many implications. No one sick is healed, no one’s hunger is addressed, no one’s life is saved from a thunderstorm. But it is still the first sign of God’s glory. It is the first epiphany of what God is like, the first, “a-Ha, this is who is behind the creation of the universe.”  It is God’s way of saying, here is a sign of how I will work in the world. This, right here—this wedding—is what I’m all about.

There are so many competing definitions for God out there these days. There are so many people and groups claiming God is like this or like that, that God is on this political party’s side or God is like that sunset or that new-fangled spiritual idea they’ve happened upon. And some of those claims and definitions are pretty scary. Some of them seem hard to argue against. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty stoked that we worship a God whose opening act is showing up at a wedding and turning it into a bash. I’m pretty stoked that he’s the guy who goes up to the open bar, who sees opportunity in empty vessels and says, there’s no reason we can’t have $55 bottle wine. This God might be pretty fun to be around. I bet this God of Jesus might be willing to transform some bleak, devastating scenarios into something pretty spectacular—something so spectacularly abundant, in fact, that if I had all of eternity I’d never get my head around it.

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Walk the journey

a reflection on the Epiphany of Our Lord

Matthew 12:1-8 [9-12]

This is a reflection on the first part of this scripture lesson on the Epiphany of Our Lord, which also lines up with the first part of our congregation’s mission statement: The “Walk the Journey” part of “Walk the Journey, Worship the Christ, and Witness with Joy.” Our congregation’s name happens to be Epiphany, and it turns out the magi who come to visit Jesus can help us understand what living that mission might look like. There are important clues about the journey of faith and walking the way of Jesus which the magi reveal in their own experience.

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First of all, the journey of faith in Christ is for all people, and so there will always be others different from us alongside of us. There’s a lot going on this story, but that’s probably the most staggering piece and ground-breaking piece of information we get from it: Jesus is for all people. He was born to be a light to the nations. He is born a Jew, and therefore within a very specific culture with a very specific history, but the first people to visit him and worship him are these strangers from a country or set of countries that isn’t even named. They come from off the map somewhere.

I remember when we had that huge map of the Richmond Metro area a couple of years ago and people were supposed to put a pin in the map where they lived and I came in one Monday and someone had put a pin way off the bulletin board. They were from Louisa County or north of Ashland or something, a place beyond the scope of our map. That was the magi. The exact location or culture they represent is not all that important. The point is they are clearly not of the Hebrew culture or religious identity, and for you and me that might be a simple point we take for granted, but it is a big deal. In a time when the world was very tribal and people stuck to their own languages and clans above almost everything, for these foreigners to be led to Jesus to pay homage to him was earthshattering. It was a sign of hope—that the God who had long been seen to stick primarily to the fortunes of one group of people was now saying, “All y’all are welcome.”

Some would say our culture is becoming tribal again. People are sticking to their own kind. They are associating with people who believe the exact same things they do, who share the same backgrounds and worldviews. But those who have been claimed by this newborn King are called to walk this journey of faith with people of all tribes and clans. It may be more important now than ever that we claim this Epiphany vision.  God is drawing everyone to Christ, and we want to be a congregation that reflects that. Strangers from the east.  Strangers in the West End. People we’ve known our whole lives. People who are sitting in front of or behind us today that we may never see again. And in Christ’s grace strangers become friends, because that is what he calls us. We receive each other and let ourselves be ushered into God’s presence, offering our varied gifts in his service. And we travel on.

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“The Adoration of the Magi” (Botticelli)

Another thing we learn is that the journey of faith is fueled by questions and being drawn into a sense of wonder. This is often a difficult one for the church to remember because we do have dogma and doctrine. There are a lot of answers swirling around in here, lots of certainty. Pastors and church leaders, especially, can come off as speaking with a lot of certainty. And Scripture is a solid foundation, no doubt. People do come to church seeking to build their lives on some trustworthy, constant truths, and they are here. After all, the magi can only find Jesus once they become certain (from Scripture) of where he is.

However, the questions and the wonder should always remain, never silenced, because our questions about God and about life’s meaning are important. They give life to each step. Notice the only thing the magi actually say in this story is a question. It is essentially “Who is he?” or “Who are we looking for?” They don’t know his name and they don’t know where he is, but they let those questions guide them. They don’t give up. They press on.

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It’s Herod who is afraid of the questions. He doesn’t like this mysterious presence afloat, wherever it is. He feels threatened by new prospects, and all of Jerusalem does too, so satisfied, perhaps, with the status quo. And so he seeks to stamp the questioning down.

It is interesting to me that these magi are likely the scientists of their day. They understand astronomy and navigation. They possess great minerals and elements of the earth. Science is built on questions and seeking answers, and it’s fascinating that these are the people drawn to worship Jesus. It can be so tempting to think that science ends humankind’s search for God, but the experience of the magi suggests that isn’t so. We find science can’t answer all of the questions in life that are worth asking. There are some questions that only a journey based on faith and mystery can do that.

In William Butler Yeats’ poem called “Magi” that is about this story he refers to Jesus as the “uncontrollable mystery.” I think that a fulfilling faith journey remembers that Jesus is uncontrollable. We can’t control what he does with his life, or the people he chooses to associate with. We can’t control the way he wants to love us and forgive us, either. So strong it is, his love for us. We can ask questions, though, and that helps us behold his uncontrollable mystery.

The third thing this story shows us is that journey of faith is never a straight line. It is often called “the straight and narrow,” and in some sense that is a good way to describe it, but in the grand scheme of things we need to be prepared for detours and obstacles. They are part of walking the journey, at least for now.

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The star is fascinating, but it is probably not the most constant or helpful way to lead people. There’s been a lot of speculation about what the star actually was—was it a comet? Was it an alignment of planets that looked especially bright, being so close together?—but the reality is that stars are only visible when the sky is dark. That means the travel happens when it is night. In the dark spaces and times of our lives when God is going to lead, but we need to be willing to move then.

The magi also end up at the wrong place first, and they get the right answer from an unsuspecting source. How many times in your faith journey has this kind of thing happened? These kinds of things are typical in this journey of faith in Christ. The path often seems clear and easy, but at other times it seems to disappear.

It happens at the cross, of course. God’s own journey in the Word made flesh knows the pain of obstacle and detour. Just as road to Bethlehem first goes by Jerusalem, the path to God’s glory first goes through the humiliation of death. We wind up at the cross of Jesus, disappointed in our sinfulness, sure of God’s absence, emptied of our confidence in ourselves. But God finds a way to respond, to resurrect the journey. The cross is the true star that guides us on the twisting, turning, exciting path of faith. It is a source of comfort and hope: God has passed this twisting, turning, dying way too.

And so, to conclude, the story of our Lord’s Epiphany can teach us at least three things about this journey of faith that we walk. All people are drawn to God. Faith is fueled by questions and mystery. Detours and obstacles are part of it. But God is always guiding, always creating a way where there is no way. That is what it means to walk the journey.

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

Jesus’ (not so) hidden life

a sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas [Year C]

Luke 2:41-52

The other evening at the music ministry Christmas party several of us began reminiscing about the different kids in the congregation who had played the role of baby Jesus in the Children’s Tableau at our children’s Christmas Eve service through the years. We got started talking about it because this year we had two little girls play baby Jesus, which is absolutely fine. Those were the littlest children available that evening. Neither of them were actually newborns, though. The parents of Kate Behrens, who played baby Jesus at the 5pm service, tried to see if she would lie down in the manger, but she wasn’t really having that so they just let her sit up on her mom’s knee.

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a baby Jesus trying out the manger

Our conversation at the party, though, was mainly about Christmases past, and we tried to name the different kids who had been Jesus each year. We got many of them back to the early 2000s. It was fun to name them and realize most of them are still members of this congregation and are now playing the parts of angels or shepherds in the same Christmas program. We also laughed about the time when John Reynolds played Jesus. At 18 months he was the youngest kid in the congregation, but they used him anyway. None of us at the party were at Epiphany in 1983 when he was baby Jesus, but we’d all heard about how his parents put him in the manger and he promptly stood up and waved at everyone.

We could take all of those kids who’ve ever played baby Jesus and line them up here and we’d have a beautiful picture of childhood and young adulthood right before our eyes. We’d get to see that span of life and realize how through the years we’ve had the privilege to see them get bigger and take on new responsibilities, just like we get to watch the other youth in our midst. Parents might even get misty-eyed about how quickly time has passed.

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the second child from the left once served as a baby Jesus…8 years ago.

And yet we don’t get to see any such growth or progression for Jesus. We know almost nothing about Jesus’ own childhood. There are a handful of stories of him as an infant, this single story of him as a tween, and then time passes. All the other stories of Jesus, of course, are of him as a full-grown adult.

Part of this lack of information is understandable. In the ancient world, childhood was not nearly the sacred, blessed time that it is nowadays. Because of disease, many children did not live to see their fifth birthday, so not many resources at all were poured into documenting anyone’s childhood or youth. In addition to that, children were not thought to make any useful contribution to society until they were able to work to support the family. The idea was to hurry up and grow into an adult, “to increase in human and divine favor,” as Luke puts it. Nowadays it’s quite the opposite: stay as young as possible for as long as possible! Back then childhood was largely something to be endured, which is how most people think of adulthood now. We even have a word for it: “adulting.”

It’s natural to have some curiosity about this time of Jesus life, which is called Jesus’ hidden life, since it is hidden from us. Historians and archaeologists can tell us a great deal of things about what life in Nazareth 2000 years ago was like for the average person, but in terms of specific information about Jesus we have very little. How did he interact with his parents and other family members on a day-to-day basis? What were his friendships like? Was there a Mrs. Betsy figure in his life, or a Mr. Scott, or a Mr. Barger, who helped nurture his faith in some way? How did the teenage Jesus deal with peer pressure? With acne? Given that so much time, energy, and money are allocated in the church these days on faith formation for youth and children, it is almost peculiar we know so little about how all that went for Jesus.

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“Holy Family with a little bird” (Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 1650). This painting attempts to depict a scene from Jesus’ hidden life.

What we do know is that his parents were faithful enough in their observance of Judaism to somehow teach him Scriptures and how to read, because by the time he is twelve and he is in the Temple he is able to do that. We know his family had not just the religious devotion but also the means to take the annual Passover pilgrimage from Nazareth to Jerusalem. We also know that he traveled in a caravan to get there, which means he had a group of people from his village that his parents trusted and depended on. People formed caravans because it was a safer way to travel, and when we hear about caravans of migrants coming up to the U.S. from Central America, we probably can imagine the group that Jesus was traveling with wasn’t all that different.

We also know that while Jesus’ caravan is heading home from that pilgrimage, his parents have a Macaulay Culkin –  Home Alone moment. There’s that scene from that classic 1990 movie when Kevin’s mom is finally on the plane with all her relatives, trying to relax after a hectic departure, mentally running through all that she has done when she suddenly realizes her young son is missing. She has absent-mindedly left him at home.There is immediate panic and then an about-face to figure out if he’s OK. Leaving an 8-year-old by himself can be a dangerous, scary thing.

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“Kevin!!!” (Kate McAllister in Home Alone)

I imagine Mary and Joseph have a similar episode, furiously asking all the other family members and friends if they’ve seen Jesus. And then they stop everything to try to figure out where he is, backtracking for three whole days, traipsing through the places they stayed in Jerusalem for the eight days of the festival. For three days they are separated from their child, unable to know what might be happening to him, which must have been a nightmare. I wonder about those families who are still separated from their children at the U.S. border. As of the end of last month, there were still 173 children in custody, which does not include the 8-year-old and the 7-year-old who died while in custody this month. Terrifying.

For Mary and Joseph, thankfully, there is a happy reunion. Just like in “Home Alone” when Kevin’s parents finally find him back at home doing just fine on his own, even holding off some house robbers, Jesus’ parents finally locate him back in the Temple, which he calls his “Father’s house.” There he is, talking to the teachers of the Temple, listening to them and learning from them. We also find out that Jesus is particularly bright when it comes to his grasp on religious matters. The rabbis he is sitting among make note of it, which is a clue for us that Jesus was already at age twelve beginning to show signs of this special relationship with God. We also see Jesus’ parents not fully grasping that, not quite yet understanding how their relationship to him will change, how they will eventually hand him over to the world.

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Young Jesus in the Temple

In Pittsburgh I have a friend who used to teach parenting classes at the Children’s Hospital and through various community organizations. She was a social worker and had raised three daughters of her own and was widely-respected in that field. In general I found her to be someone with a great deal of wisdom about life. When she would talk about her work with me, I remember she would say that she always tried to communicate that the primary job of parenthood is to produce a responsible adult and release him or her into the world. That was it. It wasn’t mainly to make them wise or give them great experiences. She said we even might be tempted to think it is to ensure your child’s happiness or give them the tools to find happiness themselves. The job of a parent was to produce a responsible, loving adult, which means the process of raising children is a releasing, a letting go, and I remember being surprised by that at the time because I didn’t have children and I assumed otherwise.

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What we see with Mary and Joseph on that anxiety-ridden trip to Jerusalem is the beginning—or at least more—of that letting go. He is in their custody for the time-being, but their child belongs to the world. He will come of age under the roof of their house, but ultimately he is going to be a resident of his Father’s house and open it up for everyone. He will be obedient to them in Nazareth, but his calling is a higher obedience of service and love to all people everywhere. And that call is Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace among those he favors. It is the salvation God has prepared in the sight of all people. It is the redemption of the earth.

God gives us the opportunity to grow in our faith our whole life long, and a huge part of that involves turning Jesus loose to let him be who he is called to be. It does no good to fashion Jesus into a tool for our own happiness. It does not help for us think of him only as our personal Savior, or as someone who primarily keeps us safe. Like Mary and Joseph eventually do at some point, we are to release him and let him offer himself for the life of the world in the way God has called him to do. We let him stand up in the manger, wave to the world, and then step out into its assorted beauty and ugliness.

And then maybe he won’t be so hidden anymore! We will end up seeing his face, for example, in the stranger…in the face of the person in search of a home, or in the face of the person at the border. We let him go so that we can come to recognize his life in the youth who is struggling with peer pressure, the child who makes decisions we don’t like or understand, in the person who disagrees with our personal politics, in the person who has hurt us. We let him increase in wisdom and in years so that we can treasure the gifts of youthfulness but also the gifts of being aged and elderly.

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migrant caravan

We let him go into his mission and we see him offer his life for us to show us the superior way of self-sacrifice, the power of humility and the glory of loving others as God loved us. We let him grow up and eventually watch him love us so much that he brings us all into the Father’s house where we one day we will stay forever and ever.

Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

magi

The ride through the December streets of Sherwood Forest and Buena Vista
winding up to the West End
was not all that
long
but from the back of the Volvo wagon
on the way to church
six kids primed for choir practice
could count
a million
Moravian stars

A child’s game but
I must confess
I wish my eyes
were still so trained
on these other journeys
to look for
bursts of
light