Access: Everywhere

a sermon for the Day of Pentecost [Year A]

Acts 2:1-21

As it happens, there was a discussion I came across this week about the number of working payphones that are left in Virginia—and I promise this relates to Pentecost, so please bear with me. It all started when someone came across a pay-phone right here about a half-mile from our church. It’s near Mekong on Broad Street. That person shared it on an Internet chat group, which prompted a call to the State Corporation Commission, which keeps tabs on the payphone industry. According to the SCC, Virginia has 40 working payphones left. I went and found that payphone this week because I was curious and nostalgic, (and I could not get it to work, so I’m starting to be suspicious of that figure 40.)

What’s even more funny about this story is that the SCC doesn’t keep track of where those remaining 40 or so are located. You just have to happen upon them. In any case, the year the U.S. had its highest number of payphones was 1999. At that time nationwide there were 2.1 million working payphones. The arrival of cellular technology and Smartphones made pay phones obsolete, and only those of us who lived through that change can appreciate how amazing and revolutionizing it was. Not too long ago, you youngins, in order to make a call when you were not in your home, you had to find a payphone by actually looking around for one. With your actual eyes. And then you typically had to have some coins on you—another thing we don’t use anymore. And while you were having your phone conversation you had to stay in one place. With cellphones and Smartphones and Wi-Fi, everyone has access all the time. Telephone technology, you might say, has been poured out on all people, and it is so easy to take it for granted!

That is what the Day of Pentecost is like for the first believers, as Peter tells us this morning. Suddenly God’s Spirit is poured out everywhere, and I think those of us who’ve always lived with the presence of the Holy Spirit—that is, those of us who’ve been nurtured in and through the witness of the church over the past 2000 years—can’t even imagine how amazing and revolutionizing that moment was. I can’t.

Prior to the day of Pentecost, access to God’s Holy Spirit was very sporadic and specific, like the location of payphones. Certain leaders in the Hebrews’ history had access to the Spirit—people like Moses and the prophets. God would give them brief outpourings of his own Spirit to use for the sake of God’s people to further them along in their journey of faith. God’s Spirit would help Moses and his elders make decisions about moving through the wilderness. For whatever reason it wasn’t something God let just everyone experience. The same Holy Spirit would come and give people like Isaiah and Jeremiah words of warning and wisdom about the Hebrews’ life together. But these are all very isolated occurrences and channeled to very particular times and places.

Once Pentecost happens, however, the Spirit becomes available to all people. Like a universal, Wi-Fi password that has been posted everywhere in bold letters, there is now no secret to being a part of what God is doing anymore. There is no special elite society or group, no robe-wearing clergy or “diploma-ed” scholarly team that you need to be a part of to do God’s work. God’s Spirit comes to you. God’s Spirit comes to me in our baptism, for sure, but then also throughout our lives. The very love that Jesus feels for his Father—the love that moves him to offer his own life on the cross—and the love that the Father has for the Son—the love that moves him to raise Jesus from the dead—that love is now a force that can permeate all of our relationships. That’s amazing because if true, then it’s no longer just something we observe and talk about happening between God and Jesus when we’re in church. In fact, if we only talk about this love and share it in church then it isn’t the love between God and Jesus. This love is now something we experience in our own live and it compels us to share it with others in the world.

That’s why images of wind and fire are the only descriptions we have of these event as it is recorded to us. This story sounds a bit fantastic to us with our scientific worldviews, but all it is really communicating is what that miracle felt like that day. When suddenly everyone can sense and be a part of God’s unconditional love in Jesus it feels like fire and wind. Wind and fire have the ability to give energy to things around them. They permeate and change things that seem to be lifeless. A flame leaps up from a dead log on a fire at a church camping trip and punctures the night sky. Wind comes out of nowhere and powers a windmill to create energy or makes a tree’s leaves dance and shimmer.

And that’s what we’re used to, right? Faith that is led by the Spirit leaps up from you and from me, even when the circumstances feel hopeless and joyless to give life the world around us. The Spirit moves us to visit people in prisons and hospitals and homeless shelters where life seems bleak. The Spirit comes from out of nowhere, making us step out of our comfort zones to do ministry with those struggling with poverty and hunger. To the apostles this movement of God’s Spirit was so thrilling and so all-consuming it was a rush of violent wind and fire that touched everyone.

As God’s church, we should be prepared to be like fire and wind in the world, not a building that expects people to come to it. We are a force of good, burning down systems of oppression and discrimination that marginalize people. We are a force of unity, gathering up like a gale-force wind that pulls all kinds of people into one movement.

And that’s why that first Pentecost is a miracle of language more than anything else. All of those thousands Jewish festival-goers who are in Jerusalem for this harvest festival hear and see these apostles moved by God’s Spirit suddenly speaking in different languages. The apostles were Galileans, which was an area not known to be very cosmopolitan. As God’s Spirit took over, these relatively backwoods people were suddenly comprehensible to all of the people who had gathered from all over the world. And they are hearing and understanding these Galileans talk about things that God had done.

This development, this event—that ordinary, everyday people like the apostles from Galilee can be vessels for God’s own Spirit—is so unexpected and so surprising that the only conclusion the onlookers can reach when they observe it is…these people must be drunk. The Spirit’s presence causes the apostles to appear out of step with society, lacking propriety, even. There is no way, they must think, that God would be that generous and that reckless and that risky to entrust his very Spirit with the likes of these people.

And yet God has. It makes me think of the Christmas Eve candlelight service, when there are literally flames glowing on almost every person’s face. It is a risky thing we do with those candles, and many times we hand those candles to young children and have them light it up as well. They sit there and hold it, mystified by the flame but mystified more by the responsibility they have been given with something so powerful! This is the risk God has taken with us—to actually walk out in the world claiming to speak for him and draw all people to him through the things we do.

And the things we do as followers of Christ who are inhabited by the Spirit should probably always look a little out of step with society. The Holy Spirit makes these things feel a little bit natural to us nowadays, but really much of our common life is directed by a wind that blows directly against the habits of culture. Just our act of gathering together on a Sunday morning, whether in person or through livestream, is countercultural. It makes us come off as a little different, behavior that’s not expected nowadays.

In fact, gathering together at all and sharing life in meaningful ways, religious or not, is becoming more and more extraordinary, probably to our detriment (and our country’s detriment). Data show conclusively that for the past fifty years Americans have become less social in just about every way. We gather with friends less than we used to, we gather with family less than we used to, we even go and hang out at bars less than we used to. Perhaps most harmful to us all, Americans now spend 50% less time with their neighbors now than they did in 1970. We are literally not interacting personally with each other in society at the same levels as we were in previous generations.

Against this tide the Holy Spirit continues to gather us together, to pull us out of our isolation, our of our camps of Democrat and Republican, and into spaces where we can share our gifts and offer ourselves in ways that build one another up. Singing together. Pooling our hard-earned money in order to tend to the needs of those around us in our communities. Teaching our children to, under certain circumstances, not just to trust strangers but to love them. When you step back and consider our common life, the Spirit causes us to do things that probably make us look we are filled with new wine.

Each week a preacher typically scours her memory trying to come up with a good real-life example of the Scripture lesson for her sermon. What happened in the last week or so that exemplifies whatever that morning’s lessons are about? Trying to come up with a real-life example of the Holy Spirit for a sermon of the Day of Pentecost is kind of pointless. It’s like trying to think of an example of air. Or of breathing. Everything the church does is the Holy Spirit at work. There isn’t AN example. We are the example now. We are God’s powered people. And like having phones in our pockets or purses that can connect anytime and anywhere…that is a mission and a name we should never take for granted!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Never Orphaned

a sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter [Year A]

John 14:15-21 and Acts 17:22-31

Jesus’ words to his disciples this morning reveal he is very in tune to a basic human fear and feeling that everyone has had at some point. It is the fear of being left behind or left alone, left with no one who will watch after you and take care of you. “I will not leave you orphaned,” he assures them. “I am coming to you.” Even as he is preparing to undergo his own suffering and his own feelings of rejection, here we see a tender, perceptive side of Jesus who is intuitive about what his friends are going through. They are worried about being abandoned.

I don’t remember this event from my early childhood, but my father remembers, and he’s told me about it. When the Disney movie Bambi was re-released in 1982 my dad took me to the movie theater to see it and my mom stayed home with my younger sister. I would have been in the second grade at that point—so about eight years old—and I think it was one of our earliest father-son bonding moments. As many of you may know, Bambi tells the story of a young deer in the forest who grows up becoming steadily aware not just of the other animal friends but of the dangers around him. At one point in the movie Bambi’s mother, who is the young deer’s only guardian, is shot by a hunter and dies. The young Bambi crawls out of the safety of the thicket where he’s been hiding and frantically runs through the worsening snow, calling out for his mother to have no one answer.

It has been called one of the most traumatic movie scenes of all time, especially through the eyes of an 8-year-old. Apparently it traumatized me because what my father remembers and I don’t is that later that night as he was sitting on the edge of my mattress, tucking me in bed and helping me say my prayers, I looked up at him and asked out of the blue, “Daddy, what’s going to happen to me if you die?” He said he felt entirely unprepared to contemplate his own mortality at that moment as the lump rose in his throat. I don’t think we went to a movie together for a while after that. I think that’s when we started going to sporting events.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus says, and this morning I imagine some might be celebrating our first Mother’s Day without our mother or maternal figure and feeling a little orphaned. But it’s not just death that takes people from us. I ran into a man this week while I was birding who shared with me right there on the boardwalk, both of us holding our cameras, that his retirement is much lonelier than he had planned. His wife, as he explained, is in a memory care facility with early onset Alzheimer’s and their children have backed away from helping much.

That awareness of possible abandonment or loneliness is something that never really goes away, whether it is from parents, spouses, siblings, or friends. From the moment God first looked at man and said, “It is not good for him to be alone” we were meant to be in relationship with one another. Jesus understands this, and he understands that his disciples feel terribly apprehensive about a life without his guidance and leadership and most importantly, his love. This is the love that has bound them together as masters and servants who wash the feet of one another. It is the love that has filled the room as bread has been broken together and a cup of wine passed around. To imagine life without this love is something the disciples are likely finding hard to imagine, as he has literally just had to tell them not to let their hearts be troubled.

And so he sits on the edge of their mattress, tucking them in for a life of sharing their faith and suffering, assuring them he has thought this through. This separation from him they may experience will not be forever. In fact, it won’t even be long. He will die, but he will come again and they will see him. “I will not leave you orphaned.”

On one level here we can say Jesus is speaking about his resurrection. The disciples can’t comprehend that at this point, but Jesus does really mean that although the authorities will arrest him and execute him on a cross, he will be able to overcome it all. He will live again and he’s going to eat with them and hang out with them again.

But on a deeper level Jesus is speaking about his absence once he ascends to the Father. He won’t orphan them because he will send another Advocate to be with them and having that Advocate will be just like having Jesus with them again. This Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will abide in them and in their life together in such a way that Jesus will be in them. They will be able to keep Jesus’ commandments, specifically the commandment to love one another, because this Spirit will dwell among them. They will not feel orphaned because this Advocate will do such a good job at animating them with Jesus and his love that it will be as if Jesus himself is there. And the Advocate ends up doing a really good job! The community of disciples hits rough patches here and there but overall it grows and touches more and more people with Jesus’ love.

I’m not sure we modern disciples necessarily feel orphaned by Jesus anymore. Not only do we now stand on the other side of the resurrection from when the disciples first heard this, but we’ve also lived and carried on for a really long time with this Advocate guiding us and bringing us into the presence of Jesus. The church is the love of Jesus we’re used to. But I think we do feel sometimes that it would be easier for everybody if Jesus had just stayed around in his bodily form instead of ascending. Then he could just continue hanging out with everyone—field our questions, allay our fears, do some miracles here and there. If Jesus could have stayed around until today because he has life eternal why did he choose to leave us with this Advocate like some kind of babysitter?

As many of you know, Taylor Swift is in the middle of her Eras tour right now. It’s a big deal. People are crowding into parking lots outside of venues just to hear her. To know what Taylor Swift is truly like, or so her fans say, and to experience her in all her glory, one really must have a ticket to one of those shows. You may be a fan, you may really like her music and know a lot about her, but to truly be able to say you have experienced Taylor Swift you need to be in the arena when she is singing and performing. And indeed, when tickets went on sale last November, a record number of people agreed, demand for them crashed Ticketmaster within minutes. To see as many fans as possible, Taylor has to keep the concerts going,  visiting town after town.

With the Holy Spirit that Jesus sends, no one needs to physically be in Jesus’ presence anymore. No one needs to see him in his sandals or touch the hem of his coat or get a ticket to whatever the next stop on his tour is because now Jesus can be everywhere and all at the same time There is no “Eras of Jesus” stadium tour, no lines to see Jesus and maybe get his autograph—which is what would have happened if the plan had been for Jesus to stick around as one person all this time.

Now he dwells in his followers. Now our relationships with each other bring him to life to every corner of the earth. We keep his commandments and his trademark love is made known everywhere.

Saint Paul makes this exact point when he travels to ancient Athens, which was a city that had all kinds of different faiths represented in it. He tries to convince them of the truth of Jesus and inspire faith in them. Pointing out, one by one, all of the different temples around them that have all been built to different deities, Paul says that the one true God, the one who created all things, does not need a temple. “This God does not live in shrines made by human hands…for ‘in him we live and move and have our being.’” In a land that would have understood that gods are always attached to certain elements and locations in the natural world, be they silver or gold or water or stone, Paul presents a God that dwells in and among people. Paul wants people to know a living God that moves around all over the place, calling all people to repentance, wherever and whoever they are, not bound by nature…not bound even by death because this God is with his people wherever they happen to be.

St. Paul Preaching in Athens (Raphael, 1515)

And we, my friends, are those people. Whether we are keeping Jesus’ commandments here on a Sunday morning when we happen to be in our temple or whether we are out in the world where God calls us to work and live through our vocations, we are those people. We are Jesus’ people, who are never left alone by God and who are constantly keeping his commandments of love, because he loves us all of the time.

We are those people and so therefore we do not leave the world orphaned. We stick with people in their suffering. We celebrate with them in their joys. We set up hospitals and recovery clinics and literal orphanages in order to reveal love for those the world often does leave behind. We go in right after the hurricane hits or the famine strikes and we stay until the last house is rebuilt and the last belly is filled. The family who joins this morning as new members, the Dicksons, came from one former congregation that had to shut its doors but instead of selling the property and giving the money to the Synod they decided to set up a trust, the annual proceeds from which were invested right back into the community organizations they had participated in and supported—the soup kitchens and food pantries—when the congregation was alive and vibrant.

This is all to say that we, no matter where we are, we keep ourselves in tune to what people are feeling. Now we sit with the world on the edge of the mattress, in the dark, listen to their fears, and promise them we’re here for the long haul. And we do this not because that’s what Jesus would have done or would have wanted us to do, but because that is what Jesus is doing. In and through us.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Cozy Home

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

John 10:1-10

Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

That line always makes me think of one particular fall evening early on in my marriage to Melinda. It was still just the two of us, but our oldest was on her way. We were learning our way—two relatively young people figuring out marriage and how to enjoy the gifts of life together. Melinda loves the fall, and an impending birth must have provoked a nesting mood that evening. She excitedly offered to cook dinner, and I was happy to discover what she had in store.

As it turns out she had found a particular cookbook that interested her called the Cozy Home Cookbook, and that should have been a clue as to what was going to happen. All afternoon she labored happily in our small kitchen. When she finally called me to the dinner table she asked for help bringing out the dishes she had prepared. I reported to the kitchen and the first thing she handed me was a whole turkey breast, perfectly glazed with honey. “Is anyone else joining us I’m not aware of?” I asked her. No, she assured me. That was all just for us. I laid it on the table and went back. She handed me a full 9×13 dish of sweet potato casserole. Each time I tried to sit down, she kept calling me back to the kitchen for another dish. Stuffing. Mashed potatoes. Baked apples with cinnamon sugar. Green beans with almond slices. Salad. And there was dessert waiting when we were all done with that, which, looking at the table once it was set, I realized might be two weeks later.

She and I still laugh about the Cozy Home Cookbook incident and whatever overflowing generosity that came over her that night. Never before and never since has our hearth produced such bounty. All the recipes sounded delicious to her, so she made most of them. She cooked that we might have dinner, and have dinner abundantly.

When Jesus tells his disciples that he comes that they might have life, and have it abundantly, he wants them to know that the servings of love and forgiveness and justice God prepares are intended to just keep coming. The life he intends for us is one of abundance, not scarcity. It is of generosity, not greed. It is of plenty, not poverty. Jesus wants us to be able to sit down at the table of life, where the cup is filled to overflowing, and find there is plenty to relish and plenty to love and plenty to be amazed by and plenty to share and plenty to laugh at and plenty to give thanks for.

We might think that he shouldn’t have to clarify this. We might think that it would be obvious that God wants good things for God’s people, that God would surround us with things that are life-giving. But Jesus is aware that for so much of our history those who come claiming to speak for God end up hoarding and abusing the blessings of life. Like thieves and bandits that break into the sheepfold to steal and kill and destroy, corrupt and selfish leaders throughout the ages have damaged the community of God and exploited the relationships that God intended for good.

Jesus says this to his disciples as he stands in Jerusalem, the holy city and site of the Temple which had become a symbol of power and control. Many people’s experience with authorities in Jerusalem, with the ancient kings and religious rulers, had been coercive and manipulative. They had excluded people based on often arbitrary criteria. They had created a system of favorites, of insiders and outsiders. Has that ever been your experience with religion of any kind? Have other believers or even pastors left the impression that God’s kingdom operates on some kind of sacrifice from you, whether it is your well-being or your honor? Has anything from church ever communicated that God cooks from the Cozy Home Cookbook for some people but not for others? If that’s the case, Jesus is sad we’ve gotten that impression, which is why he clarifies that he is different than the others who’ve come to establish God’s rule. Others who’ve had power have often tended to act like gatekeepers who control who the blessings of God are for. But they are not real gatekeepers and neither are they the gate. Jesus is the gate. And he comes that we may have life and live it to the full.

 In this short portion of Jesus’ teachings in the tenth chapter of John, Jesus compares himself to several different things all at the same time. At one point he says he is a shepherd, leading sheep just by the sound of his voice, which was a very customary shepherding practice in the first century. Cattle and camels, by contrast, pretty much have to be driven, which is leading by a series of threats. Sheep just follow by listening and watching their leader. It’s more of a relationship based on gentleness which communicates something about how God wants to relate to us. But in this morning’s text Jesus makes himself more the gate than he does the shepherd. A good gate keeps the flock safe at night. It is a means of protection and security and, perhaps most importantly, togetherness.

We have a large fence that surrounds our back yard and recently our young son realized that one of the planks was loose. One day last week he went out there and just yanked it off with his bare hands, leaving a hole just large enough for our dog to get out, and she wasted no time doing so. Then she just kept going and coming as she pleased, out of that hole in the fence, refusing to play with us in the yard, until I could screw the plank back up. Sheep also have a wandering habit, and once one finds a way out, then they all do. A gate forms a barrier that keeps them inside and together and Jesus apparently likes the thought of his sheep together. He knows God creates us to live in community, not separate. God has designed us to share the protection of God with one another, to encourage each other with our stories of God’s presence in our lives, to pray for one another, to taste the salvation that Jesus’ love provides.

But a good gate must also be as easily opened as it is shut in order to let the sheep out to graze in the green pastures. That is where the sheep find their food and their water. It is where they stretch their legs and leap around in their lamb-like ways. A good gate has to be open and shut, and Jesus sees himself as that protector and as that opening to the world. The abundant life contains both of these things—safety from the forces that harm us and freedom to find what makes us thrive. A faith system that denies us the opportunity to explore the world and discover our gifts and use them does not have Jesus as a gate.

The images of both gate and shepherd are demonstrated in extremely powerful ways in the new film Anahita: A Mother’s Journey, which was premiered here in Richmond last week before a crowd of a couple hundred including about a dozen from Epiphany. The film tells the story of a refugee and mother of five from Kabul, Afghanistan, who makes the perilous journey to America in the last days before the country falls to the Taliban. Sensing that her own life and livelihood as a female police officer puts her whole family in mortal danger, she scoops up her children and risks life and limb to board one of the last planes leaving for the U.S.

Some of us may remember the scenes of desperation as Afghans crowded the barricaded airport terminal in August of 2021. In the film Anahita gives us a first-person account of how terrifying it was to confront the concrete and barbed wire barriers stained with blood and littered with the clothes of people who didn’t make it over. Her challenges to leave the country and stay together as a unit are enormous. At one point in the mayhem Anahita’s two young sons get separated from her. At long last she finds someone to make an announcement over a loudspeaker to find them, but she hears no response. Eventually she sees them sitting with a stranger, looks of total shock on their faces and she pulls them to her immediately. Around them people scramble to be saved by finding a gate into the inside of the airport where, as they are told, they will not be harmed.

The determination and sacrifice that Anahita displays in order to provide safety and then a better life for her children is heroic. Even after she succeeds in getting spots on a flight to the U.S. she still must go through an interview process and then, in her new home, scrape by on the generosity of others as she commits herself to learning English and seeking a job to provide for her family. Her husband, still trapped in Afghanistan, has no idea when he will be able to join them.

Hers is a story familiar to many refugees, and to many parents, for that matter, but the film shows very clearly how Anahita is both the shepherd for her children and their gate to a better life and future. In fact, she is an image of Jesus, the good shepherd and the gate, who leads and defends us through the world’s mayhem but also provides our entrance to an abundant, eternal future. Anahita’s journey in many ways reflects the journey of our Savior, who braves the valley of the shadow of death so that we may fear no evil. On the cross he does whatever he has to so that the eternal, grace-filled life of God will come to us, even when it means laying down his own life.

In doing this Jesus shows us that the abundant life is, in fact, the one that is lived for others. The life that is lived to the fullest is one that calls out to the lost and gathers them at great cost where the overflowing cup placed before us is meant to be passed around. The abundant life is the kind of living here and now that mirrors the plenty of heaven precisely because the good gifts we have been given are lifted up and shared for all. Anahita’s story, for example, was made more poignant when it was shown she and her children passed through Fort Dix, and this congregation, in fact, gathered loads of socks and underwear and clothes and bedding to be used by those families as they arrived there that fall. Your generosity helped make their life more abundant!

The abundant life is the life where congregations, whether they sit in a city center, suburban neighborhood, or a rural field, become sheepfolds for all to enter because Jesus himself is the gate among them. In our service ministries, in our hospitality, in our faith formation, we see that our most important task  is to call all to sit down at the table of grace with us.

Yes, we learn to sit together and we feast upon the gifts of love he sets before us, beloved sheep that we are, together, equal, where Jesus’ goodness and mercy make us—dare I even say it?—one big cozy home.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.                                                  

A Monumental 10K

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

Luke 24:13-35 and 1 Peter 1:17-23

It is rare that we get this kind of geographical detail in the New Testament, but Luke tells us that the distance from Jerusalem to Emmaus is roughly seven miles. The actual measurement Luke uses is “sixty stadia,” and one stadia was a unit of measurement in the ancient world that equaled approximately 600 Greek feet. We think. Exactly how long a “Greek foot” was is difficult to know for sure, and the precise location of Emmaus is a fact lost to history, but over time consensus has emerged that this village was about an 11 kilometer walk from Jerusalem. That means, then, that a couple of Jesus’ disciples essentially did the Monument Avenue 10K, plus a cool-down, on the night after Jesus rose from the dead. Could you imagine? On the very night after rumors were swirling that Jesus, who had been crucified, was actually risen from the dead and that Mary Magdalene herself had seen him, two of Jesus’ inner circle get up and decide to hit the road for a 7 mile walk!

In all likelihood, Emmaus is where these guys were crashing since Jerusalem would have been packed with other people celebrating the Passover. Therefore this wasn’t a recreational journey. They aren’t trying to P.R. or win their age division. This is a trip most likely of necessity, a walk that would have allowed them the opportunity to process things.

Other than the 20,000 participants yesterday, I don’t know how many people go on seven-mile walks with other people anymore. When I first came to Epiphany over 14 years ago there was a group that got together each Saturday morning to train for the Monument Avenue 10k. There were different groups according to different running ability and there was also a group for walkers. What drew me to the practices I came for wasn’t reailly the chance to train but it was the chance to get to know people. I still remember the great conversations I had with John Stapleton and Laura Dietrick and Tim Sparks as we completed a course, and through them I learned quickly how warm and friendly this congregation is. The first part of our congregation’s mission statement is “walk the journey,” an acknowledgment that taking a journey together, provides the time to share insights and ponder things about our faith.

These disciples walk the journey that day to Emmaus, but it is a journey of doubt and confusion and disappointment. They are trying to unpack the events of the weekend where Jesus, their beloved leader, arrested, tried, executed, and buried all within a few days. And on top of that, there was this peculiar testimony that Jesus’ body was missing and that he had been seen alive. I would certainly need a seven-mile journey to sort out fact from fiction in something like that.

Whatever their reason for walking and talking we see disciples earnestly trying to get to the truth of a serious matter. They have a version—or several versions—of events and they are picking through the evidence carefully, leaning on each other figure out what really happened. They are being careful about the details because life and their future really depend upon it.

Faith—whether it is in Jesus or anything else, for that matter—depends at some point on truthful information, on a situation that looks at facts as much as it can, in an account has had agenda removed from it so that people can reach their own conclusions. Was Jesus raised from the dead? Is he bodily appearing to people? Could a true leader of Israel really suffer death and then enter glory? Would God be willing and able to redeem a situation this bleak?

These are important questions that people will ask. In fact, we probably asked them ourselves, and it would behoove Jesus’ followers to have an answer that they’ve thought through and to be honest about their doubts. The church over the centuries has given people plenty of reasons not to believe us and not to trust what we say. The apostles’ initial struggle to get to the bottom of what happened at Easter is central to our authority in this matter, and we are grateful for their diligence.

It is a difficult thing to tend to the truth, especially when people so often praise you more for telling them what they want to hear. God still lays this responsibility in front of us, whether we’re in the pulpit or in the pew. People who encounter us each week rely on us sharing our faith honestly and openly. You may not think about it much, but you are an authority on your faith, and you are therefore an authority on Jesus. People will encounter you seeking an honest answer, for example, about why you make so many quilts. For people you don’t know! Why you treat people so kindly or show compassion so freely or believe God is good.

Truthfulness is really important for building trust. Peter, another apostle, testifies to that in the second lesson this morning. Writing to some of the earliest Christians, who were under assault because of their beliefs, he encourages them, saying “now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth…love one another deeply from the heart.” Truth-telling is essential to loving others, and these disciples on the road to Emmaus, are attempting to be obedient to the truth of the events of Jerusalem so that God’s love can be known.

And in the midst of it all, shockingly, the truth himself shows up, walking along, listening, and keeping himself hidden, staying attentive to their disappointment and confusion. They explain Jesus’ the details disgraceful death to Jesus himself, as if he wasn’t the one who went through it all, ending it by saying, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Father James Martin, in his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage, says that the words “We had hoped”  are the saddest words in all of Scripture. On a day when they had hoped to be celebrating the Messiah’s new reign, and the overturning of the Roman oppression, they are dejected and lost. Life is filled with too many instances of unfilled hopes, be they personal or professional or financial or spiritual. The Monument Avenue 10k assures us of things like athleticism and goal-setting, that the physically and mentally fit will persevere. The Emmaus 10k assures us that the Lord Almighty stays attentive to our disappointment and confusion. Jesus stays with people as their journeys of doubt and unfilled hope stretch on and on, Jesus pulls up a chair at the table, leaning in, when our long day draws to a close and we can only think about the things that could have been.

The walk eventually comes to a pause as they reach the village and unwittingly as Jesus to join them for a meal. It is the first evening of God’s new creation in Christ and we are hearing about a meal. The sun has not fully set on the first day of Jesus’ resurrection, and people gather around a table for food and drink. Jesus is saying something to us here about our own journey of faith. Breaking bread together is going to be central to our common life. Whether it is at a church potluck, or at a funeral reception, or a Men’s lunch group gathering at Frank’s West, the church can’t really be the church if it doesn’t eat together. And the most important meal of all, without a doubt, is the one where Jesus’ body is blessed and broken and the words of his forgiveness are repeated again and again.

Also central to our common life is welcoming strangers, and since eating a meal with someone was one of the most intimate things you could do in the ancient world, central to our common life is opening ourselves up to new people. On the first day of his risen life Jesus appears as a stranger—a stranger who appears “out of it” about basic knowledge. How does Jesus show up today in the appearance of people we don’t know and maybe consider clueless? Do we invite them deeper into friendship?

That Jesus was unrecognizable to them has always been one of the most perplexing things about this story. Why didn’t they immediately know who he was? Had the resurrection altered his appearance in some way? And what’s this about suddenly disappearing at the end? Is his risen body able to shape shift? Will ours?

In the end these specific answers evade us, but Jesus doesn’t. Jesus doesn’t elude us and doesn’t want to elude us. He is made known in the breaking of the bread and the disciples realize their hearts burned within them when he discussed Scripture with them on the road. The fact of the matter is the church is going to find itself in all kinds of confusing and bewildering situations. Life is complicated, seasons change. People of faith are going to feel like these disciples quite often—we are going to be like these disciples quite often—wondering how to move forward in grief and disappointment, not knowing exactly which paths to take and how to speak up in faith. One thing we can always count on is that Jesus will be present in the Words of Scripture and in the meal where his forgiveness is promised. God will continue to gather us in the midst of many trials and hardships, in the joys and celebrations and show up when we are formed by his word and when we eat of the meal where he blessed the bread and broke it and passed it around saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

“Supper at Emmaus” (Carravagio)

The saddest words of Scripture may be “We had hoped” but Christ still goes in to stay with the travelers. And their saddened hearts yet burn. And their downcast eyes yet open. And Christ yet lives. And there they go, full of faith, back on the road for another Emmaus 10 K to let everyone know the truth. Christ is risen.

Last week in worship when I was giving out the bread and people were coming forward to kneel at the rail, a young girl stuck out her hand to receive a piece. Out of instinct I went ahead and tore off a piece of bread and placed it on her palm. There was some momentary awkwardness because I realized after it was already hers that she hadn’t gone through our 4th grade Holy Communion class and may not have discussed receiving communion with her parents yet. I wasn’t trying to preempt a parental decision or subvert anything there, but I did notice that her eyes got instantly wide and she kind of stared at the piece of bread as if to say, “This actually just happened!”

Afterwards I discussed it with her parents to clear up the confusion, and we laughed and everything was OK, but they shared that, there at the rail, once she realized sticking out her hand got her a surprise, and that no one was mad with her, and that she could just go ahead and eat it, she looked at her mom and said, with the gears of her 8-year-old theological mind visibly working “Well, I guess nothing bad’s gonna happen.”

Now ain’t that the truth. Out of the mouths of babes! Nothing bad’s ever gonna happen with Jesus, whether we’ve anticipated him or not.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Love Language

a sermon for Maundy Thursday

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

If you stop and think about it, we humans end up learning and sometimes even mastering a great deal of rather complex subjects and tasks over the course of our lives. We learn how to speak, read, and write. We learn how to tell time and do math. We learn how to drive and we learn how to budget money and other resources. We learn how to load the dishwasher like our spouse expects us to. Talk about complex things!

Artemis II crew

Just this past week the identities of the next four astronauts that will orbit the moon with NASA were announced. That mission isn’t scheduled to occur until 2024, so we know the next year for those four individuals is going to be filled with learning and putting to use some of the most advanced physics equations and techniques for anxiety management that humankind has ever dreamt up. We learn so many things that are really quite complex and really our growth and character and our success depend on that learning.

Love might be the most complex of all. And while so many other subjects come with explicit instructional time and sitting down to commit things to memory, love seems to be learned differently. How to experience and interpret love properly and then how to love others well is something we’re always discovering and unpacking from the moment we’re born—even before we realize that’s what we’re doing. There is no book or instruction manual on how to love. There are no flash cards or a test to pass or license to strive for.

And yet Jesus wants us to learn it. In fact, he wants us to know it so much and to get so proficient at giving and receiving it that he makes a commandment about it on the night before his crucifixion. He gathers his disciples around what we can assume was his Last Supper and tells them to “love one another as I have loved you.” And the best way he can think of to teach them about love in the moment is by showing them what it looks like. Love looks like this act of servitude. It looks like putting a brief pause in the conversation, getting up from the table, tying a towel around his waist, kneeling down to the floor and washing his disciples’ feet. This is never a task that a master or a teacher would do for his servants. It would be the other way around. Love, however, goes against the grain. It involves sacrifice and vulnerability. With this act that is carried out in silence and shock Jesus gives a lesson: each expression of love should have some humility in it. Otherwise, it is just a form of power.

How would you teach this concept of love? Is there something you would show or point to? Is there an act or gesture you would choose? For many years I’ve been drawn to Dr. Gary Chapman’s theory of the five love languages, based on his book that came out about 30 years ago. In fact, I often bring up the love languages in pre-marital counseling if the couple is not already familiar with them, but the love languages aren’t just for marriages. They apply within family relationships, friendships, workplace associations, and just about everywhere. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of books and retreats and Bible studies built on Chapman’s five love languages and the term “love language” has kind of taken on a life of its own.

According to Chapman, who is an ordained pastor and counselor, the basic theory is that however you tend to receive love is also the way you tend to give it.  Everybody uses all of the love languages, but there tends to be one or two that rises to the top for each person. And there are five general languages: quality time, physical touch, acts of service, gift-giving, and words of encouragement. Those who prefer quality time tend to feel most loved when people give them undivided attention. For those whose love language is physical touch nothing speaks more deeply than a hug or hand-holding or maybe a backrub. Acts of service is love expressed through actions that mean something, like filling up your loved one’s tank with gas or taking a turn with watching the kids. Words of encouragement or affirmation is love through giving compliments and praise. And for those whose love language is gift-giving, nothing says “I love you” more than a heartfelt present that has been specially picked out.  You can run across the five love languages everywhere and I think this caught on so much because it has helped lots of people understand this complex but important idea of love and then put it into action.

It occurs to me that Jesus’ actions on the night before his crucifixion are all five of the love languages rolled into one. It’s like he is showing all the love in all the ways he possibly can. He is giving them undivided attention, even as there are other things he could probably be doing—praying, spending time alone. Instead he listens to their concerns and sacrifices his time to be there for them. There’s physical touch. He reaches out and holds their feet in his hands, scrubbing them. It’s kind of like Jesus gives a pedicure to his disciples. The act of service is that he humbles himself to clean their feet. He couples all of this with words of encouragement and affirmation, verbally pointing out that they are blessed if they do these things and that they are right for calling him their Teacher. And the gift giving is the entire donation of his life, of which these meal is the preamble.

Maybe that interpretation seems forced to you and that I’m reading something into it that isn’t there. Fair enough. But the point is that Jesus’ life culminates with this grand gesture of love. It is a love for us that fully embraces us and places us at the center of God’s heart. With one huge and selfless act, Jesus shows us how much God desires to show us love that will cleanse us and heal us and empower us to love others. With one costly expression of humility Jesus envelops us all in forgiveness.

Now, Jesus says, it’s our turn to listen to and speak the love language of Christ to ourselves and in the world. And so we share words of affirmation with others. We remind people they are beloved children of God and forgiven of sins on a regular basis. We perform acts of service, especially for those who are often overlooked by the world. Maybe that looks like building homes for people through Habitat or adding a handicap ramp to someone’s house. Appropriate physical touch could look like medical care, curing diseases, addressing someone’s bodily wounds in the way Jesus often does. Gift-giving is what the church does regularly through its offerings. People and congregations give sacrificially in order that God might use those gifts in our communities and around the world. And then there’s quality time. Those who follow Christ often just need to show love by sitting with others, especially those who are suffering or struggling, and giving them our undivided attention. I think of our Micah tutors who will sit with kids at Southampton Elementary. There was a wonderful photo of Cindy McClintock in our recent newsletter where she was reading to some children.

The five languages of love that Jesus demonstrates at the pinnacle of this life may be a helpful way to understand his command to love one another and to envision how the church should live. As he goes forth to his death he leaves us with the responsibility of demonstrating his humility and vulnerability in ways that free and cleanse each other. And we do this in world that is often hostile to God.

The recent Oscar-nominated documentary called A House Made of Splinters, shows the life inside a temporary shelter for neglected and abused children living on the front lines of the war in Ukraine. Young children are brought to this type of orphanage when they need to be removed from their families and relocated to a better environment. Many of their parents struggle with alcoholism or addiction, and many of their fathers have gone missing in the combat zone.

Unflinching in its approach, the film holds nothing back. You see the poverty and the run-down, dilapidated homes and buildings they live in and the dingy building that the shelter uses. The children are often dropped off in the middle of the night by police not knowing if and when they’ll be picked up by their parents. Many get sent to live in permanent orphanages if the women running the temporary shelter are unable locate a living relative who is capable of caring for the them.

It is hard to watch because many of the cases are so sad and severe. And yet even against these bleak surroundings of hardship and sorrow a community of love and hope emerges. Children form real friendships, many for what may be their first time. They take care of each other and watch out for one another. They learn how to be vulnerable with one another and are surprised at the life and joy that comes from that move. And the women who run the shelter consistently offer their compassion and their tenderness so that the children can experience love in some form. They are the ones who make a difference in the children’s lives. Around them the beginning of a deeper war rages, along with the by-products of that violence that wreak their havoc, but the sacrifice and humility in the shelter foster joy and growth.

Originally made to show the harm that war causes to society’s most vulnerable, A House Made of Splinters ends up being a film that shows the vital importance of love in all of its languages. But no matter how it’s spoken, given, or experienced, Jesus knows how complex it is, and so he leads the way. His charge to his followers, to you and me, is to become a shelter and school of love, a house made of splinters—splinters, perhaps, of a cross—a community that gives life to the world…a community that says, “Hey. This is really hard. But we’re gonna learn. And we have the best teacher. And, by God, he thinks we can do it.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

One Shining Moment

a sermon for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion [Year A]

Matthew 21:1-11

It is the weekend of the Final Four of the Men’s and Women’s NCAA Division I basketball tournaments, two of the most anticipated sporting events of the year. This afternoon the Iowa Hawkeyes take on the LSU Tigers in Dallas, and out in NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, San Diego State will face off against UConn tomorrow evening for the men’s championship game. And for those who know much about the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament, in particular, as soon as the winning team cuts down the nets and is handed the trophy, and after the last on-court interviews are given, footage will cut to a montage of clips from the entire tournament, going all the way back to the opening round games two weekends ago when there were still 64 teams.

It’s a stirring montage that features the highlights—the triumphs of that year’s underdogs and the crashing defeats of the favorites. It shows the dunks, the dribbles, the fouls, the tears and the smiles, the fade-away three-pointers that go in at the buzzer. And that montage, every year going back to 1987, is set to the same piece of music. That piece of music, written first on a bar napkin by a man named David Barrett is titled “One Shining Moment.”  And it has become a standard feature of the whole March Madness ordeal. The tournament really isn’t over until it is played. The NCAA has figured this out and sought out special recordings of it. Jennifer Hudson did one. I think the current one is by Luther Vandross. It may be the cheesiest moment in sports, but every year people eat it up:

The ball is tipped
And there you are
You’re running for your life
You’re a shooting star
And all the years
No one knows
Just how hard you worked
But now it shows
In one shining moment, it’s all on the line
One shining moment, there frozen in time.

Palm Sunday, when Jesus enters Jerusalem to the roar of adoring crowds, can feel like we are watching his One Shining Moment. There he is, riding for his life, a shooting star. Like the song says, it’s all on the line—all the years of healing and teaching in Galilee and Judea all the years of learning the real heart of God’s law. Everything about his life and mission culminates with this procession toward the Temple and the halls of power. They don’t cut nets down, but they do cut palm branches down and wave them like crazy. What highlights will we witness, what scenes will we remember and hold onto?

Quite frankly, he’s an unlikely champion to most everyone around him. An underdog from some backwater town in the farther reaches of the empire, he rides to glory and fame on the back of a donkey. It’s a bit of a peculiar and controversial thing to ride on—a beast of burden instead of, say, a white stallion or a war horse with armor. According to some historians, there had been a long debate throughout Israel’s history about the use of horses in the military. There were those who wanted to add them but others said “Nay, Nay,” remembering that horses were what Pharaoh had once chased them with. They transformed a country’s army into something deliberately more offensive, rather than defensive. And so Jesus is clear that he will not be a king on that kind of offense.

Nevertheless, this is his One Shining Moment and people are expecting him to grab the trophy of power in a gesture of authority and control that will put all the nay-sayers in their place. This man is the king. This man is the ruler. This man is the Son of David and blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

The issue here, of course, is that we know it doesn’t all go like that. One Shining Moment on Palm Sunday quickly turns into a series of tragically disastrous moments. The vision of victory that Jesus has in mind goes over like a lead balloon. The people expect a kingdom that will be marked by fighting with weapons. He comes to establish a righteousness through words and deeds of love. As a result, he clashes with the religious authorities and then the political authorities. People desert him pretty dramatically. And by the end of the week people will be so mad and disillusioned that I doubt they’ll even remember this bit about the donkey and the palm branches.

I bet we’ve all been thinking a good bit these past few days and weeks about visions of power and embarrassing moments and how we are prone to idolize leaders, particularly political ones. We view them so often through only one particular lens, lifting them up as saviors who can finally get a certain job done only to have them disappoint us time and time again. We wake up too late realizing leaders so often use techniques of manipulation and control, and that they tailor their messages simply in order to increase their grip on power.

And the problem isn’t only them, of course, and all the promises they have to try to keep to all the parties along the way. The problem is also us. We project onto our leaders our dreams and desires, and we hear only the things we want to hear. We get trapped inside of echo chambers of the left and the right that confirm the biases we already have. Maybe Palm Sunday is a big echo chamber, where everyone in the crowd is expecting what they want Jesus to be and refusing to listen to what he’s actually saying.

The version of Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem and the events that follow that we will read today come mainly from Luke’s gospel. But in Matthew’s telling of Jesus entrance to Jerusalem, we hear that the whole city was in turmoil. It’s a bit of information that none of the other gospel writers include. The people are “stirred up,” which is another way to translate that Greek word Matthew uses. And I think, how timely! It occurs to me that our own country is in a bit stirred up at the moment, also in regard to one of its leaders. Turmoil happens when people’s dreams are dashed and their anxieties are raised. People get stirred up with worry and fear and anger, especially when pundits and powerbrokers have a vested interest in keeping people outraged.

But in Jesus’ case in Jerusalem, we should take notice of some things about his One Shining Moment even as it goes so far off the rails. Jesus never lashes out at anyone, verbally or physically. He never portrays himself as a victim even as he is led to slaughter. He never claims anything but the best about his opponents, and he never accuses them of weaponizing the government against him. He never cries out against Pontius Pilate even as he knows the justice seems mishandled. And he has no supporters that rally to his side—not a single one.

These events in Jerusalem, one after the other, look like failures of bravery and failures of decisiveness and failure of strategy. And yet they end up showing just how shining this moment really is and how golden and pure God’s grace in him is. Jesus never lets his anger or fear direct his actions. It is all love and compassion and forgiveness. Our sins will kill Jesus and yet he will never say one bad word against us.

What makes the events of this week truly holy is that however badly it goes for him means everything will go well for us. He will become, on the cross, the result of all of humanity’s brokenness. And God will shine the full force of his light and grace on us.

Interestingly enough, Matthew uses this word “stirred up” or “turmoil” only one other time in his telling of the story of Jesus. The first time is when Jesus comes into the city and people are stirred up by their expectations and anxiety. The second time is the moment he breathes his last breath. Matthew reports at that moment the whole earth shakes—it is stirred up, like in a earthquakeand the curtain of the temple was torn in two. The curtain in the temple is what symbolically separated the holiest place, the place where God was said to dwell, from everything else. It created this arbitrary barrier between the sacred and the profane. With the death of his Son, it is now God who is creating the turmoil, removing that which separates us from his love.

Jesus’ death is an upset and we all become winners. God stirs up the whole universe, from bottom to top and side to side, bringing everyone together, making us all vessels of grace, instead of spite. No more curtains! No one is going to be left out anymore. God’s great reversal is coming so that God in his grace can enter each and every lifeand each and every placeand each and every moment. On and on and on for the rest of all moments.

And not just the shining ones.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

A Word from Our Sponsor

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year A)

John 11:1-45

I’m a radio listener when I’m driving in the car, and I jump around between a variety of FM stations each day depending on my mood. One thing this means is that I am subjected to a range of radio ads that aren’t crafted by some algorithm to suit my own preferences. In case you were wondering, the jingle is alive and well. I am used to so many by now, whether it’s O, O, O’Reilly Auto parts or (my personal favorite) Gillman Heating, Cooling, and Plumbing (“With the G Man on-site, you’ll know it’s done right!”). The other day as I was driving, however, I heard a new ad that really caught me off guard. I’ve been waiting for it to come up again,  but it hasn’t yet. It was a radio ad for, of all things, getting my burial plot. No jingle, just a calm and insistent reminder that now is never too soon to reserve a plot for me and even my loved one at the local cemetery. As I recall, they weren’t just limited to burial plots; they could even handle my cremated ashes, if that was how I was going to be prepared. And, just to add some urgency, the ad mentioned that prices are rising! “Lock in your burial plot now,” they insisted, “while prices are still cheap!”

I can’t remember which exact cemetery or memorial park made the ad, but in a way it doesn’t really matter. I was more struck that there, in the middle of the love songs and the ads for getting my oil changed was a blunt reminder of my death. Talk about hearing a word from our sponsors! It’s like bringing up the subject that no one likes to talk about, but what in many ways is the real matter at hand.

Today, on this fifth Sunday in Lent, we hear about the real matter at hand. At Bethany by Jerusalem we discover that Jesus mainly wants to address the matter of death. It’s not just an advertisement on the way to something more important. It is the main mission and purpose of Jesus. Death and dying is the thing God wants to talk about. God’s going to confront this issue head on and it is time to listen up.

And this is important to note because so often Christian faith comes across as being primarily about something else, like helping our neighbor or serving the community. We come away from worship or any other church activity (or at least I often do) most likely with thoughts about how to live better in the world. And if it’s not that, then the point of Christian faith often seems to be to look inward and improve ourselves there. We concentrate on things like forgiving our enemies and loving our enemies. We come away from worship encouraged about God’s unconditional love for us and a peace that surpasses all understanding.

tornado destruction in Rolling Fork, MS, March 25, 2023

Jesus does deal with both of these matters, and how they’re inter-related—that is, the pursuit of inner peace and making the world look more like God’s kingdom. But we can forget or even intentionally sweep under the rug the big issue of the messy end of our lives and that Jesus mainly comes to confront that. I wonder what the people of Bucha or Bahkmut could teach us here, if their experiences in the horrors of war would pierce our comfortable calm. I wonder what we’d hear from those waking up in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, as they survey the aftermath of a tornado’s destruction. And for the Reckenbeil family, gathered around the deathbed of their matriarch, Joan, as they were last Thursday, I suppose a hope built simply on good deeds and inner peace in this life might have rung hollow. Our mortality does interrupt life and pretty soon we realize we need a God who has something to say about it.

Jesus is living water, for sure, a source of hope that never runs dry. And Jesus is the light of the world who helps us see God as God really is. Chiefly, though, Jesus is the resurrection and the life who comes to stand at the door of death and speak into it. Jesus is the resurrection and the life who comes to confront the matter we all wish could get drowned out by the music of life.

That is precisely what Mary and Martha, Jesus’ besties in Bethany, discover when their brother Lazarus dies. And it starts when Jesus’ disciples bring him news that Lazarus is ill. Jesus decides to confront the situation, to see for himself what is happening, even though they advise him against it because his own life has already been threatened. But Jesus goes because he knows what they are struggling to believe: that death ultimately has no power over him. In fact, he even delays his arrival in Bethany by a couple of days. It’s unclear why Jesus waits, but maybe he’s doing it to add emphasis to his own confidence that death doesn’t ultimately deserve the anxiety we give it.

When he does arrive, Jesus finds anxiety all over the place. Martha runs to him in anguish, and then a little while later Mary comes to him, too. Both of them seem too distraught to fully comprehend Jesus’ power. I find that in many instances where I am emotionally drained by grief or fear that I can’t think clearly either. Everywhere Jesus turns there is weeping and sadness in people’s faces. Jesus is still undeterred even though he himself is beginning to reflect that grief in his own emotions.

Many people over the centuries find Jesus’ weeping to be very profound. It’s one of the shortest verses in the Bible, but it packs a big punch. People who can confront their emotions and even shed authentic tears with others display a kindness and strength that is rare and healing. But it is difficult to cry, especially in front of others. We’ve internalized so many unhelpful messages about weakness and gender when it comes to crying and sharing grief.

I remember one funeral I conducted in my first congregation. The deceased was an elderly woman who had two grown children who were in their sixties. At the graveside committal the son, who I didn’t really know, came to me with tears visibly welling up in his eyes. And yet his face muscles were tense in a fake smile. He pulled me aside for a conversation, utterly confused why he felt so sad when his faith tradition had always taught him only to be happy at someone’s grave because it wasn’t an ending but the beginning of eternal life. He had been taught it was a celebration of life and that any tears and any sadness was a sign of a lack of faith in God And he didn’t want to seen to have no faith in God, especially at his mother’s death. I wasn’t sure how to help him in that moment but I wish I had thought to tell him that Jesus is OK with tears. Jesus comes to bear our pain and feel our sorrow and also express it, legitimating the real emotions we feel and the real tears we shed.

“The Raising of Lazarus after Rembrandt” (Van Gogh)

But the tears don’t stop him. He continues in his confrontation of death, driving to the heart of his whole mission as he stands at the opening to Lazarus’ tomb. To everyone’s surprise, he calls Lazarus to come forth and to everyone’s shock, Lazarus comes walking out.

When we look at this event as a whole, we see Jesus seeking to inspire faith in everyone around him. In Martha and Mary, in the crowds that are supporting them, in his disciples, and through his prayer to his Father—Jesus wants us all to have faith that he has power over death, that he is the resurrection and the life. And this faith is not some reciting of specific beliefs or agreeing to certain creeds about him but a trust in God’s ability to bring life where we see death. It is not knowing the exact mechanics of how Jesus will bring about restoration but trusting that he will, even when it seems too late.

Confronting danger, confronting doubt, confronting pain, confronting death itself. These are the things God is really about if God is about anything at all. These are the things that try to separate us from the good God intends for God’s people. Jesus eventually goes to his own cross and his own tomb in order to interrupt once and for all the steady stream of selfishness and sadness the world plays for us. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He is God’s promise to put all the dry bones of our hopelessness and the world’s sorrow back together into vibrant bodies that will live forever in his presence.

Lazarus’ tomb in modern day Bethany

The last thing Jesus does as he stands at Lazarus’ tomb is to tell the people to unbind the man and let him go. This is our cue to be apart of Jesus’ resurrection and life now, to then go out and confront the things of the world that decay relationships and that are obstacles to goodness,  even when it is difficult. Jesus wants us to take part in freeing people from the forces that constrict them and keep them in the tombs. That may be a Stephen Minister sitting down with someone stuck in a situation with one of life’s problems to help them unpack what they’re feeling. That may be picking up a hammer for Habitat for Humanity work day on Saturday in order to help unbind someone from homelessness.

Yesterday a group of church volunteers collected the lunches that many of you helped make that were part of unbinding some of our Richmond neighbors from hunger. Moments of Hope is a ministry that confronts that issue directly by handing out lunches and other items directly into the hands of people each Saturday at a location near downtown. Our task was to assemble sack lunches. We needed 500 of them, but when the team arrived at the assigned location yesterday, they were greeted by 547 guests. As our team began to count (somewhat panicked), they realized some people apparently doubled up on their sandwiches, and one person who hadn’t signed up provided 10 lunches, and so they had enough to provide everyone with food. Working with the one who is the resurrection and the life will always involve surprises!

These things aren’t just about making the world a better place, or merely finding inner peace for our souls. This is the ministry of resurrection and life, pointing to the God who confronts death and overcomes it. This is being people who stand in awe of Jesus’ word, who feel the tears on their faces, and moving forward in faith. This is us, interrupting the world’s sorrow with a word from our sponsor.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Reading Water

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

John 4:5-42

A few years ago a friend gave me a book called How to Read Water by adventurer and nature enthusiast Tristan Gooley, a British man whose main claim to fame, among many, is that he is the only living person to have both flown solo and sailed single-handedly across the Atlantic. Gooley is an expert in natural navigation, which is the science or art—depending on how you look at it—of relying on cues from nature, rather than GPS or technology, to find your way around.

In How to Read Water, Gooley explains to the average person how basic observation of any kind of water, from puddles to the ocean, can reveal important information about the world around you. There is a chapter explaining in detail that there are different kinds of puddles and how they form, and another chapter unpacking how the different shades of blue and green and brown indicate things about the depths of the water. One of the most fascinating chapters is on the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific who have for centuries been able to sail back and forth with ease between small distant islands in primitive watercraft before the first European sailor ever arrived with their fancy sextants and telescopes and written maps. The Polynesians do it simply by understanding how the waves and ripples move over the surface of the deep blue ocean. If you’ve ever seen Disney’s Moana, you know what he’s talk about.

Gooley’s How to Read Water is a great book,one that when on my shelf makes me appear to be a lot more worldly and interesting than I really am. It covers every form of water in the natural world, but nowhere does it talk about living water. To learn about that, we’d have to talk to the woman at Jacob’s Well about whom we’re told in John’s gospel.

At first, she comes across as the expert in water, herself. Jesus approaches her and she lets him know that her ancestors have been coming to this place for water for centuries. She knows how the well works, what the water tastes like in every season, rainy and dry. She knows how it feeds their sheep and goats, just how far to drop the bucket. My people know how to read this water, she explains to Jesus. Where do you get off talking to me about some other kind of water? But slowly she realizes he is different.If we listened to her she would tell usthat we don’t read living water.Living water reads us.

That is one of the main messages of this encounter between Jesus and the person who has come to be known as the woman at the well. Jesus comes to read us—to know us and care for us and share the journey of life with us with all its ups and downs. Jesus comes to read us and the pain we experience and the suffering we encounter. And he finds us right in the ordinary, everyday places where we live and work and go about life.

Vasily Polenov (1900s)

Lots of people spend a lot of timesearching for wisdom and truth and transformationin far-flung places.Jesus walks right into our midstto transform us where we are.It may be in the loving words of someone we know,it may be in the comfort of prayer,it may even be in the community of a local congregation.The point is that Jesus crosses boundaries that we set upand finds us in our situationsin order to make that connection happen.

Jesus is Jewish, and this woman is Samaritan, a rival group. Doesn’t matter. He goes right to their well, a common community location that people would have visited on a daily basis. We should watch for how Jesus might find a way to show up in a grocery store parking lot, or the school lunch room, or the pew next to us, encouraging us to speak with the person who seems different. And while he’s with us, (the Samaritan woman would explain),this living water comes to read the paths we’ve walked and the wounds we’ve suffered so that he knows them and understands them. He comes to make sure God’s unconditional love flows over us like a stream of fresh water from a source that never goes dry.

A lot of the imagery and language in Scripture is a little inaccessible for us living in the United States in 2023and access to water is one of them. We can turn on a tap whenever we want to. Just outside of my office here, in fact, in this hallway that goes toward Price Hall the church installed a new set of water fountains when we did our construction project. One component of that water fountain is a spot where you can fill up a refillable water bottle. Above the waterspout is a little screen with numbers that count up every time you fill it which supposedly corresponds to the number of disposable plastic water bottles we’re saving. Right now we’re up to 2192 water bottles saved, although I bet at least two thirds of that has actually come from filling up our church’s Keurig reservoir, which is a bit ironic because every cup of coffee made sends a little piece of plastic to the landfill. My point is that for someone in Jesus’ time water that is that reliable and that plentiful would have been life-changing. You would never have had to live with thirst because you could always reach for a glass of water.

Jesus likens himself to that unimaginable scenario. He is reliable in a way that an ancient well can never aspire to. The little number counter on him goes to infinity. His mercy, his forgiveness, his understanding, his compassion for us will never run out. In a world that offers so many false promises of care and concern, any number of fly-by-night cures, Jesus never fails. And it gushes up not just for us but eventually within us. And it never runs out so we don’t have to be stingy with it or ration it out. We see this as the woman goes from the well back into her village to spread word of what he encountered in Jesus, a village of foreigners, no less, who had reason to distrust anything that would come from Israel.

Yes, if we want to learn to read living water,it would be good to start with this woman’s testimony.A lot of assumptions have been made through the yearsabout her past and the number of husbands she has had.People have read into this all kinds of things about her moral state,but Jesus makes absolutely no judgment or declaration about her characteror her decisions.Her witness to the love of Jesus—how he knows her story and does not judge her—teaches us a lot about how Jesus embodies God’s never-ending grace.He comes to know each and every story,eventually letting his own life follow the course of every human life,even into death.We will never be thirsty, not even when we’ve breathed our last,for the water he gives gushes up to eternal life.

It will be a long, long time—maybe never—before I hear this particular story in John 4and not think about the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Because we use a three-year lectionary cycle, this happens to be the exact reading we had in 2020on the first Sunday after the COVID shutdown. March 15, 2020, was the Third Sunday in Lent and we had made the decision to try to worship on-line rather than just cancelling church that Sunday altogether. None of us had a clue what we were doing. Except Turner Barger. Turner, our technology and media support person, always knows what’s going on (Hi, Turner).

We decided to cram into the parlor and set up a little altar thereand we used Facebook and Instagram Liveto broadcast a thrown together worship service.Kevin rolled one of the electrical pianos in there so that we could singand Beth Barger held the words up to the hymns,which we had written out on paper and an easel padMarkus Groener was there, and Matthew Barger and Mike Dunavant,and all of us were, as they say, flying the airplane as we were building it.

I don’t know about the rest of thembut I was operating out of survival mode and fearbecause at the time, even though we thought it would be temporary,I couldn’t help but think, “Well, this is it. There is no way we’re going to surviveshutting down for two Sundays.”And of course I was worried about the spread of the diseaseand who might be at riskand what kids were going to do about school.I had all the concerns that everyone else did.

But thank God that Jesus the living water comes to read us. Because it ended up being more than two Sundays. And we’ve thrived. He decided to show up over and over again in the only wells we had to meet at back then: online and the telephone. Council members had the idea to call everyone in the membership roster and check in on them. As we peered into our computer and phone screens, his water kept flowing. As we shared on Zoom and Facebook live he kept us connected and tempered our feelings of isolation. And this was going on in congregations all over the place: Jesus, the living water, reading us in our anxiety and fear, paying attention to our story, and mostly breaking down barriers. And suffering produced endurance, and endurance produced character, and character hope…and hope did not disappoint us.

Nowadays, three years after all of that, we are joined in worship by people in Texas, Connecticut, Florida, Long Island, some of whom hope to catch a glimpse on the screen of their relatives sitting here coming back from the communion rail. One of our regular livestream worshippers calls it “Virch Church,” and I’m kind of overwhelmed by it, to be honest. Our statistics suggest that around 120 people worship with us this way each week. I have no clue who they all are, but I’m thankful they’re here at the well with us.

Did the Samaritan woman know them all back in her village when word of Jesus got out?

Maybe. But probably not. I suppose that wasn’t the point, to revel in numbers themselves, to boast in the success of her testimony, or we in ours. The point is she was overwhelmed—as in by a flood—of grace and acceptance. It is a flood of living water that gushes up and always, through whatever faces us, gives life.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Nagging Questions

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

John 3:1-17

Nagging questions. John’s gospel essentially begins with one person’s nagging questions…nagging questions about life and faith and the reality of God. That person’s name is Nicodemus, and we don’t know much about him except that he is one of the Pharisees, which means that he is well-versed in what the Scriptures say and well-informed about what God is like. But Nicodemus has heard about Jesus and apparently listened to Jesus and now he has some nagging questions.

Nagging questions keep us up at night, which may be one of the reasons Nicodemus comes to Jesus to discuss things at night. Nicodemus can’t sleep! He lies there on his bed, eyes wide open, mulling over everything in his mind—you know what it’s like—and he can’t make Jesus’ words fit. They raise all kinds of issues for him. He tosses and turns, lights a candle, writes a little in his journal. Finally he just decides to go and pay Jesus a visit and ask him the questions himself. These nagging questions can’t wait and he might as well get them addressed now.

Or, maybe Nicodemus goes to Jesus by night because he needs anonymity. Nicodemus wants to know some things and have some facetime with Jesus, but he doesn’t want his Pharisee buddies to see him because that could get awkward. He lurks in the shadows until the town gets quiet and dark and then he goes to knock on the door in secrecy. This is the conventional theory about Nicodemus’ night visit. He is on the edge. He wants to have a deeper relationship with Jesus and know more, but he can’t do it openly for he is a leader in the Jewish faith.

Nowadays we would take these concerns into cyberspace. There’s a lot of darkness there. We’d find a community that discusses our issues and ideas and we’d create an avatar, something like a “finsta” that would mask our identity and ask our questions that way.

I like either of these theories for Nicodemus’ night visit, and I think both are plausible because no matter why Nicodemus chooses the night Jesus is open to whatever. Jesus is always open and ready to serve, like a Waffle House. Jesus graciously receives his guests, rubbing the sleep out of his own eyes, leaning in a bit closer hear our questions when we’re ready to ask them, always ready to greet us when we knock, always ready to receive us when we’re looking. He is on our schedule, not his. And he will meet us where we are, even if it is in fear and embarrassment. For God so loves the world.

so many late night conversations of deep meaning at this place

It is good that John’s gospel begins this way, because so often Christian faith is presented as set beliefs and rigid conformity. In culture and even in a good number of churches Christianity comes across as a list of things you have to be for or against. Come to think of it, it ends up sounding like the Pharisees that Nicodemus hails from, never wanting to question too much and really liking when people fall in line. I have to check myself at times when I teach things like confirmation class or Bible studies so that I don’t sound like I’m just laying out a bunch of assertions and positions about everything.

There are truths, of course, and there are statements we hold as certain. Even in Jesus’ life there are beliefs and there is some degree of conformity, but this interaction with Nicodemus shows that those things are not the core of Christian faith.  The core of faith is a gift of life, to be born anew. The core of faith is a relationship that brings life and honors our fears and our dreams and our ability to reason and change our minds.

For Nicodemus, the nagging questions center around this new life. Jesus is performing signs that indicate God is at work in Jesus in a new way. He has turned water into wine, he has cleared the temple and declared that it will be torn to the ground. Nicodemus wants to understand how this all can be: how can the work of God be centered in Jesus? How can the kingdom of God be coming in him? What is the crux of Jesus’ mission? And to address Nicodemus’ questions, Jesus talks about the work of the Holy Spirit and how, like the wind, it blows where it chooses.

I don’t know about you, but I find this to be a disconcerting aspect to life with God. I find that, like most humans, I tend to like certainty. We like important things to be pinned down, summed up, and made to order. Paying attention to the wind is much harder to handle. And yet whether it is regarding the answers to our nagging questions or just the basic facts about what is required of us in faith, Jesus doesn’t want things to get too concrete, like there is information we need to download for a test later.

Jesus is more about inviting us into an ongoing dialogue, a life where we will be able to continually discover new things about him. God knows we grow as we go through life and we can be open to new understandings and experiences with his grace. We can be closed off to that dialogue at our own peril, because that dialogue leads to a new birth, or being having a birth from above. Scholars and historians have often been puzzled with how to translate that word, whether Jesus means one must be born a from above or born again. Regardless of which word we choose, the point is that Jesus’ word and Jesus presence brings about new life in a person similar to the way a woman miraculously brings a child into the world from her womb. Just as Jesus is always open to us as we learn and ask our questions, so we too are pushed from darkness into a new faith when we are open to the movement of God’s Spirit.

About a year and a half ago I was approached by a middle aged man and his wife who had some nagging questions. They were looking for a new community of faith, and had been worshiping with our on-line worship services for a while. This particular individual had a background and story that caught me a bit off-guard. It turns out he was a leading infectious disease specialist on faculty at a nearby medical school. He was a very humble man, and as we talked, I learned that the pandemic had been particularly grueling for him professionally, which I could understand. There was not just the overwhelming amount of new data for him to wade through, the statistics to sift out, the comparisons here and there to previous diseases to discern. (These tasks were exhausting on a physical and intellectual level). But there was also, he found, an exhaustion from the ways people were treating each other, and the exhaustion from having to make so many heavy ethical decisions so rapidly.

What brought him to our church and my office was the fact that he had come to understand the need for a deeper faith to anchor him. He had been raised in the Lutheran tradition but had wandered as a young adult. What he shared with me was a yearning to be assured of a love that was at the center of the universe. He felt the need to be rooted in a concrete love, not just some vague idea of morality that everyone can ultimately interpret their own way. Having come through a crucible of an intensity I could never imagine as a public health worker during a pandemic, I think he was experiencing that new birth Jesus talks about. He was sensing the importance of personal love rooted in a story of God reaching out to help humankind with wisdom and sacrifice and judgment. And he wanted this for his children too, two young girls who were growing and likely already dealing with their own nagging questions.

This man and his family ended up attending here for a while and attending Sunday School, too, before he ended up moving out of state to accept a new position elsewhere. But I’d like to think that while they were here we were able to welcome his nagging questions and walk the journey of faith with him.

I think about that man and his bravery a lot, his bravery to seek out and turn over new stones (and old ones), his bravery to admit not know it all. I think about his desire to seek that love and learn from it. And on closer listen, if there’s anything important for us to take away from this encounter this morning between Nicodemus and Jesus is that love is already seeking us. As Jesus listens to Nicodemus in the dim night and invites him to undergo that new birth, to wait for the Spirit to move him like the wind, it is actually love that is speaking to him.

And we hear that is not for God so tested the world, or God so validated the world or God so judged the world. It is not for God so ruled the world or God so overpowered the world and it most definitely is not God so condemned the world. It is God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. The birth that comes through faith is to a life that is rooted in the love of God, a love that has lifted up the Son on the cross so that all people may be saved. It is a new life that stretches beyond the grave into a future with God.

And so if Jesus’ begins by listening to our with nagging questions he is also makes sure he begins with his love, too. He gets that fact out there right at the beginning so that it’s loud and clear from the start. That, friends, may be the best way to look at baptism. It’s not simply a religious ritual or a way to become a member of the church or even a promise of heaven’s joys. It is a visible acknowledgment that we’re always going to begin with God’s love, not our love towards him. That the wind does blow to include us us at some point. Before we have our first nagging question, or even simple question, we already are living in a world that Jesus has died for.

Life may end up being a puzzle for us, or a valley of sorrow, or a series of joys for which we never have words to describe, but the water and Word assures us of this: God is ready to receive and ready to embrace and ready to root our lives in his forgiveness before we even know it.

And there is no question at all about that.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

“Who Are We Now?” Images for the Church’s Life – Lent Wednesdays 2023

We Are a Body

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

When I was a young child there was a character on TV named “Slim Goodbody” who would occasionally make appearances on the kids’ show Captain Kangaroo. Slim Goodbody was played and is apparently still played by a guy named John Burstein. Known as the Superhero of Health, Slim Goodbody would come on children’s shows and give brief and engaging lessons about health and human anatomy.

And the thing about Slim Goodbody was that he wore a peach-colored unitard to do it. This outfit was extremely form-fitting and it was painted with the internal organs of the human body. You could look at Slim Goodbody and clearly see the heart with its red arteries leading out of it and its dark blue veins feeding into it. Half of his rib cage was painted on there, along with both beige-colored lungs, his entire squishy digestive tract with the liver and intestines. A basic bone structure was included—femurs in the legs and the humerus in the arms. Thankfully the pelvic bone was the only thing painted below his waist. In the areas left over on the suit there were the red and pink stripes of muscles and tendons. Burstein’s character was so educational and so popular that he went on to win awards for Slim Goodbody, and he is apparently, at the age of 75, still performing. You may have seen him in a Super Bowl commercial in 2014.

NEW YORK – OCTOBER 1: CAPTAIN KANGAROO. John Burstein as “Slim Goodbody” on Captain Kangaroo. Image dated October 1978 (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

But the thing about Slim Goodbody, as I said, was that unitard. I was so embarrassed for him. Everyone else on set was wearing regular clothes, but he was walking around like he was completely naked. There was nothing indecent about Slim Goodbody at all. but he just looked so terribly exposed and vulnerable. I could barely even watch him.

When the apostle Paul is searching for ways to describe how his churches are supposed to relate to one another, it may surprise us that he chooses the vulnerable, awkward human body.           It is as jarring to come across this section of 1 Corinthians as it is to realize the episode of Captain Kangaroo you’re watching might have a guy in a peach unitard strutting around.         Paul’s knowledge of human anatomy was nowhere near as sophisticated as Slim’s or ours, but his intuitions about how the body works together and how we often react to its different parts was spot-on. Some things should be covered up. And some parts we bestow with more honor than others. Some body parts get a lot of attention. Some body parts don’t seem to have a function or a purpose we can immediately figure out but which are still indispensable. And so the body happens to be a great analogy to use for an organization, especially when that organization seems to be having repeated problems with getting along and working together.

And that was certainly the case with Paul’s congregations. All of the letters we have from Paul’s hand came out of his need to address issues and conflicts that communities were experiencing together. Christian faith is not a solitary endeavor even though our relationships with God may be personal. This is really interesting when you think that the overwhelming share of Christian literature written today— devotional books and the like—are addressed to solitary individuals and how they are to live their own lives.

We today are primed to think of Christian faith and live our faith in many ways entirely differently than they first did after Jesus’ resurrection. It is probably not too much of an exaggeration to say there was almost no concept of private devotional life in Paul’s day. Christian faith was experienced and lived in community, which is why the body metaphor works. No part of the body can exist on its own, not even for a little while. It can only do what it needs to do when it is connected in a real and meaningful way to the other members. As social activist and author bell hooks observed, “I am often struck by the dangerous narcissism fostered by spiritual rhetoric that pays so much attention to individual self-improvement and so little to the practice of love within the context of community.”[1]

As it happens, for the people of Corinth, there was a lot of narcissism going on, and the body imagery would have had special significance. In their city was the great temple to the pagan god Asclepius, the god of healing. People who had an ailment would travel from far and wide to seek healing for a body part at this temple. And a big part of that ritual was to go to a special potter and have a clay version of whatever body part you were experiencing trouble with. You would then take that clay finger or clay knee or clay eye and lay it at the feet of Asclepius in the temple.

Historians suspect that if you had visited the temple of Asclepius during the time of Paul you would have found dozens, if not hundreds, of disconnected clay body parts lying around everywhere. That visual would have been in the minds of Paul’s Christian congregation as he mentioned this image of the body of Christ. Paul emphasizes how connected the body is meant to be. Below the figure of Asclepius  lay a disorganized hodge podge of body parts.

Below the figure of Christ, the head, breathes an intact body, each person with different gifts joined together.

But just stating that and drawing that mental image is not enough for the body of Christ. Paul goes further to explain that the members of the body cannot start determining amongst themselves who is more valuable and who is less valuable. That is a dynamic of human community that happens whenever people are together long enough.  Certain qualities begin to be emphasized and given special status. It may be gifts that people bring to the table, it may be intellectual ability, it may be popularity, it may be skin color or language or school district.

This is a lesson that the church continues to learn and struggle with, even though the days of ancient Corinth and Asclepius are long behind us. We constantly fight against the urge that is always there to glorify certain people and their gifts while ignoring others. It is the urge that ends up creating in-groups and outsiders even without knowing it, the urge to view people only through the lens of what they can offer, not what their needs or inherent human value is. It leads to the urge to make the church sleek or popular or culturally relevant so that we can be competitive in a culture that idolizes things like athleticism and beauty and innovation and business acumen. This is the church that will eventually leave its members scattered all over the place and hurting.

When I was in my church’s youth group we had one or two adult leaders who were always spending time talking to the new kids or the kids who didn’t seem to know many people. We really liked these youth leaders and were often frustrated that whenever the group sat down to eat or had free time, they seemed to go to the people on the margins rather than hanging out with us. It took a long time for my teenager brain to realize that these leaders were modelling 1 Corinthians 12 for us. They were giving greater honor to the weaker members. For without intentional acts of including people at the margins, communities will always naturally become slanted in favor of the most powerful. My youth leaders had recognized them as indispensable, even as many of us youth had not. Our whole group was made richer by their presence and their gifts regardless of whether or not we could acknowledge it all the time.

I often wonder what the apostle Paul would have thought about organizations like the Special Olympics or the L’Arche Communities, places where people with disabilities are given clear respect and places of honor. It is doubtful that those kinds of groups existed in ancient times. Would Paul have found them to be metaphors  for how the church can function at its best, where success is based less in what you accomplish and more in how everyone can find their function within a greater whole?

But no matter what Paul may have thought about those things, it is peculiar that nowhere in all the images for Jesus’ followers in Scripture are we compared to another human organization or institution. For in the end, we are not just an organization or institution. We are God’s own people, called out to testify by our very life together that Jesus, who was crucified, is risen. We are called out to give glory to a God whose kingdom of peace and justice has begun to arrive in our very midst.

And, much to our chagrin, that may actually involve looking like Slim Goodbody than we realize. For what is a human body if it is not inherently vulnerable, exposed? This how Christ intends for us to be in the world—not sheltered from harm, not indestructible, but out in the open, for all to see. He allowed his own body to be vulnerable and exposed on the cross.

And so we admit: bodies bruise and bleed. Bodies become infected and weak. Bodies need to wear masks from time to time. Bodies develop wrinkles. Bodies hurt and bodies need care. Bodies constantly humble us, from the moment we’re born to the moment we die.

Maybe the most obvious point about the body is the greatest lesson Paul intends. In a world of all kinds of individuals and communities, our transparency is our strength. The more open we are in our internal life with our plans, our goals, even our conflicts, and especially with our forgiveness, the more clearly we witness to the One who saves us.

That is, God’s Spirit does not form us as the church to make us invincible, or even so we may encourage others in their ideas of invincibility and glory, but to show the world through our weakness and our awkwardness—and even somehow in our conflicts—that Jesus is Lord. We allow our mistakes and foolishness to be revealed, confident that God’s grace will overcome it. We do not have to win or dominate, we do not have to figure out the meaning of life. We do not have to secure our immortality or get everything right. Because Jesus it for us. Jesus,who willingly takes our lowly body, has conquered the grave in it. And we have faith in the resurrection of the body, in our own future of Christ’s glory which will be bestowed on every last member.

So, then, who are we now? Jews or Gentiles, slave or free: we are one real goodbody—the best!—drinking together from one Spirit.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin. Jr.

[1] All About Love: New Visions, by bell hooks