Quite the Love Song

a sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22A/Lectionary 27]

Matthew 21:33-46 and Isaiah 5:1-17

Let me sing for my beloved congregation a love song concerning my daughters’ carrot garden. My middle school daughters had a carrot garden in a four-by-four plot of our backyard this year. They themselves mixed the soil with manure and tilled it, they chose the packets of carrots from the hardware store rack and planted them in April.

They did not build a watchtower in the midst of it, but they did watch over those little tufts of green furry leaves like hawks and when their dad tried a time or two to pull one up for a taste test he was rebuked and scolded multiple times and told to stay far away from the carrot garden, Daddy, and tend to your own flower garden over there!

me singing the love song of the carrot garden

The daughters expected their carrot patch to yield dozens of plump, succulent carrots but instead it yielded, in most cases, barely visible micro carrots, too small really to do much with. What more could they have done for their carrot garden, after weeding and watering in the dry weeks of July? They expected it to yield thick, substantial carrots. Why did it yield little shrimpy carrots? Probably the soil quality and the lack of sunshine, but it was still determined to be dad’s fault anyway for messing too much with them and trying to dig them up to early.

Such is the lament of the prophet Isaiah, except it’s not a carrot garden, but a vineyard. Isaiah looks out at God’s people and sees none of the fruit that God expected God would see. Who is to blame? What is to blame? Even with all the effort of a watchtower to keep lookout for predators and poachers, even with soil cleared of menacing stones, God got nothing like he imagined. God planted and tended justice among his people, things like concern for the poor and peacefulness and harmony but instead they gave him bloodshed and discord.

How many of us have known this song? How many of us have labored and labored on the lives of our own children, or our work colleagues, or our friendships, or our marriages, our communities, within the gardens of our own hearts, only to have things turn out unpleasant and disappointing?

As it turns out, God feels that, too, with his people ancient Israel. It may be a sad song, a sad feeling, but it is sung in a song of love. It is a song of truest love—love that keeps at it, love that thinks of everything it can do to save things…and does all of that and more. It is a never-tiring love that is rooted in the very heart of God, who has created these wayward people and redeemed these wayward people and brought them out of slavery and made them his prized possession.

It is this song and this never-tiring love that Jesus tries to explain to the Pharisees and chief priests as he faces off with them in the Temple in Jerusalem. Borrowing from this love song from Isaiah about the vineyard, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who plants a vineyard and does all the things. Fence, watchtower, wine press in the middle of it. It is deluxe. It’s doing so well, supposedly, that he lets some tenants come in to manage the grape-growing process.  But when the time comes for the landowner to get some of the fruit he’s planted, the tenants turn ugly. They kill the first set of slaves he sends to receive the produce, so he gets nothing. So he sends another group of slaves, and they, too, get executed by these tenants.

Eventually the landowner just decides to send his own son. In those days, sending a son, provided you had one, was essentially just like going yourself. Today it just as well could be a daughter. The child doesn’t just stand in place of the parent but is seen as a real extension of that parent and that parent’s authority. This really makes no difference to the tenants. They see taking the son as a way of claiming ownership of the vineyard. Then it will be their vineyard! They throw him out and kill him. Who is to blame for all this bloodshed and injustice, for not giving the landowner the fruit of the vineyard he deserves? Clearly it is these wicked tenants!

Some love story, huh? Jesus, though, is reaching the end of his road. He is doing all he can to explain and show that God’s kingdom is built on things like love of neighbor, and that God’s righteousness is not known by how well you follow all the religious rules but by how compassion rules your faith. But no matter how much he talks about and displays this compassion the religious authorities feel threatened and angry. By the end of his parable, they realize it is really a story about them and about how they are eventually going to reject Jesus and have him arrested.

Yet for all the violence there is love here, for the landowner is not willing to hold back anything to tend to his vineyard and gather the harvest he desires. But more interesting than that is that Jesus doesn’t seem to want to make this love song about blame, about who is going to get what they deserve. At the end of the parable he asks his listeners a question: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They respond that those wretches will be put to a miserable death. But Jesus does not affirm that. God will not respond to all this tragedy by killing anyone. In fact, it seems that the son’s death puts an end to this cycle of violence in the vineyard.

“The stone that the builders reject has become the cornerstone.”That is to say, Jesus, the son, will be arrested, thrown out of the garden and crucified, but God will raise him up to make him the foundation of a new creation—a new creation that we have faith will bring justice and righteousness and beauty and mercy to all people everywhere. This song tells of a love so strong and so deep and so true that it can look the most awful death and tragedy right in the eye and still be triumphant. This love is so pure and so powerful that it can venture into our violent and corrupted world and redeem it and make all things new. God never holds back in loving us.

This is the love that brought us out of the waters of baptism, that has cleansed us of our sin and granted us freedom in the Spirit to love and serve our neighbor. And now we are those who tend the vineyard of God’s kingdom. We are the tenants who work the fields and do what we can to make sure that the good things of God’s harvest come to fruition in the world around us.

Last Sunday in this very location we saw five young tenants of God’s vineyard publicly profess their own faith by affirming their own baptism. Doing anything publicly in these times is challenging. For seven months we have been isolated and to varying degrees shut down. But these young men and women of our congregation—Riley, Ryan, Matthew, Joe, and Cole—had completed confirmation classes last spring and wanted to find a way to make their confirmation happen. Rather than staging the confirmation indoors, they opted for something outdoors. We ended up, as you will see, holding the ceremony right in front of our giant cross, each of them facing in the direction of Monument Avenue as they say the Apostles’ Creed and ask God to help them and guide them in their faith.

We knew it was a bit of a risk to hold the confirmation service right there because, as you probably know, Horsepen Road and Monument Avenue can be rather noisy. We weren’t sure how clear our audio would be and if it might get overpowered by something loud that drove by. There is a point, as if on cue, where someone paying really loud rap music descends on the intersection right as we are praying for the Holy Spirit to be present in their lives. (Bonus points if anyone can tell me what the name of the song was). In any case, we took any interruption and any noise around us as a blessing and a call.

Where does God give us faith to practice but in the world, in the midst of the sirens and shouts and songs of humankind? Where does God ask us to tend to the fruits of his vineyard but in the everyday lives of people and communities around us? Where else does God send us as his servants, often into situations where we’ll lay down our lives, lay down our agendas, lay down our privileges, but the harvest that is literally all around us?

This was part of Francis of Assisi’s story. Son of a very wealthy and powerful businessman, Francis originally thought of becoming a knight. But after some experiences with God Francis felt drawn toward a life of faith and service to the others through the church. This caused friction with his family, and he was rejected. In one dramatic point, brought before a bishop’s court by his father and accused of squandering money, Francis renounced worldly wealth by stripping off all his clothes and giving them back to his father. From that point on he took on a vow of poverty, becoming a Christlike ambassador of kindness and service and charity for thousands of communities across the world.

“Scenes from the life of St. Francis” (Benozzo Gozzoli)

As we pray again for those young people today, let us add in that their lives will continue to be built on nothing other than Christ the cornerstone that was rejected. It is on Christlike compassion that the arrogant and prideful ways of the world will ultimately fall and be broken to pieces. It is the grace and mercy of Jesus that will crush the hurtful and hateful hearts we often bear.

As we pray for them let us also then recall our own part in the love song that God sings. Let us pray that God make us good tenants who give thanks and praise in all our days for a God who holds nothing back to make his kingdom’s heirs bountiful and beautiful again. And let us pray for a field of fruit in us that is exactly what our vineyard owner wants to see.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Labor Day 2020

the failure
of overused tiki torches
with canisters rusted from rain
and leaking citronella so much
they can no longer hold a flame
to fend off the mosquitoes
forces us to the table on the porch
for the first time

encircled by Christmas lights
around the top of the screen walls
and glancing at our phones
we speak of school schedules
the diminishing lives of laptop batteries
and debate the frequency of snow days
from years past

the puppy
banished to the family room
hungry and anxious from separation
(oh she has no idea)
yelps through all the conversations
as the summer of the pandemic
comes to an end.

Whom to Believe

a sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21A/Lectionary 26]

Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13

When I hear Jesus tell this parable about the two sons responding to their father’s request to go work in the vineyard, I feel like it’s speaking directly to me and how I’ve responded to different things over these months of pandemic. I have had all kinds good intentions but my follow-through hasn’t always been very good. We badly need to replace or repair our mailbox post at home, for example, and six months ago I told my own father I’d work on it, and he even made me part of a new post to help out, but it still stands there about to fall to the ground. Back in the early summer Hanne, our church administrative assistant, asked me to help her complete a project on funeral information that she’s been working on for several years now and I said, “Yes,” but guess where that file is right now: on my desk underneath a bunch of other half-done projects.

Perhaps the example of this I feel the most remorse about is the fact that I have been telling Council and other people in the congregation that I’d be happy to lead a book discussion on the topic of racism in the United States but as of now Pastor Joseph and I still haven’t put anything on the calendar or decided what that’s going to look like. We’ve been publicizing this idea since July, and I have at least read a potential book on the topic, but I’m still just not able to commit to a time or a format. Each week that goes by I think, the congregation knows I’ve said, “Yes” to this but in reality, like that second son, I’m just shirking my responsibility.

Have you struggled with this, too, not just during the pandemic but in life in general? Have you set goals for yourself or maybe consented to others’ requests but still haven’t checked those things off your list? In the parable Jesus gives us no indication why the second son never shows up in the vineyard. Maybe he never had an intention of going and he was just giving his father lip service. But maybe he just got distracted or overcommitted elsewhere. Maybe he thought about the realities of actually working in the vineyard and got cold feet.

In the end it doesn’t matter, because Jesus doesn’t tell this parable as a lesson about our To-Do lists, however noble they may be. Jesus uses this parable to illustrate for the chief priests and the elders the differing responses to his own authority. To give a bit of background, it may help to know that something really, really big has happened just before this gospel reading. Since June we’ve been steadily making our way through Matthew’s gospel and in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is on a journey to Jerusalem where he knows he’s going to be handed over to the chief priests and authorities and be killed. In this morning’s gospel passage Jesus is finally there. The day he comes into the city he rides a donkey and all the ordinary people wave palm branches and shouted with excitement and hope that their new king has arrived. And just like if someone in this country wanted to go address the powers-that-be would head to Capitol Hill or the White House, Jesus heads to the temple, the epicenter of his Jewish religion.

He creates a bit of a stir. First he drives the money changers out and then he starts teaching there, drawing crowds. When he winds back up at the temple the next day the religious leaders immediately want to know just who does he think he is? Jesus presence in the temple and the kind of things he is doing—and the kind of energy he is kicking up among the people—are new things to deal with, and the people in charge, the religious leaders, are trying to figure out how to respond.

authority figure?

I have a friend who tells me the story of when her three children were all very young. They have an attic in their house that is accessed through a hole cut in the ceiling. You pull on a cord and down falls this wood hatch and a set of collapsible steps. Lots of houses have these, but it was a source of wonder and mystery to her three children. Her oldest, who was quite the storyteller and had a vivid imagination, had told the younger ones that there were ghosts up there and that mom and dad kept a creature up there. One day during a birthday party she came around the corner to find the hatch opened and the steps all the way on the ground. Concerned for their safety, she immediately climbed up the stairs to find the kids all huddled in the dark over by the edge of a window. “Get down from here right now, boys and girls!” she ordered.

“But, mom,” one of them responded, “we are looking for the ghosts and the creature up here.”

She explained emphatically, and with all the pleading authority of a caring, logical adult, that there were no ghosts, that there were no creatures and that there was nothing of any interest to them in the attic. At first, there was silence from the kids, and then one of the younger ones pointed to the eldest and said, “We believe him.”

The chief priests and elders are in a predicament. The steps have been pulled down and a new experience of God has been opened, first in John the Baptist, but now in Jesus. And people are believing them rather than the figures in the temple. How do to they respond? Do these leaders believe John, whose message was one of repentance, of having their minds and hearts changed to receive Jesus as God’s anointed One? Or do the chief priests and elders maintain their distance? Do they trust Jesus teachings on God’s kingdom and where that will take them, or do they shut the door and go with their status quo experience of religion? They don’t want to buck their religious safety, but they also don’t want to make the crowds angry. I think we’ve all felt the tension between doing a bold new thing that speaks of justice and peace or continuing along with the powers that be. The ministries of John and Jesus are both kind of tied together and Jesus is causing the people to figure out how they will respond.

And then Jesus tells this short parable about the two sons who have to decide how they’ll respond to their father’s request to work in the vineyard. The scenario involves a few more layers than we might understand from our modern angle. To say “No” to a father figure in Jesus’ time was a big deal. It was an insult to the father and a violation of the fourth commandment. The first son, by responding “no,” was doing something deeply offensive to his parents and to the whole system of power and authority in ancient Israel. No one would have liked that first son, even after he went and changed his mind. The second son would have shown honor due his father by agreeing to work in the vineyard. He would have saved public face and looked good to everyone, even if in the end he didn’t follow through.

This parable would have really challenged Jesus’ hearers. In fact, we know it challenged them because this parable is written down three very different ways in the oldest manuscripts we have of the gospel of Matthew. The idea of a son rejecting his father’s request was so offensive that it’s almost like original audiences couldn’t imagine that Jesus would find him to be the hero, and so in some versions of the Bible they changed it to the second son. Religious people couldn’t imagine that that first son, in doing something so disrespectful, could even, with a change of heart, be the one who did the will of the father.

In fact, it’s kind of like being unable to imagine that people like tax collectors and prostitutes are hearing Jesus’ and John’s message and responding to his grace better than the really religious folks. And yet that is precisely who Jesus says are entering the kingdom of God ahead of the religious authorities. Tax collectors and prostitutes are basically representative labels for sinners in general—those people who have, for whatever reason lived in ways and done things that are deeply offensive to God’s righteous ways. Sinners are like that first son who rejected the father’s commandment but now, through a change of heart, a change of mind come to respond to God’s call in Jesus.

It’s not anything that new. God has always been about seeking and loving the people who are lost, the ones who are the least. Jesus is just bringing that into sharper view again. The issue is that some people are better at recognizing that God is present in the life and love of Jesus before the religious experts are, and those are the people on the edges. They are the people who’ve been routinely sidelined and overlooked and oppressed. They recognize mercy when they see it. And they love its authority in their lives. It is an authority that values them. It is an authority that gives them another chance. It’s an authority that bestows them with freedom and honor. It is an authority that makes them heirs of the kingdom. This is the authority that Jesus wields.

Several weeks ago Robin Beres, a columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote an article that generated a lot of buzz. Titled, “Do We Really Want to Give up on God?” the article argues that declining participation and membership in churches and communities of faith in America is a bad thing. She touts several statistics about the benefit of religion and worship on personal well-being and things like the rates of volunteerism. A few letters to the editor took her to task for saying this, arguing that religion was outdated or that church services need to be streamlined. It was a very interesting back and forth, and I’m thankful that a member of the congregation painstakingly cut all of them out and sent them to me so that I could read them. As the discussion over religion and its proper place played out in the pages of the paper during the weeks that followed, only one of the letters to the editor mentioned Jesus Christ by name. In a very succinct and articulate statement, our own Joel McKean, former council president explained that the focus on the cross has the power to change lives, and that is the focus of our faith.

There in the pages of our local paper was a profound and beautiful example of responding to the authority of Christ, explaining that God’s grace has a power over our lives that can’t be described by science or defined by philosophy. The issue of authority is a very tricky topic these days. We don’t really know which sources of news to trust anymore, which talking heads are being truthful and loving with us. We can have different experiences with religion and religious figures, some helpful, others not so much. But Jesus authority is something we can be sure of and respond to. It calls us and forgives us. It loves us and gives us gifts for service. His authority leaves the door of the vineyard open so that when we have that change of heart, when we find ourselves led to a new beginning, we will be able to come inside and work the fields of our Father. I would hope that if I were given the public opportunity to respond to God’s grace, I could name Jesus with the grace and confidence that Joel did.

And here’s the thing: while our witness and discipleship might come down to where we stand concerning Jesus and his message, we know ultimately our life and our worth comes down to where Jesus stands toward us. And he stands toward us in love. Our eternal life is in the hands of the crucified and risen One. Jesus has opened that hatch, that staircase, and descended from the tops of the mystery to be with us down here. He has emptied himself completely, never exploiting his equality with God, and he has handed himself over to not just any death, but a death on the cross, mocked and disregarded by all. Jesus’ authority is like an anti-authority, never seizing power, but always giving it up. Never demanding allegiance, but always inviting us to join his journey.

And one day, we are promised, every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess and every letter to the editor of the entire universe will proclaim him Lord of all. And we will point to him with confidence and say, “I believe Him.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Holding-Us Family

a sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19A/Lectionary 24]

Matthew 18:21-35, Genesis 50:15-21, and Romans 14:1-12

Life in the Martin house—my house—right now is a life of constant learning of rules and breaking of rules and doling out consequences and saying “sorry.” I’ll spare you the details, and, more importantly, I spare my family the embarrassment, but with a 4-year-old and two middle schoolers daily life involves a rolling tally of screen time and debates about who left which crumbs on the kitchen table and didn’t clean them up and whether or not certain people are allowed in certain people’s bedrooms without knocking.

And that does even include the issues of living with me. Do you know that I’ve never loaded the dishwasher correctly—not even once? I’m serious. It’s not just a matter of opinion. I’m really bad at it and (and have to confess) I don’t really try to get better. A lot of other stuff goes on in our house, to be sure—eating, petting the puppy, watching episodes of “Friends,” but when I step back and look at the whole picture, that’s really the crux of it. At our best, most of what’s going on is forgiveness and compassion.

Isn’t that the case with every family, every identifiable group of people? That’s one thing I’ve loved about the videos from the Holderness family, especially during this pandemic. The Holderness family is this relatively normal family of four who post regularly on social media in a very lighthearted but honest way, usually with music, airing some of their grievances with one another and showcasing daily life together. A great many of their videos reveal how living as one community is really about constant negotiation. It’s about constantly fessing up, acknowledging your shortcomings, and then showing grace. Usually with humor.

The story we have of Joseph in the book of Genesis, of course, is this on a grand scale. It is an epic story of constant negotiations around mistakes of the past, and family trauma and cold heartedness. It goes way, way beyond who left the crumbs on the kitchen table. It’s got favoritism, human trafficking, fake death, lying…all kinds of sordid drama I don’t have time to go into today But in the end, a part of which we hear today,forgiveness and reconciliation rule the day. Joseph is miraculously able to overcome all of his bitterness, all of his pain, all of his anger, after being sold into slavery by his brothers, and he is able to receive them once again in love.

It is such an emotional scene…and so complex. Joseph hears the words of his father, whom he loved, and who loved him a bit too much. It provokes compassion and joy in him, and then there is this culminating scene where Joseph weeps in front of them and then they’re all like “I’m not crying, you’re crying,” and they present themselves as slaves at Joseph’s feet, but Joseph doesn’t want that. He wants his brothers back, not slaves. And somehow Joseph is able to see in all that has happened the hand of God leading them back to one another, restoring them as a family.

There are many things Joseph’s story teaches us, things that even the Holderness family touches on, but one of the main points is that a family can only function if no one is keeping constant track of wrongs. Forgiveness has to wipe the slate clean on occasion. Openness towards reconciliation needs to be present all the time, like a default position on a computer program, like oxygen. Otherwise, it kind of stops being family or community. It becomes chaos.

I think this is largely what Jesus means when he explains to Peter and the other disciples that they are to forgive people not seven times but seventy-seven times. Jesus doesn’t literally mean to tally how many times you forgive someone for sinning and stop at seventy-seven. He’s being flippant with the number, turning the question back on Peter in a humorous way. Seventy-seven was kind of a way of saying, “don’t count occasions of rule-breaking and forgiving because forgiveness isn’t really able to be calculated. It’s like he’s saying be constantly gracious. Don’t ignore wrongdoings, by any means, or the pain they cause, but be aware of your ability to unburden people from their trespasses. Don’t be a Karen all the time, pointing out everyone’s flaws in an unrelenting manner. Relationships are living and active and just as individuals need daily bread to survive, so do we need forgiveness and grace and mercy to make it each and every day. It’s not just a matter of being nice and thoughtful. It a matter of giving people oxygen.

Then Jesus tells this fantastic parable to remind his disciples that they, too have been forgiven. It’s not just a one-way street. Our default stance of grace towards other people is based on God’s grace towards us. We have been loved and forgiven seventy-seven million times. Again, we’re not supposed to count.

The parable tells the story of a slave who owes an exorbitant amount of money to his king. Ten thousand talents may not mean anything to you or me, but historians say this would have been equivalent in Jesus’ time to about 200,000 year’s worth of wages. Scholars tell us that not even King Herod would have had that much in his treasury. How this slave ran up that kind of bill we are not supposed to be too concerned about. The point would be that there is no way he could ever pay it off. When the king makes preparations to sell him and his family, the slave falls down in humility and begs for time to pay it off. And instead of getting a deadline extension, which is what he asks for, he gets complete forgiveness of the debt. The king just lets him go!

But then this slave immediately turns around and comes across a buddy who owes him a much smaller amount. A hundred denarii was equal to about four months of wages, so a very doable debt. He grabs the guy by the throat and demands the money. What happens when you grab a person by the throat? You cut off their oxygen.

The guy pleads and pleads, just in the same manner the first slave had done, but instead of being merciful, instead of cancelling the debt, he throws the poor guy in prison. Word gets back to the king about this, and I suppose that most kings probably wouldn’t really get involved in their many slaves’ various private financial affairs. I suppose most kings really wouldn’t care about who owed who money or who was doing what to which person. I suppose most kings would have bigger fish to fry. But this isn’t most kings. This king doesn’t want this kind of stuff going on in his kingdom. This king has a higher vision for how things roll, and he finds that unmerciful slave and calls him wicked, throws him in jail and has him tortured until he pays the 200,000 years worth of wages.

And the bit about the torture may freak us out a bit, because torture is terrible and inhuman, but on some level, we end up truly torturing ourselves when we withhold forgiveness and shut the door on true reconciliation. I think that’s what Joseph understood. Receiving back his brothers only as slaves would just prolong the torture of everything he’d been through. Doing the hard, often emotional work of listening and restoration frees the person who does it almost more than those who are forgiven.

I came across an article recently about the infants and children of Nicolai Ceausescu’s Romania from the 1980s. In one of the most heartbreaking and disgusting eras of human history, Nicolai Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, ordered hundreds of thousands of children to be born to appease his fascist fantasies, but because the country was too poor to raise them all in homes, many were placed in orphanages where they rarely received any physical or nurturing care. They would cry and no one would comfort them. They would get scared and no one would hold them. They wouldn’t be able to fall asleep and no one would rock them.

Tragically, we know now this did irreparable damage to the way their brains processed fear and hope, and now many of them are adults (which is what the article was about) and they are unable to function at a normal level in society. They find it difficult to build healthy relationships with others.

It is such an awful thing to ponder and talk about, because it still happens on a smaller scale today. But here’s what it teaches us: Humans, even at birth, it turns out, are able to process mercy and grace. We begin our lives as creatures that receive—receive care, receive warmth, receive joy and security. We do nothing to deserve it, but our survival depends on it. And the survival of others depends on our willingness to share it. It is oxygen for God’s people, and God started it all rolling in Jesus, his Son, that different kind of king who gives up everything, who gets thrown in prison, who gets tortured to death, in order to keep that cycle of forgiveness and reconciliation going.

We never outgrow this. We never outgrow the need to hear and know we are set free from the brokenness that burdens us. We never get too old to receive the news that our debts against God have been cancelled. Across the board. It makes us live.

Sometimes I look online and at the news, especially as we near a presidential election and think we are all holding each other by the throat. How dare you think this, Trump-supporter? How dare you support that, Black Lives Matter activist? And we lay into each other primarily to get a pound of flesh and inflict a mortal wound on the other side because how could they, right? and we want to deprive them of oxygen.

It sounds a bit idealistic, perhaps, but maybe it’s time to stand back and think of the human family, especially as think about that meme we want to post or that news station we want to turn on. Maybe Jesus tells us this parable again right now in hopes time we would realize we’ve been given to one another as brothers and sisters.

And maybe we might hear in this lesson the fact our whole existence is dependent on the grace given to us by God through other people. Certainly we don’t ignore the wrongs we’ve inflicted on one another, certainly we take seriously the real damage that lasts, but certainly it is time to remember, for the love of God, that our default position, as forgiven and loved children of God, is not attack and torture, but listen and embrace. Our default position is grace because that’s what God has lavished on us.

As Paul says to the Romans, “We not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves.” My decisions don’t just impact me. I’m bound to you and you are bound to that guy over there. Like Joseph and his brothers. We are the Lord’s, whether we live or whether we die. And his is the hidden hand of God, leading us back to each other.

Are we the Holderness Family?  Not exactly, but we are the Holding Us family, for God holds us in his care and in his steadfast love forever, never repaying us according to our iniquities, holding us from the moment we’re born seeking love and warmth to the moment we die and find eternal love receives us.

Seventy-seven billion times (not that we need to count)!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Way Jesus Goes

a sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 17A/Lectionary 22]

Matthew 16:21-28

Have you ever had the experience of starting a story or a movie thinking that you know what it’s about as it starts only to find out as you keep watching that it’s not what you expected? Or have you ever heard a recommendation from a friend about a book or read the book jacket and make assumptions the plot will take a certain trajectory but then once you’re into it, it turns out to go in another direction?

These kinds of things seem to happen to me all the time, for some reason, and sometimes it’s an actual, physical trajectory. One time many years ago I was traveling abroad with a friend and we wound up in one town where we had reservations for the night but neither of us spoke the language there. Everything was a little disorienting, but we were well-worn travelers so we figured where we needed to go and jumped on the subway. Nothing was written in English and we couldn’t understand the subway commander, but we were pretty sure we had chosen the right one. SLowly, after several stops, and trying to match what we thought we were hearing on the microphone system to the strange words on the signs outside, it occurred to us both at the same time  that we were not on the correct train or line at all and we needed to disembark at the next station. Unfortunately we had only paid for a ticket in the direction we had initially taken, and we didn’t know if they’d let us back on the train going in the opposite direction. So we had to exit the whole system and re-board going in the correct direction, hopping over turnstiles and running up steps.

Well, that’s kind of what’s happening this morning with Peter and the other disciple as Jesus begins to show them he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering. They are realizing the subway they’re on is going in a totally different direction than what they thought when they got on. They are realizing the plot of the story they are in is quite a bit different from the jacket on the back. They assumed this was a Galilee uprising, one where the next Messiah, the next God-chosen leader, would drum up enough grassroots support to be swept into power and crush the authorities in Jerusalem.

But instead, Jesus is heading to Jerusalem on his own, and he is heading right into the hands of the people he would overthrow. He is not avoiding suffering and death. He is aware of it and accepting it. They assumed they had boarded a train bound for glory, but it is a train headed toward a cliff. In fact, it is bound for glory, but not in the typical ways the world pursues it or imagines it.

“Get behind me, Satan!”

We can hear Peter’s shock and disappointment as he tries to turn the train around. “God forbid it, Lord!” he bellows. “This must never happen to you!” But Jesus is determined. He is determined to overturn the powers of sin and death that plague God’s people by going straight into his crucifixion. And then Peter becomes the one who gets turned around. He goes from being called the Rock upon which the church shall be built to being the stumbling block of Jesus’ own mission.

The Greek word for stumbling block is “scandal.” We have seen some scandals in the news this week, and we can see how scandals trip people up—not just the people involved in them but all the people who look to a leader for guidance, counsel, and hope. Scandals make the way forward less clear, they chip away at clarity and vision. Peter’s insistence that Jesus not head to Jerusalem, that Jesus not accept this path of suffering and self-sacrifice immediately chips away at the clarity of God’s love and Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. Jesus does not need that kind of stumbling block in his way.

This is a critical moment in Matthew’s gospel. This is the point, quite literally, when Jesus leaves behind his Galilee home, the fishing and farming villages where he has made his name, and focuses on the seat of power in Jerusalem. But it is much more than a critical point in Matthew’s story. This is a crucial moment in understanding just who Jesus is. This is one of those moments where Peter and the gang and even the rest of us are going to have to decide whether we go ahead and finish the movie or read the book, whether we commit to the finishing point, even though it’s not turning out like we thought it would.

In his book Atheist Delusions, theologian David Bentley Hart explains that a suffering Son of God, a deity who dies, was a completely novel concept in the ancient world. I think two thousand years of Christian witness and singing about the cross has almost made the death of Jesus seem ordinary to us. We build churches and place crosses over the altar. We talk about his betrayal and death every time we gather for his holy meal. I hate to say it, but it almost feels old hat to us, but the idea that a divine power would stoop to this kind of self-giving was absolutely unheard of. Nowhere in the history of ancient religions and faiths, Hart says, was there anything like the path Jesus takes as a legitimate way of life, much less linked to God.

What we see in Jesus at this moment is a completely new and daring way to deal with the brokenness of the world. He’s not just going to patch things over with healings and new teachings. And he’s not going to enter Jerusalem and try to establish a benevolent regime through a people’s army or through pulling strings the right way, appointing the right allies, shoring up his defenses, and so on. Because no matter how well it might have turned out it would have just been a variation of all the other human ways that had already been tried. And ultimately it would have faded away until the next clever popular power came along. Jesus, rather, is going to try a divine way that involves handing himself over. Letting the suffering speak.

When we think about it, we realize the gift of Jesus is never old hat. The world still operates in the same old, self-proclaiming, violent, and hope-robbing ways. The cross of Jesus is still a new thing—always a new thing!—which is why in his call to his disciples he says they will take up a cross and follow. They will need to lose their life. This way of self-giving and unconditional loving happens now and it will always meet resistance. It meets resistance in ourselves, because we want an easier way that involves less pain. And it meets resistance from the world, because the world rewards self-promotion. To avoid being a stumbling block as this train moves forward, Jesus says to set our minds on divine things, not human things.

If you, like I, struggle to understand what that means, what setting my mind on divine things looks like, it helps to remember it actually means setting them on other humans; that is, serving them. We can see this pretty clearly if we look at Jesus’ life, but the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, gives us a wonderful list of diving things, one right after another.

As it turns out, setting our mind on divine things is not ultimately based in things like mindfulness or yoga or memorizing Scripture or contemplating nature’s beauty, as much as those things may help. It involves paying attention to our neighbor and our relationship with him. In the list that Paul gives the Romans about how to offer their bodies as living sacrifices to God in thanksgiving for Jesus’ love, there are very few that have a personal or private dimension. Almost every single one of them is about building and mending our relationships with others: Love one another with mutual affection. Contribute to the needs of the saints. Extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you. Weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice. Associate with the lowly.

When Jesus says we lose our lives to save it, it becomes clear that we are meant to lose ourselves at the feet of our neighbors. When Jesus talks about denying ourselves it’s not really some clever system of giving up this or that, but offering ourselves to the world’s service. When the Holy Spirit empowers us to do that, we truly gain our lives. They become full, full of life, full of meaning, full of grace.

Our quilting team was disheartened, like so many others, to learn that the explosion in Beirut last month destroyed shipping containers used by Lutheran World Relief. The containers that were lost held 22,000 quilts, 100 cartons of school kits, 300 cartons of personal care kits, and 150 cartons of baby care kits that were prepared for distribution to 24,550 men and women who were already in great need. That loss is staggering, but at the same time, it is a sign of countless people in our denomination who have denied themselves in service to the Lord. Think of all that work just out of love for neighbor! This week, you may like to know, thirty-three quilts made by our quilters just since July will make their way back into that supply chain to help cover the loss. That means they are stitching together quilts at a faster rate than they normally do.

In fact, even during this time of COVID shutdown, the quilters here have had to expand their ministry into new space at church, which has bumped elbows with the nursery school, which has expanded to create a program for virtual learning for school-age kids to get work done while parents are working. Our church has basically been empty for six months and we just finished a major renovation, and we’re still having to negotiate how to use space to service our neighbors because our ministries are going strong. Contribute to the needs of the saints, Paul says. Extend hospitality to strangers. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. In losing our lives to service, we gain them, and we continue with Jesus on the way to the cross.

For the truth is, my friends, Jesus has never questioned once whether he wants to be on the journey with us. Jesus has never looked at us and thought, as our lives take some crazy or dangerous turn, “You know, you’re not what I expected. I want off.” He never says that, never wants that. He is never scandalized so much by us that he leaves us behind. That’s the promise of our baptism. Never, ever is Jesus going to let us go.

And here’s the best part: the end is not the cross. The end is not the suffering, the end is never the denial and the self-sacrifice. This strange train goes through them, but it ends with resurrection. Its destination is glory in God’s loving presence forever and ever. It is victory and triumph and power and strength because Jesus rises on the third day. And there we find the story of glory ends much, much better than we ever could have imagined.

Thanks be to God.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Gates of Hades Don’t Stand a Chance

a sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 16A/Lectionary 21]

Matthew 16:13-20 and Isaiah 51:1-6

“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Those words of Jesus’, which we hear him speak to Peter this morning, may be the most important words for the church to hear at this time. The gates of Hades that Jesus is talking about was the gaping hole at the middle of the rock wall that the gleaming new city Caesarea Philippi was built on. Many people in Jesus’ time thought that it was the entrance to the underworld, the place from which evil and the powers of death emerged. There is no place like that underneath us or in the middle of the earth, but for many cultures and peoples, the Gates of Hades, or gates of hell as they are sometimes known, has become a metaphor for forces of destruction and darkness. It is a way of speaking about fearsome, unpredictable things that harm us and tear human community apart. When Jesus says it to Peter and his disciples, he means that there is nothing that will ultimately break his followers apart, nothing in the universe that will ever conquer and demolish the community that has been formed by the love of Jesus Christ, not even death.

The Gates of Hades in modern-day Israel

2020 certainly feels like something out of the Gates of Hades. The year began with some deaths in our congregation that took our breath away. Then the pandemic started. We thought would be a few weeks of shutdown. And now we are beginning our seventh month and there still is no end in sight. Looking back, there was something almost romantic about those first three or four weeks when we thought it would be short-lived. Baking bread. Writing letters long-hand. I don’t need to list for you the stress we are all under now—the effects on the economy and unemployment, mental health, the challenges of educating our children and college students. You can add to it the tumultuous social changes we are undergoing in this country, right in time for one of the most divisive election seasons this country has ever seen. And now two hurricanes are getting ready to hit the Gulf coast in one week. Don’t forget the murder hornets.

Human communities everywhere are dealing with unbelievable amounts of stress, and Jesus’ church is no different. The main things that tend to hold us together as our community are not available at this time. Group singing, kneeling at an altar together to receive Holy Communion, hugging and shaking hands, Sunday School crafts and youth group games—they are all on hold, and we’re feeling it.

Church growth consultant and expert Thom Rainer shared in a blog post this week he titles, “Five Ways Churches Will Have Changed One Year From Now,” that we can expect twenty percent of our members not to return, even after the pandemic is behind us. I don’t know how he arrives at that number, but it’s probably pretty realistic. Rainer also shares that more pastors will leave ministry altogether over the next twelve months than at any time in recent history. It’s just his prediction, of course, which means it may not come true, but he explains that most pastors and church leaders are receiving more negative comments and criticisms than usual at a time when face to face conversations, which is usually how conflict is best worked out, are not really possible.

Suffice it to say this is not my experience at Epiphany whatsoever. I think Pastor Joseph and Kevin and the rest of the staff would agree that we continue to feel so supported and loved and encouraged. But I think Rainer is likely correct about the church at large. I suspect many congregations will close or merge with others as a result of what we’re going through.

None of this mentions anything about those we may lose as a result of COVID-19 because they die. That is what truly brings us grief. To think of the people we have already lost and will yet lose during this pandemic is deeply saddening. We’ll never get to worship again with certain people this side of the resurrection, and the fact we can’t even gather to give thanks for their life in worship and song and prayer is like pouring salt in the wound. Funerals are some of the first Christian liturgies, and they’ve been taken away from us. As one bishop in our denomination said, it is like this coronavirus is designed specifically to damage the church. The Gates of Hades have been opened and hell is afoot.

at least 2020 has given us funny memes

But, Jesus says, we have a rock. Kind of like young King David standing off against enormous Goliath, we have a rock. It may seem insignificant, but it is a rock that will not falter, a foundation that cannot be shaken, a weapon of precision that brings down the terrors. Jesus looks at Peter, who has just confessed Jesus as God’s anointed Son for the first time, and says that the rock of faith will hold his followers together. Nothing that this world throws at us will be able to shake the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Nothing the church encounters will be able to overthrow the truth that God has come to live with God’s people and announce the forgiveness of sins and bring righteousness to the earth. There is no telling what life for us may look like once this exile of pandemic is over, but we know we will have a rock to rebuild on.

This morning Isaiah mentions a rock, too. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn,” the prophet says to a people who were worn down by life in Babylonian exile. “And to the quarry from which you were dug.” They knew they would eventually return to their homeland, but they couldn’t imagine it. In their despair and dejection and preoccupation with the desert around them they couldn’t envision it. They needed someone to remind them that there is rock—valuable, strong rock—there. And that they are made of the same rock as those daring and bold ancestors who were also called to live their faith into dangerous and uncertain times.

“Delivery of the Keys” Pietro Perugino (ca 1481)

The same is true for us. There is solid rock deep down inside this faith about Jesus that will anchor us and keep us steady. The church may not be able to gather in person as we like, but we have the internet to sustain some sort of contact. We may not be able to have Sunday School, but parents and grandparents can carve out time at home to teach Bible stories and read Scripture so that the faith is passed down. We may not be celebrate Holy Baptism and Holy Communion in the same communal, comfortable ways we used to, but the Holy Spirit has still provided us with opportunities to keep the water and the wine flowing, so to speak. These are just a few examples of how we know we’ve been called claimed by the Son of a Living God, not a lifeless or inanimate one.

But the greatest reason that we will survive this, and the thing that will prove that the gates of Hades won’t be victorious isn’t the internet and isn’t the creativity of the people of God. It is because the keys are in our pocket. We have been given the keys to the kingdom, which Jesus first imparted to Peter that day by Caesarea Philippi. Binding and loosing—the forgiveness of sins, the reconciliation of relationships in God’s name—that is what the forces of hell can do nothing about. They tried. They tried on the cross to stamp out a life given over to selflessness and grace. The forces of hell tried to silence the way of compassion and mercy. But they were not able to succeed. Healing people’s woes and forgiving people’s sins, bringing that which is broken apart back together again, is the heart of Jesus’ ministry and the foundation of God’s kingdom. In his crucifixion he brought heaven and earth together again, sinners and God together forever. This will never be taken away from us, and it is the foundation of everything the church is about. That is the rock from which we are hewn.

When we have the keys, the door is always open to us. Forgiveness and new life in Jesus’ name can be pronounced anywhere and at any time. And whenever that happens, well, there is the church, thriving and doing what it’s created to do. That’s what Jesus, the church best growth expert and consultant, knows.

Earlier this morning we witnessed the baptism of Spencer Wallace Jones, a child in our congregation who was born back before the pandemic began and whose baptism was originally scheduled for sometime in April. Then we rescheduled it for July. Then, finally, August. We were all set to perform the baptism outside where we’ve been holding our other pandemic baptisms, but it was raining like crazy, so we moved inside and everyone put on masks.

As you saw, all through the baptism Spencer’s two older siblings, Samantha and Wesley, kept running up to the baptismal font, then away from it, up the aisle, through the pews,  and then back to the font. Things like that typically don’t happen on a normal baptism on a Sunday morning here. Because we were recording, however, no one really wanted to say anything to the kids about it or redirect their attention because that could obviously get very awkward. So we just let them run to their hearts’ content. They were clearly having a good time. And it was perfect.

Once it was finished and we had stopped the filming, Spencer’s dad said, “You probably don’t want kids to get too used to running around in here.” And I said, “Oh it’s absolutely fine. The church hasn’t been this happy in six months!” And then he said, or maybe it was his wife, Megan, “Well, I suppose it is a sign that they are comfortable here in this place!”

Absolutely, I thought. Let them run all day, then. Let them reclaim this dark and dusty place for the kingdom with all their laughing and squealing and memories of Cherub choir and children’s sermons. Let them run through the pews for us, on our behalf, as we all run along the paths of forgiveness and righteousness we know as church, the rock that never falters. Let the walls resound with the silliness of children and the tenderness of parents along the shores of a baptismal day where a new creature is given the keys. Let them run and laugh. The Gates of Hades don’t stand a chance.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Canaanite Lives Matter

a sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15A/Lectionary 20]

Matthew 15:10-28 and Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

In this morning’s lesson to the crowds who are following him, Jesus talks about the sewage system and things that are unclean. Sounding a little bit like Captain Obvious teaching an elementary anatomy lesson, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” And so here I am at the sewage treatment facility of our city to see it (although I don’t want to get any closer than this front entrance). If I understand it correctly, and not to be too indelicate about it, all the stuff people put into their mouths in the city of Richmond eventually (ahem) ends up here. In fact, 75 million gallons of sewage and stormwater runoff is processed here each day.

I suppose this is a sewage selfie

I was curious about where this facility was located. They tend to be tucked out of the way, because, let’s be obvious, no one really wants these places in their backyard. I had to Google this place to find it, and I was somewhat surprised to discover that I’ve passed it dozens of times. Not too far away from the James River on the south side of downtown Richmond, the wastewater treatment facility is tucked down a road that has little else on it.

Yet every day, 75 million gallons of sewage and runoff water from Richmond goes through this plant, gets cleaned, and go right into the James River…fresh, I presume, as a daisy.

We live in an age of cleanliness, especially now. We live in the age of Purell and Clorox wipes, of operating room grade air filters in airplanes and hand sanitizer dispensers by every doorway. I haven’t ordered too many restaurant meals since the pandemic began, but in each establishment I’ve been in, there are now two little jars by the cash register: one labelled “clean pens” and the other labeled “used pens.” And when you sign your receipt, you pick up a clean pen out of the clean pen jar, use it, and then deposit it in the “used pens” jar. We know what “used” means. Just by touching that pen for ten seconds, you have rendered it unclean. And someone, presumably the serving staff, is ritually cleaning ballpoint pens now as part of their job and returning them to the clean pen jar.

It’s kind of ironic that Jesus says at one point this morning “that eating with unwashed hands does not defile a person.” Anthony Fauci would argue with that, I believe.

The point, of course, Jesus is trying to make is not really about public health. It is about the sources of the things that truly make us unclean, that make us foul and it’s not a pen. And it’s not our hands. It’s not even living near wastewater treatment plants.

Much like us during a pandemic, Jesus lived in a world where many people had become obsessed with this topic of being ritually clean or undefiled. For a large number of religiously-minded people, the world was sorted into jars of pens. There were certain things you could touch or certain activities you could do that you could do that could get you placed in the unclean jar. Many of these laws had some basis in the ancient Hebrews’ purity codes, some of which are found in our Old Testament. But some had been expanded on by religious authorities to such a degree that having a relationship with God seemed to come down to how pure you could keep yourself.

It was really about power. If you had the ability to avoid certain situations like particular sicknesses or body functions or keep yourself out of certain neighborhoods or professions, then you had an easier life. If you had the ability to declare who was clean and who was defiled then you had the ability to declare who was in and who was out. You had the authority to determine whose life or whose living situation was worth what. Some people, just based on things they could not control about their life, were considered to be permanently in the unclean jar. The Pharisees were law-enforcers, they had power, and in many cases when we encounter them in Scripture, they are overly concerned that Jesus and his followers abide by the clean and dirty jars.

Jesus basically tells his disciples not to worry about them in this regard. He seems to know already that trying to keep the whole world divided into neat jars of clean and dirty is going to be a pointless task leading nowhere. Jesus wants his followers to be aware of the things that originate from within us, the things that everyone, regardless of where they stand socially or racially or economically, is subject to. He names several of them, and they’re more or less based on the ten commandments—evil intentions, murder, lies, insults, misuse of sexual relationships and marriage. These things are inside of us and come out to defile ourselves and the world around us. They harm our relationships, they harm our communities, they harm the truth, they harm our faith. His point? Stop being obsessed about what might make you immoral if you touch it. Stop worrying about who might make you unclean if you hang out with them. Being sick or disabled doesn’t make you less-than. You know what—altogether stop dividing places and conditions and jobs and especially people into clean and dirty jars. How about that?

And then as if to show how serious this particular topic is, Jesus immediately ventures into Tyre and Sidon, a region outside of Jewish boundaries, a region filled with supposedly unclean people. It’s like he goes straight toward the neighborhood with the wastewater treatment plant. And the first person he encounters is a Canaanite woman. Racially she is an outsider to Jesus’ people. From a gender standpoint, she has much less power than a male and the fact that she confronts Jesus in public would have immediately drawn negative attention. Here is a person who is beyond the boundaries of clean who furthermore doesn’t seem to obey those boundaries.

She is in need. Her daughter is possessed by an evil spirit. Can you imagine? Can you imagine how desperate she must feel? Some dark force, some unnamed, hard to describe ailment is tormenting her child. All she must want is for that child to be well. And so she comes up to Jesus, who has ventured outside his familiar territory, and she sees her chance. She knows he could imagine, if he is of God. She comes up to Jesus, who clearly embodies more power than she does, and she asks for him to help.

And Jesus ignores her. His disciples ask if they can shoo her away. Eventually, after three attempts and even after being somewhat insulted by Jesus, after being told she is not of the right ethnic group, she reaches through to him. The crumbs of mercy are all she is after. She doesn’t want a full place at the table. She doesn’t want to barge in on the party. All she wants is some tiny word of mercy carelessly dropped from the feast. It will be enough.

It takes some monumental faith and persistence on her part, but Jesus eventually learns and then shows that Canaanite lives matter. After giving a lesson about systems of ritual cleanliness that have kept out certain people, Jesus demonstrates that Canaanite lives matter. Those who have been excluded from the tables of justice, those who have been systematically ignored and oppressed by rules and laws are people who matter to God. It’s not that all other Jewish lives don’t matter, or that this woman’s life is overall more special than others in Tyre and Sidon, but that those who have been disadvantaged need to hear in no uncertain terms that God’s mercy is for them, because they haven’t been hearing it or perceiving it from culture and religion. He says to her, “Woman, great is your faith!” He doesn’t mean other people don’t have great faith. But she does. And it’s worth saying it.

Why does Jesus take so long to come around to heeding this woman’s request? There have been books written about that. Perhaps Jesus was just off that day. Or perhaps Jesus himself was still learning what God was doing through him in a bold new way. Or perhaps Jesus was caught off guard by just how quickly the Spirit would take him into new territory and just how many boundaries would fall in his Father’s kingdom.

Whatever the case, Jesus is pointing us into our Tyre and Sidon now. Jesus is bringing to our feet and our doors and our streets people who have been judged and disadvantaged and left out of opportunities of prosperity solely because of their race or ethnicity. Can we bring ourselves to say and do things that say their lives matter?

WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 13: A black woman marches at the head of the group of members and allies of the LGBTQ community to the White House as part of the Pride and Black Lives Matter movements on June 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. The larger official Pride events have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic but people still showed up to lend their support for the Black Lives Matter movement following the deaths of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor by police. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Black Lives Matter is a social justice movement, for sure, with political goals and aspirations. As a phrase it can be confusing and divisive. People can decide on their own whether or not its official stances line up with their own. We do that kind of thing with political party platforms all the time. I’ve been doing my own struggling with it. Aside from being a social justice movement, it is a sentiment that communicates blessing and mercy and love to people who need to hear that, who deserve to. And Black Lives Matter communicates a truth that the speaker of it needs to hear, too.

We are people of a table, where all lives do truly matter. But when we come here to receive whatever crumbs are offered, we hear Jesus look at us and say “My body is given for you.” He doesn’t say, “This is my body, given for all lives.” Could you imagine if the pastor or person distributing communion said that to us as we came to the altar? She looks at you, hands you bread and in all seriousness says, “The body of Christ, shed for all lives.” No. The pastor breaks the bread and passes the cup and says, “This is my body given for YOU.” Because each of us needs to hear that. You and I need to know that on the cross Jesus has taken all the evil intentions, lies, insults, impurities of our hearts and sent them through his treatment plant of grace where we are made clean.

As we leave the table, then, people of faith can look at the Canaanite lives in our midst and say, “Yes, your lives matter. Your downtrodden lives matter. They are not unclean. They do not belong in the dirty jar. Ever.”

Samuel Wells, who serves as vicar of St. Martins in the Fields Church in London, tells the story of a time in his first congregation. When an 11-year-old boy began attending his church at the suggestion of his middle school teacher. The boy was clearly from rough circumstances, didn’t mix well with anyone and had some behavior issues that the congregation members struggled with. They took up money so the boy could attend a weekend prayer retreat and pretty soon Vicar Wells was hearing complaints about how rude he was, how greedy he was with food, how he bullied other kids. They had a meeting to decide what to do with him and, after a long discussion, decided they needed to be patient, as factors in his home life were working against him. He eventually found his feet and became more integrated with their community.

Nine months later at a special service he was baptized.  No one in his family came to support him. It was just the members of the small congregation. They had a custom at baptisms where members were invited to go around and share what it was they most valuved about the church. One said friendship. Someone else said acceptance. Wells reports that when it came time for the boy to speak, “his narrow, fixed frown broke, for once, into a smile, and he replied, ‘You didn’t throw me out after that weekend.’”

Thanks be to God who makes a house of prayer for all peoples, who gathers people to him besides those already gathered, who receives the Canaanite, the ruffian, the one from the neighborhood no one wants to live in.  Thanks be to God who doesn’t just say, blandly, that all lives matter, but who shows, on the cross, that each individual life matters, and shows it in a way that is personal, honest, and pointed directly at the people who are one the margins.

Thanks be to God for not throwing anyone out.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

What the Kingdom is Like

a sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 12A/Lectionary 17]

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 and Romans 8:26-39

Jesus’ string of parables today reads like one of those children’s riddles, doesn’t it? What do a seed, bread dough, a field, a pearl, and a fish net all have in common? Anybody got a guess?

Each of those things is so different and they don’t seem to be sewn together by any common thread. A seed of a mustard bush, a lump of leaven, a treasure in a field, a pearl of great value,  and a net thrown into the sea that catches all kinds of things. Well, here’s a hint: it is something that starts small but grows to have unimaginable impact—it seems like nothing at first but gives shape and substance to everything around it—its discovery brings about a complete reprioritization of values—it involves an imperative sorting out of what is worthwhile and what is useless? Any clue?? Jesus gives the answer to the puzzle: the kingdom of heaven. Each of these things, and each of the scenarios in these parables are, in some way,  like the kingdom of heaven.

I like to imagine some of Jesus’ lessons went like that. Kind of fun. Kind of off the wall. One thing we are learning that Jesus is teacher. He spends a good bit of time gathering with crowds and offering lessons and illustrating important topics about God’s Word. I think a lot of us have been thinking about teachers lately, especially as we look at a school year that will be very different from ones anybody has ever known. I follow a few teachers on social media and I can tell that they are going to miss being with their students face to face. So much happens in that interaction in the classroom. In the past some of these teachers have blown me away with their creative lessons and interesting ideas that bring a complicated subject down to a level I can understand. I’m sure trying to figure out how to adapt that kind of energy to an online format is going to be a challenge.

Jesus is a gifted teacher, too, even if he does offer confusing and challenging lessons. He is able to use metaphor and simile with ease, helping his disciples, you and me, step into lesson about very complex subjects, life or death subjects. He is gifted and knowledgeable, and that is going to be important because the kingdom of heaven is a tricky concept. He spends so much time offering lessons about it and trying to explain it because it’s kind of his main point. We may remember: announcing the kingdom of heaven’s arrival is now his whole ministry begins and it quickly becomes the main expectation people have when they encounter Jesus.

But here’s what makes it so challenging: when they hear and discuss “kingdom of heaven” they think of something entirely different from what Jesus intends. They bring to these lessons all kinds of preconceptions about what “kingdom of heaven” means and what it will look like.

One of the things I’ve been doing almost every day for about four months is going to this website where I can check the latest statistics about the spread of the coronavirus. You’ve probably visited a site like it.  There are several of them. It lists all of the data by country, and so you can click on “USA” and see the numbers for our country, which are then broken down by state. Although it’s not always peaceful, for the time being it’s pretty convenient that we’re broken down by these geographical regions with defined boundaries and governments, especially at a time like this.

The people Jesus was originally speaking to probably thought of the term kingdom of heaven in that sense. When he came proclaiming repentance for the kingdom of heaven was near, they probably assumed kingdom with boundaries and some kind of government. That’s what King David had had.  And King Solomon, the wise. It was something that clearly made sure certain people were in and others were out. It was defensible, you guard it with an army and weapons. You could stand on it and feel safe or proud.

But, as Jesus keeps speaking more and more about the kingdom of heaven and, more significantly, as he starts doing things that are rooted in that kingdom, like healing people and driving out demons, people start to wonder if he is talking about the same thing. It’s like that famous quote from The Princess Bride, when Inigo Montoya confronts Vizzini about his overuse of the word “inconceivable.” Montoya says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Jesus, you keep using that word kingdom of heaven. We do not think it means what you think it means.

So what does Jesus mean? What is this kingdom of God? For Jesus, it is any time and any situation where God’s mercy and peace and freedom rule. It is any place and any scenario where the compassion and the holiness of God make inroads and reign. If a regular worldly kingdom claims us by borders, the kingdom of heaven is wherever and whenever we are claimed by Christ’s love. It is vision God has for all of creation which God intends to make real and lasting. These are, of course, things that Jesus’ people hoped for, but they didn’t realize it was going to be quite as far-reaching. And they probably were expecting a sword to back it up. This vision acts differently from a kingdom or a republic or a sultanate. We experience it differently—with our hearts and souls more than with our feet or passports—and so Jesus will need different illustrations to make it come alive.

Initially we said what all those images have in common is that they are like the kingdom of heaven. But there’s one more thing they have in common: they are all ordinary scenes from first century peasant life. The kingdom embraces first the people at the bottom, the everyday women and men who are not part of the elite, people who work with their hands and don’t have much privilege, people like farmers, fishermen, women who maintain the sourdough starter to feed the family even if they can’t explain the chemistry of how it works.

I’ve long had this theory that if Jesus were speaking today, he’d use Waffle House as a metaphor for God’s kingdom. He’d gather his disciples around a table with some hash browns that are smothered and covered and point out that when he’s in charge all are served equally, out in the open. There are businessmen in suits sitting next to truckers taking a break from the highway sitting next to college kids just finishing a night of partying. There are people just scraping by and people who own their own businesses. Servers and patrons often share stories and joys in an unpretentious way. The place never closes, and in times of natural disaster and suffering it becomes a hub of refuge and nourishment. And no profanity or abusive language is allowed on premises! Do you understand? And all the disciples nod with grits on their chin.

There is an ancient school of thought in church theology, developed by church father named Origen of Alexandria, that says Jesus himself is the kingdom of God. Wherever Jesus is, there is the kingdom. Where his presence is named and honored, there God is reigning, full of justice and love. In a way, each of these images and scenes from the parables is talking about him.

He is like a mustard seed—he seems small and insignificant, but his life will grow and become refuge for people beyond our imagination.

He is like this lump of leaven—a total mystery, but able to add dimension and flavor and bring true life to everything it soaks into.

He is a treasure in a precious field—pure grace. Never earned. Only given and when discovered, worth drastic measure to keep.

He is pearl of great price—enough on his own, and yet still causing us to re-prioritize everything else in our lives in comparison to its value.

He is a dragnet. He is tossed into the world, tossed from a boat, tossed from a cross to pull in absolutely all kinds. Not just those we would choose, but the whole of the world. He is tossed out into the dark, into the pain to bring everything back, and everything will be sorted in us and among us and around us. It all will be filtered according to his grace and love and that which stands in God’s way will be burned away forever. His is a reign which, like branches, like leaven, like the Waffle House empire, eventually extends to every corner and every tucked away backroads highway exit. It will have no boundaries because not even death will keep it in. Not even death will be a border. Not life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God’s reign.

And even when we’re not seeking him, we will stumble upon him, treasure that he is, outside of the tomb we buried him in. He will be there, tallest of trees, ready for us to make our home within him. He will be there, with bread, asking us to sit down. Maybe for breakfast over waffles and eggs and letting us know and see the grace of his kingdom with our own reborn eyes. And at long last we will understand it means everything he thought it meant.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Wheat, Weeds, and Cancel Culture

A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11A/Lectionary 16]

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Psalm 86:11-17 and Romans 8:12-25

Two years ago I got sick of trying to deal with a vegetable garden in the backyard and decided to switch to a flower bed. I just wasn’t getting any veggies. The first few years we planted them we enjoyed the cucumbers and the tomatoes and the green beans and the strawberries—and I know strawberries aren’t a vegetable, but the point is that animals and insects and soil fungus discovered them and it quickly became a fruitless task. And a vegetable-less task.

So we switched to flowers and we’ve really grown to enjoy them, but every year, right at the height of the summer, right when things are really starting to bloom, we tend to go away for a few weeks, and when I come back there are weeds everywhere. It is amazing how fast weeds can grow. And it’s disheartening how quickly they ruin the look of a flower bed.

I don’t know if Jesus ever had a flower bed or a vegetable garden, but he sure knew how to talk about them. He sure knew how frustrating it was to find weeds in them. In explaining what the kingdom of God is like, he uses the story one time of a field and a farmer where the weeds go wild right at the time when the wheat is heading out. The farmer in the parable, interestingly enough, doesn’t seem all that concerned about them. But his slaves are really confused by it. At first they wonder if he, the master, might have accidentally or purposefully planted the weeds. When he points out they came from an enemy, they want to know how they should handle them. Pull them up? Get out the Round-Up? Nope, says the farmer. Just let things grow together for a while. At the right time I will tell the harvesters to pick them separately.

I don’t know if this is actually how you run a real garden or a farm. I know that when I come home to a weedy flower bed, I immediately get down and start pulling up the weeds, carefully, of course, one at a time. There is some satisfaction in pulling a weed out and getting all of the roots with it. Maybe the master’s slaves knew about that. Maybe they knew it looked good to have a field of only wheat grains blowing in the wind and that it felt good to rip out what didn’t belong.

This is one of the few parables we have that also includes Jesus’ explanation for it. On one level that makes it a bit easier for us to understand what Jesus was trying to teach with it. This parable, like the one that comes right before it about the sower who flagrantly spreads seeds on different types of ground, is an allegory. That is, all of the characters and objects in the parable stand for something.

Overall the parable illustrates something that we probably don’t need to have illustrated for us. The world is a field where good and evil are mixed in together. In fact, they are so mixed together that it is actually very difficult to uproot one without harming or uprooting the other. It’s almost impossible to separate the complicated mixture of how human lives and decisions good and bad have risen and grown together.

We don’t necessarily need a parable to illustrate this because we have Monument Avenue. Look at the debates and the arguments that arise around the removal of Confederate statues. Some people claim that by doing so we’re erasing history. Look at the protests and movements advocating for justice for people of color. Some only see riots and destruction. Others see only positive change. Look at the complicated and thorny path forward regarding plans for school in the fall. We cast opponents plans in terms of hatred. It’s got to be either all or nothing.

J.E.B. Stuart statue is removed in Richmond, VA

On a more directly church-related level, news broke a few weeks ago that the writer and musician who composed some of our most beloved contemporary hymns has been accused of sexual assault by several women. Immediately there have been calls for justice, and rightly so, but some are going so far as to say we remove that composer’s hymns from our publications and worship repertoire. Should we do that, then, for Martin Luther, who is on record of making horrible, violent comments about Jews and other religious groups? Do we need to rename our whole denomination?

Yes, the master in the parable knows more than his workers. Each of these situations that are ever before us involve aspects of humanity and culture that are clearly evil and in opposition to God—and we know that—but they’re also mixed together with the fruits of good and righteousness. And they’re mixed with potential for good that we haven’t even seen grow yet, potential for people even to change and be reborn. And these situations are all mixed on levels below the surface we aren’t able to comprehend, especially in the heat of the moment. It doesn’t mean we just don’t do anything, for our baptismal vows do call us to strive for justice and peace, but it does suggest we need to be careful and nuanced in our quests for justice. And a more than a bit humble as we go about it.

Perhaps this parable, among other things, serves as a cautionary tale about cancel culture or call-out culture. Cancel culture, which is very prominent these days, involves the outright boycotting of a person or a company that has acted or spoken in questionable ways. I don’t believe removing Confederate memorials qualifies as cancel culture, but there are ways we’ve run into the world today ready to rip up and burn whatever we think is wrong. It is satisfying to do that, right? To rip that weed out by the root and toss it away.

The issue is that if we are so driven to cancel others for things they’ve done or said, if we are so eager to point out where others are on the side of the enemy and how they need to be silenced or omitted from the garden of life, then we also need to be aware of what needs to be canceled within us. None of us is a pure garden. The writer of this morning’s psalm makes that clear, words that we prayed together just a few minutes ago. He says, “give me an undivided heart to revere your name.” Yes, our own hearts are divided between good and evil, and the cries for a field clean of weeds is actually a cry for our own hearts to be cleansed.

And that, as it turns out, is what Jesus, the Master, is here to do. He comes not just to sow seeds of good in a world of bad—a daisy here, a lily there. He comes not just to remind us of how to live with such a mixture of scenarios, like a self-help coach might do. He comes to offer his own life up for the hope of all on the cross. He comes to be God’s harvest, to lay his perfect goodness down before the enemy and let the enemy do his worst. Let the enemy try to eradicate him. And then God the Father will raise him up to say, “Enough of that.” Evil will not conquer. Evil always heads towards a dead end. It will not shine in any way in the vision God has for the world. Even the evil within ourselves will be purged away.

What’s most interesting to me about this parable is that the nature or the origin of the weeds is not really dealt with. There is no big discussion about who this enemy is, what the enemy is like, or even why the enemy exists and plants weeds. The master and Jesus both are more focused on what we do now that we’ve acknowledged the presence of the weeds.

I typically have the confirmation students take a test at the end of each semester to review what we’ve learned about basics of the Lutheran faith. In reality the test is more a chance to let them share their thoughts with me to see how they process matters of faith and belief in a complicated world. Unfortunately, because we could not meet in person at the end of this spring, I had to administer the test through email and they had to mail it back. One of the questions I asked them this year was “Has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your faith in any way? Has your faith in God influenced your understanding of the pandemic?” I wasn’t sure what kinds of responses I’d get, but I do know that for many centuries Christians interpreted events like pandemics to mean that God was bringing judgment on the world or that there was no God at all because this kind of suffering can’t be matched up with the existence of a loving God. But here is some of what they told me:

“I still believe in God and love him. God is providing health care workers.”

“My faith in God has allowed me to understand other people’s situations and allowed to have hope during this hard time.”

“My faith has improved in the way I see the earth changing for the better when people are compassionate. Asymptomatic people are staying at home to protect others.”

Those words and that faith gives me hope. These young people are seeing a world filled with suffering and even evil, but still concentrating on the good of the wheat that is there. These are young people living, as St. Paul says, by the Spirit. They are living by the Spirit and seeing that this whole creation, with its movements of justice and violence, with its desires for a cure from disease and its restless longing for peace, is really just groaning in labor pains. The whole creation is groaning, heaving, working hard as God pushes through a new world where the wheat and the righteous ones shine with the light of Jesus forever. They are young people who sound as if they already know the world has too many people who want to be weeders and not enough who want to be wheat planters. They know that we have enough who say, “Boy do I have something to teach people,” and too few who have “I have something to learn.” They know we have far too many who say, “Those people are the problem. They need to be uprooted” and we could use more who say, “The weeds are also inside me. Make me clean, Lord.”

So, what to do, as the weeds and wheat intermingle? Twentieth-century theologian and author Henri Nouwen once said, “Those who choose, even on a small scale, to love in the midst of hatred and fear are the people who offer true hope to our world.” There is a song on country radio right now that that essentially says the same. It’s a song by Thomas Rhett, but Reba McIntyre and Keith Urban sing with him. “In a time full of war, be peace. In a time full of doubt, just believe. Yeah, there ain’t that much difference between you and me. In a time full of war, be peace. In a time full of hate, be light.”

That may sound trite or oversimplified for some. But, then again, parables often are too. And sometimes Jesus even needs to explain them. But when you’re groaning in hope for a new world to be reborn, simply shining you light and sowing seeds of humble goodness will always find good soil somewhere. Guaranteed. And those will bring a harvest that will shine like sun in the kingdom of the Father.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

In the Welcome

a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 8A/Lectionary 13]

Matthew 10:40-42

We hear in today’s gospel lesson the final part of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples as he sends them out into the world to do and speak the work of God’s kingdom. For the past two Sundays we’ve heard the earlier parts of his instruction, and, to be honest, they’ve been a bit hard to swallow. He’s told them they will be sent like sheep into the midst of wolves. That doesn’t sound too fun. He’s told them that what they say and do will cause division and confrontation, even among their friends and family. That, also, doesn’t sound like a walk in the park.

Christ commissions his disciples

Today, however, he ends on a bit of a high note. I imagine that’s a good thing, because many of them are probably wondering what on earth they signed up for. He tells them, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” And just like that, Jesus places their presence in the world—their actions, their faith, their ministry—on the same level as God.

It makes me think of my wife’s final words to our daughters from the front porch every morning that they have left for the bus stop to go to school. After the bookbags have been situated on their backs, the proper musical instrument placed in their hand, after the last hugs and kisses, and they’re making their way across the yard, Melinda chimes out, “Make good choices!” They already know they are loved, for sure, but I suppose Melinda wants the last thing that rings in their ear to be something that might guide their actions, a reminder that they have power and agency and responsibility in the day ahead. “Make good choices!” is what should ring in their ears as they get on that bus. And, so far—I’m happy to say—it seems to be working.

So it is with Jesus, standing on the front porch there. Just when they may have started to think they’d been given thankless tasks, just when they are starting to tighten those sandal laces and the belt around their waist and wonder if it will be worth it Jesus assures them that they will be doing God’s very work. They shouldn’t just regard themselves as Jesus’ representatives, but as if they were Jesus himself, and since Jesus is himself on par with the Father, then they would be welcomed as God should be. It sounds a little crazy, but it makes sense, because Jesus’ followers understand themselves to be Jesus’ body. And those who would receive them well  would receive the reward of hosting God himself. All this would certainly make me think about my decisions and responsibilities and the choices I’d make. What about you?

It is helpful and encouraging on some level to think that Jesus’ words place me and you, as his disciples, on par with God’s own actions. It certainly puts some pressure on those who may receive us when we go there in the name of Jesus. But the reality is that followers of Christ operate from a very different standpoint today. We’re have to turn this around in our heads a bit. In Jesus’ day, there were no church buildings. The message of Jesus was spread by followers who were itinerant; that is, moving from town to town and house to house. They may have operated in proximity to synagogues for some time, which were buildings, but for many decades the church really didn’t have stationary structures where ministry was based. They spread the word by visiting new cities and new homes and hoping they’d be find a good reception there.

Jesus spoke to his followers about others welcoming them. We tend to think more about how we welcome others among us. Jesus was sending people out, seeing the church on foot, a traveling group. We more often think about people coming to us, seeing the church in a specific place. Of course, we still represent Christ everywhere we go. And in many ways the church of the future, especially in our culture, will need to reclaim this missionary spirit and venture more boldly into the world—boarding those busses, so to speak—sharing our faith with those we meet.

But now it would seem we also must think of how we receive people, how are our congregations places of peace and forgiveness. This work of hospitality, of welcoming and being welcomed—of starting off as strangers to each other and then becoming friends—is the kind of the core of the church’s reality, isn’t it? It’s being at the border between God’s care and the world’s chaos, the unknown wilderness and the Promised Land, the threshold where grace greets each person. Seeing those spaces and this work as holy ground is crucial to what we do.

In ancient societies, hospitality was a life or death matter. Harsh desert environments were threatening to human life, and so one cold cup of water could make all the difference in the world. Offering someone something to drink wasn’t just a nice, friendly gesture. It literally meant you valued their life, you wanted their life to continue. Nowadays it might just be one smile. Or one holding of a door. These interactions are where Jesus’ love and mercy get rooted and grow.

How is the church presenting itself in the world? Are we going as Christ himself goes, leading with our vulnerability and humility, asking others for a cup of water with the hopes conversations may ensue? Or do we more often barrel in, like a bull in a china shop, demanding attention, expecting people to get on board? “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” Jesus reminds us. Jesus wasn’t always welcomed, of course, and one important time when he did ask for a cup of water he was given sour wine. Those boundary zones of welcome, the spaces between the wilderness of the world and the haven of God’s grace can be daunting, but it is where new and profound relationships are made and communities are reborn.

ready to welcome people

As many of you know, our congregation recently completed a very extensive expansion and renovation project. One of the main objectives of that project was to create more space that would enhance our ability to welcome and receive people. If we take Jesus at his word this morning, we would understand that the most significant interaction that will happen in our church building will not happen in the sanctuary, but here, in this space. This is our newly designed welcome desk, on wheels so it can be conveniently moved and with a lower top so as to look less imposing.

The architect who designed this space, a Christ-follower who attends another Richmond congregation, included as many windows as possible in this gathering area. A couple of years ago, when he was presenting his plans, he explained that this decision to use so many windows had less to do with the beauty of natural light and more to do with what it communicates about the church and Christian faith. As we move into the future It was his strong belief that the church must communicate openness and transparency in any way it can. Churches that look like fortresses, with thick walls and small windows, may be beautiful, but they suggest secrecy and an inward feel, like only certain people may come in.

Our new area is so open that people driving up Monument Avenue on Sunday mornings will be able to see us in here. It may seem like a fishbowl, but Jesus’ life was a fishbowl, remember. He commissions his disciples to a life of sharing and openness, of being humble enough to venture into the neighborhood with a hand outstretched for water. We are the vulnerable ones now, for a spell, but God is protecting and watching over us, and we take heart that in Christlike humility there is victory.

We’ve been giving tours of this new space over the past two weeks. Since it will still be a few more weeks before we can gather in person, we figured people might like an up-close view of what has changed. And a lot has changed. Overall people’s reactions are one of surprise and delight and amazement. The reconfiguration of space is so different, in fact, that many people can’t remember where the old front doors used to be. There is one chandelier that catches everyone’s attention, but it’s actually been hanging from the same spot since 1992. It’s not new, but the new design refocuses people’s eyes and makes people notice it for the first time. Maybe that’s how we’ll be with people, too. We’ll notice ones who often get overlooked.

More than one person has noticed something we didn’t intend. It is a large crack on the floor in the newly poured concrete. It happened the day after they poured it several months ago, and the contractor said that’s a common problem with concrete floors. They crack right away.

It’s nothing to be worried about. In most cases you never see the cracks because you quickly cover it with carpet or tile. But we have opted for exposed concrete floors, so there it is. I doubt when the room is full of people that anyone will notice it.

And yet, one person had keen insight when he saw the crack. He said, kind of tongue in cheek, that it sends the message to all who enter here that we’re not perfect. It is a feature of our brokenness right out here in the open, in the threshold where stranger meets friend, where member will meet guest—a few feet away from where a cup of cold water would be given to someone—or because we’re Lutheran, a cup of hot coffee.

I think he’s onto something. The cracks of our sin are real and we can’t cover over them. But Jesus has welcomed us just the same. We are here because of his grace, no matter our race, our economic background, our ethnic origin, our gender, our sexual orientation, no matter how long we’ve been searching for God or how long he’s been our BFF. We are here because of God’s grace. And we’re here not because we’re so deserving of it, but because God has sent his Son to welcome us, to spread out his hands with a hospitality so expansive we’ll never fully understand it. His good choice is for us.

And the brokenness is healed and the divisions are brought together and strangers turn into friends and lives overlap and people see God in one another because whoever welcomes you welcomes Christ and whoever welcomes Christ welcomes the one who sent him.

That’s what you call a welcome that is also reward at the same time. A reward of grace that can never ever be lost.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.