“O Holy Trinity, What now?”

A sermon for The Holy Trinity [Year A]

Genesis 1:1–2:4a and Matthew 28:16-20

It’s something many know in their hearts, and something many more of us struggle to realize, but on this Holy Trinity Sunday, the Scriptures proclaim it loud and clear: From the very beginning up until whenever the end of the age comes, the work of God involves all people and involves all people on equal footing. From the first chapter of our creation story to the final commission of Jesus to his disciples, God’s vision for humankind makes no space for racial supremacy or segregation, and the abundance of his mercy is meant for all.

It happens to be an especially important message for the times we live in right now, as you know. And here we have yet another example of how the uncanny Holy Spirit plans timely messages through the tool of our lectionary readings and church year. For the past two weeks our nation has been embroiled in often violent but mostly peaceful protests following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died under arrest in Minneapolis. Our own governor has proposed the removal of one monument to the Confederacy that stands in our own city and our mayor has declared intention to remove the others. Debates about the effects of racism and inequality have already been raging for a while, and I suspect in our lovely city they may get more intense yet.

Laws may change and leaders may get removed from office, but today on Holy Trinity Sunday we contemplate that one thing that is eternal: God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And today God’s Word reminds us, with clarity that would be difficult to misunderstand: God makes humankind in God’s image and God unifies humankind in the same tasks and joys of prosperity. And as Jesus prepares his followers to carry on with his mission, he says, “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

Some are saying that we’ve been here as a country before and that things will simmer down and return to the ways they always were. Some are saying that maybe our collective wounds are open enough now that we that we can see the benefit of moving forward in new way of healing, whatever that is. No matter what happens, those who have been baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can confess the truth of our faith: God creates, redeems, and keeps all of humankind holy as a perfect outpouring of God’s own self. And those who have been claimed by the Risen Lord Jesus have been sent into the world as he would himself go: with love, with mercy, with an eye to those who feel marginalized. When Jesus says he will be with them to the end of the age, that means he is somehow going with them as they go to teach and baptize. We shouldn’t forget that. Jesus himself is there as we go, through the power of the Holy Spirit, leading, directing, and correcting.

A lot of times I think this passage from Matthew’s gospel only gets read as instructions for some grand-scale enterprise, like the church going into different foreign countries and fulfilling the Great Commission by building new churches, that it’s something missionaries do, out there on the frontier. That certainly is part of it, but making disciples of all nations and teaching them to obey Jesus’ commandments is something we do on an individual level, too, each and every day, on the frontier of each relationship. Undertaking Jesus’ mission seriously here means treating each person with respect and dignity, as a bearer of the divine image.

Speaking of being made in someone’s image, I am actually the proud owner of a coffee mug that someone made in my image. One of my friends in Pittsburgh was a very gifted potter and when I left the church I served there he made me this mug. It typically sits somewhere in my office. I’ve never used it because I’m afraid it might damage it somehow, or that it wouldn’t clean very easily, but I’ve also never used it because…look…that probably would freak people out. Makes me look a little vain. I am, however, seriously impressed with how great a likeness this thing is. This potter has talent. The eye color, the brooding eyebrows…he even got the slant of my nose correct.

a mug of my mug

In all seriousness, though, being made in God’s image isn’t like someone making a coffee mug or a statue or a portrait. It doesn’t mean that we physically resemble God. It means that unlike other parts of God’s creations, humans have been bestowed with qualities that are godlike. Our presence in creation should remind others of God, like God has taken a selfie and dropped it in among the rhododendron and the zebras. Color of skin or eyes and levels of ability or disability, slant of nose…they are just factors that give diversity to humankind. What bearing God’s likeness means is that, like God, we can choose between right and wrong. We can reason and contemplate and solve problems. We can create things ourselves. And we can love.

Something interesting here that needs to be pointed out: We may throw that phrase around an awful lot—being created in God’s image—but the understanding that all humans are little snapshots of God was and is revolutionary. We know that other ancient cultures who existed at the time of the Hebrews, tended to say that only their rulers bore the divine image. The king or queen of their land was the representative of God. Regular people, those outside the royal quarters, never bore that special designation.

By contrast, our faith from its beginning claimed a God who did not discriminate when stamping the divine qualities on humankind. No person walks this planet who is not a snapshot of God. Not one. Every member of the human family shares the label “very good.”

“The Creation of God” by Harmonia Rosales (a re-imagining of Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel)

The question is: What do you do with that? What do you do with that knowledge, that glorious label? That’s the main thrust of all of these stories and Scriptures. They give us great wisdom about the who and why of God and creation, but the next question they answer is “What now?” Do you take this all to heart for yourself, especially when you are feeling lowly and worthless? Do you extend that view to others, to your neighbor, to the person who has a different story from you?

Because when we do that, when we are cognizant of God’s image in us and in each other, we are making a statement about God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. We are making a statement about how the Holy Trinity is alive and active in the world today.

When we when we go into all nations and to all peoples with the same kind of humility and healing presence Jesus comes to us, then we are making a statement about a God who creates us, redeems us, and loves us to the end.

We are making a claim that God is a Father who loves his Son in the power of the Spirit that binds them together. Charles Octavius Boothe, a man born a slave in Alabama, who went on to become a pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, and one of the influential black theologians and workers for racial uplift in the time following Reconstruction, wrote a little book called Plain Theology for Plain People. It was his attempt to help a church membership who was slowly becoming more literate and therefore less dependent on interpretations of the Bible that had been influenced by white supremacy. At one point he describes the Holy Trinity a “happy, eternal, almighty, and glorious companionship!” That is, God contains within God’s self a community, even without us. The Creator’s love has spilled out into the world so that we all may be fruitful and multiply. That redeeming love has been lavished on the world with such force that it brings life out of death, and joy out of suffering. That love which can make all of us holy has been poured out with such grace that everyone will be part of that happy and glorious companionship.

In one of our new members’ classes a couple of years ago, one man shared that he had grown up in a small town in a northern state where almost everyone was the same race. As a child and a youth he had come to be proud and thankful that he had been created a white male because things seemed so easy for him and people like him. No one had intentionally taught him this; it was just a mindset that he developed over course of his childhood that was reinforced by what little he saw from the rest of the world. Then this man shared that when he left the town and began to have more life experiences, enter the military, travel the country, he met many of the kinds of people he used to be thankful he wasn’t—people of different races, different ethnic backgrounds, different economic levels—and he shared that he found them actually to be wonderful people. Friends. He said his feelings about his own worth didn’t change, but that God opened his eyes to the worth of others. He had to die a little to do so, had to give up some of his former viewpoints, let go of some safe feelings of superiority, but that seeing the beauty of the whole world and the value of its people was totally worth it.

This is an unbelievably kind and thoughtful man, and I was so thankful he shared that with us. I’m thankful because I think he was a wonderful example of the “What Now?” of faith and the “What now?” that the Triune God pushes us toward.

It seems we’ve got a lot of “What nows?” to answer, I believe. What now, people of Richmond, that you’ve been claimed by this great God who himself is a community of three in On who has invited you into his companionship? What now as we learn that God has given us the ability to explore and create the way the Father does?  What now as we wake up to our mission to love and forgive the way the Son does? What now as we grow in life and holiness the way the Spirit nudges us to?

And, most of all, what now?—as we remember that above all of the wild and tumultuous world, the building and the toppling of monuments to men and women until the end of the age, stands the authority of Jesus, crucified and risen, the authority of compassion and mercy and grace? What now? God made us just a little less than divine. Will the Trinity be glorified?

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you.

Amen.

The Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, VA, on June 5, 2020
photo by Jessica Hendricks

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Pentecost-iest Pentecost

A sermon for the Day of Pentecost [Year A]

Acts 2:1-21

“When the day of Pentecost had come,” goes our first reading from Acts, “they were all together in one place.”

Ouch. That hurts this year: “They were all together in one place.” And we…well, we aren’t at all. It’s like the Scriptures are rubbing our faces in it! The beginning of the church, the arrival of the Spirit of God which will enliven the faith of all people and bring Jesus’ ministry to life begins as a real, physical gathering.

“Where is everybody??”

This is significant. When the Holy Spirit makes its big entrance, it is not first to individuals with their Bibles laid out on kitchen tables or to people in their homes with their heads bowed in prayer but rather to a group of disciples gathered as one, breathing the same air, hearing the same words, bumping elbows and shaking hands in the same rooms.

It is hard for me to read this story—and really almost any story of God’s people in Scripture, but especially this one—and not be struck by the differences to our current time. For one, we’re watching this worship on a screen. It’s not even live.  I’m at home with my family on the couch in the weird position of watching myself deliver this sermon and trying not to cringe too much. For once I may actually get to leave and use the bathroom during my own sermon!

The governor of Virginia has declared in his Phases for reopening that houses of worship may gather physically according to certain restrictions, and yet many, including ours, are still assessing the risks of doing so. Nowhere in the Pentecost story does it explicitly mention what the church should do in a pandemic.

So hearing this story of the church’s beginning makes me miss so much about our physical gatherings when we’re all in one place. They have become the things I associate deeply with church nowadays.

I miss the crucifer leading us down the aisle and then turning so Joseph and I can bow before we go to our seats and trying to make sure we bow at the same time.

I miss Ms. Betsy perched at the end of a low wooden table holding court with a gaggle of two-year-olds.

I miss having my blood pressure read by Carla Schwertz or Carolyn Kronk and then hearing them say, “Wow, that’s pretty good considering it’s Sunday morning for you.”

I miss Dan Byerly getting there almost as early as I do and filling up the big coffee urn and then hearing it groan and gurgle as it gets ready like the rest of us.

I miss Gail Lyddane and Allison Worth hitting the high notes on some of the special hymns. I miss passing the peace with the Hammer family because they always sit close to the back where we’re getting ready to come down the aisle.

part of my church family

I miss the sun coming through the stained glass window at just the right angle during the 8:30 service so that the Sizemores, sitting on the opposite side of the church, have to squint through parts of the service.

I miss the acolyte and an acolyte parent in the sacristy furiously searching for a robe that will be the right length and then the click-click-click of the lighter not working right just before they go out.

I miss Matt Greenshields shouting “Thanks be to God” at the end of the dismissal.

I miss getting the church giggles and not being able to stop them. Oh, the church giggles! That might be one of the reasons why onlookers on that first Pentecost thought those first believers were filled with new wine.

Perhaps more than anything else, however, I miss the unique way each person approaches the communion rail and kneels or stands and sticks out their hand to receive the bread. This strange separation, this strange way of worshiping apart from one another, so unlike that first Pentecost, has dragged on much longer than any of us probably anticipated, and we’re not finished with it yet. We long to be gathered again in one place as the body of Christ and the vessel of God’s Holy Spirit that can move in and through us.

And yet, in some ways, this may be the Pentecost-iest Pentecost of our lifetimes. Our inability to gather because of the spread of a virus places us literally out in the world, which is precisely where God’s Holy Spirit first drives the first believers. They begin together, but then they separate. They start in one place, in Jerusalem, but within months, if not weeks, they are all over the place, in Judea, in Samaria, in Asia Minor and beyond. Fast forward several centuries and the believers are here, in the Piedmont of Virginia, setting up churches, starting ministries, and proclaiming through word and deed that the kingdom of heaven has come near.

And the believers begin as a microcosm of the known world at the time. That’s the meaning behind that laundry list of difficult Bible names that we hear in the Acts reading. Luke, the writer of Acts, is making sure his readers understand that the church, at its start, was a diverse, multi-racial and multicultural community. It may have been born from the unique story of Jesus’ people, the Hebrews, but the Spirit intends to gather and involve all of God’s people. The Elamites, the residents of Mesopotamia, residents of Egypt, and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene—these are all ways of saying that at its birth the church contained people of every skin color in the same room and there was no indication they viewed each other as anything other than equal—equal in God’s eyes, equal dwelling places in which God’s Spirit of freedom and life could reside and breathe.

Today we are reminded that those are our roots. As much as we may miss all the things about 1400 Horsepen Road and long for them to return, we should miss even more the things about that day of ours in Jerusalem when God’s Spirit was poured out upon all flesh, and the young men and women saw visions and the old men and women dreamed dreams. We should miss that legacy we were given that put all colors of people on an equal playing field, where God’s image was acknowledged to the same degree in each person. Our own city, of course, has complicated and sensitive issues surrounding race and culture and history that we need to confront. May the Spirit lead us through those conversations with humility to the image that God provides for the church.

Members of the church don’t need to be in the building to do that work. Quite frankly, that work might happen better when we are out of those walls, learning to lay our prejudices down and sometimes our sacred cows for the sake of the one who laid his down for us. As the words of our middle hymn this morning put it, “where deceit conceals injustice, kindle us to speak your truth!”

And that is the reason why fire is such a compelling image for the Holy Spirit, why fire is seen on that first day and as people told the story later they remembered the fire on people’s heads. We should take to heart that fire can rarely be controlled, especially in the ancient world before running water and fire engines. Fire, once loose, spreads and goes wherever it wants, wherever there is oxygen to inhale.

So it is with Christ’s church. No one can close the church because the church can’t be closed. No one needs to re-open the church because the church is always going to be open. And our ministry is and has always been essential because through the Spirit’s power we embody the crucified and risen Savior to the world, and that is the only life that is life. Our buildings may be temporarily unusable for worship, but the church itself is always on fire.

And this is not the first time the church has found itself in this situation, which is something I think we in our era have forgotten. Just several hundred yards from here is the site where Chimborazo Hospital stood. Built by slaves during the Civil War, Chimborazo went on to become the largest hospital in the world during its time, treating tens of thousands of soldiers.

Chimborazo Hospital, Richmond, VA

It was a cutting edge facility. But many hospitals up unto that point were in other buildings, including churches. Several churches in Richmond were converted to hospitals during the Civil War. And we could never count the number of church buildings in Europe or Africa or Asia that have temporarily halted worship so that the sick and wounded from wartime or plague could be treated.

When those times arose, the church did not understand itself to be closed. The church was just at work in a different, special way. And I’m not just playing with words here. When Jesus greets his disciples after his resurrection, he doesn’t say, “Go build a church building.” He says, “Forgive. Go forth with peace.” I see the church in a similar way in the current circumstances. I know that there are differing viewpoints as to the level of crisis this coronavirus may eventually be, but right now our church buildings are not unlike the hospitals of previous eras and our approach toward worship is not unlike worship during those other special times. The Spirit will gather us back, but for the time being we are the church being the church outside of the church building.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the account of Pentecost but never have the divided tongues of fire stood out to me so much. The sign of the Spirit’s presence that day was not in one large fire, or like the bush that Moses saw, but in individual flames. Each person had his or her own. The Greek word for “divided” here is “to be cut into many pieces” in the way that a butcher cuts meat. So from the beginning, the church is gathered together and meant to gather as one, but within that unity is a breaking apart. We are each a part of that glorious, creative fire of God’s love whether we are physically in one place or whether we’ve been divided up for the world to have. Like a loaf of pita bread, which starts as one on the altar, but then is broken into parts and handed out at the rail, the church is constantly being gathered up and then broken up for service.

icon of Pentecost

And this is when we’re broken up for service now—a little longer than we had hoped, perhaps, but no less bright. No less powerful. Putting on a facemask may control the spread of a virus, but it can’t do anything about the spread of the church, the movement of the gospel.

This is where I’m going to ask you to do something that may seem a little out of the ordinary, but go ahead and use the template we sent you, which is also downloadable from the front page of our website, and make your own divided tongue of fire handband. Get your children to make one.  You can either cut out construction paper or color the pattern we sent you. Once you have it made, put it on and take a selfie or have someone grab a photo of you out and about or even in the comfort of your living room, and post it on social media or send it to our church office and we’ll do it for you. Use the hashtag “churchneverclosed,” and let’s see those tongues of fire, divided, but yet united, throughout the region. And then, more importantly, may God give us the humility and courage to enter into the conversations about racism and privilege and unity that need to happen in our country and to work toward that first reality of the church, our family. Together let’s make sure the world knows that Pentecost 2020 may, in fact, be the Pentecost-iest Pentecost we have ever experienced. Who knows? We may even give someone a case of the church giggles.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Preparing Rooms

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

John 14:1-14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says,“believe in God, believe also in me.” My guess is that most of us have heard these words before while we’ve been standing at a gravesite or as a part of a funeral or memorial service for someone we loved. When our hearts are troubled, it is good to be reminded that Jesus recognizes our sadness and that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us in God’s eternal care. In my seventeen years of serving as a parish pastor, I can say that when families ask for a specific gospel text to be read at a funeral, this one is mentioned more than any other. It is such a good one. People find great comfort in these words of Jesus as they say farewell at death. I do too.

Graveside

As it happens, these are the words Jesus himself uses as he begins his own farewell to his disciples. It is the night before his crucifixion and he has gathered his closest followers. Judas has already left to betray him. Peter has already been informed by Jesus in front of everyone that Peter will deny Jesus three times before the rooster crows in the next day. Things are heavy and things are strange and things are somber. We can imagine there was a sense of dark unknown and looming disaster in the air that evening. And the first thing Jesus does is acknowledge their misgivings and their troubled hearts. His first words of good-bye are of hope, of comfort, focused on them and their fears. What he’s saying in this farewell talk is something like, “Yes, this is hard. Something really bad is about to happen. Your sense of looming disaster is not unfounded. It’s going to be horrific, and you probably aren’t going to know what to make of it. But God is nevertheless going to be with me. Trust me on this. God, our Father, will see us through and his glory will shine.”

It occurs to me that these are good words for Jesus to speak to us now. We may not be at a graveside or a funeral, but many of us are living with a sense of that dark unknown and maybe even looming disaster. People in authority give us information, but so much of it seems to be conflicting or incomplete and there doesn’t seem to be a good way forward, let alone a clear one. We wonder and worry about so many things related to this virus. Conspiracy theories are on the rise.

Into the midst of all this dark unknown Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Into the helplessness of not knowing what to do or whether our actions matter, Jesus says, “The one who believes in me will do the works that Jesus does and in fact even words that are even greater!” Into the blur of information Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.”

http://www.wga.hu/art/v/valentin/lastsupp.jpg
“Last Supper” (Valentin de Boulogne, 1625-26)

A lot of us are used to living our lives on our terms, on looking at big chunks of time, knowing—or assuming with a fair amount of accuracy what’s coming down the road. This virus has shortened all of our perspectives. Each day and each week is about all we can concentrate on. That is disorienting and troubling. And just as Jesus’ first disciples had to adjust to a change in plans for what kind of leader Jesus would be and how his kingdom would come about, so do we need to hear that God shows us the way. No matter what the phases of reopening bring, no matter what we discover about this virus, nothing will change the way, the truth, and the life that we have come to know in Jesus.

Jesus describes the next days in front of him, the days of his suffering and death on the cross, in terms of preparing rooms. You know, we at Epiphany know a bit about preparing rooms. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last year here with our construction, and for the two years before that as we dreamed and prayed about how God is calling us to new ministries and relationship-building. I’m standing in one of those new rooms right now, in fact. There are lots of new rooms! And refurbished ones! This is our administrative suite, where the staff will work.

commons

It takes a lot of work to prepare rooms, and it also takes time and certain skills. Members like Bill Hockman and Carole Alfriend and Linda Swartz have helped us figure out how to use space and furniture to make things welcoming and inviting. For most of the past week Stephanie Hamlett came in and volunteered her time to help pack up our church offices so that we would be ready to move into these new rooms this coming week. And our construction manager, Steve Collins, has spent incalculable hours on-site making things move along well. Everything looks so new and fresh, but behind these walls are hours of electrical work and HVAC duct work and security wiring and plumbing. And before that there were walls studs and a foundation. Within a month, all of the work will be done, we’ll hang a few pieces of art on the walls, and God will help us, at some point, welcome everyone back and new people into our community. And because we’ll have so much more space, both inside and out, and more rooms, we’ll be able to socially distance like we never before!

The dwelling places and rooms that Jesus talks about preparing for us are not physical spaces with walls and electrical outlets but a place within God’s love. He goes to create a spot for us within the relationship that Jesus shares with his Father. That’s what’s been so hard for the disciples to grasp but which they are coming to trust: God the Creator of all is present in a new and powerful way in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and knowing Jesus is the same as knowing God. And that’s not all. The Father and the Son have such a deep love for one another that eventually the whole world will find home within it. That’s preparing rooms.

At one funeral service of one of our members several years ago the son of the deceased gave a brief talk, and as he talked about his mother and what she was like he realized he had to talk about his father also, because the two of them loved each other so much. To know one was to know the other. He shared one of his fondest memories from growing up was when he and his siblings would come into the kitchen and happen upon their parents in an embrace in front of the sink or table. It was just a typical love of a married couple, perhaps he had just gotten home or work or they had just been talking and decided to share a hug and maybe a kiss. The kids, when they were young, thought it was gross or awkward so, being silly, they’d wedge themselves between their parents legs and try to push them apart. But instead of relinquishing, their parents would hug and kiss even more, and it became this playful, boisterous scene each time it happened, where mom and dad would try to get closer together with their embrace at the same time as all three children would squeeze within it, trying to spread them further and further. I love that image. I can imagine why that was a great memory for that son as he said goodbye to his mom.

affectionate-young-couple-hugging--cooking-in-apartment-kitchen-1014367764-5c12cdaa46e0fb00012a9092

Jesus says, you can’t talk about me without talking about my Father. You can’t know my Father without knowing me. You get one of us, and you get the other. We’re that close, Jesus says, and the love and devotion we have for one another isn’t going to be just for my Father and me. It’s going to have space inside for all of you. Rooms upon rooms in this love. Let’s get another kid in here. The love that Jesus shows for his Father in offering himself on the cross and the love that the Father has in raising him up is the embrace that envelopes all of humankind no matter how hard we try to deny it or push it away.

You and I have room there. Our loved ones who have already died have room there. People who come to worship here at Epiphany and people who worship at other churches have room there in the love of God. In fact, there is room there for people who haven’t come to trust Jesus or God yet. That’s how large and amazing this love is, and how tight the Father’s embrace of his Son is. Nothing can tear them apart. They receive all.

So when Jesus says no one comes to the Father except through him he means that this outpouring love is the key to understanding how God functions, how God is experienced. Sometimes these words come across as sounding exclusive to us, but Jesus is not making an evangelism statement here. He is not making a comment about what other people of other faith traditions believe or what their ultimate destiny might be. Jesus is speaking to a group of followers who are already persecuted for trusting Jesus and who are about to witness God act in a completely new way and he wants to reassure them of his mission.

john_14_6--white-800x800

We know that Jesus never shames people for not following him or believing him. Jesus never forces people to come to faith. Jesus never excludes anyone on account of who they are. His love is never forced on anyone or turned into an argument because it is built on self-giving. He is the way, and to take that way will involve offering one’s self for the sake of others. He is the truth, and he comes that we may know the heart of God is love. He is the life, and in the embrace of God we will always be alive, and now that death has even been embraced by Jesus on the cross, then we shall live forever in him.

It seems all our questions right now center on the way, the truth, and the life. We want to know the best way forward—how to open up, how to resume some sense of normalcy. We want to know the truth—the truth about coronavirus statistics, the truth about “what works” in terms of prevention. And we want to know what is life going to be like in the future. Those are great questions, and I don’t have any specific answers. But we do know that Christ has prepared a room for us, and that Jesus says we will do greater works than he did, and that if we ask for anything in his name, he will do it.

The best way forward, then, is to offer ourselves to our neighbors. The most reliable truth is given to us in Jesus’ words. And the life is found in trusting in God and sharing the gifts he’s given us. It is in squeezing more people into the wide rooms Jesus has prepared that are so numerous they could never be counted.

Thanks be to God!

office

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Good Gate

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

John 10:1-10 and Acts 2:42-47

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says to his disciples, “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.”

 I am standing here by the new gate at our house, finished by some excellent handymen just last week. When we bought this house eleven years ago, a fence already enclosed the entire yard except for this section here and another one like it on the other side of the house. With a four-year-old who likes to go on many adventures, we decided it was time to keep him safe (and us sane) by finishing off the fence and making a gate that we could shut securely. Last Friday, when the last nail was driven in and the gate was ready to be tested, our son managed to find a way to climb up the back of the gate door, open it, and get out…while the construction workers were still here!! Needless to say, it was one of those moments where we all felt completely helpless. The workers eventually found a way to make sure the gate stayed fastened shut, but for a while there we were absolutely astounded at his abilities, and, considering Jesus’ words, a little concerned about our son’s future career path.

gate 2

What I’ve learned over the past week is just how tricky a gate actually is. I can’t tell you how many gates I’ve actually passed through in this life, but I can bet you I’ve taken every single one of them for granted, along with the work it has taken to build a good gate. I’ve learned a gate has to do two things and do both of them well. A gate has to let people or animals in and out. And a gate has to keep people or animals inside and safe. Really a gate just has to do those two things, and do to them there will need to be things like hinges and latches and level ground involved. It sounds basic, but these two things are actually difficult to get right, and a good, solid working gate is something to treasure. And being a good gate is hard work. It gets a lot of use. And a lot who pass through it probably take it for granted.

I believe these are precisely the things Jesus is talking about when he compares himself to a gate. He sees himself as that important combination—a person who can open up and lead people to abundant life and someone who can keep people safe and secure.

The kind of gate Jesus has in mind would have been readily accessible to the imaginations of his followers. He is talking about a gate of a sheepfold. In the morning, when the shepherd comes to take the sheep out to pasture, the gate of the fold needs to open easily. The sheep go out and find grass to eat and water to drink and exercise for their legs. Jesus calls this abundant life. When they’re in the fold, the sheep are still alive, of course, and could stay there for a while, but to live the way they were intended, to really flourish, they need to be out in the open, out where food is plentiful. That is abundant life, life in its fullest sense.

Of course, right now a lot of us are probably thinking: if I could just leave my house I would live life in its fullest sense! In a way, we’re waiting for the gatekeepers of public life to say, “Open up! Go be out in public again,” even though we know resuming some sense of normal pasture life will likely take a long time and different complicated phases and stages. Families and individuals look to these people in authority to offer guidance on sheltering at home and aspects of social distancing just as business owners wait for governments to give a pathway for greener pastures.

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But that’s not mainly Jesus is really talking about here. Jesus isn’t talking about the life afforded to us when we get to gather in large groups or go out to graze in restaurants. Life in its fullest sense is that life we experience in God’s kingdom, in each and every moment when God’s glory in Christ is revealed. There is something about Jesus’ relationship with us, whenever and wherever we are, that lets our hearts roam free to love, that lets our minds explore ideas, that lets our relationships with others develop and grow through forgiveness and reconciliation.

The grace of Jesus is a gate—it opens us up to faith when we encounter doubt and despair. The compassion of Jesus is a gate—it hinges on self-giving and empathy. The risen life of Jesus is a gate—it breaks open the great reality that there is more beyond this life. This is abundant life, and any good shepherd wants this for his sheep.

Last week in our Coffee and Doughnut Time one of our homebound members who is on complete shutdown in her living facility on the Southside logged on through Zoom and shared with us that one of our college students had sent her a letter and how much that had meant to her. And this woman also shared how nice it was to be able to worship with us on-line from the confines of her apartment. That was a taste of the abundant life—Jesus, the open gate, allowing the compassion and service of a college student to find her and make her feel part of our flock.

 

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And likewise, the gate sometimes must be shut. The gate keeps the sheep—the vulnerable, easily scattered sheep—safe from forces that would bring them harm. I think of ways that people’s faith have been helping them in this time when we all feel so vulnerable. Many of you have shared stories about how prayer and regular devotional time or meeting on Zoom with a Women’s Circle or a small group have helped give a sense of safety and solidarity with one another. Some families with young children have shared how they sit down at the dinner table each evening or the breakfast table each morning and watch video devotions together, and I bet for just a few minutes the crazy, dangerous world feels shut away. Or perhaps the crazy, dangerous world feels a little more understandable. That is Jesus, the gate, the one who with his words gives us life who keeps us sheltered and safe from those who would climb in and try to take us—things like anxiety and fear and loneliness.

A large part of being safe is being together, especially if you are a sheep. Safety is found in numbers, in being with the flock. We hear in Acts how at its infancy the church thrived on gathering as a body. Each of the four main things to which they devoted themselves were all community-based activities: fellowship, breaking bread, sharing prayer requests, and listening to the apostles’ teachings. Those still form the core of the church’s life today, and it is hard to do them in social isolation.

Safety—physical safety—isn’t in numbers now. For a while safety is in isolation, and so there is this tension in our faith. I can give thanks for the ways our digital communications are bringing us together but I am also in mourning because there are uniquely ways God shepherds us when we’re physically together that we’re not experiencing now.

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Regardless of our separation and the loneliness of little individualized pastures we’re grazing on now, the one who stands by the gate does call us by name. We are each known to the shepherd and as we go out and come in, as we venture into new and renewed relationships and as we find shelter from forces that would harm us, we are greeted and called by the God who knows our stories, knows our identities, knows who and whose we are.

This week I got to speak on the phone with George Allan, a member of our congregation who is still hospitalized with COVID-19, but who is improving. He was telling me about the night he was taken by ambulance to the hospital. He had fallen in the night and wasn’t able to get back on his feet. Alone and weak, he inched himself near to his Alexa device and said, “Alexa, call 9-1-1.” Alexa said, “George, I cannot call 9-1-1.” Apparently Alexa devices are prevented from making emergency calls. (I was not aware of that, but it’s good to know). So George said, “Alexa, call Steve.” Steve is George’s son, who lives in Oregon. Alexa said, “George, do you want me to call Steve’s home number or cell phone number?” George told him to call Steve’s cell phone number, Steve answered, and was able all the way from Oregon to get George the help he needed. Because Alexa knew the sound of George’s voice, and because Alexa was so near that George could call out and be heard, George was able to be helped. In fact, his life was probably saved.

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I’m glad to say George is able to laugh at it now, but that is like the relationship we have with our God, who stands by the gate and loves each of his sheep. And saves them. One by one he calls them, and they come to know his voice because they are near him and trust him. You see, at some point faith is more than knowing about God and is more about stepping into a relationship with God. It is about sharing the experiences of faith with other sheep of the sheepfold and figuring out ways the same God has been active in all our lives. This is how we learn the voice of the shepherd who saves us.

May you know his voice as you walk with him and talk with him under quarantine. May you rest in the confidence that on the cross, Jesus truly opens the gate to every bit of abundant life you need even in the valley of the shadow of death. The thieves and bandits have already killed and destroyed him. And all of us have taken him for granted, to some degree or another. But he has come back for us, risen and alive, to claim us and call us by name.

May you be safe—safe in the security of Jesus’ eternal words and within a love that will never let you go.

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr. 

Scars

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

John 20:19-31

It is the Sunday after the resurrection of our Lord and, like every year on this Sunday, Jesus is showing his scars.

And now that I’m preaching and talking on camera so much, I’m ever aware of some of my scars because they’re probably more visible to you in this format. The main scar I’m thinking about is the one right on the top of my head. I wish I had some cool story to go along with it, something I could share that would leave you amazed and fascinated with my past, but unfortunately for me I got this scar when I went to take a drink from a water fountain during a basketball game when I was in seminary about twenty years ago. I ran and jumped up to touch an Exit sign and didn’t calculate my ups very well and my head hit a metal door frame at full speed. The impact didn’t knock me out, but it did send me to the emergency room pretty quickly. The whole team of nurses and doctors gathered around me because they’d never seen such a deep cut on anything but a cadaver. They put stitches and staples in it to help it heal.

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I can feel that scar.

A couple of weeks later when I went to have the staples removed, the physician let out a gasp. A terrible scar had formed because of the way they’d stapled me up, and he recommended I go into surgery for a scar revision. He had looked at my chart and seen that I was going to be a pastor and he figured the scar would be too ugly and distracting for a person who would be talking in front of people all the time.

I can’t see the top of my head, no matter how hard I try, but I can run my fingers over it and tell it’s there. The doctor actually had a technical, medic term for how bad the scar was. I just remember that he said it would “catch the light.” Does it? Can you tell?

In the end, I never got the surgery to revise my scar, and almost no one ever makes a comment about it, but it’s funny how we so often think of scars as distracting and ugly. Jesus does not find his scars as distracting. They are the opposite of distracting. His scars are fundamental to his identity. The story about how his scars got there is essential to understanding who he is. He does not cover them up, does not go for a scar revision. He rolls his sleeves right up and says, “Look guys, look Thomas.” And if that’s not enough he says “Go ahead and run your hand over these things. It’s me. I suffered. But now I’m back.”

This is a week after Jesus’ resurrection, and what has just happened is still not clear to everyone. The night right after Jesus rose from the dead the disciples are huddled together in one place and they are primarily afraid. That is somewhat understandable given all the tension and the violence that has led up to this point. The religious authorities who came after Jesus would very likely be on the hunt for Jesus’ followers.

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“The Incredulity of St. Thomas” (Carravaggio)

But another week goes by and still his closest companions, the men and women he travelled and worked with and worked hard to form close bonds between, the guys whose feet he actually washed are not quite fully aware of what has happened. Thomas gets all the attention for doubting because he wasn’t there that first night Jesus appeared, but my guess is they all struggled to believe.

The first thing Jesus does when he appears to them behind locked doors, after he says, “Peace be with you,” is to show them those scars on his hands and side. What do you struggle to believe? What do you think people struggle to believe these days about God or life in this world? Do you believe my story about how I got my scar? Why do you believe it? Do you trust my testimony? You weren’t there. Unless you’re Travis or Jason. if they are watching today, they saw it. they were there. And they tried not to laugh at me.

This initial reaction from Jesus’ closest followers right on the heels of his resurrection presents to us a basic element of having faith and building trust. Doubt. Doubt is just part of the equation. Like an uninvited guest behind the locked doors of that room, like a permanent stain on new white robe, like a sniffly, itchy nose on an otherwise bright spring day in Richmond, doubt never completely goes away.

All of the gospel writers, but especially John, mention doubt among the disciples almost as soon as the resurrection happens, and we should be thankful for that. We should be thankful for that honesty because doubt is a perfectly natural reaction. It’s not the reaction that Jesus is looking for, but it is still natural, and it’s helpful to explore it.

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Many of us probably doubt the resurrection of Jesus here and there. And many of us probably have doubts about a lot of other things related to God. It’s helpful to me that the gospel writers include this, that they tell us the disciples are huddled in a locked room, that at least one of them demands to see proof. Doubt and faith kind of go hand in hand, and that is clear right from the beginning of the Christian message. Belief vacillates to some degree in most of us, like a river that rages at some points but at other times is dry.

We tend to trust science so much for that reason. Science, with its methods and proofs, with its different checks and balances, seems to be a more dependable as a source of truth and knowledge. And that is a good thing. But at some point we realize that not all questions in life worth answering can be answered with science or its methods. Science is only good for a certain kind of knowledge. At some point we realize that life is built on other kinds of knowledge. Life is more than just scientific facts and material evidence.

And that’s how John ends his gospel. That understanding is built right into the ministry of Jesus. Blessed are those who have not seen, he says, and yet believe— blessed are those who have not had the opportunity to test everything with their eyes and their hands and their test tubes and their graphs and their degrees and yet have come to develop a relationship of trust in God. Blessed are those who lean on this belief in such a way they begin to understand the good life God gives them. Blessed are those who trust without the cold hard evidence but only the testimony of those who were there.

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Doubt will still be there…the key is how Jesus addresses it. He is kind about it. He is loving with it. He seems to make space for it even before we do, as he walks into that locked room and shows them his side and hands before the disciples even say one word. We have a God who has raised his Son from the dead, and we also have a God who helps us receive that news on our terms. Doubting is not ridiculed. Doubters are not expelled. They are welcomed and included.

What actually might be harder swallow in all of this is not the fact that Jesus is risen from the dead, or that God exists and has been glorified in the cross, but that this God sends us just as the Father sent Jesus.

Jesus wastes no time in getting that point across. There are no high-fives, no atta-boys, no kickback and relax moments after the resurrection. Jesus didn’t die so we could, you know, take it easy. The disciples do take a deep breath that afternoon, but it’s a breath that gives them a mission, pushes them out into the world. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus says, Forgive others.” So if God sends Jesus to love and Jesus winds up with scars, then guess what we should expect when we go into the world as one of his followers?

We are presented with another fact of this good news of Jesus’ risen life: the resurrection of Jesus Christ rescues us, but it does not preserve us. Bearing God’s Holy Spirit into the world and entering the lives of others as Jesus did means, well, I think it means we’re liable to get wounded too. And the scars will not primarily be on the surface. They’ll be internal. They’ll be in our heart, on our mind, with our emotions. But the stories by which we accrue these wounds will be stories of redemption and hope and salvation. The stories through which these scars develop will, thanks to God’s presence and grace, be stories of love in action. I bet if you look at the life of anyone who has truly loved you you will see that you have hurt them in some way. And I bet if you look at the times you’ve grown the most there are deep wounds that have done some healing. Miraculously.

This is where God is active in the world—in the nitty-gritty details of building and repairing trust among human beings. It’s going to take a power stronger than sin and death, a force stronger than science alone to do it. We will be hurt in much the same way as Jesus was, but God’s love will rescue us and be victorious.

I wonder about the scars we will bear from our culture’s current situation. Scars of fear, scars of grief, literal scars from surgeries and injury due to illness. Scars of from homeschooling. Scars from countless Zoom sessions. surely there are other ones. One recent article I read suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the economy and different industries for years but that Generation Z, people born after 9/11 and coming of age and missing school right now, may have their worldview impacted for the rest of their lives in the ways that kids who grew up during the Great Depression habitually saved bits of aluminum foil for the rest of their lives.

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Time will tell. Time will tell how this affects them and us. But nevertheless, Jesus sends his followers as the Father sent him. Doubting or believing or a mixture of the two, we are sent. Beyond those doors we’ve locked.

And it may be a big no-no to breathe on each other right at this moment, but we can share the breath of the Holy Spirit with one another. Will we teach this young generation ways of living that embody peace and forgiveness Will we inspire with our comments and actions hope in our present circumstances, or despair? Will people of faith model for them and for all of us how to receive with grace those who don’t trust the God of Jesus yet or don’t know him? Will we let our heroes be the people who heal and love sacrificially, who show the effectiveness of humility?

I think they will be. I think in many ways they already are—whether those examples of faith are widely known or not. God is already providing us people who are willing to show their vulnerability and give of themselves. God is already raising up servant leaders who are exhibiting peace and calm when the rest of us are reaching for panic. One physician in our congregation who serves on staff and faculty at MCV has arranged special webinars through Zoom whereby kids can submit questions directly to medical professionals to get real answers about the COVID crisis, and she has enlisted youth to moderate these panels. I got to witness one of her panels this week and it was encouraging to see that kind of resourcefulness in action. Children able to speak directly to doctors. imagine what kinds of seeds that may plant.

We can’t see Jesus like those first disciples did, but may we still know him walking and talking among us today. And may we know we are blessed just to trust the testimony of those who did seen him. And may it inspire us to breathe again. and tell the story. and to share our scars.. and know, by the grace of God, lo and behold, they do catch the Light. the light of the Risen One.

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr

Where We’re Expected

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

Matthew 28:1-10 and Colossians 3:1-4

What a place to deliver an Easter message…our columbarium! You are probably not expecting me to be here, are you? You are probably expecting to see me back in the sanctuary where a preacher usually is. That’s what we’d all expect because we’re used to it. Preachers preach from a pulpit, or at least from a sanctuary or a church. This is a little strange, to be honest. I wouldn’t expect to find myself here, but here I am, and to be quite honest, this might be the best place to deliver an Easter sermon. I mean, after all, the first Easter sermon, the first truly good news, was preached at a tomb and no one expected to hear the message there, either.

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And so I’m not the first to do this, by a long shot. It’s been done countless times before. The Moravians in my hometown of Winston-Salem begin their city-wide Easter celebration by gathering in the cemetery. People come from all across the city in the early morning hours, just like the first women we hear about this morning, and stand among the gravestones and announce the news of Jesus’ resurrection.

One may initially think of such a location as dark and forlorn. Most of my meetings here, like the one we had yesterday to lay one of our dear, long-time members to rest, are somber gatherings, laden with grief and sadness. However, we know that a place like this is actually a place of hope. Because Jesus is risen, every columbarium, every cemetery, every tomb is a place of that bears the good news. That first Easter sermon went like this: “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here.”

We may be surprised, but the news is not fake. Jesus has risen from the dead, releasing from death’s grip all who have died, releasing from sin’s grip all who are living. Christ is risen, here and everywhere!

Our particular columbarium here at Epiphany is gripping. It is designed to grip you, physically, once you walk in. The walls, which are perfectly circular, completely embrace you. It creates an atmosphere of calm and silence, which is good, but it also effectively shuts out the world around you. I like this design, but it is clear that when you are in, you are really in. It grips you, encloses you, surrounds you.

It occurs to me that this is actually how many of us are feeling about life right now.

We are gripped by a public health emergency that may last several more weeks. Still under certain restrictions, we are literally surrounded by the walls of our homes, barely able to leave. How many of us are ready to break free? We are also enclosed by the anxiety of financial hardship, feeling that the world we once knew has been shut out or is gone. We are hemmed in by news of death and disease.

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map of the COVID-19 pandemic

But the resurrection story is full of God’s ability to break through and break down the things that grip and enclose God’s people. Just listen to what happens as the women show up to see Jesus’ tomb. First, there is the stone at the entrance to the tomb: a blockade if there ever were one! These stones were enormous and designed to make the grave a one-way passage. But the stone is rolled away as first an earthquake occurs and then when an angel of the Lord comes down to sit upon it, as if to say, “No big deal.”

Matthew is the only gospel writer to record an earthquake at the resurrection. Matthew uses the word for earthquake in several places to signal a major change of the future, to shift our attention to what God is doing to bring about the final vision of his kingdom. At the tomb that morning, an earthquake moves the stone away—the stone that still grips life— and reveals God’s vision for the kingdom has no place for death.

Then there are the men who guard the tomb. We can imagine them with big weapons and a menacing posture, standing there ready to grip anyone who may tamper with it. The angel of the Lord takes care of them. They shake and become, we are told, like dead men.

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And then there is perhaps the most gripping force of all: fear. Fear, that force that comes from within, is often the most immobilizing of all. The women must feel so much fear that morning, that they twice they hear, “Do not be afraid”—once from the messenger and once from Jesus himself. It is the Word of God that breaks through. It is the Word of God, ever alive, always living, that comes to shatter our chambers of doubt and fear—the Word of God that can break through the walls that surround us and bring us new life.

In what ways are you seeing the Word of God claim victory over worldly threats and break through the powers that grip you? How have you encountered the Word of God busting you loose from the bonds of sin and darkness that hold you fast? Where have you found God’s grace and love where you didn’t expect it?

Once the stone and the guards and the fear are overcome, the story continues. The women leave the tomb because Jesus is not where they expected him to be. He has been raised and is already ahead of them in the world. And that is precisely where God expects to find us. When Jesus goes looking for his people, he expects to find them out and about, filled with the hope of new life. He expects to find them on the move, out there, announcing by their very presence and witness that God is victorious over death.

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This is what the writer of Colossians means this morning when he says our life is hidden with Christ in God. If Christ is out of the tomb, beyond the fear, no longer in death’s grip, then somehow we are, too. In a world that still often operates out of fear and anxiety, Christ’s people are people of life and possibility. This life of hope and joy we share is not always obvious and immediately apparent because the world seems so dark sometimes, but it is there, hidden in the everyday, hidden in plain sight. The people of Christ, the people of Easter, are sent out in the world to be and look for God’s new creation, to set our minds of things that are above in the midst of scenarios that try to focus us on the fear.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a webinar given by Philip Jenkins, a professor at Baylor University and one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars in the history of Christianity. I guess this is the age of webinars, isn’t it? I tried to avoid using that word for so long because it sounds weird: webinar. I remember when I first heard of them I thought there’s no way this will last. But here we are, webinars all the way! Anyway, the subject of the webinar was Christian responses to epidemics throughout history, and he was quick to explain right at the start that things like plagues and widespread diseases like we are dealing with now are actually the norm for Christian history. One early bishop of the church, Dionysius, who served during an outbreak of one plague that killed thousands, described plagues as a “school” for people of faith. Why would he say something like that? Why it is a school, a time of testing?

Because, as we have come to see ourselves, life in a time like this gives followers of Christ and exceptionally intense but wonderful opportunity to practice the central tenets of their faith. To put it another way, life during the kind of widespread suffering that can claim anyone is a perfect time to live as people of hope and healing and resurrection. It is time to have no fear, to venture out into the world’s suffering because Jesus is risen from the dead. It’s a time to have no fear, to hunker down if it’s called for because it may alleviate the world’s suffering. And whatever happens, it is a time to trust that anything that stands in the way of God’s love for us has been conquered. Our life is eternal, hidden in Christ, at a time when so much seems uncertain.

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Behind me you can see elements of our church construction, where for months workers have been ripping up the old parking lot and the old structures and laying a foundation for a renewed one. It is a wonderful image of new creation. Earth being moved around. Even some very large stones have been moved away. One day not too long ago I was chatting with one of the workers on site while he was taking a break. He was particularly excited to talk to me that day because he wanted to share with me that over the weekend he was going to be attending the baptisms of his two grandchildren.

I could tell there was something more he wanted to share. Sure enough, as he explained, his grandchildren were not going to be baptized in a church, and while he didn’t seem disappointed, it was sure he didn’t know what to make of it. As it turns out, both of his grandchildren were of military families and they were going to be baptized aboard a ship down in the Norfolk harbor. He wasn’t sure what it was going to look like, how it was going to feel, if there was going to be a congregation there, if he would like it. But then he proudly reached for his phone to show me pictures.

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I’m not sure what a baptism on a ship would feel or look like, but as I’ve thought about that conversation, and as I’ve thought about this world, I think a ship is a perfect place for a baptism. If Christ is out of the tomb and we are now hidden in him, we should expect that God’s grace for us should set us on the move, on the waves of life, always abroad and even adrift at times.

The church, God’s people, the Easter believers—we are people of a ship. That is one of the oldest images of the church, and what many sanctuary designs are based on. The place where we would normally be sitting is called the nave, like the word “navy.” The point is—whether we are here this year or not, the church’s place is out in the world. The church’s stance is unafraid, ready to learn, full of hope, ready for the earthquake. The church’s tasks are looking to heaven, preaching life, expecting Jesus to meet us exactly where God expects us to be! So let’s move, people. Anchor’s aweigh. Have no fear.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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One Act of Obedience

A sermon for Maundy Thursday

1 Corinthians 10:23-26 and John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Typically on this night we are together. Typically on this night we have the table set with the bread and the wine and we gather to remember the events surrounding our Lord’s last meal. Typically on this night, year after year, we are celebrating with our fourth graders who have completed their Holy Communion classes, many of whom would be joining us around the table for the meal for the first time. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, none of those things will occur this year, and I don’t know about you, but I feel a sense of loss and sadness. I was looking forward to working with those fourth graders during Sunday School in Lent and watching them finally take the bread and wine with that look of mystery and joy on their faces. I was looking forward to seeing them kneel at the altar rail with their family members and then be surrounded by their church family too. I know they were looking forward to it all, too. Some of them have been asking me about when they get to receive the Lord’s Supper since the fall. One of these days very soon we will all be back and one of the things we will put at the top of our list is receiving those young disciples at the table. That will be a joyous day.

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First Communion class of 2016

We have wanted to find some way to share this Supper during this time of physical distancing, but each way we can think of to do so would very likely exclude quite a few people and complicate the message of what Jesus’ meal is really about. We could try sharing the meal digitally, so-to-speak, but not everyone has access to internet or is able, for whatever reason, to access these services on-line. Furthermore, there is no way to ensure that everyone would have access to and be able to receive bread and wine, the elements we would be sharing here. There would be too much potential for disunity and confusion, which is precisely what the apostle Paul was addressing in the Corinthian church in our second reading this evening.

Paul had heard there was division among them, especially at that moment when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Some had food available, while others were needy. These divisions of haves and have-nots were undermining the unity and love the meal was supposed to foster and symbolize. Paul gently reminds them they are to do what was passed on to him, nothing different—they break apart the blessed bread and share it around, and then do the same with a common cup. It is his way of reminding them of the heart of this meal and the main message of tonight, which is love. The commandment that Jesus teaches his first disciples that night he shares his last supper is that they are to love one another as he had loved them.

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Friends, the best way for us to love one another at this uncomfortable point in our common life is to refrain from celebrating Holy Communion until we can all be together again. The best way we can nurture our congregational community and our bonds of love with one another is, ironically, to fast from the table, because we will all be fasting together. We will remain steadfast in God’s Word, rely on the promises of our baptism, and join in prayer for one another and the world around us.

Speaking of going through things together, I have been hearing more and more talk lately about what kinds of lasting impacts this pandemic lifestyle might have on our society and our individual lives. Will this have some type of legacy, some enduring or at least lingering effect on the ways we view life and our relationships? I saw a statistic the other day about Google searches over the past four weeks. Searches for things like “home workout,” “jigsaw” and “make bread”  have skyrocketed over the past month. People share about how they’ve been reminded of the uncertainty and fragility of life, but they also talk about enjoying the slower pace of things and cherishing time with family. Some, who are more isolated and lonely than usual, talk about how much they had taken certain fellowship opportunities for granted. I’ve enjoyed watching the creativity that some families in our congregation have displayed with meals each evening. They have themes and each person dresses up—sports theme, beach theme, Star Wars theme. Will all of these kinds of things and feelings be a lasting trend, incorporated into our lifestyles, or will they fade like mist once the heat of our old patterns return?

It is hard to say, but legacy is on Jesus’ mind this night. Jesus wants to be remembered by love, and not just any old love. Jesus wants his followers to hang onto this kind of self-sacrificial love, costly love, love that puts us at our neighbors’ feet. At one point after his last meal, Jesus gets up from the table and takes off his outer robe and ties a towel around himself. It’s like Jesus puts on his PPE—his personal protective equipment. He then places himself at the dirtiest, most germy place of service. He grabs the feet of Peter and begins to wash them. Jesus exposes himself to all the places Peter has walked, all the dusty and mud-caked roads Peter has been on. The water pours over Peter’s feet and gets more and more dirty, but the lesson becomes more and more clear: their life together and their witness to the world will be forever linked. The ways they humbly care for each other and the ways they even sacrifice dignity and power and privilege in order to serve the other will be the way Jesus’ love is experienced in the world.

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Exactly 75 years ago today, a German Lutheran pastor by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis at Flossenburg concentration camp after accusing him in an assassination plot against Adolf Hitler. The world remembers Bonhoeffer for many things, including his compassion for his students and parishioners, his faithful opposition to the fascist powers in control, and his writings on theology and scripture. He, too, is remembered as a humble man but one of strong Christian faith, a person who continued to serve his fellow prison inmates as a pastor and a spiritual guide right up until the moment of his death.

Bonhoeffer once said, “One act of obedience is worth a hundred sermons.” That is what Jesus teaches his followers as he shares this meal with them and washes their feet. One act of obedience to that kind of love, one act of obedience to a neighbor in need, will be a force far more powerful than anything they say. This kind of obedience sends Jesus to the cross. It is not just the feet of Peter than he intends to clean with his mercy and compassion but the entire world.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Feb 4, 1906 – April 9, 1945)

We only need to open our eyes and see thousands of acts of obedience around us today. Nurses, physicians, scientists, lab techs, pharmacists, and all kinds of medical professionals are literally kneeling at the needs of people in this dark hour of need. Mothers and fathers are stooping to teach their kids at home. Teachers are bending over backward to put materials on-line and nurture young minds. Restaurant owners who can barely pay employees are delivering free meals to overworked hospital staffs. Thousands of acts of obedience are worth millions of sermons.

And Jesus invites you and me into our own acts of obedience. Our feet are washed—our whole lives are washed—and we can put the towel around our waist and get to work. And here’s the thing: Jesus is not just remembered as we do this. He is not dead, and he does not just leave a legacy. He lives, and his Spirit brings his presence to each of us and to the world each time we enact this love. Furthermore, guess what? Each time we gather for this meal there is a theme: the self-giving of God. And we get dressed in Jesus’ righteousness. This is no legacy. It is a rebirth! It is a new life that lasts—it lasts in you and it lasts in me and it lasts in us and in each act of humble service.

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We give thanks to God for these humble acts that make the whole world whole again that make dirty souls clean again and broken hearts ready to love again. One act of obedience is worth a hundred sermons. Let us be silent and adore the obedience to love we are about to see unfold.

 

Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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God, the ventilator

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

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

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

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

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Ornament Valley, from Disney’s Cars

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

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

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

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Radiator Springs, before the bypass came

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And God knows these bones will live.

 

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The opposite of social distancing

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

John 4:5-42

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

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

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still drinkable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Enough food donated in one day to make 70 bags!

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

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

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Loved, Saved, and Wet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks be to God!

Jasper saved 2

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.