At the Beginning, Wilderness

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

Luke 4:1-13

One of the stories that gets told in our household from time to time is of the difficulties we had weaning our middle child off her pacifier. She did not want to give that thing up and would refuse to sleep without it.  You could put it in her mouth even when she old enough to talk on her own and it would almost make her eyes roll back in her head. When the time came for us to start removing it, maybe when she was around 2 or so, we calmly explained that big kids didn’t need pacifiers anymore. We braced ourselves for a few nights of bad sleep and fussy behavior.

One of those first days Melinda went out to run errands and stayed home to put the girls to bed. When Melinda came back, I told her that Laura had been really fussy and restless and I had needed to go in a few times and get her back in bed. Then, I said, suddenly she just stopped crying. Melinda said, “I bet she has a pacifier.” We went up into her room, and sure enough, she was sleeping with a pacifier in her mouth and one in her hand. How had she gotten them? We had hidden them behind Melinda’s jewelry box on the top of our dresser. Maybe Laura had found some other ones? We went into our bedroom, and there in front of our dresser was an overturned laundry basket. Items on the top of the dresser were scooted about, including the jewelry box.

Little Laura was a sneaky one. And while we were kind of proud of her determination and resourcefulness, but we also came to understand that by taking her pacifier away we had turned her comfortable bed into a wilderness. Right at the beginning of her life she had had been suffering and wrestling with temptation.

The first thing Jesus does after he is announced as God’s beloved Son on the world stage is to suffer and wrestle with temptation. The Spirit of God leads him there. I can think of a lot of other things I would choose a Savior to do first other than go off into the wilderness and experience temptation. Enjoy the attention from adoring crowds, perhaps. Choose a group of followers. Go to DisneyWorld? But we instead we hear that the Spirit leads Jesus off to struggle with demons first, and do that in, of all places, the wilderness.

The wilderness is not always a terrible place. Lots of people in Scripture found themselves in the wilderness at some point and it turns out to be a place of new discovery and new beginnings. The people of God, when they were released from slavery in Egypt, spent forty years in the wilderness and although they had many rough times there, ultimately it made them into a better people. At the time of John the Baptist, people seeking religious experiences and purity would often go live for long periods of time in the wilderness.

And, not to make light of those experiences, people still like to go camping and backpacking in our day, leaving behind the humdrum of urban or suburban life to spend time in the woods in a tent or camper. Statistics on the camping industry, in fact, indicate that 10.1 million households in America camped for the first time in the summer of 2020, the first summer of the pandemic. Our congregation, in fact, has reserved campsites at Sherando Lake State Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains this June in order to spend some community building time in a wilderness setting and I guarantee you people will have a blast. And so often people find the wilderness to be a place of growth and refreshment.

Growth, yes, but refreshment doesn’t appear to be the case for Jesus who goes there and ends up confronting the devil  and struggling with some very tricky questions. This may seem to us like a very strange way for the beloved Son of God to start his ministry, but it ends up being very helpful for us. That’s because we often fall into a trap that tells us being a faithful follower of God will lead to a life of ease and blessing. It’s a trap that tries to convince us things like…if we come to church enough then things in our life will start to fall in line, or that if we do enough good deeds then somehow God will reward us and our troubles will go away or that if we believe the right things God will notice and give us favor. What this essentially is, though, is a kind of faith that is built on how strong we are before God, or how pure we can prove ourselves to be, and right at the start Jesus blows a hole right through that way of thinking.

By going into the wilderness and willingly facing the devil, feeling hungry, enduring temptation, he shows us God’s willingness to live a human life. For if the very beloved Son of God is going to struggle in faith, if God’s anointed Messiah and Savior is going to have a rough go right from the start, then can’t we expect that we will too, somewhere along the way? Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness shows us that feeling temptation, undergoing trials and hardships, struggling and suffering aren’t signs of a lack of faith or a sign that God isn’t with us. Trials are going to be, in fact, a natural part of a life with God.

Jesus walks, as we do, in a world broken by sin and suffering. Faith, therefore, is not about figuring out a way out of hard times. It is about trusting that Jesus will get us through, even when we fail even when the times of struggle overwhelm us. We see photos of Ukrainian Christians still continuing to gather for Ash Wednesday worship services this week in bomb shelters and among the rubble of war and it helps us put this in perspective. Their suffering seems to be driving them closer to God’s care.

Ukrainians gather for prayer in a Kyiv church basement Feb. 26, 2022, as the Russian invasion of their country endures. (CNS photo/courtesy Polish Bishops’ Conference)

The devil, who is the entity in the wilderness who comes to tempt Jesus, is a mysterious figure in and of himself. Mark, Matthew, and Luke all share this story about Jesus, but they all have different names for Jesus’ competitor. Mark calls him Satan. Matthew calls him the devil but at one point substitutes it with the word “tempter.” Luke uses the word devil, or diabolos in Greek, which literally means “slanderer,” someone who deliberately tells lies. Another trap of faith is to give this being too much attention. An embodied evil being doesn’t appear anywhere else in the gospels, even when Jesus is struggling with fear and trial on the night of his arrest and betrayal.

Whether this thing or this presence is called a devil or Satan or something else the point is the same: it is an attempt for people of faith to describe the force in the world and inside us that works against the good, who wants to spread lies about whose we are and what God is like. And whether or not we find it easy to believe in the existence of an actual, physical devil, I think most of us encounter or at least observe some opposition to love and peace every day. And we really can’t overcome that opposition on our own. Martin Luther says, “No strength of ours can match his might. We would be lost, rejected.” But this brokenness is what Jesus comes to face head-on right from the start.

Put together, these three specific temptations that Jesus endures encompass all the things that would chip away at our trust in God alone. Turning stones into bread, or turning stones into pacifiers, would take away Jesus’ pain from hunger. This is about physical, bodily needs. But one does not live by bread alone because in the end God is our one true desire. God does not want anyone to be hungry, but on the other hand when we make life only about bread and not about the soul we end up having a distorted relationship with things that nourish our bodies and others’.

The second temptation, when the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, is about putting trust in power and fame, two other things that look terribly attractive to us. Again, in the wilderness, Jesus proves where his trust really lies. His response this time, also taken from the Jewish Scriptures, reminds us that we can all too often be drawn to worship and show devotion to our own status and institutions.

The third temptation might be the most difficult to withstand. The devil asks him to throw himself from the temple wall. It shouldn’t be a big deal because God will surely swoop down and save him from dying. But that is not about trusting God. It often looks like trusting God. It looks like we’re saying, “See, I can push the envelope a little bit here because God will keep me safe.” But really it is manipulation of God. In reality it is testing God to see if God will be there like some kind of divine bungy cord.

Jesus knows that kind of relationship is not a quality relationship with God. When we truly love people we don’t try things just to see how far we can push it because we think they will love us anyway. We give ourselves to them in obedience and faith. This is what Jesus models in the presence of the devil. Jesus trusts his Father and loves his Father, and so he wants to be true to that relationship. He doesn’t throw himself off the temple wall to see how far he can push it.

He also doesn’t tear himself down from the cross. When the devil leaves at the end of these temptations, Luke says he departs until “an opportune time.” The cross in the opportune time to get Jesus to turn away from his love for us, if you know what I mean. It is the supreme temptation, the ultimate time of trial, but Jesus has already proven that he is unwavering in his mission to save. He will not think of his bodily needs first. He will not think of his fame or his reputation or power first. He will not use God’s get out of jail card free. He comes to release us from all of these trials and claim us for God.

Several years ago we noticed that there were cars often parked in our parking lot at strange hours of the day. Sometimes it was right after worship was over on Sunday. Then we noticed there were people sitting in those cars. After we approached some of these people we learned from them that Epiphany is a gym in the online game known as Pokemon Go! A gym in Pokemon Go! is a place where players can battle the players of rival teams. Players from an opposing gym will go against each other in order to gain control of it. So there was this whole warfare going on out there in our parking lot in the cybersphere unbeknownst to us, a fight for control and domination.

Well and good.  And here, inside, each week, at the table, in his word, Christ reminds us he has dominated the forces of darkness and temptation and has already claimed us for his kingdom.  In fact, each and every day that we remember our baptism, and call to mind his cross Jesus is there, reminding us he did not back down or give in. For us, he did not back down and he won. And this Conqueror goes with us—Jesus Go!—now and forevermore!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Our Funeral

a sermon for Ash Wednesday

2 Corinthians 5:20–6:10

In her very short poem, “Take Your Kids to the Funeral,” American poet Michelle Boisseau, who herself died from lung cancer in 2017, pleads the case for bringing even young children to church funeral services, even though they might not understand what’s going on. Their presence will lighten the mourners’ moods as they play with the bulletin, and let their legs dangle back and forth over the pew’s edge but will also introduce them to a world of mystery and power beyond themselves.

She describes the sounds of a church sanctuary filled with grieving people, and kids can be such an unexpected gift in such a place. Often when we are often worshiping as a body, no matter when that is but especially at a funeral, our attention can’t help but be drawn to children as they squirm and find ways to pass the time. They bring life and curiosity into places of death and sadness.

Boisseau writes:

Take Your Kids to the Funeral

Let them stretch out on the cool pews
and listen to the valves of the church
pump with coughs and foot scrapes.
Let them discover the pleasing weirdness

of pressing your belly against the seat edge
and swinging your legs. Let them roll
the bulletin into a telescope, stare a hole
into their hands and heal it.

The liturgy won’t hold them, but the furtive
dabbing versus sudden bursts of tears
will foster a curiosity about powers
and exponents. Rock, paper, scissors—

luck leaps in your fingers. Bring your kids
to the funeral and let us smell their heads. 1

Today, Ash Wednesday, we bring ourselves to the funeral. In fact, if you’ve ever wondered about what this day and this worship means, it is about having the chance to show up at your own funeral. We step forward in a sanctuary with its coughs and foot scrapes and receive ashes, admitting our finitude and coming to terms with the darkness of our souls once again. It is reminiscent of one of the actions pastors perform at most burials—dropping a handful of dirt on the casket in the sign of the cross.

Just as the prophet Joel issued a call for the people of Israel to bring everyone, even the babies, and assemble in the sanctuary with weeping and fasting and mourning in order to look the fearsome destruction of death in the eye, so we assemble ourselves today and have fearsome destruction smeared between our eyes. I doubt there will be any sudden bursts of tears, but there is a somberness to this beginning of Lent, the kind of somberness we almost think is inappropriate for children to be exposed to.

We are very much alive! We may even wonder: do we even belong here? Do we need to stop and think about these things? What good could it do? Someone hand me bulletin so that I can make a telescope or play Tic-Tac-Toe. We are so filled with life. And yet are dying, and this is our funeral.

I’ve been thinking so much recently, as we all have, about the situation in Ukraine, but I’ve also been haunted by what is going on in Moscow, and in the small towns across Russia where tens of thousands of 18- and 19-year-olds have been conscripted by the Russian army and placed on the front lines, apparently without much food and without much fuel for their tanks. I think of how scared and confused they must be, how terrified and sad their parents probably are. Some of their text messages to their parents from the war in Ukraine that I’ve seen on social media are heart-wrenching to read. Ukrainian soldiers are receiving praise for their courage and flintiness, and rightly so, but what about the ones who are just miserable in their sorrow, who feel there are fighting a lost cause they did not even start? War, like funerals, to some degree, contain extremes—the brave and the fearful, the determined and the aimless, the well-resourced and the hungry. They will not need ashes from palms this year in Kyiv. Or Kabul, for that matter.

This is the world that God looks upon: The children in the pews who seem too young. The soldiers with AK-47s who are too young. The refugees with skin considered too dark. The cities with streets that are too empty. The mothers and fathers with tears they weep too soon.

And tonight, at our funeral, we hear that God does not just look on this world. God reconciles himself to this world. God himself walks into this world that contains all of these stark opposites that don’t seem to go together. Tonight, in the midst of our funeral, we rejoice because our day of salvation has come. “For our sake God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

God does not distance himself, like child left at home. God brings himself to this funeral, and makes the first move. God does not keep himself separate from what we’ve done with the world and with ourselves. God does not distance himself. God, in Christ, comes to reconcile all these things with each other and with himself in steadfast love

And so in Jesus Christ, with his cross marked on our heads, we remember that plenty of total opposites now belong together: Our sinfulness and God’s mercy. Our hard-heartedness and God’s compassion. Our inability to finish the things we start and God’s truthfulness and drive all things are complete. Our desire to hide from and ignore our call to care and God’s insistence in seeking us out and letting us try again. Our attraction to violence in solving problems and God’s standard for peace. All of these things are brought together, just as at a funeral we share our sorrows and sing with hope. And just as at a baptism we drown the old self and raise the new one up to life eternal.

Therefore we should not be surprised that the life of faith, for now, is one with so much tension between opposites. This is precisely how Paul describes it in his letter to the Corinthians, a church so caught up in their own divisions and drama that they had started to turn on him. He says that he has undergone all kinds of afflictions and hardships in order to bring this message of hope to them. He is treated as an imposter, yet is true. He is treated sorrowful, but yet always rejoicing, as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing and yet possessing everything precisely because Christ has accomplished it all for him.

When a world still does not fully acknowledge yet, or grasp that it has been died for, that unconditional love really has been poured out for it, or that God has truly conquered death and sin on the cross, faith will often be a struggle. God gives us courage to face that struggle, in ourselves and in the world around us. But God gives us the strength to move ahead knowing that the times of sorrow will have joy mixed in, and the times of hardship will have peace mixed in until the day when all it will be is joy and peace.

So we are soldiers, or a kind of fighter. Paul saw himself as one, as did some of the great figures of the Hebrew Bible—Esther, David, Miriam, Ruth, and Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego— Like them all we are called to embrace the pain and suffering and hard decisions that come with the life of faith, confident that God’s life and love is victorious in the end. Over the course of these Lenten Wednesdays we will look a little deeper at their examples of courage—whether it is in how they use their voice, or their action, or their compassion. They are people who trusted that God’s day of salvation was at hand, trusted that though death and sorrow surrounded them, God was merciful and abounding in steadfast love.

So bring yourself to this funeral tonight, and trust you may look your death right in the eye. Hear the words of sorrow and loss amidst the valves of this church’s coughs and squeaky pews.

But also know there is promise and life for you, and it has the final word—life and love of a risen Lord who claims you and lead you forth in courage.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Winning Team

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

Luke 6:27-38

Have you been watching any of the Winter Olympics over the past couple of weeks? I haven’t been able to catch as much as I normally do, but I’ve noticed that whether it is the Summer Olympic Games or the Winter Olympic ones it seems that certain countries tend to do well in certain events and sports year after year. Downhill skiing, for example, is dominated by the Austrians. Their country is basically all mountains, so they kind of have an advantage when it comes to that sport. When you think of speed skating you tend to think of the Dutch. They’ve got no mountains at all. Everything’s super flat there and there’s lots of water around so they’ve developed the talent pool to skate on icy surfaces. The Norwegians are the team to beat when it comes to cross-country skiing and this interesting sport when you ski around a while and then shoot a gun. I think it’s called biathlon. I guess in Norway there’s not just a lot of snow but also moose to hunt. Snowboarding is typically something we Americans are good at. It was invented here, and it kind of suits us: edgy, flashy, and a bit out of control. Other people from other countries may bring hold a medal from time to time, but often certain sports become the hallmark of specific people.

Matthias Mayer of Austria takes the gold

If all of life were like the Olympic games, and people of different creeds and ways of life all competing together, Jesus would say that his followers would be known for their command of forgiveness and love. Jesus’ followers would be the team to beat when it came to blessing others and sharing what they have. They’d dominate the edgy events of de-escalating conflict and seeking the higher ground.

After all, any ordinary person can do good to those who do good to them. Followers of Christ take it a step further: they win the gold with this rule of gold: do to all others as you would have them do to you. Any regular sinner, as Jesus points out, can lend something to another person hoping they’ll getting it back, maybe with interest. It’s the Christians who are notable for how they give without strings. And any old schmo can love the people who are easy to get along with. It’s the ones who have been training with Jesus who get better at loving the ones who are a bit prickly.

This is Jesus’ hope and plan for the community his love creates: that they function in the world as a people who act differently than the norm. Conspicuously, they are to hold back on judging others and condemning them for their behavior. Jesus, of course, said all of this before people had to wear facemasks. Even he had no idea how judgmental we would become one day about the wearing of or the rejecting of facemasks. Nevertheless, his vision is that the ever-rolling tide of judgmentalism might be turned back by the people who follow him.

In one of the final episodes of the first season of Ted Lasso, Apple TV’s hit over the past two years, the title character faces off against his boss’ nasty ex-husband, Rupert, who has judged Ted to be an imbecile and a rube. Through a surprising game of darts in a pub, which Ted masterfully wins, he teaches Rupert the importance of being “Curious, not judgmental.” Ted chooses it almost as a type of life motto for himself, finding there is a wisdom in holding back on judging people and instead just observing them and getting to know them.

I have to think Jesus’ sermon to his disciples lines up quite nicely with that. Be curious, not judgmental, Jesus might have said. In a world of vengeful people, be merciful. In a field of harsh and rigid ideologues out there, be gracious and flexible. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back, and you probably want to get a generous measure.

Interestingly enough, one of the oldest documents we have about the Christian faith describes in thoughtful detail what some non-Christians thought of Christ’s followers. It’s called the Letter to Diognetus, and it is unique among the early Christian writings because it is not addressed to another Christian but someone outside the faith altogether. We don’t know who the author was, but we do know it was sent to some Diognetus, who may have been a tutor to the Roman Emperor. It was likely written sometime between A.D. 150 and A.D. 225. In it the author tries to explain how this new faith, this new group of people who follow Christ, come across in society. Here’s a bit of what he tells Diognetus:

“For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric lifestyle. They share their food, but not their [spouses]. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are poor, yet they make many rich. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life.”[1]

No eccentric lifestyle. No strange customs or way of speaking. Across the ancient landscape, home to so many different sects and groups, Christians are just known for love made real in the lives of the people they come into contact with, and, most notably, in the lives of those who don’t seem to like them.

This was the reputation of Christ’s followers then, and sometimes I wonder what our reputation is now. If someone were to write a letter to Diognetus today, describing how Christians behaved as a group, would it be so flattering? What would outsiders notice and comment on?

Jesus’ instructions in his sermon on the plain apply to both individuals and to the church as a whole. It’s not easy to tell that in the English because we have the same word, “you,” for the singular and plural second person pronoun, but Jesus switches back and forth between you as individuals and you as “y’all.” So, therefore, it’s not just our own individual enemies that Jesus encourages us to treat well, but also the enemies of the church, those who oppose or persecute us.

I have to be honest and say I don’t know exactly who that might be in today’s culture, since the church isn’t being persecuted in the same way in the United States as it was in the second century. There are no gladiator games, no pits of lions we’re being thrown to. Most of the times Christ-followers, churches, and Christian groups start from a place of power and privilege in our country. Regardless, the vision Jesus casts for his community is one where the unexpected and kind response is our standard. When provoked, when inconvenienced, when ridiculed, when misunderstood, the church responds with grace and understanding and self-sacrifice.

This is no persecution, but three years ago our congregation felt a bit singled out when the county required us to put a sidewalk along Horsepen Road. No other property along this road has one, so we considered fighting it, since we were going to have to cover the cost. But in one meeting one of our builders said, “Do you really want to be a church known for refusing to build a sidewalk, for fighting against something that will make you a better neighbor and might lead to more community in your context?”

It was like that builder was reminding us of what Diognetus had heard 19 centuries ago—us, the people who should be automatically gracious and do good even when it’s hard. Now the county is proposing sidewalks all along this corridor all the way down to Forest Avenue and Patterson. We started it! Jesus hopes his followers are named for starting and continuing all kinds of good measures throughout the world.

But whether it’s the donation of a sidewalk to people who can’t pay us back, or offering our other cheek to the person who has humiliated us, or giving to the person who has already asked for too much, these are tough teachings. Some of the things Jesus asks his followers to do here are tactics of non-violent resistance, like giving your shirt even if someone takes away your coat. In ancient times, the most anyone wore on their body was an outer coat and undershirt. And so if someone assaulted you by taking your coat, then by giving them your shirt too you stood before them naked, which would have been shameful for them. I’m not sure Jesus is preparing his disciples for something that might happen to them a lot or if he’s speaking metaphorically. The point is: rather than responding violently or even aggressively or even judgmentally, through forgiveness and compassion we put them in the position where they feel humiliated by what they’ve done.

These are indeed hard things, challenging teachings. The good news is that our job is never really to follow Christ teachings, like they’re some book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble that we buy and read each morning with our coffee. We are not called to follow teachings. We are called to follow the teacher, that teacher is risen from the dead. Christ loves us, guides us, even when we fail, even when we back away from this life of love. Christ claims us though grace and equips us through his Spirit and actually lives in us, both as individuals and as a group, empowering us to response in grace to world filled with hostility. God is kind, after all, to the ungrateful and the wicked, not just the ones who always get things right.

Our ability to play on this team, to be known for love and forgiveness and mercy is not up to us at all. We are able because Jesus has first loved and forgiven and been merciful with us. Jesus comes alongside of us and shows us the way. And I don’t know about you, but I feel I hold this team of ours back all the time. Jesus comes to rescue and retrain, reboot and refresh, time and time again.

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who died just two months ago, worked for forgiveness and reconciliation in a country that was torn by the wickedness of racial segregation. He and other black people and people of color in South Africa had endured decades of cruel and wicked treatment. He was able to help the church bring about unthinkable changes of healing in that country because of his steadfast view that in Jesus God had already won against the forces of evil. He famously summed up the anti-apartheid movement by saying to those who supported it, “God is not mocked! You have already lost! We just ask that you see us as humans.”[2]

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931-2021)

Perhaps that’s the key to working on this list of unrealistic goals Jesus has for his team, a bar so high in forgiveness and love that there is only one way we can reach it. We remember we’ve already won. Our team is victorious. We love our enemies, we bless our persecutors, we live in kindness not because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s the only logical thing to do if Jesus is risen from the dead. It’s the only logical, natural thing to do if we are, in fact, what Jesus calls us: children of the Most High. And the measure we give will be the measure we get back, pressed down, shaken together, running over.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “The Epistle to Diognetus”, 5:1 ff. in The Apostolic Fathers. Edited and revised by Michael W. Holmes. Baker Books, p 541

[2] “Troublemaker in a Cassock,” The Economist, Jan 1, 2022 Edition

To Be Blessed

a sermon on the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]

Psalm 1 and Luke 6:17-26

The Smith Spring Trail in the Guadalupe Mountains of western Texas takes you on a short stretch through the Chihuahuan Desert, a vast and desolate dry area that can only grow the spiniest and prickliest plants. Because there are no trees there, no signs of human civilization—you can see for miles and miles over the rocky and barren terrain. It is all cactus and thorn for as far as the eye can see. All in all it is a 3-mile loop through desert except for one brief portion where you suddenly turn out of the wide and unforgiving landscape into a lush, almost tropical forest. That is the site of the Smith Spring, a small valley at the base of one mountain where, inexplicably, a stream of water breaks from beneath the rock and trickles down to form a small pool before cascading down the slope into a creekbed. It is a constant source of water, flowing year round.

You cannot believe how clear the water is—you feel as if you could reach down and scoop up some up with your dusty hand to slake your thirst. The vegetation noticeably changes. There are now large trees with big, drooping leaves. A ring of lacy, light-green ferns rims the edge of the pool. You look up and notice you are standing in total shade. Just a few dozen yards away, however, the desert stretches out before you.

Before my family happened upon Smith Spring this summer I had never encountered an oasis, or how just a small bit of water could make such a difference in life. It is a scene that illustrates perfectly what the composer of Psalm 1 is trying to describe. He imagines two natural landscapes like the desert and the oasis and explains their differences in stark terms: those whose delight is in the law of the Lord, who meditate on God’s teaching day and night are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season. They are like the velvet ferns and mosses that ring the pool of Smith Spring, which find their sustenance in the water’s nearness. But it is not so with the wicked. They are like the dry and broken limbs of the desert, like chaff that easily blows away in the wind.

Chihuahuan Desert, TX

Here we are asked to view a clear contrast between the righteous and the wicked, and it all comes down to how closely they are growing to the law of the Lord. Those who are connected to the things God desires and the things God loves thrive and prosper. Those who do not, those who plant themselves elsewhere, who root their live within themselves alone, will not be able to stand upright. One is blessed, the other is not. Our translation uses the word “happy” instead of blessed, but the original Hebrew conveys more of a sense of fortune than it does an emotion. Fortune, blessing, is to those who don’t consult the wicked, who don’t look to sinners for advice. But who anchor their roots in the life-giving ways of God.

It’s the first psalm of the Bible, the one that sets the tone for all the rest and teaches us right up front that God’s Word is a trusted and life-giving foundation. It’s helpful to know right up front what makes for a blessed life and what doesn’t. Sitting in my son’s kindergarten classroom for a conference this week with all the educational decorations on the wall, the rules and consequences, expectations for behavior, I could see it was clear that contrasting right from wrong is was something to teach in the very beginning.

All too often, however, we end up framing blessing and fortune in other ways. We end up thinking that blessings has to do with doing well financially. We label blessed those who are prosperous and socially successful, who have fame and power, and those who are poor or in unfortunate circumstances have been cast aside. We lift up the affluent and powerful as examples to follow because of the affluence and power we desire. We praise them for their hard work and their brilliance. And the poor—well, we often to think that somehow, somewhere, they are responsible for their ill fortune. Blessing has been bestowed on the billionaires. Damnation on the destitute.

In the church this has come to be known as the prosperity gospel, a harmful belief that financial blessings and even good health will come upon those who do God’s will and work and pray hard enough at it. The prosperity gospel gets me to focus more on what I could reach for, what I could attain, rather than where my roots are planted. This was a common way of thinking even in the ancient world. Those who were poor or in some kind of misfortune were assumed to have fallen out of favor with God.

Into this kind of world comes Jesus, the Son of God who announces the arrival of God’s kingdom. He has already said he comes to bring good news to the poor and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He has assembled a rag tag group of followers from all walks of common life. And now, amidst a huge multitude of people Jesus comes and stands on a level place to begin healing them and teaching them. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus does something similar,  but there he’s on a mountain. Luke remembers this sermon happening on a flat area, as if the landscape itself is accentuating how he is one with them, and how they are all really equal to each other.

And in the midst of this huge crowd filled with all kinds of lost and hurting people Jesus says the most peculiar thing. He says “Blessed are you who are poor…blessed are you who are hungry…Blessed are you who weep now…Blessed are you when people hate you.”

It’s the total opposite from what almost everyone would expect. All of the things that people likely thought were curses, Jesus suddenly calls blessings. All of the things we still think are curses—things we try at all costs to avoid, parts of our lives we don’t want anyone to see, people we try to redline out of nice neighborhoods and push to the other side of the tracks—Jesus calls blessings. And when he continues, it gets a little more personal, “Woe to you who are rich…Woe to you who are full now…Woe to you who are laughing now…Woe to you when all speak well of you.”

I read an article recently about how many preachers are exhausted these days because of the extremely divided nature of our country. I wouldn’t really put myself in that category, but I do know because of the highly charged political environment these days, preachers and religious leaders have to very carefully craft their message so as not to rile up one side or the other. It seems every little message or remark can get interpreted by one side or the other as an offensive stance. One of my colleagues here in Richmond describes preaching these days as walking a tightrope, carefully measuring every little word and phrase for neutrality.

Here Jesus walks no tightrope, he measures no words, he makes no room for neutrality. He is explicit and bold and in doing so his words completely reorient our understanding of who is blessed, who is fortunate, and who is not. And it flies in the face of the prosperity gospel and our own adoring perspectives on the rich of the world who offer joy rides into space and host world leaders in their private mansions. I look at Jesus’ list and find myself offended because I fall in the list of “woes.” Relatively speaking, I am very rich, and I love it when people speak well of me. I take note of how many people watch us each week on-line and all the likes on my social media posts—especially if I have a good Wordle score. You betta recognize!

During my seminary internship in Cairo, Egypt, I worked closely with many refugees from southern Sudan, Darfur, and the Horn of Africa. These were people whose lives had been utterly disrupted by violent armies who had slaughtered their loved ones and burned their villages. They came to Egypt as the only means of escape hoping they might find a safe life elsewhere, knowing they could never return. They had very little in terms of physical property. Most were mourning and also in need of physical and mental health care. I’m always a bit nervous when I speak of those who are labelled poor because everyone deserves more than being known and seen for what they have or don’t have. It is easy to romanticize poverty, too, but I learned that year that being poor is no one’s dream. It is heartbreaking not to be able to provide food for your children. Even as we celebrate the fact our congregation raised $4000 last Christmas to help Afghan refugees resettle in the Richmond area, we know it can be demeaning to exist by relying on handouts. Those who work closely with Moments of Hope, a charity our congregation will support this month through the making of 500 sack lunches, could tell you better than I can that the causes of poverty are complex. There is no part of Jesus’ words here that is lifting up poverty as a happy state or something to be desired. Jesus does not want anyone to be a refugee or hungry or grieving.

refugees at a camp in Darfur, Sudan

And yet we do learn from our refugee friends, from those we reach out to in need, how fortunate they are in one key way, just as I have learned how fortunate the widow is mourning her husband’s death, and how fortunate the high school kid who is excluded and made fun of because of their faith or church attendance.  That is, the poor have few places to put their roots but in the promises of God. Those who mourn, who’ve been racked by grief or disaster, have nowhere to turn but to the consolation from heaven because their heart is aching and empty and nothing on earth seems to help. The person who is left out of prosperity because of their skin color, for example, knows a lot more than I do how to depend on God. Ask Daniela Jacobs, Principal of Fox Elementary School, and her community of children and teachers if they believe they alone can rebuild their school and their careers.

Blessed are they! Fortunate are they! They are more apt than most others to be like trees planted by streams of water because that’s where the sustenance is reliable. And the rich and popular and powerful and ones who have it made—who are often the white, the male, the well-educated—we just so happen to be just in the right place rarely to have to depend on anyone outside of ourselves. When power is on your side and you have general control over your circumstances, why would you ever seek help outside of yourself? Woe to us! We learn too late the truth of the old Chinese Christian proverb: the only thing the human soul cannot endure is extreme prosperity.

And yet this Jesus. This very Jesus with his stern warnings for you and for me still wants people on level place, it seems, the rich and the poor, the mourning and the rejoicing. This Son of God comes to walk alongside the wicked and sit with the sinner. And so he does go to a mountain one day with his message in a giant transplanting effort so that all may be deeply rooted again and again in the mercy of God. It’s a lonely, forsaken mountain where nothing but a rugged cross sticks out of the ground. And thorns. Those too. The prickliest kind. And right there as he dies he shows us all what it truly means to throw all your trust in with God’s Word, to be nourished in things like forgiveness, mercy, hope, and love. He goes where we could never grow to show God claims it all and God conquers all.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be blessed. I want to be planted by streams of water where my roots can grow and thrive. He does that again today, my friends. To all of us. In his body and blood he gathers us all again to a level place. He gathers us all—rich and poor—to a level place with the hopes we will go from here, some of us humbled, some of us lifted up, to make the world more loving and more level.

Thanks be to God.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Truth Be Told…

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

Luke 4:21-29 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

I used to watch the TV show American Idol back in its first run when Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul were the judges. And my favorite part of that show was when the contestants were whittled down to the final three and they all went back to their hometowns. It was so interesting and touching to watch what happened as these young adults, some of whom hadn’t been home in months or years, entered the town and visited old haunts. Back when they had left, whenever that was, they had left as virtual unknowns, but they return as people who’ve made a name for themselves out tin the world, people who have gained a following, people who are loved and adored as idols.

Lauren Alaina in her hometown of Chattanooga, TN

Across the board, whenever these American Idol homecomings happened in communities small and large, the reception was of overflowing and admiration. There were parades, reunions with old schoolmates and teachers, and big feasts of hometown favorite foods. Sometimes they were presented with a key to the city or some other main symbol. If you returned like that to your hometown, what would they give you?

A couple of months ago our congregation ended up offering some pastoral care to a family from the Midwest who experienced a family tragedy here in Richmond. The Lutheran pastor of their home church found me through Facebook and Christy Huffman. Curious about where they were from I Googled the church and found they lived in Washington, Missouri, which happens to be the Corncob Pipe capital of the world. To express her thanks to me, the pastor sent me two corncob pipes from their hometown. If you’re an American Idol there, I bet you get your own corncob pipe!

No matter where they were held, those American Idol episodes allowed us to see a side of the contestant that we hadn’t seen before—a more humble side, a more human side. It kind of pulled their star back to earth for a bit.

Jesus is an idol as he visits his hometown of Nazareth. He’s made a name for himself in the communities beyond doing miracles and some teachings. He comes into his old haunts, like the synagogue he likely grew up attending with his father, and receives some admiration. But by the time the episode is over, they don’t want to just pull him back to earth a bit, give him a key to Nazareth gate. They want to throw him over a ledge and get on with their lives.

I don’t know what we’d expect from Jesus’ visit to his home community, but an attempted lynching is probably not on the initial list of possibilities. This is a very strong reaction from the people who would have helped raise him, the people who would have likely seen him working around his father’s trade, who very likely would have had him in their own homes multiple times, ancient village life being what it was. They turn on him so quickly and so ferociously after this one short sermon in the synagogue they start to sound more like Simon Cowell than a crowd of adoring fans. He stands up and reads from the prophet Isaiah a passage about how God has anointed him to bring good news to the poor and to announce release to the captives and let the oppressed go free.

These are words of redemption and hope, freedom and release. These are words that would have been greeted with enthusiastic joy, especially since Jesus declares that this time of freedom and redemption has fully arrived with him. So what happens? Why does this go south for Jesus so quickly, after his first recorded sermon?

We were told in seminary that the task of the preacher is not to say something meaningful. It’s easy to fall into that trap. I know I do! A lot of us come to church and listening to God’s Word with the hopes we’ll find meaning. We like meaningful messages, sermons rich with emotions that make us feel our lives have purpose and significance, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not the point of preaching. The task of the preacher is not to say something meaningful, but to tell the truth. We could expand that, for Jeremiah reminds us this morning that not just the preacher’s task, but anyone’s who stands in the position of proclaiming and sharing God’s Word, whenever that may be. God’s holy word declares truth about who God is and who we are.

And that is what gives Jesus the problem that morning. It is still what gives Jesus problems today as he stands in our midst and declares truth. The truth sometimes hurts. It does not care how moving or meaningful we find it.

Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth

And the truth that morning in the Nazareth synagogue is that God’s Word has always been about more than one hometown. His listeners expect that he will do something miraculous and special for him. He is the Nazareth Idol to them, and therefore they are entitled to some extra display of his greatness, some extra blessing that others in other places would not get to see.

And the truth is God blesses all. That’s actually how Jesus words it that day. He literally says, “The truth is.” The truth is that God has never really cared much for human-made boundaries and barriers and human-born allegiances and alliances. Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t operate according to who is flying which national flag or where a county line or a country border is. As it spreads out into the world to envelope people in its love and mercy, it doesn’t take into consideration what language a group of people speak or what country their ancestors came from. Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t check pedigree or educational background, what college you went to, or even if you went to college. The truth is every town, every land, is God’s hometown.

And to prove his point to them, he gives them right off the top of his head two stories from their own history where this was the case—two stories from their own Scriptures where God gave blessing to people outside not just Nazareth, but Israel altogether. The first is the case of Elijah and the widow at Zarephath. All of Israel was struggling with a massive food shortage. If God played favorites, then God probably would have chosen to give a miraculous blessing somewhere in Israel, because there were plenty of hungry people there, but God didn’t. God had Elijah go to a random nameless widow up in a town way over the border in Sidon. She is not even of his faith, but she obediently does what Elijah asks of her, showing hospitality, and as a result her small stash of food never runs out. And then, when her son falls ill and dies, Elijah peforms a miracle and revives him.

Naaman the Syrian (Pieter Fransz de Grebbe)

The second story Jesus mentions is the one about Naaman the commander of the Syrian army. This story was especially galling because Naaman was not just an outsider, but a menacing one who had actually made fun of Israel, its prophets, and its river Jordan. Plenty of people in Israel had leprosy at the time, Jesus reminds the hometown crowd, and yet God decided to heal meanie Naaman instead.

It’s kind of like when Richmond is supposed to get a record-breaking winter storm and you have a house of children excited for snow, but when everything is said and done all we have is a dusting of snow. And then we look on the news and see that Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore and even South Carolina got like 6 inches! It’s not fair!

The truth is, Jesus says, God’s blessings are not just for us. In a time when so many talk about the treasures of patriotism, of putting country first, we realize Jesus would be a terrible patriot.

This is always hard for us to hear. It’s easy to look on the folks of Nazareth and make them into the bad guys, but in reality, we all find that truth to be disconcerting. Because of our sin, humans naturally forms groups according to perceived likeness. We pool our wealth and take care of those we consider to be our own before acting altruistically toward those on the outside. We promote our own clan, our own tribe, over and against others.

Back when I worked as a counselor at Lutheridge, the program directors were constantly reminding us counselors not to form clumps among ourselves, which was a habit we all just naturally fell into. The directors wanted us to break apart and mingle with the campers. It was difficult to do that. It was just easier, especially when we were exhausted and out of ideas, to hang out with other counselors and talk about things of interest to us. But the campers needed us to be with them, to get to know them and establish relationships with them. They needed us to set aside our clique-ish behavior and reach out to form a wider community, especially to the ones who were on the fringes. Eventually the camp directors took an old empty aerosol can decorated it, and wrote the words “Anti-Clumping Spray” on it. When they’d walk around camp and see groups of counselors ignoring their campers, without needing to say anything they’d pull out that can of Anti-Clumping Spray, and we’d all scatter to the campers.

In a much more serious way but equally as gentle, Jesus’ life and love is a giant can of Anti-Clumping Spray for humankind. He doesn’t force us to love other people. He doesn’t twist anyone’s arm or guilt us to forgive and open up our hearts. Perhaps most importantly, Jesus never calls his townspeople racists or bigots. He never demeans them or insults them or calls them stupid. He never flaunts his moral superiority or acts like he’s better than everyone else.

And yet his way of offering his life knocks down our walls of selfishness and close-mindedness. Jesus comes to suffer and die to all of our foolish ways of separating ourselves and ranking ourselves as better or worse than others. Jesus comes to show us what really happens every time we force people out and label the “other.” He escapes their angry clutches that day in Nazareth, but eventually he will be caught and hung on a cross because the truth hurts. He himself will undergo the pain the truth should inflict on us all, never sidestepping the reality that love bears all things believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Even death.

For the truth doesn’t just hurt. It also loves. It loves and it heals and it brings together and forms us into the people God has redeemed us to be. The truth of God’s love for you and me is that we are always welcome in God’s embrace.

One day it will dawn on us that that embrace is our true hometown. That kingdom is where we really belong—all of us, all the people God has ever formed in the womb. And the truth is we don’t have to be a superstar to be received there. We won’t have to have gone out into the world and made a name for ourselves to prove we’re worth it. It is just given to us, as we are—given to us because he loves us.

And on that day we’re done with seeing through a mirror, dimly, every church will reflect it, and every land will reflect it, and every face we look into will reflect it—the face of our brother or sister.

May that begin here. Again today. As God lavishes his love on you in his Son’s body and blood to go and spread out in the world in that love, unclumped, come what may.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

We Need to Talk About Bruno?

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

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a and Luke 4:14-21

I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all talked about the human body over the past two years  more than we’ve ever talked about it in our lives. With daily reminders of a pandemic, we’ve talked about the health of our bodies and how to keep our bodies safe from infection. We’ve talked about how our bodies feel and how symptoms of the coronavirus affect us. We’ve obsessed a time or two about stuffy noses or headaches or scratchy throats. Those who’ve come down with COVID have openly shared and compared their symptoms: “Did you lose your taste and smell? And for how long? “Did you have a fever?” As for me—if you’re curious—it was the repeated sneezing.

We’ve listened to various infectious experts talk about our individual bodies but also about our collective body. We’ve been forced to think about this concept of public health—how each of us is part of this wider corporate organism called humanity. And it’s led to some of our most significant conflicts. As it happens, whether or individual bodies are strong or whether they are vulnerable they are still part of a larger body out there—we breathe on each other, we share air and space, we touch things that others touch. No one has been able to cut themselves off or make decisions about masks or vaccines that don’t somehow affect other people.

Then we hear part of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth this morning and realize the ancient world must have talked quite about the body too. They didn’t know about viruses and antibodies, but they did understand the basics of anatomy and the desire to stay healthy. In fact, the people of the ancient city of Corinth were especially in tune to this. They thought about the human body a lot. In their city was a famous temple  built to the Greek god Asclepius. In Greek mythology Asclepius was the god of healing. He’s the one that was pictured with a rod entwined with a serpent, the symbol for medicine still today. Asclepius was kind of like the Dr. Fauci of Corinth. Almost everyone would have known about this temple to Asclepius, and since Corinth sat on an isthmus and therefore had two harbors, it got a lot of traffic. People came from all over to this temple to seek all different kinds of physical healing.


Archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of clay body parts in the area where that temple stood. Noses, arms, hands, feet…just about any body part you can think of fashioned out of clay. Worshippers of Asclepius, these people seeking healing, would either buy or make for themselves clay replicas of whatever part of their body needed healing and offered it to Asclepius there at the temple. In the shops that surrounded the temple, these earthen body parts could be purchased for worship, and historians suspect that at any given time the inside of the temple of Asclepius was typically littered with hundreds of disconnected clay body parts haphazardly strewn everywhere. I’d hate to be the sexton at that temple!

The point is, the Corinthians were familiar with traditions and rituals surrounding the human body, even if they didn’t participate in the cult of Asclepius themselves. And when the apostle Paul reaches for imagery to explain how they are to live together as a church, as followers of Christ, and he uses images of hands and eyes and feet, they would have most likely thought about all of those clay body parts strewn around everywhere.

And Paul wants them to see that they are not a bunch of random parts here and there. They are fit together into a cohesive whole. Their baptism has joined them as important body parts to one another, and they function best when all are recognized and when all are valued and when all are doing what they’re supposed to do. It’s as if Paul is saying, the god Asclepius is fine to look upon all those assorted body parts as a disconnected, jumbled mess. But the God and Father of Jesus looks on you as members of one body, as each having gifts that benefits the whole mission as God’s people. Your God looks on you and sees members that are designed to function together, each using their God-given gifts to build up the whole.

And don’t be fooled, Paul says, that just because some of you have gifts that don’t seem immediately important or flashy that they don’t deserve to be there. Each gift serves a purpose, and usually the ones we regard as inferior are the ones that are absolutely indispensable. Paul says the members are to have the same care for one another, whether one is an eye or one is a foot. And if one is suffering, then all need to realize that impacts them in a negative way as well. If the throat gets COVID, the you’d better believe the lungs and the nose are going to feel it too. If one member comes down with COVID, or one has to quarantine, or one is nervous about being physically present for worship, or one is frustrated about having to mask up, then the whole congregation takes note of that in some way and realizes we are bound to one another in compassion and love. We can’t just go it alone or, more importantly, demand that others go it alone.

The image of the church as a human body with many parts is a very strong and relevant one. It speaks and probably always will speak, but I have to admit the image for the church and the sharing of each members’ gifts that has really stuck with me this week, is from the recent Disney blockbuster “Encanto.” I realize not everyone has seen this movie, but chances are if you have a young child in your house you’ve at least heard of it. I probably watched it enough times in quarantine this week with my five year old to make up for all of us.

“Encanto” tells the story of a special family, the family Madrigal, who lives at the center of a pleasant village in the rain forest of the South American country of Colombia. You learn at the beginning that each member of the Madrigal family receives a special magical gift when they turn a certain age with the understanding that they will use that gift for the benefit of everyone else around them. One member of the family has the gift of being able to heal people by cooking them a meal. Another member is blessed with superhuman strength, and she can help fix things and haul heavy items around with ease. Still another one has the ability to talk to animals and rally them to his aid. As the family flourishes, the whole surrounding village flourishes with the generous sharing of these gifts, and everything seems to go very well on the surface.

But as the story unfolds you learn that one member of the family has a gift that the others don’t understand or appreciate. As a result, he has been banished. They don’t even want to mention his name. The movie’s hit song, in fact, is a catchy tune called, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” As they sing it, you realize Bruno has been rejected, living alone with the rats in the walls of the house for years. You can hear echoes of the apostle Paul in the Corinthians: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’”

I don’t want to give away what happens, but the family has told Bruno they have no need of him and it takes them a while to notice that his banishment is leading to a slow breakdown of the entire Madrigal family system, which is shown in the appearance of cracks in the house. Eventually the members of the family have to learn what Paul was trying to explain to the Corinthians: each individual’s gifts are important, even if they seem insignificant to you.

But even more importantly—and here is where the movie really delves into the lessons that Paul has for the Corinthians—individuals cannot just be reduced to whatever gift they have. The Spirit helps us understand that, as members of a body, or a family, all gifts are important and necessary, but we are not to let those gifts become all that we value about people. When let that happen, we end up using people rather than loving them.  Just as it is healthy to look on people and consider what unique things they bring to the table, we can’t let what they offer be all we like them for. The biggest gift is the person themselves. This is how love, the greatest gift, is put into action.

For that is precisely how God views us in Jesus. With love. In the grand scheme of things we misuse our gifts so much—probably more than we ever use them correctly. We reduce our own worth, not to mention others’, just to what we can offer in terms of our work or our skills and talents. And yet God loves us, God treasures us, God renews us each and every day with the promise of forgiveness and mercy. God looks on us through the cross of his Son Jesus and does not see random body parts strewn everywhere but as one big body that has been healed of its sin and knit together as one. No one is banished, no one is disregarded, no one is valued only in terms of what they can do or what their intellectual ability is  or how much they can produce. We are set together as Jesus body, taking his lead as he goes about in the world to bring good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captives, and the recovery of sight to the blind. And God knows that our greatest witness in those endeavors, our most impactful successes will be in our ability to function as one. The world will look on us and say, I would like to be a part of that body.

We cannot take this for granted, for we happen live in a time when our identity and self-worth are found less and less often in relation to other people but in expressing what is authentically inside ourselves. Many historians and philosophers are saying that in the past several decades we have moved from what is called an age of association to an age of authenticity. That is, for several centuries people by and large defined themselves and their identity in terms of how they fit into various communities and groups. They claimed membership in societies gladly and often as a matter of survival, whether those communities were religious or political or social in nature.

That has now given way to this current age of authenticity, as it is called, where individual focus on expressing their authentic true self and larger organizations or institutions are often seen as hindering that. In the age of authenticity, people are expected to find or create meaning on their own, as professor Dwight Zcheile from Luther Seminary explains. It’s partially why our political parties aren’t functioning like they used to, why no one joins bowling leagues anymore. In such an age or atmosphere, being a member of a body and finding ultimate purpose there, within that web of relationships, no matter how healthy that body may happen to be, is increasingly strange and even off-putting. Bodies are viewed with distrust. I can be my true self and find ultimate meaning, we are taught, on my own.

And against that, God says, you can only be your true self as you function in concert with others and learn to trust them, as we all allow ourselves to be formed by God’s Word together. I was moved hear, for example, that last Sunday, as John Oehler lay in hospice with his family around him in his final hours, they worshiped through our livestream. He, even as he was nearing the end of his life, began mouthing the words to the liturgy, still very much living as a member of this body.

Amid a culture of individualism, Jesus says, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. It is what is truly authentic. For this is the good news: no matter who we think we are, Jesus has stepped into this world to give us his own life and pull us together as one family and through great love and acts of faith be the body— the body that everyone will want to talk about.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Hail to the…Beloved Son!

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

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

What will be the Washington Football Team’s new name? I realize not everyone is invested in this, but there is a definite buzz in our area and among Washington football fans everywhere about the much-anticipated reveal of the organization’s new name and rebranding. The former Washington Redskins and its logo are clearly a thing of the past, albeit a long and storied past. Now everyone who follows football and who loves the team is interested in what the team will be next. What are they going to look like? What will they stand for?

In fact, the team organization released a well-produced video this week to add to the hype. Former coaches and players all chime in to drum up support and approval so that when it’s finally announced people will embrace it. And now they have a date for that announcement. It is, as the voice in the video says, “the date of our new identity, the date it will come to life.” It will be a challenge, for sure. With one name and one image they are trying to represent what they stand for  and bring everyone together. Washington Football Team fans anxiously await February 2 to learn what it is.

There is no promo video for it, no secret selection team and no focus groups giving feedback, but the same kind of anticipation likely pulses among the crowds being baptized by John and along the faithful in Israel, wherever they are. They await a big reveal—the big reveal of God’s anointed leader, the one who will represent what God stands for and manage to bring everyone together. And in the baptism of Jesus it is finally announced. This is God’s rebranding. Here, in these muddy waters where the masses are milling around in hope of a new future, the identity of the true God comes to life. The voice of an announcer even thunders from the skies: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Other gospel writers say that John baptized Jesus, but Luke is not clear on that point.

We don’t probably think about Jesus’ baptism this way. I’m really not sure how most of us think of Jesus’ baptism, especially when such a big deal is made about his birth nowadays. His baptism seems almost redundant, in a way, once we figure in what the angels said at his birth about how he brings peace on earth, and how Mary and Joseph watched him grow with this special relationship to God’s Word. Yet in the whole scope of the New Testament, his baptism is more important. If we are looking for a moment, if we need a date for when Jesus’ identity and mission is rolled out for the public, his baptism is it. All the earlier nativity stuff is just build-up, growing the hype—that’s just getting people rallied for the vision that’s coming. The baptism, which all four gospel writers talk about in some way, is the big announcement about how God will engage the whole universe.

At some point during John the Baptist’s ministry when Herod Antipas was the ruler, this otherwise ordinary looking man comes down with all the other people who are waiting for a new beginning in their lives. And then this otherwise ordinary man has water poured over his head, just like the rest of them. Right up front this sounds a bit odd or potentially disappointing. In most superhero movies and in most ancient stories and legends, the designated leader usually has some kind of special quality or stands out in some way. Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider. Tony Stark is really intelligent and wealthy. Jesus of Nazareth is just one among the masses at this point. All he does is pray, which is what he does next, thinking about new beginnings and renewal and turning over a new page.

And then while he’s praying the heavens suddenly open up. I don’t know exactly what that looked like. Maybe it looked like the sun shining through the clouds, or like the crazy thunderstorm with lightning and wind that the psalmist witnesses in the psalm this morning, Psalm 29. It’s hard to say but I find we use this expression all the time (and people in Scripture used this expression occasionally) when something suddenly becomes very clear to us and we see a way where there seems to be no way. The heavens open up that day, saying God is making a way in this person. This otherwise ordinary man will be the way.

We also say, “the heavens opened up” when something really good becomes possible that we didn’t think was possible. Jesus is the good thing for earth that we didn’t think could happen. His mercy, his compassion, his forgiveness of sins—these are so unbelievably good for us and now they are happening. Now they are here.

Then a dove comes down, which is the Holy Spirit, and it flies around for a while. Doves are gentle. They are pretty fragile creatures. And so right after John describes the coming Messiah leader as this kind of fearsome figure with a winnowing fork in his hand who is going baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit we have this little white cooing dove coming down.

Speaking of football teams, the seminary I attended had a flag football team and a basketball team. At some point along the way—the specific time is not really clear—the teams decided they needed a name. The only real recognizable symbol at Southern Seminary was the gigantic stained glass dove window in the chapel. So the football team was going to be the Dove—singular, not doves—a lot like the Crimson Tide. If you’d have seen us play, you would have immediately thought Roll Tide. But just Dove didn’t sound tough enough, I suppose, so they became the Fighting Dove. No worries…I don’t think Washington is going to be the Fighting Dove.

The Descending Dove window at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary

But Jesus will be! Jesus is the Fighting Dove, the gentle, vulnerable, fragile Messiah who will fight for the redemption and freedom and forgiveness of all. He will not attack with anything other than compassion and a strong willingness to draw all people into God’s embrace. He will not employ any strategy other than service and self-sacrifice. He will not coerce anyone to follow God’s new way, nor will he con anyone into the joys of service.

So neither should the church. Our way is Jesus’ way. Through our own baptisms we are made members of his team, whether we agree with God’s logo and name or not. It’s a cross, and the name is suffering and compassion. We are one with this new identity of God who is determined to bring everyone together. Churches and individual disciples who engage the world through prayer, as Jesus does here at his beginning, are part of the heavens breaking open on a weary world. Congregations and individuals who showcase humility and seek to give glory to God rather than self are part of the wave of peace and justice that overcome the world in Jesus.

All of that begins— this whole movement of God’s new way begins right there that day when he steps into the water and is introduced as God’s Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well-pleased. The question is: will we accept him? Will we sign on?

It seems to me that new beginnings and fresh starts are pretty much what everyone wanted with this new calendar year. No matter who you talk to, the expectation was that 2022 would bring some new freedom and new vistas. Instead, we’re limping our way into a third year of pandemic. Just about everyone I talk to is weary and suffering in some way, if not from COVID, then from quarantine, and if not from quarantine, then from arguments about mandates for masks or vaccines, and if not from mandates, then about the economy. The whole world is on the struggle bus. So forget football teams, right?  We want a re-branding. We want all of this re-branded: dunk it in the water, God,  and pull out some fresh new future.

I think that’s partly why so many people latched on to Ted Lasso, the Apple TV hit, that tells the story of an unlikely coach with unconventional methods who ends up forming a community among his team and eve the townfolk and helping people grow. The show’s fans talked about how it was a new kind of show that featured kindness and vulnerability and forgiveness when there was so much harshness around.

a chosen leader with unconventional methods

And here’s the thing: Jesus’ baptism didn’t happen on some happy, sunnier earlier time in world history. We are told by Luke that it occurs just after John the Baptist is arrested for speaking out and thrown in prison. So it may not have even been John who baptized him. The  times were tough then. Battle lines were drawn. Everyone was on edge. Things were tense. Jesus could have shied away from doing this. He could have waited it out a little, let things cool down, crept back to Nazareth and played it safe. He could have held back, or he could have doubled down on John’s bombastic, confrontational style.

But he doesn’t do either. Jesus goes for it.  He steps into the water, sees this as the time for a new regime of love and justice and peace to take root, and lets himself be named.

Last week as people were coming up to Holy Communion I knelt down to place the cross of blessing on the head of one of our younger members. Like usual, I said, “Owen, child of God, may the Lord bless you and keep you.” I got ready to stand back up, but behind him was another small child I’d never seen before. Before I knew what was happening, Owen, who is only five, Pointed to the new kid and said to me, looking me in the eye, “His name is Louie.” Louie didn’t have to introduce himself. Owen did it for him. Owen wanted to make sure I called Louie by his name.

Friends, we’ve been named, as much as a tremble to say it sometimes. In our baptisms, we’ve been introduced as one of the new team that looks another tough year head-on and says, “It’s go time.”  With our Christlike words, our gentle gestures, our vulnerability on display and kindness in our brains we move forward. We have been equipped for this life of peace and mercy and we trust God will bring everyone together. With Jesus as our leader we walk into that opening in the heavens he made. Because of Jesus God is now with us and God is for us. Always and forever, in good times and in bad.

And so we say, even before February 2: Hail…hail to the Beloved Son. Hail to that Fighting Dove.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

For the Children?

a sermon for St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr

Matthew 23:34-39 and Acts 6:8–7:2, 51-60

There is a poem by English writer Steve Turner that haunts me.

It is called “Christmas is Really For the Children,” and it goes like this:

Christmas is really
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a
hint of rich perfume.

Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by
a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations
of body snatching.
It involves politics, God
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
of spring.

Or they’d do better to
wait for a re-run of
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there’s any connection.

I think it’s that connection that haunts me, and I suppose that may be true for us as we gather one blessed day after celebrating a birth in a manger on this ancient church festival—quite possibly the oldest—to hear of a gruesome death by stoning. My guess is that’s how many of us react today, wondering just how we’ve jumped so quickly from a silent night to a bloody morning, something more reminiscent of Holy Week. Is there a connection between these two, December 25 and December 26? Angels, straw and songs one day, the gift of peace on earth. Then angry crowds, rocks and jeers the next day, the reality of sin on earth. So much for prolonging the good will toward men.

December 26 is the feast of St. Stephen, the day that one of the Christian faith’s earliest members was violently killed by a mob after having been seized by the authorities and accused by false witnesses. Stephen had been chosen as one of the first public servants in the church, a position knows as a deacon. He helped make sure that the church’s care for those who were hurting was extended beyond the priests and spread as evenly and fairly as possible. This Stephen is the deacon is where Stephen Ministry gets its name and the focus of its ministry. Our congregation is blessed by the ministry of Stephen Ministers who come alongside of people in need of careful and compassionate listening and prayer. There is solid evidence that the church was remembering Stephen’s martyrdom long before it was celebrating Christmas, so moved were the earliest believers by his ghastly death and his ability to remain loving as he died.

The Stoning of Stephen (Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld)

This festival, with its red paraments for the blood of martyrs, forms the first of three festivals that fall, one after the other, on the day after Christmas, and are set together this way on purpose by the church to illuminate the different ways of following Jesus into death and heavenly birth. December 27 is the feast of John, Apostle and Evangelist, the only apostle thought to have died a natural death. December 28 is the day the church commemorates the Holy Innocents and Martyrs, those children who were slaughtered by King Herod after he received the news of Jesus birth, which is recorded in Matthew’s gospel. Stephen was a martyr in will and deed, meaning he stood up for his faith in Christ and it got him killed. John was a martyr in will but not in deed, meaning he stood up for his faith, but it never caused his death. The Holy Innocents were martyrs in deed but not in will, meaning they never stood up for their faith in Jesus, but they still died as a result of him.

And so there is the connection: faith in Jesus Christ, who was born a baby and later crucified for his faith in his Father’s kingdom, leads to consequences for each of us. We may be like Stephen, like so many early Christians did, we may end up like John, or we may be like the Holy Innocents, especially if we’re young. Like Turner’s poem suggests, we may have a tendency to sentimentalize Christmas too much just as we may tend to forget that faith in Jesus impacts our lives in ways that usually involve suffering. Jesus himself warns his disciples of this at several points, and at one point as he comes near Jerusalem we hear him lash out at the Pharisees and scribes and other religious leaders of Israel within earshot of many others. His frustration and disappointment at the leaders’ hypocrisy is boiling over.

As he lectures them he explains to them that those who come in love to love are often misunderstood and rejected. Those who are full of grace and power, like Stephen would be, can still received in hostility or, at best, indifference: The church whose efforts at evangelism go unanswered in its own neighborhood. The family member whose invitations to friendship and forgiveness are continually rebuffed by the angry relative. The difficult conversations about social issues that are only greeted with eyerolls, despite calmly they are couched. No matter how gentle and how peaceful some words and actions are, no matter how nurturing the intentions may be, like that of a mother hen, a people in woundedness and darkness are still bound to see it as threatening. And this is especially true if the person’s words and actions challenge the status quo, which Jesus’ and Stephen’s certainly do.

Jesus Entering Jerusalem (Gustav Dore)

This is very silly, low-stakes example, but I remember once during seminary another first-year student and I were house-sitting for a professor who left South Carolina every summer for the Northwoods of Minnesota. I had to be away for the first two weeks of that house-sitting job, but the other student, a guy named Todd, was able to be in the house. Before I left, I told him approximately what day and time I’d be return, but I wasn’t sure of the specifics. Those were the days before cell phones and texting, so I had to way to let him know when to expect me. As it turned out, I rolled back into Columbia in the wee hours of the morning and I realized that I would be getting in while he was deep asleep. I had tried to leave a message on the answering machine a few hours before but had no way of knowing if he’d gotten it.

Todd was a big guy, athletic and built like a wrestler, and I knew that if I came into the house at 3:00am, which is what ended up happening, it would scare him out of his mind, and he could easily pile-drive me. I was mainly worried about frightening him, especially if he never heard my message. I fretted about this for the last few hours heading into Columbia in the middle of the night, wondering how I could soften my blow. Should I ring the doorbell? Be intentionally noisy downstairs? Be really, really quiet? I felt there was no way to avoid waking him and making him upset. I finally decided I’d let myself in and walk up the stairs and, as much as possible, demonstrate with my face and voice and hands that I’m not an intruder, I’m not armed and I come in peace, and just be prepared for his reaction. Sure enough, as I was walking up the room, I could see him suddenly sit up in bed, and then this look of absolute terror and anger came over him and he began to charge at me to protect himself. I thought he might try to tackle me, but eventually his eyes focused and he came to his senses and realized what was going on.

Jesus tells his listeners that God will send men and women will into the world, into all kinds of relationships, as people of peace and love, but sometimes people are not going to be able to “get focused” on it and come to their senses about them. Jesus words remind us that our baptism  compels us to serve all people in the manner of our Lord Jesus Christ. Stephen’s witness shows us that no matter how full of grace and power we may be, no matter how sincerely we devote ourselves to the service of others, we may still be misunderstood. It’s as if the suffering of Jesus is still born out in the lives of those who’ve been united to his body.

So instead of waiting for a re-run of Christmas, we can remember Jesus looks at Jerusalem and senses before he even goes in that his people will not accept him. They will set up false witnesses and give him a sham trial. They will choose to have a murderer freed on the Passover instead of him. He will come in love to love, but his blood will end up on their hands. He comes to love in love, but we still pick up stones and hurl them. And he will still lift up bread and a cup of forgiveness.

The way of love in Jesus will always encounter obstacles and hatred in the world, even obstacles within us. That love which begins in the light of Christmas reaches its true fulfillment on the dark of Good Friday and in the more glorious light of Easter. For this love is a victory love, able to overcome anything, even the deaths of its beloved servants like Stephen. Even the suffering of you and me.

For in that crowd that day, the crowd that hurled stones at him, stood a young religious leader named Saul, egging them on, who was zealous to see the church stamped out right there and then. That angry Saul would later find his own life turned upside down by the glorious light of the Easter Jesus. And he who was once eager to see love drowned, who wanted it stoned to death no matter how lovingly it came, would he himself go on, renamed Paul, to write these words: “Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Love never ends.”

St. Paul Writing his Epistles (Valentin De Boulogne)

Aha. That is the connection between Christmas and Easter, between Jesus and the lives of his saints, between God and the suffering of this world. It is love—a love that forgives even as it breathes its final breath, love that sees beyond the darkness of our hearts to the good we are created for, a love that is willing to lie in the manger on Christmas because it has knows the tomb will be empty on Easter. A love that gathers us here this morning. Christmas really is for the children—the children of God, the children of brokenness, the children who need God’s unconditional love.

“Nails, spear, shall pierce him through, the cross be born for me for you.
Hail, hail, the word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary!”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

We Wait for Peace

a sermon for Advent – “The Wait of the World

Micah 2:2-5a

It’s about this time of the Christmas season when I think most people are needing some peace. The extra load of school concerts, dance recitals, parties and social events, not to mention the hoopla surrounding gift-giving and shopping, wears many of us us out. It’s fun to some degree, but there is a fine line where we cross into Scrooge territory if we’re not careful. We wait for peace…some peace and quiet. Maybe peace looks how one of my children recently described it—holding a cup of hot chocolate while it snows outside, curling up under a blanket on the couch with close family members with a fire in the stove and a movie on the TV.

We’re also in the time of the pandemic when we’re all needing peace. Peace from the constant vigilance against transmitting the virus and ending up in quarantine. Peace from the endless debates about vaccines and facemasks, mandates and freedom. Peace from the ceaseless decision-making about policies and procedures. It really seems like a war, a trauma-causing event, especially so for health care workers and teachers and others caught in the crosshairs, and we wait for peace to come. Maybe peace looks like whatever we were doing in 2019, or a day when we can gather indoors together without masks or whenever a medicine makes COVID no longer something to fear.

We’re also in a time of highly polarized politics in our country, and I think we all want peace. That one is more difficult to agree upon, because some seem to want strife and mayhem. In any case, we hear the messages of conflict and battle through the media, through social media, and even personal conversations. Long term friendships and family relationships are being severed due to divisive political and social stances. All branches of our federal government are possibly more divided than at any point in our nation’s history. Anger and adversarial postures are the norm, so we wait for peace. Maybe peace looks like agreement on major issues,  political breakthrough of harmony and unified vision for what America is to be.

And in the world, we wait for peace. Hundreds of thousands of Russian troops are standing at the border with Ukraine as we speak, perhaps poised for a Christmas Eve invasion.

Things are getting dicey around Taiwan. New space-age weapons are being developed as agreements to end nuclear proliferation are being threatened. Peace, in this case, looks like an end to war, or as the prophet Isaiah hoped, “beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.”

As we can see, peace is one of those things that is really hard to define, fairly easy to describe, and yet very easy to sense and feel. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “Peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.” That is, peace is not just not fighting or refraining from conflict, but taking part in something that benefits everyone, an action that affects all lives.

The word used most often for peace in Scripture gets at this. It’s also the word that Micah reaches for when he explains the leader who will come from Bethlehem, the anticipated one who stand and feed the entire flock in security and shelter. That word is shalom, and it encompasses so much that it you need about five or six English words to translate it adequately.

Shalom means wholeness, being intact, maybe like that feeling when the last puzzle piece finally gets placed and the whole picture can truly be seen.

Shalom is well-being, prosperity and kindness, all of the things one would associate with salvation, which is another dimension to the word.

Shalom can be used as a friendly greeting. Voiced with different inflections,“shalom” can mean “Don’t be worried,” “You are safe,” and “things are alright.”

All this is to say, shalom is the first thing said about Jesus’ arrival on earth after his birth in Bethlehem. The angels in the sky announce it to the shepherds, connecting him to the message of peace. And shalom is the first thing Jesus himself communicates after he is risen from the dead when he greets his disciples in Jerusalem. His whole existence and the point of his presence among us, from now until the end of the ages, is to embody shalom, to say, “Don’t worry. It’s alright,” in a way that the world can never say.

As we receive him in his word and as we practice service and kindness among our neighbors, his peace takes hold. We find that, more than being that final puzzle piece which, placed properly, makes all things right, he is the puzzle’s worker, the one who gives his life to make all things and all of us fit the way we were made. He alone brings that justice.

And with that perfect blessed wholeness that propels us forward, we forgive, we lay our own lives down, we beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. He is the Prince of Peace. We depend on him for righteousness, for purification, for joy, and for shalom…and so we wait, and work, and watch: Come, Lord Jesus.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Hiding the Gifts

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year C]

Luke 1:39-45 and Micah 2:2-5a

Did you ever have the experience of finding out where your parents or your spouse were stashing the Christmas presents? I think that is one of the biggest unnamed challenges of this time of year, especially in households with (ahem) overly-curious children: hiding the gifts.

I’m not saying I was one of those overly-curious children, but I do remember one Christmas where I innocently happened upon my parents’ hiding place. They had put the gift, which was not wrapped yet and in a long-ish, medium-sized box, in the trunk of my mom’s car. I happened to need to open the trunk door for some reason before Christmas and I spotted it there. I quickly shut the door so as not to ruin my surprise. What I thought I saw was a trombone, which was kind of an odd gift since I did not play trombone nor had I ever said I wanted to play trombone. I played violin, and I wondered if my parents were trying to tell me something. Turns out it was actually a boom box, which was so much cooler. It was the 80s, after all. What I learned, though, is that if I wanted to be surprised in the future about what I might receive on Christmas morning, not to look in the trunk of my parents’ cars.

Where would we look if we wanted to find the surprising grace of God? In which places would we look to discover the power and blessing and might of the Creator of the Universe tucked away? Where has God decided to stash the gift of his Son Jesus, until the time comes to unwrap and reveal him to all? You might say that’s the question for this fourth Sunday of Advent as we wind down our season of preparation and head into Christmas Day. It’s an important question, since we are still preparing to receive him, and it would help to remember and know where Jesus has appeared once before.

Would we think, for example, to look in Bethlehem, one of the little clans of Judah? Sure, Bethlehem is a royal city, where King David was from. It was a beloved little place, but it was still little and kind of forgettable centuries later, by the time of King Herod. Some experts in Hebrew prophecy might have pointed us there, if we thought to consult them. If you were looking for the gift of a new king, one who is to rule in all of Israel, one who is to stand and feed his flock with the strength of the Lord, and in the majesty of the Lord’s name, then Jerusalem might be a better hiding place or one of the many bustling new cities that the Emperor had constructed.  But the prophet Micah reminds us that it is little alleyways and shepherd hangouts of Bethlehem where God goes and hides his plan to bring forth a great ruler. Would you and I think to look there?

And then there is Mary. What kind of clever and unlikely hiding place is she—the womb of a young, unwed, no-name maiden from an even smaller and less important village called Nazareth! Again, for some really intelligent and tuned-in experts in what the prophets said, this approach isn’t so surprising, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s unprecedented! Whoever would expect the Most High God to stash anything with her, much less have her bear a holy son named Jesus whose kingdom will have no end? Even Mary herself is a bit taken aback by this move. When the angel Gabriel first announces the news to her she asks in wonder, “How can this be?” And then she consents. For a time the one whose kingdom will have no end will take up residence within her.

The first people to know of this incredible plan, the only other one who is “in on the hiding place,” is her relative Elizabeth and, apparently, Elizabeth’s unborn son. Here, in a Judean town in the hill country we have two women who by any other account are regular, ordinary people with no claim on power or prestige—two women who spend each day like so many other women around them busied with the mundane work of village life without many of the rights and privileges that men have. And yet here, in a Judean town in the hill country we have two women discussing the real future of the whole entire universe.

I mean, this is expert hiding, folks. The gifts of God’s mercy and unconditional love will be hidden away for a time in the most unlikely of places and people: Bethlehem, Judean hill country, Elizabeth, Mary. This is the work of a God who is really, really insistent on making sure his gift of love will eventually be found and received by everyone, when the time is right. This is the genius of a God who really can’t wait to surprise us. This is the hallmark of a God who plans to cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly—which is precisely what Mary sings about. She knows what this God is up to. The proud, the rich—they will meet their match with this God. This God has his eye on the hungry and the humble.

It is at this point when I need to say that perhaps only a woman could understand and explain what Mary’s decision here really entails. In consenting to God’s will to conceive a child within her, Mary actually puts her body and her life on the line in a way that a man can never do. In fact, I often fear it can sound a bit glib for a male preacher to speak about this subject, about the strength and bravery of her response, even though her faith and her decision clearly impacts me, too, because her Son’s kingdom includes me.

Pregnancy is a dangerous, risky endeavor, and even moreso for a peasant woman living about 2000 years ago. She may call herself lowly, but don’t confuse lowly with weak. She gets no permission from a man in her family to go through with this. She decides this on her own. Perhaps Mary thought, “Well, this is God’s child so it’s going to come to term without incident,” but on the other hand there are still so many burdens to bear for her—so many more emotions and hormones and fears involved in bringing forth a child regardless of what the situation is. We shouldn’t overlook this. When God goes looking for the perfect hiding place for his Son, God is somewhat at the mercy and confidence of Mary and Elizabeth and it is their faith and their humility that make it work. The faith and humility of regular, ordinary women in ordinary places who have no claims on power is where it all begins. Without their voices, it is doubtful we’d know this, which is one reason why lifting up the voices of women preachers is so vital, not just on this topic, but on all.

Given all this, where will we look for God’s movement these days if we’re one of those overly-curious children? In the platform of a major political party that wheels and deals with the proud and wealthy? In the halls of government where power is wielded? In the popular crowd at school who have the right clothes, who use bullying and clique-forming to keep people in their place?

Or somewhere more toward society’s other end, like in the shelter for those who are homeless? The woman in the nursing home who rarely gets visitors, even at Christmas? The rubble of a town in western Kentucky that has been all but wiped off the map?

Elizabeth, God bless her, can teach us. With her one little question to Mary, she becomes the first person to articulate the crux of the gospel message. Seeing Mary come in through the door from her journey, she bursts forth with, ‘Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Jesus isn’t even born yet, and still Elizabeth realizes something hits different. The Lord is coming to her—to her little room in her little house in her little life all the way here in the hill country. Considering who this is, the Lord of all, shouldn’t it be the other way around?

As she declares, the gracious movement of God is always towards us…always first. God never expects or requires us to come to him. God doesn’t say, if you’re good enough you’ll get me. Or if you’re smart enough, you’ll find me. This is a God who launches out in grace and determination into our direction, to find us, to seek us out, to meet us where we are. It is perplexing that our God would choose this. Perplexing, but wonderfully gracious and world changing. God comes to hide his grace, for a time, in each of us.

As many of you know, young children who are not receiving Holy Communion yet in our worship services usually get a blessing instead. They step forward in the line and, if the pastor is feeling especially limber that day, he will crouch down at the level of the child and trace the cross on the child’s forehead and say a blessing. A few weeks ago I looked up the line of people coming forward and noticed one four year old boy was already holding his bangs up for a blessing. He was still a couple of minutes away from me, several people back, but, man, he was ready. He walked all the way to me with that hand on his head holding his hair back so I could easily plant that cross right there. So he could easily receive the Lord who was coming to him. So he could become a little place for the Lord to hide, for a while.

He does this trick every week, in fact, and I think about the conversations his grandparents or parents must have had with him about what’s happening. It’s hard to know exactly what he’s thinking, but I can’t help but seeing him like a little Mary, open to God’s will, or a little like Elizabeth and the child in her womb, excited and amazed at the close presence of God.

May we each, like that child among us, learn to hold open our lives to be ready to receive this Lord who hides love in a cross, who conceals holiness in the ordinary. May we each, with the wisdom of Elizabeth, trust this God who comes to us as we are!

And then may we, with the courage of both women bear that news to the world. Stash it everywhere, in everyone we meet. May we sing the songs of a powerful God who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things.

And then may we be ready to watch the rich be sent away empty the mighty be cast down from their thrones!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.