Scars

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

John 20:19-31

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

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

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I can feel that scar.

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

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

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

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

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“The Incredulity of St. Thomas” (Carravaggio)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr

Where We’re Expected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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map of the COVID-19 pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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One Act of Obedience

A sermon for Maundy Thursday

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

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

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First Communion class of 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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God, the ventilator

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

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

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

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

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Ornament Valley, from Disney’s Cars

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

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

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

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Radiator Springs, before the bypass came

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And God knows these bones will live.

 

 

Thanks be to God!

dry bones

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The opposite of social distancing

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

John 4:5-42

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

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

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still drinkable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Enough food donated in one day to make 70 bags!

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

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

bottled-water

 

 

Loved, Saved, and Wet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks be to God!

Jasper saved 2

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Day Has Come

A sermon for Ash Wednesday

2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10

I knew the day would come. Such an unlikely friendship, so strong but yet in many ways so fragile, it couldn’t last forever. Through Facebook posts over the past nine years we had watched this bond form between my friends and a songbird as it kept returning every winter to their backyard. It had learned to eat mealworms straight out of their hands, and would routinely chirp outside the kitchen window for company when it was too rainy. And each night it would roost under the eave in the shed by the window they would deliberately leave open. Since the longest recorded lifespan for an Eastern Phoebe, a small brown and tan flycatcher of the eastern United States, was ten and a half years, I knew the day would come when their little feathered friend would not show up, and I’m sure they did too.

Phoebe

 

This year, like clockwork, Phoebe, as they named her, showed up in early December from wherever it was she spent the summer. She was her usual spunky, cheerful self all winter, but all who follow my friend on Facebook received the heartbreaking report yesterday—just in time for Ash Wednesday—that Phoebe had been found dead beneath the shed window. It looks like she died of natural causes. My friends shared that they held her up close one last time—such rare opportunity for a little bird—admired her little delicate Phoebe features, remembered her bravery and curiosity, and then gave her a proper backyard burial. I think many of us who followed the adventures of Phoebe and the Ragan and had enjoyed all the photos of this little bird feeding right out of Mr. Ragan’s hand mourned a bit yesterday.

We know the day will come. We’re so strong, but yet so fragile in so many ways. That’s why we’re here tonight…to confront the reality that one day our flight will too come to an end. It is inescapable. Someone said it’s a little like having to greet a pastor after worship is over while we’re under construction and limited to one way in and one way out. There’s no slipping through some other exit. You’re going to shake our hands, one way or another.

Some of us may not need such a stark reminder this year because we’ve dealt with mortality afresh in our families or friendships. We’re painfully aware that we really just eat out of God’s hand, each day a blessing, and we rest in the shelter God has provided. It is such a good and gracious hand stretched out with things we don’t deserve, with mercies more numerous than we could ever count, and yet it is so easy to forget all that and begin to think the gifts are treasures we’ve gotten ourselves, scrounged up from our own determination, treasures to hoard and stockpile. It is good to be occasionally reminded our day will come, the day when God’s loving and eternal embrace will put an end to all our selfishness and pride and reveal fully just how connected we all are.

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Yet, in fact, in all the most important ways that day has already come. Confronting the finality of our lives does allow for a certain stock-taking of our motives and goals, but be certain of this: for those who’ve been marked by a certain watery cross the day of God’s total embrace has already come. For those who’ve been claimed by baptism, the day for redemption is here. We live in God’s grace now. We have received the fullness of his light and love now, have been given a foretaste of the feast to come now, and we are therefore reconciled with one another. Because God loves us and rescues us from sin and death, God has given his own Son to be sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.

That means a lot of things, and one of the things it means is that we may live and share in God’s divine life now, not just after we die. God’s forgiveness gives us opportunities now to demonstrate and share God’s grace and mercy with others—the same grace and mercy he has first shared with us through the life and death of Jesus. As Paul says to the church in Corinth, let it now be said again to us: don’t accept the grace of God in vain. That is, let’s not waste any part of this marvelous life God has given us.

So, while much of the world right now is forced to wear facemasks to present the spread of disease, Christ-followers have a special opportunity to wear the cross. One is a sign that I might be a threat or you might be a threat to me, an emblem of our need to be timid and careful.

Danger of epidemic

The other is a sign of our common brokenness and of God’s love for us, that ultimately we have been set free. Let us bear that cross for he has cleansed us. It is a sign of our boldness to live this life that is now reconciled to God and one another.

Perhaps one of the most basic and important and ways we display and enact this reconciliation with one another is in the ways we actually receive one another, the ways we bring people into our presence. It is the practice of hospitality: extending a greeting or a handshake, making room for people in our spaces and lives. An up-front acknowledgement each and every day of our common fragility and brokenness sets the stage for healthy relationships to occur. It helps to cut through harmful systems of power and privilege. It reminds us that we are really all on the same playing field after all, that on this earth our livelihoods are tied more tightly than we might think.

The ancients understood this well. The harsh life of the desert, which was always nearby, even in Jesus’ age, had impressed upon generations that you never know when you might take your last drink of water. Wilderness life humbled you, and you were ever aware that everyone was at the mercy of the same elements.

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“The Hospitality of Abraham” (Ravenna)

The privilege and power that come from things like the clothes we wear, or the schools we send our children to, or the side of town we live on, or even the color of our skin often make us think we have different value. Making unhelpful distinctions between each other through religion and religious practices happens all too often, too. It’s one of the first things Jesus addresses among his followers, and we hear that in the gospel reading today. Some people use prayer to make themselves appear more holy, and others lift up their generosity and philanthropy  or their attachment to certain righteous causes mainly to get attention before others. On social media it’s called “virtue signaling,” the public sharing of one’s actions and beliefs for the main purpose of showing off one’s good character. Whatever they are and however they arise, these distinctions pop up all over the place in human community when we are blind to our link to our common Creator and Redeemer, and when we ignore our common link to the dust from which we come. Whether we intend it or not, these distinctions communicate to others messages what a facemask might: “You’re tainted.” Or “We have reason to be afraid of each other.”

It is very possible that during this season of Lent the newest gathering and welcoming areas of our church will be complete, and if not during Lent, then not long afterwards. We have also been since September giving special focus to our congregations’ objective for Evangelism and Outreach Objective, which is to “seek, invite, and attract people to create more opportunities for the Holy Spirit to deepen their relationship with Jesus.” Undertaking evangelism and hospitality from the position that Jesus has already reconciled us to one another, even to those we have yet to meet and receive here is the best way to go about it. We are one in our dust-ness, but also one in Christ’s love for us.

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“The Feast of Simon the Pharisee” (Rubens)

This Lent we invite you to take on the discipline of hospitality with us.  Host a dinner in your house. Invite people over for a game night in your home, maybe even some families at church you’d like to get to know better. Introduce yourself to someone at worship you do not know. And join us on Wednesdays over the next several weeks for a special series that will focus on hospitality and welcome as it is pictured in Scripture. We will be looking at select stories in the Bible that give us examples of how God wants us to relate to people as fellow wanderers in the desert, fellow migrants who are actually all eating out of the same hand, the same nail-scarred hand. We will be unpacking those scenes from God’s story that may help us see and cherish the unlikely friendships that may arise.

And learn that it is a holy thing to receive a common mortal, to view one another in terms of the price God paid for us in his Son, and not according to the other ways we devise. For the day has come—we knew it would—and now we can learn to depend utterly on God the provider, who always leaves that window open for us, and commit our fragile lives to the bold witness of Jesus’ love.

 

Thanks be to God!

Phoebe 2

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Brought to you by the letter B, for “Beloved”

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

Matthew 17:1-9

Every time the Sunday of Jesus’ Transfiguration rolls around, someone in my family brings up a story from my childhood which I am too young to remember anything about but which I’ve heard so many times that I feel like I can remember it. Do you have stories like that in your life? One of mine revolves around this strange event of Jesus’ life. Often my uncle, who is also a Lutheran pastor and who was in seminary at the time, will text me or message me on Transfiguration Sunday and remind me of it.

As the story goes, I was about three years old at the time and my dad was reading a magazine that had a little comic of Jesus’ transfiguration. I guess the little cartoon drawing got my attention because I was standing next to him and looking over his shoulder. Curious to see what I thought, my dad asked if I knew who the people were. I pointed to the person in the middle, who was depicted with a beard and wearing a white robe, and said, “That’s Jesus.” Then my dad pointed to the two older guys on either side of Jesus and asked me if I knew who they were, probably hoping in some way that I was a child prodigy, or a model Sunday School student. I was silent for a second and then answered, “That’s Bert and Ernie.”

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artwork drawn for me during worship today…by a child who was baptized on the Transfiguration of Our Lord five years ago.

No, I was not and am not a prodigy, but now I can say that every year when Elijah and Moses are standing there holding a conversation with Jesus I think of Sesame Street. And, truth be told, to many 3-year-olds there are few figures who hold greater authority in life than Bert and Ernie. They teach life lessons. They model how to get along as opposites. They are arguably the most famous pair in the whole world of educational TV, representing not just different personalities, but different ways of dwelling in the world. And suffice it to say if a three-year-old had been on the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John, that kid would have been really impressed with Jesus if Jesus were hanging out with Bert and Ernie.

Being impressed with Jesus is what the transfiguration is really all about. The light, the clouds, the voice—whatever else our modern minds want to make of this strange and mysterious event up on the mountain, it’s clear that it’s meant to get our attention on Jesus. It tells us this is who we’re dealing with here. He is not our ordinary teacher. He dazzles. He shines. He has authority like no one else. He is on level with or even above the greatest figures of Israel’s history and faith, the pillars that God’s Word is based upon: Moses and Elijah.

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It would be like being in a Super Bowl huddle with 24-year-old Patrick Mahomes and wondering just what he’s made of and then looking up and seeing him talking with Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr. It would be like calling in the young IT person your company has just hired to set up a new network and set up a new anti-virus system and then peeking in the employee break room to find her conferring with Steve Jobs and Alan Turing. Jesus may still be relatively new to the disciples up on the Mount of Transfiguration but it is clear from all that happens that something absolutely groundbreaking is happening in him and all eyes and ears need to be on him. God loves him. God has placed him on this earth to demonstrate what God’s righteousness is like. Move over, Bert and Ernie. Today’s episode is brought to you by the letter B, for “Beloved.”

The disciples’ reaction is about what we’d expect. It’s about what we’d expect because we do this too when we’re amazed and dazzled by new people and new experiences. We want to prolong them, bottle them up, save them for later. I’ve seen the youth as they prepare to leave Winter Celebration, often getting teary-eyed and clinging to their friends, wishing they could somehow stay at Eagle Eyrie all the time. Many of us have felt the urge to keep that Christmas Eve candle lit just a little longer and only blow it out at the last possible minute. We want Christmas to “last all year.” I’ve myself struggled to come home from vacations or get back into the swing of things after a particularly meaningful time away with friends and family.

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Peter’s up on that mountain, in the moment, and says, “It is good to be here,” and then he comes up with this idea to make three tents for Jesus and the Elijah and Moses. Peter’s so impressed with Jesus that he doesn’t even think of where he and James and John are going to sleep. But then before any of that can take place, a cloud rolls in, Moses and Elijah disappear, and Jesus tells them all it’s time to head back down the mountain.

And then he does something very strange—maybe it’s the strangest thing of all in this whole episode. Jesus tells them not to mention any of it until after he the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. Typically people come away from amazing spiritual experiences and want to share it, want to let people know what happened. This particular transfiguration Jesus wants to remain a secret.

Just who is Jesus? That’s what’s at stake here. How we’re going to talk about Jesus and explain his presence in our life is not just a transfiguration issue, but a daily challenge. I was once at a pastors’ conference and heard Richard Graham, former bishop of the Metro DC Synod of our denomination, say, “Jesus is the light of the world. Christians don’t advance the conversation in a helpful way when we say to the world, ‘Jesus is just an interesting option.’”

Jesus is announced as God’s Son, God’s beloved, not just another great teacher or leader in a list of great teachers and leaders, and if the point of his transfiguration is to get all eyes on him, to notice how special he is and to make us impressed, then it appears the disciples will need to keep following and listening to him. God wants them to keep listening and moving with Jesus when they come down the mountain.

There is a movement in this story, you may notice, from seeing and experiencing to hearing and following. At first the disciples see things—the dazzling white clothes, the authority figures of ancient Israel, the bright could that overshadows. But by the end of the story, all those visions are gone and they are left with sound—God’s command to listen to Jesus, and Jesus’ own words of “Do not fear” and his urge to “Get up.” The key then to understanding who Jesus truly is, the key to deepening our relationship with him, will lie not in seeking out or prolonging the religious experiences, as holy as they may be, but in listening to him, taking in his words, realizing that in Jesus, God has given us someone we can always count on.

This past week in Confirmation Class we were looking at the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, that long middle section that talks about Jesus, and we were specifically discussing Jesus’ death and resurrection and what it means for us. How do people of faith explain what Jesus’ death on the cross actually accomplishes and why his death plays such an important, I would say, indispensable part of his love for us. We talked about how in some ways Scripture presents Jesus is a sacrifice for us, that he lays down his life like a lamb so that the guilt we bear and the sins of the world can somehow be erased and we can be reconciled to God. Then we looked at how some parts of Scripture talk about Jesus as a rescuer or a liberator that he comes to redeem us, set us free from the ways of darkness and selfishness that hold us captive. And then we talked about how in some ways Jesus is shown as our purifier. His death purifies us of our sin like water and shows us how powerful love is—how powerful unconditional love is—in its ability to make people new again.

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a Greek Orthodox depiction of Christus Victor (Christ the rescuer)

There are other ways that Scripture talks about Jesus’ death, of course, but those were the three we looked at—sacrifice, rescuer, and purifier. And then the confirmands were asked to share of those three which made most sense to them. Here’s how Scripture talks of Jesus. How do you talk about him? It was quiet for a moment but then one of the confirmands raised his hand and said Jesus is a purifier for him because each Sunday after worship he feels purified, cleansed and renewed to go forth into the week. One young woman said that she feels Jesus is more of a rescuer because she has felt Jesus’ presence in her life when she was going through some really difficult stuff and that Jesus was there for her, bringing her out of it.

Hearing their testimonies was so moving for me. It seems to me that kind of faith comes from someone who has realized that what makes Jesus so impressive and authoritative is not that he provides flashy religious experiences but that he comes down the mountain and enters the world’s pain. It seems to me that kind of faith comes from people who know that the two most important people Jesus is seen standing beside, and in conversation with, are not Elijah and Moses, but the two common criminals that hang next to him on the cross. That kind of faith is born in someone who has come to understand, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the most dazzling Jesus ever gets is when he is stripped of all his clothes and left to die. If God’s Beloved Son is crucified, died, and is buried, then there is no limit to how far God will go to give us his righteousness.

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Life can be so hard. The valleys can be dark and the road treacherous. I think Jesus does want his disciples to save up this awesome vision for later, after all, to bottle it up in their minds eye. If you, like me, wonder what’s going on with this transfiguration, after all, if you’re wondering what to do with it, how Bert and Ernie might fit in, then just let the vision sit with you. Let the vision of Jesus transfigured in glory sit with you and then continue to listen to him. Get up on your feet and hear his word not to be afraid. And when you’re moving through days of grief and sorrow that never seem to end when you begin to think in your guilt and doubt there’s no way you can be put back together again, no way anyone could purify or rescue you, then remember of where this all is eventually going to go.

Listen: God’s beloved has come to you. Tell that story over and over. He was transfigured. He is risen. Jesus is the light of the whole world. And his love is most impressive thing the we’ll ever know.

 

Thanks be to God!

Bert and Ernie 2

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Light that Makes a Difference

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A]

Matthew 5:13-20 and Isaiah 58:1-9a

Although it seems that construction here is going to drag on forever, we are actually about two months from completion. One of the major things that has happened in the past two weeks—which is one of the things that has to be gotten right before the project can continue—has been the addition of our new skylights. Because the new administrative suite has expanded the building in such a way that we’ve lost the access we once had to sunlight, the skylights have been carefully thought out and designed so as to provide maximum natural light to the interior.

The new skylight just on the other side of this sanctuary wall, for example, will allow almost twice as much light into that hallway and through those stained-glass windows as the ones before. Three small skylights in the ceiling of the new conference room will help bring light to the office spaces. Perhaps most spectacular of all is the skylight in the new gathering area. It will run the length of the exterior wall that faces the parking lot and is placed the way it is not just so that light will come in, but so that when you look up through it you can see our cross. I think we’re all going to like that the architect was that thoughtful with his concept.

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In each of these cases what I’ve learned with the Building Team over the past year or so of designing and planning is that light matters. I think I always understood that fact on some level, but this whole Brighten Our Light process made it much more real. How light is channeled, reflected, muted, diffused, focused is simple, yet complicated—there’s actually a whole field of study you can major in at a handful of universities called architectural lighting. It helps you learn the physics and art of how light defines a space, opens it up, lifts a mood. Right now there’s a new song on the radio by Eric Church called “Monsters.” It’s not exactly architectural-lighting-level-stuff, but Church talks about killing the monsters in his bedroom as a child just by turning on the 60-watt bathroom lightbulb. Light matters. It makes a difference.

That’s all the disciples of Jesus really needed to know to understand what Jesus was trying to tell them about how their faith, their righteousness, would have an impact on the world. Their actions of love and mercy would be the way the light of God would get in to the dark corners of the world, bounce off the walls, lift the mood, kill monsters. They will matter, make a difference.

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For some time I’ve noticed we talk this way about the desire about our lives. People speak in terms of making a difference in the world, and it seems to resonate with a lot of us. Implicitly or explicitly people mention this longing that their lives will have impact on others and make it a better place. The theme song for the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans, in fact, was “Make a Difference.” We were all taught this song down in the Superdome. “I want my life to make a difference,” went the song’s chorus, “I want my life to make a change.”

That may be, in fact, how you feel. You want your life to make a difference. This place in Scripture right here, right near the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is probably the closest Jesus ever comes to saying “Go make a difference in the world.” He puts a little different spin on it, though, for the difference his disciples are to make in the world isn’t mainly for their own sake of fulfillment. It’s for God’s sake.“Let your light so shine before others,” he says, “so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

That is, the light I shine isn’t primarily for my own well-being, so that I feel I have a purpose. Jesus doesn’t say anything about my feelings at all, in fact. Isn’t that funny? This is about others getting the light and then mainly about God. The light we reflect, focus, diffuse, channel, the 60-watt bulb we flick on to kill the monsters of evil and hatred, is for the purpose of bringing God glory.

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This is also the part of Jesus’ teachings where he gets more scientific than anywhere else. It’s not just light that Jesus uses as an example for his disciples’ lives, but salt. I doubt the disciples would have known this, but because salt is a polar compound, it is able to dissolve into just about any greater substance and make the whole thing taste totally different. The positive and negative ions can dissociate and move all over the place. Have you ever baked bread without adding salt to the dough? I’ve learned the hard way. It tastes awful. It’s like eating plain wheat. And the dough also rises too fast without salt, so it can often go flat. Salt slows the growth of yeast. Just a little is all you need because it can spread out and fill the whole loaf. Therefore salt not only gives a loaf flavor—makes it worth eating—but it also gives the bread better form and texture.

For Jesus, the difference his followers are to make in the world has to do with spreading out, not necessarily taking over. The difference is about expanding, influencing, impacting through small but potent measures. It is about taking the light of Jesus Christ and bouncing it into whatever space we’re in. But the kicker is that this difference is not something we make alone. It is our difference, our impact, our influence as a group, as a church, as a body. It is not “I” but “We.” The song from the 2012 Youth Gathering, although it was catchy, might better have gone, “We want our life together to make a difference. We want our life together to make a change.”

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Jesus needs his followers to know they are a community, that the light they will give, the light the world so desperately needs, is fundamental to the way they live with each other. It’s about their collective values of sharing bread with the hungry, of bringing the poor into their houses, of clothing the naked. They nurture this kind of life together. In fact, these are the guidelines for Israel’s life together that Isaiah announces five or six centuries before Jesus is even born. These things are great when a single person undertakes them, of course, but when even a small community makes them their flavor, an entire world can feel the difference. The light of God will break forth like the dawn.

Things haven’t changed. The goal for God’s people hasn’t changed. We are still called to be salt and light and nurture our common life. Maybe, just maybe, one way the church can be light and salt these days is to be the community that can somehow model unity and respect in the midst of a very divided world. In case you haven’t noticed, the rest of the loaf is tension and anger, it’s Republicans and Democrats ripping up speeches and gloating and yelling at each other, politics as usual. The rest of the world’s loaf right now is malaise, rising levels of cynicism and sarcasm, anxiety and rates of suicide.

And while all that kind of stuff is going on, local Christian congregations will be the salt that keeps the good flavor going. They’ll create a meal chain for a family going through a devastating loss. They’ll have birthday parties for 6-year-olds and instead of asking for gifts they’ll ask guests to bring book donations for a local elementary school library. They’ll see the news reports of tensions rising in the Persian Gulf region, and they’ll take up a collection for Navy personnel who may be stationed on a ship near it all. They’ll maintain a sense of humor somehow, eat pancakes and watch youth be silly at a Talent Show. I know syrup is sweet and Jesus is talking salt, but it works. These people will be peaceful and forgiving in spite of their ornery, clueless pastor. Maybe they’ll do things like that. I think they already do.

One thing I know for sure is—because it’s precisely what Jesus says to them—is that, washed by the mercy of Jesus Christ, they become people who say, “I am part of the problem with the world. I have some work to do” in the midst of a culture who is always saying, “Those people are the problem. They have some work to do.” Christ’s followers will be the ones, the salty little ones, who will point out their own faults and God’s mercy to overcome them rather than pointing out the faults and shortcomings of others. Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and the scribes, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” That’s what the Pharisees and scribes were all about, don’t you know? They were always pointing out where the other people fell short, the sins that other people needed to confess. The Pharisees were experts at diagnosing the problems of the world. The righteousness that exceeds them says, “Look no farther than yourself. Look no farther than yourself. Look no farther than yourself.”

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Because people with that excessive righteousness will know it’s really not about them. They’ll know it’s not about how bright their light is, as if the glow originates within themselves, as if they’ve got their crap together and they’re so goody-two-shoes that all the Pharisees and scribes would die to be just like them. In fact, Jesus’ followers will know their crap isn’t together and God loves them anyway.

No, if they shine at all they’ll know it’s because they’ve been opened up somehow to a certain degree—maybe through repentance, maybe through suffering—opened up, like a hole in the roof, a gash in the ceiling, so that when people look at them they see the cross shining through.  It’s because people will look at them—at us—whether we’re in the building with our cool new skylights or we’re outside of it somewhere, like dissociated ions, filling the world, and they’ll see a righteousness that comes from somewhere else, from a love that is above, shining down. They’ll see us in our light and know nothing among us but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. They’ll not see a people who are making a difference, but a loving God of light who makes a difference.

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Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

Waiting for consolation

A sermon for the Presentation of Our Lord

Luke 2:22-40 and Psalm 84

It was just a few weeks ago. I needed to pick up a few things at Target and I had my 3-year-old son with me. He’s only recently been allowed to walk by himself in the store instead of being strapped into the cart, but I thought I’d give it a go. In we walk, the two of us together, and make our way across the store by way of the wide aisle. We get about halfway to the food section and I realize he’s not right beside me anymore. I turn around and find that he is face to face with a woman I’ve never seen before. She’s got a red top on and khaki pants, so I figure she must be a store employee. She has crouched down to talk to him right next to her re-stocking cart, and as I approach them she looks up and says, “You must be Jasper’s father!”

“Yes,” I explained, as I got ready to pull him away so she could get back to work.

“Oh, let me talk to Jasper,” she said, “I heard his voice since he came in the store and I’ve been hoping I’d get to see him.”

“Excuse me,” I asked, “you know my son’s voice?”

“Oh, yes! I love him. I met him back in the fall and have seen him a few times, but it’s been several months since we’ve run into each other!”

Jasper stood there and gave me a look like, “Dad, leave us alone.”

So I watched them talk for a few minutes, utterly engaged with one another.

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It was one of those moments where I realized that my own son, although he was still young, although he still has so much to learn about people and strangers and conversations, was already forming relationships and interacting with the world apart from me. Although I am very much in control of his world, he was already able to venture out from my care and know people I don’t know. It’s kind of a proud but scary feeling. The Target employee was excellent, though.

It wasn’t Target, but the Jerusalem Temple for Jesus. And he wasn’t three-years-old and able to talk. He was just forty days old, right at that point in his development where he might have been able to start smiling at people, where his eyes could focus only about 8 to 12 inches away. Mary and Joseph walk in and immediately encounter someone who has been waiting for him. This stranger—not a temple employee, but a faithful, devout elder of the city—scoops Jesus from Mary’s arms (can you believe it?!) and begins a conversation.

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Aert de Gelder

The man hasn’t ever actually met Jesus before, but in some way he knows him. He knows him because he’s been waiting for him—waiting for the consolation of God’s people—and the Holy Spirit has led him to the Temple that day. And then here comes Anna, another elder who happened to never leave the temple, so faithful was she in her devotion to God. She begins to praise God and again makes a remark about waiting for him like everyone has been waiting for redemption.

The holy couple are probably both proud and a bit scared. They have that moment—that moment when they realize their child, still so young, will be forming relationships and interacting with the world apart from them. In fact, that is the sole purpose of Jesus’ existence, his reason for living, moreso than any other human: to form a relationship of love and mercy with all the people of the earth, to have an impact on everyone. As Simeon says, he is destined for the rising and falling of many. He is to be consolation. He is to be redemption.

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In the modern-day classic comedy Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell, the main character, TV weatherman Phil Connors, finds himself mysteriously stuck in a time loop where he always wakes up at 6:00am on February 2. He relives the day over and over again. He never ages, the town never changes, and he goes through the course of each February 2 meeting the same people and having the same opportunities. The whole time, of course, he is waiting and waiting to figure out how he can be redeemed from the whole situation. Quite literally, he seeks consolation, deliverance, from what quickly becomes a hell for him. We watch him respond to his situation any number of ways. He is transformed through his waiting but in the end his deliverance comes from within. He figures out, at long last, how to reach his own consolation.

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It is a charming movie and on some levels it teaches good lessons about things like attitude and charity and suffering, but Simeon and Anna are both looking for and find consolation and redemption from outside themselves. Their deliverance into a new world comes from a Savior. Their hopes are fulfilled not because some thought or attitude suddenly clicks from within, like trial-and-error self-help situation, checking out the books one-by-one from the library, but because they see God has reached down into the world and given his Son who is going to have conversations and relationships with people despite their brokenness. He is ours. The wait is over.

A better comparison to Simeon and Anna and to ourselves on this February 2 is the Greensboro Four, the young black men who, 60 years ago today, were sitting down at a whites-only Woolworth counter in Greensboro, NC, and waiting for a meal. They were waiting for consolation, too, for a redemption from a corrupt system of racial discrimination that would only come about when white people in power would let it happen. They, too, found themselves in a hellish time loop, day after day at the same counter, waiting for equality and facing hostility. They would end up waiting 146 days to get served lunch, but that’s only counting from the beginning of the sit-in. Technically-speaking you could say they waited over 200 years.

Simeon and Anna, both at the end of their lives, reveal that waiting and seeking is part of faith. And they both reveal that the only true deliverance from world that repeats its darkness and sorrow and injustice over and over again involves seeing the light of Jesus, of letting him love us and claiming that love. The only real fulfillment to the long wait for salvation is to behold the Son of God whose arrival reveals our inner thoughts, who brings the fall and rise of many. And the ones who fall are the ones we tend to think of as great and powerful, the ones who abuse authority, who lord over their people, who use things like religion and the economy to oppress others. And the ones who rise are the ones we cast aside, who are poor, or who are mourning, elderly, feeble, fragile.

Psalm 84, appointed for today, the Presentation of Our Lord, makes note of how both the sparrow and the swallow are able to make their nests by the altars of the Lord. Two of the most insignificant, most delicate, most non-descript creatures find place in God’s presence, right at its heart. Who are the sparrow-like in our time? Who are the people whose existence is so vulnerable, dependent on others for safety? They are the ones able to draw nearest to God.

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baby swallows in a nest

You may be interested to know there is only one other person in the gospel of Luke who is described as waiting and looking for God in the same way and that person, too, ends up holding Jesus. It comes at the very end of the gospel as Jesus’ limp and lifeless body is taken down from the cross and his followers wonder what to do with it. Another man, like Simeon, appears from nowhere and asks Pilate for the body so he may place it in a tomb. His name is Joseph of Arimathea, and he holds the broken body of Christ the same way Simeon held the child. He too is described as a good and righteous man who is looking for the kingdom of God.

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Mary and Joseph present Jesus in the Temple forty days after his birth, but in Jesus’ death we see just how much God’s love is presented to us. The family comes to be purified according to the law, but through the cross we see how we all are purified by love. Simeon and Anna see a light beginning to shine on the child’s fortieth day but Easter morning will prove just how bright that light will get. These devout and righteous men may hold Jesus in their arms, but in reality it is the other way around: Jesus holds us—in birth, in death, in the life to come.

And today we behold him again, or, rather, he holds us, in bread and wine, in his words,  in the promise of deliverance and salvation from all that holds you captive. He is your Savior. Let him crouch down, scoop you up, love you forever. “Master, now you dismiss your servants in peace, according to your word. Our own eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared—like a table, like a feast, like a lunch counter—in the presence of all your peoples.

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.