A meeting of Deniers Anonymous

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

John 21:1-19 and Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]

“After he appeared to his followers in Jerusalem, Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.”

And so begins one of the few accounts we have of Jesus after his resurrection. We don’t have a whole lot of these particular stories, which has often been a bit of a downer. Mark, with its original ending, doesn’t really have any stories of the risen Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus gives a very short message to his disciples, and then it ends. Luke and John both have a bit more with the resurrected Jesus, including this story today, but even their stories paint a picture of Jesus that is constantly appearing and reappearing to them out of nowhere, almost like most of the time he’s off doing something somewhere else on his own. You would think that if someone rose from the dead for the first time ever, we might get more stories of what that person was like and what he did. But, as it happens, Jesus was only around for 40 days after his resurrection, according to Luke, and so I guess we should be grateful for the half of dozen or so that we do have.

And based on this one that John includes, we come to learn that the stories we have are plenty. Like the fish that the disciples don’t expect to catch that just keep coming up out of the sea and into the boat, the messages about Jesus and who he is for us seem skimpy at first but end up becoming a load that will feed us from now until he returns. Like the meager meal that once ended up feeding five thousand by the lake, these few stories will miraculously provide more than enough for us as we continue as his disciples.

The first thing we learn about Jesus after the resurrection is, simply enough, that he eats. The other day there was a crane fly in our bathroom and our son wanted to catch it and keep it as a pet. So we managed to get it into a bug keeper and then we figured we’d better find something for it to eat. Melinda and I thought crane flies preyed on mosquitos, and I wasn’t particularly crazy about having to catch mosquitoes, but when we asked the authority in our house—Alexa—what crane flies ate we learned, to our surprise, that adult crane flies actually don’t eat anything. They emerge from their pupa form without mouth parts. They have enough energy stored up in their bodies to continue their life for a few days, lay eggs, and then die. So as it turned out we ended up finding one of the easiest pets to keep ever. No cost to keep a crane fly!

crane fly

Jesus, however, is different, and his community is too. He emerges from the tomb hungry. In fact, about half of the stories that include the risen Jesus, he has a meal with his disciples. In this one that John tells us about, Jesus is on the shore of the lake and there is a campfire there. He apparently has already been preparing this meal because when the disciples get off the boat from fishing and walk ashore, there are already some fish and bread on the fire. Jesus asks them to bring more from what they’ve caught and he invites them to breakfast. And taking the bread from the fire, and then the fish, he shares it with his hungry disciples who are still trying to understand how to live into this new reality of a risen Jesus.

Eating together will be central to the life of Jesus’ disciples after his resurrection. It seems so ordinary and un-mysterious—you know, sitting down for a bite to eat—but as it turns out gathering regularly for a meal will help Jesus’ friends understand how to make Jesus’ presence real in the world.  I think this is an aspect to our faith that we can take for granted, because it’s easy to make faith into a head-trip. I think we can easily turn worship into little more than a seminar with music, if we’re not careful. We come so often to worship to be moved by the things we hear and sing and read that we can forget that Jesus’ risen life for us is about community and sharing. A meal gets us to do that, perhaps more than anything else.

In Jesus’ time, of course, sharing a table with someone else was one of the most intimate things you could do with them. Eating together put people on the same level and almost made them family. In a time of drive-thru service and Door Dash we probably don’t think a whole lot about the power of eating together. That said, studies done recently on international diplomacy have shown that summits and meetings between national leaders that include a meal are more successful in accomplishing their goals of peace and understanding than meetings that do not have the principal players gathered around common food.

Jesus knows this, so when the risen Jesus gathers his disciples for a simple breakfast that morning, he is not just starting the day right. It’s starting their new life right. He is showing his followers that taking time to share his meal of bread and wine will help keep them united to him and to each other.

The second thing we learn about life with the risen Lord is that it revolves around second chances. The first lesson this morning, the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus as told in the book of Acts, may be the most dramatic example of that. It’s the story of how a man goes from a life of persecuting the church and happily watching Christians killed to founding and nurturing Christian churches throughout the known world.  The man we know as Paul, the one who wrote most of the letters of the New Testament and helped train numerous disciples for Jesus, started as Saul, a man who had an intense hatred for Jesus. As cruel as Saul was, Jesus turned his life around toward good.

And the life of the risen Jesus is about giving people second chances even before Paul. That day by the lake as the disciples share a meal together Jesus approaches Peter and asks him three times if he loves him. Just as Peter had denied even knowing Jesus three times on the night of Jesus’ death, now Peter has three chances to profess his love for Jesus.

The Conversion of Paul (Caravaggio)

God is full of grace. Jesus rises from the dead and immediately wants his life of new beginnings to resurrect Peter’s faith. Jesus doesn’t rub Peter’s nose in what he’s done. Jesus doesn’t toss Peter to the curb and move on to the next disciple instead. Jesus invites Peter back into a relationship of love and trust. Since we’ve been embraced by this relationship too, we must watch and tend how it then creates new beginnings in our relationships. This is the power of God’s forgiveness—to wipe away past wrongs and move forward with new possibilities.

Church can so easily become a type of society or club, with all its committees and its business features, but we do well to remember that at our core we are a just a weekly meeting of D.A.: Deniers Anonymous. Peter’s denial did not cause him to lose his spot in Jesus’ disciples. Jesus immediately found a way to bring him back in. People show up for worship and other ministry activities each week in the shoes of Peter, wishing for a new start, a new crack at God’s grace. And that is good, because Christ’s risen life revolves around infinite second chances.

The third thing we learn from these post-resurrection stories, and particularly this one this morning, is that we receive tasks. Faith in Christ is not just going to be something we reflect on intended to make our lives better. We feed Jesus’ lambs. We tend his sheep. Jesus calls Peter to nurture the life of his flock and, through them, the lives of the sheep in the whole world around him.

When I look back on the past two years of ministry in our congregation, and especially 2020, the first year of the pandemic, I realize that this aspect of Jesus’ risen life was especially important to this congregation. It was probably true for many congregations. For obvious reasons, it was difficult for us to gather and share Jesus’ meal, since physical presence is required for that. And although virtual ministry allowed us to continue to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, living together as a reconciled second-chance people and sharing our stories was tricky too. But the congregation really felt called to feed and tend the needs of those around us. The serving ministries of this congregation never faltered, and, in fact, in 2020, they set records in many areas. In a time of stress and disorientation, you heard Jesus calling us to continue feeding his lambs through support of our food pantries and to tend the Christ’s flock at St. Joseph’s Villa and Encircle through special drives at Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year’s Lenten Wednesday offerings raised over $6000, which will be split between our denomination’s assistance to people fleeing disaster and war and Safe Harbor, a local program that provides assistance to people experiencing domestic violence and human trafficking.

A meeting of the Micah Ministry Team at Epiphany

One day this week I happened across the members of our Micah Ministry meeting in our parlor. Micah Ministry is our outreach to Southampton Elementary School, a Richmond City Public School just south of the river. The team was planning activities for Teacher Appreciation Week there, tending to the needs of educating sheep who have certainly had a challenging last two years.

Sharing Jesus’ meal periodically in a life of endless new beginnings as we work to tend to the needs of the world: all of this crammed so lovingly into just a handful of experiences after Jesus rises from the grave. Jesus knows it will be enough for us to go on, keep us busy for a long time. It’s as if he knows—it’s as if he knows he will be somehow present with us as we continue, in our forgiveness of one another, in his Words, through the Holy Spirit.

The thing is: we never know exactly where this path will wind, where it will take us— the joys, the pains, the tragedies, the triumphs…the weeping that spends the night and the joy that comes in the morning. That can be the scary part. But Jesus knows we can do it. He believes deep down we can walk this journey of faith. He says to us, as he says to Peter: Follow me.

And so we do. With God’s help and guidance, we follow, knowing that through all the twists and turns the path eventually leads to the place where “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them—even the crane flies without their mouth parts—will be singing to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb. To him be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Remembering to Move Forward

a sermon for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Day [Year C]

Luke 24:1-12 and 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

The women were terrified, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

In all seriousness, I actually had an experience almost like this the other day. The staff and I were trying to find one of the church’s crosses to get ready for Good Friday. We have several large crosses people have made and there was one in particular that we thought might work. However, no one seemed to remember where it might have gotten stashed, so I just started looking in some of the most logical places. I went out to the garage and snooped around. Not there. So then I looked in the storage room inside the Star Lodge. There are a lot of things in there, for sure, but a cross wasn’t among them. Finally I checked the new storage units that Tod Mitchell built a couple of years ago on the back of the Star Lodge. It’s not a place people go very often because you have to have a special key and it faces the back of the property and is a bit creepy.

What I didn’t know what that the big mannequins that we use on our front lawn for the Christmas display were stored in there. I unlocked the padlock on the door and slowly opened the door to the darkness inside, and—hiya!—there they were, these huge towering faceless figures right in front of me My heart about stopped and I jumped back a foot or two, especially because their arms are all bent upright and for a split second—a very short split second— I thought was being jumped by some tall dudes in sequined outfits. When I came to my senses, it was like they were asking, “Phillip, why are you seeking the Easter props among the Christmas decorations. The cross is not here. It is in some other location.”

The whole incident was pretty funny, but there was no one there to laugh at it. But it did get me thinking about how much of what we’re doing right now revolves around remembering how we used to do things. It has been three years since we’ve had an Easter like this. The other night on Maundy Thursday we distributed Holy Communion at the altar rail for the first time since March 2020. It felt a bit like the Keystone Cops up here. I couldn’t exactly remember which side we were supposed to go to and which direction we served. I thought I’d skipped someone with the bread; a worshipper, still chewing his morsel, kindly pointed to let me know I needed to keep going down the line. At one point Joseph asked me, “Psst. Is there another chalice bearer?” even though Matt Greenshields was standing right behind him, exactly where he was supposed to be.

I take comfort in the fact we’re all in that place, to some degree, these days. The COVID pandemic disrupted so many aspects of life. Teachers are trying to remember how to run a classroom in person. Students are trying to remember how to be in a social educational setting again. Some experts say that we were all living in crisis mode, more or less, for two years. Even thought life is moving on we find ourselves also looking back, trying to remember. As you move farther into a more open 2022, what kinds of things have you been trying to think back on?

That is where the women at the tomb find themselves on that first Easter morning: having to remember. They come to the tomb with their spices, the props of death. We can imagine they are still very much in crisis mode. As torturous as the events of Friday night had been when Jesus had been crucified so hastily because of the anger of the crowd this was still the thing you did when someone died. You gathered and prepared the spices to anoint the body in the tomb. You instinctively grab the facemask when you go into the store. You back away from the stranger who gets a little too close. You douse yourself in hand sanitizer when you get back in the car.

The stone is rolled away from the tomb when the women get there. That should have been the first clue that things had changed, that their spices might not even be needed. But they go into the tomb anyway, the darkness most likely overpowering them at first as their eyes get adjusted to the dim, damp space. They walk around, unable to locate Jesus’ body. Historians tell us tomb-robbing was a problem in first century Israel, but it wasn’t all that common for people in this socio-economic bracket; plus, the day before had been a holy day and therefore not much activity had been going on anywhere. The stone rolled away, the empty tomb—there are two very peculiar and out-of-the-ordinary occurrences that might have tipped them off to what really was going on.

Then suddenly there are these men in dazzling, maybe even sequined, clothes in front of them. The women bow down in fear and terror. It is not until the men encourage them to remember that they begin to understand what has happened. Not until these mystery figures tell them to think back to life before the great crisis of Holy Week, to cast their memories back to the more pleasant days in Galilee, that the women start to realize that the stone is rolled away and the tomb is empty because Jesus is risen from the dead.

To remember. It’s funny, isn’t it, that they find their faith in what God is doing now in Jesus doesn’t take shape until they think back to what has already been said. The men in dazzling clothes say, “Remember, women, how Jesus told you that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again?” This, itself is significant because Jesus had only shared that kind of information with his inner circle of disciples. If women at the tomb were being asked to remember something like that, then clearly women were part of Jesus’ inner circle.

The point is that long before this morning on the first day of the week, Jesus had been laying the groundwork for his resurrection. Long before the cross, long before the suffering, long before the ridiculous trial before Pontius Pilate, long before the donkey ride into Jerusalem when things start to go off the rails, Jesus had been lovingly and openly sharing with them the truth about his life and mission. All along he told them that he had come to be handed over to the authorities and be crucified. They had heard it, and now they remember it, and they are ready to understand and believe that Jesus is risen, that death has been conquered and creation is released from its bondage to sin and free to live a new life. The terror and the chaos of the crucifixion had caused them to forget, but God is always moving creation towards freedom and life.

We can think about all the times we have been told things that don’t make much sense in the moment, that don’t fully register when we hear them, but that later become crystal clear. It’s information that stays lodged somewhere, insignificant at the time, like a seed in the soil that later germinates and blossoms into faith that forms your future. Or maybe like an anchor that the sailor tosses into the sea but then forgets is there, keeping him steady all along when the fear of the rough seas takes him over. These are the words of Jesus for those first believers at the tomb.

I wonder how often someone has had to remind me, in a moment of fear and frustration, things that a teacher once told me, or a camp counselor, or one of my parents. Indeed, this is the promise of our baptism that anchors our lives. Words spoken over us by the water become the anchoring memory which guides our lives. In the crisis of faith or identity we have this moment of which we may be reminded where God claimed us with his unconditional love and spoke promise over our lives. Maybe it didn’t mean much to us at the time; maybe we don’t even remember it. The world makes us feel we are worthless, our failures make us feel we are hopeless, and our griefs make us feel we are loveless. But God thinks and knows differently, and our baptism assures us of that. It tethers us to Jesus, and Jesus is risen and God will bring his promise of new life through any thing that currently seems insurmountable.

Newborn baby baptism in Holy water. baby holding mother’s hands. Infant bathe in water. Baptism in the font. Sacrament of baptism. Child and God. Christening candle Holy water font. The priest baptize

As the apostle Paul says, reminding his Corinthian church in much the same way that the men in the tomb remind the women: “for as we all die in Adam, so we all will be made alive in Christ, but each in his own order.” And since Christ is like the first fruits of the eternal kingdom, the first return of the harvest that indicates more will come, we can be reassured that we will, in our time, die and then find ourselves awake in the presence of the living God forever.

All this is to say that God is always, always, moving things forward into new life. From the beginning this has been God’s plan—to bring the fullness of life to all to unleash each of us in service to one another. Pandemics will not stop it, chaos will not stop it, death will not stop it, and our lack of faith and memory will not stop it either.

So I don’t know what you are trying to remember from two years ago. But don’t seek the living among the dead. Christ is risen, and God gives us the courage to step out of the fear and fog and into the freedom of God’s future which he has claimed through the cross. Remember who and whose you are: forgiven and loved. Even death cannot take that away.

And then go forth like those women disciples did, to remind others who may still be in their darkness. Remind them of what Jesus has said, that they too are free to move forward into this great new life. You won’t even need to jump out of a storage shed to do it.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Made to Look Ridiculous

a sermon for Good Friday

Psalm 22

“But I am a worm, and not human. Scorned by others, and despised by the people.” Psalm 22:6

Pastor Karl-Heinz Nickel, the long-time pastor of Trinity Church in the small eastern German town of Gommern, presided over a very small parish whose numbers had dwindled almost to nothing during the years of the Communist Party’s dictatorship. Once the Berlin Wall came down and the two Germanys—the open west and the closed east—were reunited, Pastor Nickel had hoped that the church would experience some type of revival. Slowly, over the years, some people did come back to the congregation—some that were reacquainting themselves with a faith of their grandparents, others who were just curious. But overall things stayed fairly quiet.

St Trinity Evangelical Church, Gommern, Germany

I got to know Pastor Nickel during the year I lived in Gommern, and I was interested to know just why the Christian church in the former East Germany had fared so poorly compared to the church in the free west? Why had so many people essentially left the faith in the years of the communist regime? He and I had several discussions about it, and he tried to explain that communist rule implemented certain policies that made it almost impossible for the church to survive. For example, if one decided to be confirmed, which typically happened at age 15 or 16, then that person could not become a legal member of the Communist Party, which was the only ticket to most careers in adulthood. Understandably, that turned a lot of young people off to faith in general. The government also enacted many policies that made it difficult for congregations to raise funds for upkeep and for staff, and since people didn’t have a lot of personal disposable income anyway, as a result of the command economy, churches fell into disrepair.

But I remember that Pastor Nickel said that despite all of these official governmental obstacles to the flourishing of the church, the thing that probably was the worst to deal with was that Christian faith was, by and large in society, “lӓcherlich gemacht.” That is, Christian faith was made fun of, or, more accurately translated, made to look ridiculous. It wasn’t a formal policy—it was just the way faith in God was treated by people in common society. People were seen as simpletons and idiots for actually believing in things God and worshiping on Sunday and professing the power of sacrificial love. I think could detect in his voice a slight sadness and resignation as he told me. Being made to look ridiculous proved to be the biggest burden of faith. And yet they persisted.

The trials of Pastor Nickel and his flock are an extreme example, but even today in America we can feel shame for our beliefs. Even being made to wear a face mask can be humiliating.  And yet tonight we all gather to remember that the defining moment of Jesus’ life was being made to look ridiculous. How can Jesus’ followers in this life ever really expect to be the cool kids, the admired and strong, when the head himself is wounded at the pinnacle of his ministry? He hangs naked in a position of complete humiliation, hands nailed outstretched. He needs water to slake his thirst; his tormentors give him vinegar.

And that’s just the ending of it. The moment he is brought before Pontius Pilate and the soldiers it is one moment of embarrassment after another. The scarlet robe they put on him is meant to be joke. The crown of thorns is a cruel trick by his bullies. When they cast lots for his clothes as he dies, it underlines how weak and insignificant he is. He didn’t even have enough property to divide, and what he had wasn’t large enough to rip in two. Could you imagine what it would feel like to watch people you didn’t know, your haters, try to divide your belongings while you were still alive?

What a strange way to be a God. What a peculiar way to show your divinity, your dazzling other-worldly strength—to let yourself be mocked and derided when it would be completely in your power to silence them all, when it would be completely within your power to flash across the earth in a blaze of glory and amaze them all. The Tuesday morning adult Bible study this spring is reading a book together called Making Sense of the Cross by former Philadelphia Seminary president David Lose. It’s a great title, but I think the cross is hard to make sense of,  and this is one place where I’d want to start. How does humiliation really accomplish anything good? The East German rulers figured out that it is an effective way to crush a religion.

Even if he is not delighted with it, Jesus himself understands that humiliation is part of God’s plan to restore humanity to God’s love. On the cross many of Jesus words are prayers that come straight from Psalm 22, an ancient prayer of the Hebrew Bible that articulates what it’s like to be totally rejected. As he dies it’s like he’s saying his prayers:

For dogs are all around me, a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled.
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me.”

If we must make sense of the cross, then it starts by understanding God does not send Jesus simply to be mocked and tortured and encircled by evildoers. God sends Jesus to be human in a pure and selfless way. God sends Jesus to love in the way all people were created to love. And once that gets going in this dark world, the cross becomes inevitable. That is, it becomes clear pretty quickly that God’s love in Jesus must come down to meet us where we are, to search all of us out, to stand with humanity wherever humanity is found. Even when it is found in shame. Even when that shame is death.

It doesn’t feel like victory tonight. I realize that. But it truly is the best victory the world can ever hope to make sense of: the cross. To all those who have ever been made fun of, to all those who have been mocked for who you are and where you stand, to all those who haven’t fit in, to everyone who hasn’t been selected for the in-groups, who has been left behind by popularity and success, who have been enslaved, discriminated, tonight should feel really good. Because tonight God says, “I see you.” God says, “I know you feel ridiculous. But you are holy stuff. God says, “My Son, by evildoers encirled, stands with you, and he will not leave.”

So just wait a little bit, just wait with me, and see what happens next.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Even the Rocks

a sermon for Palm Sunday [Year C]

Luke 19:29-44

In the summer of 2020 when the congregation’s construction project finally came to an end and all the inspections had been passed and we were finally able to use our new front doors and patio, I took one walk out the new front entrance on that first day and realized we might have made a terrible mistake. The river rocks in the landscaping out front looked fantastic on the blueprints and the designs, but once I saw them lying there I knew they would instantly become projectiles. In fact, I remember talking with our building manager Steve about it, and we thought that those rocks would be very tempting for small children to reach down and launch them through one of those windows.

What in the world had we been thinking? I called the architect it and he reminded me that in the meetings leading up to the project approval, we had all agreed that rock beds right there would, in the long run, be much neater and much, much easier to maintain and keep weed-free than regular mulch beds. Now that I saw them, thought, I was having second thoughts. Sure enough, a week or so later I watched as my own son, age 4, on his first visit to the new entrance, walked over, reached into the bed, pulled out a rock the perfect size of his hand and launched it into the grass before I could stop him. It will be a challenge, I think, to keep that from happening, because the rocks practically cry out to be thrown. They have no real voice, but they scream in tones grown-ups can’t hear.

Jesus talks about rocks that cry out on his way into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey—they would cry out in tones that many disciples wouldn’t be able to hear. His point is this: even if the parade had been carefully crafted to minimize impromptu outbursts of excitement—even if people had stayed home that Palm Sunday for fear of being caught on film and later targeted by the state police—even if people had for some reason decided to respectfully golf-clap like the crowds at the Masters instead of shouting—the rocks themselves would have come to life to cry out “Hosanna! God save us!”

This is not just a provocative image that Jesus uses, as if we are supposed to imagine rocks with little eyes and mouths. This was a statement that all of creation had been waiting for this moment. This was a declaration by Jesus that his arrival in Jerusalem was not just the conclusion to his own personal faith journey that began in the River Jordan, but the culmination of the hopes and fears of all the years of humankind. The whole universe awaits redemption. There is a new heaven and a new earth underway, and this moment, this arrival of a new king in Israel, is the moment it begins to reach a climax. The arrival of the one “who comes in the name of the Lord” is no small thing. Even Jesus can sense, before the palm branches wave and before the people pour out of the their homes to greet him, that his mission is going to have far-reaching ramifications.

Of course, the rocks that day do not need to cry out because the people do. They do come out of their homes and they do wave the branches. They do cry out for a king who at long last, they thought, would get something done. They see a ruler who would finally stand in the shoes of the great King David and bring them respect and honor among the nations. And they see a man who is ready to take on their oppressors, throw them out, and establish peace in the land. These are their hopes, and they pin them to the male on the donkey that day.

Do the rocks of today still cry out? By that I mean do you get the impression that the world still longs for things like peace and justice? I know that those who mark Palm Sunday as holy claim to want these things, but even if our voices were silent today, even if we were to find other things to do than worship, would others somewhere take our place? Or have people settled into a scary rhythm of war and hardship because that’s what they believe all life really holds? Have people lost hope in leaders? In the power of forgiveness and reconciliation? What about the cobblestoned streets of Bucha and Irpin? The rocky pathways of Kabul?  The gleaming stone buildings of Washington, DC? Are they crying out?

What about you? Do you find yourself crying out for anything these days? What kinds of hopes and dreams do you pin on God? What expectations do you have of your relationship with God and with the things God promises? Is there some way all of the these things become centered and focused on the man who comes riding into Jerusalem. How can he be an answer to these prayers and hopes?

Luke is the only one of the gospel writers who tells us that the multitude of disciples on that day as he rode in began to rejoice and praise God for the mighty works that they had seen. The other gospel writers record the shouts of the crowds, but here in Luke we are told that his disciples—those who had been in ministry with him over the past few years—are thinking about the great works they had witnessed. They know a leader who has reached out to heal the suffering. They have worked with a teacher who has emphasized the least and the lowly in his lessons. They have eaten with a deeply religious man who has still shared his table with tax collectors and sinners. And they have watched in awe as he took fish and a few loaves and fed thousands of people. I wonder what those disciples think Jesus is here in Jerusalem to do. What particular dreams and hopes have they focused on him as he rides in? Will they feel let down as the week unfolds and it seems he does no miracles like these at all?

Hearing the events of Palm Sunday this year makes me think of how we tend to adore leaders, and place them on pedestals. And it makes me think about how all too often our expectations of leaders don’t line up with what they actually end up delivering. Jesus is no exception to this, as it turns out. He doesn’t hold anything close to his vest, and he doesn’t try send mixed messages about his agenda, and yet he still ends up ruining most people’s dreams of him. We know this because by the end of the week the crowds are eager to free an insurrectionist named Barrabas (and look past Barrabas’ crimes) rather than follow Jesus into the love of God’s kingdom. So if you cry out for a leader today, if you pin your hope on a savior on this Palm Sunday, which leader is it for?

Over the past several months one of the most popular and successful local non-profit organizations, Shalom Farms, has been very carefully searching for a new Executive Director. This Executive Director will lead Shalom Farms in its mission, which is to provide free farm-grown produce to alleviate food insecurity and address food justice issues in the greater Richmond area. As it happens, when it began out in Goochland County in 2009, the Epiphany Youth Group was one of the first volunteer groups to work there, and we’ve continued that relationship to today. In 2021 they produced over 700,000 servings of food.

members of the Epiphany Youth Group working at Shalom Farms in 2009

One of Epiphany’s members, Johanna Gattuso, is the current chair of the Board. She shared with me that the Board made the conscious decision in their search that one of the criteria of the new Executive Director was that at some point in their life they needed to have experienced food insecurity. They still received over 100 resumes for the position. Some of the letters that accompanied these applications spoke movingly of what it was like to grow up going to bed hungry,or foraging in fields for greens, or having to watch their parents eat nothing for dinner so that they, as kids, would. The idea, of course, is that the new leader of Shalom Farms would lead from a position of solidarity and familiarity with the organization’s mission. Anna Ibrahim was hired and began her tenure as the Executive Director this month. Hailing from farmers who toiled on the prairies of the Midwest and the valleys of the Levant, Ms Ibrahim looks forward to continuing Shalom Farm’s ministry with renewed energy.

In our search for that leader who can rescue us from our brokenness, who can release us from our captivity to sin and selfishness, who can free us to a life of forgiveness, perhaps we should cry out for one who has walked that road. If we seek mercy, perhaps we should cry out for one who is willing to be broken, one who has a track record in eating with the sinner, in seeking out the lost and lowly. In our hope for one who can conquer death, why don’t we look for one who will die himself? For a leader has been given to us, and that is his mission: to love us as we are, to free us with forgiveness, to heal us with humility.

Back in 2020, as the construction was being completed, and the doors were open to receive people who couldn’t come because of the pandemic, a family in our congregation with young children decided to paint rocks with Easter messages as a faith formation activity at home. They didn’t just cover these rocks with color. They inscribed little messages on them—things like “Happy Easter!” and “He is Risen!”—and then they came by and placed them along our sidewalk with the hope someone might see them. Two years later and some of them are still here, lying around underfoot, like petrified Easter eggs, still just waiting to be seen now that the people are returning. I leave work each day, and, if I’m lucky, my eyes will fall upon one, crying out, saying He is Risen. reminding me that if I don’t learn to shout Hosanna!—“Hosanna, My leader, my savior has come—has come and loves me to the end!” well, then a rock will take my place.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

We Had to Celebrate

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

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

“But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

When was the last time you had to celebrate something? When was the last time something happened—or something was about to happen—that was so important that it actually needed a party to acknowledge it? Was it a major birthday? A retirement? Spring Break? There have been stories in the news over the past week about just how much college students are letting loose on Florida beaches this year. Two years of a pandemic have bottled up the intense desire to release a little school stress. Miami Beach actually had to institute a nightly curfew last week amid a rise in violence and if Miami Beach has a curfew you know things have gotten out of control.

Not too long ago my family felt we had to throw a party for one of my children upon their successful achievement of potty-training. I had never even thought of such a party, but after a long, long, arduous process of cajoling and coaxing, Herculean levels of patience, and countless loads of dirty laundry, my wife Melinda looked at me one day and said, “We have to do something big to mark this moment.” So we did. The whole affair was a mixture of carrot-on-a-stick reward for him and a chance to let loose for us. He got to choose the menu. Melinda made cupcakes. We used toilet paper rolls as centerpieces. His grandparents got to be guests, and he even got presents, including a Spiderman puzzle. We took photos. It seemed outlandish, but all of us were into it.

Jesus tells a story about a party that just had to happen and it’s outlandish too. There was a moment that needed to be marked. After—who knows?—months, maybe years of Herculean levels of patience a son had finally returned to his father after having squandered his whole inheritance. There are creative table decorations. Not toilet paper rolls, but something elaborate, for sure. Mom goes all out. There’s a huge calf on the spit over the fire, drinks flowing, and apps for everyone! The guest list includes anyone the son can think of—first and second cousins, guys he went to high school with, people from church, next door neighbors. The father sends him out to the mall with his credit card beforehand so he get a whole new wardrobe just for the party. Talk about letting loose! There will be no curfew here! They will carry on as long as they want and as loud as they want and the dad is happy to watch from the patio as the DJ kicks it old school.

It’s the party that had to happen. The whole parable Jesus tells is quite a doozy—the boy mouthing off to his dad at the start and then eating with pigs—but the party at the end was the part that would have stood out the most. Everyone who heard the story would have gotten stuck on that particular part. Why in the world did this father, who had just doled out a good portion of his legacy to this son and then watched him throw it all away feel like rewarding him with a big blow-out? Why go over-the-top? Why not just quietly and peacefully bring him back in, discuss it all as a teaching moment over a beer?

The Return of the Prodigal Son (Rembrandt)

Why? Because that is how glad and thankful this father is. This father loves it that his child has come back to where he truly belongs. This father is elated that his family is whole again, that the kids are safe and sound. This is how God thinks of us.

Jesus tells this story because he needs certain people to hear that. The Pharisees and the scribes need to understand that this is how God feels about people who return. Call it extravagant, call it prodigal, call it elaborate, but it is a fundamental aspect of God’s character, and some people just don’t seem to get it. God loves his children and this is how he feels about then when they wander and come home. This is how God feels about people who make huge mistakes, who are hurtful and wasteful and ungrateful.  This is how God receives those who come to themselves even after making terrible, destructive choices.

There’s an old hymn that goes, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” God’s mercy is wider than we can imagine. It’s like standing on the sand down at Virginia Beach and trying to see Morocco or whatever is straight across. God’s love is like that. There’s actually a website you can go to that will tell you what is exactly across the ocean from where you’re standing and apparently if you go straight out from the coastline at Virginia Beach you actually won’t hit land until the southern coastline of Australia because of the curvature of the earth, which is an interesting bit of geographic trivia that actually makes the old hymn even better. God’s mercy is so wide, and all too often people like the Pharisees and other really religious folk like to draw the lines closer in.

Website is here

Sometimes Jesus tells parables to illustrate a point about God’s kingdom. Sometimes Jesus tells parables to warn people about certain kinds of behavior. Everyone once in a while Jesus tells a parable specifically so that one of his listeners might hear themselves in it. This is one of those times, and Jesus is hoping that the Pharisees and the religious leaders hear themselves in that older son, the one who didn’t wander and eat with the pigs, the one who didn’t insult the father by leaving. Often the younger son gets the attention, but in fact Jesus is really driving home a point to that older son—that one child found really is beneficial to the whole house. Being in the father’s care is life itself, something that older son still has and never lost.

What’s interesting to me is how easily this father leaves the safety of his estate to reach out to his kids. He leaves not once, but twice, in order to draw his sons into his love. A lot of the attention falls on that first son as he comes home on the road. The father rushes out to greet him and throws his arms around him. But again, the Pharisees need to hear that the father comes out of the house again—he even leaves the party he’s throwing, in order to have the son feel and understand his love and what the heart of this faith is. The heart of faith is joy, not getting everything right all of the time, not wagging fingers at those who trip up. The heart of mercy is focus on the other, not self. It is about remembering the embrace of the Father is always wider than the sins of the son.

I wonder if it might help to hear this parable as the difference between the concepts of equality and equity. The older son is very focused on both sons being treated equally, but the father knows he needs to treat them equitably. Equal treatment means each son gets the same, no matter what. Young son gets a big party, older son deserves at least a small party, right?

But God is more concerned that each son get what they need. The young son needs a big party to contrast just how far he strayed and how great it is to have him back. The older son doesn’t need that because he has always had the life of his father’s house.

Likewise, when the Pharisees see Jesus hanging out with the sinners, that is a case of God giving them what they most need. They need to feel and know that God still considers them children of the house. The Pharisees should see them as brothers or sisters and their own experience of God’s kingdom would be enhanced. Jesus wants those who maybe haven’t wandered as much to have some compassion, which is exactly what moves the father to embrace the son on the road. Episcopal priest and author Fleming Rutledge says in her book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ says, “Trying to understand someone else’s predicament lies at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.”[1]

Jesus wants all of his disciples—the Pharisees, the wandering, you and me—to see another’s predicament, to see God as running to give people precisely the forgiveness and grace they need and to rejoice with one another as we each receive it. Because one day he runs to us. He runs out to where we all are, at whatever point on the road as we limp along in shame, to have us home.

Eventually, Jesus will run so far and so hard that he will run right into death for us. He will run until they nail his hands and feet so that the wideness of God’s mercy  will stretch all the way across to hell and bring us back. Because a household where we all rejoice and suffer together is such a blessed place to be. Younger and older, dead and alive, lost and found.

This week our friends from Hanover Adult Center were over here making sliders with Rob Hamlin for lunch one day. They worked hard in the kitchen putting together three different kinds—ham and mustard with poppyseed, Philly cheese steak, and pepperoni pizza. After they were done, they invited all of us in the office into the conference room to enjoy lunch with them. It was kind over the top. I wasn’t expecting such a decadent lunch that day, but I’m glad they compelled me to come.

While we were hanging out, having a great time, one of the Adult Center folks named Franklin wanted to tell us something. As it turns out, Franklin is completely deaf, so he started signing to us excitedly, spelling out words and phrases faster than we could understand. Greg Claud was the interpreter, and he said that Franklin was telling us that his birthday had been that Monday and the friends in his group home had blown him up a big balloon and had made him a birthday cake. Franklin is unable to read lips, so he depends a lot on facial expressions and vibrations in communication. So when his friends made things he could see like balloons and a cake and when they clapped really loudly on his birthday and smiled really big with clear eye contact it was more obvious to him that they were celebrating him and that made him so happy. So happy he was still telling people about it Thursday over sliders.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, however you are—hear this, please: God is clapping for you, smiling for you, making eye contact with you. Balloons, cake, bread, wine. Forgiveness with no curfew. It’s all here. For you. And God is sooo happy.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge

An Answer to the Puzzle

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

Luke 13:1-9 and Isaiah 55:1-9

What is your Wordle score today? Have you posted it, with its cryptic little pattern of green and yellow squares? One of the biggest trends to hit the world in the past several months, the Wordle game, which is now posted daily, like a crossword puzzle, by The New York Times, allows you to guess a five-letter word in six attempts. Getting the right word in four attempts is pretty good. Three is above average. And getting it on your second or even first attempt is really blind luck. You may be proud to know that our very own Richmond ranks in the top ten cities in terms of Wordle scores. Based on what I see on Facebook, I think some of the members of this congregation are helping us get there.

The growth in popularity of Wordle is staggering, and if by now you haven’t given it a shot, chances are you know someone who has. At the beginning of November 2021 the game had 90 players. By the start of February it had grown to over 2 million, and I’m sure there are even more now. Its popularity has spawned countless offshoots of Wordle, all built on the same premise of guessing something each day with only a few attempts. Quordle lets you guess four five-letter words simultaneously, which is like Wordle on steroids. Worldle gives you a silhouette of a country each day and six attempts to guess it. Heardle, a sound-based game, lets you guess a song each day, but it only gives you about a second of it at a time. There is Birdle, Lewdle, Bardle. Taylordle is for Taylor Swift fans. Perhaps the one for the biggest nerds of all: Tradle, which lets you guess a country based on the breakdown of its total exports.

Whether it’s Wordle or something else, all this is to say, we humans love our puzzles. We love riddling things out and finding patterns in things. And we’re generally good at it. It’s one of our greatest strengths, one of the hallmarks of being made in the image of God. The keen ability to discover patterns and tease out methods to the universe’s madness is what allowed us to put men on the moon and create a COVID vaccine in less than a year.

But the natural urge to find meaningful patterns in things does more than that. Sociologists and psychologists know that humans have an inherent need to “storify reality,” as Joe Pinsker writes in the Atlantic this week.[1] That is, we instinctively look at things that happen in the world or that happen to us and we try to make sense of them by mapping them into a narrative. We look for those patterns, those causes and effects, ups and downs.

That is what is happening when Jesus is approached this week by people wondering about a recent tragedy in the news. They are trying to storify their reality. Background details are fuzzy, but apparently some Jews from Galilee had been murdered by Pontius Pilate and then, as if that weren’t barbaric and mean-spirited enough, he had mingled some of their blood with the sacrifices to a pagan god. Everyone would have probably been talking about this, kind of like how many of us are talking about some of Vladimir Putin’s brutal attacks on civilians in Ukraine. These people talking about it with Jesus  and their little brains have been going and they wonder if there might be a pattern. Did these people die this awful way for a reason? Is there some method to this madness? Were they, for example, somehow worse sinners than other people and they were just getting their due?

destruction in Mariupol, Ukraine

And Jesus responds to that question by citing another recent tragedy in the news— the tower over in Siloam that fell unexpectedly and killed some people. It was a cruel, unexpected event—so cruel and saddening that there must be a reason behind it. But no, he says, they weren’t any better or worse than anyone else in Jerusalem.

He doesn’t say it specifically, but the message is there for us to hear: sometimes bad things just happen. Sometimes tragedies occur—whether the big, momentary ones like a tower falling or the long-drawn out tragedies like a virus that spreads and mutates and takes out lives and changes others over a long period of time. There are some things that just don’t have an underlying pattern, and human suffering is often one of them. Even with a loving, active God at the heart of the universe, human suffering is, for now, a part of our existence, and no matter how many attempts we’re given we won’t solve its riddle.

This is hard. I can imagine that the people who asked Jesus that question were a bit perplexed, if not terribly disappointed, that day. After all, if anyone could riddle out those tragedies, it would be him. Knowing that there is grand reason behind something, hoping there is a greater design behind all the hardships we face, might help us live our own lives better or face the inevitable dark day. This is why conspiracy theories are so popular. They offer some kind of plan or system for chaotic and troubling times.

There have been times when I’ve been especially unnerved by other people’s suffering, and have wondered, as I’ve pondered their situation from a relative distance, how there could even be a loving Creator. A story is told of a young Steve Jobs, founder of Apple products, who once, at age 13, asked his Sunday School teacher about the starving children on the front of a Life magazine cover. “Does God know about this,” he asked, pointing to the photo, “and what’s going to happen to these children?” Apparently whatever the pastor said did not satisfy the young Jobs and he left church and God, never to return again. That seems drastic to me, especially because he didn’t ever seem to give his life to helping those children, but I can understand that frustration.

suffering that is very hard to understand

That’s what Jesus is dealing with this morning. Questioning things about our faith is OK, for sure, but in the end we are in really tricky territory, he says, when we start riddling and postulating things about God and suffering especially when it’s suffering we’re not directly involved in. Because when we do that we’re essentially just using other people as bullet points in our internal debates about God. And people, Jesus reminds us, aren’t bullet points. They are people we draw near to, to listen to, to pray with, and when we do, we find we are changed. We often find they actually have a deep and abiding faith in a God who loves them in spite of what we perceive they are going through.

That’s the gist of this parable of the budless fig tree that Jesus tells which is intended to nip any conspiracy theories about God in the bud. It’s a fig tree that hasn’t produced anything in three years. Maybe it’s because he’s planted it in a vineyard rather than an orchard, but who knows? In any case, this landowner is tired of its lack of fruit and so he wants the gardener to cut it down. It’s wasting space. It’s wasting nutrients in the soil. What it is is a suffering little fig tree.

But the gardener steps in and says let me take care of it. The gardener is merciful. He sees potential in the tree. He is not as concerned about the soil or even the grapevines it shares it with as he is with the tree itself and its value and the fruit it may give. The gardener wants to give it some more manure, to put a little more effort into it, irrigate around the roots, let the water drip down some more.

Good gardeners, I’ve noticed are like this. I’m not. I have a garden plot at home and it’s about this time of year when I’m wondering what needs to be dug out and what needs to stay. What I’ve learned is that sometimes it’s really hard to tell, especially early on, which perennials are going to send up shoots this year and which ones aren’t. Or which ones might be dormant now but shoot something up next year. To know I have to get really close, or just be patient. I have to dig around, be willing to get my hands dirty, something that landowner is not really willing to do but the gardener is. It’s a gardener willing to get up close to the suffering tree.

The parable is Jesus’ lesson that when it comes to God and God’s interaction with the world there is no pattern other than God wanting to be near it and see potential where we often don’t. Human suffering cannot be calculated or mapped out or placed into any grand story or theory that will make sense. I’m not even sure it makes sense to God. That is, God seems less concerned with giving us a grand explanation about why bad things happen as he is with just experiencing bad things with us. God is a gardener who wants to be close to the suffering. He wants to give another chance for growth and fruitfulness even when things have not gone well. He wants to shift our question from “Why has this happened?” to “How can I grow from this now that it has happened?”

That is the act of repentance, and to do that he will provide us with whatever we need, even when our branches are bare to help us grow and survive and give something back to the world. On the cross he shows his awesome commitment to this, his commitment to enter and be with unjust, inexplicable suffering of the world. We stand before his cross as we stand before God. That is, we stand before God primarily not as people who need answers but as people who need mercy, as people who need healing, as people who can turn and repent because we are broken too.

Productive fig tree, (Jasper Martin, 2022)

And God loves broken people. God loves situations that feel drained of life and hope. There is no pattern to it, no logical reason for that. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are God’s ways our ways, the prophet Isaiah reminds us this morning. He says come to the waters everyone who thirsts, You don’t even need money! Come and have wine and milk without a price! God just loves broken people, seeks them out—people who feel they can’t grow, people who feel they have little useful to contribute, communities who feel they’re banging their head against a wall, families who feel they’re a lost cause. God believes in the fig trees no one else does.

And if God does, then the church should too. In all our ministries, outreach, conversations, relationships, we imitate that gardener, getting close to those who need some care and attention, not judging them, not approaching them as puzzles to solve but as people to love. Like the way our Stephen Ministers sit and listen attentively to people who are hurting. Like the way our confirmation mentors offer an ear and maybe some lived experience now and then with no other goal but to accompany them the confirmand on the faith journey. And we approach ourselves that way too, as a fig tree that needs a bit more time, a bit more TLC.

Because at the end of the day, the way God approaches us is not some hidden discovery we have to ponder and decipher. It’s not a secret, it’s not a mystery but it’s always a surprise, like a cross that stands open to the sky. You see, when it comes to how God deals with us and what Jesus’ love is like, the answer comes down to one five-letter word each and every time. I’ll give it to you now, with the letters in order. Make sure you share it with everyone. Are you ready?

It’s G-R-A-C-E.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “Our Brains Want the Story of the Pandemic to be Something It Isn’t,” in The Atlantic. Joe Pinsker, March 10, 2022

At the Beginning, Wilderness

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

Luke 4:1-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Our Funeral

a sermon for Ash Wednesday

2 Corinthians 5:20–6:10

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

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

Boisseau writes:

Take Your Kids to the Funeral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Winning Team

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

Luke 6:27-38

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

Matthias Mayer of Austria takes the gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931-2021)

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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

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

To Be Blessed

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

Psalm 1 and Luke 6:17-26

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

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

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

Chihuahuan Desert, TX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

refugees at a camp in Darfur, Sudan

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.