Say Their Names

a sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21C/Lectionary 26]

Luke 16:19-31

“Say their names.”

We often hear that phrase in the aftermath of certain tragedies or injustices, especially when there have been victims of violence or hatred. We often rather look away in these instances, or ignore that the event happened, but saying the name seems to keep the issue in the forefront. Maybe its George Floyd, or maybe it’s the children killed in the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting, or the Ukrainians furiously trying to dig up mass graves so they can identify bodies before it’s too late. Look at what’s happening in Iran as people say the name Mahsa Amini. She was the otherwise ordinary 22-year-old Iranian woman who died last week after being detained by the country’s morality police for not wearing a headscarf in public. Those in power would rather her name be forgotten, dismissed, not spoken, because it might cast the might down from their thrones.

a protester holds up a photo of Mahsa Amini

I know I’m often challenged to utter these folks’ names but the truth is that all too often the world dismisses overlooks, or discounts the existence and personhood of people like this. We tend to lump them into one big category—the orphaned, the disabled, the poor, the elderly, the immigrants—so that we won’t have to deal with the sorrow of their individual stories and recognize their meaningfulness. Naming those at the margins takes special effort and involves special pain. Let’s be honest: we’re much more ready to remember and say the names of the wealthy, the powerful, the beautiful, the gifted.

And so this morning Jesus helps us in this task. Jesus says Lazarus’ name, the man in his story who is the very definition of living at the margins in every way you can possibly imagine. Jesus says Lazarus’ name even though most of his listeners would have found that strange. In fact, in all of the 40 or so parables that Jesus tells in the gospels, only one character gets a name. Not the Good Samaritan, not the prodigal son who famously wastes his dad’s inheritance and who shamefully plods back home. Only Lazarus—the man who is so hungry he wants to eat table scraps, the guy who is so dirty and nasty that he’s covered with festering sores, the fellow who is so exhausted he lets dogs lick his wounds because he can’t kick them away. This sad man is the world’s ultimate “nobody,” a victim of the worst kind of neglect, and yet Jesus says his name.

And then, on the other hand, there’s the world’s ultimate Somebody: this rich man, at whose mansion’s front door Lazarus lies. If we told this story, the rich man would have a name, and we’d know his net worth and just how many billions he lost in last week’s stock market downturn. We’d be following him on Instagram along with 40 million other people. But in Jesus’ parable, in the scenario Jesus illustrates, this rich guy is the nameless one. As Jesus tells it, it is this wealthy, no-doubt influential guy who is left without the dignity of individual identity.

Jesus doesn’t give him a name because this is a story about how God envisions the world. This is a window into how God turns the tables on everything, making the last first and the first last. Furthermore, this is a warning, especially for the Pharisees, about how wealth actually has the power to take away our personhood, our humanity, even more than poverty does. This is a parable about how money and luxury build real walls around us and can warp our minds into objectifying the people who are right in our path. This is a reminder of how affluence can cut us off from the particular kind of suffering that would actually allow us to connect us to others. This is Jesus’ lesson about materialism and how God has constantly, from day one, been trying to tear down the barriers it creates to human community.

An enormous study published last month by researchers at Harvard, Stanford, and New York Universities showed fairly conclusively that friendships across social classes have a strong influence on things like increased rates high school completion, reduced rates of teenage pregnancy, and increased income for those born poorer. Said differently, interconnectedness, especially across different income and social levels, is always better for everyone, especially those at the bottom. Interestingly enough, the study also looked at different places in society where people tend to mix across socio-economic lines. In universities, for example, cross-class friendships form at a rate 5% lower than would be expected. In fact, none of our educational settings or workplaces currently promote this kind of mixing at a rate better than average, which is somewhat of an indictment. In religious settings, however, the study revealed friendships between people of different social classes form at a rate 3% higher than expected.[1]

Other studies conducted on human tears, of all things, reveal that tears we shed as a result of our emotions have a higher protein content than tears we shed when our eyes are just irritated by dust or allergies. Higher protein content makes them roll down our cheeks more slowly, increasing the chance they’ll be seen and cause people to care for us. Some scientists see this as proof that our body is built for community.

All this is to say, God created the rich man and Lazarus to live in community, to pay attention to each other, to notice each others’ tears and what they mean. This is to say God creates our communities to be interconnected, that the blessings of God’s good creation may be enjoyed by all. This is the vision that Jesus has for the world, and Jesus comes to share that vision in all that he says and does. And a clownish story about flipping the social structures upside down, about making his hearers notice the people at the bottom, will help his hearers understand that vision.

Jesus is not the first to explain or articulate this vision, and that’s really the thrust of Jesus’ message this morning. This is nothing new, he says. The prophets like Amos mention it, over and over. And the psalms repeatedly, like Psalm 146 this morning, praise God precisely because he lifts up those who are bowed down and sustains the orphan and the widow because too often no one else will.

Reading the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as a real example of what happens to people when they die is to miss the point of the parable entirely. This is not a lesson about what happens to us after we die, and this is not the Lazarus that Jesus raises from the dead in John’s gospel. Only according to some ancient Jewish traditions do people believe they are “rocked in the bosom of Abraham” in the afterlife, and Jesus is borrowing on that as he tells this parable.

Parables typically have an element of exaggeration and embellishment in them, and this great reversal between life now and the life hereafter for Lazarus and the rich man is part of that exaggeration. The rich man’s fortunes are so terrible now after his death that he can’t even get a drop of water to slake his thirst. And lo and behold for the first time we hear evidence he finally sees Lazarus! With his riches pulled away and now experiencing suffering himself, the rich man’s eyes are opened to see someone else, even though the rich man is still only focused on his own needs. God’s hope for us is that our eyes would be opened to see others, and in seeing them, show compassion to them and hear their cries. God’s hope is that we could have our barriers of money and privilege stripped away so that we can be aware of needs other than our own.

Jesus directs this parable at the Pharisees, whom Luke describes as lovers of money. The Pharisees ascribed to a strand of ancient Judaism that God financially blesses those who are faithful. Poverty, on the other hand, was a sign of God’s curse. The Pharisees justified their love of wealth through a corrupt understanding of God’s law Jesus explains that this interpretation of God’s law was never the intention for God’s people.

In the punchline of the parable, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to his brothers so that they will change their ways. This may remind you of the beginning of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when the ghost of Jacob Marley, draped in the chains of his earthly riches, visits his still-living business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, and warns him he will be visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come in order to learn a lesson about generosity. In fact, Dickens based his famous story on this parable. But unlike Scrooge, who is given a chance to learn from the ghost, and does, Abraham says that if those who love their wealth cannot learn from Moses and the prophets that God takes care of the poor, then someone rising from the dead won’t change their minds either. For right now, God is on the side of the Lazaruses. For right now, God’s vision is for people’s tears of suffering to be honored, for true community to be built, for those who have to be warned of the decay that infests their hearts.

And as it turns out, Jesus is so determined to get that point across, Jesus is so insistent that this world get turned upside down, for the good of us all, that he offers his own life to bridge every chasm—the chasm between you and me, the chasms between rich and poor, the chasm between the West End and eastern Henrico, the chasm between black and white. The chasms that separate our schools and our politics and our neighborhoods and our families. Jesus dies and rises to build bridges between them all and raise us to new life, and new respect for all. And when you are feeling bowed low, forgotten by the world, Jesus proudly and boldly says your name.

Ben Rector

My family loves the singer-songwriter Ben Rector, and we came across one song this summer that appears on album he released several years ago The song is called “The Men That Drive Me Places” and it’s really simple—just two verses, a chorus and a bridge, and him on piano—but it too, like a parable, tells a story. It’s the story of him, as a world famous musician, reflecting on the men who taxi him around. It communicates a profound message that Ben sings about his own privileged life, and it contains a nuanced twist on how best to respond to these chasm between the Lazaruses and the rich men that Jesus comes to close:

Danny showed up early, fifteen minutes till five thirty
Making sure that I’d be on my morning flight
He said he’d love to fix computers, but that he can’t until he’s fluent
So he spends his driving money taking class at night
He wore a neatly ironed dress shirt, and he helps his kids with homework
Deep inside I couldn’t help but ask myself
Why that at night I’m up on stage, everybody knows my name
While Danny’s early picking up somebody else

Oh isn’t that just the way it goes
You’re dealt a good hand and you get celebrated
Oh, how am I the only one who knows
I’m half the man of the men that drive me places.

Dear Lord Jesus, you have dealt us an unbelievably good hand. You have died for us, and we are children of your resurrection. Free us from the bonds our riches have on us, from the pride that holds us back. Send us forth again. Send us forth into this broken world with eyes to see the ones you see—the ones who drive us places, the ones who serve us, the ones who cry to be noticed.

And, Lord, give us lips that speak so as to honor them as your children too: Lazarus, Lazarus, Lazarus.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “Friendship across class lines may boost social mobility and decrease poverty” in The Economist. August 11, 2022

The God Who Finds

a sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19C/Lectionary 24]

Luke 15:1-10

I spent most of my summers during college working on staff at a Lutheran camp in the mountains of North Carolina called Lutheridge. One of those years on staff I ended up staying extra week after the last campers had gone home. I discovered that one of the end-of-summer tasks that had to be undertaken before camp was closed up involved going through the giant pile of lost and found items that had accumulated over the course of the summer. You would probably guess that a camp which hosts well over a thousand children, youth, and adults over the course of eight crazy, chaotic and fun weeks amasses a lot of lost items, and you would be right.

The real pile was much larger than this.

We marveled at this pile as we sorted through it that week. There were dozens of towels—damp, musty towels that had been left at the pool or at the lake. There were items of unclaimed clothing, most of which were dirty, single socks. And Bibles! You would be surprised at how many people end up leaving their Bible at church camp and then not realize it was missing. Since we rarely had any idea whom the items actually belonged to, we would often argue over which things we wanted. One of my co-workers found a sweatshirt she liked. She put it on. It looked…familiar. I went back and checked my own suitcase and noticed one of my sweatshirts was missing and actually had been for a while. I was too embarrassed to ask for it back, so I let her have it.

I don’t know whatever happened to everything in that that pile of lost and found, but it ended up being someone’s responsibility to get rid of it, and I guess the socks were thrown away and the towels cut up and re-purposed as rags. Every once in a while the camp would figure out the proper owner of an item and do their best to return it.

Well, about a week ago a package arrived on our front porch. The return address label said it was from Lutheridge. We opened it to find not one but two water bottles that my daughters had lost at camp not last summer, but two summers ago! Someone up there had taken the time to research our address based on the name label on the bottom. They had taken the time to find a box and get it to the post office. And the really funny thing about all of this is that the water bottles aren’t even ours! They actually belong to Hanne, our Office Administrator, who had let our daughters borrow them that summer because they forgot to pack their own.

Jesus wants us to know that God goes through great lengths to find and return what belongs to him. That is you and me. There are many ways that people perceive God and images that come to mind when they think what God might be like. For Jesus the images are this: God is like a shepherd who risks life and limb, climbing over rocks and down cliffs, if he has too, wrestling the thorny branches of thickets and fighting off wolves in order to retrieve just one of his missing sheep.

And here’s another image: for Jesus, God is like a woman who turns her house upside down in order to find one coin that has gotten kicked or dropped somewhere. She moves furniture out of the way, she gets down on her hands and knees, she gets out the broom, then the metal detector, and turns on every light in the house to help her track it down. And when she finally gets it, she is so overjoyed that she calls together the other women in the neighborhood, some of whom she doesn’t even know very well. But that’s OK. This is a great day! She invites them into her house, which is now clean, if not a little disheveled, and makes some mimosas and lays out a charcuterie board, since that’s trendy these days, and says, “Alexa, play some party music.”

And her friends, curiously holding their glasses of bubbly, are like, “What is going on? Do you have news of another grandchild? Did you get a job promotion? No? Then what’s all this about?”

And she’s like, “I found this twenty dollar bill that I had lost!”

And so Jesus might say this morning God is like the worn-out summer camp office worker who loathes going through dirty stinky socks and moldy towels and who still knows water bottles are a dime a dozen—water bottles that no one has even reported missing, by the way—but who still finds a thrill in tracking down the address in the database from two summers ago, and then finding a box in which they will fit perfectly, and taking them to the post office in the off-chance that two girls living a state away might want to see them again.

God is like that, Jesus says, and God’s kingdom is about lost and found—not being lost forever or cutting your losses or writing things off because they don’t matter. Everyone matters. Every single sheep, every single coin, every single sinner, no matter how insignificant we try to make them feel. These are the images of God Jesus leaves with his audience.

And it’s especially important because the audience is the scribes and the Pharisees, the super-religious people, because they seem to operate with a very different image of God. We never hear them share their image of God, to be sure. We might be surprised Pharisees and scribes would even work with images or their imagination at all because they are a very by-the-book, letter-of-the-law type of religious people. I can’t base this on anything, but they don’t seem to use images and stories to talk about God. They use rules.

They are upset, for example, that Jesus is playing with the rules by eating with people who are clearly lost, people who don’t, in the Pharisees’ eyes, matter. Sharing a table with someone was one of the most intimate things you could do. It was a way of embracing them, of making them a part of your life, and Jesus is embracing and making dirty and forgotten people like rule-breakers a part of his life.

One commentator I read says that these two particular images in these parables this morning would have been especially irritating for Pharisees because they considered shepherds low-class, irreligious folk and women were viewed as second-class. But these are the stories Jesus mines for impact. He has to drive the point home somehow. God is a finder. God is a seeker-outer. God wants to have everyone in his embrace and God is willing to go to great lengths and even make a fool of himself about it if God has to.

And God is not just willing to go to the great lengths to bring people back. God finds joy in it. Drinks on the house! God feels like partying, like clinking the wineglasses together whenever just one person is turned again with his mercy and brought back to his kingdom of love.

For years and years Epiphany and many other Lutheran congregations have used a book in Holy Communion class with the fourth graders called A Place For You, by the Lutheran pastor Daniel Erlander. He used images, too—simple, black and white drawings—and his books come across as babyish at first because they have far more pictures than they do words. But once you look at his books, you realize they are brilliant drawings that speak to both kids and adults. We used them at seminary as textbooks, in fact.

In A Place For You, the scribes and the Pharisees are depicted as “crabby people” and you can find the crabby people on just about every page. They are crabby because they are not happy with how Jesus welcomes people. One of my favorite pages in A Place for You depicts Jesus feeding the 5000. He is seated on a blanket in the middle, with bread and fish lying there in front of him. The multitudes are seated all around them, the ones in the distance drawn as just little faceless shapes. One person in the way back says, “Next time let’s get here on time.” (Can relate). And there are the crabby people, for sure, amidst the crowd of hungry people and they are saying, “I’m upset. Some of these people don’t deserve free food. Disgusting.”

But on every page, Jesus keeps at it, almost ignoring the crabby people, but never shunning or shaming them. He just pulls them in, like Daniel Erlander, trying to redraw their understanding of God with new images and new situations. This is especially poignant today because Pastor Daniel Erlander died just two Sundays ago at the age of 83. The church and especially the crabby people like me give thanks for the ways he redrew understandings of theology and Bible stories by giving us images instead of rules.

How do you imagine God? Do you understand him as a seeker, as a shepherd, as a woman who pops the bubbly when find a coin? Do you hear that God values you—that as lost as you may be you will never be so lost that Jesus can’t reach you? Do you see on the cross how God redraws where God will go and how he reaches out? In his death and suffering, can you see that Jesus draws a circle of love and forgiveness so big that no one is forgotten, no one is left out? And that all the while he is excited to have you back?

Today our congregation comes together to celebrate how God helped us redraw some of the lines in our own church building with the hopes people would feel more included, that someone lost might come here at feel found. We literally redrew the lines of the parking lot, adding more official handicap parking spaces that are closer to the building. We redrew office spaces so that some church staff were no longer left working in offices and closets in a distant part of the building but grouped together in one common area. We redrew classroom spaces so that we could add more Sunday School classes. Perhaps most notably, we redrew the entrance and gathering spaces so that should people wander in here, especially for the first time, they may sense welcome and “being found”—that there is a place for them.

The Building Team did not sit down and read Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin but that was their goal—to move the congregation towards growth in openness, to let this congregation’s space be an image of God’s embrace. Now as we give thanks that those blueprint lines have been redrawn we continue to let Jesus, with his amazing grace, redraw those images of our hearts and minds. Over and over again.

In the past two or so years, as we’ve endured the COVID pandemic, some people may have felt distanced or lost from Christ’s church. Some have wondered when the right time to return is. Some may have fallen out of the habit and wonder if they will be questioned or stared at if they come back. Now more than ever we remember and proclaim to everyone that, in the words of Daniel Erlander, there is a place for you.

And we also remember that the new lines Jesus draws are so big, that the reality of God’s love is so all-encompassing, his mercy so far-reaching, that even the crabby people end up inside at the end. That may be the best part of Erlander’s book—there, on the last page, as on the last day, whenever it should come, situated right in with all the millions as they “join the theme,” sit the over-religious crabby people.

And…look! They’re no longer crabby!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Choices and Calculations

a sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18C/Lectionary 23]

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Philemon 1-21 and Luke 14:25-33

“I have set before you life and death,” says the Lord, “blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

Choose life. Ha! If only it were that easy, right?

There is a famous psychological experiment using children called the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. This experiment has been studied and referenced for decades and has spawned countless memes on social media. The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment is actually a name given to a series of similar tests that were first conducted at Stanford University in 1972.They were devised to study the development of long-term thinking, decision-making, and delayed gratification in young children. The experiments all centered on the same simple strategy: a child about the age of 4 or 5 would be brought into a room and sat at a table where they were offered some kind of treat—usually a marshmallow but sometimes animal cracker. The person conducting the experiment would tell them they could have that treat then—the one laid before them—or wait another fifteen minutes and receive even more treats. They were allowed to play with toys while they waited or they could just sit still, but if they went ahead and helped themselves to the marshmallow before fifteen minutes was up, they would not get the additional treat.

As it turns out, waiting for even fifteen minutes was much too hard for many of the children. Many of them just went ahead and chose the marshmallow that was already before them, tempting as it was, even if it meant losing out on two marshmallows later. You know what that sounds like? That sounds like I should be wary of any children’s sermons from Stanford University.

But it also sounds like the Israelites when we meet them this morning. Poised at the edge of the Promised Land, they are presented with a choice. God has led them to this point so that they may wisely choose to life. God has steadfastly guided them through forty years in the wilderness,(and they’re going to have to wait just a little more before they’re done), and now God has brought them here, at the edge of the land, so that they may consider their options. God encourages them to hold back from following other gods and serving them, as tempting as they will be, seeing as how those other gods will be right in front of them all the time, and instead choose to love and serve God. If they do that, it will mean life and length of days. And, of course, we know how the story goes. They eventually enter their Promised Land and right off the bat struggle to choose life and keep God’s commandments.

When we meet Philemon today, by way of Paul’s letter to him, we find him being presented with a choice, too. Philemon is a relatively well-off and well-connected guy, known well to Paul, and we learn that Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, has run away. Somewhere along the line, Onesimus has bumped into Paul and become a follower of Christ. Unfortunately we don’t have any backstory hereabout why Onesimus ran away from Philemon, or how Onesimus came under the care and friendship of Paul. All we know is that Onesimus has somehow become a spiritual child to Paul while Paul was in prison. It’s like Paul is Onesimus’ confirmation mentor.

In a play on words of Onesimus’ name in the Greek, Paul says that Onesimus is now finally “useful” because he is no longer enslaved, but treated as a full human. Now it’s time for Paul to send Onesimus back to Philemon hoping that Philemon will receive his former slave as a brother in Christ. That is, Philemon will receive Onesimus not as someone he still owns and is in a position of authority over, but as someone he loves as a fellow Christian and is now equal to.

And there, we discover, is Philemon’s choice: take Onesimus back as he formerly was, a slave, as someone lesser-than, or receive him as a brother and see Onesimus as someone whose true worth is not bound up in what kind of work he can do under compulsion, but instead through the gifts that the Spirit has given him to share freely with the world. Can Philemon see past, perhaps, his own status and embrace Onesimus as a true equal? Let the old arrangement go and make room for new life? We never know what happens to Philemon and Onesimus and their relationship, but I imagine that it was pretty difficult for Philemon, given what social pressures he might have been under, to receive Onesimus as a free man.

In so many case, scenarios like this make choices about faith and life seem so easy, don’t they? Here’s one option…and then here’s the other. Now it’s your turn: just make a choice. Easy peasy. But if there is anything that I have observed throughout my days is that it’s so hard to make that choice. I have learned from people in recovery from the disease of addiction are very wise about this matter—that the act of choosing life and prosperity and health is a lot more difficult than most of us would care to admit.

One TikTok influencer I’ve run across several times is a woman in recovery from alcohol abuse. Just the other day she hit day 365 of sobriety—one whole year—and to mark it she made a post just sitting in her car talking about how she’s not going to make a big to-do about it because the next—day 366—will be another day to make the difficult but life-freeing choice to stay sober. She explains how she uses her TikTok followers as a community that helps hold her accountable. In the post she holds up the little token she received from her AA meeting as the humble prize that reminds her the journey will continue the next day and the day after that. Choices of faith can be difficult, even when they are framed in such basic and easy terms.

That’s why we should like how Jesus talks to the crowds in this morning’s gospel even though he says so many things that don’t initially sit well with us. We are to hate our family and even our very life to follow him. We are to carry the cross. We must give up all our possessions. What Jesus is doing is being honest about how hard it actually is to make choices. He’s being forthright with us about how the act of faith is arduous. It’s a procession, but not a parade. It’s a type of contest, but not a game. Jesus is getting real here about the choices and the calculations that necessarily come when one joins up for his journey, and while it sounds off-putting, it is ultimately to our benefit. It is to our benefit because all we often see in the moment is the sweet marshmallow of a charismatic leader forgetting something far better is to come.

That’s the issue with the crowds at this juncture in the story. They are ready to march right on into Jerusalem and take what they see is theirs, stick it to the Roman occupiers. More and more are signing on because Jesus feels like the popular and attractive option at this point.

And Jesus is now leveling with them…and with us. When he says we have to hate our father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, he doesn’t mean that in the emotional angry way that we usually imply with the word “hate.” It’s just a middle-eastern way of saying that in following Jesus we must be willing to detach ourselves from some of these other ties. We will find ourselves in situations where our faith will call our other relationships into question, kind of like Philemon and his relationship with Onesimus.

When he says we must hate our life he doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a hot coffee, or a good beer, or the way our lover’s body feels, or the other things God has given us to enjoy in this good creation. What it means is that our devotion to Jesus will redefine and recalibrate our attachments and affiliations to all other things in life. It will change how we spend our money, how we use our voice in society, how we prioritize our time and talent. Our following Jesus will influence how we regard other people, people the world tricks us into viewing primarily through the lens of our privilege and status. The call to follow, you see, involves calculations, some long-term thinking that can take us off guard.

Here’s my question, though: But can we really calculate it all? Can we ever be sure of our abilities to account for all of the costs beforehand? Can we, standing in this moment in time, predict all the twists and turns that the journey of discipleship might take? Can little Eliza, or her parents, with the water still moistening her head, have a clue what all her faith will get her into throughout her life? Can the couple I married last weekend, standing in the most beautiful of settings, on the eighteenth green of a golf course, before their friends and family, have any clue about all the twists and turns their marriage will inevitably take, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health?

baptismal journey begins for Eliza

Can the congregation, emerging groggily out of two long years of a pandemic, have a clue what the new normal of ministry and church life will look like? Can we know every little detail, for example, what Sunday School for kids will look and feel like with a third of the teachers and half the kids we once had? There is some anxiety about this, perhaps, but this week several teacher volunteers emailed Pastor Sarah and said, “We’re ready to try this, no matter how different it will be.” As for confirmation mentors, this is the first year I’ve never had to go out and beat the bushes. We actually had two more sign up than we needed! In all of these cases, and in each of our choices of faith and following, Jesus today just asks us to stop and consider the work and suffering and prayer that will be involved.

And all of that will be possible because we’re following the one who does know the ultimate cost and he’s willing to pay it. All of the joys and new discoveries of these endeavors will come because Jesus will never abandon us. Jesus has you and me in his long-term thinking from the word go. That we can make these choices is a fact because Jesus has first chosen us. He is the man who builds the tower to protect us and he is the king who sends in his army of mercy and love to conquer us. It takes all he has, but he has calculated in his love that we are worth it. On the cross he offers his life to free us from all the bad choices we’ve made and declare us to be, like Onesimus, truly useful. In God’s eyes, we are always useful, always beloved, always a prize.

And when the going gets tough, and we feel in over our heads, and the choice seems too much to bear—the blessings, the curses, the life, the death, we meet Jesus again. We meet him again today and he comes along side us and reminds us: “you are a blessing, not a curse. Again today I choose you. Now get up, and let’s go.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

More Than We Bargained For

a sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15C/Lectionary 20]

Luke 12:49-56 and Hebrews 11:28–12:2

Like many American families, my family decided in the earliest days of the COVID pandemic that it was time for a pet dog. The circumstances at that time seemed as perfect as they’d ever be for bringing a little cute fuzzy furball into the house. Almost everything had shut down. School had been cancelled, so everyone would be stuck in the house for the foreseeable future. We’d have plenty of time to train the little thing and take pictures of us holding it and going on walks with it at the end of a little leash. We were not all of one mind immediately in this decision, but pretty soon the one hold-out was persuaded and Joy, an eight-week-old Whippet puppy joined our family in early May 2020. The first days were what we predicted, and her adorableness was pretty much on-point. She worked her way right into our hearts.

However, as the time wore on we discovered there was an edge to having a dog that no one was really prepared for, no matter how much everyone claimed otherwise at the start. Valuable and cherished toys got chewed up. Someone needed to get her exercise every day. Crate training took a lot longer than expected, which resulted in many sleepless nights. And now that life has more or less returned to normal, we can’t just up and leave for vacation like we used to. Someone has to arrange boarding and, of course, vet appointments for vaccine updates. We still love her and don’t regret our decision, but, in a sense some, much of the puppy new-ness has worn off and Joy is often the source of friction. This dog has been more than we originally bargained for.

We might get the impression from Jesus’ words this morning that he, too, is more than we bargained for. Speaking directly to his closest followers, he sounds like the parent who rains on the children’s puppy parade. They have invited him into their lives. His healings of the sick  and sharp responses to the overbearing Pharisees have won them over. But there’s an edge to knowing Jesus no one was really prepared for. He’s the source of some friction.

They thought they were getting soft and fuzzy Jesus, but they’ve gotten sword Jesus. They were expecting years and years of cool refreshing water Jesus, but they’ve wound up with burning fire Jesus. They were looking forward to unity Jesus—to agreeable Jesus who stays predictable and peaceable—but now they’re looking at “division” Jesus. And it’s true: Jesus chews up our little idols and asks us to take him on walks outside on a regular basis where other people will see we’re close to him.

I have a wooden cross somewhere in my office that someone once gave me that is painted with Jesus in the middle and surrounding him are all kinds of different people of the world, crowded together. The faces of the people are all happy, and when you look at it you can see they’re people of all kinds of different colors of skin. I love that cross, and I’ve seen others with it. It is a familiar, unifying image of Jesus that brings people together, a love that overcomes all kinds of personal differences that often divide us. Today, however, Jesus is the divider. He says his arrival will even set people in the same family against one another.

Believe it or not, in Jesus’ time, familial bonds were tighter and more binding than we perceive them to be today. Family determined almost everything about one’s identity and one’s place in the village or town. We often think of our personal identity as something that belongs just to us. We have been formed by this idea of personal authenticity, that our true self resides solely within us and must be expressed freely, that it can only be negatively influenced by external pressures. In Jesus’ time, and for much of world history, your immediate family or tribal associations were what really mattered. They were your authenticity. As you can imagine, it was a system that gave a great deal of stability in most cases, but could, of course, perpetuate all kinds of abuses and oppressions, especially if you weren’t male and weren’t wealthy.

Jesus says that he will even cause divisions within these seemingly unbreakable networks of kinship. He is clear-eyed about how his message will occasionally disrupt the fabric of society  and the standard ways people live for one another. Jesus’ life will enable people to see themselves as part of something larger, a kingdom where boundaries are erased even as our diversity remains. Jesus’ sacrifice will give us the eyes to see people as valuable simply because they are alive with us not because of what race they are or how rich they may be or if they’re male or female. For the vision of the cross to come true, bonds influenced racism and sexism and classism will have to be rent asunder. I know I’m guilty of not letting this Jesus speak enough—both to me and through this pulpit—and yet every week, especially in these partisan times, I feel like there is some way someone will be offended.

As it happens, today the church commemorates a 20th century priest named Maximillian Kolbe. Born in Poland just before the turn of the last century, Kolbe was a deeply devout man who was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1919. He founded a friary just west of Warsaw that eventually became a home to over 700 friars and went on to open friaries in India and Japan. A friary is a place where Christian men and sometimes women would live in community and openly be involved in and serve the communities around them. In 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland, Kolbe’s friary sheltered 3000 Poles and 1500 Jews from deportation to concentration camps. In 1941 the Nazis closed down the friary and Kolbe and four of his companions were carried off to Auschwitz. While imprisoned, Kolbe continued to carry on the work of a priest, secretly hearing prisoners’ confessions, offering prayer, and even distributing Holy Communion when people would smuggle in bread and wine.

Fr Maximilian Kolbe (1896-1941)

When a prisoner from Kolbe’s same bunker escaped one day, ten men were selected at random from the remaining ones for execution. One of them was a sergeant who had a family. Father Maximillian Kolbe was not related to him in any way, but understood the bond that Jesus had made between them was real. Kolbe offered to take the sergeant’s place, and the Nazis agreed, figuring a younger man would be of more use than the older Kolbe. He was placed with the other nine in a large cell to starve to death. After two weeks Kolbe was still alive, so he was executed by lethal injection on this day in 1941.

Maximilian Kolbe’s witness is an extreme one, but it shows how stark the division is that Jesus brings. Kolbe knew the love of Jesus had divided him from the dominant Nazi cultural values. And in great courage, he would rather remain divided from it than go along with it, and in the end, he chose even to be divided from his own life than continue in a system that gloried oppression and violence. And because of that, thousands were saved from death.

We can probably safely assume we’ll never face a situation quite that intense, but the fact of the matter is that every disciple finds him or herself under the sword Jesus. Every follower of our Lord becomes aware, sometimes daily, that his way of life is not a cake walk. The truth is Jesus has never been secretive about his mission or his impact on the world. His call is no bait and switch approach that has charmed us with its first impression. The Jesus who is aware of how fiery his presence is is the same Jesus who is gentle and compassionate, calm and patient.

Even before he is born his own mother declares that Jesus’ arrival will cast down the mighty from their thrones and send the rich away empty. And as he is presented in the temple, just a few weeks old, and old man named Simeon, who had been waiting on the Savior, declares Jesus is destined for the falling and rising of many and that he would reveal the inner thoughts of many. “A sword,” Simeon says as he looks at Jesus’ mother, “will pierce your own soul too.” Even Mary will feel the suffering that Jesus will undergo in order to bring all people together in love and justice and peace.

Kosovar icon depicting Christ with a sword

Even though Jesus says here that he doesn’t come to bring peace, that is, of course, a momentary exaggeration to make a point. He is the Prince of Peace and always will be, but his peace must also divide us from all the things that hold us back from embodying the grace his reign. Our baptisms are a drowning of sin. In the waters we are baptized with, the hold that selfishness and clannishness and materialism has on us begins to lose its grip. His words each week to us are a purifying fire that removes the things that make us less than God creates us to be. And throughout our lives, God gives us a great cloud of witnesses—that is, other people on the journey of faith with us—who encourage us and urge us on.

This past week our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, held its Churchwide Assembly in Columbus, OH. This is a gathering the whole church leadership and voting members from each of the 65 Synods to make decisions about church vision and policy that will affect the whole church. Churchwide elections are also held, and this past week we elected a new vice president of the ELCA. According to our church constitution, the Vice President is the highest office that can be held by a lay person; that is, someone who is not ordained.

In the end, the vice presidency went to a man from a congregation in Atlanta named Imran Siddiqui. As you can guess from his name, Mr. Siddiqui is not a cradle Lutheran, and he mentioned that directly in his speech on Wednesday. In fact, Siddiqui was raised a Muslim, and he only became a follower of Jesus and underwent baptism about eleven years ago, as an adult. I do not know Siddiqui personally, but I can imagine that his decision to leave the faith of his family and become Christian might have caused some friction somewhere along the line, but what a gift to the church!

Whatever the case, Siddiqui gave a powerful testimony to his faith on Wednesday before the assembly, explaining how moved he has been, among many things, by the consensus-driven manner of decision making in his Synod and congregation. It is a way of being in community, he says, that requires people to really listen to one another. It stands in direct contrast to the way our ultra-divided society functions now, where everything is “us vs them” and where people who have a differing option are cast as “evil” or “immoral.”

Siddiqui’s statement of faith reminds us that Jesus does call us to be divisive! But not by calling each other names or assigning labels, not by attacking with our fists or with clever zingers from our lips, not by posturing ourselves above others in holiness. Jesus calls us to be divisive precisely in our loving desire to bring everyone together, to raise eyebrows by how forgiving and selfless and vulnerable Jesus helps us be.

And as his reign continues, and he works his way into more and more hearts, and as he works his way into our own again and again, we will be happy to find that, lo and behold, we have wound up with a love that is more, far more than we could ever bargain for.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Across the Parking Lot

a sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 14C/Lectionary 19]

Luke 12:32-40 and Genesis 15:1-6

It’s hard to believe, but thirty years ago this very week I got out of my parents’ Jeep Cherokee and walked across the parking lot of Sullivan Residence Hall at North Carolina State University. I was eighteen years old and about to begin my freshman year. At one point I turned around for just a brief second to wave another goodbye and saw tears streaking down my mother’s face. Behind her was my younger sister, who was probably fist-pumping the air and exclaiming, “YES!” I knew the steps I was taking that day across the parking lot were, in some sense, big ones but in the eyes of my parents they were strides of insurmountable distance. I was feeling a mixture of excitement and wonder and probably, to be honest, a fair amount of fear. I was setting out for a new place, responding to a new call.

freshman year at NC State (Sullivan Residence Hall), fall 1992

It occurs to me that this week and next several of our own Epiphany young adults will have similar experiences. Josh, Katie, Matt, Cole, Riley, Ryan—young adults who grew up among us, who learned about Jesus and his love—will all in some similar way walk across a parking lot and leave their parents waving behind them. It’s hopeful but gut-wrenching stuff—the excitement but fear of a new horizon, a new vocation.

Just this week an older member of this congregation, a widowed woman who has been a member for years and even served once as council president, sat down to share with me she is packing up her things, selling furniture, and moving from Richmond to a 55+ community halfway across the country. She leaves leave close friends, a caring landlord, and a congregation she loves in order to be closer to some family in a strange place relatively late in life.

In many ways the story of our entire faith begins with an elderly man and a woman who are called to leave something behind and move forward into the unknown. In the fifteenth chapter of Genesis we hear how Abram stands on the parking lot at the edge of some place in the middle east, wondering about this new horizon, this call of God that has beckoned him forward. God has promised Abram a new homeland, but Abram has not possessed it yet. God has promised Abram that he will be the ancestor of a great many nations, but Abraham doesn’t even have a child yet.

Before we launch into new territory there are always unanswered questions and unrealized visions, but these seem to be two really big ones. It stands to reason that Abram might be dealing with some fear. He even openly questions God, an approach we often think is off limits because who can question God, right? But there is a relationship there between God and Abram and something about God makes Abram trust him. Eventually we are told Abram believes God again and that God reckons that to Abram as righteousness. I don’t think that means God says, “Abram, I reckon you’re righteous.” It means Abram stepped forward in this thing we call faith.

I don’t know how you describe or define faith. Each person probably would come up with their own definition for it. But in the way it seems to appear over and over in Scripture faith is in the confidence that a relationship with God will continue, come what may. What Abram trusts is that the storyline will, indeed, unfold and through it God will have Abram’s best interest at heart.

It makes me think about all of the journeys we get called into, the endeavors of life that fall into our laps or that make us turn left when we expected to go right. It can be the doctor saying, “I’ve got some hard news for you,” or a boss saying, “Today’s your last day.” Not every journey we’re on is caused by God, of course, but nevertheless we find ourselves standing in a parking lot wondering if God might lead us through it all. These are journeys of faith, too, where the end is not aways visible, and it is all too easy to get frightened and dejected.

This is what Jesus’ own faith is like, actually, and it also contains moments of fear and doubt and loss of control. His whole trip to Jerusalem is one big journey of faith that will end in a whole twist of bad news and hard situations. He will offer his life on the cross in the conviction that God his Father would provide a way through it, that the story would continue. And so along the way Jesus makes sure to assure his own followers that they do not need to be afraid even in their own discipleship and in their own journeys of faith. He knows that there will be times we will feel outnumbered and outmatched, and I can imagine that they feel particularly overburdened by this journey at this point because he’s just told them not to worry about their basic needs, even food or clothing. It’s like they’re on that parking lot with safety and security behind them but only fear and danger and loss in front of them. Jesus acknowledges all of those feelings by calling them his “little flock.” He reminds them that they are his, and that times of feeling overwhelmed is part of faith.

There was a very compelling story shared on Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast this week, “Revisionist History.” The topic of the podcast was acts of kindness by ordinary people, and the whole thing is worth a listen, but the final story that he shares is really unforgettable. Gladwell’s brother is an elementary school principal in a small town in southern Ontario. Much of the time up to 20% of this school is made up of refugee children who have been resettled to that community. While that is a sizeable number, they are still a little flock in the grand scheme of things, learning a new culture, mastering a new language.

Gladwell’s brother tells the story of day one little kindergarten Syrian girl arrives for the first time. He explains how she is inconsolable, crying and screaming in fear far beyond anything they’d ever experienced before. He and the teachers try all of their tricks to get her to settle down and, to their dismay, absolutely nothing works. Even the girl’s parents are unable to break through and calm her. Her mood of terror starts to effect the other children, too.

Gladwell finally tells the teacher to put the girl on her lap and hold her. So she does, and still nothing gets better. She is wailing and wailing, and no one can figure out what they’re doing that is triggering her. Finally, at a complete loss of what to do, Gladwell says he kneels down in front of her on this teacher’s lap and starts humming. No words. Just a tune that he describes as a “universal lullaby.” And suddenly, she stops crying. He says she looks straight into him for a few minutes as he continues to hum and then she takes his hand and gets off the teacher’s lap. She didn’t let go of him for an hour.

A principal of an elementary school on the first day of school, with a million things to do and she goes everywhere with him with a death grip on his finger. Eventually he takes her to the conference room and they draw pictures for each other, talking but not understanding one another’s language. A couple of hours later he takes her to her class and she is fine. The next morning, he explains, the real child shows up and is ready to learn. Reflecting on it, Gladwell says that that particular day when he got down to pierce that girl’s fear by humming was the pinnacle of his whole career.

In our fears about whatever lies before us, Jesus decides to stoop down to comfort us. On the cross he has his pinnacle moment, humming a universal lullaby of love and compassion and lets us cling to him wherever he goes and then leads us back to what we need to get done. “Do not be afraid, little flock,” he says, over and over again, in his word, in his holy meal, until we hear it.

And he reminds us that the kingdom is ours. The kingdom of heaven—which is the power of forgiveness over hate, and the triumph of joy over despair, the eventual victory of life over death—these things will be ours and never taken away

And Jesus doesn’t just leave us with that promise. He also gives us tasks and a mindset. For faith is not about having confidence that a particular outcome will work out in our favor, but a trust in who and whose we are, no matter what lies ahead. We are this mighty God’s little flock…and so we keep our lamps lit. We dress ourselves for action. We take care of those around us, shedding possessions and maybe even relationships that encumber us. We invest in acts of kindness and giving towards others rather than in accumulating more for ourselves. We go forth in faith because we know who and whose we are, not simply because we are in expectation of a particular desired outcome.

About a year ago one of our members, a mother of two young children, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She found herself beginning a journey of faith she had never anticipated.

There was fear, of course, but also faith. She dressed herself for action and got to writing letters to the other women in the congregation she was aware of who’d received a similar diagnosis, letters of support and encouragement. Over the course of the following year, she saw these relationships deepen. She has received regular visits and other correspondence from them. It turns out one of the women lives on her street. That woman donated her wigs to her, not in need of them anymore, herself.

This woman has now rounded the bend of her last surgery and is about to be declared “cancer-free.” She looks back across a parking lot she has now crossed and doesn’t see the fear and loss of a cancer diagnosis but rather sees scores of people supporting her, many in this very congregation. She thinks about how strong love is, and how helpful it was to stay ready, dressed for action, and generous in her spirit.

“Do not be afraid, little flock,” says our master Jesus, who stoops down to show how strong his love is. What great words for a congregation emerging from a pandemic and thinking about a new program year. What a great example for people of faith who wonder if their message and presence has any impact in society anymore. What comforting words for anyone on the edge of any parking lot, staring into any new call, summoning the courage to move forward in faith.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

And one day, at the end of all our journeying and hoping that Master will come home and do what no other Master will do, but which he shows us every week. He will sit with us at the same table and serve us, his flock and him together.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Ride of the Seventy

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 9C/Lectionary 14]

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

(with apologies to Mr. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

Listen, God’s children, and you shall hear
Of the daylight ride of the Seventy Peers:
On the road to Jerusalem, in Jesus’ day—
Hardly a man was along that way—
Who didn’t discover God’s kingdom was near.

Quite a crowd had assembled from every which place
To hear Jesus preach and perhaps see his face.
From cities like Capernaum and places like Nain
They had listened to parables and his Sermon on the Plain.
Some Jesus had chosen, some he had called,
Some were amazed while others were appalled.
Some came with demons that needed removed;
Others had arguments they wanted to prove.
But whatever the reason and whatever they sought
They were chiefly drawn in by the message he brought.

That message was old, but yet somehow new.
Foretold by the prophets, it was eternal and true.
Though people throughout the ages had doubted
And the news of God’s love had often been clouded
By unfaithful Israel and idols made of gold,
A Messiah would come, God’s people were told.
It was promised. It was sure.  God is faithful; that is certain.
And just when all thought God would never draw the curtain
On his time of great peace and justice with compassion
Along came young Jesus in God’s surprising fashion.

From Nazareth he came announcing good news
To the folks in the streets and people in the pews:
“Good news to the poor and sight to the blind,
Free the oppressed and the captives unbind!
Give thanks far and wide; it’s the Lord’s year of favor,
Show mercy to your enemy and love to your neighbor.”
For all of creation was this message intended:
For both Jews and Gentiles, and the places they tended
To mix together, like Samaria and Galilee!
And to others as well, from sea to shining sea.
Like the angels in Bethlehem had announced at his birth,
The peace of God’s Son was for all of the earth.

With tidings so important and compassion so great
Jesus’ message was urgent.  It just couldn’t wait.
Resolute and determined to get this word out,
Jesus started for Jerusalem on a circuitous route.
And, like I’ve said, the crowd’s size grew extreme:
He had more than the first twelve on his Gospel-word team.
So from out of that bunch he appointed a group.
He gave them a mission: through the towns they would troop.
Their number was specific, you could say ordained from heaven:
A round, righteous number: that’s ten times seven.
Seventy people, sent out two-by-two.
Seventy apostles with plenty to do.
He sent them ahead to each city and village
But not to loot or to rob, not to steal or to pillage.
Instead with their message they would send out God’s Word
That Jesus was the Savior and their sins would be cured.
Their instructions were simple, their directions were clear.
“Go to each little town and say: ‘God’s kingdom is near!’
Don’t carry a purse, don’t even wear sandals.
Knock on each door and pull on their handles.
Some people will listen.  Some people will laugh
Some people might run you from town with their staff.
This job is a tough one. The learning curve will be steep.
Sometimes they’ll feel like wolves while you feel like sheep.
But it’s the same with myself,” Jesus surely would say,
“Some Pharisees are still cursing me to this day!

If people should happen to let you inside
Then give them your peace and your time then there bide.
Let them serve you and feed you and tend to your needs.
This is help for your journey and reward for your deeds.

But if it should happen that you are ignored
And the people don’t receive you, or act like they’re bored.
Then don’t get depressed and don’t prolong your stay.
Just knock the dust from your feet and announce anyway
That God’s kingdom is near, whether they like it or not!
The message is for all people, for each and every lot.
But before you leave please let me remind you:
You are not alone,” Jesus said.  “I’ll be right behind you.”

And so, off they went, like sheep to be devoured
Seven times ten: every Tom, Dick and Howard.
Somewhat like Mormons, or Witnesses of Jehovah,
The Seventy set out; they went all over.

Yet soon they returned to their Lord with great joy
And fawning over their success like it was some shiny new toy,
Shocked at their ability to heal and to cure,
To preach and to teach throughout their whole tour.

“Jesus, you won’t believe it—or perhaps, yes, you will—
Some folks actually listened and couldn’t even get their fill.
We had power! We had wisdom! We had glory! We had might!
And we always won the battle when the demons put up a fight.”

And words of great praise to them Jesus did commend:
“What God promises, God ensures will come out in the end.”
The seventy had been successful throughout the land
Because Jesus had equipped them just as he had planned.
Though their message was short and their luggage was nil
They were armed with God’s promise and strengthened with God’s will.
That is all that they needed, along with their trust
That the Messiah’s message would accomplish what it must.
“But do not rejoice that you have so much power,
To affect people’s lives and to make evil cower.
Just take joy in the fact, you faithful Ten-Times-Seven,
That your names are written by God up in heaven.”
That is, your salvation is won not by your gain or loss,
But instead by the one who goes to the cross.

And that, God’s children, that you have just heard
Is the story of the seventy and their success with God’s Word.
They helped spread the message that God’s kingdom was nearing
And that Holy Scripture had been fulfilled in their hearing:
Sight to the blind and strength to the ailing…
God forgives all who sin—no matter what—without failing.
The message of the seventy echoes down through the ages
And speaks to us here throughout our life stages.
This is promised.  It is certain.  God is faithful, there is no doubt.
But this truth we suppress and rarely let out
For others to hear and to know of God’s love—
That their names, like ours, are written above!
Too often we think this message is only for us
Or that taking it elsewhere is too much of a fuss.
We’d rather people to come here to make our church grow.
We expect the pastor to be exciting and worship to be a show.
Often we get downtrodden and our efforts lackluster.
A few Sundays a year is all we can muster.
Or we look out at our world and there seems so much trouble
That we’d rather withdraw into a little church bubble.

But that is not God’s plan.  It’s just not God’s style.
His message will be sent out, mile after mile.
And even when the task seems too hard to start—
“if we just had more resources or maybe more heart”—
Let us remember how the Seventy were blessed:
We simply announce God’s kingdom and let the Spirit do the rest.
They weren’t allowed sandals, bag or a purse.
They weren’t allowed anything, even time to rehearse.
No building of stone to serve as their base
And no organ or choir for setting their pace.
They received no comforts to lighten their load
Of proclaiming the gospel when hitting the road.

But Jesus did give them something: he gave them his Word
And he gave them authority.  Though it sounds absurd
One thing must be said over and over again—
Jesus said it to the Seventy and to all women and men—
That is: the harvest is plentiful when God sends out his crew
Of apostles and disciples like me and like you.
The harvest is plentiful, and though the workers are few
It does not mean that God’s message won’t get through.
For as the Lord promises, the Lord ensures the way
And God’s kingdom comes, as we pray every day.
At our places of work or at the family dinner table
We are bearers of God’s peace, and God makes us able.
No matter where we are and no matter what our station
We are to announce God’s peaceful kingdom with great determination.
We spread it in deeds of kindness and grace
When we look on our neighbor and see Jesus’ face.
God’s message is not about which flag we salute
Which constitution we uphold or which trumpet we toot.
The whole earth is primed for the Gospel invasion.
It is time for us to listen and rise to the occasion.
We can be bold to speak and live the Lord’s peace
Because we know his love for us never will cease.

And as we continue in the Seventy’s tradition
God’s grace will sustain us in this radical mission
To live out our baptism, and bring forth God’s love
And announce the risen Savior is seated above.
Death is conquered for all.  By his wounds we are healed.
And our way through eternity by his blood is sealed.
Our message to all, if they still want to hear:
On Christ’s authority we say, “God’s kingdom is near.”

That’s the end of this rhyme for those Seventy Men.
Thanks be to God!  Alleluia!  Amen!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

A Better Freedom

a sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 8C]

Luke 9:51-62 and Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Christian writer and homelessness advocate Kevin Nye remarked on Twitter this week that in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) Jesus is asked a total of 187 questions. Nye says Jesus answers (maybe) eight of them, a fact which suggests that maybe faith isn’t about certainty, but learning to ask and sit in the complexity of good questions. I haven’t tried counting all the questions myself, but it is a credible estimate, especially when we consider that in Jesus’ Jewish religious tradition, the typical practice was to approach one question with another one right behind it (much like, I hear, a Supreme Court hears an argument).

As it happens, one of those eight questions that Jesus does answer occurs in this morning’s gospel text from Luke, and Jesus doesn’t appear to give any time for reflection and pondering. His own disciples, worried by the threats of the local Samaritans and frustrated by the Samaritans’ rejection of their message, ask Jesus point-blank, if they can ask God to rain down fire upon these half-breed, no-good people. It is a logical request, actually, and the disciples probably figured Jesus would approve, because their well-known ancestor Elijah had once done the same with his enemies. Bringing destruction upon those opposed to the mission of God’s prophets was not unheard of.

But Jesus doesn’t allow it at all. Without hesitation, without prevaricating, Jesus says, “No.” Interestingly enough, one ancient manuscript of Luke’s gospel inserts an additional line here. In that textual variant, Jesus says “No,” and then adds, as if to clarify, “for the Son of Man didn’t come to destroy souls, but to save them.”[1]

So there we have it: one of Jesus’ few direct, unambiguous answers, and it should make us at least stop and think about where Jesus would stand when it comes to any of our efforts of violence against our enemies and those groups of people we care less for. It should make us stop and think about forcing any religious viewpoint on a whole group of people, much less a whole nation, even when you are convinced Jesus is on your side.

Jesus and his disciples are in the land of the Samaritans in the first place because they are traveling to Jerusalem. Luke says that Jesus has “set his face to go there,” which is another way of saying that Jesus has programed Jerusalem into his GPS and it is going to take the quickest route, not necessarily the easiest. He needs to get to Jerusalem because that is where the power is and therefore where he needs to take the movement of justice and mercy and cleansing that he has begun in Galilee.

So often our journeys of faith don’t take the easiest route. Have you ever noticed that? In my experience, more often than not, following Jesus leads me down a complicated path through obstacles and into places outside my comfort zone where answers don’t seem to be cut-and-dry. Following Jesus usually involves the disorientation of new ideas and the awkwardness of having my mind changed and adjusting to new scenarios.

This isn’t the same as being wishy-washy. It’s the reality of ministry on the move, of seeing that Jesus does not come to put roots down in one place or one country or one culture or one set of laws but comes to free God’s people for one life. What is that one life? It is the life of compassion and forgiveness and love for the glory of God.

So we see that as Jesus travels he doesn’t just encounter stubborn Samaritans. He comes across these other people who want to fall in line with him, and his responses to them may seem grumpy to us, but they indicate that this one life he calls us to does cause a break from some of the other commitments that bind or distract us.

It’s interesting that he uses foxes and birds in his analogy, because we happen to have both right here on our church property. I’ve never given much thought, to be honest, to a fox’s hole until we realized we had a fox last summer underneath the ark toy in our pre-school playground. I saw him go under there one hot summer day and we called animal control to help us remove him before the children began school that fall. As it turns out, removing a fox from his hole is really difficult. The expert set a trap, but that proved unsuccessful. The animal control officer said we could call in a professional exterminator, but that they, too, would probably not be able to remove him. Evidently foxes really like their homes.

And as for birds, I think we have all been impressed somewhere along the way at how un-picky they can be about where they build their nests. The women of the Sleepy Hollow Garden Club included a bluebird house in their new natural habitat garden that they planted for the congregation on the other side of the parking lot. Within two days a pair of bluebirds had already moved in. But it appears they built a dummy nest with no intention of raising chicks there, which many bird species do every year. They build one and, if it doesn’t feel right, they choose somewhere else.

By using these two animals for comparison, Jesus shows just how transient and fast moving this mission of his one life can be. Foxes choose specific, hard to reach homes that they defend fiercely. Birds show up and, without much obvious discernment, build quickly, and then abandon it once the babies are raised. How often do we cling to our ways like a foxhole, refusing to budge or change strategies even when presented with something new? And how often do we rush to establish something permanent only to abandon or discard it once we’re ready for something new.

How do these scenarios inform a congregation that is trying to figure out a ministry plan after a two year pandemic? Do we wait for people to return and restart what we used to do in the ways we used to do them? Or do we just move forward with new ministries and vision and if you’re here with us, then great! It’s hard to know the right answer, but we do know the Son of Man doesn’t lay down his head anywhere. That is, he tends to be moving onward. With his love to save all people and not to destroy them he is moving onward. He is, in a word, free.

And he calls us to this freedom with him. Jesus calls us from our foxholes and our comfortable birdnests to respond to this freedom and claim it. It breaks us free even of certain traditions and responsibilities that we often idolize.

Another person on the road who hears the call of that one life is told by Jesus to leave funeral obligations for the family patriarch and go announce God’s kingdom instead. Another person wants to tie up loose ends, have a good farewell with people back in her village. That’s an honorable request, really. Jesus suggests there is not even time for that.

Any excuse, I imagine, could be offered for delaying the call to be Christ’s people in the world, to put off embodying God’s love here and now and Jesus would probably not allow it. There are people who need to hear that Christ has set us free, that his love on the cross has named and claimed all people as God’s beloved children. There are people who need to know the good news that Christ’s sacrifice has opened us to a life where fruits of the spirit are always in season.

I wonder if, amid all our talk about American freedom and what the Constitution says or doesn’t say, amid all our arguing about our freedom to bear arms or our freedom to say whatever we want we can forget that Jesus actually calls us to a greater freedom. This freedom—Jesus’ freedom—is the freedom that releases us from having to prove ourselves to God and releases us from the trap of living for ourselves and instead is a freedom that binds us to our neighbor.

It’s freedom that makes us a slave, and that’s a bit of an oxymoron when you hear it. For the apostle Paul, though, it is very obvious. Because of Jesus, we are no longer slaves to God’s law, which is the notion that God has some ideal for us to attain and if we’re just good enough at following God’s rules and doing what we’re supposed to, we’ll be in the clear. Christ on the cross set us free from all that. Now he sets us firmly at the needs of the people around us, a slave to them, free to stop worrying about ourselves and our rights in so many ways and free to care for those around us.

This is why Jesus tells his disciples so clearly that they can’t rain down fire on the Samaritans. Surely they could do it, and are able, and they may even have the right. They could go register for the AR-15 and pass the background check, comply with the waiting period and then walk through Samaria with the thing cocked and loaded, but that’s not the freedom that Jesus calls them to. This is not a military march, you see, but the road to Jerusalem, where life is laid down for the freedom of God’s good kingdom. It is movement of a strange kind of freedom and moving forward in a kingdom where the path is always service to those who need it and the goal is abundant life for all.

The challenge with Supreme Court rulings and other legislation is often that we get an answer or a verdict even when we might rather sit in the complexity of good questions. Some people of faith are rejoicing this week while other people of faith are in a state of despair or anger. Some people of faith are mortified by what the January 6 hearings are revealing about the previous administration and others in power, while some people of faith are convinced it is nothing more than a partisan show. Our political positions have become foxholes from which we dare not budge. Even so, Jesus’ hand is on the plow and he will move on and leave the dead to bury their dead, and we can assume he might mean any one of us.

What if, instead of attitudes of defeat or victory about whatever political issue we instead remember Jesus has called us to this strange freedom? What if, after glancing at the flag and Constitution and giving thanks, we remember to walk by the font and recall the covenant that claimed us there? What if, in the midst of all the pompous talk of American freedom we can remember that on the cross Christ has given us a better one—that Christ has actually bound us to each other and freed us to take care of all neighbors, especially those who will be most affected by these decisions.

And with the Spirit’s power, then, we will walk through the land with open hearts and ears, not waiting for God to reign down fire but as the strange liberating presence of love, and joy, and peace, and patience, and kindness, and generosity, and faithfulness, and gentleness. Ah yes…gentleness. (Gentleness, anyone?) And self-control. That is the one life Jesus calls us to.

It is the only one worth living.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Gospel of Luke: Sacra Pagina. Luke Timothy Johnson. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN 1991

God’s Nametag

a sermon for The Holy Trinity [Year C]

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, and John 16:12-15

As many of you all know, about two months ago our Evangelical Outreach Team finished making nametags for everyone in the congregation so that we could wear them when we worship and gather. Lots of congregations have nametags, and we’ve used paper ones from time to time, but the team felt it would be helpful for us to have official nametags as we reacquaint ourselves with each other as the COVID pandemic subsides. It was a formidable task, because we have close to 1000 people on our books, and the team didn’t want to leave anyone out.

What I appreciated most about this project was out conscientious they were in getting everyone’s name exactly right. When I got my nametag, not only was I thankful that my name hadn’t been shortened to Phil, which happens quite often, but both Ls were in there, and they’d also included my suffix with the comma! No one can wear this nametag correctly but me, even if another Phillip Martin walks in here some day, including my father! It’s a very specific nametag that helps people know me. Funny enough, another person who has the junior suffix, Frank McCollough, had his first nametag incorrectly printed as “JR McCollough.” They printed him a new one.

This Sunday in the church year is basically meant to be God’s name tag Sunday. We call God by name every Sunday, of course, and the name is not ever a secret but today, on the Sunday of the Holy Trinity, we take intentional time to give thanks that God has given us his name and remember that it is good to be conscientious with it: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is good to be conscientious with God’s name because it is connected to God’s unique story and it is a story of deep love for us. God has commanded that we not take God’s name in vain, which means talking about our God with respect and as much clarity as we can will inevitably help others understand that deep love too.

When we come to experience that love we arrive at the conclusion that God is a Trinity—God is one and God is three all at the same time. God reveals that identity to us in Holy Scripture, and we see examples of it from Genesis all the way to Revelation. Sometimes God is referred to as Father, sometimes God speaks to us directly as his Son and at other times we hear that God is Spirit. Precisely how these three persons relate to each other is never spelled out neatly and in an organized fashion in the Bible, but it is there nonetheless. In fact, explaining how Father, Son, and Spirit are yet one God is something big church nametag committees of previous centuries hammered out. We called them Councils, funny enough (Nicaea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, to name a few), and they gave us things like the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed to help us articulate the Holy Trinity.

Over the years people have tried to come up with analogies to describe the Trinity and make it easier to understand. Some of these analogies have been helpful, to a certain degree, but all of them eventually fail in some way because God’s nature is something we’ll never fully grasp. This name of God we use doesn’t say absolutely everything we can ever know about God, but it is enough for us to base our faith on. The fact is this: God’s identity is about nothing more and nothing less than the rich love that the Father and the Son have for each other in the bond of the Spirit. This love between then is so powerful and gracious that it eventually draws us in, too. Since it is the Sunday of the Holy Trinity, I thought it might be helpful to focus briefly on three things about God as a love-based Trinity that arise out of this set of texts today.

The first is that God is the source of all things. All things come into being through God, whether they are things we can see with our eyes, like puppies, or things we “see” with our heart, like joy. They all must have a source, and that source is God. I think we’ve all had the experience at some point of just sheer wonder at the world that surrounds us. That was the point of that hymn we just sang, the one that names all the different kinds of animals.

There was one father on the camping trip last weekend who had to get up in the middle of the night and make the trek to the bathhouse. He said that once his eyes adjusted to the darkness he looked up and there above him were uncountable stars. It just made him stop and stare. This happens to be a gentleman who has his own telescope and knows quite a bit about space and he still hasn’t lost that wonder of how immense it all looks.

We don’t get that particular opportunity very often in a time and place with so much light pollution, but the night sky is always a mind-boggling way to think about the vastness of creation and the grandeur of everything around us. Voices of the Bible reference it all the time in the same way, like this writer of Proverbs who looks at the heavens roughly about 2500 years before the concept of relativity and light years come onto the scene and he almost instinctively understands he is looking back in time to the very beginning of creation. Woven into all of this universe is a wisdom that makes it all work together. In his wisdom, God creates this all—time, space, stars, this planet, all the ways in which we make a living from the earth, human community, the shoes on our feet and wine and bread on this altar. All of it comes from a God who wants to provide things for his creatures. All of it comes from a Creator who weaves it together with a purpose we often miss. All of it for us to enjoy and marvel and steward as God’s representatives. So, first thing: God is the source of all things.

The second thing: this God, who is the source of all, comes near to us. That is a crazy thought, but the Holy Trinity says it’s true. God has created all of this—the stars in the heavens, the unfathomable diversity of this earth, and still finds humans something special. The writer of today’s Psalm says, “I look at the heavens, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, who are human beings that you should care for them?” I think at some point we have all been made aware of our smallness. We have grappled in some way with our limits as humans. We may be small in the grand scheme of things, but to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we are not insignificant. God comes to dwell with us, and doesn’t just stop there—God comes so be so near to us that he becomes one of us.

And this is all the more wonderful considering what a mess we make of everything. And that goes beyond pollution and climate change and littering. We’re quite unlovable in a lot a of ways. We make a mess of each other and our relationships because of our sinfulness and self-centeredness and all the ways in which we deny the image of God in one another. And in spite of all of this, human beings matter so much to God that Jesus even says that everything the Father has given him Jesus will give to us.

And that brings us to the third thing: God’s love lives through us. It doesn’t stay distant in the heavens, or in books, like a theory. Because of God’s Holy Spirit, all of the love that the Father has poured into his Son has been poured into us to know and share. Our relationships with God will deepen as we live in that love, and we come to know God better the more we love.

One of my good friends recently lost his father to a long battle with cancer. My friend is an only child and was really close to his dad and the loss has been really hard for him. He texted me a photo the other day of what turned out to be his father’s final minutes. He snapped the photo as he was sitting in his chair by the hospital bed because his mother and father looked right then. She was exhausted, having kept vigil for days and nights as he slowly succumbed. She had wadded up his dad’s Snoopy PJs that he didn’t need anymore and had placed them on his father’s body as a pillow. Even though she needed to rest and take a break, even though her energy was giving out, she couldn’t bear to leave her husband. There was a bond there that could not be broken, even as death closed in.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul says that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us. When I saw that photo and heard the story behind it, I thought of the kind of love that God pours out for us. I thought of Jesus, doing whatever he can for us to make sure that bond is never broken.

I would venture to say that you have experienced this kind of sacrificial love in your own life, the kind of love that does not turn away, the kind of love that is so strong it can take a situation of suffering and make it produce endurance. And then the endurance creates character, and character produces hope, and is a hope of things that will be that does not let us down. Hope: one of those unseeable gifts that God has created for us. Formidable stuff. God pours that transforming love into our hearts so that we can pour it out in the world, so that we can boldly go to where there is suffering and fold up the PJs, so to speak, to stay there and be hope. God’s love lives through us.

To say it differently, we get to wear God’s name tag when we go forth from here. In our baptism this Triune God has claimed us—that is, the God who has created all that is, the God who draws near to humans in all their messiness, the God whose love lives through us.  This God sends us out with that name on our foreheads in the shape of love as we know it best: the cross.

We’ve planned next Sunday to be “nametag” Sunday here. We’ll do it once a month. Check to see if you have one already. However, every day is a chance to bear God’s name. Each day God strengthens us to bear his name so that all may come to know this God who is Father, Son, and Spirit and who has given all for the life of this creation.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Put Your Face out of the Window

a sermon for Day of Pentecost [Year C]

John 14:8-17 [25-27] and Acts 2:1-21

When we were children, my parents did not let us chew gum very often and so it was a bit of an illicit treasure if we ever got our hands on any. One time on a particularly long road trip when I think my parents were happy to let my sister and me be entertained on our own in the back seat my sister and I got a pack of bubble gum and had fun blowing bubbles and popping them. We had to be discreet with it, of course, lest things get out of hand and the ban on gum be reinforced.

As it always does, the bubble gum eventually lost its flavor and its tenderness and I wanted to get rid of the tough wad in my mouth. Figuring that a discarded piece of bubble gum left in the car somewhere would end up somewhere it shouldn’t, I decided to roll down the window and spit it out at 65 miles per hour. So I did, with all the force I could muster. I stuck my face out as far as I felt comfortable and—p-tooey!—I launched it. It wasn’t until the next time we stopped at a rest area that my mother looked at me and saw that the gum had not gone far. It was lodged like cement in the hair on the top of my head. To get it out we first tried ice but then we ended up having to stop at a grocery store and get peanut butter to massage it out of my hair. It was messy. I was embarrassed. And it was my first personal lesson that wind is unpredictable and in certain circumstances can make us feel like a fool.

It was a lesson that has born out repeatedly throughout my life, including even last weekend when a large group of us were gathered for a wedding rehearsal dinner in a fancy dining room. A tornado touched down nearby, forcing us all into the basement of the country club. There we were: a bunch of relative strangers in dressy clothes (and some in golf clothes) huddled randomly through nervous chatter in close proximity as we waited it out.

Wind is unpredictable. That is the experience of the disciples gathered together in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. I’ve often wondered: did a violent wind actually rush through the room where they were hanging out, or is it just how they remembered it? Was whatever they experienced so suddenly wind-like that they used it to describe their experience as the Spirit of God is poured out upon them?

It was unpredictable. They hadn’t known this would occur. They were just in one place in order to celebrate the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot was the yearly festival that marked the historic moment when Moses received the Torah, or the stone tablets of God’s law, on Mount Sinai. It was used as a kind of harvest festival because typically wheat was planted around Passover and it was ready for harvest about seven weeks later.

But like wind that blows wherever it wants, God’s Spirit had other plans. That day they were going to receive a new kind of law that would be written on their hearts. And instead of celebrating a harvest of agricultural goods, they would be seen as workers in God’s harvest of all creation where people of all kinds and all nationalities and all languages would be gathered into one kingdom.

The whole event is a bit embarrassing and humbling. Not only do people who witness this event from the outside and see their behavior think that the disciples are drunk, but they themselves aren’t sure what is going on. They can understand one another even though they know they all come all over the known world.

We speak of the church as a body—the body of Christ. It’s like on Pentecost we get our body’s first results from a “23 and Me” test, those tests that take a bit of a person’s DNA and determine what their genetic background really is. The church body’s “23 and me” results show  that the body of Christ has a bit of everyone in us. Of course, we have some Parthians and Medes and Elamites in us. At some point. But we also have some Germans and Danes in us. And also some Chinese and Armenian and Tanzanian and Papua New Guinean. And also some American. The community of Jesus that is born on Pentecost with the unpredictable movement of the Holy Spirit that acts like wind blowing where we never can predict includes a bit of every kind of people on earth. Therefore the Christian faith doesn’t belong to one country or one denomination or one congregation but to all of humanity. God pours his Spirit upon all kinds, making us all heirs, as Paul says, of God, members of the same household..

This kind of unpredictability can be embarrassing. It can be embarrassing for us, for example, when we think we can control the movements of God or when we think we alone have all the right answers about faith. This unpredictability is frustrating for the church, for example, when we think we should praise God with the old hymns of our youth, written in the style we are familiar with. And also when we think we should phase those golden oldies out, that there’s no way the Spirit can use them today.

This habit of the Holy Spirit is extremely frustrating to those who think only true Christians are Republican or only true Christians vote Democratic, or that the main purpose of Christian faith at all is to hitch our faith to politics. The Spirit gathers us all and teaches us the words of Jesus and the ways of the Father, since the two of them are one. Do we realize, in a time of increasing political polarization, how critical this work of the Holy Spirit is? From what I understand—and I could be wrong—people are often more likely to change their church membership based on what their political beliefs dictate rather that change their political party based on what their faith teaches. The Holy Spirit helps tear down all the silos and echo chambers we create.

Lastly, the unpredictable nature of the Spirit is humbling to anyone who tries to keep people outside of the faith or deny them full inclusion based on their gender or their race or their sexuality. From the beginning God’s Spirit is all about reaching and lifting up those who are marginalized by the world. Immigrants, women, those of differing sexual identity like the Ethiopian eunuch that Philip baptizes in Acts chapter 8—these are all some of the first people in the church’s family, the people who built the faith and handed it on to us. The Holy Spirit reminds us that if we think we can keep our Christian faith discreet or control where it goes or restrict it to certain people then it will come flying back at us and make a mess like bubble gum in the hair.

Another important and interesting thing about wind is that we can’t see it but we can be aware of its presence because of the things it does. We can’t see the air that blows through a windmill but we can see the blades move around in a circle. We can’t see the wind that fills the sail, but we can tell its there because the boat takes us further out to see. This is the same with God’s Spirit. Even though Jesus had ascended to the Father the disciples would eventually be able to tell that Jesus was still with them, and they would figure out they were encountering Jesus in the world because they would be able to do the things he does. And they would see other people doing things that Jesus would do.

This is how the Holy Spirit works—it comes among us and yet we can’t see it like the disciples could physically see Jesus, but lo and behold we see people affected by him. We feel compelled to feed the hungry through our own service and we collect food for them and distribute it, setting up permanent food pantries, if need be. We feel compelled to pray for the people who are suffering from war and displacement and so we gather supplies together and send them off. We don’t know these people. They aren’t members of our families or our personal close networks. We may never even really meet them, but we feel Jesus move us toward them with compassion and mercy. This is the work of the Holy Spirit among us, giving us not a spirit of fear, but that spirit of adoption to see all people as beloved by God, even ourselves.

I can imagine that Jesus’ disciples would have been shocked to hear that they would do greater works than Jesus did. I’m shocked to hear that. Jesus fed 5000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. He cured a man of blindness and raised Lazarus from the dead. What could we do that is greater than that?

Just in the years following Pentecost, the church expanded and fed far more than 5000. We hear that deacons were set aside right away to see to it that orphans and widows, especially.

In the next few centuries the church would invent hospitals and build them in different cities, and right this very minute in health clinics and hospitals across the world help people regain their health and walk out of the tombs of illness.

Previous to the gospel, death was greeted with shame, and those who were dying often cast aside (unless they were in the upper 0.01%). But moved by their faith in Jesus’ own suffering and his bodily triumph over the grave, early Christians would sit by the dying, offering prayers and comfort. And, when their patients died, they would offer a burial of dignity and respect, even when they didn’t personally know them.

These were all new traditions to the human community, new gestures of dignity and compassion that often went against the prevailing customs and beliefs of the time. They came about through the work of God’s Spirit dwelling in his people and leading them to be Christ’s body. Greater things that Jesus did while he was with his disciples.

We can’t see God, but we know of God’s presence with us and in the world because we see things happening that Jesus would have done. And, in fact, he is doing them. Through the power of his Spirit given right now, Jesus is still accomplishing them through you and to me. He promised he would give us what we need when we undertake things that line up with his mission.

So let’s stick our faces out of the window, especially as we work rebuild our ministries after this pandemic. Stick our faces out of the window, and feel the rush of air on our face and be prepared. Be prepared to let it take us where it does and be a part of God’s unpredictable force of love and forgiveness in the world.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Whenever a Door Closes…

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

Acts 16:9-15 and John 14:23-29

In my office I have a small blanket—more like a throw for a sofa or chair—that was given to me by a member of the first congregation I served. Woven into its pattern is a picture of a big window surrounded by a bunch of rose blossoms and at the bottom is a quote that you have probably heard before: “Whenever God closes a door he always opens a window.” Confirmands each year are asked to pick a Scripture verse that means something to them and their faith, but I notice that no one ever picks that one: “Whenever God closes a door he always opens a window.”

Well, that’s because—you probably guessed it—it never appears in Scripture! Plenty of people think it does, and we do find several examples of that sentiment in Scripture, I suppose, but those exact words are never found anywhere. In fact, I think more correct version of this beloved quote on the blanket would be, “Whenever a door closes, God opens a tomb.” Because the life of faith is not so much about new possibilities as it is about new life. God’s relationship with us is not just about opening windows but rolling away stones. It is not just about turning corners and trying harder but about God raising up new life where we least expect it. As the confirmands stand up to profess their faith today, I hope they can hang on to that idea—that God brings new life—always—even when life hands us a Good Friday.

The reason why I bring this up is that this morning’s lesson from Acts is a prime example of God creating new life and opening windows when a door closes. The church in this story is still young. We find some of the earliest apostles, Paul and his comrades Timothy and Silas, working their way through cities and regions in present-day Turkey. They’ve traveled through several places there, preaching the message of Jesus, but they’ve kind of reached a dead end. We find out just before our episode today that the apostles want to go into a place called Bithynia, but they are prevented by the Spirit of Jesus. It’s unclear to us what exactly that means, but suffice it to say they feel that a door has been closed to them. They are kind of stuck, re-routed back to a place called Troas, and they may even be wondering if this is the end of the road or whether they’ll have to backtrack somehow.

But then something interesting happens. Paul has a vision during the night that tells him to leave and go into Macedonia.

Some basic geography is helpful here. Macedonia is across the Aegean Sea from where they are. That means it is in Europe, a completely different continent. Up until now the Christian movement had been something happening in Asia, in the areas around Jerusalem and Israel and modern-day Syria and Turkey. It would be like sitting in Henrico County, having plans to head north to pick some tomatoes in Hanover County or Caroline County and then someone saying, “Pick up your things and go to Venezuela.” For Paul to hear a vision tell him to go to Europe must have been a shock. That’s a whole new culture and new geography, a different part of the Roman Empire with different customs and languages. It was going to involve getting in a boat and learning the lay of a new land.

And then when we hear that Paul arrives in Philippi, a city bustling with commerce and politics, there are more surprises. Nothing happens right away, but eventually they begin conversations with a group of women who were gathered just outside of the town. A particular woman named Lydia starts to listen to Paul and his companions. As it turns out, Lydia is kind of an influential and well-connected person. Furthermore, she is probably not Jewish. She is likely Gentile, a Greek by culture, who is involved in the trade of purple cloth. The purple cloth trade in ancient times was only for the wealthy. Purple dye, the most difficult of all colors to procure, was obtained by crushing the shells of a particular species of mollusk found in a certain area of the Mediterranean Sea. Those who controlled the trade of those mollusks were the ones who could dye fabric and sell it to the royal courts who needed it for robes and cloaks. After listening to Paul and his companions, Lydia ends up becoming a Christ-follower and getting her whole household baptized.

So, see?  Whenever a door is closed, God opens a tomb. The message of hope and new life in Jesus comes to Europe and the first person who receives it  is a person with power and influence. Here, in a new foreign culture, God first trusts a woman to hear a message and make a choice with what to do with it. As the story of Acts continues, Lydia is seen as one of the most giving and generous of believers. In fact, she lets her house be used for worship services and as a wayfaring station for missionaries and we can be pretty certain that the congregation in Philippi was built on her conversion and from her resources. Two of our confirmands, J.T. and Ryan Mertz, selected Scripture verses from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We can thank Lydia and her household, in some way, for that.

Paul and Lydia meet in Philippi

It is my hunch that Paul and Silas would never have initially guessed that they would so soon be called to a new continent. And that they’d have such success! But that’s how the Holy Spirit works. The Holy Spirit pulls together a community of people that otherwise would have no cause to be together doing things they, by themselves, could not do.

We hear Jesus tell his own disciples these kinds of things the night before he is handed over to the authorities and put on trial and crucified. They are gathered in a room together and he has celebrated the Passover meal with them and washed their feet. I can imagine that their anxiety would be through the roof. Judas Iscariot has gone off to betray Jesus. Things don’t seem to be going well at all. They probably can’t explain all the details, but it certainly seems like a huge door is about to be slammed shut—slammed shut on their mission as disciples, slammed shut on their hope for a new regime in Jerusalem, slammed shut on their fledgling community.

But Jesus explains in very loving and calming words that the Father in heaven will be sending them the Holy Spirit to lead them and teach them. They don’t know what’s coming next, and they never really will.

At some point or another, most of us find that is one of the most frustrating aspects of life. We just don’t know what is going to happen in the future. It can be exhilarating, but it can also produce anxiety. It is tempting to believe that there is a specific precise plan out there that God has charted out for us that we just have to figure out. The Christian writer Donald Miller says that when a lot of people think about God’s plan for their lives they tend to think of a road map that has clear signs showing them where to turn left or turn right. Which major in college should I choose? Which career am I made for?

But even in Scripture are people’s lives and missions rarely laid out in such a detailed way. Donald Miller says that it’s better to think of God’s plan not like a map but more like a blank coloring book where God gives us certain crayons and says, “Start drawing.” The different crayons are our gifts and skills, and we may mess up, but there’s always more room to draw and experiment, and things may go any which way at any given time.

And into the midst of the anxiety that closed doors and unknown futures gives us, just like on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus promises God will still be with us.

Jesus promises the Advocate

The Spirit of God will be guiding and leading as we explore the possibilities of life and faith, coloring as we go. Jesus uses an interesting word for God’s Spirit. He calls the Spirit the Advocate. An advocate is someone who can speak for you and knows what your best interests really are. Jesus promises that even though we’ll occasionally feel alone or frustrated, God will be coming along to open windows or open tombs in order to bring our best interests forward. And so Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid. There is no reason to fear when God has your best interests at heart.

He also tells his disciples that we don’t know everything yet. As time moves on, as life moves on, they will learn more about faith and about God’s grace. It is a journey, a relationship, and the Spirit comes to reveal more and more to us about who Jesus is and why he matters to us. We don’t ever have it “all figured out,” so to speak—not even about our own faith.

As he departs Jesus also reminds his followers that he doesn’t give as the world gives. The world, we learn, will always give us what we’ve essentially deserved, and a lot of times less than what we’ve deserved. The world works on giving people what they earn, or by what they’ve got on their resume, or what comes to you by virtue of our skin color or where we were born. Jesus does not give like that. Jesus will give his grace and his mercy simply because Jesus loves you. Jesus gives his encouragement and his attention just because that is what he came to do. That’s what he’s here for.

The other evening the confirmands were all here and we were running through the worship service and where they would be standing and the parts they would be responsible for speaking. I explained to them that they’d be speaking the Apostles’ Creed all together, but they would have one line to say by themselves out loud. That line is “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.” They all went around the line and practiced saying the line. But one of them—I won’t tell you who it was—messed up that one line. Instead that one said, “I do, and I ask God to help and find me.”

As you might imagine, there was some snickering and some ribbing of this young person. And he blushed and wanted a re-do. But I got to thinking later that, in way, his mistake was a better response, especially as we prepare to send them all out into the world at some point. An Advocate doesn’t just speak for people, and advocate is someone looking out for you. An Advocate is someone who can find you when you’re looking for the next open window. Jesus himself compares himself often to a shepherd who seeks after every sheep.

So, yes, may God help and find you. That’s the peace Jesus leaves with you today. May God the Spirit always find you.  Like he found Lydia in Philippi and Paul in Troas. Wherever you are. All of you.  And all of us. Over and over again,

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.