To Be Blessed

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

Psalm 1 and Luke 6:17-26

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

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

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

Chihuahuan Desert, TX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

refugees at a camp in Darfur, Sudan

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Truth Be Told…

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

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

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

Lauren Alaina in her hometown of Chattanooga, TN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth

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

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

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

Naaman the Syrian (Pieter Fransz de Grebbe)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

We Need to Talk About Bruno?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Hail to the…Beloved Son!

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

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Descending Dove window at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary

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

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

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

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

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

a chosen leader with unconventional methods

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

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

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

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

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


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

For the Children?

a sermon for St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stoning of Stephen (Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld)

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

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

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

Jesus Entering Jerusalem (Gustav Dore)

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Paul Writing his Epistles (Valentin De Boulogne)

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

We Wait for Peace

a sermon for Advent – “The Wait of the World

Micah 2:2-5a

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Hiding the Gifts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Compelling Headline

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

Luke 3:1-6

It was one of the biggest goofs I’ve made of late and the whole congregation saw it. A few months ago, after the death of one of our members, I tried to send out an email blast to the congregation providing the Zoom link for the funeral. The church office made the transition to the Constant Contact format for email blasts back in the early summer. I hadn’t used the format by myself yet, but I thought it can’t be all that difficult to figure out. I went into the program and selected one of their pre-made templates for sending out important but brief emails. I inserted all of my information into the different fields, including a button for the Zoom link. I proofread it all, made sure the times and dates were right, no names were misspelled, and pushed send and the notice about the funeral service Zoom link went out to over 400 email addresses. Easy-peasy, right?

The only problem, which I discovered only after I pushed send, was that I hadn’t filled in quite all of the pre-set fields with information. Most significantly, I hadn’t inserted anything where I was supposed to put the subject or headline. So instead of opening with a brief subject line about the funeral service, which I had, of course, intended to be very serious and professional and pastoral, the email opened with the huge words, in gigantic font: “Insert Compelling Headline Here.” Technology always wins. The staff got a nice laugh out of that one and, graciously, no one in the congregation responded in any way. “Insert Compelling Headline Here” is no way to announce the details of something so solemn and important. But the send button had been pushed and it was out there. “Insert Compelling Headline Here” is what I was stuck with, like it or not.

John son of Zechariah, like him or not, is the compelling headline for Jesus Christ. And where is he inserted? It’s not in Jerusalem, or in Rome, where you think he’d belong, where he might, you know, be in constant contact with the powers that be, where he could easily blast the city with the news of a coming king. Rather he is way out in the wilderness, in the region around the Jordan, a place off the beaten path.

It is interesting to look at photos of the Judean wilderness. People tell me it is some of the most godforsaken territory they’ve ever seen. Dry and barren, desolate and unforgiving. The prophet Isaiah had foretold it this way, but it still sounds like a bit of a goof. This is where God inserts his compelling headline for the Lord who is on his way? So it seems.

All four of the gospel writers include John as some kind of precursor to Jesus of Nazareth, a voice crying out in the wilderness telling everyone to prepare the way of the Lord. Luke goes to extra length to give us all of the specific information about when his headline comes. And he starts at the top, working his way down to the local scene. The Emperor was Tiberius, the governor was Pontius Pilate, and the ruler of Galilee was Herod, and the high priests were Annas and Caiaphus, and so on. Our two congregational archivists, Barry Westin and John Hartmann, who work tirelessly to record our Council minutes and do things like convert old photos and drawings into a digital format for generations to use in the future, can explain better than I can why this list given by Luke is so important and helpful. It gives us some real context. It let us know what other things were going on during this time when God’s word was making an entrance.

As one of my colleagues says, Luke’s attention to detail reminds us that the story of Jesus is not a “Once upon a time” story. John Son of Zechariah appeared  preaching and preparing the way for Jesus at a specific time in human history and in a specific location. So often there is the temptation to treat faith like it’s the lesson from a fairy tale or the moral of a story (“be kind to your neighbor”) or that God is an abstract concept that we decide to accept or reject. The gospel writers do not do this. They don’t present argument for or against God’s existence. They, and especially Luke, are just concerned that we understand particular things happened. Particular historical events occurred in the timeline of the world and faith, then, is way of responding to that news. For Luke and the early Christians especially, faith in Jesus was not something to be arrived at philosophically but a new way they lived their lives after hearing that certain things had taken place—most notably the resurrection of a man who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died, was buried, and rose again.

That account, of course, begins, in large part, with John son of Zechariah hanging out in the wilderness while Pontius Pilate was governor. Here, of all places, the Word of God comes to John. And it begs a response. Paths need to be straightened. Valleys shall be filled in and mountains will be flattened. It’s like everything is being evened out. John is quoting the Old Testament prophets, who were likely talking about real highways in the desert. But with his themes of repentance and forgiveness, the preparation takes on a more personal, internal meaning. The Lord’s arrival among us involves clearing things away in our hearts, making our spiritual landscapes less convoluted, more straightforward, easier to travel.

That was perhaps the biggest thing I noticed when my My family moved to here to Richmond from Pittsburgh, the city where my wife grew up and where I spent about six years serving a congregation. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Pittsburgh, but it’s been said that in that city there is always at least one hill between where you are and where you need to be, and there’s not a straight road in that town. I was a runner back in those days, and was astounded at how easy it was to run in Richmond! Richmond was a running town like I’d never seen—almost everyone I met was in a running group. Even Epiphany had one back then. In all my years in Pittsburgh I don’t think I ever had one running partner. People probably considered me out of my mind!

The Lord wants a straight path to us—an easy run—right into the heart of you and me. He comes to take up residence in our lives, to bless us with his love and mercy, his compassion and wisdom. He comes to set us free, to save us from our enemies and those who would wish us harm, as John’s father, Zechariah sings.

And that way is prepared for him through the act of repentance. Repentance can be thought of as the act of bringing low those places in us which have gotten too high, those habits which may have made us aloof from the needs of others, as well as identifying those areas in us which have been tucked away in darkness, like a valley. Repentance is literally from a Greek word that means to change perspective or change directions, and what is road straightening and mountain-lowering but a form of changing perspective?

Our worship services almost always begin with a time of confession and forgiveness as a way to help us repent. “We confess our sin before you,” we pray together, “for that which we have done and that which we have left undone. We fail in believing that your good news is for us.” It’s easy to hear and say these words and think of sins as actions we’ve undertaken, a mental checklist of specific deeds we’ve committed or shied away from. But perhaps John and the prophet Isaiah want us to use words and practices of repentance, whenever we say them, like excavators and dump trucks, removing mountains and filling in valleys within us, opening up our perspectives, getting us ready, so that the word of Christ may come to us.

Removing mountains and filling in the valleys within us, being willing to take ourselves down a notch or two, opening up horizons, is very different from the dominant spiritual movements today. Right now most people it seems are more into digging trenches, re-drawing battle lines, hunkering down behind bunkers in order to take shots at the other side. John’s compelling headline about Jesus is that there are hills and valleys crooked roads within us that need to be made straight first.

Three years ago from right now this congregation was poised to begin a huge building campaign that we hoped would make the road to Christ here easier to travel. The vote to build and secure the loan hadn’t happened yet, but the final plans had been basically hammered out and we knew what we were getting ourselves into. One of the last additions that really caught us by surprise was the sidewalk along our property out front along Horsepen Road. The Building Team and Council were irritated, quite frankly, that the county was requiring us to create and pave it at our expense. Our architect was willing to apply for a variance so we wouldn’t have to pave it, but the builder and a couple of civil engineers on our team said they’d never grant it. We factored it into our plans and jokingly called it the Sidewalk to Nowhere, since it doesn’t link up to any other properties that we border, and indeed if you look out there, you’ll see it is literally the only strip of sidewalk anywhere along Glenside or Horsepen. Our church is in a sidewalk wilderness!

Well, three years later and hardly a day goes by when I don’t see someone walking on that sidewalk. It beats all I’ve ever seen.  One day last week I even saw a runner running on it, and last September there was a man taking a rest at the base of our cross. I don’t know where they come from and I don’t know where they’re going, but the way has been prepared, the rough place made plain, and people are using it.

That is the message that John announces. In a world that is so broken, so lost, so full of fear and doubt, the Lord will come. God’s Word came to John in the wilderness, God’s Word traveled straight to the cross God’s Word is coming to you today. He comes to give you forgiveness, to set you free from your enemies, to guide your feet into the way of peace. Make a way in your wilderness, for God can and will come to you, seemingly out of nowhere.

And then saved and set free, you are able go forth and—you guessed it, it’s not a goof— insert the compelling love of God anywhere.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Friend in the Neighborhood

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

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 and Luke 21:25-36

Our five-year-old son would tell you that the best thing about living in our neighborhood is that Samuel, Lucia, and Anna Bolick live there too. As most of you probably could guess, the Bolicks are friends from here at church, the children of Joseph and Sarah. Their house isn’t on our street, but it’s so close—two quick turns away—that you only need to walk or hop on a bike to get there. I’ve often wondered if we live in earshot, but have been too bashful to test it out, and haven’t had an excuse to. COVID lockdowns have made it harder to hang out over the past two years, but now that our kids have got one vaccination shot done, it’s becoming easier to hang out. And not a day goes by when Jasper doesn’t ask to be with them…multiple times. I’ll usually say, “Son, they are busy today and we are busy today so it won’t work out.”

And then he’ll say, “Then text Pastor Joseph. He’ll make it work out.”

Last weekend we had raked up a big pile of leaves and, in fact, Joseph and I had texted about getting the kids together at our house to play in them and on the zipline and swingset. It was going to be so awesome. As soon as Jasper knew that he was out at the curb. He knows not to stand in the street (most days) but he was right at the edge where the concrete forms a ledge, craning his neck to look down the road in their direction. We can usually see and even hear them coming because they are always riding their bikes or pushing a stroller—that’s how close we live.       

They seemed to be a bit detained. Jasper stepped even closer to the road, refusing to take his eye off the corner they would be rounding. “We’ll hear them soon,” I promised him. And closer and closer to the edge of our property line Jasper crept, and as he turned in his impatience to beg me to let him loose he didn’t even see them roll up that day in their Subaru, surprising us all.

That, my friends, is the true Advent posture. More than lighting another candle on the wreath, more than hanging a beloved ornament on a Christmas tree, more than even, we might say,  placing the familiar characters of a nativity set in their creche. We today—we every day of this season, we truly every day of our faith—are a 5-year-old at the curb, standing as close to the edge as possible, hoping, waiting, wondering, and full of joyful anticipation. Stand up and raise your heads, for our friend Jesus will be here soon.

And let us remember we don’t stand on the edge of the curb waiting for an infant Jesus but a fully grown one—we’re not expecting the weak and vulnerable Jesus of nativity scenes but a powerful and commanding one, one who comes to join us and bring to bear the full meaning of his resurrection to us and the whole world.

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago about the secret power of reconnecting with old friends, and how “pals from the past can give us a sense of stability in turbulent times.”[1] Advent is waiting for a good friend in turbulent times, a friend we already know, one we’ve already had meals with and conversations with, one who has already sought us out when we were lost like sheep, one whose voice is as familiar as the words of a Christmas carol. This Jesus is on the way, so let us be ready.

If Advent is about anything, it is about remembering again that our lives are situated in a particular story. It is not just any story, and it’s even the story of Christmas. Like doors on a calendar, our lives are arranged within the context of a grand narrative, that God is writing and that one day God will finish. One day that last door will be opened. This is God’s history, the true history of all things, one that that reaches back to the very beginning when light and matter first exploded onto the scene and continues through the particular promises to a people called Israel and now includes, thanks to our baptism, the likes of you and me. Kind of like how New Year’s Day is a time many people use to make resolutions or re-claim some goals and re-orient their habits, Advent is a time for the people of God to re-orient ourselves to God’s story and the person to which it is leading.

This is the way in which Paul speaks words of comfort and encouragement to the church in Thessalonica. They are a church struggling to be faithful in a region that doesn’t understand their beliefs or buy into God’s timeline. Paul had been with the Thessalonians for a while, a congregation he himself had helped to start, but for several years had been pulled away from them by other commitments elsewhere. He receives word that they are doing well in his absence, but that they are worried for their future and what will lie around the corner for them.

In order to spur them along, he praises them and reminds them of their place in God’s story. Paul reminds them that God is, despite the troubles they face, despite the separation they are living with, the real author of time and is still moving the plot along. Despite the uneasiness they are feeling, in spite of the fear, God has used them to bring Paul so much joy. In admitting that he prays night and day most earnestly that he may see them again face to face, he shows them and us that meeting together is the goal. There is no substitute for it when it comes to following Jesus. A livestream of worship is good, a Zoomed Thanksgiving is preferable to none, as we’ve all learned, but actually being in each other’s presence is the goal. Jesus’ followers, Paul says, will continue to increase and abound in love toward each other and for all, and they will one day soon stand blameless before God when Jesus arrives again. When you are part of God’s story in Jesus, the future is always ultimately hopeful, the future is always ultimately good, because it is centered on the Bethlehem star, Jesus Christ himself.

This is difficult to remember when the world is constantly trying to center us on so many other things and trying to give us so many other stories. An ominous new coronavirus variant seems to threaten our progress towards this pandemic’s end. Countries rattle sabers and position troops at borders, challenging our beliefs that peace is possible. Things like small town Christmas parades become scenes of death and loss and unbelievable sadness. Media coverage of court cases and crimes try to convince us that humans are destined to be torn along lines of race and class and ethnicity and political persuasion.

The narratives of our brokenness and divisiveness and anger and disgust are out there, and they are in and around us. It is so tempting to hear them and give into them so that our hearts are weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, to get despondent and doubt God’s power to save. It is tempting to turn to conspiracy theories and fall prey to con artists.

But in Advent we remember That Story—how Jesus first came into a world rife with conspiracy theories and con artists. That’s kind of what he does. It’s his thing. He is first born in a backwater town under oppressive military rule. He is a righteous branch of David that grows up and blossoms in a thorny region that is a geographical and ethnic hodge-podge of loyalties. And he eventually dies at the hands of the emperor’s henchmen when there is all kinds of distress among the nations. His defining moment is when everything is falling apart, even for him. Jesus comes speaking peace and love and service to the neighbor and these are words that do not pass away. The world will become shaky and unsteady but these things he shares and lives are the firm foundation.

A few weeks ago it dawned on some of us that the restrictions and challenges of pandemic living will once again put a damper on many of our congregation’s Advent traditions of telling and sharing this word. Even with child vaccination rates on the rise we are reluctant to let our guard down fully and group children in large crowds. To be honest, we were a little discouraged and disappointed. On top of this, a few of the people who have typically been instrumental in helping us prepare for Christmas have moved away or are not available this year.

We sent around a few emails and called a quick meeting of people who might be interested in helping out with some Advent decorating and immediately the joy and excitement was palpable. People had creative ideas and were eager to share them. They are ready to help tell the story.

the outdoor Christmas display in 2017

Russ Johnson and Bruce Garringer unearthed elements of the outdoor nativity sets and started to repair the lights. Le Lew has already put the characters in place. Ken and Linda Reckenbeil, Cathy DesLesDernier, and Bonita Wyatt all came up with ways that children and families could be safely involved in decorating the tree and learning about Chrismons. Beth Barger and other staff members are already considering ways the Christmas Eve children’s tableau could be engaging for children and safe at the same time. As we finished our meeting and seeing their faces I could not help but hear Paul’s words to the Thessalonians ring in my head: how can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you?

It is a grace to know this story and a joy to be able to tell it. It is a relief to hear ourselves once again in the midst of God’s great story where everything is repaired, and where and emphasis is always made on including the vulnerable, where a final door will be opened to reveal to all what we already trust—that on the cross, God does win.

It is a privilege to be the ones who stand in a fearful world grounded in the word that does not pass away. To be the people who stand on the curb, our heads lifted. To be the ones who say that the best thing about living in this neighborhood called creation is that we know God loves it so much his Son has died to release it from its bondage. He’s coming any minute. He is the Great Friend to all and he’s right around the corner and he’s coming any minute to show us all the full power of his love and forgiveness.

Just you wait.

It’s going to be so awesome.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “The Secret Power of Reconnecting with old Friends,” Elizabeth Bernstein in the Wall Street Journal, Nov 16, 2021

Time Changes

a sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 28B/Lectionary 33]

Mark 13:-18

How are you dealing with the end of Daylight Savings Time? Has your body figured out how to cope after a readjustment of just one hour? How about any kids or dogs living in your house? I know that it took me a few days to respond to a new sleep schedule, and when I visited the Jordan family for a pre-baptismal visit on early Monday evening, they were still patiently trying to get little Audrey to go to sleep at the new 7:30, not the old one.

I ran across a funny meme sometime this week that was a guide for putting your clocks back on various devices. It showed a photo of a smartphone in one corner with the words, “Smartphone: Leave it alone. It does its magic.” Then in the next corner was a photo of a sundial. It said, “Sundial: move one house to the left.” In the bottom corner was a photo of a kitchen oven. It said, “Oven: You’ll need a Masters in Electric Engineering or a hammer.” And in the last corner was a dashboard in a car. It said, “Car radio: Not worth it. Wait six months.”

Each year it seems that the calls to do away with this feature of keeping track of time get louder and louder. Wherever you stand on the issue—and apparently it has become a hot-button topic, as if we need another—we have to admit that it signals the end of one little era and the beginning of another. With one flick of a button, or maybe none at all, we’ve entered a more winter mode. Things are darker, at least in the evenings. Night owls are probably pleased. We feel like cozying down for the year’s end. And as hard as we think we have it, just imagine what it used to be like to keep track of time when the whole calendar and month-numbering system often re-started every time a new emperor took control. At least we don’t have to do that!

It does make us think, though: if time can change, and if even we can change it as one whole huge society, then what can’t be changed? What things are not altered or affected by eras and epochs? What can we count on tomorrow, and the day after that? We can tell this morning that the disciples of Jesus certainly thought the temple in Jerusalem was in that category. It was enormous. It was gargantuan.

This was the temple whose reconstruction King Herod the Great had undertaken. By the time of Jesus and his disciples it had grown to become one of the world’s greatest edifices. It took up about 36 acres. Some of the stones used to make it would have measured about 6 ½ feet in length and weighed tens if not hundreds of tons. You can imagine that to a first century small town fisherman or tax collector, which is what most of the disciples were, who was living in a time before dynamite and nuclear bombs, the destruction of such a huge and imposing building was unimaginable. It would seem absolutely impenetrable and immovable, something that could only be added to, not taken apart.

And their reaction is especially important if you realize the disciples were not just admiring the size and grandeur of the temple. They probably wanted to start measuring it for curtains and drapes because they were thinking that once Jesus came into power, they would be the ones exerting power and influence from there. After all, the disciples are still not clued into the nature of Jesus’ mission and kingdom at this point. They have not yet figured out, even though Jesus has gone over and over it multiple times, that his kingdom is not about big buildings or thrones or exerting force over people and impressing everyone with power and control.

What is his kingdom about? A look back on the journey they’ve just had with Jesus to reach this point would give us a great idea. Like the times he showed compassion to people who were sick or possessed by demons, and the time he crossed racial and ethnic boundaries to talk with a foreign woman whose daughter was dying. Or the many times he talked about children and even brought them onto his lap, using their simplicity and trustfulness as an example of faith. And just before this point, on the way up into Jerusalem, he stopped to call over a blind beggar named Bartimaeus who had been silenced by his disciples. Then he gave him sight. These are the signs of Jesus’ kingdom and they will form the foundation of God’s new time. They will be the kinds of things that will last, no matter what kind of tumultuous days occur between now and then. The things done that reflect Jesus’ kingdom of selflessness and mercy and compassion will be the things that go on forever.

I bet if I were to ask you, for example, who the winners of the last five World Series were, or who the winners of the last five Academy Awards for Best Actor were, you would be hard pressed to name them. We might be able to name the wealthiest person on the planet right now, for example, because that’s in the news, but could any of us name the wealthiest person in 1990? Or 1950? But, by contrast, if I were to ask you to name five people who have made a difference in your life, who have taught you something invaluable, who have helped you find your way through a difficult time, you’d be able to rattle them off with ease. These are the building stones of Jesus’ new kingdom. And they aren’t torn down.

And that kingdom is coming. It’s being birthed right now, right as we speak as we gather in his name, right as you drop your Thanksgiving basket donations here in the Commons, right as you set aside a portion of your time to pray and sing when you could be doing something else, right as you offer some of your Tuesday nights for the next year to sit on Council, right as you speak out and act through the political system to bring peace and justice to all, right as you sign up to serve a meal at the Liberation Veterans Services shelter, right as you consider bringing a foster child into your home, right as you pick up the phone to check in on your friend who is grieving, right as you stop to admire the fall colors around you and give thanks to God that even in dying there can be beauty and hope for spring. We are in the birth pangs of a new time, a new era that Jesus is ushering in with the selfless giving of his life. And everything that does not support that new life will be torn down and done away with. Eventually. As it happens, not too long after Jesus speaks these words, the temple in Jerusalem did fall. Unbelievably and traumatically the Roman army managed to burn it and reduce it to rubble, scattering the Jewish people from their home into the world.

Interestingly enough, it was just about two years ago that the new statue by Kehinde Wiley outside the VMFA was unveiled. It is called “Rumors of War,” a title that may seem strange to some but shouldn’t be to us because it comes straight from Jesus’ own mouth in this morning’s gospel lesson about the coming kingdom. He says, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.” Jesus is telling his disciples to be patient and vigilant and calm during tumultuous times as the world makes this transition into his eternal kingdom. Wiley designed his large statue, which features an ordinary black man in dreadlocks and blue jeans sitting atop a horse, as a response to the many equestrian Confederate statues that, at the time, were along Monument Avenue. Calling the statue Rumors of War is a way to say, Things aren’t over. The powers that be won’t have the final say. Nations rise against nation, even within themselves. And that things we regard as permanent and sacred will be brought down.

That was in early December 2019, and as the statue was unveiled I don’t think any of us had any inkling of an idea that within two years all of those Confederate statues would be brought down. They were kind of like Richmond’s version of the Jerusalem temple, immovable architectural objects that people identified with our city. Nowadays, only two statues remain along the Monument Avenue corridor—the one by Wiley and the Arthur Ashe memorial, which depicts him teaching children.

Regardless of where we each stand on the issue of statues, kind of like regardless on where we stand on Daylight Savings time, we have to admit it is powerfully amazing and exhilarating when we see the words of Jesus come to life in quite such vivid fashion. All will be thrown down, and that means some things that we love and things we revere will belong to the old time that is passing away, reduced to rubble. And I assume that means Wiley’s statue and Arthur Ashe’s, too, eventually. It hurts to think about sometimes.

But these are birth pangs. A new world of life and mercy and forgiveness forevermore is coming to term. A new life of true freedom and true joy is emerging. The Irish rock band has a song with a line that says “Freedom has a scent like the top of a newborn baby’s head.” I’ve always been enamored with that line…so much so that when each of our children were born, I asked the attending physician to let me sniff the top of their heads before she took them to be washed and weighed.

But perhaps I didn’t need to do that. That is what our heads smell like—freedom—marked with the cross and washed as they are in the waters of baptism. Moving forward. Not being swayed by the wars or rumors of wars or by those who will try to be a savior for us in Jesus’ place. We wait for the one who has already claimed us, Jesus the true Savior, our internal timepieces and our eyes and our hearts and our faith set by the cross on this exciting new era—World Savings time.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.