Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 13A/Lectionary 18] - August 6, 2017 (Matthew 14:13-21)

I have never been able to make the right amount of rice for my family. It’s become almost a joke. No matter how low I try to go on the recipe chart on the back of the container, no matter how carefully I try to eyeball it and guess how much will really feed a family of five, I always end up with loads of extra rice at the end of the meal. I’ve even written down in a book how much is too much, but when I go a little lower the next time…bam! Too much rice. So we try to conserve what we haven’t eaten by putting the leftovers in a Tupperware container. By the end of the week we have at least two or three containers of different kinds of rice that each amount to about 1½ servings. Sometimes I cobble a couple of them together for a lunch at work the next day, but, sadly, many times we end up tossing them out. And then I look at the floor after supper is over. There’s another half serving down there! Don’t even get me started on cooking couscous. I am certain that stuff multiplies like bacteria colonies once it hits water and then air, no matter what you try to do. And it explodes and scatters throughout the kitchen.

I think of rice and couscous just about every time I hear the story about Jesus and the loaves because it starts out as such a little bit and then explodes and scatters throughout the wilderness. No one seems to have a handle on what is actually needed. They start off with such a ridiculously small amount and by the end they’re on the ground, underneath the table scraping leftovers together and hunting Tupperware containers for the refrigerator. Somebody’s going to have to take this stuff to work the next day for lunch.

I get that the disciples misjudge how much they need to feed this great big amount of people, but Jesus? Does he misjudge what is needed, too? Does he misread the recipe? Are we sure they’re not working with couscous here?

Other than the last week of Jesus’ life when he goes to Jerusalem and clashes with the temple authorities and dies on the cross, there are only a handful stories about Jesus that all four gospel writers tell us about. The miracle about misjudging the loaves and fishes is one of them. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the communities that they worked with and borrowed from all must have heard about this event along the sea when Jesus, seeking solitude and rest, trying to get away from a stressful situation, feeds thousands of people with just five loaves and two fish.

It makes a lot of sense, if you think about it, that all four would know about this story and seek to tell it. Most of Jesus’ other miracles and ministry moments occur before very small audiences, so word of mouth about those events would have spread slower. This was a miracle that was witnessed and felt by thousands of people, whether you count the people on the margins or not. And even though it was clearly a spontaneous occurrence, there is remarkable agreement between all four gospel writers about what actually happened. Their versions line up with each other really well.

(Giovanni Lanfranco, 1582-1647)
All that is to say is that very early on this event becomes a clue to understanding who this Jesus is. To hear and know about this man and his ministry is going to mean dealing with this story about the feeding of the 5000. Who is this Jesus that everyone keeps talking about? Oh, he’s that guy who somehow fed all of those people that day out in the wilderness.

Interestingly enough, as Matthew understands it, Jesus performs this miracle at exactly the halfway point in his ministry. Right after his cousin John the Baptist is beheaded for speaking out against Herod, Jesus multiplies the bread and fish in order to say something important about who he is and the direction he is taking.

And that key to who Jesus is and the direction he is taking is compassion. At this turning point, at this critical time in his ministry, Jesus is going to be defined by his concern and care for the world’s needs more than his own. He is going to be defined by his ability to be moved by suffering and struggle.

The question for those who eat the bread and the fish that day, the question for those who hear about this story and struggle to believe it, the question for those who have some experience with Jesus is not so much how are we going to respond to person who can do miracles with multiplication but how aware are we of the power of God’s compassion for the world? Do we believe compassion has sufficient influence? Do we think that Jesus can be enough?

You see, the conventional way we hear this story puts us in the role of the disciples, the bumbling, clueless sidekicks to Jesus who don’t believe there’s enough food available, who consistently, like many of us, misjudge and underestimate the amount on the back of the container, afraid of running out. And there’s certainly meaning it hearing and experiencing this event in that way. God does continue to perform miracles in our ministry once we hand it over to him and have faith that five loaves and two fish are enough, whatever those fives loaves and two fish happen to be…the household supplies we’ve gathered for ACTS house, the items for the food pantry, the church budget. God does bless the world with an abundance of what it needs, and our trust in that is a key to sharing it with everyone.

But there is something else, something even more profound Jesus is saying with this miracle. As his followers told and retold this story to anyone who would listen they begin to hear it in such a way that they realize they are actually the fish and the leaves. They are the ones who don’t feel like enough. They themselves—the people following Jesus, swimming upstream against currents of greed and vanity and selfishness—they themselves are the handful that pales in comparison to the world’s needs. Jesus isn’t merely giving them a lesson about how God provides enough worldly resources for all. Jesus is showing them that he is enough. His body and his blood will be enough to make the world whole again. His way of offering himself for us, even just his own body on the cross, in a death reserved for the lowliest of people, will be more than sufficient to heal and restore humanity to God’s vision for life.

And because he takes the loaves that day, blesses them, and breaks them, and gives them to the disciples who give them to the crowds, we understand that we are Christ’s body. We are a part of this act of compassion. From those loaves then, to these loaves here. From the cross of Jesus, to the crosses Jesus invites us to take up in the world. From the suffering he undertakes in his death for you and me to the suffering we listen to and empathy we have for the lives of those around us. It is all an extension of this miracle of compassion. It’s still ongoing. As church father St. Augustine said,“You are the Body of Christ. In you and through you the work of the incarnation must go forward. You are to be taken. You are to be blessed, broken and distributed, that you may be the means of grace and vehicles of eternal love.'

Brothers and sisters, in these days of declining church worship attendance and the closing of congregations, in the coming drastic shortage of pastors and other church leaders, in the rising tide of other religious groups, including those who claim to have no religious affiliation, this is a wonderful miracle to remember and re-tell. There is a hunger in the world, and it may seem like the presence of Christ is dwindling, tired and in need of rest; there is a restlessness in the world, and it may feel like we don’t have the energy or calm to speak to it, but Jesus’ compassion is still here, deep in the gut. It’s not going anywhere. It’s going to plop itself down in the middle of it all and be more than enough.

And by the grace of our baptism and the meal on this table, that compassion is rooted and refreshed in us again every week. When Jesus lifts those loaves in the wilderness, he is lifting his body, you and me, in service to the world. And that can feed thousands.

At the Virginia Synod Assembly back in June we heard about our denomination’s work in Juba, South Sudan. South Sudan is the world’s newest country, about six or seven years old. It is also one of the poorest and most violent. It has been embroiled in a terrible civil war almost as long as it has been independent. Right now the ELCA is the only mission organization with any ongoing work in the country. Two years ago we broke ground on a community center right in the middle of the capital. It contains, among other things, a worship space, a health clinic, and a center to address the needs of women and girls. The rest of the city is falling apart, but the church is building a new structure for compassion right in the heart of it. At Synod Assembly our presenter, the head of ELCA’s Global Mission, the Reverend Raphael Malpica-Padilla, told the story about how a few months ago, as the building was nearing its completion, the country’s Minister of Finance walked by and stopped to look at it. Shocked that anyone would be building in a time like this, he called for the construction foreman. The Minister asked, (and this is supposedly a direct quote) “Who are the crazy people building a community center in this place at this time?” The foreman, who was from the area, just told him, “The ELCA.” The Minister of Finance asked who that was and how he could reach them. It’s not often that a high-ranking officer of a foreign country actually contacts ELCA headquarters, but a community center made it happen.

The new community center in Juba, South Sudan, built by the ELCA
I don’t know how you feel about it, but I’m pretty excited and humbled to be connected, in some way, with the crazy group of people with that kind of compassion. And to tell you the truth, I should really stand back every week and be excited and humbled at the way you let yourselves be multiplied and shared all over the place. I see you come to the rail and receive this bread and then turn around to share that compassion not just in our own church ministries, but in far-flung places like South Africa and Philadelphia. And then…let’s think about it. The reach is even farther: at Hamilton Beach, and Crestview Elementary School. Cedarfield Retirement community and Atlee High School. At St. Mary’s Hospital, and Capital One and Allianz. At McKesson and Altria and Genworth and then around all the tables filled with bread and surrounded by hungry hearts and bellies in your own homes.

You people are all over the place! You people are rice! Or couscous! Misjudged and underestimated, crazy people, exploding with Christ’s compassion. Taken by Jesus, then blessed, broken, and given out, you are going to leave a trail…a trail of goodness and compassion! And people should just see what’s leftover. We could eat on this all week.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11A/Lectionary 16A] - July 24, 2017 (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Romans 8:12-25)

There is a woman in our congregation who loves to engage in all kinds of friendly competitions with her husband, and he with her. It’s all in good fun, but I hear that things can get pretty cutthroat, and they love to have bragging rights over each other. For example, they really got into competitive horseshoes a few years ago and put together a professional-grade horseshoe pit in their backyard. They played every single day, husband versus wife.

This year I was informed they have engaged in a pretty intense gardening competition. Each of them got to select a part of the yard they thought would produce the best results for vegetables. I’m sure not about all of the plants they’ve grown, but I know tomatoes are involved, and I know that the winner will be decided by a taste test. The woman told me back in May that he had been talking a little smack about her plot, saying he was sure it wouldn’t get enough sun. But she had a little glint in her eye and muttered something about soil quality and afternoon sunshine.

My own tomatoes have started to come in, so I checked in with her the other day and asked her how it was going. She informed me that the Great Garden-Off was definitely still on, but that she might have to forfeit one whole plant because a warbler built its nest in it and it doesn’t like to be disturbed. Some people just let tomatoes grow and leave them alone. Sounds like she might be doing some pruning or weeding, staking and caging to get the best results possible. I suppose if taste is the sole criterion for winning, then size and color aren’t important. She just wants a tomato that tastes better than her husband’s.

I’m not sure about all the methods and criteria for growing good wheat in Jesus’ day, but it’s clear that there is a gardening competition going on, and it’s not just limited to someone’s backyard. The whole world seems to be engaged somehow. Someone is trying to sow and grow good wheat and someone else is clearly trying to sow weeds. And what’s worse is they haven’t staked out separate garden patches for this. It’s all mixed in together, the unwanted weeds growing right in there with the wheat. How are we going to know who’s winning?

This parable of the wheat and the weeds is how Jesus chooses to explain to his disciples the presence of good and bad in the world. Jesus has just finished explaining in private to his disciples about the purpose and meaning of parables and how sometimes the word of God finds good soil in people and takes root and grows. Sometimes, however, the seed hits rocky ground or a place where thorns will choke the plants as they come up. It’s not the fault of the word that faith doesn’t appear in some people, and it’s often not the fault of the person who does the sowing of the seed, the sharing of the word. Some people at certain times just aren’t receptive to it.

Now Jesus uses another common image to explain why Jesus and disciples can work and work and still not get results that are 100% good wheat. The advancement of God’s kingdom among the people of this earth is affected not just by the receptiveness of all kinds of people to hear it and understand it. It is also affected by the presence of those who are actively working against God’s goodness.

This isn’t rocket science. We look out at the world and we can see plenty of good, plenty of examples of people showing forth godly love for one another. And yet we look out at the same world and can be overcome by the sight of lots of evil.

I remember years ago in one confirmation curriculum we used, back when people were still reading newspapers to get their news, we gave groups of confirmation students newspapers and two big pieces of posterboard. Their tasks was to cut out all the headlines that seemed like good news and paste them to one sheet of posterboard and the bad headlines on the other. Year in and year out when we did this, they always filled up the bad headline posterboard first. Granted, news media generally makes more money on bad headlines than good, so it probably wasn’t the most statistically fair exercise for this, but the point was still clear: there is such a mixture of good and evil in the world, and yet God still loves it. We have faith that God is still working to bring about the day when all will be good and new in Jesus Christ.

Until then, however, we are often left with this sense of frustration and confusion about so much of it. Like the slaves in the parable, we wonder how it all even got to be this way. If God is so powerful and so loving, why would God let the weeds continue to grow like this, especially when they can do us such harm? We wonder is there something we can do about getting rid of the weeds before they spread too much. The challenges and problems that lie before us in any day and age—the debate over health care and health insurance, terrorism, drugs and narcotics, care of the environment, immigration—are all so complex, riddled with deeper issues that are difficult to unwind and untangle.

And that’s just what we see in the news about the world. The church is not immune to the power of the evil one. If you think that those who follow Christ are 100% whole wheat, dream on! Although the church is the community called out to proclaim the good of Jesus and to embody his mercy and love, there is still an issue of weed control in the body of Christ, too. We had a seminary professor who liked to remind us of the danger of harboring the fantasy that the church was free from all sin and wrongdoing, and to be on guard against running to the church or to seminary to be free from the problems of the world. He said that the devil’s favorite place to build his own seminary and conduct his business is right next to one of Jesus’ seminaries.

This is all what the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, calls “groaning in labor pains.” That sense of despair and dread mixed with hope, sorrow and pain tinted with optimism, and anger jumbled together with promise that so many of us grapple with is a sign of that longing that all of creation is dealing with a longing to be made completely new.

And the reality of this all, of course, is that the line between wheat and weed, ripe and rotten, good and evil, goes right down the middle of us all. The frustration and confusion we feel about the presence of all this in the world, the challenges and problems of thorny issues is really a frustration and confusion with ourselves, isn’t it? To uproot and destroy evil is somehow going to involve shredding ourselves apart. The creation groans with longing, and we groan inwardly, too, for our redemption.

It’s easy to listen to Jesus’ parable and get the impression that this Master, this wheat farmer, is distant and removed from this complicated mixture of good and evil because it will all just get worked out in the end. What really happens, of course, as the story continues is that Jesus, the master, the one telling the parable, plants himself right in the middle of it all. On the cross, he offers himself up to the tangled weeds and the wheat. In his own death, God’s judgment upon evil reaches its harvest. He lets himself become part of the tangled mess of this world, and bears the brunt of a system that thinks it can weed out all the bad, a system that thinks, wrongly, it is able to successfully root out the wrongdoing and crucify it so it won’t be a problem anymore. This way of dealing with evil dies with Jesus and something new rises in its place: the triumph of forgiveness…the victory of mercy…the supremacy of love. Jesus’ own resurrection from all that evildoing is God’s down payment on the glory that is about to be revealed to us.

As we wait, we pray for patience and the grace to understand that the issue is not that God is content to let evil run loose. God just doesn’t need us to go about dealing with it in the amateurish ways we’re prone to. God is ultimately concerned that no good be harmed. The master doesn’t want any wheat uprooted! So, if we’re interested about how to counter evil in the world, the answer is to plant more wheat. Do more good. Point to Christ as often as we can. As the 105 children at VBS proclaimed at the top of their lungs each day this week, all of them in their best superhero poses: “Do good! Seek peace! And Go after it!” In fact, we call can try this. Striking a superhero pose does something to your sense of well-being. (Thumbs up: “Do good!” Peace signs: “Seek peace!” and superhero pose: “And go after it!”).

They weren’t exactly those kinds of superhero poses, but we did see this week a powerful sign of planting more wheat out of Iraq. It was more like the poses of praying hands. The city of Lourdes in France sent fifteen statues of the virgin Mary to Erbil in northern Iraq to replace ones that had been destroyed by ISIS. They processed with them around the city, singing hymns and praise to God, as they placed them in each church where they will stand. Beginning in 2014, when terrorists gained control of a region of northern Iraq where Christians were the majority, churches, monasteries and schools have been bombed and the population decimated. Now that ISIS has lost ground and retreated, Christians and other groups are starting to move back into the rubble and rebuild. They could, I’m sure, rebuild with revenge, uprooting what they find evil, but instead they are cautiously, but optimistically, putting a peaceful foot forward. May those statues and the people who worship around them be a sign that God is replanting the area with wheat.

And may all of this—our congregation’s ministry, our personal pointing to Christ, our superheroic compassion—be a sign of the new creation that God has in store for us all, a sign of hope and joy amidst the groaning, because, don’t forget, the days of the weeds are numbered! As it turns out, they’ve chosen the bad garden patch. They’ll lose the competition. And we, the heirs of God, will get to taste the harvest that God is tending, and it is promised to be delicious.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 10A/Lectionary 15A] - July 16, 2017 (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

As many of you may know, our family just returned from a week of vacation down in South Carolina and while we were down there I took my daughters to the OD Pavilion, a very ramshackle, old school amusement park in North Myrtle Beach. Our youth group has gone there a few times for a night of fun while they’ve been on service trips in that area, and I have memories from my own early childhood of the OD Pavilion and its larger counterpart down in Myrtle Beach, which closed several years ago. It’s very much a place time has kind of forgotten or skipped over by choice. It consists of about a city block of some very basic county fair-grade rides like a ferris wheel, a carousel, Tilt-a-Whirl…But what makes the OD Pavilion famous, of course, is that it is the birthplace of the Shag, a laid-back version of the swing popular in the southeast. The dancefloor, open to the air, backs right up to the dunes, but adjacent to the dance area under the same roof is a very rudimentary arcade, and this is really what I wanted them to see. In an age of high-tech, personalized video games, arcades like that are hard to find. You purchase tokens out of a machine—four to a dollar—and those become your currency at the SkeeBall tables and the dozen or so other games of chance and borderline skill they have in there.

I gave my daughters each one dollar worth of tokens and told them they could choose how to use them. They treasured them as they held them in their hands, but I could also tell they knew those tokens held great, new power. I was initially hoping to see some SkeeBall action but instead they settled on those machines where you insert a token down a track which leads to a flat, rotating disc where an arm slowly sweeps it to the edge. If enough tokens get swept to the edge they start to accumulate there and hang on precipitously until one more—who knows which one?—nudges all of them over. And they’re all yours. There’s also a bonus hole in the flat level—a small opening about the circumference of a token—and if your token goes down that, which is highly unlikely, you win big.

I’ve always thought those machines were the number one way to throw away your token because I’ve never seen those coins get pushed over the side, but I had told my girls it was their choice, so I had to submit. Right as Laura was about to stick her token in the slot, this young boy appeared out of nowhere and inserted himself between us. He was wearing a neon green shirt and he said, “I know the secret to that machine. I know how to put the token in so it will get the bonus.” His presence kind of caught us off guard, but then he got quiet for a second, staring at the machine, then suddenly he nudged Laura and said, OK, drop it…now! And she did, and we watched that token go down the track, plop out onto the rotating disc in front of the arm, and then begin to get pushed by that arm…and doggone it if Laura’s first little token on her first night at the OD Pavilion didn’t drop right into the Bonus hole! 40 tickets shot out of the machine.

In awe, I asked him his name and he said, “Kendall. And I know the secret to the other machines too.” We bent down to tear off our tickets and when we turned back around, Kendall was gone, as if he had come out of the salty air and disappeared right back into it.

Kendall knew the secret to getting a good return with that one token. He knew just how to aim it and time it. If he can apply that wisdom and diligence to other things, along with his generosity, he’ll go far. And yet if Jesus were in the OD Pavilion arcade and had appeared out of the salt air he might explain how to play the game God’s way. That is, you don’t wait for the perfect time or figure out the right “trick.” Rather, you just keep plunking in token after token—

over and over again, back and forth from the change machine with more tokens, night after North Myrtle Beach night, without any kind of skill or care about where they might land on that disc with the rotating arm.          It’s not exactly the example I’d like to leave with my daughters, especially when I’m the one buying the tokens. Too wasteful, too careless.

That’s probably exactly what other farmers would have thought as Jesus told this parable about the sower. Seeds are valuable. They are to be treasured and protected and only used wisely and judiciously. A wise farmer, one with lots of experience, probably named Kendall, would figure out exactly when and where to concentrate his seeds so that he’d get the best result. But when it comes to the fruit and harvest of his kingdom and all its righteousness, Jesus explains that God is not going to go about it like that. God is going to model grace when he spreads his word. God is going to demonstrate lavish love when he pours forth his kingdom. In other words, Jesus means to say God’s doesn’t look at the world and think, these people over here are ready to hear about my goodness and these people over here aren’t. As he goes out to establish his kingdom, God’s not going to consider the hearts of different people and decide whether or not they’re worthy of it. He’s going to blanket the earth. The whole world is his planting ground, and each and every person that God has made will receive in some way, over and over again, whether or not they realize it, the token of his love in Jesus Christ.

As important as that message is to hear, Jesus is also trying to explain to his new disciples that ministry in this God’s name is going to involve the same kind of grace. Since God himself is lavish with his word, letting it fall wherever it may, even among the people who don’t show receptiveness to it, we should be, too. I believe Jesus told this parable in part as a way to prevent some frustration among the disciples as they went about their ministry. He knew that oftentimes they were going to bust their rear ends to share God’s love, to make the world look more like how God wants it to look, and they’d feel like nothing was happening.

Jesus knows that we are prone to make just about everything about us, and that applies to our mission as well. It is so tempting to do God’s work because we want to get a feeling of reward out of it, a feeling of satisfaction a feeling that we have the power to “make a difference in the world.” That feeling is so seductive, but it runs the danger of making us cling to our token of faith a bit too much, to count it as valuable only as long it’s in our hearts. That is to say, we forget that this message isn’t about us. It’s about God’s kingdom, sharing it freely, and letting that kingdom spring up wherever it may. After all, who knows where the good soil may be? From the cross Jesus may know, but he dies anyway, letting his forgiveness and mercy grow for all and in all.

Jesus’ parable is a good one to hear on the Sunday before over 100 young children will enter our doors for Vacation Bible School. Our songs this week may be the catchiest ones ever. The games we play may go better than they ever have. The system our volunteers have spent months setting up may flow better than ever and people may feel a part of something special, that, like Kendall, we’ve figured out the exact way to pull this off. But all of that will be secondary to the spreading of the Word that happens. Some will fall on rocky soil this week. And there will be some thorny patches. But there will be some bonus holes in there, some good, rich soil waiting to experience God’s love. And that will be the reward. And here’s the thing: you may never know it. You may never see that precious yield.

I was reminded of this aspect of the ministry of God’s Word last month when I met Mona. Mona was one of the Bible study leaders Melinda I and were paired with up at Lutheridge. We shared ideas and bonded over funny and cool things we were experiencing with our campers.  On the last day, after we had spent a week sharing meals together, Mona explained that she had lived in Richmond for a brief spell. As it turns out, it was actually a turnaround time when she went through a brief period of homelessness, although they were never actually out on the street. Mona and her children were served through the lunch feeding program that several downtown Richmond churches hosted. (These were the days before CARITAS and Family Promise). They briefly found shelter at the Capitol Hotel before a few members from an area Lutheran church stepped in and helped pay rent on an apartment in order to get them out of the vulnerable situation they were in.

Mona now serves as the director of a women’s shelter in South Carolina where women who are escaping abusive relationships and other personal hardships can come and turn their lives around. She is flourishing and pouring God’s love out on so many more people, leaving a trail of promise and hope wherever she goes. She graciously and willingly gave me permission to share her story with you knowing you are a congregation engaged in all kinds of gospel ministry, trying in your service and evangelism to toss tokens everywhere, working in the community and sharing God’s love, as thankless as it sometimes feels. She said it was the grace of people in that congregation going out of their way that allowed her family to eventually be engaged in the ministry she is now in, people of God who sowed some seed not knowing how it might go.

Or, as Jesus himself says it, ‘Other seeds fell on good soil and it brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 7A/Lectionary 12A] - June 25, 2017 (Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:1b-11)

Several months ago our conference pastors had our monthly meeting down at a Lutheran church just south of here—Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in Petersburg. After the meeting we wanted to see what the sanctuary looked like and so the pastor was happy to turn on the lights and take us in there. There above the altar was something I’d never seen before. A large cross was suspended from the ceiling, and affixed to the cross was a large sword. That was it. Nothing else. The sword, almost as large as the cross itself, was sharp and it was shiny and it looked real and it was pointing straight down, as if, like a sword of Damocles, it could let loose at any minute and impale the pastor right as he or she consecrated Holy Communion. Immediately it caught everyone’s attention. Joseph and I talked about how, if we had been little boys in that church, we’d have wanted to get our hands on that sword every Sunday and play with it.

Now, I’ve been around the church for a long time and I’ve seen a lot of Christian symbolism and art but that one was a new one to me. We could make several guesses about what it meant, but none of us really knew for sure. Maybe it’s symbolic of the sword of the Spirit, mentioned in Ephesians 6. Or perhaps it’s meant to call to mind Hebrews 4:12, which says the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit. Suffice it to say, not many people enter a church expected to see something like that, a weapon that is used to kill or maim.
And, truth be told, I don’t think many people encounter Jesus and expect him to speak like he does to us this morning. His entire message sounds sharp—like a sword, in fact. So often we run the risk of painting Jesus with one color paintbrush that favors some calm, mild-mannered pushover who is kind of accepting of all people no matter the circumstances and we miss these places where Jesus is hard-edged. And since a disciple is not above the teacher we also then run the risk of painting discipleship in Jesus’ name with the same kind of bland, pastel tones that don’t really stand for anything. Jesus does not really leave us that option this morning. It sounds like there are some things and people that Jesus does not want to accept. He says things like, “Whoever denies my before others, I also will deny before his Father,” and, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” and “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth…but a sword.”

14th cent. icon, Kosovo
A-ha!! Maybe that’s why that church in Petersburg has a sword over the altar! It’s a constant reminder of the cost of following Jesus. It’s a symbol of the real division that can occur when we respond to the call to be a disciple. If I had to stand under that sword every week it might help me remember that ministry in Jesus’ name is really about losing my life.

A few weeks ago I was able to catch a concert of one of my favorite music groups, a rock band called U2. U2 have been around since the very early ‘80s. They’re don’t enjoy quite the widespread popularity they once did, and their style has changed a bit through the years, but they’ve still won more Grammy’s than any other group ever. In the past twenty years or so they’ve become especially vocal about certain social causes, most notably the AIDS crisis in Africa, the war in Bosnia, and women’s rights. They’ve raised millions of dollars for various humanitarian organizations, and they’re concerts have increasingly become a platform for their stances on these issues.

At the concert I attended a couple of weeks ago, they came out for an encore and it was clear they were going to use the stage once again for a chance to bring these causes to our attention. Some people are really bothered by this, and I heard some heckling behind me. They just want rock stars to play music and stop moralizing. Even I was a bit concerned about how far they were going to go to preach to me about the plight of others in the world  who could use my charity (especially after I had spent money on a ticket). But the band has decided to follow Jesus’ call and take what they’ve heard Jesus whisper and proclaim it from the mountaintops. If I had a stage out in the public sphere, would I be so bold as to risk fans and followers for the sake of pronouncing my faith and who it compels me to help?

Jesus wants disciples, and he wants them to be aware of the risk of that sword. As he sends them out into what would have been hostile territory, he wants them to understand there will be hecklers. There will be people who want them to just shut up and play music instead. There will be situations that may even require them to hand over their lives. This has been called the “cost of discipleship” and plenty of people with way more guts than me know more about it. People like the Lutheran reformers who on this day—June 25—in 1530 stood up in front of a unreceptive emperor and presented the Augsburg Confession, an explanation of what they were preaching and teaching in their churches, full-well knowing that they were probably going to be excommunicated for doing so…and might even be executed. That Augsburg Confession is still the basis of what the Lutheran Church across the world preaches and teaches today, even though the stakes for doing so are not quite as severe. There are countless others who have stood up and proclaimed Jesus from mountaintops and have faced dire consequences for doing so. Maybe Libby Gonzales will be one of those people. Today we initiate her into this cost of discipleship, this life of the sword of Jesus hanging over her head, teaching her to speak boldly for the cause of Christ Jesus in the world. We can hope so.

In all honesty many of us will not find ourselves in such stark situations or have big rock stages to preach from, but we do have the opportunity to follow. And we need to understand that Jesus leaves no middle ground. It’s either him or it’s not. It’s either you represent him in your life, you worship him and follow whenever you have the chance, or you try to keep things covered up. And I think we don’t like that division. We want to go “halvesies” somehow.

The fact of the matter is that Jesus knows the truth about us, and that it’s that we all worship something. As the great American writer David Foster Wallace once said, there’s no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. People can choose not to come to church, or synagogue, or to the temple of some other transcendent god, but they’re still worshipping. They still are following something. They still have a god. That’s what all this stuff about mother and father is about. In Jesus’ day those were allegiances that really pulled at people. They were idols. It’s the truth: everybody worships, and we worship somethings without even realizing we’re doing it. The only choice we get, as Wallace and Jesus point out, is what to worship.[1]  Or, better put, who to worship.

Hard-edged, stern Jesus is just being very explicit it about that here, and it’s actually good for us. Here’s your chance, he says, to follow the Lord of life. Here’s your chance, he reminds us, again and again, to worship the one God who has conquered death. Here’s your chance, today, tomorrow, the day after that, to pick up the cross and follow me.

And there’s another thing he’s very clear about, too, and it’s that he’s got our backs. Big time. He’s 100% explicit that he loves us and that he has died for us and has therefore given us his very life no matter how many times we fail. We can have no fear of the heckling and the turning away and the losing of friends and status because we are of so much value to him. All of our hairs are counted. And I know that means more for some people than it does for others 😊, but the point is that God loves us and cares more than we can know about what is going to happen to us. This is the love that anchors us in our discipleship. This is the love that calls us forward to worship and to proclaim and to share message of Christ.

I saw an image of that love this week while I was away with Melinda at a camp in the mountains of North Carolina. We were Bible study leaders for a group of 3rd- 5th graders and part of that responsibility involved patrolling the cabins late one evening so the counselors and staff  could go worship together. Because the patrol was happening Thursday night and the kids would be dead-tired after a full week, we were told there wouldn’t be much to do…just make rounds every fifteen minutes and listen for activity. That’s what we did and, sure enough, it was dead silent. Until we got to the last cabin, where there was some noise. I’ll spare you the gory details, but the noise was from a little 9 year old boy would had just thrown up all over his bed. And by “all over his bed” I mean it we eventually had to remove everything from his corner of the cabin, including the mattress and some other kid’s pair of shoes.

This was not the easy patrol I was anticipating. The poor kid was miserable and just wanted his counselor, not some patrol people. As we assessed the needs standing there in the dark, we radioed the staff, and down the hill the area director came bounding. Without hesitation she walked right into the cabin and knelt down in front of him to see if he had a fever. Then, without any care for what she was wearing or her own well-being this college-aged young woman scooped him up in her arms and held him as they waited for the nurse to arrive. She comforted him and assured him he’d be OK. I was thinking, How brave!  He’s all pukey! Plus, he could blow again any moment! But she wanted him to understand that even the hairs on his head were counted. She wanted him to be assured of that truth even in his dark hour because that’s the kind of God who had sent her there.

This is the kind of love that Jesus with which loves us, the kind of love that compels us to get up and try again, the kind of love that we are entrusted to then share with the world. It’s the kind of immeasurable love that empowers us to stand underneath that heavy sword of division, to not be afraid, and proclaim what has been whispered here. In some form it is whispered and sung and prayed and lived here every week:“If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

He has died, but now he lives, and every hair on our heads will too!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Excerpt from a commencement address by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2008.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Day of Pentecost [Year A] - June 4, 2017 (Acts 2:1-12 and John 7:37-39)

For several years now, for whatever reason, our nursery school has attracted quite a large number of immigrant students. Families from different foreign countries have moved into the West End area for various kinds of jobs, usually in the technology sector, and the ones who have young children enroll them in a pre-school somewhere largely so they can work on their language skills. Word spreads within these immigrant communities, and more and more begin to come. A great number of these little children end up in the two-year-olds’ class which is taught by three Epiphany members, Kim Gardner, Jennie Schuetze, and my wife, Melinda. In the past few years, they’ve had two-year-olds from Turkey, Armenia, various ethnic groups from within India, China, Japan, and a central Asian country or two. And, of course, when the parents drop the kids off at the beginning of the year, the kids don’t know a lick of English. Not one word.

You want a picture of chaos? You walk into that classroom on the first week of the year. You’d think they were filled with new wine, which is probably what the teachers go home and have a glass of each night. Not only are those kids typically very apprehensive about the whole experience outside of the shadow of their cultural community, they are also unable to communicate verbally with their teachers. It’s left to Kim, Jennie, and Melinda to calm them down, ease their transition from mommy and daddy and also figure out what they want, when they need to use the bathroom, and what’s making them upset. And to do all of that on top of commandeering a whole class of two-year-olds who are still learning their own language skills and the rules of the class. It’s a testament to the Kim’s, Jennie’s, and Melinda’s love and patience that within a few weeks they have established some form of order and peace.

A few years ago they had a little Turkish boy who wouldn’t stop crying. All day long he cried, from the moment the parents dropped him off until the moment they picked him up. This went on for several weeks, even as he clung to Melinda throughout the day. What got him finally adjusted was sending home a headshot of Melinda, who he called “Minda.” They taped it above the fireplace so that he could see her face and learn to associate her with comfort in a place he knew well. They would point to her and say, “Who’s that?” And little David would smile and run over to it and say, “Minda.” Minda’s loving face was everywhere with him.

What goes on at the other end of our church building every fall in the two-year-olds’ class is like what happens at the initial Pentecost and, in fact, is what happens here every week. Order out of chaos. Unity from disarray. At the beginning of the church, the day God’s Spirit is first poured out upon the apostles gathered in Jerusalem, all these people from all over the earth—all who speak different languages and come from different cultures—come together and suddenly begin to understand one another. Even though on the surface they have almost nothing in common with each other, they are able to comprehend what the message of the apostles is. The presence of the Holy Spirit, which up to this point God had reserved for the work of specific people in specific times, begins to draw all people into Jesus’ embrace. Barriers begin to fall, and it’s really out of their control.

That’s main thing that the tongues of fire and the rushing sound of wind communicate, if nothing else. Both fire and wind are forces that no one can really control. They contain great energy and great ability to create and transform their surroundings, but you can’t really tell fire or wind what to do or where it needs to go. They have a life of their own, and that is who the Holy Spirit is, and is who is responsible for this incredible unity and momentum right at the beginning of the Jesus movement. A handful of witnesses to a man’s resurrection become the seed to a worldwide movement of faith within just a few decades, and in a time before any kind of mass communication. They go everywhere and to all people and point them to the face of Christ.

And every Sunday morning, every time people gather in Christ’s name, it is the Holy Spirit at work. Now, we here may not all speak different languages, and we might not all come from different cultures, but we all have very different stories and very, very different backgrounds, and yet, here we are together. We come from all kinds of different things that happened to us this week—different forces and factors that have shaped our lives, that have wounded us or built us up or broken us down or left us confused. We come from all kinds of different relationships that have influenced in any number of ways. We come from different careers and life journeys and different political leanings and yet we’re all still here! We’re even going to gather at a meal together. The Holy Spirit is still working to draw us out of chaos, out of difference, out of disarray to narrate a story of commonality, of unity, of togetherness.

But the Spirit’s goal is not just unity for unity’s sake. We’re all being drawn together to see the face of Christ hanging on our mantle, so to speak, above our table. We are being led by the Holy Spirit to understand that Christ has redeemed us, has given true value to our lives, and pulled us out of all that hopeless division.

This is absolutely crucial in this day and age because there are forces out there that are desperately trying to drive us and keep us apart. In places like London and in Manchester and in Syria and in Iraq those forces are actually using bombs and terror to blow people apart, to keep the world in as much disarray as possible. There are also forces in our own country attempting to label everyone by how they vote and where they stand on certain social or political issues. There are powerful forces of apathy and complacency at work against each of us (in the church!) when it comes to sharing and showing our faith.  And yet the fire and wind of the Holy Spirit cannot be controlled, and they are always working to show people the face of Christ, to show us he has the power to be anywhere in all of his creation.

What’s interesting is that when Jesus himself speaks of the Holy Spirit, he does not use the metaphors of wind or fire but water, which is another element that also has great power and is difficult to control. What’s interesting about water is that it doesn’t just have the ability to give life and flow and cause change, but that it provides continuity and consistency to everywhere it goes. It seeks other water and becomes one with it. It’s able to spread out, but it’s also pools together, part of a whole—be it a cloud, or a puddle, or the ocean—winding up in one place when it’s all said and done. When Jesus says that living water will flow right out of the believer’s heart, he means that each person who has once taken a drink from Jesus Christ, each person who has come through the waters of baptism, whether that was in a bit of water here in a metal bowl or centuries ago in the Jordan River, will be able to share this life-giving force with others. We’re all really connected, despite how many different languages we speak and how many different stories we embody.

Pentecost (El Greco, 1596)
Two weeks ago for Ascension Day Pastor Joseph and I hosted a series of meetings around the Richmond metro area. Around fifty people of all ages and stages met us for a meal or for coffee and shared conversations with each other. One of the questions we asked people to think about and share was when in your life have you been most certain of Jesus’ presence. We heard all kinds of answers, as diverse as the people who were around those tables with us. At one of our stops we had a woman in her nineties sitting next to a one-year-old—who, as it happened, shared the same birthday—and we all listened intently as the woman offered up that the day she was sure of Christ’s presence was the day her husband died. She related with great detail what that day felt like, even though it was decades before, and how still she felt amidst the grief because Jesus was with her. The Holy Spirit cannot be controlled. It is able to bring Christ’s face into any kind of situation, and has an uncanny knack for doing that in situations of sorrow and loss. Often enough the Holy Spirit is going to bring other people right with it, too.

There is a recent song by the Irish rock group U2 that is about identity and feeling distanced from everyone even within a crowd of people. The song’s title is “Invisible,” and I think that’s how many people often feel these days, especially with the forces of disunity and despair at work in the world. To some degree, invisibility is what the Holy Spirit is working against on Pentecost, making the work and faith of small group of believers suddenly visible to a whole world. And that small and growing group making Christ visible in the things they do and say. The song by U2 ends with the same words repeating over and over again:

There is no them. There’s only us.
There is no them. There’s only us.

I’ve come to think of that as the refrain of the Holy Spirit as it moves through creation like fire, or wind, or water. The Spirit’s goal is that all languages, all peoples, all stories should feel less like a “them” and more like an us…drawing us together as one, beyond our control…drawing us to see the face of Christ, hanging there upon the cross, for you and for me.

There is no them. There’s only us.

From chaos into order. That’s what happens wo people who see Jesus and hear his love for them, his forgiveness of their sins. We find out that despite all our many differences we’re in the same class and we’re learning his language, and that it’s the only real saving way to talk.

And here’s the best part: we start to speak it to the world.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Fifth Sunday of Easter [Year A] - May 14, 2017 (1 Peter 2:1-10 and John 14:1-14)

Our younger daughter likes rocks, and any little pebble or stone, no matter how nondescript, has the potential to wind up in her collection. She’ll just be walking along the street or in the backyard or often just in a parking lot or here at church and she’ll bend down and grab one that fits into her hand. Usually she’ll bring them into the house and hold onto them until she finds a little place to squirrel each of them away, and to this day you can come over to our place and find little rocks in random places: on the cabinet in front of the TV, on the bathroom counter…the other day I found one (it was like a mommy-baby combo, actually) behind a picture frame in the family room. They are all little-ish rocks of no particular beauty or form, mostly ones that have been kicked underfoot by untold numbers of people, but somehow special and meaningful to Laura.

One day we decided enough of these little rocks everywhere and be bought her a box that she could put them all in. It was one of those clear plastic sewing boxes with little different-sized compartments. Laura went around through the house and picked up every little rock and pebble and brought them together into that plastic box. They had a home. The amazing thing is that for a while she could tell you where each of those rocks came from.

I remember one time when she was just in first grade and we were standing at the bus stop She had bent down and was picking around through the gravel at the spot where they stand. She settled on one little light gray rock and when the bus came she turned around and handed it to me and said, “Dad, here. Keep this rock for me.” I’m embarrassed to say that as soon as the bus rolled away I just tossed it back into the gravel because she had dozens of them just like it already. That afternoon she came plowing into the front door, furious. Believe it or not, she had that exact rock in her hand. “Daddy!” she fumed, “Why is this rock still at the bus stop? I told you to keep it for me!”

I had rejected it. She had redeemed it.

In his letter meant to encourage what appears to have been a newly-baptized group of Christians, the apostle Peter says, “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood.” We are all rocks in Laura’s hands, Peter might say. Once we were no people, but now we are God’s people. Though each of us is surely unique and gifted and special, we do not know our value until we have been spotted and chosen by the God who loves us and knows we count.

God chooses what is going to be valuable. God chooses what He wants to work with. And though we can feel quite alone in this world, we exist to be brought together. We have been selected for a fine collection where our stories can be told and shared, where our redemption can be celebrated and marveled at. We are living stones, small and broken but still important pieces of building material who find their purpose in being connected through faith to the Living Stone that was rejected. That stone was sneered at, deemed worthless, tossed back into the gravel pile, beaten and nailed to the cross. But God has found it again, selected it from the grave of death and raised it up to be the cornerstone of the entire universe.

That is the message that Peter has for his disciples. As it happens, they are not feeling particularly cared for and cherished by the world. We can’t tell for sure exactly what they were enduring, but it sounds like from the whole of the letter of 1 Peter that followers of Christ were suffering some kind of persecutions for their faith.

This was a common feature of early Christian life, just as it is still common in many areas of the world today. We can forget that sometimes, but the fact of the matter is that professing a belief in God—and a God that identifies with the weakness of the cross, at that—is liable to get you laughed at, if not worse. But God has a strong love for the ones who are laughed at, the ones who feel like no people. And he brings them together and lays them down with holy purpose in relationship to the cornerstone of Jesus Christ.

In construction, the cornerstone is the first block laid. In the time when Peter wrote this letter, it was common for there to be great ceremony at the laying of a new building’s cornerstone. Often it was engraved with the mark or symbol of the person who was paying for the building. It is placed right where the first two walls come together, and its position and evenness determines the strength and shape of the entire structure. All other blocks and stones find their position and placement in relation to that cornerstone. Maybe Peter just liked rocks a lot because that’s what his name means in Greek, but the point is clear: all who have been formed by the Creator (and that’s everyone) and redeemed by him (and that’s everyone, too) find their true identity and purpose insofar as they show forth Jesus and point to him.

Jesus, on the night before his death, made clear the importance of their working together, of the communal aspect of their discipleship. He tells them that their life of faith together would be a way to show the world the glory of God the Father. With the help of the Holy Spirit, they would be able to carry on the witness of Jesus himself. In fact, they would be able to do greater works than even Jesus did. It is for this reason that living stones are meant to be together, not just laid around the house by themselves, tucked here and there, squirreled away for some special point in the future. This is a message most important for today, for we live in a time that can glorify the individual to a fault. We hear things like “Be your own person,” and “Stand apart,” and “You do You,” and while living stones do each bear unique attributes and intricacies that need to be nurtured and perhaps even celebrated, the fact is we were never meant just to be our own, solitary rock.

In her book entitled, Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of our Elders, sociologist Mary Pipher discusses how much today’s culture can feel like a foreign land to senior citizens, people who grew up in the era of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War. She explains that the concept of personal maturity has changed over the last couple of generations. Nowadays, she discerns that the sign of true maturity seems to lie in realizing some aspect of your individuality and selfhood or in learning how to express one’s utter dependence and uniqueness. But for earlier generations, personal maturity involved the integration of everyone into a whole. It was found in recognizing each one’s gifts and their need for interdependence, and seeing how each person in a community needed to play their part. I think those who are called living stones would have a hard time arguing against her.

The church, when at its best, becomes the way for people to learn this and embody this lifegiving togetherness. We are little pieces of gravel, seemingly unrelated, but by the power of Christ the cornerstone, we form a whole. Here a community is brought together, much like squares on a quilt. We are fed together, empowered for service to the community together. We are collected from any old place and then Jesus’ forgiveness situates us in our proper place, and we are built into a holy dwelling place for God on earth just as one day we will inhabit the dwelling places Jesus prepares for us on high.

As it happens, the church occasionally needs a physical building too, as even the earliest followers of Christ discovered. Suburban congregations like this one—ones that serve a wide metropolitan area—find it especially helpful to bring together real stones and bricks to form a space that enables them to gather and do God’s works of mercy and justice even better. We are a congregation with living stones that are spread over a six county and one city area. Richmond City, Henrico, Hanover, Chesterfield, Powhatan, Goochland, New Kent, and Caroline Counties are all represented here on most Sundays. We have service outreach in at least 4 of those areas on a regular basis. That is truly amazing.

As you know by now, Council has formed a Building Team that has been working hard to implement some of Epiphany’s own goals from its Vision 2020 plan, a long-range vision that was adopted by vote of the congregation back in November. That plan identified the need to expand and renovate some of our physical building in order to better equip and house current ministries and staff and so that we might grow and reach out even deeper into our ministry area. The Building Team will be presenting some initial ideas in this plan next Sunday, and drawings for Vision 2020 will be on display over the summer.

As we all chew on these concepts, it is important to remember that things like gathering areas and welcoming areas are vital to the life of the church, especially in today’s world, because they provide the space for conversations to take place and for relationships to be built. In the old days and in more rural areas, members of a congregation could count on overlapping with each other in meaningful ways over the course of the whole week. Nowadays our living stones are strewn quite wide. We’ve grown, and it has become apparent we may need our physical spaces here to grow too.

As we all pray about this next step of the congregation together, let us think about Christ the cornerstone, and the ways our works in his name can be a cornerstone of this region.

As each of you living stones ponder your own meaning and worth, may you be reminded that Christ was rejected but is now the base of all that is good and right and true.

And as you walk the journey and witness with joy remember that Jesus has bent down and grabbed you in baptism, looks at his Father and says, “Daddy, I want you to hold this rock for me. It belongs to me.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Third Sunday of Easter [Year A] - April 30, 2017 (Luke 24:13-35)

I am unable to read or hear this story where Jesus appears as a stranger to his disciples as they make their way to Emmaus without thinking of that TV show “Undercover Boss.” In case you haven’t seen it, “Undercover Boss” is a reality show on CBS prime time wherein a CEO or some other high-level corporate exec leaves the office for a few days and secretly takes some low-level job within his or her company to see how things are really being run and, more importantly, what their employees really think of them. What’s critical to the show’s concept is that the executives who go undercover not be recognized by those employees that they encounter. A make-up and costume crew comes in to totally transform the boss and then hidden cameras follow him or her around as they do everyday things like make tacos or run amusement park rides.

I’m not a big watcher of television, but I’ve seen the program a few times, and it’ll draw you in. It’s won a few Emmy’s, and it’s in its seventh season. It’ll also make a grown man cry. Each episode culminates with the revealing of the boss’ identity, and it almost always catches the employees off-guard. They’re surprised they were able to work alongside the person who runs their company, the person who is responsible for the direction and ethos of the whole company without ever knowing it. What makes the show especially touching is that the executive is often moved to tears when he or she sees how successfully the people at the bottom actually carry the company through their dedication and work ethic.

I haven’t watched too many episodes of “Undercover Boss,” but I’ve never seen one where the boss is disappointed in how his rank and file are doing. But if the risen Jesus is an undercover boss this morning, coming unrecognized into the presence of his followers as they make their way to the village of Emmaus, we might catch a scene of disappointment. The disciples don’t seem to know what their purpose is anymore. Maybe they’re too grief-stricken to concentrate. They don’t believe the news they’ve heard. Maybe they’re suspicious of the preposterous message that the women have brought them from the tomb. Furthermore, even with all the help from the prophets and scripture, the disciples can’t understand how the crucifixion and death of Jesus fits into any kind of saving plan of God’s. Why is that? Maybe they’re still too convinced of the merits typical worldly power which is enamored with violence and domination and threats and fear. Suffering and dying doesn’t seem like the way a decent divine CEO would run things. They were looking for their Messiah to start a fight. All in all, if the business of the disciples is to have faith— if the business of Jesus’s followers is to proclaim that Jesus is risen Lord of all—then they’re not up to snuff.

The main puzzler, of course, is that they don’t immediately recognize Jesus, their boss. It’s not clear why this is, but we can assume that might have something to do with their mental state. They are obviously upset; things didn’t go the way they’d expected. At one point when the undercover Jesus asks them what they’ve been talking about, it says they actually stop walking for a minute, looking sad.

Road to Emmaus (Robert Zund)
The question is: are our eyes bound to be any more open to the presence of Christ in our midst? It’s easy to look at these guys thousands of years later and call things into question, scratching our heads and wondering how they couldn’t have noticed their very leader but are we any more observant? If it’s not sorrow or grief that preoccupies us these days it could be ambition, work, busy-ness. It’s so easy to get overcommitted these days. Sometimes I even fear that church adds to that busy-ness factor, if we’re not careful. There was a report and interviewon NPR this week about how busy-ness has become the new status symbol in the United States. It used to be people bought things in order to show off their wealth and status, but now we’re showing off how packed our schedules are, how many different things we’re doing. The report said that celebrities, for example, post on social media, and whereas they used to show off things they had, now they’re tending to boast about their lack of time.

I heard about an interesting conversation a few weeks ago in our office between a high school student and a mother who was in there taking care of a baby. The student looked at the mother and said without any prompting, “I have some advice as your child gets older. Don’t let him do too many things in high school. We’re all involved in too many things these days and we’re all exhausted.” Exhausted by our busy-ness, consumed with calendars—it’s easy to see how it would distract us from possibly noticing special things like Christ in our midst.

Road to Emmaus (John Dunne)
The extremely gracious thing about Jesus on this walk to Emmaus, however, is that he doesn’t give up on them. Jesus is not going to give up on us, even when we miss him or are too preoccupied to receive him right away. He walks right along with us. Just as he does throughout his life, he will present himself over and over again, offering his grace and mercy over and over again, so that God’s foolish, stiff-necked people will have the opportunity to receive him. As he continues on their way,  he begins with Moses and the prophets and illuminates for them how Jesus’ suffering and death had already been revealed in the Scriptures. There’s no telling how many times he had done that before, but now he does it again, patiently but still secretly giving himself in the Word.

Later we find out that as Jesus was talking with them about the Scriptures, their hearts were burning within them. When I hear that phrase I often think of embers in a campfire that have grown black and cold over the course of the night. They look lifeless and useless in the morning, but really there is still a spark of life deep within them and all they need is a bit of air to coax the warmth out of them. How often have we had that happen in worship or in prayer? We feel that we’re just a shell of ourselves, our faith has died out, but then we hear the line of a hymn or a verse from Scripture and something within us begins to burn again?

What’s interesting is that conversation alone does not reveal the undercover Savior alone. It isn’t until they share a meal and Jesus breaks the bread that their eyes are opened. Depending upon how you break it down, we have about five or six different stories involving the resurrected Jesus in the four gospels. Three of those accounts—at least half, that is—involve food. The last time the disciples had been together with Jesus as a group had also involved a meal. There is something about the basic human act of eating and sharing table fellowship with one another that tells us something about God’s nature. There is something about breaking bread as a community that makes it a way through which God chooses to reveal and share himself.

Around this table in Emmaus, once the day is ending, is where the reveal happens and the undercover Savior lets his disciples in on the secret. He does not evaluate their performance or give them a rating. He does not make any judgment on the worth and success of this resurrection enterprise as if it all rides on their shoulders. He simply offers himself to them again. That’s is where this community is going to be nurtured and re-energized for its life together and its mission in the world. As he eats in their midst and takes the bread, their eyes are opened to who he really is.

A few months ago we gathered at my grandmother’s house in North Carolina for what would be our last Sunday meal with her. At the age of 98 she was moving into an assisted living facility where she would not be able to host her family for their weekly after-church southern dinner like she had for maybe sixty or seventy years. She used to live for Sunday afternoons when her family could gather and she could feed them. As I went through the buffet line that last time, getting a dab from each dish and placing it on my plate, it suddenly dawned on me that not once had I brought something to contribute to this meal. For 43 years I’d been a guest at that table and not one time had I even thought to add something I’d made or purchased. To know my Maw Maw is to know that Sunday dinner that she loved to provide. It is to know the chocolate cake and macaroni and cheese that only she can make—because we’ve asked her for the recipe a dozen times and no one can replicate it—will be there no matter what, and that you are welcome to help yourself.

The Supper at Emmaus (Carravaggio, 1602)
Such is the meal of bread and wine for our merciful Savior Jesus Christ. Eating here is to know him, to understand what his mission is all about. Here he offers himself each Sunday, each time this community gathers around this table. Our altar care volunteers grab some bread from the grocery store on the way to church, set the table with the chalice and wine, and Jesus shows up to let us know just what he’s made of. His body is once again broken so that we each may be made whole in forgiveness. His blood is poured out so that we can be restored. To share this meal is to know who Jesus is for us and for the whole world, as the community gathered around this table grows and grows.

Martin Luther had a very unique way of explaining just how Jesus is present for us in the meal of Holy Communion. It is not because the pastor has some special ability to transform the bread and the wine. Neither is Holy Communion just a symbol of Jesus’ body and blood, as if the only way Jesus is present is through the power of our own thoughts and memories. No, Luther said that the true body and blood of Jesus is “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. There you have it: Jesus, the risen Lord, who has conquered death for us, is our “In, With, and Under”-cover Savior.

With the ordinary acts of pouring wine and breaking bread, Jesus is the “In, With, and Under”-cover host who today comes to offer you his life once again. And he says, “Come. Don’t worry about bringing anything with you. No need to contribute to this banquet. Only the offering of your own brokenness and need is all I will take.”

And his hope is that deep within you is that smoldering ember. And as you eat and drink and hear his word your hearts will once more burn within you—that once more you realize your Lord is with you—and as you get up to go back on your way and work alongside of him you will share with the world what you really think of him.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.