Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 7A] - June 22, 2014 (Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:1b-11)

When Jesus tells his disciples that they should not be afraid because God cares for them so much that even the hairs of their heads are counted, I have to think that assurance is a lot more comforting to some people than it is for others! In fact, that statement means less and less to me with each passing year.

On the other hand, Jesus mercifully Jesus balances that statement out with the one about no sparrow falling to earth without God’s notice. In ancient times, sparrows were the cheapest and most abundant source of meat. Relatively easy to trap and kill, they were sold for a fraction of a daily wage even though they really didn’t provide much nourishment. Yet, Jesus remarks, if the One who created the universe wants to and is able to keep track of the deaths of even the least valuable living thing, economically-speaking, then imagine how much more attention will God pay to the life of a being created in God’s image!
Whether or not the disciples ended up finding these statements particularly encouraging or comforting is not known. I suspect they did, which is why Matthew took care to write them down. Regardless, Jesus certainly intended for them to be, and although we don’t eat songbirds in our culture I assume the same spirit of that comfort and encouragement goes for us as well.

And that’s all well and good. We all probably like feeling comforted and encouraged as much as the next guy or girl, but it begs the question: why would Jesus say something to comfort and encourage his disciples in the first place? What is going on between Jesus and his disciples that would make such dramatic declarations of God’s care necessary? Does Jesus say these things simply because he knows that there is a good chance each of us will deal with some sort of hardship in our life, be it cancer, or mental illness, or the betrayal of a spouse? It is because Jesus knows that we all suffer as a result of the terrible inequalities in this world and our widespread inability to discuss them lovingly and find level-headed ways to resolve them?

Would Jesus say these particular words, for example, to the thousands of immigrant children and youth warehoused right now at the border with Mexico who are desperately seeking a life beyond the grip of crippling poverty and crime—that they actually are more valuable than sparrows? Or, perhaps, is Jesus intending these words for the vulnerable families on the American side of the border whose relatively peaceful way of life is threatened by an ill-guarded border and an influx of illegal newcomers? Could he somehow intend them for both?

Truth be told, I suppose Jesus would and does want each and every person in harm’s way to be assured of God’s presence and protection, but these particular words of comfort about the hairs on our heads and the price of sparrows are not about just any type of suffering, however great it may be. Jesus has words elsewhere for those situations. These words, rather, are intended for those who will suffer on account of their faith in and witness to him. They are spoken to those who will be sent out to proclaim in word and deed the mercy and peace of God’s kingdom as it is being made known in Jesus Christ. Think of them as pep rally words before the big game or the speech from the general before the troops head into combat.

All of the words this morning from Jesus remind us that there is a cost to being one of his disciples. It’s easy to forget that—or gloss over it—in this day and age, and especially in this country where freedom of religious expression is basically protected. When I think of the costs of my own discipleship, my mind might wander to the portion of my income that goes to support the church or other charitable organizations, or maybe the evenings I have meetings and am pulled away from family.

Viewed this way, I’m afraid I might reducing Christian faith to little more than a way to self-fulfillment and inner peace, kind of like a hobby—as if Jesus came to bring about way of thinking that leads to a more balanced, more holistic life. While there is nothing wrong with any of those things, pep talks like the one Jesus gives his disciples this morning are stark reminders that following Jesus is not about self-fulfillment at all. It is always first and foremost about the kingdom of God and finding our place in it. Following Jesus, or “walking in newness of life,” as Paul calls it, is about the embodiment of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ. It is about standing in all instances as a representative of a new world order which values mercy over sacrifice, forgiveness over revenge, and giving over receiving. Some of us may at long last find that those kinds of things lead to self-fulfillment, but that is not their point. Their point—and the disciple’s task—is to let folks know that God loves the world and therefore stands against all that would tear it apart. Jesus, the teacher, knows that his followers will be met with rejection and maybe even persecution for the message they bring. Why? Because he himself is met with even worse…and the disciple is not above the teacher.

Being buried with Jesus in our own baptism and rising to walk with him involves the death of and reorientation of a lot more things than we realize. Walking the Christian way is about learning and re-learning that over and over again. It is about letting the Spirit take stock of our lives and having that love of Christ renew our vision and re-form our decisions.

In fact, that is what this talk about family relationships is about, and why so much of Jesus’ discussion about discipleship uses language we typically associate with family. In Jesus’ time, family bonds were, hands-down, the most important mark of one’s identity. Family determined everything about one’s sense of well-being and his or her place in society in a way that is difficult for us to grasp today. In fact, family associations did not have much to do with love or affection. Family was everyone’s primary allegiance and place of loyalty, regardless of how you personally felt about them. This was the case even when those family arrangements were unfair or abusive, especially to women and widows or orphaned children. The decision to follow Jesus, then, usually challenged and often broke those allegiances. It gave believers a new identity—and a new freedom—that took precedence over all others.

I remember some baptisms we performed in my internship congregation in Cairo, Egypt. One afternoon we baptized some 30-odd Sudanese and Somali refugees who had undergone weeks of baptismal preparation not from people in our congregation within the two African congregations who shared the building with us. After the ceremony, one woman shyly presented my supervisor and me with some handmade gifts she had woven from simple fibers. The note, scrawled in broken English, which accompanied the gifts revealed that she had originally been a member of another faith, but that now she was so thankful to have found a true family that loved her with the love of Jesus. Her humble gifts were actually heartfelt “thank yous” to us for welcoming her in. I was proud of them and wanted to share the news, but my supervisor told me not to mention a word of it to anyone. In that country, that woman could have been sought out and killed for her decision to be baptized. It would have quite literally set her against her mother-in-law. Or her father. Or someone else in her family.

Baptismal font, Bornholm, Sweden
We would never have done anything to put that woman in harm’s way, but hers was a decision, you see, not of self-fulfillment, not of peace with everyone in her family group, but a decision to stand for a kingdom that was not yet fully welcome everywhere, a decision for a family of acceptance and forgiveness.

On the other side of that same coin, I remember a conversation I had with a man at our most recent Synod Assembly at Roanoke College. He freely shared with those of us in his discussion group that he looked forward every week to Sunday, not because of the music in worship or because what he heard preached and taught edified his life, but because, in his words, it was the only time he got to see people he considered family.

Into the midst of so much turmoil and uncertainty goes this family of Jesus, imperfect and wounded though we often are, and distant though we may sometimes feel from another. Among the borders with Mexico as well as here safe in the heart of Virginia…against the violence-mongering mafia families of southern Italy… around the dinner tables Henrico County that are riven by strife as well as those that are pictures of harmony…anywhere a sparrow falls can appear this kingdom of Jesus, and we are empowered to weave our unworthy gifts of thanks and praise with the one thread that will actually hold the world together: the kind of love that dies on a cross.

We are sent to these places and others like it dismantling systems and groups that with that word of love. And when we worry about the hairs on our heads and the costs it will involve, the complete and utter loss of our lives, let us never forget that the one who gives us this pep talk—the one whose watery name we bear on our heads—has decided to comfort us with more than just words. He has comforted us with his own death. So that in the end, and as we follow, we will not simply find peace and self-fulfillment. We will find something far better: we will find ourselves with our brothers and sisters standing on the side of the one kingdom where death no longer has dominion. That is, we will find life.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Holy Trinity [Year A] - June 15, 2014 (Genesis 1:1--2:4a)

I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone who isn’t, in some way, fascinated with the world around them. For some, the focus of interest may be the stars and planets and the mathematics of the heavens, how complex physics formulas help us learn about an ever-expanding universe. For others that fascination might be centered on the complete opposite end of things: it’s the inner workings of the atom or the biological cell that really get them thinking.

Some might find those kinds of things boring or too mind-boggling to ponder but they do find themselves captivated by the love of a pet…or the view of the Shenandoah Valley from the Skyline Drive…or the twinkling of lightning bugs over the backyard in early June. And just look at the platypus! It has the body of an otter, the tail of a beaver, and the mouth of a duck and it lays eggs! And it stings! As someone once said, it’s made up of leftover parts. Pretty fascinating.

We could go on and on and on with our lists of things about the natural world that astound and perplex us before we could even start with the things about human creativity and ingenuity that we find fascinating: The Pyramids of Giza. The Sistine Chapel. Shakespeare’s plays. Ethiopian long-distance runners. Apollo 11. Those are just a few of the well-publicized, extreme examples, but there are ones we encounter every day, as well. The kindness of strangers. The healing of old wounds. The sharing of stories that somehow inspire and encourage us to conquer fears and overcome obstacles. Stepping back momentarily from the grind of the day-to-day provides the soul with wonder and the mind with plenty to contemplate.

Ancient peoples were no different. Life may have been a little simpler, a little slower, and a lot less digital way back when, but early civilizations bore the same types of wonder about the world around them, where they came from and what the point of life was. In fact, they had stories about it all, stories that made space for belief and faith about the meaning of existence. In the midst of all these competing—and, to be honest, downright depressing—stories arose two stories from one group of people who had a radically different understanding of why things were the way they were. Unlike all the other stories that all the other peoples were telling, theirs told of one God that created everything with order and meaning. Creation was no accident or by-product of cosmic warfare between rival deities.

In both versions the ancient Hebrews had—the one we hear today  and the one that directly follows it—creation was a careful, thought-out process. There was purpose and sequence. Things built upon each other. The God who was responsible for it all was intimately involved from word one all the way until things reached completion. And unlike the versions of creation that other peoples told, in the Hebrews’ stories God actually gave of himself as the creation occurred. At each step along the way, this God declared with certitude what you and I never could deduce on our own, but which is so important: this creation is good. It is not random or meaningless. It is not without value. Everything from the atoms to the Andromeda chain is the work of a loving and gracious Creator.

Humans, which were the crowning piece of this God’s creative work, were not just declared good. They were pronounced very good. Male and female together, humans occupied a place in the order of creation that no other creature did. The Creator would not step back entirely once Creation was complete. In fact, creation would never really be complete all at the beginning, which is something the Hebrew people steadfastly maintained. It was and is an ongoing process, and God has made us in God’s own image that we may steward it and maintain it (“be fruitful and multiply!”) into the future.

Our challenge today, faced with so many more factual calculations about the age of the universe or how things technically got started is not to view these stories in the beginning of Scripture as pure scientific fact or hard historical evidence but rather in the way they were intended: stories that communicate something far more important than science and history.  One can convey truth through things other than the scientific theory, and God didn’t give God’s people these stories in order to answer questions like “how” and “what” in the first place. That is, their primary concern is not to communicate how we all got here or what creation is made of. Rather, God has given us these stories to tell us the bigger truths like “why” and “who”—why things are the way they are and why we can sense so much beauty and wonder in it all. They tell us who we are as creatures, and that we are good and very good, and why humans do seem to occupy a special place in the midst of it. Male and female together, we are “a little lower than God and crowned…with glory and honor” (Psalm 8).

More than anything, however, we learn from Scripture who is behind and in the midst of all this. We discover that all along it has been the work of a very unique God, a God who never removes himself from creation and who loves it deeply. This God loves it so deeply, in fact, that this God becomes a part of it at one point as one of these image-bearing humans in order to put things back together the way God initially planned it.

For that’s the other main issue with creation and our understanding of it. As good as we hear that it is and as fascinating as we find it—all the beautiful creepy crawling things and the birds of the air—we can also see and sense that it is not quite perfect. Deep down we know that it is broken and that we, especially, have made a mess of it…that we’ve made a terrible mess of each other. We have the slave trade and school shootings and skin cancer. We act in dreadful fashion towards our fellow creatures, become complacent towards the things that need to be changed, and when we make a mistake we utter “I’m only human!” forgetting that to be truly human actually means to be very good, crowned with glory and honor.

It is only through this love in Jesus of Nazareth that we begin to understand just how good and perfect we were designed to be. In the person of Jesus, the God who creates descends in order to save and restore us. Made of the very stuff of God and yet also sharing our skin, Jesus comes to take up a part in the very creation that has become such a mess, not withholding the divine power even from hanging on a cross. The love that is poured out between God the Father Creator and God the Son Jesus is then bestowed upon the rest of humankind so that we may actually share it with each other and help complete the work that God began so long ago.

This power, this life-giving love between Father and Son, is what we come to know as the Spirit, and it turns out we see the Spirit at the beginning, too, as God’s breath of love swirl and sweep over the waters to bring everything into existence, however it scientifically may have happened.

Furthermore, we know that if God can hang on a cross to redeem you and me, then God will also be present for the length of time, and long after all of this we see has come and gone, and not even a brick of the Great Pyramids even remain, this God who is One and Three will remain, and we, somehow, with him.

Standing back and beholding all of creation’s grand story is certain to produce awe and endless fascination—the wonders of things like lightning bugs and the hummingbird migration patterns…the complexity of Bach Brandenburg Concertos and the Hubble Telescope…the potency of honeybee pollination efforts and Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks…the sacrifices of Normandy and Tiananmen Square…the power of war to maim and stunt as well as the power of forgiveness to heal and renew…the treasures of parental love and childlike trust…the beauty of human families created by conception and those born by adoption...

Standing back and beholding it, the person of faith may feel inept at understanding or scientifically proving really much of anything about how it all fits together. To be sure, the person of Christian faith may continue propose impressive and plausible theories for how it all comes about and what it all is made of. And that is well and good. But do not forget that the person of faith can also still praise and give thanks for the “why” and the “who” of this Holy Trinity, this churning relationship of Love-Within-Itself:

That we have been created in the image of God.

That we have been redeemed by the Son of God.

That we each may take part in God’s purposes in our own unique way thanks to the Spirit of God.

And by that same Spirit we may, in time, echo the story the ancient Hebrews gave us: Lord Almighty, you are good. You are very, very good.


Thanks be to God!

Symbol for the Holy Trinity, Stained glass
St. Paul Lutheran Church (Bremen, IN)


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Day of Pentecost [Year A] - June 8, 2014 (1 Corinthians 12:3b-13)

Happy Birthday, Church!

How old are you today, anyway? Have you hit the old 2-0-0-0 yet? Truth be known, we’ve kind of stopped counting—partly because every year is but a second in God’s sight, but mainly because Christ makes you a new creation, over and over. That is, it’s kind of like you are new each day, constantly renewing yourself like a Phoenix or in the way a forest fire makes way for new growth to spring up in its path. Nevertheless, it’s easy to remember Pentecost as the day you officially came into existence. Just as Easter is a celebration of our Lord’s resurrection from the darkness of the tomb, Pentecost is remembrance of new life, too—the new life the Spirit brings. It was shortly after Jesus’ triumph over death when you burst forth with power from the tomb of confusion and doubt, the Holy Spirit giving birth to you among the disciples in Jerusalem.

So, here we are to wish you—to wish us—a Happy Birthday.

a congregation in Africa
Look at us! We’re still gathered here today, just as diverse as we’ve always been—some of us full of faith and vitality, fired up and ready to do something for God, others of us feeling a little worn around our edges, needing replenishment. Some of us here are soaking in the time-tested liturgy and relishing the hymns, while others of us are still timidly testing the waters of communal religious practices, skeptical of doctrine and dogma. Some of us are here because we love Sundays and the chance to gather with the saints, and others of us are here just because of the doughnuts.

Whatever the reason, dear Church, God’s Spirit has blown and grown among us once again and brought us here on this first day of the week. Don’t let the apparent lack of diversity in areas like race or nationality within this congregation blind us to the other ways in which we are truly different from each other! Each of us here, for example, has his or her own story and his or her own unique personality. Each of us here has a distinct combination of talents and skills. Each of your members in this very congregation has come to know you and God a little bit differently, and we all contain within us a slightly different spark of that Spirit’s ability to give life to the world around us. We are a diverse bunch even before we factor in all the other congregations across the planet who are meeting and worshiping right now, all in the name of Jesus, who is Lord.

Sometimes all these differences, church, really pull us—and therefore you—apart. Rather than bringing us closer in unity to each other, these gifts, as the apostle Paul calls them, often fracture our unity. This has mainly happened in two ways.

building a church with marshmallows and toothpicks
The first way is that we start to value certain gifts and activities over others, essentially giving more power and control to people who do certain things or have certain titles. Just think of the ways over the years that we’ve elevated the gifts of the clergy. So many us are prone to think that people like pastors and bishops, diaconal ministers and music ministers have more of the Spirit’s gifts than anyone else in the congregation, or that their gifts are better suited for your ministry. Gifts and activities like preaching or singing a solo or developing a Bible study are for some reason favored over the gifts of patience or good listening or activities like cutting the church grass and reconciling the church checking account. Service that is visible on Sunday morning is elevated above the services that goes on behind the scenes and out in the world Monday through Saturday.

We’ve also looked down upon those who bear some gifts. Women have for a long time been overlooked, especially for their leadership gifts, as have people of color, those and who speak difference languages than we do, and those we label “disabled.” The gifts and services of those who are not as economically well-off often get by-passed or downplayed, too. In short, we let the divisions present in worldly communities creep into the work we do as part of you, and as a result, people often get hurt and, unfortunately, blame that hurt on God.

gifts of quilt-making
Overall, our valuing of certain gifts and services over others and our valuing of certain people over others has really diminished the amount of work you’ve been able to get done in the world. Help us to remember, as Paul says in his letter to you years and years ago,“for in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.” Help us to remember that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” not principally for our own self-betterment and definitely not to the detriment of others whom you’ve gathered in your embrace.

The other main way all our diversity in gifts and abilities pulls you apart, dear church, occurs when we downplay our gifts too much. This, you know, is a particular problem in a culture like ours where we are so accustomed to being consumers and spectators rather than contributors and participants. Whether we realize it or not, we come to worship in the same frame of mind that we attend sporting events or theater shows, expecting to be entertained, expecting mainly to “feel something” while we’re here. We file in to our pews and wait for the pastor and the musicians to put on a show, and when we’re not entertained or when we end up not feeling something during worship we leave somehow disappointed. We fall into the trap of thinking that we’re primarily supposed to “get something out of church,” full well forgetting that we’re not here to be an audience at all.

Your audience, O Church, is not we, the people who gather. Your audience—our audience—is God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

a church in Norway
We, by contrast, are the ones who have come to share our gifts and our voices and our prayers and our services in praise of the Most High. We are the one whom the Spirit gathers to sacrifice time and energy to perform an offering of time and talent for the Lord who has named and claimed us all in his death on the cross. If anyone is be “getting anything out of church” it should be God or the world who is being served by our hands.

In fact, dear Church, I thought of you this week, as I watched a kindergarten chorus presentation. I stood in the back of the elementary school gym as they all streamed in, a bunch of 5 and 6 year olds wearing brightly-colored t-shirts corresponding to their different classrooms—red, yellow, green, blue. It took them a while to get organized on the risers, and for a while I thought they’d never get started. There was a moderate level of confusion, and several of us were likely snickering under our breath: could they pull this off?

My goodness they were squirmy. It was like they were filled with new wine. Some kids looked downright unhappy with the whole ordeal. Here and there I noticed quite a bit of pushing and shoving going on, grumpy faces, kids’ stepping on each other’s toes, intruding in other’s personal space. With no adults immediately nearby to mediate conflict the children were left to themselves to sort it out. Most of them spent more time waving to moms and dads out in the audience than paying attention to where the director was asking them to stand.

Hand motions went along with almost every song. That was cute, but borderline disastrous at times. You could tell that kind of coordination was still a stretch for some of them. I watched several kids unknowingly clock the person next to them as they stretched their hands out in some gesture. Those who had been selected to deliver a spoken line to introduce a song often stood far too quickly or softly to be understood. Some sounded like they were trying to swallow the microphone: “GeorgeWashingtonwasourfirstpresidentHewasborninVirginiain1732.”

All in all it was a little chaotic, but, you know what? It was amazing. And in the end, it we “got a lot out of it.” We received what they were trying to give us. The kids really weren’t putting on the program for themselves. I’m sure some of them enjoyed doing it, but that wasn’t the point, now, was it? The point of all their practice and performing, was to give something to us. We were delighted. We were, you may say, fed.

So, beloved Church, as we venture into a new year of grace, may we see ourselves more like that kindergarten choir, diverse and different, but gathered into one body through our baptism into Christ. May we see ourselves as those who are performing not only in worship on Sunday but on every day through the week. For, truth be told, a whole world is watching…watching to see if we can pull it off.

And, since on birthdays gifts are in order, let us we dedicate our gifts and services once more to you, the gifts that the same Spirit gave us—the singing and the prophesying, the healing and wisdom, the services of grass-mowing and budget-balancing, and occasionally even those of preaching and Bible study leading. Use them for common good, O Church, not primarily for ourselves. We re-commit them to your service with the hopes that the Spirit will, once again, take our squirminess and make it amazing. As we step up to the task of proclaiming to the world what God’s Son has done, we pray the Spirit will take our inarticulate, incoherent murmurings and give us clarity of voice.

And as we try to stand next to each other, we pray that the Spirit take our childish grumpiness, our ugliness, and make us beautiful.


O Holy Spirit, take all our kindergarten-like chaos and give it order.

Make us one.

Make us holy.

Make us catholic.

And make us apostolic.

Jew, Greek, slave and free—let the Spirit of Christ breathe again and make us…Church.


With all our love,


ourselves, the people of God.



P.S. Save me a doughnut!




The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.