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.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Resurrection of Our Lord (Easter 1A) - April 16, 2017 (John 20:1-18)

"Peter and John running to the tomb" (Eugene Burnand, 1898)

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

On one evening a couple of years ago, Pastor Joseph and I went out for a beer after a long Wednesday at work. We drove down to Scott’s Addition to one of those breweries there, and I parked the car along the curb. It was already dark, and things were kind of winding down. As I stepped onto the sidewalk and shut my door, I looked into the window of the brewery to see if it was actually still open, and to my surprise, I saw what looked to be my Lord.

I turned around to Joseph, who was a little bit behind me, and said, “It looks like they’re still open. But Jesus is in there.” Thinking that I must be making some silly theological comment about the fact that Jesus liked to hang out where the people were, Joseph just chuckled and said, “I know. Jesus is everywhere!” So I peered into the window again, craning my neck, as Joseph came around the corner of the car. I knew my eyes weren’t lying: there was a guy dressed up like Jesus in the brewery. I had no idea what the guy was doing, but it was clearly the man from Nazareth.

Again, I said to Joseph, “No, really. Jesus in in the bar.” So we opened the door and walked up into the brewery, and sure enough, there was a guy wearing a crown of thorns, and a white tunic with a scarlet robe draped over it, with sandals on his feet. It appeared that he was leading the people of the brewery in a game or some group activity. Joseph about fell down the stairs when we saw him. But you should have seen the color that Jesus turned when he saw what looked like two priests, in their collars, coming toward him! He did look like a ghost!

Several minutes later, after he finished his game-leading duties, he immediately stripped off his crown and costume and sheepishly came over to where we were sitting to apologize to us. Imagine his surprise when we insisted he put his costume back on so we could have our photo taken with him. We had seen the Lord!

All in all, that experience reminds me of what is happening as the disciples first come to the tomb on the second morning after Jesus’ death. We have Mary Magdalene and the disciples, all reaching the tomb at different times, peering inside, seeing different things, peering into the tomb again, coming to different conclusions, ending up in different locations, and being surprised with what they learn. And the first Easter message is not “Christ is risen!” or “Death has been defeated!” but “I have seen the Lord.”

John the gospel-writer does not tell us why Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. It could have been to anoint his body with spices, but it could have just as easily been because she just wanted to be near him, the man who had inspired her and given her hope. She travels back and forth that morning, shocked and dismayed that Jesus’ tomb has not just been tampered with, but that they may have a garden-variety case of tomb-robbing on their hands. After that Peter and the anonymous other disciple take off, almost in some kind of race. But then, strangely, the one who gets there first—who parks the car along the curb and steps onto the sidewalk first—stops and just looks inside. His buddy Peter, still rounding the corner, barrels right on in there, wondering what is going on. Then they’re both in there. They take turns understanding, on their own level, why the linen wrappings were rolled up without a body. Only one of them believes what’s happened, but then neither of them fully understand. They return home, as if nothing is really strange there.

(Cerezo Berado)
It’s Mary who is left to put the pieces together, but it all comes very slowly for her too, and only through the blur of her tears and sorrow. Distraught, she even carries on a conversation with Jesus at one point, thinking he’s the gardener.

That the resurrection of Christ begins with such confusion and lack of clarity probably perplexes us on some level. The strange sequence of events, the wide range of differing reactions, are not exactly what we might expect from the first account of someone rising from the dead. After all, we are more accustomed with the news of death and terror coming this way. In broken-apart bits and puzzling pieces the bad news comes out—whether it’s from the doctor over the phone, or worse yet, the coroner, despite their best intentions to keep it straightforward, or whether it’s through the media as we filter (often on our own) fact from fiction.

It was ten years ago this day, for example, when people of this nation and even moreso of this congregation were beginning to hear the horrific news out of Blacksburg and not knowing what was real and what was false. Details were difficult to come by no matter how long we stared at the news. Everyone was wondering and guessing: How many were injured or dead? How many shooters? And, sadly, who was to blame for such an evil?

Yes, it is as precious life is shattered and enters its tomb that we often encounter confusion and fear, grief and despair, not when it bursts back from it. Interestingly, though, not one of the gospel accounts of Jesus resurrection has a witness at the tomb as he comes out of it. Instead, we hear bits and pieces like today, first this person’s account, then that person’s understanding. Some might find this to be evidence that the resurrection of Christ stands on shaky historical footing, but for me and others, it only amplifies its truthfulness. These are humans without agendas encountering something totally unprecedented and left with nothing but their real, human emotions and doubt to figure it all out.

Furthermore, it is not Jesus’ closest disciples, the men he hand-picked to learn his new way of embodying God’s law and love, who get a handle on this miracle and marshal this message to its first hearers. It is Mary Magdalene, who stands by the tomb in her grief, who is too timid or maybe too respectful to go inside it like they did, who first begins to understand what God has done. It is Mary Magdalene, whose honest response of sorrow honors all our grief at what death has done to us. All those who have ever stood at a graveside weeping, who have struggled to carry on like normal after the death of a loved one, who have felt so isolated by grief are there with Mary, seemingly alone.

Loneliness and despair is not how Mary’s story ends. Easter puts a twist ending on all the grief we bear, all the sorrow we carry with us through this life. As she stands there she is approached by the very Lord himself, and she only recognizes him when he says her name. She doesn’t piece together a theological mystery. She doesn’t recall the prophecies in the Scripture. She doesn’t dazzle anyone with her grasp on the Apostles’ Creed. She simply hears him speak her name…and she knows Jesus has returned. She knows God has triumphed over death and the grave. She hears and knows the best news, the Mother of all Balms.

Easter is God’s appearing first not to the disciples who run the fastest, or who believe the quickest, but to the ones who are weeping, questioning, stuck in their confusion. Easter is God’s surprise that we never know exactly where we might bump into the Lord next, but it’s probably best to look around the dark corners of life. The earliest Christians, in fact, built their first churches not on city squares or in the middle of some beautiful flower-bedecked valley, but basically underground, right next to the tombs and burial chambers of their loved ones. They worshiped the Lord right in the presence in the places where they had wept. They were prepared to greet the Lord, to see those bones rise up in the new creation God was bringing forth in his Son Jesus Christ.

This is what Mary’s first Easter message, “I have seen the Lord,” has done to people. It provides the courage to look death in the eye, to peer into the open tomb, to gather at the drillfield at Virginia Tech where today they will speak the names of the 32 who died because we have faith Christ is out and about. The transformation from pain and grief to joy may not be so quick for all of us, but the joy will come. Christ is risen, and we have faith that those who have cried, those who have died, will some day hear him call their name.

The other evening, as we were getting ready for worship on Maundy Thursday, a young man in our choir was complaining that he didn’t feel well. He had a headache and felt yucky and was wondering whether it might be better for him to go home and get in bed. His mother lovingly urged him to do what felt best, but suggested he might start feeling better in a few minutes and go on with the worship service. His younger sister, however, who was to be receiving her first Holy Communion that night, felt selfless compassion for him and said,  “Just go on home if you feel bad. It’s OK to miss worship. You already know how the story ends.”

Yes, now we do. We know how the story ends. Mary has seen the Lord. So, Joseph, you, me, all of us: you never know where we might bump into him again.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Maundy Thursday - April 13, 2017 (Exodus 12:1-14, John 13:1-17, 31b-35)

“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: this month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you” (Exodus 12:1-2)

It must take a lot to start time over. It must take an event so big, so significant, so meaningful to begin an entirely new and different calendar.

I know that each year in about July, our office administrator, Hanne, orders new daily planners for all the staff. It’s a little strange and yet invigorating to be thinking about what might happen past January of the next year when we’re still in the middle of the current one, to look ahead and see all of those blank white squares advancing into the future, ready for action, but that’s not even what’s happening here for the people of Israel. God isn’t just ordering them next year’s daily planner. God is marking a brand new set of months for them. This is a new beginning of time itself, like they’re starting over at zero.

And it was new in both of the ways people counted time back then—the movement of the moon and the movement of the sun. The sun was the way yearly time was marked and the moon, with its easily discernible phases each night, was how monthly time was marked. Therefore this moment they find themselves in is not just the beginning of a new month, but a whole new year. Everything, therefore, is starting anew. All that came before is a different era, and this is the moment that begins it all.

It is certainly is significant, by all accounts. They are being set free from a life of slavery in Egypt. They are being released from a life as no people at all, a life at the bottom of society, which is all that they had every known. God has heard their cry and, in his grace, God is going to make a way for them to live a new life. God is going to give them a name and a home and restore them to their proper place as his holy people, shining in the world. From now on, no matter how many new daily planners they buy, the progress of time will be marked from this point, the moment they were freed.

unleavened bread, a Passover staple
And each year when the anniversary of this event is remembered, the people of God and their descendants will gather like they did that first time when they were commanded by Moses and Aaron. They will slaughter a lamb like they did back then and they will eat bread made without any yeast because there was no time for it to rise. They will remember how they ate with their traveling clothes on and sandals on their feet because they were in a hurry. Time was starting over. Is was the Passover of the Lord. In fact, Rabbi Gamaliel, a teacher of great authority who was alive at the time of Jesus, is reported to have said about celebrating the Passover, “In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he himself came forth out of Egypt.”[1]

This was the meal that Jesus gathered his disciples for on his last evening. We have come to call it the Last Supper, his last time with his disciples for teaching and sharing fellowship. Even Jesus was certainly aware that time for him was winding down. And tonight, once we celebrate this supper, we will conclude with the stripping of the altar, a powerful ritual that certainly feels like a bitter end.

"The Last Supper" (El Greco, 1568)
To some degree, all of this is true, all of these “lasts.” Jesus is about to hand over his life and there is an air of finality hanging in around tonight. However, it is important to remember that this was still mainly a meal about beginnings, about time starting over again, about countless blank white squares laid out into the future before the people of God.

On some level, that’s what would have been going through the disciples’ minds as they sat around that table with Jesus. They would have been thinking about the bread baked quickly, the blood spread over the door. And they would have been thinking about those sandaled feet, ready to run out the door and into that new freedom.

So when in the middle of all this Jesus gets up and begins washing feet, they realize something profound must be going on. Those are feet that should be dirty—and that’s OK! They are supposed to be ready to travel! As he takes those feet in his hands, maybe even untying the sandals, Jesus slows them down, and prepares them for a new kind of freedom, a new kind of life. In washing their feet that evening during the Passover celebration, Jesus gives his disciples a new vision for what following God will entail and a bold new definition for what freedom in his name will look like. It will entail acts of humility and servanthood in ways that build up community. It will look like stooping down at the feet of others, tending with kindness and care to the lowlier, more neglected aspects of their lives. And perhaps the part that shocks us most: those who normally have authority and who are in positions of control and expertise take on thankless tasks of love.

So, in the middle of a meal that is all about remembering who they are Jesus sets this lesson about how they relate to each other will be their true identifying marker. In the midst of an event that is about new beginnings, Jesus hands them a new commandment. And in the middle of a celebration that is based on people from the very bottom of society finally being lifted up, Jesus goes from the place of authority down to the floor.

What he’s doing is starting time over. He’s giving them a brand new beginning. And he’s going to do it by offering his body and shedding his own blood.

This is the meal that he shares with his disciples, the meal that Christ shares with us tonight. It may be his last Supper, but for us it is a time to start anew, just as it is every time we eat of his body and drink of his blood. He makes it his end so that we can have new beginnings. Each time we share this meal, each time we digest his words, we know his forgiveness for us. We are set free, we begin anew, as if time starts over for our soul, for our feet, for our life. We get a new calendar, full of blank squares to live. But because it is also a time for us to remember our identity as servants of the Servant Lord, it means we don’t just run out into the world, filling those blank squares with whatever we want. We now have a freedom to serve others, to love one another like Christ has loved us.

As you know, the world will always present us with plenty of opportunities to practice this new covenant and live this new freedom these days. It seems like the stakes are being raised these days, though. Many of you may have heard of the bombings in Coptic Churches in Egypt this past weekend as worshippers were gathered for Palm Sunday. Terrorists made their way into the congregation and detonated bombs while the Christians were worshipping. Nearly 50 died and many more were wounded in what would be their last worship service on earth. I’ve read that several of the congregations in middle Egypt, where there are higher percentages of Christians amidst the predominantly Muslim population, are still going to gather for Easter services this weekend, but they are scaling them back out of respect for the dead.

Mar Girgis (St. George) Coptic Church in Tanta, Egypt,
site of one of the Palm Sunday 2017 bombings
I’m sure it must be unbelievably difficult to know how to forge ahead in the wake of such despicable tragedy and evil. I do not purport to be an expert in it. I think it would be easy to give into hatred and anger and violence, or, better yet, apathy and denial of that Christian identity. Yet the Copts are coming out in droves to show their love and support for each other, surely a strong witness of this new commandment Jesus gives. In a sermon called, “A Message to Those Who Killed us,” delivered earlier this week, one Coptic priest, Father Boules George, took the opportunity to preach directly to those who carried out the bombings and to those who might be planning more. Instead of anger or despair, he preached thanksgiving and love. He says at one point to the murderers, “thanks for refilling our churches for us.” Normally on the Monday of Holy week the attendance is very low, but this week they were there by the thousands. He says every nook and cranny of the churches were filled with worshippers. People they’ve begged for years to come to church were there. He also preached about love. He says at one point, “I want to explain to you about our Christ. I want to tell you about how wonderful He is.”[2]

As I read the sermon I realized these must be words from someone who has shared supper with a Lord who has set him free. It is the witness of someone with washed feet—washed and sandaled—cleansed, ready to go out into the world and live this new beginning of love. Since the first time this meal was celebrated with Jesus, the enemies of God have circled around with crosses, spears, and suicide bombing jackets with the intent to intimidate and eradicate his followers. However, all those different enemies have come and gone, appearing and then eventually disappearing into the shadows of history without ever altering our message.

That is life in our new calendar. The community of this meal and its Host remains, growing, beating with the heartbeat of forgiveness, through all eras of time—through countless blank, open squares of countless calendars. Today, he beckons you and me…and Samuel, and Krista and Clare and Patrick and Fiona…again to take the bread and the cup, to begin again the journey of freedom and service.

With broken body and blood that is shed, he wants to explain to you about himself.

Taste and see how wonderful he is.

icon of Jesus washing feet


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Robert Louis Wilken. Yale University Press, 2003. P 34