Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 1B] - July 19, 2015 (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56)

Last week at both worship services, just before the dismissal, we commissioned the members of our high school youth group and their adult leaders who are attending the ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit. Due to simple forgetfulness, one key person was left out of that commissioning. A member of our congregation, Dr. Kim Yucha, is also in Detroit with the ELCA Youth Gathering this week. But Dr. Yucha (as I know her, because she is my children’s pediatrician), is not in Detroit as a part of the Epiphany delegation, which is why she slipped my brain. Dr. Yucha is in Detroit as one of two physicians and two other trained medical personnel hired by the ELCA who are on-call the entire week, tending to the medical needs of the 30,000 gathering participants.

That’s right! Dr. Yucha has 30,000 patients this week, all of whom are running around and doing service projects with sharp implements in 90-degree weather on limited sleep. Come to think of it, Dr. Yucha didn’t need to be commissioned last week! She needed to have her head examined!

In all seriousness, if you know Kim, you know her intense love for children and youth and you know her desire to serve the Lord. For her, this week is a special opportunity to unite those two passions, and I don’t know if we’re supposed to feel honored about this or not, but I do: we attend one of only two congregations in the ELCA who has a doctor at the Gathering.

10,000 ELCA Youth departing for service projects from Hart Plaza in Detroit
as part of the Rise Up ELCA Youth Gathering in 2015
I called Dr. Yucha yesterday and asked her what it was like. She had just gotten through the afternoon de-briefing. She said her day begins at 7:00am when she reports to the launch sites where 10,000 youth are loaded onto busses for their service project. After several hours there, she reports to the First Aid desk at the Cobo Center where she deals with whatever is presented to her. So far they’ve had to deal with a diabetic seizure for a girl whose blood sugar got too low. She’s had to remove a twig that got jammed a few inches into a youth’s arm just above the elbow. There have been numerous strains and sprains, cases of poison ivy, allergic reactions, panic attacks, nosebleeds, and lots of abdominal pain from being constipated due to dehydration. But the worst thing she said she had to attend to was an adult leader who was walking by a volleyball game and got bonked on the head, fell backwards into a wall and sustained a concussion. “It’s just like a revolving door,” Kim told me, “you send one out and another one comes right in.”

Can’t you imagine that’s what it’s like for Jesus in this gospel lesson from today? A revolving door, in each city, town and farm he comes to. He comes to the marketplace, that open area at the center of each community where the business and commerce of each day occurred, and as soon as he sends one off, here comes another. Just think of all the stories of these nameless, faceless people, begging just to touch the edge of his sleeve or where the tunic trails along the ground. It’s so easy to lump them in all by the thousands, like Mark does as he tells it, perhaps because Mark doesn’t have the time or the stamina to do so or, in fact, he doesn’t know who they are, either. Or, if he did, he’s going to run out of papyrus to put them all down, but each of these people has a story, has suffering.

Here comes a young boy clutching his ear. It’s been throbbing for days, and he can tell he’s already begun to lose his hearing. Ruptured eardrum, maybe.

Just behind him is a woman who is staggering along because her left side has gone numb, including her face. Could it have been a stroke? She’s also staggering along because no one will help her, afraid to touch her because they think she’ll give them whatever it is she’s got.

Jesus reaches out for her, and just when he does, someone else’s arm spins him around from behind. Standing there is what looks like a family, and they’re dragging with them on a mat their aged patriarch—maybe he’s an uncle, or perhaps the grandfather—who just stares blankly into space, gasping for air with congestive heart failure. They honestly think he could go at any minute.

They go on and on like this, one after the other. And as soon as one is healed, it spurs another two or three standing on the sidelines with hope. They push themselves forward, too, to this mysteriously holy figure who doesn’t have any bodyguard of any kind.

Jesus can’t escape it. He had tried to get away with his buddies for a little while to re-charge, to regenerate—a little power-nap, at the very least—but they just keep coming. What has he gotten himself into? What has the Spirit commissioned him for? Perhaps even he begins thinking he needs his head examined.

We are not even half of the way into Mark’s story of Jesus and this is what ministry has become for him. What used to be isolated incidents of healing is now just one mass of humanity crushing in on him. He is no longer anonymous. We can assume everyone knows what he looks like, and even if they don’t, he’s unmistakable because there’s always a crowd with him. Or should we say there’s always a flock with him, for that is how he’s starting to see himself: a shepherd amongst a great sea of sheep who are wandering aimlessly.

What changes Jesus here from a teacher and healer who is here to announce the kingdom of God into a shepherd-leader who begins to gather and lead all the people is compassion. In fact, Jesus’ compassion takes center stage. It is the key tool at his disposal that steadily begins to deal with this revolving door of human pain.

Interestingly enough, for both the Hebrews and the Greeks, the word for “compassion” contains vivid connotations. We don’t have that aspect of the word in English. In fact, the word itself is rather blank of meaning, unless you know Latin. “Com” means “with” and “passion” is the word for “suffering,” so compassion means to suffer with someone, which I suppose is fairly evocative, but nothing like the Hebrew or Greek. In Hebrew it shares the root for uterus, and in Greek compassion shares the root for intestines. In either case, the ancients recognized and described it as a feeling that originates in the very center of your being, that which twists and turns with the very movement of life.  Compassion, then, is that panig in the stomach when identifying with someone in their situation, that nervous clinching you get when you see someone in trouble…the deepest part of you reaching out to the deepest part of someone else.

Compassion is what is driving Jesus here, not a desire to be right or to gain fame and fortune. So much of Christian theology talks about a Jesus who suffers on the cross for us, or in place of us, or on account of us, but here we get a powerful glimpse of a God who is suffering with us, alongside of us, who’s very innards are clinching up when he sees us. Here in Galilee we get a preview of a man who is going to shelve his own deep need to rest and relax in order to grasp the hands that keep pulling at him, the kind of hands that will later rise up in frustration and anger to nail him to the cross because compassion is disappointing when you want power, aggression. Compassion is a let-down when you are convinced that the only truly worthwhile change in the world is accomplished by intelligence or cleverness or wealth or violence. But Christlike compassion is what gathers the masses, heals the wounded soul, and eventually opens the tomb to new life.

At the beginning of the month the world saw the death at age 106 of Nicholas Winton, a British man who was rather average in terms of his schooling, career, and background. He never would have received the long list of honors and distinctions that he did, including being knighted by the British Empire if it weren’t for a giant opportunity for compassion that essentially fell in his lap when on vacation in Czechoslovakia. Dozens of starving, shivering children, most of them Jewish, and most of them orphans, began knocking on his hotel door at 6am, hoping he could somehow relocate them to safety before the Nazis would invade and send them to the camps.

Winton, who was a stockbroker by trade, began lining up homes for them in England, working inauspiciously from a desk in the lobby of the Hotel Europa. Over the next few months, just before the start of World War II, he managed to save 669 of them. He never said anything about this act of compassion to anyone until it was discovered fifty years after the fact when a scrapbook about it was unearthed in his attic. As he saw himself, he was born and raised as just one of the masses, had no great career, was no more prone to heroism than anyone else, but one act of compassion propelled him to the highest honors his country could offer and a his own humble monument that will stand forever in the Prague train station where all those kids left from, a simple bronze statue of him standing next to a suitcase, a young boy in one arm over his shoulder and a girl beside him.

Marines are shot dead by a disturbed extremist in Chattanooga. Thousands of children and youth huddle at the border in Texas, willing to risk their ten-year-old lives to escape gang violence in their Central American homes. High numbers of children in Richmond and Henrico County are in need of free and reduced meals at their schools. We don’t need to the experience of Nicholas Winton or Kim Yucha to experience the broken wandering of humanity. The suffering of the world is immense, but the good news is that God has provided the compassion in his Son to combat it.

And, brothers and sisters, each Sunday we are commissioned. We are commissioned by God’s own suffering Son to be a church that is recognizable out there because of its compassion. Weekly we stand or kneel at this altar and are called, sore and wounded though we are, to be apostles who go out into the world and view other people as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”[1] We are forgiven and healed, to be people who even set aside our agendas, our stereotypes, our instincts of self-preservation in order to let our very guts speak and show Christ’s compassion—so much so, in fact, that people may wonder from time to time if we need our heads examined.


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.



[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 10B] - July 12, 2015 (Amos 7:7-15 and Ephesians 1:3-14)

There is a shelf in my office where I keep some of my old children’s sermon props. My daughters like to come in and play with them from time to time. I have a small bottle of mustard seeds there, some large sea shells, a head lamp, and a wooden cross that fits easily in your hand. Far and away the object that produces the most curiosity is an old plumb bob attached to a long string. It’s a plumb line. It’s probably the most plain, simplistic item there, but for some reason the most irresistible to hold and play with. I bought the plumb bob years ago when I was in a small hardware store looking for something else. With all the conveniences that modern technology provides, I figured the plumb line was probably obsolete by now, given all the advances in technology, but there it was on one of the aisles. It ran me about $4, if I remember correctly.

The best part about this plumb line, though, was the message contained on its package, which had been written in three different languages. It read:  

SATISFACTION GUARANTEED. If for any reason you are not completely satisfied with the performance or results of this MasterMechanic product, it will be repaired or replaced free of charge. Simply provide proof of purchase and return the product and/or unused portion to your nearby place of purchase.”

For a plumb line?? I realize that this is probably just a pre-printed quality control message slapped on all of the MasterMechanic products, but it sounds really silly on a plumb line. It has no moving parts that can break. It doesn’t run on electricity. It runs, after all, on gravity…that’s it! As long as you’re using it on earth, it always works! In fact, if you use the plumb line and you’re not satisfied with the results, guess who’s malfunctioning?

That was the cold, hard truth that Israel was confronted with in the 8th century when the prophet Amos was speaking. They were having to come to terms with how their building process—that is, the building of a righteous and compassionate kingdom—was malfunctioning. God was going to set a plumb line in the midst of their society, in the midst of their temple religion, in the midst of their communities in order to show them just how crooked and out of whack they’d become. Amos’ words were that plumb line, words that revealed the truth of God’s righteousness and justice. And when they are held up to the whole structure of the kingdom of Israel’s being, their lack of integrity will be unmistakable.

And the chief priest Amaziah and King Jeroboam probably know that. They are the ones in power, and as is so often the case in human affairs, the ones who are in power usually benefit from its misuse. They have a lot to lose from listening to Amos’ message. The corruption of government and the empty, showy nothingness of the religion they lead will be clearly revealed if Amos is allowed to speak too much. His words will reveal how Israel had forgotten to take care of the poor, how they had turned their worship of God into a worship of material success. Their minds are filled with the dreams of what they want to be and become, instead of the compassionate people God had created and redeemed them to be.

"Amos the Prophet" (James Tissot)
And so what do Amaziah and Jeroboam do? They blame the plumb line! They actually try to take up the Master Mechanic product guarantee on its word and send it back, get a refund.  So they send Amos away. They do with this prophet what we are so often tempted to do with people who tell a truth we don’t like to hear. They tell Amos to take his message down to the southern kingdom of Judah and set it instead in the midst of them. See how your plumb line fares down there, ol’ Amos! They’re bad off!

Of course, crooked walls fall pretty quickly. Within just a few decades, Jeroboam’s kingdom of Israel would be so weakened by its corruption and injustice that it would quickly fall victim to the marauding armies of Assyria and they are wiped off the map for good.

The image of Amos’ plumb line only appears once more in Scripture,  I believe, but it has always been an effective tool for people who try to speak out against corruption, especially of the religious and political kind. The point that Amos drives home, perhaps more than any other prophet, is that when God applies God’s standards of justice with compassion to God’s people eventually God’s people should end up with a society that embodies that justice with compassion. Yet instead, because of greed and selfishness, God’s people so often end up with some warped, misshapen version of that justice and compassion, and it eventually effects everyone, from the poor on up. Amos, as it turns out, has it good. He just gets ignored and sent away. Look at what happens to John the Baptist when he tries to hold a plumb line up to Herod and his corruption!

While the people of God never see this precise vision of God’s plumb line again, God does eventually set in their midst a living plumb line, a living standard by which they may judge themselves. Jesus of Nazareth, the second person of the Holy Trinity, becomes flesh among us as a human plumb line, faithfully telling the truth about who God is and who we are and what we are to be. As the writer of Ephesians so eloquently describes it in our second lesson today, “with all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ.”

In Jesus God reveals for us the final and full measure of not only the mystery of God’s essence but also of God’s goal. And just as a plumb line works on gravity, Jesus works on grace. Just as a plumb line determines a building’s integrity, so does the cross of Christ reveal the integrity both our own and God’s own. On the one hand, it is judgment, exposing that things like racism and human trafficking and disregard for the poor live among us. But the cross of Christ is also grace because it reveals that God refuses to let his creatures live this way. God refuses to give us over to that completely. Because of the cross of Jesus, we know God stands among us with forgiveness, never-ending love, and bold humility so that we may be built right again.

I imagine that members of our youth group, in their journey to Detroit this week, will experience God standing in the midst of what many believe to be a city crumbling as a result of its own faulty construction. I remember in 2009 when the ELCA Youth Gathering was first held in New Orleans, four short years after it had been leveled by Hurricane Katrina, people wondered why in the world we were sending youth into such a tumble-down city. The result exceeded everyone’s imagination. We saw God’s standard of judgment and grace refashioning and rebuilding a city as it was happening, refashioning our own hearts in the process. That year our youth group was responsible for organizing and running a field day for an inner city children’s organization. Every single one of the 400 kids we played games with for five hours in the heat was from a different racial and economic group than our white, middle class suburban congregation. All kinds of stereotypes started colliding with each other to give way to a very peaceful and fun-filled day. Going into that neighborhood and hearing their stories planted a seed in our youth for the ways in which their own city and high schools right here might suffer from racial and economic inequalities.

At one former Youth Gathering I remember hearing from a speaker named Emanuel Yeboah from the African country of Ghana. Due to a birth defect, Emanuel had been born with only one leg. In Ghana, as in so many countries, including our own, people with any handicap or physical limitation are viewed much like the poor were in Amos’ day: inferior, cast aside and left to fend for themselves. Emanuel, knowing that was wrong, seeing that the walls of society looked very crooked in that regard, decided to learn to ride a bike. He practiced and got in shape and proceeded to bicycle across the entire nation of Ghana with his one leg. He explained that as he came through the villages, people flocked to him, bringing their sick and disabled people to see what a person like them could do. Most importantly, though, he showed the people who had two legs that people like Emanuel had value. God loves people like Emanuel no less than God loves anyone else. You could say that Emanuel became a plumb line in the manner of Christ, telling the truth, the unmistakable truth. Emanuel’s journey was a gift, laying waste to all the misconceptions about people who are different, lifting up the weak as instruments in this world.

It is wonderful to have the opportunity to travel to Detroit or New Orleans to have these experiences, but let us not forget that God applies his gracious standard to us here weekly, in this place. Let Dylan’s own story be an example of that. He came to our congregation through the invitation of some friends in our Lutheran Campus Ministry program at the University of Richmond. He had grown up relatively unchurched, but after a lot of wrestling with matters of faith during those college years, slowly began to open up to the way Christ was being revealed to him, that God was incorporating him into Jesus’ kingdom, especially in this place. And today that journey enters the waters of baptism, and Dylan is built anew.

Each time we gather at this table, or see someone come through these waters, each time someone reads from that lectern, we are given the opportunity to see the grace of that cross in our lives, and the opportunity to be build anew. Each time we worship God refashions us according to the standard God has set for us. And then we can turn around and build our relationships with others, in our communities, in our world…

And when it comes to our worth in God’s eyes and our sense of integrity as this kingdom is constructed in and around us, we never have to worry about the result. With Jesus on the cross, we know God’s satisfaction is…guaranteed.

Thanks be to God!

Commissioning the Epiphany Youth for the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.