I don’t know if it’s still a popular thing to do anymore, because I don’t hear young people talk much about it, but when I was in middle school, for two LONG years, every Thursday night I would put on a white dress shirt and navy blue blazer, try to remember how to tie a tie (again), and my Mom would drive me and my buddy Justin in her white minivan downtown to a stately looking a building that housed our town’s cotillion.

I know NOW (because I looked it up on the internet) that the goal of cotillion is to teach children ballroom dancing in a organized and professional, yet fun environment; making youth aware of the importance of social etiquette among young ladies and gentlemen, while at the same time emphasizing the values of kindness, courtesy and mutual respect, but at the time, it just felt like torture.

Jesus must’ve known that we’re not all born into the world foxtrot-aficionados and so skilled at Smalltalk that our dance partners don’t even notice that our hands are all sweaty.

And so, at a dinner party where he is being watched closely; and where he is also watching closely enough to observe the all-too-human tendency to seek the best for ourselves, Jesus begins to give his lesson on social etiquette.

Teaching at one of these banquets would not have been out of the ordinary, rather it would have been expected and appreciated.

So, when invited to a wedding banquet, he says, unless you are the bride or the groom or the parents, don’t sit at the head table, or a place of honor, but instead and look for your name plate on one of the tables and just see where your host wants you to sit.

“How Not to Be Embarrassed 101” we could call this lesson.

Jesus’ teaching on ‘Being a Good Guest’ is not much out of the ordinary. It falls right in line with the Scriptures themselves and other religious and secular writings of the day.

It is when he gets to his philosophy on ‘Being a Good Host,’ that Jesus is much less conventional.

What always felt strange to me about cotillion is that it was so self-referenceing:

We were at a party where we were being taught about what makes a good party and how to be at a party.

In retrospect, as many things do, it makes sense…our Cotillion leader was showing us what she thought a great party looked like.

Likewise, it’s at a party, that Jesus tells us what a party should be:

Jesus says that to be a good host and to throw a great party is to overlook friends, ignore brothers and sisters, discount relatives and rich neighbors and snub Everyone You Would Want To Have On Your Guest List, and as we listen to this teaching together today we might ask…

Does Jesus even means for us to take him seriously.

This suggestion is audacious to anyone who hears it, but even more so in the first century.

For the Palestinian throwing a banquet in the first century, the guest list meant everything. It was the way for a family to proclaim their status – their elite status in this case – and having other wealthy and cultured people at the party showed you were accepted in the circle of the elite and maintained your standing in society.

For us, when planning a party, the guest list matters because we want to enjoy the company of our family and friends, we want to have a good time, and the family table connects us to the past and to loved ones who are no longer with us…

But, if you can imagine it, it was even more audacious for those listening in the 1st century.

The suggestion is for the leader of the Pharisees to disavow the elite community of which he is a part, is the suggestion to throw away everything he and his family have acquired and built up for themselves – all their work, all their relationships, all their hopes for their children’s future.

Ridiculous.

But Jesus goes further.

Jesus says, instead of inviting those who can help you, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind…those who have nothing to give you.

Those who can’t being a bottle of wine, perhaps don’t have the ability to make stimulating conversation over your meal, who would perhaps be in need to your constant care and attention.

But Jesus goes still further.

Speaking to us today, the Lord gives us an opportunity to ask ourselves where we fit into the social scene….

Who do we want to sit down at our table?

Who do we want to invite to our parties?

Would we prefer to identify ourselves with the wealthy elite or with the outcast?

As a community, as families, and as individuals we feed the hungry, we collect school supplies for those children in our community who could use them, we gather books for children at VCU’s Children’ Hospital, work with veterans and refugees and more.

But are their ways in which God may be calling us to care even for others and to make a place for the poor and the outcast in our midst?

This is challenging, but as we witness a baptism today, we remember God loves us before we can do anything…

We don’t do good works to receive God’s kindness – that is just a gift. But as Luther reminds us, “We need to do good works because our neighbor needs them.”

The good news for the poor, for those who are humiliated, for the suffering is that you will be exalted…

This is the PROMISE from the One who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

The Humble One who is now exalted at God’s right hand will exalt you who are bent low with life’s heavy burden.

You know, it may not even be surprising to us anymore that Jesus is first on the side of the poor.

What may still have the capacity to surprise us is that even after being accused by Pharisees of being, “a drunkard and a glutton and a friend of tax collectors and sinners,” that he is happy to eat at their table too.

And there is also good news for the wealthy elite: As you humble yourself and identify with the poor and outcast whom God loves so much, you will be blessed.

The very, very good news is that Jesus is happy to eat with anyone and everyone – both the poor and the rich, those who are well and those who are sick, those who are connected and those who are outcasts.

The good news is that TODAY we have been invited here to God’s banquet.

Brothers and sisters, as we stand before the Lord, the King of All Creation, Awesome in Majesty, we are the poor. We are the crippled. We are the lame. We are the blind. And graciously, generously, he invites us into his banquet.

Today we welcome you Jasper Phillip Martin, and we rejoice that God has set a seat for you at his table, as he claims you as his own forever.

Today Jesus invites you and all of us to his banquet, where he humbles the exalted and exalts the humble, where he invites us to watch closely, and see all of life is a gift.

So Jasper, welcome to the party. This is the party unlike any other party. This is the party where we learn about how to have a party.

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The Race Set Before Us

Representing us in Rio de Janero, our Olympic team is made up of 554 athletes. Well over half, 365 of them, are at the games for the very first time.

Some of them are almost children. The youngest American athlete representing us is Kanak Jha, who is competing in table tennis on the world stage, at the tender age of 16.

Some of our athletes are closer to retirement age than you would think an Olympian could possibly be. An equestrian by the name of Phillip Dutton is 52 years old.

There are 11 mothers, and 42 fathers, and six pairs of siblings.

So you see these world-class American athletes are people like us. They are sons and daughters from towns and cities across our land and the main difference is that they are at the pinnacle of human physical fitness, competing on the world stage, and we are here at home watching them on television. And I like to watch with a snack in my hands.

But we are all a part of the Olympics. They really do represent us.

On the occasions when the American flag is raised for an athlete who has won gold and we watch the flag and hear the national anthem, we feel a sense of pride, because there is a way in which they represent us.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews encourages us as people of faith to look to Jesus as the One who represents us before God.

On the cross Christ represents us before God.

God looks at Christ and sees he has now has taken our sin, so that our sin has dies with him and no longer has any power over us.

And so Christ is the pioneer and the perfecter of our faith.

He is the One, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of God.

The most exciting thing, though, is that we don’t simply sit on the sidelines as observers with a snack in our lap.

We are invited and we are encouraged to join in.

We are invited not to watch… or to stream… or to DVR the race that is set before us, but to run the race that is set before us.

To run the race with perseverance…and with passion…

To train for the race like Michael Phelps who eats 12,000 calories a day; an astonishing 4,000 calories a day for breakfast alone, which consists of three fried egg sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions, and mayo; two cups of coffee, a five egg omelet, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast with powdered sugar, and three chocolate chip pancakes, and that’s just breakfast because he needs all those calories to train six hours a day, six days a week, year after year…

So let us run the race with passion and perseverance and with everything we have, representing him in the world.

Let us, as a congregation, continue to run the race…

Cutting, stitching, binding fabric with love into quilts to be sent to those in need all over the world,

Serving as mentors to youth and teaching young men and women to articulate their faith by serving as Sunday school teachers, confirmation mentors, and timothy minister,

Stocking shelves at LAMBS Basket,

Packing family food bags at HHOPE,

Working alongside staff at Southampton school and collecting supplies for Crestview school,

Picking up UR students and bringing them to worship,

Serving dinner to families in need at the Hull Street Road shelter,

Visiting people who are in the hospital, being a friend to those in need of a friend, and praying for one another and for the world.

God has given us all these ministries. He has inspired us, and equipped us, and leads us.

So let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, who wants us to know: it will cost us, and it may cost us dearly.

It will cost us time and it will cost us money, although in truth, both of these things are gifts from God.

And Jesus says, it might cost us more.

It might cost us our family.

It may cost us our friends.

It could cost us our job.

One never knows.

In America, it is unlikely that we will experience violence for our faith in Jesus.

But we pray for Father Jacques Hamel, a catholic priest, who was murdered in a suburb of Northern France during morning mass this past month, as four others in the congregation were taken hostage, and we pray for Christians are persecuted in the world today, knowing our faith could one day cost us our life.

More often, we may experience the actions our faith inspires putting us at odds with others:

What happens if I tell my friends I love Jesus?

Or what happens if I speak the name of Jesus not only when I’m with church friends but when I’m with friends who I know are agnostic or atheist?

What happens if I share that God’s love for us compels me to forgive my enemies?

What happens if I talk about and advocate for people who are suffering?

What happens if I talk about politics believing that my faith mandates getting involved in my community?

And what happens if others disagree with me?

And what if they are my family?

Or what if they are my friend?

Perhaps if our faith were to inspire us to these acts, or ones like them, we would be reminded of Jesus’ words: “Do you think I come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Of course the Prince of Peace has come to bring peace between God and humankind but that leaves little room for patience with those who don’t understand the urgency of the mission he is on towards Jerusalem and the cross

There is a man in this congregation – a husband and father who has a friend at work who doesn’t believe in a God. Perhaps this friend heard about the Bible Studies and prayer groups at work organized by this man, but he asked him about his faith. The reply was, “If you ever really want to know about it, let me take you out for a beer.” And so months went by, and the friend came up and asked to go out for that beer…and then they went out for another beer…and another…the beer was good, I’m sure, but the conversation was good too. And they exchanged books and they are keeping the dialogue going.

And this guy from Epiphany said, You know sometimes my friend asks questions about creation and God that I can’t answer and so I say, “I don’t know..”

What a witness!

First: to be a friends, and to share the Christ we know, and to admit what we don’t know.

Because we’re called to befriend others but we’re not called to know everything.

Christ who is the perfecter of our faith.

We are simply called to run the race with perseverance.

On Friday, in Rio during the track and field competions, a twenty four year old from Ethiopia named Almaz Ayana, not only won gold in the 10,000 meters, and not only set a world record doing it, but shaved almost 14 seconds off the previous time.

Because the previous record had stood since 1993, was widely regarded as unbreakable, and because Almaz Ayana had only participated in this race one other time, she was immediately suspected of doping.

When was asked directly whether she had taken performance enhancing drugs of any kind, she smiled and said, “I praise the Lord, and the Lord gives me everything. My doping is my training. My doping is Jesus – otherwise I’m crystal clear.”

She went on to say that she had not even meant to set a world record.

“It’s amazing,” she said, “I saw the record after the race…my only plan was to win the race.”

Indeed, the Lord has given us everything we have: our lives and families, our friends, our work, our community, all that sustains us from day to day, a future in which to hope, and a faith to sustain.

The Lord has given us everything. So let us look to Jesus, and let run the race with everything we have.

Shine Bright, Be the Light!

Summer camps for youth are in full swing all around the country, which makes me think often of Lutheridge Summer Camp, just outside of Asheville, North Carolina, which of course was a place of employment for both of your pastors during the halcyon days of their youth.

Lutheridge is an adventure camp for youth of all ages to experience a week of songs, skits, hiking, and games. Youth eat in the dining hall, climb the challenge tower, make crafts, go canoeing in the lake, and during their week at camp, each youth will hear and will experience, perhaps many times, the unofficial Lutheridge creed, which is, “Everyone is a winner at Lutheridge.”

What that means for you as a camper is that you might play a kickball game in which no one would keep score.

Sometime during your week at camp you would participate in an afternoon activity called “messy relays” in which the point was not to be the first or the fastest, but to be the person with the most peanut butter in your hair or the most shaving cream covering your body.

You might play a game of “knockout” where several dozen kids shoot two basketballs at a goal and whoever makes it first “knocks out” the other kid. Everywhere else, that kid who gets knocked out sits down until the next round, but at Lutheridge, they just get back in line and keep playing.

As you might imagine, the most athletic young men and women among the campers – those who excel in their high schools at completive sports – often protest this idea that scores aren’t kept and games aren’t lost or won.

“Why are we even playing?!” is the often heard cry.

And a well-guarded secret, at least in my days at Lutheridge, was that some of us counselors who are more competitive minded, once we got into the thick of a game, also found it difficult to suppress our desire to win.

But this idea that “everyone is a winner,” even if it’s just at camp and only for a week, is an opportunity for youth, in the midst of a hypercompetitive world, to experience what it looks like and feels like to live as a treasure of God.

Imagine the impact on a young person, particularly a young person who is shy or un-athletic, who has always been afraid of competitive games as they play a game for the sheer fun of it, and celebrate everyone involved regardless of their ability, knowing that failure isn’t an option and there is no shame involved because they aren’t competing to win or lose.

What might we be willing to try in our lives if we knew we couldn’t fail and we couldn’t lose?

The fear of failure can be crippling to us at any age, particularly when we are young, with a long road ahead of us as we wonder what will we study or what vocation might we be called to, and how do we decide and where do we start, but a fear of failure can be crippling even when we are well advanced in age.

When we meet Abram, he is afraid that he will not live up to God’s expectations for him.

Perhaps he wondered if he had done something wrong, because even as God continues to promise him that he will have a child and, from that child, descendants as numerous as the stars moving across the night sky, months and years go by and Sarah never comes to him with happy news.

Abram must have suffered under the pressure, carrying the burden on his shoulders.

“God asked me to do this and I don’t think I can.”

But God says, Abram, “Do not be afraid.” And Abram listens, and hears, and believes.

And when God gives Abram a child and descendants, Abram remembers God’s faithfulness and is willing to follow God’s continued call on his life and uproot his family and leave his home-country and become an immigrant for God, a stranger in a strange land, not knowing what his life will look like, but knowing God is with him and leading him.

What if Abram had been afraid to trust God and afraid to leave home?

Where would we be?

But faith casts out fear.

And thanks be to God, faith is not something we find deep within ourselves like the muster of the US women’s soccer team before their win over France.

Thanks be to God, faith is a gift.

As Jesus says, “Have no fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

You see, the truth is, whether our completive, need-to-win selves like it or not, everyone is a winner in Jesus’ little flock, not because we have competed and surpassed with our strength, outsmarted with our intellect, or persevered with our passion, but because Christ gives us faith as a gift to cast out fear so that nothing will separate us from the love of our Father.

Our fear can drive a wedge between us and God, crippling us with the idea that we must fight and win and succeed to be valuable.
Jesus assures us we have already been given the unconditional love and favor of the One who created us.

God already values you.

There is nothing of real lasting value to win and nothing to prove and that reorients our entire view of life.

What is a car but a means of transportation?

What is a phone but a way to be connected?

What are clothes but protection?

What is a house but a place in which to be sheltered?

It makes us strangers in a strange land to believe it and confess it, but these things won’t last.

The love with which God holds us lasts forever.

And this is the antidote to our fear.

What is the worst thing that could happen to us?

Not that we could die.

In baptism, we have already died.

When a pastor takes a child from their parents and walks her down the aisle, we see this child no longer belongs to the parents. He has been claimed by God, died to himself and be reborn into the Kingdom to come.

As those who are baptized into Christ we can live differently that a world that is captive to fear.

Several weeks ago, my family and I went to the New Jersey shore for vacation and in keeping with family tradition, we knew we would have a tournament at one of the many mini-golf places on the boardwalk.

On our second to last day we decided to go golfing even though it was raining and when we got to the boardwalk with everyone we realized the only mini-golf place that was cover from the rain was “Haunted Golf.”

This was not the Goofy Golf establishment, this was “Haunted Golf,” with dark corridors, thunder and lightning, skeletons and upright cadavers holding their own severed head on a platter, and we wondered how this would go over with our two year old daughter.

But we decided to go for it.

As it turned out, Lucia had been to the VBS the week before and I do believe absolutely all that’s in her head right is:

“Shine Bright,
be a ray of light,
shine into somebody’s life,
shine God’s love,
all over”

So for the hour we were in Haunted Golf, among the spider webs and shadows of scurrying rats and the skeletons, she danced and sang, and sang and danced.

Faith drives out fear.

We have a song in our heart to sing.

And of course, like a little girl surounded and dancing with her family, we are also made part of a family, with whom, together in faith, we can walk through the haunted times and places of life.

And as all our children remind us as they continue to sing the songs from VBS: because God has loved us, we can be a ray of light and shine God’s love.

So my you, little flock, know that the Father treasures you.

Christ has won you for the kingdom, not by standing atop the podium with a medal around his neck, but by being lifted up on Calvary.

Christ was willing to lose everything so that we might win.

All of us.

And no matter what fears may continue to seek you out, and no matter how we may stumble, all will be well.

We don’t know what the future holds but we know who holds the future.